I visited Ireland: here are 10 observations from the wrong side of the road

If we’re counting, then I’m 1/4 Irish.

Also, 3/8 Russian, 1/8 Portuguese, 1/8 Hungarian and 1/8 Scottish. How this unlikely group of ancestors actually stayed together long enough to procreate successfully is beyond me. That’s America for you.

Like many Americans, the Irish part of my gene pool was influenced by immigration to the United States over the last several centuries. The most famous of such movements occured during 1845–1852 (aka The Great Famine, not to be confused with the Irish Famine a century before that) when, due to potato blight, over 2 million people left the Irish census through emigration or death.

Which explains how, according to this Washington Post article, the population of Americans with “Irish heritage” is a whopping 34.5 million — a bit more than 7X the population of Ireland itself.

Anyway, I went to Ireland with my wife to see the land of my ancestors. Traveling from Dublin to County Kerry on the west to see Killarney, Dingle, Inch Beach and Slea Head, I created a laundry list, in no particular order, of things that really stood out in my mind…

1. Driving a 6-speed manual on the opposite side isn’t “relaxing”

So it’s rather disorienting to drive on the opposite side of the road, but doing so in a large, wide car with a manual transmission on narrow Irish country roads was…unpleasant. Not only are you using your left hand for shifting, but you find yourself consistently underestimating the dimensions of the car on the left side. Who needs mirrors, right?

I had actually ordered a Nissan Juke, a taller, more narrow car that would serve these roads better, but I was in luck, apparently: they ran out of the car I specifically ordered, so I got an upgrade to a Skoda Superb (more or less a VW Passat).

Normally, this would be a welcome upgrade. But in this case, I was a dripping mess of fear-sweat for hours, cursing along Ireland’s slender, curving roads with mere centimeters separating either side of us from the idiotic gape of cows, or the scarily sharp rocky depths below the cliff edge, or tour busses and trucks, or other freaked out tourists racing towards me on the wrong side of the road. Hunter S. Thompson, give me strength!

2. Irish people are warm and friendly

With a history of famines and blights and only something like 100 days a year with sunshine, I suppose there is no reason to be especially cheerful in Ireland. Yet Irish people were at once polite and friendly in a no-bullshit kind of way. I was reminded of the Dutch, who are probably the most awesomely accommodating and wonderful Europeans out there.

Perhaps because we were tourists and Ireland’s economic situation is not as booming as it was in the early/mid-2000s, we were granted some appreciative treatment, but I doubt it. A cute thing is that 3 friendly locals in different towns all enjoyed providing my with vocal driving instructions in such great detail and repetition that even bystanders were catching on.

3. Holy Cow (and Fish)

If you are a meat/seafood lover, then Ireland is the place to be. The food is flavorful, plentiful and provided by keen, if slightly forgetful, servers.

Being in the temperate North Atlantic — summer temperatures get up to 15–20C or so and winter only gets down to 5–10C — excellent seafood is bountiful, and with a cattle population that must certainly rival that of Irish children (more on that below), high-quality beef is everywhere. Both in “living ruminant” form, and the “juicy flesh on a plate” form. My mother, a known and much-feared entity among the steakhouses of Arizona, would be impressed.

4. People actually listen to Irish music

There isn’t much to remark upon here, but in addition to seeing live musicians both in small venues and outside along the adorably-cobbled, slightly frantic center row of Killarney, Country Kerry, I noticed traditional Irish music being played in cars and cafes as well.

Not that it was overkill — in fact, I definitely prefer it to most of the talentless screeching I hear on the radio’s Top 40. But it’s kind of like walking into a bar in Tijuana and the band is dressed like The Three Amigos and playing the Mexican Hat Dance.

5. Some people are having children like it’s going out of style

Not that I have anything against children. I used to be one myself. And I’m used to seeing kids everywhere — it’s summer in Prague, and the babies are popping up like wildflowers.

But in Ireland, seeing families with three, four and five young children at a time was exceedingly common. I cannot imagine how tough a pregnant woman with three other children under the age of 5 in tow must be, but I didn’t want to discover a way of finding out.

So, be aware that if you try to have a romantic meal in a stylish restaurant at 9pm, you’ll still be hearing high-pitched childrens’ voices and the patter of running feet behind your back. Why is this 4-year-old girl eating a steak and a Guinness at 9pm, I pondered. Ok no Guiness. No matter, just drink more — they’ll forget to charge you for half of them anyway.

6. Oh! (they forget to charge you for drinks …a lot)

It was curious, but in several of our dining experiences during the six day trip, we frequently had our drink orders forgotten. This is a mysterious condition to me, having been a waiter myself: you came to ask me if I wanted another drink, and when I said “Why yes, that’d be lovely”, you promptly forget.

But then something even weirder happened. They started forgetting to charge us for items. This happened 3 times. The first two times were for a coffee or a beer among a larger tab, which I didn’t bother correcting. The 3rd time was for something like 25 EUR, but when I said something about it the waitress, who thankfully went to correct it, she came back having added two drinks to the bill that weren’t ours to begin with. So I gave up and let them “disappear” those nice whiskeys we enjoyed. I did my best.

7. The air and flora is so rich that you kind of want to eat it with a bucket

The legendary green richness of Ireland cannot be overstated — it is the most lush, earthy, fresh-smelling place I’ve even been outside of Hawai’i. The more or less daily, yet light, rainfall guarantees a simply huge amount of flowering plants, tall grasses, mossy forests, and so on. Going out to misty ocean-side spots, it’s like you want to trap this local environment in a jar and bring it home.

8. Spotting a red-headed cluster

Getting to the stereotype of the “Irish redhead”, I cannot say that overall, there were that many redheads in Dublin or out west. And the statistics are on your side: if you look at this map, you’ll see that the highest concentration of Europe’s readheads are namely concentrated in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, plus some bizarre ginger outpost in Russia.

However, when seen they definitely traveled in groups. In charming families mainly. It was arresting to see different shades of ginger range across two lovely parents and 3 or 4 little ones, ranging from bright carrot to rusty and auburn. But most people had good amounts of dark chocolate brown hair, made lush by the good air and humidity out there. So…yeah.

9. Gaelic is really a second language there

On every sign, post and even on the radio at random intervals, you’ll run into Gaelic, a medieval and pretty much incomprehensible language that grew out of a branch of Celtic in Ireland. I was reminded of the Spanish language parity in Safeway in Arizona .

Sometimes you only see Gaelic and wonder why — it’s not like there are only Gaelic speakers here to whom English is also an enormous unknown. It’s especially wearisome when you pass a sign while driving that says “Go Mall” (but not its English translation “Slow”), followed by an alarming realization of its meaning by screeching to a halt next to a bunch of sheep. (Also, another interesting traffic term includes “Traffic Calming”, which means a sudden narrowing of the road).

10. There are enough crows in Ireland to man The Wall

Most of what we get here in Prague are utterly fearless pigeons and sparrows, who may enter your bedroom for an occassional romp before realizing they are hoplessly unable to leave through the same window. But aside from the scowling grimaces of sea gulls along the coast, Ireland appears to be dominated by crows. Big ones. Like, Hitchcock film crows. And enough reinforce The Wall in Westeros.

However, I like crows: the are exceedingly intelligent animals with a swathe of mental tools at their disposal — like facial recognition, memory and communication. This National Geographic article compares their intelligence to that of great apes. But don’t bother feeding them bread. They’ll utterly ignore it, instead preferring parts of my turkey sandwich. Only too late did I remember that part of The Social Network, and concluded this could be considered tantamount to cannibalism, so I stopped. Sorry PETA!

Bonus: Guinness beer in Ireland

You thought I’d leave this out right? Well, I almost did. Not because I didn’t have it — on the contrary; I drank Guinness at Hobbit levels, and it was very good in Ireland. Apparently, this is due to qualities in Irish water, which is also very good and I drank directly from a waterfall that cascaded over a rocky cliff to the beach below.

When asked, I of course remarked “It’s the best Guinness I’ve ever had”, but in reality I wasn’t sure. The last time I had a Guinness was probably some years ago, and since I do not drink Guinness on a daily I found it difficult to feel awestruck at it’s taste. I’d certainly take a Czech beer over it any day.

Well that’s about it. Many thanks to my dear Aunt Diane, who rummaged through multiple storage units to discover fantastically detailed personal information of my actual ancestors (who unfortunately we discovered too late had resided on the opposite side of the country). I’ll be going back again someday, wrong side of the road be damned…

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