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"Well, that’s certainly not an Irish name," the waitress said, looking at my credit card.
"It’s a Viking name," I informed her. "Who knows? I could be even more Irish than you."
After a week in Ireland, my 11 year old son, Neale, and I were feeling like we belonged there. And why not? Between our Irish and Norwegian ancesters, we were darn near bluebloods. After all, Dublin was settled by the Vikings over 1000 years ago. They named the site Dvblinia. In fact, archaeologists uncovered the remains of the first Viking settlement beneath Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin just a few years ago.
Viking blood is just one ingredient in the genetic cocktail that makes up the Irish people. Like most European countries, Ireland’s history is a saga of conquest – whether it involved warlord chieftans fighting for land, an invasion by outside forces or a native uprising by upstart Fenians. The landscape is dotted with medieval castles and the remnants of settlements that remind visitors of the historical past.
Ireland is a balance between new and old worlds. A modern economy drives a nation that has recently been termed the "Irish Tiger", as mainstream firms such as IBM compete with other high-tech companies for trained workers. Trendy shopping areas such as the re-developed Grafton Street in the heart of historic Dublin attracts shoppers of all kinds. In the past year, 95,000 new car registrations in Dublin have added to the already gridlocked traffic conditions in the old city. And cell phones have become a modern day appendage for businessmen, cab drivers, students - you name it, everyone has gone wireless.
But while salaries continue to rise and property values soar, groups of Irish workers strive not to be left behind. When my son and I arrived in Dublin, we were delayed for several hours because national carrier, Aer Lingus’s cabin crew staff went on a twenty-four hour wildcat strike. And later in the week, the national teachers union threatened a nation-wide work stoppage unless wages were made more competitive.
I mentioned to one cab driver how surprised I was to find Dublin so contemporary, that I was somehow expecting a slower, laid-back pace. He said that it was only in the last five years that Ireland has noticed the effects of joining the global economy. Dublin thrives as a modern city in the new world amid a backdrop of historic brick buildings, narrow twisted streets and old world charm.
In Dublin, where the Easter Uprising of 1916 took place which eventually led to independence from England in 1921, you can feel the not so distant past. Bullet holes can still be seen on the façade of the General Post Office where the uprising took place, and across the way on O’Connell Street, the statue of Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell sports a single bullet hole.
One taxi driver, dropping us off in front of the General Post Office one day, said jokingly, "You’d be surprised at how many patriots have come forward claiming to have been at the GPO on the night of the uprising."
The best way for a tourist to get a feel for Dublin is to take a bus tour of the city. Driven by joke telling, ballad singing historians, tour buses take in a number of sites of interest and allow passengers to get on and off at their pleasure as other buses follow the same route in fifteen minute intervals. The Dublin Writers Museum, Trinity College, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin Castle, the National Museum, the Guiness Brewery, and Kilmainham Jail, where the rebels from the 1916 upraising were executed, are just some of the stops worth seeing. I could’ve spent a good portion of the day at any one of these places, but was moved along at a more rapid pace by my younger sidekick.
None the less, Trinity College with its Book of Kells, an eighth century illustrated book of the four gospels of St. Matthew made out of calf leather, is a must see. And the Dublin Writers Museum, which profiles Ireland’s long list of great literary giants, was one of my favorite places.
On the bus tour you will find out that Guiness makes 2,000,000 pints of stout per day, of which only 20 percent is exported out of the country. This means that the other 80% is consumed domestically. For a country of 3.4 million people… Well, you do the math! Ironically enough, a 100 yards from the Guiness Brewery is a hospital that treats alcoholism.
While Dublin maintains its 19th century charm with its spectacular Georgian architecture, with its unique doorways and window features, the old Ireland is really in the countryside. Narrow, hedge-lined roads twist and bend through rolling hills that connect one charming village to another. In the southeast, where we spent four days touring the countryside, every town was a Lanesboro; every road a scenic byway. And there is no better way to see it than by car at 30 miles an hour.
Leaving Dublin by way of the Wicklow Mountains, a treeless scape of heather and gorse, painted brilliantly in fall pastel colors, we stumbled upon a movie set.
We were stopped on the road by a young woman with a two-way radio who asked us to wait while a movie crew shot a scene from "When Harry Turned Into A Tree", an Irish nursery tale being shot by Croatian filmmakers.
When we were allowed to drive through, we came upon a ubiquitous Irish farm house scene, complete with thatched roof, push carts, and bullocks.
We spent the next two nights in County Wexford, in a town called New Ross. New Ross sits on an estuary that leads to the sea, and just happens to be the ancestral home of John F. Kennedy. In June, 1963, a few months before his death, John F. Kennedy stood on the quay at New Ross and spoke to the townspeople. He was there to dedicate a park in his name. Pictures of the event show a youthful JFK standing next to his sisters and the president of Ireland, Eamon de Valera.
My Irish ancestors also came from County Wexford - the Murphy’s and O’Marrows. My great-grandfather Henry O’Marrow left Ireland in 1855 as a five year old boy. Victims of hardship and the potato famine, 1.5 million Irish people emigrated to places like Australia, America and Canada in the 1800’s.
But this trip wasn’t a search for my roots, although the knowledge that my ancesters came from Wexford encouraged me to visit the area. Just standing on the same ground in places like Arklow, Enniscorthy, and Ballycarney, was enough for me.
A day trip took us to Waterford and Cork to the 15th century Blarney Castle. Legend has it that the Blarney Stone when kissed will give one the gift of eloquence. The stone is on the interior wall of the castle, and as you lay down on your back to kiss the stone, a man, who works at the castle, holds on to you to make sure you don’t fall between the cracks.
Ireland is a farming country. On our drives in the countryside, I was surprised to see so many dairy farms and to see large round hay bales laying in the fields. Inland we saw sheep farms, and near Cork, along the coast, there were cows grazing in pastures next to the sea.
My son and I ended our country tour outside Dalky, just south of Dublin. There we visited the Martello Tower at Sandycove that is featured in the opening sequence of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Built as a defense against Napolean, the stone circular structure looks out across the Irish Sea toward England. Joyce only spent six days living in the tower, but all signs leading to the place refer to it as James Joyce Tower.
One could go on and on about Ireland. Peat fires, and pubs; Gaelic being spoken and Irish music being sung; Irish stew, racks of lamb and cabbage and corn beef; hand-knitted sweaters and tweed caps; treeless mountai