I went to Ireland, hoping to discover the romantic angst I'd read about, but the only angst these people have is from the influx of tourists on their wee roads, racing up behind dead slow hay tractors (one overturned, and instead of brawny Irish men heaving it back aright, Sean there was summoning help from a cell phone), and demanding directions in the middle of the night from citizens as they leave the bar.
Note: Do not ask drunk Irishmen for directions. After first instructing you to head toward where the old bridge used to be (when even they cannot agree on the location), they will send you the wrong way up a one way road, frequented by large lorries.
I must say, much of my time in Ireland was spent wondering where I was and how to get somewhere else. A good map does not help, as the roads do not appear exactly as they do on the page. They're not green or orange, for one. But, as our hostess helpfully explained, "You're in Ireland now, girrl. Stop and ask anyone, even in the middle of the night. They'll be glad to help you." We did this many times, and indeed, most people were quite happy to help, regardless of their state of inebriation.
A few road signs would have been immensely more helpful, but that's neither here nor there, literally.
When traveling in Ireland, follow your nose instead of the guidebook that, remember, thousands of other tourists are also following, sheep-like. Avoid tourist traps (literally) like Kilkenny and Adare and head generally in the direction of the mountains you can see from almost anywhere. Ignore the weather too—a "light mist" only enhances the view.
We stayed in centrally located Tipperary County at the lovely Ballyboy guest house, where owner Breeda Moran has knocked out some fantastic gardens in between chatting up guests and guiding them in late at night. Spreading out to the River Tar behind the ruins of Ballyboy Castle, the gardens offer a surprise at every turn: stunning dahlias, abandoned curraghs and whiskery kittens—these are definitely a few of my favorite things.
Ballyboy, near Cahir, is located at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains. They will truly knock you down, especially on the drive toward Lismore through the Vee. (Breeda says you can see four counties from the top.)
The Dingle Peninsula on the west coast is more charming than its name, especially the beach at Inch, where the water recedes a mile out at low tide, leaving about an inch of water and a treasure trove of shell-covered sand. The surrounding green hills contain some of the oldest relics found in Ireland. I wish we'd had more time to explore them, but of course we'd forgotten to schedule time for getting lost.
By far the highlight of our trip had nothing to do with scenery, and everything to do with the people themselves. If you think Riverdance and U2 are the sole representatives of Ireland's musical talent, think again.
Bru Boru is more intimate than Riverdance, less slick than U2, and the place to find some quality craic after the performance. The Bru Boru Heritage Center is located in Cashel, at the foot of the imposing Rock of Cashel, said to be dropped by Lucifer in his rush to escape St. Patrick and his silly shamrock analogies.
In the small theatre there a troop of musicians play traditional Irish instruments, sing mournful Irish ballads, and dance as if their feet were attached with rubberbands. Cameras were clicking, but even the fastest shutter can't catch the spinning ankles of the dancers, nor can pixels convey the "stomp!" of the heels on the boards.
Afterward the audience was invited to join the performers in an informal session where anyone who wanted could play, dance or just enjoy some good craic. (What the heck is craic, you're wondering? The closest translation is the New Orleans phrase "laissez les bons temps roullez", or simply sharing music, jokes and a fun time.) Even the youngest were welcome to try the boards—the Irish love kids, we were told over and over.
And do check out the Rock of Cashel and Cormac's Chapel while you're there. Even though it's the top tourist attraction in Ireland, it's worth a visit, if for no other reason than the view.
Other interesting and child-friendly sites (we were traveling with a three and six year old) include the windmill at Blennerville, (the largest in Britain and Ireland) the Hook lighthouse (dating from the thirteenth century, possibly the oldest in the world) a crumbling fifth century church, and the gardens at Lismore Castle.
What about that angst I'd been looking for? There were signs, some pointing to famine graveyards, a church where three thousand were burned by Cromwell's man, a ghost in a lighthouse with blood-soaked walls...but mostly the Irish heritage is a fierce determination to enjoy their lives on the green isle, even as they sing beautiful ballads full of woe.