In Ireland, history, beauty at every bend in road

Writer’s treks recalls links to New Orleans

We swayed back and forth as the small van traveled a remote lane on one of the Aran Islands, massive green hills to our left, a misty stretch of the Atlantic to the right. Bertie Mullin, a gregarious native of this western sliver of Ireland, our guide for a few hours, talked incessantly as he drove, mixing cultural interpretation with touches of Gaelic mischief.

He nodded toward what once had been a handsome stone house, now abandoned — no roof, walks crumbling.

“And there, you have a fixer-upper!” announced the former commercial fisherman. “If you buy it, we’ll throw in a cow. Or you can buy the cow and we’ll throw in the house, either way.”

It was the eighth day of our first journey to Ireland, a place of intoxicating natural beauty, hospitable locals and somewhat tormented collective memory — a trip prompted, in part, by my wife’s ancestral connections (she being a Callahan, probably related to O’Callahans scattered about the old country). And this day would prove especially memorable.

My wife, my new college graduate daughter and I had hopped a ferry out to the village of Kilronan, on the island of Inishmore, and were running out of day. We needed a ride down the road to an ancient stone fort perched atop a cliff, to a beach where seals might be sunning and to the ruins of a monastery settlement. Mullin was happy to oblige for 10 Euro a head.

Our late-afternoon tour ended at the Joe Watty’s Pub just up the hill. There, we enjoyed Irish stew and fresh salmon, Irish coffee, rounds of Guinness stout and a striking performance. The night’s planned entertainment, a solo guitar-strumming ballad singer, quickly found himself overshadowed by a bar patron, an Irish gentleman probably in his late 70s, who took over the bar’s small dance floor. Arms flailing, tossing his jacket (and all caution) to the side, he prevailed on various women to join him, each time endeavoring to pull the dance partner close.

The New Orleans connection

For 12 days, we tried to pull close to the essence of Ireland. Apart from questions of ancestry, my curiosity about the Emerald Isle was stoked long ago by its connections to New Orleans, as is evident in our political history, neighborhood names, bars and parades. A well-tended memorial just off Robert E. Lee Boulevard, in a neutral ground near the lakefront, offers a poignant reminder of the Irish immigrants of the 1800s who did the dirty and often deadly work of digging the boat canals that would link Lake Pontchartrain with the riverfront.

Beginning and ending in Ireland’s metropolis of Dublin, we traveled by rental car in a clockwise direction around the independent Republic (saving Northern Ireland for a future trip). We explored quaint coastal towns, sheep country and inland historical sites, taking in castles, wool sweater shops and rocky trails, stone houses and ornate churches — some of them two to three times as old as America’s landmarks.

For more than 1,000 miles, the scenery ranged from impressive to stunning. Trash beside the road, or garish fast-food restaurants? Almost none to be seen.

Live music, much of it traditional Celtic, was available, close, every night. It seemed a prerequisite for keeping a pub going. At O’Sullivan’s Court House Pub in the coast town of Dingle, a message added to an exterior wall says: “NO TV, NO JUKE BOX, NO POOL TABLE, BUT WE DO HAVE GREAT MUSIC 7 NIGHTS A WEEK.” My only disappointment came when musicians would toss in something American — from Billy Joel or John Denver, or even Johnny Cash! — in the belief that would keep the tourists happy and ordering more rounds.

Fresh food, pleasant weather

Dining exceeded what Ireland’s often given credit for, starting with a traditional Irish breakfast robust enough to get you through lunch too. You find plenty of fresh fish and, of course, an abundance of potato dishes.

The weather was pleasant most of the time, a mix of sun and overcast skies, just a few showers. We were lucky — as the natives will warn you, it can sometimes be wet and dreary for days on end.

After a day or so, all the driving on the road’s left side became second nature, surprisingly, although sharing narrow, winding lanes with hulking tour buses did demand close attention. I got past my aversion to dashboard GPS gadgets as ours steered us through lots of thinly-marked communities and the ubiquitous busy roundabouts. Add the GPS and minimize the confusion.

Two things become apparent about the Irish as one moves about the country. One, they are immensely proud of their record in producing important writers. Walk down a busy pedestrian corridor in Galway, on the west coast, and there’s a bench where one can sit beside a bronzed sculpture of Oscar Wilde and read one of his observations about Irish identity and the arts. Visit the Blasket Islands cultural center at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula and you find exhibits recalling writers who chronicled the remote area’s folkways, bringing authentic tales of old Ireland to the notice of people around the world. There, a visitor can pick up a copy of the classic “The Islandman” by Tomas O’Crohan, first published in 1929.

A second overt characteristic of the Irish is a keen sensitivity to their own tumultuous history. This complex narrative includes the repeated pillaging by Vikings in the early Christian era, the disastrous potato famine of the 1840s that brought a massive exodus of refugees (altering American demographics in the process) and, of course, Ireland’s seemingly never-ending quest for independence from the English. Keep in mind that the establishment of the Irish Free State came less than a century ago, in 1922, following a short-lived drive for independence (the storied Easter Rising) in 1916, during World War I. The British marched in, smashed the revolt and executed its leaders, following the historical pattern.

‘Beware of the Risen People’

The 20th century independence movement brought Protestant-Catholic strife, political assassinations and even civil war, and remains fresh in Irish minds. One is reminded of the Easter Rising and its repercussions by monuments, tour guides and even the lyrics of pub songs. At the old Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, the former jail where leaders of the 1916 revolt were held and executed, a history tour takes visitors through a corridor where one archway bears a haunting message, scratched in long ago by a prisoner: “Beware of the Risen People.”

As a staff member at The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, I was curious about Ireland’s officially neutral position during that war as it engulfed nearby countries, with German subs plying the waters just offshore. When I broached the question with a young historian from the Republic’s Office of Public Works during a monument visit, he was blunt: “The English said in the First World War that we were fighting for the right of small nations to have their independence—but then they crushed us when we declared our independence. They were completely hypocritical.” (Roddy Doyle’s historical novel, “A Star Called Henry,” captures the spirit of the fierce Irish quest for home rule.)

While one might tread carefully in discussing British-Irish relations with the locals, it would be hard to find more friendly hosts. While Americans are critical to Ireland’s tourism-dependent economy, the fond sentiments toward our country run far deeper. The Irish are pleased that millions of Americans — my wife and daughter included — trace their roots at least in part to Ireland, and they are quick to mention relatives who now work or attend college in the United States.

During our visit, the Irish press was filled with nostalgic accounts of a visit by President John F. Kennedy a half-century earlier, in June 1963, to the country that his ancestors once called home. Irish Examiner columnist Dan Buckley recalled watching from his father’s shoulders, at the age of 6, as the motorcade of “the most powerful man on Earth” moved through adoring crowds on the streets of Cork. “As the procession slowed down at St. Luke’s Cross I got a glimpse of the great man himself,” Buckley wrote. “Then, as the presidential car passed the towering bulk of St. Luke’s Church, it slowed, perhaps in reverence. All I could see was JFK’s back now, but then he turned and waved, beaming his trademark smile.”

Harbors, cemeteries, beaches

The more remote places were the best parts of our Ireland tour. We decided we could have devoted days to milling about the beautiful coast town of Kinsale, where the star-shaped Charles Fort looms over the harbor; the town has more than its share of good restaurants and B&Bs. While a visit to the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast means competing with crowds, this windswept wonder is a must-see (excepting those with a fear of heights). A leisurely drive around the Dingle Peninsula, stopping at old cemeteries, beaches and the Blasket Islands center, just might be the best way to spend a day in Ireland.

The bustling capital city of Dublin, where we spent our final three nights and two days, is a very different experience, reminiscent of New Orleans (street musicians, a concentrated pub district, impressive architecture). We had been advised, wisely, to turn in the rental car at the airport before venturing into the congested city; navigating the tangle of streets wouldn’t be easy, and you can get to many of the popular spots on foot.

Covering as much ground as we had time for, we did an architectural tour at Trinity College (where a student tour guide relished pointing out building design mistakes of the past), scanned artifacts from kings and Vikings at the National Museum: Archeology, and bought a couple of modest landscape paintings from artists who hung their works along the fence of a downtown park.

A spin on one of the ubiquitous red hop-on, hop-off buses got us out to the historic jail and provided an overview of the port city that grew out of a Viking trading settlement.

A music pub crawl in the celebrated Temple Bar district, featuring a pair (on violin and guitar) playing traditional Irish music, and explaining its distinct features, closed out our Dublin visit on the final evening — a wonderful time. Another highlight came that afternoon, on Grafton Street, a colorful shopping district near Trinity College. I was killing time alone for a few hours. As I listened to an assortment of high school musicians belting out melodies for tips, a well-dressed elderly man strolling down the street stopped.

He looked me over and smiled.

“Where you from?”

“New Orleans,” I answered.

“America! You have Irish blood?”

“I’m not sure — but I know my wife does. She’s a Callahan.”

“You are welcome!” he said, then disappeared into the crowd.

Coleman Warner, a former staff writer for The Times-Picayune, is a special assistant to the president and CEO of The National WWII Museum.