Things we learned in Ireland: A Traveler’s Dictionary

August 19, 2012

A is for The Aran Islands

We spent Friday on a ferry trip then a guided tour of Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran islands, off the coast of Galway.  I will admit I had anticipated a little more local color (old women with weathered faces knitting beside their thatched cottages.) Still, our tourguide Tommy did take us to see miles of grey stone wall, the tiny green fields they divide, the horses standing patiently by the roadsides, and the seals in the harbor.  I also enjoyed watching French tourists negotiate the landscape, because it makes me happy in a not-nice way to watch French people not be able to speak English while traveling.

The day was sunny and beautiful, and we had the best Guinness stew you could imagine.


B is for Brooklyn hipster fashion, Irish style

Globalization?  The Irish-ization of Brooklyn?  A secret under-ocean tunnel between Williamsburg and the Emerald Isle?  I’m no sartorial anthropologist, so I can’t explain why, but all the male hipsters in Ireland dress in the Brooklyn hipster uniform:  Checked flannel, wool caps, heavy-rimmed glasses, supertight jeans, and ironic facial hair.


C is for Coke

Coke is American of course, but so are lots of things in Ireland, and vice versa.  It just tastes better in Europe because it’s made with sugar, and is sold only in normal-sized cans.  People are still fat in Ireland, but obesity here is caused by potatoes and lack of dietary fiber, not by the corn syrup.


E is for Eastern European employees

They staffed the hotels, shops, and restaurants and even sold us gross little sandwiches on the state-owned train service. Why, in a nation with such high levels of unemployment, were so many hospitality jobs taken by Slavs?  Sure, they had terrific English skills and all, but if I’m going to spend my Euros in Ireland, can’t I get a little lilt with that?


F is for finger

No, not that finger.  When an Aran Islander drives past another car, tractor, or horse-drawn carriage, he lifts his right index finger in salute and greeting.  Tommy taught us this.  He also took the time to spend several minutes catching up with any other Inishmore resident we met during the course of the day, speaking what he called “Irish.”


G is for Galway Girls. 

Stephanie and I grew up in Galway (New York.)


And also Galway Gells, (rhymes with Hells or Kells, but with a hard G as in “get.”)

This is my phonetic spelling of the way that Irish boys pronounce “girls.” You wouldn’t believe the get-ups on the streets of Irish cities late at night.  Shorter skirts, higher heels, thicker make-up and longer fake lashes than any of the women I know would find advisable.  The men I was traveling with kept up a “pub tart” count when we walked down the street.  Cat suits.  Enormous hoops.  A black mesh see-through shirt over a red bra. Straight-up hooker style. Even the teenagers we were traveling with were shocked.  Even the FRENCH PEOPLE traveling in Ireland were shocked.  These fashion choices are in particularly sharp contrast to the tidy propriety of the women in the smaller towns.


Also Guinness. 

We stayed just across the street from the factory where they make like 3 million or 3 billion barrels or pints or something like that every day or year or something. We took the factory tour, plunging our hands into the barley and learned about malting and yeast and fermenting, except it was sort of loud so I didn’t take in all the details.


H is for Heather

And Hurling

Combine track and field (sprinting) lacrosse (sticks), soccer goals (for three points), football goalposts (for one point), baseball (consumption of beer by fans; the size and hardness of the ball) with hockey (checking, and all-out, gloves-off brawling.)

Subtract protective pads, cheerleaders, and professional status, as even the best players have to go to work on Monday mornings.  Now you have hurling:  the fastest field game in the world.  Catch a match at Croke Park, or check out the madness right here.  DH is the sport’s newest fan.


I is for the IRA

Ireland would still like more independence, please.  The bombings may have ended, but during our time in Galway, we heard tons of pro-IRA songs, and the crowds in pubs would bellow the most violent lyrics, tears in their eyes.  I’m not a big fan of English rule, and I’m darn happy my own country won its freedom, even through violent means, but I wonder how most Americans would feel  standing in a predominantly Muslim bar (OK, I know the they don’t have bars) listening to people sing about violent heroes who lost their lives fighting for independence.


K is for St. Kevin

According to legend, St. Kevin wanted nothing more than to live a quiet life with the Lord, but he was such a hunky monk-y that a woman who loved him had other plans for him. He left his small town in the middle of the night, and ended up in a cave in Glendalough. When the amorous “gell” camped out at the mouth of his cave, he threw her in a lake to die, then founded a monastery, the ruins of which still stand.  Walking inside of the Church gave me chills and a feeling I could only describe as holy.

Big K was also rumored to have milked a deer, which I totally believe, only because that seems like a weird miracle to make up.


L is for Leprechauns

We found their house deep in the Wicklow hills during our first day’s hike.


M is for music

In Dublin we heard Flamenco, modern rock played by Armenian guys, and plenty of fiddle.  The streets of Galway were even more alive with music:  from 10 AM until 3 AM the next day.  In my humble opinion, legalized busking drastically improves the quality of streetscapes, no matter how bad the music.  We heard young girls covering Janis Joplin, a guy noodling for about an hour on a single loop of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and the tuneless walrus-sounding noise made by a man playing a 20-foot wooden digiridoo, which I cannot spell.

One busking mother sang along to prerecorded accompaniment, wearing a long white summer dress and smacking a tambourine against her hip.  Her six-year-old daughter sat on a small chair to the side, miserable under an umbrella.  Her slightly-flat renditions of songs I otherwise love was the only music I heard that made me feel sad.

We also heard one quirky-terrific band, lots of trad sessions (see below for “trad”) and two old folk singers singing to packed rooms.  Both of the folk singers had enormous beards, and both sang with variable pitch.  One of them actually sang an entire song in a key other than the one he was playing on the guitar. Lessons learned from the old-man folk musicians of Galway:  if you’re going to sing, sing with great gusto.  Nothing matters as much as your ability to engage the crowd.


S is for street fights.

During two days in Dublin and two in Galway, our group of eight witnessed or saw the results of five different street fights.  Fights number one and two happened in shops on the smartest street in Dublin immediately following an important hurling match.  (See above, hurling.)  Both times, Stephanie quickly rushed her family out of the store, to avoid having them knocked into stacks of shamrock-shaped ceramics.

Fight number three was the most dramatic, shocking enough to be covered in The Sun.  As we were walking back to our hotel, we saw two men heading for us.  One was walking backwards, quickly, being pursued by a drunken, red-eyed shirtless man bleeding from a long slash at his neck.  The backwards-walking man looked terrified, and the bleeding man had a broken beer bottle in his hand.

Nobody did anything but step aside and express disapproval in loud whispers.  Thirty seconds later, two young girls followed them at a run.  It was all extremely showy:  had the bleeding man wanted to actually kill backwards-running man, he could have done so very quickly.  Mostly he seemed to want to show off his own toughness, even as he was bleeding himself.  We only learned later, once we read about it in the Sun, that he was the victim rather than the perpetrator of the worst violence.

Seeing this carnage completely freaked out our children, who demanded that we call 911.  Since we weren’t sure how the angry stabbed guy would take to our “help,” and since we didn’t know the number for 911 (it’s actually 999) we did not. Later we asked for more information at the hotel, and we were told that the police actually run the other way when a fight breaks out on the street.

Fight number four we saw on the smashed face of a young man waiting behind Stephanie in the train station.  When she asked him, “What happened?”  He said, “A fight.  Over gells.”  We saw fight number five brewing in an over-crowded bar, then heard it start up soon after we left.

T is for Trad

“Trad” is short for “Traditional Music.”  It generally involves about four people sitting in the front booth of a pub playing with precisely zero showmanship.  They don’t look at the audience, or even acknowledge them, but rather stare at the table looking cross while they play.  Singing is done at a high volume, and many of the songs without lyrics are played on an unending loop.  Expect songs you know (“Wild Rover,” “Molly Malone”) on instruments you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce.


V is for Vikings

They landed in Dublin when years still just had three digits, and held the city until 1014 when they were conquered by Brian Boru’s army.  You can learn all about it at a museum in Dublin.  Our kids liked the opportunity to dress up in Viking clothing.  They also liked the wax statue sitting on a Medieval toilet and making realistic fart noises.


W is for Wicklow Way

The biggest reason for this trip was so that Stephanie could take us all hiking on Ireland’s answer to the Appalachian Trail.  Our families have hiked together every summer since our kids were young, but this was the first time we’ve ventured outside of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  I can’t thank Steph enough for getting our butts out of Brooklyn and onto the trail.



GailNHB August 19, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Another fine post, Launa, and no embarrassing anecdotes about your daughters.

I hope that you found your home standing and in good order upon your return and that you are able to enjoy the remainder of your summer.

I’m glad you got to go to Europe again, but I missed you during our last two days in Brooklyn. A lot.

Peace be with you, dear Launa.

Stephanie August 23, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Love the way you put it all in words with a few beautiful pictures to top it off.
You guys made Ireland 2012 so great!!!
Thank you!!

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