In addition to natural beauty and hospitality of the people a visit to Ireland offers a striking contrast to many mass tourism destinations that dominate the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. For one thing, as you drive away from Shannon Airport you can’t help notice the absence of anything to interrupt your view of the deep, rich green valleys and rugged hills. There is none of the hideous over-building or intrusive bill-boards that have obliterated so much natural beauty in Spain and Turkey.
But we found something even more unique and precious these days – a real break from the pressures and angry confrontations that seem to afflict so much of continental Europe and the Mediterranean tourist destinations.
We spend a lot of time in Greece and Turkey where right now the national blood pressure is in the red zone and the medications don’t seem to be working very well. Both countries are wracked with serious social and political tensions that can catch unwary tourists in a wave of demonstrations, strikes or worse. Turkey also faces serious internal threats from Kurdish guerrillas and external threats from the Syrian conflict spreading across the border. Major cities like Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakir have been hit with several bombings in the last few months that have claimed hundreds of innocent lives, including some tourists caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ireland, like Greece, was caught in the great financial downdraft of 2008/09. But, unlike Greece, it is working its way out of that hole. Unemployment has been dropping steadily and is now just over 8%. The economy is growing, debt is shrinking, and the banks are once more reducing mortgage rates. Perhaps the main difference between the two countries is that where the Irish crisis was primarily financial the Greek crisis was, and remains, a toxic mix of deeply rooted political, administrative, and economic problems that are far more resistant to solutions.
Ireland, to be sure, has its own sad and bloody history, highlighted by its complicated history with Great Britain. But one gets the real sense that bitter events like the Great Famine, the waves of emigration that denuded so much of the countryside, the Easter Uprising, the War of Independence are memorialized more in music and literature than in daily life. Even the deadly sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has diminished greatly in the last few years. People may never forget. Some may never forgive. But, unlike much of south-eastern Europe, the angst of that history does not block forward motion.
In any event, none of that history intruded on our long weekend in County Clare on Ireland’s stunning west coast. Much of the county is dominated by the massive Burren, 250 square kilometres of limestone hills and cliffs that were formed more than 300 million years ago, scraped clean by successive glaciers, and eroded by rain and streams into fantastic shapes. Evidence of 3,000-year-old human settlements can be found throughout the region and several limestone tombs remain in place. Abandoned houses, churches and abbeys are poignant reminders of more recent human movements.
No trip to County Clare would be complete without a visit to the Aran islands protecting the mouth of Galway Bay from pounding North Atlantic storms. The ticket agent advised us to go to the island of Inishmaan because she said it would be quieter than the busier, more touristic Inishmore. Quiet didn’t fully describe it. Silent would have been more accurate. The other passengers looked at us a little strangely because we were the only people to get off the boat at Inishmaan. Undeterred, we trudged up a narrow lane flanked with high stone walls to the very small village and encountered our first human contact in the tiny general store/post office. No, he wasn’t sure when the island’s only pub would open, but we were welcome to see for ourselves. The pub was indeed closed – with uncertain opening hours –but we were saved by a Dutch woman who ran a small tea room and served excellent homemade soup and sandwiches. It would have been interesting to learn exactly how or why this nice woman wound up on a craggy rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but we didn’t want to risk our sanctuary from the wind and rain by asking intrusive questions.
Back on the mainland we ate in good, unpretentious restaurants specializing in fresh local seafood, including the clams, mussels, crabs and lobsters from Galway Bay. There were meat dishes on the menu, but when you’re in one of the centers of great shellfish it seemed a waste not to take advantage of the opportunity.
If you are used to short, simple, straightforward answers to routine questions you might get a bit frustrated in Ireland. Once we pulled off the road to ask a passer-by for the shortest route to a certain site. “Well now, that’s an interesting question . . .” he began. We turned off the engine and settled in for a leisurely description of local life, history, ecology, and food that surpassed anything to be found in a guide book. Somewhere in there was a description of which road to take. It took a while. But then, that’s part of the unhurried charm of Ireland