vrijdag, januari 09, 2004

A Quick Sneak Through Ireland

The Boxing Day flight to Dublin was early morning and bode poorly for us when the pilot got on the intercom before we’d even taken off, complaining about having to work on Boxing Day and chiding the passengers for not paying close enough attention to the in-flight emergency procedure demonstration because “although it was an obscure possibility, we should always be prepared for the worse”.

The few passengers amongst us murmured and speculated with their semi-decaffeinated opinions that the pilot might even be a lunatic, or worse still, drunk. Fortunately, the flight is a short hop, less than an hour to Dublin and in no time, before we’d had time to fully digest our fears, we've already landed, disembarked and are moving swiftly through the airport in search of the domestic bus line we hope will still be running to Galway on their version of Boxing Day, St Stephen's Day. Internet research the previous day had proved inconclusive but it seemed that at worse, we’d have a long wait if we didn’t catch this first coach, first thing in the morning, the moment we’d landed. In fact, we didn’t think we had a prayer and we’d be stranded in the airport for the morning.

As it turns out, the buses were indeed running, despite the holiday, though there'd have been an additional two hour wait had we not just caught the driver, still idling in the parking lot in the nick of time. You ask him what time it leaves and he jokes, well, it was supposed to leave five minutes ago. Fortunately for us, it hadn’t. We hadn't had time to change any Euros at the airport but the bus driver was pretty easy going, our first taste of the laissez-faire Irishman: he accepted what few euros I had left over from the last trip to Holland for a single fare and told us “somewhere” along the way we could make a stop at a bank and there we'd be able to withdraw euros for ourselves. By the time we’d gotten on the road we’d noticed it was pissing down rain, well expected, even as we waited 15 minutes in downtown Dublin for a scheduled departure.

Perhaps it was merely in comparison to what we’ve grown accustomed to in the Warwickshire countryside but the Irish landscape did not seem anywhere near as lush and green as advertised. The houses we passed were newer, none made of solid stone, just small and cheap and without any great dignity. Every once in awhile there was a great cluster of identical housing shaped in the form of a neighbourhood, an Irish suburbia of disturbing proportion. Who would pay money to live in a house repeated identically ad infinitum, throughout your suburban village? You wondered further what happened to the old houses. After all, Ireland hadn’t been bombed during World War Two. The buildings had all fallen down by themselves, either poor workmanship, shoddy material or the dreary weather itself brought it down like structural suicides.

Even more interesting was the fact that a distance between Dublin and Galway, although on opposite ends of the country, by most counts, was no more than about 130 miles apart and that those 130 miles would take almost 4 hours to traverse given that the "main" highway ran through one piddling village after another causing constant slowdowns and an average speed of about 30 mph.

But arrive we finally did in Galway, to a relatively dead St Stephens Day Galway. I was eager for my first pint of Guinness but we still had to sort out a place to stay for the night. The plan in mind was to spend the day here then rent a car the following day, drive around Connamara and the following day head back at a leisurely pace to Dublin.

So we walked through the Eyre Square, renamed Kennedy Memorial Park after JFK’s visit to Galway in 1963, and toward what looked like the vibrant area of town finding shop after shop, pub after pub, indeed, hotel after hotel, closed for the holiday. It was a bit disorienting in fact. One expected, by virtue of the reputation preceding it as a nation of drinks and drunkards, that regardless of the holidays, regardless of the time of day or year, the brightness of the sun or the dreariness of the rain, if one thing in Ireland would be open for business, by damn it, it would be the pubs.

But this was a delusion. As we wandered down street after street of quietly shuttered shops, we began to seriously question whether we'd ever find a place to stay, let alone an opened pub. We walked along the Corrib River, meandering past the Claddagh and then back with barely a map, barely an idea of where we were going or where we would stay.

Finally, after finding yet another of our vaguely planned lodgings closed for the holidays, we stumbled across a pub that was open and settled in with our baggage, eager to sample the first pints of "real" Irish Guinness, our housing dilemma be damned and query the locals about a place to stay for the night that would be open on the holiday. After all, it is the local pubs where information is exchanged and friends are made and we weren’t having much luck struggling along on our own with only a cheap internet hostel map and nary a clue of where we were.

And in fact, as I waited for my first pint of Guinness to be poured, that was the first question I asked the old gentleman to my left, pulling out the folded sheet and asking him to point out in a general direction, more or less, where we were. He seemed nice enough although not altogether with it. He took a brief glance at the map and instead of showing where we were, relied on pointing in the direction out the window behind him illustrating that the main square was just down the road, instead.

Perhaps it is inevitable, when having savored for so many years an experience one could only imagine once the experience veers from the imagination into the realm of the real, some of the flavor is lost in the expectation. At least that's the thought I comforted myself with as we sat drinking in the locals and tasting an unexpectedly cold pint of Guinness for the first time in Ireland.

It was hardly what one had spent all these years waiting for. I was more accustomed to a frothy, creamy stout served barely below room temperature yet these pints were as chilled as iced tea. All around us they savoured their pints, seemingly oblivious. Surely they knew this wasn't how Guinness was to be served! Surely they knew this in Ireland! You began to get a deja vous experience, like the kind you get in England when you hear an English spoken in what sounds like horribly disfigured grammar, catching yourself in mid-sentence trying to correct an Englishman on English grammar indeed! One thought on the one hand, yet believed, with a sinking feeling in the stomach that surely if this was how it was being served, this was how the locals wanted it. Had we been duped all these years prior, jaded by the experience of the creamy stout of Guinness in the pubs of old Irish Manhattan?

After the first pint, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to mix it up with the old men sitting at the closest edge of the bar to us. I wanted to know about the Guinness, if this was an apparition or the truth and I wanted to find out if there were any other pubs that were going to open in the whole of Galway (as though the sampling might vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.) Most importantly, we had to get a grasp on where it was we might stay for the night.

As I gave in to the second pint and stood querying the locals, we were told that

A): this is how the pints where served throughout Ireland, chilled to a certain temperature, regulated in fact, by a system on the kegs which would automatically set off when the temperature rose above a certain level. We also heard the theory that it was colder than usual because this was winter and after all, the kegs were stored in the basement, a cold place to begin with. We were told a similar tale most everywhere we eventually made it through in Galway and it wasn’t until we’d found a barman in Dublin who understood precisely what we were talking about when he related a tale of some of the older guys in his home town who soaked their pints in buckets of hot water before drinking them to bring them down to the proper temperature and then did so for us, to demonstrate.

B): we were told nothing would be open on St Stephen’s Day and gave us the idea we were lucky to have even found this particular pub opened only because it was a “family establishment” – another lesson learned about the Irish we came across: either they didn’t know, didn’t care, or just plain made it up.

C): While they acknowledged it was St Stephen's Day, no one seemed to know or care who exactly, St Stephens was and why he was being celebrated. The only matter of importance was that it produced a day off for them.

All this being established and knowing the local wisdom often varies from locale to locale, after the second pints had been emptied, we picked up our bags and headed out, determined to find some different answers.

Without too much of a struggle, within an hour we'd found not only a cheap place to stay just on Quay Street, the main street of Galway's Latin Quarter and a mere football field from the River Comb running through to Galway Bay, but also found out to our delight that whilst it did indeed seem dead, by the evening, most of the pubs and restaurants would be opened once again, regardless of the holiday.

So we set out to find something to do, to sample more Guinness from place to place in escape of the periods of huge downpours, rain pissing down upon us, rough even by local standards, finding variations of taste from place to place but never finding a truly room temperature pint. One begins to understand after a few hours that the Irish are not curious people by nature. Perhaps they are exhausted with Americans, but unlike England, no one was curious about us or our accents, no one knew a smidgen about St Stephen or even cared to speculate for that matter. Worse still, we found scads of younger generations lounging in pubs in the land of Guinness heretically drinking Budweiser by the pint! Figuring that perhaps the flavour was much different, we trepidly tried a half pint of Bud to find out for sure and sure enough, it tasted just as bad as it did in the states. You had to wonder if it was just another custom passed over the Atlantic by their relatives who’d made it ashore to America, along with the Irish love for cursing in distinctly American terms, words egad, you'd never hear a good Englishman spit out!

We ventured out a few times, driven back in on each occasion by the rain and the fact that nearly anything worth seeing was closed for the holiday. We watched football matches on the telly, had stilted conversations with the locals (all conversations with the older generations seemed to begin and end with ruminations on what a great man President Kennedy had been and what a shame he’d been assassinated as though it’d just happened last week instead of 40 years ago.) You begin to figure that not much has happened in Galway since the excitement of his visit in 1963.

The following morning, up at 5 to wander the rainy streets, take photos of the signs in Gaelic, sit on the docks along Quay Street and the river emptying into the Galway Bay with nothing to occupy the ears but the sound of the rushing flow of the river and the occasional gulls who would pop up, appearing suddenly in the dark sky as though faintly fluorescent until disappearing once again into the shadows. Wandered beneath the 16th century Spanish Arch, trying to read 350 year old graffiti or imagine it. What were the Spaniards doing in Galway in the 16th century anyway? The Arch had been built to prevent looters from breaking into the Spanish Merchant ships that’d come all the way to Galway to trade.

Later on, after a free breakfast of toast and instant coffee that tasted like it'd been brewed through someone's stale socks, we grabbed a taxi to the airport where we were to pick up our rental and begin the day of touring the Irish countryside. The Galway airport is surprisingly small, commuter-plane runways, nearly empty, nothing yet open, including the car rental agencies. I was able to query one of the airport staff who seemed certain it was only a matter of time before someone showed up at the Hertz check out counter. Probably just checking the cars in the back lot, they speculated.

But this went on for 20 minutes, well past the pick up time, and we were getting antsy to get a start on the day. Cursing the third world Irish ways, thinking the manager had just been out drinking the night before and overslept, I made my way, into the back lot to have a look on my own, fruitlessly peering out at the occasional stragglers, trying to ascertain if one of them might be the rental car agent. No luck. Back in the airport again I spotted a tiny sign that noted a manager's name if no one was present on site when needed and preceded to dial through a public phone only to find out that the groggy man I'd just woken had no reservations under our name or for any cars that morning for that matter, they'd been rented out weeks ago!

Whoaaawhoooen did you say you rented it? He kept stuttering in a thick brogue, thoroughly confused and only half awake. Now convinced that the mix up had occurred back in England through the internet broker we'd used to rent the car, I gruffly apologized to the gentleman for waking him and hung up.

A few furious cigarettes later in the parking lot fuming literally and figuratively, a cab finally pulled up disembarking a lucky family arriving at the airport to leave Galway. We were able to get another ride into town, clearly the only cabbie around for miles, and found much to our dismay that it was likely all the rental agents would either be sold out or closed for the holiday weekend. Rubbish! It was already approaching ten in the morning and we'd still never left the damned city! Sensing our dismay, the cabbie suggested an agent in the middle of town and dropped us off there where luckily enough, it was open and ready for business.

However, there was a large caveat that put a rather substantial dent in our previous plans. Since they were a small local company, they couldn't afford to allow us to return it to Dublin Airport the following day as we'd previously planned. Instead, we could rent it only for the day; return it by 5 and all for the smashingly ridiculous, desperate tourist rate of 225 euros for the pleasure! I nearly vomited with disgust. Even in NYC, the most expensive place in the world to rent cars, the most we'd ever seen claimed was $125 a day. This was nearly twice that for a matter of about 7 hours!

When it was clear to the little scam artist that we weren't THAT desperate: miraculously, the missus had even managed to pull off a weak, geez, I dunno, I'll have to consult with my husband smile at which point I was turned to the guy laughing asking him if he was out of his lovely little Irish mind. Quickly, he offered to lower the price on the spot to 150 euros but by then, I was disgusted and ready to leave Galway altogether rapidly becoming convinced that we'd be stranded there for the duration of our holiday if we didn't get out soon. We picked up our bags again and headed out the door, down the street towards the train and bus station hoping beyond hope there was a way to escape, even if it had to be to Dublin.

A few moments later, the man came scurrying out of his rental car hut, flagged me down and took me by the elbow. Here, he says, scratching a number out on a pad of paper. I can do it for this amount for you but you've gotta wait outside until the other customers leave because they're paying full price. The number he scratched out was 70 euros.

Facing another slow 4 hour bus ride back to Dublin or a stay in the nothing-to-do-but-talk- about JFK and drink cold Guinness town of Galway, this seemed too inviting to pass up: a 75% discount. Never mind how in the world one could go from such a high to such a reasonable rate in the matter of 15 minutes, clearly a scam, sufficient was it to know that within an hour, we'd finally be on the road and exploring, even if it still meant we'd have to be back in Galway by 5. That's how desperate we were. 70 euros was a fair price for a few hours of freedom on our own bloody Christmas holiday!

After tracking down the car, which was located a good four blocks away and two multi storied car parks later in a nefarious series of transactions, we were finally on the main road out of Galway headed towards Cannemara. Almost immediately, the landscape changed to a rugged coast that surrounded the Bay and much like the ride from Dublin, the drive was stunted by the main road leading through tiny villages and excessively slow speed limits.

We took the scenic route for awhile along the coast before turning inland, quite by accident at first and then later, as the landscape changed from rolling hills to snow capped mountains, on purpose, we drove deeper inland, past what were supposed to be some of the best fishing lakes in Ireland that shine like mirrors back up at the mountain, downward toward Maam Cross where the farmers dig the peat from the bogs, all in search of the cabin where John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara filmed the movie “The Quiet Man”. We made several stops along the way, quick ones, to snap photos with the car running as the roads were quite narrow with no shoulders to speak of which meant one was virtually blocking a lane of the road when one stopped.

Finally we made it through a series of hills and villages and miles of grazing sheep, past what we thought might be the town that held the idyllic public house we were looking for all along, an Inn tucked away in the middle of a series of small sheep farming villages. We opened the door to a conversation among a few locals, asked a few questions and had a pint to relax. Finally, a creamy pint of Guinness as good as any I’d ever had! A pint that recalled all of Ireland in that one sip, the harsh tongue of the Gaels, the bogs, the sea air and tranquillity. I wanted to stay there forever but we still had more of the region to explore and quickly as well considering the car had to be returned by five!

So onward we drove, determined to figure out how one made a living from sheep farming, so far here, it seemed from civilization and life’s cares, driving onward through the Inagh Valley toward our destination of the seaside Connemara capital of Clifden. In Clifden, what seemed to be one of the further outposts of the Irish west coast towns, it was still impossible to escape the Americans. As we tried to warm up over a pint and a plate of Guinness Stew there were some giggling American girls loudly gossiping about how drunk they’d been in town the night before as though we might have been sitting in some faux Irish pub in some suburban mall in America. The pub we sat in held a photo of Bill Clinton, who’d been by for a visit and a pint and it wasn’t until you were back outdoors, overwhelmed by the damp cold and away from passersby, that you could relish the charm of being in Ireland again.

And yes, eventually we made it back to Galway again and stayed another night and eventually we were up at dawn the following morning to catch the first bus back to Dublin and have a taste of the big city before our flight left later that night. But frankly, by then, the damage had been done, the impressions had set in and Connemara was frankly, the only highlight of a relatively underwhelming journey.

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