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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Fifty Shades of Green:Ireland

The last thing we expected when we arrived in Dublin was to feel like we were in South Bend.  We got to Dublin the day of the Notre Dame/Navy football game that was being played there.  That became painfully evident when we got to the airport and were waiting for the van to take us to the rental car office and the van unloaded a handful of people wearing Notre Dame hats and sweatshirts and jackets.  The driver of the rental car van informed us that an estimated 35,000 Americans were in Dublin for the game.  I’m guessing about 34,500 or more were for Notre Dame.  Ugh.
I have an unnatural dislike for Notre Dame football whose origin is difficult to precisely pinpoint.  I was raised Lutheran and Lutherans have an ugly and unfortunate history with Catholics that goes back about 5 centuries.  Something about the Reformation and all that.  Then, the girl I dated in college who crushed my heart was Catholic.  Then, for some unexplained reason, I married a Catholic, (remember an earlier blog post about a woman we called Mulligan?) which ended in divorce a few years later, something the Catholic church didn’t like at all.  That impacted my second marriage to a woman who also was a Catholic.  She claims I led her away from that religion, while I prefer to say I just pointed out a few inconsistencies I came across from time to time.

But the true genesis of my disdain for the Fighting Irish came in the late 70s.  My family had just moved from Lexington Kentucky, back to Cincinnati.  Being an Ohio State fan in Lexington was a lonely existence, trying to live a Scarlet and Gray lifestyle in the land of the Big Blue.  But I understood that, since UK was a huge presence in Lexington.   Makes sense.  Moving to Cincinnati, OHIO, I expected a decent amount of Ohio State football coverage.  What drove me crazy was the amount of coverage devoted by TV stations and especially the newspaper to Notre Dame football. 

It only got worse when the football coach at the wildly successful Moeller High School football program, Gerry Faust, was hired to take over at Notre Dame.  The Cincinnati media breathlessly covered his every move in South Bend.  He turned out to be as qualified to be the coach at Notre Dame as David Shula was to coach the Bengals.  But I really didn’t mind it as much, because Notre Dame was terrible during the Faustian era, much to my delight.  Then, they had to go hire Lou Holtz, who restored the echoes, blah blah blah blah, won a national title and just became really annoying to me. And who is now one of the worst football analysts on TV.

That level of annoyance has remained with me for the two ensuing decades so it was with a great deal of dismay that I saw all those Irish fans in, of all places, Ireland.  It was so prevalent, that walking around the streets of Dublin and even the city of Cork a few hundred kilometers away felt like being at the St. Gerties’ festival in Madeira each June.  Okay, I get it--you like Notre Dame.  Great.  Do you really have to wear a ND hat, a ND jacket over a ND sweatshirt while walking around in ND sneakers?  As I said earlier, ugh.  
The proliferation of Notre Dame fanatics continued, somewhat surprisingly at our first stop in Ireland, Cork.  We drove the few hundred kilometers to Cork the day of our arrival in Dublin, getting into Cork in the early evening hours.  The reason we chose Cork as a destination was pretty simple:  Costigan’s Pub was located there.
My wife, Annie, the keeper spouse, is Irish and her middle name is Costigan.  It's also the middle name we gave to our son Ben.  That’s the last name of some of her ancestors.  When I was doing research on where to go in Ireland, I did a search on Costigan + Ireland and Costigan’s Pub in Cork came up.  Well, we just HAD to go there, so Cork became our first stop in Ireland.

Cork is in southern Ireland, and is known as the food capital of Ireland.  We had some good meals there and enjoyed exploring the city.  It just so happened that the apartment we booked was just a block or so away from Costigan’s.  Annie and I checked it out one evening there, getting to know some of the locals who were very interested in our adventure, the details of which we were happy to share over a Guinness or Kilkenny or two. 
Cork is also fairly close to the Blarney Castle, one of Ireland’s most famous landmarks.  It was about a 20-minute drive from our apartment on the west side of Cork, and we had a beautiful day to enjoy the Castle, even if the line to get in was populated by many people wearing Notre Dame gear. 
Visitors to the Castle work their way through various hallways and rooms inside, and it’s a fascinating look back in time.  The culmination of course, is kissing the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to give the smoocher the gift of conversation.  It also occurred to me that kissing the stone that so many others had kissed might give the smoocher something else.  Something that an ointment or antibiotic might need to clear up, so I just strolled on by after both Ben and Annie went through the somewhat uncomfortable process that Blarney Stone kissers have to go through. 

To kiss the Stone, you have to lay down on your back, then lean down a foot or so to get your lips on the stone.  There is a worker who keeps traffic moving through very quickly, and then someone who takes pictures that you can buy in the gift shop afterwards.  Most of the photos come out somewhat awkwardly, with shots of peoples bellies or arms as they get into and then out of kissing position. 
The Castle is situated on some very scenic grounds and there are pathways through some well-manicured gardens.  It gave us an opportunity to get away from the huddles of people wearing Notre Dame stuff. 
We saw even more Notre Dame gear at our next stop, in the village of Dingle on the Dingle Peninsula on Ireland's western coast.  In searching out advice on where to go and what to see in Ireland, several people had mentioned the Ring of Kerry.  That’s a scenic drive along the western coast of Ireland in County Kerry.  Unfortunately, the day we headed to Dingle by way of the Ring of Kerry, it was rainy and drizzly, so visibility was very bad.  That takes a lot of the luster out of a “scenic drive” so we packed it in a bit early and headed to the house we had booked near Dingle. 
The house was about 5 kilometers north of Dingle, situated in some beautiful rolling hills.  It was surrounded by  farmland, and we had several sheep as neighbors.  I had a great time going outside the house, and shouting across the fence at the sheep on a regular basis, “Hey, Sheep!  It’s Bill!!”  That would prompt a great reaction from the sheep as every time I did that, the sheep would jerk their heads around in unison and look at me with their ears cocked. 
The sheep and I developed something of a relationship, which was enhanced, I think, when I took the laptop outside and fired up iTunes.  The song I had chosen was by one of our favorite bands-Cake, who had a popular tune in the mid-90s called Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell.  After getting through the chorus a couple of times, I was confident the sheep felt good about their prospects about the afterlife while being able to mock any goats they might encounter in the future. 

One reason I played Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell for my herd of friends was as a sort of “make good” (radio term when a commercial is missed on the air) for what had happened the previous night.  I love to grill out and have only been able to do it once our twice on the entire trip.  The house outside Dingle had great outdoor space and the store in town had one of those one-time-use only charcoal grills that cost about 5 euros, or roughly  $6.50.  I was willing to spend that to have the chance to play with fire while I cook.  One of my favorite things to grill out is lamb chops and the store in Dingle had some tasty-looking ones, so we bought those and headed back to the house.  It wasn’t until I lit the grill, and went back into the kitchen and unwrapped the chops and started to season them that I realized the uncomfortable juxtaposition that was about to happen.

Sure enough, my newly-friended herd was eyeing me suspiciously as I cooked the chops.  Fortunately the weather was a too chilly and windy to eat outside with the herd just a few feet away.  The chops were great, just hoped we weren’t having anyone the sheep knew. 

The house we had in Dingle became one of our favorites of the entire trip.  It had three bedrooms on the first floor, along with a large living room and a big kitchen.  There were also two bedrooms on the second floor, each with their own bathroom, so the upstairs became the kids wing, which they really enjoyed, as did Annie and I.

The nightly rate for the house, which was already very affordable, became even more so when the owner offered to let us stay two extra nights for free, since it wasn’t booked.  We quickly accepted that and took advantage of the time to explore the Dingle Peninsula.

I never pictured Ireland having dramatic landscapes, but I was pleasantly surprised as we took a drive on a gorgeous sunny day.  After only about 25 minutes in the car driving along some gently winding roads, we came to the northern coast of the peninsula.  The panorama that unfolded in front of us was stunning!
The scenery was magical, and the drive around the peninsula was very enjoyable.  There were spots, like ones we encountered in Scotland where there was only room for one vehicle at a time.  Unlike the narrow roads we drove on in the Scottish Highlands where drivers would yield based on who was closest to a passing bay, the encounters in Ireland seemed to be decided based on size.  That led to more than one instance of giving way to a busload of tourists.
Being in one place for five nights gave us time to do some time-consuming things that we weren’t able to do when getting in the car and driving to our next destination.  For Annie and Ben, that meant going fishing.

The two of them have a history of fishing in Canada on our vacations there, and they really enjoyed the two-hour excursion they went on. My Irish wife will take over from here:

What a joy it was to spend the day in Dingle Bay with my favorite angling buddy, Ben. We were fortunate to be accompanied by a great couple from Canada, Karen and Scott. They were rendezvousing in Ireland while Scott was completing a tour in Afghanistan.  It was a blustery yet fairly sunny day and the swells were running 6-8 feet so it made for a challenging balancing act while we pursued the pollock deep in the sea. 
We have only fished for bass before so going after the pollock was a completely unique experience. The water was about 80-100 feet deep and you drop your line to the bottom and slowly work it up.  Once you get a bite and reel them in, since they are so deep, the change in pressure takes all of the fight right out of them. Although they are large, unlike with feisty bass, there is no netting required boat can just lift them in.  This little guy Ben brought up had his eyeballs pop out due to the pressure change...poor little buddy.

We ended up with about 8 large pollock which we were allowed to keep.  We chose to have the Captain clean two of them for the Canadians and the Bangert's and we took them to a local pub where they cooked them up for us for a mere 10 Euro a plate.  Not quite a bargain but who could resist!!  We hope the Captain had himself a good dinner that night and perhaps made a few extra dollars at the local market.
Fishing with Ben, in the country where our Costigan relatives once roamed, was an experience of a lifetime that we will forever treasure.  I don't think the pollock will feel the same way. ~ Annie.

While Annie and Ben were doing their version of Deadliest Catch, Marley and I had a very nice lunch and then took a drive to scout out a horseback riding place we had seen cruising around the peninsula.  When we got there and met the woman who led the riding expeditions, we noticed hooks on the wall with the names of the horses right above them.  Two of the names that stood out to us were Marley and Annie and their hooks were right next to each other!  That was definitely an omen, so we booked a session for Annie and Marley hopefully on Annie and Marley the following day.

Annie takes control of the keyboard again:  It was Marley's first time horse back riding and what a better way to do it than in Ireland, on the Dingle Peninsula on a horse named, Marley, with her Main-Momma!  It was an overcast and windy day which is pretty typical of Ireland.  We had decided to pick the tour that took you along the beach while surrounded by the hillsides.  Marley, the horse, needed a bit of direction and was led by our tour leader on a lead.  This method of control may come in handy with our daughter, Marley, someday. Duly noted.

It was a magical adventure surrounded by the greenery of her majesty, Ireland.  And Bill will be glad to know we didn't see one Notre Dame fan in sight.

With the girls off riding horses, Ben and I played a quick 18 holes of golf at a pitch and putt course.  I thought when we had driven by it that there were only 9 holes, but it turns out that there were twice that many and about four of those ran down to the water.  We got some great views across the bay of Dingle and had a great time.  I was glad to see Ben hit some really good shots, especially considering he hadn’t swung a golf club in about a year.  Plus, one of my major goals heading into 2013 and our life back home was to have Ben and I play a lot of golf together.  One of my dreams is to have Ben and I become golfing buddies and have us take golfing trips together.  Our outing at the Dingle Pitch-n-Putt may have been a small step in that direction.

The person I love playing golf with more than any other is my wife, Annie.  We had a great time playing together in Scotland, and we both really wanted to play golf together in Ireland.  Ireland is home to many great, famous courses, but none of those really fit into our travel schedule.  Fortunately, Dingle Peninsula is home to a golf course that was only about a 20 minute drive from the house we were renting. 

The day we picked to play Dingle Golf Club couldn’t have been better from a weather perspective.  There were just a few clouds dotting the blue skies as we teed off in the late afternoon to take advantage of reduced rates that kicked in after 4pm.  The guy working in the pro shop kindly only charged us for one set of rental clubs and off we went at about one-fifth of the cost of what we would have spent had we gone to one of the big-name courses we were thinking of.

Even though Dingle Golf Club was not of the caliber of Royal Dornoch, Annie and I both said we enjoyed it more.  A big part of it was it just the two of us.  No distractions from other players and we could hit second shots if we didn’t like the shot we had just hit.  It was great fun and the course was very enjoyable, with some great views and memorable holes.

Just as in Scotland, one of our favorite things about Ireland was the people.  Everywhere we went, people were very friendly.  Every single taxi driver was engaging and talkative, and when the topic of our trip came up, they all had a great deal of interest in the details. 

One of our favorite people in Ireland was the server we found at a restaurant in Dublin.  It was the date of the hurling finals which were being held in Dublin between Galway and Kilkenny.  We could feel the excitement as we walked from our apartment near the Guinness Brewery and grabbed a cab to the Temple Bar district.

We did some research at our apartment, finding out that hurling is an ancient Gaelic sport that dates back centuries.  It’s played on a field that looks to be about the size of a football field, with players using long sticks that look like a bit like ones used in field hockey.  It’s a very entertaining and physical game, with plenty of action.  

We found a great spot in the second floor of a restaurant with seating areas that provided a comfortable and cozy spot to watch the championship.  Our server was great, a guy in his late 20s who was very friendly but in a gruff sort of way, especially with the kids.  He got a big kick out of giving them a hard time in a good- natured manner.
He gave us some background on the rules as well as the two teams involved in the championship.  Kilkenny was a regular in the championship, having won a few titles, while Galway was the underdog.  The crowd got excited when Galway took the lead into halftime.  But the momentum shifted, and Kilkenny rallied to surge ahead in the second half making it look like they were going to win it all once again. 
However, Galway didn’t give up and got a dramatic score in the closing seconds to tie the game.  The announcers were saying how this was the first tie in the title game since 1959.  We were all excited about the prospect of the championship being decided in overtime or a shootout or a dance-off Riverdance style or something.  But then we heard the announcers talking about a replay.  A what?   Replay?  What’s that? 

Turns out instead of settling the matter right then and there, they get the two teams together again in three weeks and play the game over.  A re-play.   That was a serious letdown, but it’s just the way they do it. And that has been one of the bigger lessons of the trip.  

The world is a massive place, and as Americans, it's easy to fall into the line of thinking that it revolves around the United States.  We discovered early on that most people in other countries don't really care about what's going on in the U.S. nearly as much as we might think they do.  Every nation and their people are very unique, and very proud of their homeland.  And the Irish have much of which to be proud.