Every year on March 17, the number of people who wear green surges. Pints upon pints of Guinness are poured. Revelers flock to parades and festivals. Levels of merriment rise. St. Patrick’s Day in its modern incarnation is a far cry from its origin as a feast day to remember and honor the patron saint of Ireland on the day of his death. Now it’s a celebration of Irish culture observed around the world. That’s quite a feat. Not many countries get other countries to join in on their celebrations.
You could say St. Patrick’s Day is just an excuse to party, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s a testament to Ireland and the way its special combination of hospitality, scenery and history bewitches its visitors. Ask people who have traveled there about their experiences, and their eyes become dreamy, their tone wistful. “Ireland,” they sigh, “was wonderful.” Effusive and enthusiastic anecdotes inevitably follow. It’s as if the mere mention of Ireland grants them the Irish gift of the gab, at least temporarily.
My personal story takes place on a whirlwind two-week road trip, a clockwise circumnavigation of the island, Dublin to Dublin via Cork, Dingle, Galway, Donegal, Belfast and countless towns and cities in between. I was not immune to its charms and could talk your ear off with stories of my own. But for the sake of space and time, I’ll limit myself to a few.
In Dublin, over the course a free, three-hour walking tour, our guide Colin regaled us with fact upon fascinating fact about the city’s history and architecture. At a stop in the Dublin Castle courtyard, Colin asked us how our surroundings reflected the tensions between the Irish and British before the Republic of Ireland existed. After a few seconds of bewildered silence from the group, he asked us to look at a statue of Justice perched above an entryway. He pointed out how she carried unbalanced scales in one hand and a sword in the other. Her uncovered eyes faced into the courtyard. Justice, she indicated, would never fairly consider the plight of the Irish outside the walls of the castle; she would be forever biased to favor the British rulers inside.
The day we left Dublin, we stopped for a late lunch at a pub in a town called Hollywood. Upon hearing about our road trip plans, the waiter shared a typically Irish observation with us. “Americans,” he commented, “drive on the right side of the road. The British, they drive on the left. And the Irish? They drive in the middle.” He then thoughtfully furnished us with a hand-drawn map and directions to our next destination in addition to our food. Our waiter turned out to be right – on many of the country lanes we drove through, tunnels of trees encroached on the roads so much that the middle was the only path available.
We could have used a warning about Irish football fanaticism as well. In search of lunch in another small town on another day, we were surprised to find it deserted. Our car was the lone moving vehicle. Restaurants were closed. Bank doors were locked. Perplexing. Then we remembered the parked cars, people and cheering at a small athletic field we passed on our way into town. At the time, we figured it was a youth soccer game. And maybe it was. But whoever was playing on whatever scale, it was enough for the entire town to close so they could root for their team. Our lunch would have to wait.
In the end, some of our itinerary would have to wait. At the whims of the road and our navigation abilities, on three occasions we found ourselves arriving at our destinations just a few minutes after closing. Each time, we were gently but forcefully informed that we could not be admitted. The Irish, it seems, are sticklers for time, or at least those in the tourist industry are. Promises to be quick and attempts to elicit sympathy because of the distance we traveled (all the way from California, U.S.A.!) got us nowhere. This was particularly disappointing at the Rock of Cashel. The well-preserved ruins of a 12th century royal seat in South Tipperary had made such an impact on a coworker that she named her dog Cashel in homage. We had driven an hour out of our way to explore it only to arrive two minutes too late.
Luckily, Ireland provides many ways to deal with disappointment – according to PubGoer, there are 7,500 pubs in the Republic alone. And the variety! In Dublin, we had our first Irish pint of Guinness at the Bleeding Horse, a comfortable pub that dates back to the 17th century, making it a contender for oldest in the city. The Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast preserved its past as a Victorian gin palace, full of shiny wood and gilded lettering. My favorite, though, was a pub in Dingle with diversified offerings. A classic Irish “spirit grocery,” Foxy John’s was not only a pub, it sold hardware supplies and bicycles as well. We placed our orders in a dark back corner under a ceiling of rubber tires. Then there are the tours and tastings at famous distilleries and breweries: Guinness in Dublin, Jameson in Midleton, Bushmills in a town of the same name in County Antrim.
Another consolation – and a safer one since we spent most of our time driving – was that Ireland is one of those places where the journey is its own reward. Even on highways, fields of emerald green unfolded into the horizon. Aquamarine lakes surprised us as we rounded corners. We saw waterfalls and rainbows. Fluffy sheep dotted hills and pastures. Sadly, they were too shy to suffer petting, running from our hands but strangely, not our car.
Beyond mere scenery, Ireland’s natural wonders verge on the mystical. The towering Cliffs of Moher rise 700 feet above thrashing seas below. Tiny silhouettes of onlookers can be seen at the top, peering over guard rails and contemplating their insignificance. In Northern Ireland, the hexagonal rock columns of Giant’s Causeway fit together like a natural puzzle. Their shapes and spacing are so perfect that their place in legend as the base of a bridge to Scotland torn up in terror by a duped giant almost seems more plausible than the scientific explanation pointing to an ancient volcanic eruption.
There are so many more stories to tell – surfers under grey skies in Lahinch, converted barn restaurants in Belfast, bafflement at the unfamiliar sport of hurling, our cackling Caw Cottage Bed & Breakfast hosts in Londonderry, live music in Galway, the poetic isle of Innisfree – and even more yet to experience. I’m the type of traveler who prioritizes unknown destinations over return trips. Ireland is my exception, a rare place with a spell so strong that it makes me want to forsake the new and come back time and time again. Until then, honoring Ireland through St. Patrick’s Day will have to do.