A Self-Directed Literary Tour of Ireland

Someone told me that I would find inspiration to finish my new collection of short stories if I went to Ireland. So I did, spending three days in Dublin, a day in Belfast, and a week at a writer’s retreat, Anam Cara, on the Beara Peninsula of County Cork. Apart from doing the tourist thing and drinking a lot of beer and Irish whiskey, I finished the last three stories in my collection in six straight days. Ireland is indeed a literary place.

Dublin, formerly the second largest city in the United Kingdom, is really a compact place; at least, all the things I wanted to see were in walking distance: the national museums (free entry!); Trinity College, home of the Book of Kells; the writers’ museums (including Joyce’s); the monuments to literary figures (including Joyce’s—they like this guy a lot even though he fled the country and wrote his masterpieces overseas); the infamous General Post Office where a bunch of amateur artists and leftists barricaded themselves and launched the abortive Easter Uprising of 1916, got cannoned in return by the well-oiled British Army, but paved the way for Irish Independence in 1922 after six more years of violence; and the pubs, of course. There were other museums too that were interesting and inebriating: the Irish Whiskey museum where you learn that the stuff made by those “other guys” across the water, and called Scotch, is not the real McCoy; the 7-storey Guinness Museum where you get to sample the “good stuff” on the top floor, the Altitude Bar, where you have to wait two minutes for the sediment in your drink to settle—two minutes well worth the wait, for the resulting chocolaty beer is flawless.

At night, I joined a literary pub-crawl, where two actors entertained us with extracts and performances from the works of Irish literary greats such as Beckett, Yeates, Behan, Stoker (yes, Dracula was invented by an Irishman), and Joyce, of course. Performances took place inside pubs, outside them, on street corners, in the grounds of Trinity College where many of the literary greats had been educated (except Joyce, of course—he was an alumnus of the University College of Dublin), opposite the statue of Molly Malone (a side story: a very inebriated local stepped out of a neighbouring pub and proceeded to give me the history of amorous Molly while the two actors were delivering lines from Joyce!), and ending up at the Davy Byrnes pub for our last drink and performance of the day, the pub that was most visited by none other than, you guessed it—Joyce, of course!

Most of the present city seems to have been built in Georgian & Victorian times. Whole blocks of brown Georgian townhouses have been converted into offices, schools or hotels, their spacious interiors divided and subdivided to remind us how much of a premium we pay for city centre space today. This was my one grouse about this city—the hotel rooms were too small; my 5-storey Georgian hotel provided me a room big enough for my bed only, there was no air conditioning and no elevator. Compare that to days of old when a single family occupied this entire townhouse, with the entertaining of guests taking place on the second floor, the adult bedrooms located on the third floor, the kids housed on the fourth floor, and the servants relegated to the basement.

Driving the two hours from Dublin to Belfast, along Dorset Street that runs point to point between one city hall and the other, I suddenly realized the implications of Brexit: to properly implement this continental divorce, a wall will have to spring up between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, something the Irish on both sides will never spring for, now that all Irish-born (North and South) can apply for a Republic of Ireland passport, and because their Good Friday agreement overrides the EU deal and provides for open borders between the two Irelands. But there were noticeable changes as I headed from the EU (Irish Republic) into Britain (Northern Ireland): the currency changed from Euros to Pounds Sterling and the road signs changed from kilometres into miles. And Union Jacks sprang up in a panic like totems aimed at keeping those dirty Irish peasants out of Britain. And there WAS a wall: between the Catholic (aka Nationalist) and Protestant (aka Loyalist) sections of Belfast, a graffiti-covered, 20-foot high wall that ran 400 metres (see, even I am confused now by measures as I am getting Imperial and Metric mixed up in this bifurcated nation!) with a gate that closed at 10.30 p.m. each night, keeping the two solitudes apart even to this day.

Belfast is still an uneasy city. The elegant Europa Hotel is pointed out as the most bombed hotel in Europe (33 times), a wall (another wall) of murals runs through two streets in the Catholic section and is dedicated to depicting revolutionary struggles around the world, and a very biased Nationalist museum showcases the atrocities committed by the British on the young IRA revolutionaries during the troubles that ran for 40 years following the first outbreak in County Derry in 1968. The British strategy of “divide and conquer” that worked so well in all its colonies is alive and well, in this its oldest conquest, heading towards the 800-year mark of colonial occupation. Some statistics I picked up: 23% of the population of Northern Ireland still receive counselling for trauma experienced during the troubles, and 67% of the working population is in public service—the Irish Republic couldn’t afford to have the Northerners join them with such a bloated bureaucracy. But the Titanic Museum, and its companion, Titanic Studios (where certain parts of the Game of Thrones television series are shot), were doing a thriving tourist business, and it was a good sign, although like Auschwitz, the museum was profiting from the ultimate sacrifice made by others a long time ago.

On our return, we stopped at a nondescript gravestone in County Down which had the single word “Patrick” inscribed on it, and I was educated on the fact that there had never been snakes in Ireland, and that you really had to have good luck to find a four-leaf clover because this national plant comprises of only three leaves.

And then it was onward into the countryside by train, on board the well-run, bi-lingual (Gaelic and English) Irish Rail that was comfortable, efficient and on time. The landscape was one of rolling hills all the way, reminding me of my own Northumberland County in Ontario. There were subtle differences however: the absence of evergreens (unless deliberately planted) due to the milder, wetter climate, and 84% of the fields were reserved for cattle and sheep farming (another statistic I picked up). And everything was a brilliant, luminous green.

The city of Cork is a university city (Queen Victoria apparently wanted to break the stranglehold Dublin had on education and opened universities in Cork, Galway and Belfast), and a port and administrative city; a rather dull place after you exit the city core which is two long streets, one modern and the other rustic. But like Dublin, it is a city with a lot of young people.

My driver, who does an early morning run into Cork and a late afternoon, two-hour return to the Beara Peninsula, spending the time in-between watching soccer newscasts in a friendly pub, met me and took my luggage, leaving me free to explore the city for a couple of hours. As it was between lunch and dinner serving times in the restaurants and pubs, I found that most patrons, men and women, had a pint instead of their afternoon tea.

When we set out at 6.30 p.m. there were two other passengers with me, a thinly used coach service, but an essential one, as it is the only transportation link between my destination and this principal city of the largest county in Ireland. In the failing light, we passed patches of rock and spruce bog interspersed between rolling farmland, villages that hugged the road where pubs outnumbered shops, and old castles that sat in ruins amidst farms—I later discovered that these structures were not all castles, but mills, granaries and other pastoral buildings of a bygone age, allowed to decay as replacements sprang up nearby.

Anam Cara is a five-acre refuge replete with farm, waterfall, river and labyrinth, and over a dozen little nooks with a bench to sit and write, dream or meditate. The property overlooks Coulagh Bay from where the clouds move in rapidly, sometimes to stay and drench us with rain, sometime to blow by. Fortunately, during my week’s stay, the rain stayed only for a day and the weather got progressively brighter and warmer. My gracious host, Sue, an editor and doyen of the arts in the community, ensured that all meals, rooms and amenities were to my satisfaction, and I was free to meander the grounds, walk down into the village of Eiries (voted tidiest town in Cork), pop into a pub en-route, or head down all the way to the tip of the bay to spot whales and dolphins if they cared to come near to shore (I saw none, unfortunately). Looking inland with my back to the wind, I was welcomed by the sight of clusters of little villages nestled in the range of green hills that swept the peninsula. And I was free to write. And write I did, enforcing a gruelling (for me) five-hour schedule per day.
The company at mealtimes was stimulating: the cook was a short story writer, the other domestic helper belonged to a local writers’ group, and artists of all kinds kept dropping in. I gathered that the damp climate, centuries of colonial rule, deep religious roots, and the fierce spirit of independence and self-reliance had forged a literary sensibility that most locals bore and respected in others. It was indeed a great place to write in, a place where a writer could belong instead of being on the periphery.

And then it was time to return home. This article only covers a smattering of the things I witnessed and experienced in Ireland, and my visit also covered but a smattering of places in this dynamic country steeped in a rich history, soon slated to be the only English speaking one in the EU should Brexit proceed. It certainly is on the cards for another visit, something I rarely do. But a destination that appeals to me for a repeat is a special one, and Ireland is special

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