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Ireland un-Corked

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Many shades of green: Spectacular vales.
Many shades of green: Spectacular vales.

INDU BALACHANDRAN

To see Ireland is to let it quietly enter and occupy the nooks and crannies of one’s soul.

“You’re going to Ireland? Wow!”

This common reaction to my travel plan, I knew, wasn’t quite the same as someone saying, “You’re going to Paris? Wow!” Everyone knows, with much authority, why Paris is a fabulous place to visit, without ever having gone to France. But what, I wonder, is in a person’s thought bubble on hearing one is going to Ireland?

Probably just a small patch, somewhere up there, near Scotland. Nudge the person into giving it an adjective, and you can be quite sure that person will come up with “very green and beautiful”. Without ever having gone to Ireland.

Picture perfect

Well, Ireland is beautiful… so beautiful in fact that God created two patches of it: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I was going to the one with Dublin as the capital. The one with flag colours just like India’s, but sideways. The one that deeply loves Indians.

Ireland is a picture-seeking person’s paradise. True, God had been exceedingly generous handing out the gift of good looks to Ireland, but I was on a quest to discover something else too: what was it about the Irish air that had bred so many literary geniuses? Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Johnathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Seamus Heaney, William Yeats…a list that included four Nobel laureates!

Perhaps it was the extremes of Ireland’s charms… The “intense living” of Dublin. The serenity of Cork. Well, this heady contrast of experiences seemed to have worked for so many writers and artists.

Getting high

Dublin got right into our system — jump-starting our holiday in one delicious gulp, of Guinness of course. Sitting at the sky-high Gravity, the all-glass-walled, circular rooftop bar at Dublin’s most popular “place of worship”, the Guinness factory, we enjoyed our free pint of The Black Stuff, taking in a 360 degree view of the entire city in one fell swoop. Oh yes, it was an easy thing to get high on Dublin.

“If you have just two hours at Dublin — the Guinness factory is the only place to head,” declared Larry, the bus driver of our hop-on, hop-off tour. “In fact, do that even if you have two whole days,” he said with a wink. Claiming that even his bus went a bit wobbly with joy smelling the beer-ridden air around the Guinness factory roads, Larry suddenly burst into song: “In Dublin fair city, Where girls are so pretty…” Hey, that’s a song we’d learnt way back in school! “I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,” we spontaneously joined in, to a rousing applause.

We got off the bus to visit the astonishing cathedrals lining Dublin’s busy streets, but the writer-souls in our bus had our own “place of worship” to linger longer in — The Writers’ Museum. Walking around the splendidly restored Georgian home, it was easy to believe that Ireland was indeed the story-telling capital of the world.

The travelogues of Swift. The witticisms of Shaw. As we peeked into their private letters and manuscripts on display, we’d suddenly stop dead in our tracks, as the familiar beginnings of stories and poems, or the title of a well-loved play enacted in college days, years ago, caught our eye. “Waiting for Godot”. “Arms and the Man”. “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Gulliver’s Travels. Written in splendid handwritten strokes by the incredibly talented authors themselves. It was an uncanny experience seeing the very pages where the young Eliza Doolittle was born, in Shaw’s delightful “Pygmalion”, much before Audrey Hepburn made her immortal as My Fair Lady.

We stepped out feeling enriched from the quiet of the museum to the bustle outside; back to joie de vivre this vibrant city inspires…

The Irish seemed to take their story-telling and writing skills for granted — even looking surprised as we raved over the writers’ museum. Oh really? The amused expression of an Irish gent, back in our bus, seemed to say. Irish people have the ability to look upon life as a show, and see themselves as natural performers. “Well, I have a couple of fine stories to tell you meself…but it’s best said with a pint in hand!”

Pure blarney!

The Blarney Stone, of course! That must be the secret of Irish eloquence. My guide book had told me that somewhere in County Cork was a piece of black limestone about four feet long. And every year, about 70,000 blarney believers climb 120 feet and hang upside down to kiss the stone. And the reward was the gift of the gab for life!

Our bus-pal must have kissed the stone pretty passionately, because he kept us laughing at his witty observations on life. But with so much jollity around, why on earth was his country named after a synonym for anger: “ire”?? I quizzed him. “I’ve got a Pat answer to that,” winked Pat, for, that was his name. Ireland was named after an Irish Queen Eire. Queen Eire must have had the right touch of blarney in her, said Pat, for, she convinced the conquering Spanish army to name the country after her.

Dracula too

Then there was also the reminder that Dublin was the birthplace of Dracula. “Sit back and feel uneasy!” said the banner on a “Ghost Bus Tour” going past. That must be for the horror-seeking tourist, being spirited away to meet the felons, fiends and phantoms from Dublin’s thousand years of troubled history.

We took our must-do walk over the bustling Ha’penny Bridge feeling like we were walking through a Meave Binchy novel, greedy to grab our last bit of the vivacious Dublin spirit.

Because early the next morning, we were hitting the road to Cork on a dramatically different adventure: a magical, mesmerising, four-day road tour of the Ireland countryside.

We let our senses create our route map, with unplanned stops and constant yells of joy: Look! A signpost leading to Limerick! And even one pointing to the long road to Tipperary! So also signposts that said “Skibbereen” or “Ballydehob”; how wonderfully and nonsensically Irish that sounded.

Suddenly, a spectacular painted cottage door would stop us dead on our tracks, or bursts of ivy in an uninhibited riot of colours. Sometimes we’d go on a rainbow chase, only to be completely distracted by a centuries old stone wall, crumbling except for a stubbornly standing door with a latch intact! In a journey punctuated with frequent gasps of awe, we understood why Ireland just totally enters and settles in the nooks and crannies of your soul.

Magical mystery tour

How many new shades of green would we see today? Is that a leprechaun that just ran past or had we already turned part Irish, with a mad imagination on over-drive? There was plenty of Irish trivia to ponder over; all one needed was a refill of “that black stuff” in a quaint wayside pub, while an over 49-ers gang thumped wooden tables to a robust rendition of an Irish ditty.

Heading back to our mountain hideaway in the impossibly beautiful Glengariff, where a cheery neighbour would have popped in to get a crackling fire going for us, it seemed almost a relief to have the sudden blanket of darkness “switch off” the scenery for a while. There is only so much a heady brain can take. We needed a break from this bombardment of beauty.

Aah…but the Irish night had other plans for us. Clutching our steaming bowls of — what else? — Irish potato stew, we glanced upwards. And gasped yet again. Glass panels on the sloping roof, with a spectacular display of the night sky. A sight to make anyone wax lyrical.

A million stars winked at us through the clear, pure Irish air as if to say, now you know what makes the Irish so eloquently Irish.


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