16 Jul | Infectious Ireland

Photo courtesy of Giuseppe Milo.

Ireland was for centuries the mysterious western fringe of the known world, a haven for hermits, rebels and adventurers. Only 64 miles away from Britain across the Irish Sea, it remained a land with its own lawless freedom despite the efforts of many conquerors to control it.

Ireland is a land of statesmen and artists, whose country the English colonized and whose peat bogs yielded all too few potatoes, but who had a rich heritage of myth and a long history of rebellion. The infamous exploitation of Ireland by the English, Cromwell’s anti-Catholic purges, and the terror tactics of the Black-and-Tans made the Irish fight to preserve what was uniquely Irish. And in the Republic of Eire, the Irish past is still proudly preserved in the crosses and round towers dotting the countryside, in the folk tales and songs sung to the accompaniment of harps, in the traditions still practiced in its villages, and in the poetry and prose that modern writers have written about it.

To understand Ireland, you’ll need to go out on the land and meet its people. With rare exceptions, Ireland maintains a rural serenity and tradition.

You’ll come to love the unchanging quality of Ireland. For the most part, Ireland has always been a rural land, filled with farmers in tiny villages. Though Ireland has its share of cities, they’re far less showy than most found in Europe. In fact, it was mostly foreign invaders who founded them — the Vikings Dublin, Waterford and Limerick, the Normans Kilkenny and Galway, and the English the industrial centers. Here, it’s the countryside that holds the magic.

Ireland is most intriguing where its green earth meets its grey sea. When touring the countryside, begin by following the coast since no place is far from the sea. Occasionally take side trips into the rolling midlands or the lake country. Man has lived on this island since about 6,000 B.C.E. You discover monuments to Irish history, from Neolithic stone dolmens to the towers of 13th-century castles, everywhere you travel — the Rock of Cashel, with its high crosses, County Wexford, the garden spot of Ireland, filled with the ruins of old monasteries. Waterford, famous for its crystal, and the magnificent scenery of the Dingle Peninsula. And no visit to Ireland would be complete without a visit to Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone.

Start in Dublin for a taste of Irish poetry and theater, then head west to Galway city, where Irish Gaelic has been successfully revitalized as the language of everyday life. Then head into the luxuriously green south. If it’s spectacular scenery you want, the area around the Ring of Kerry will satisfy your most extravagant demands. Rugged mountains under an often cloudless blue sky meet the sea in secluded glens and coves.

Because the Irish spirit is so infectious, so witty, so life-affirming, a trip to Ireland can be one of your greatest travel adventures because the Irish people make it so. Each encounter with them is an event — every bus and taxi driver has a quip to make. Amateur philosophers fill every pub. And every person, bar none, has a story to tell. You’ll find fewer places were the people are so outgoing and welcoming.

People’s perceptions of Ireland are full of cliches. Other people’s fantasies about Ireland festoon no other nation. Perhaps you have some of your own.

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