In Galway, west Ireland, there are many sidewalks smaller than a postage
stamp, but they are glued to the ground, so the point is moot. Galway has
the sort of vivacity that I found in Cork (to the South), and none of the
grittiness of Dublin. It's a university town, like both Dublin and Cork,
and perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of the culture as such,
I've read there are somewhere in the range of 180 pubs in this town of
maybe 150,000 people.
But, oddly, the pubs close at 11:30 on weekdays and 12:30 on weekends,
which results in a large dump of drunken, pretty pissed off Irishmen and
women who were looking for just one more drink. It's not a great time to
wander around the streets; I heard there were something like 6 fist fights
a few weeks ago in one late-opening hamburger joint here after the pubs
But then, perhaps this is why Ireland just beat Argentina in the race for
the world cup in rugby. Argentina is now out of the running. They played
pretty well, which surprised me because rugby barely seemed on the map
when I was living in Buenos Aires. It certainly is on the map here; the
pubs play rugby games as often as football games here. During this last
game, I tried not to root too loudly for the Argentines, since no one else
was, and who wants to stick out in that sort of crowd? It brings to mind a
few nights ago, when knocking down a few in Killarney with Trevor and
Chris, both Aussies, and Trevor started wondering aloud about the
stupidities and horrors of the Northern Irish situation. I suggested that
an Irish pub was probably the worst place to bring this topic up. He
agreed, and we talked about the real (Trevor being divorced and Chris and
I, just interested observers) and theoretical problems with marriage,
which topic seemed ideally suited to an Irish pub.
But, interestingly, at the hostel in Killarney, Hugh, an older Irish man,
now retired and wandering the country between hostels and such, spoke
openly about the Troubles (so called). He himself was from the northern
Irish coast, and while I didn't ask which side he favored, he generally
felt sad and sour about the circumstances. Apparently, apart from the
brutality and killings, there were all sorts of problems as the British
sent very young recruits over to Northern Ireland to police the area,
which raised issues of disparity in income as well as interpersonal issues
(apparently it was common, according to Hugh, for the young policemen to
wander outside of their marital commitments, exposing both people involved
to all sorts of tensions in the area).
I would have learned more about the whole situation, but Hugh not only
spoke softly, but mumbled as well, and on top of that, spoke with a heavy
Irish lilt; this I think is what they refer to as the "Irish stew", and
it's impossible to understand. I found both with the Scots and the Irish
that you have to catch them at the beginning of a sentence to have any
chance of catching the train of thought. Otherwise you're left standing at
the station wondering what the hell train just went by.
So far Ireland hasn't been as interesting to me as Scotland, but then,
I've ended up passing through more touristy areas which are their own bag.
On the one hand, the tourism is great for the area and supports a
lifestyle in rural Ireland that agriculture and farm life can't offer
anymore; I was told that where previously you could raise a family on 25
cows in a dairy farm, now you'd need at least 100 to have a hope. Even
with subsidies, it seems that the Irish farm life of the small family
farmer is dying out. But the towns nearby are in some cases now supported
by tourism. This means, in the best cases, well-maintained and clean
streets, storefronts, nice pubs, etc. But on the other hand, it's a little
kitschy in the places where I saw it--Killarney, Dingle, Blarney,
Kinsale...it's like stepping into an idealized Irish town from a movie set
or from a theme park, everything just a little too well rounded, charming,
and pleasantly Irish in a completely non-annoying way.
But that's the way with tourism. But you know, there is preservation, and
even if a little artificial, these rural towns are also much more human
than if they became developments and attached strip malls and four-lane
highways. And the money also allows them to stave off development in the
beautiful countryside around the Ring of Kerry, for example. And then we
can go and at least look at it.
Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, was in turn a delight. You're
much closer there to a spread out, traditional Irish rural community,
which has some tourist access, but being small and with only one-lane
roads, is extremely slow-paced and inviting. There are apparently some
3,000 miles of stone walls on the islands, surrounding even tiny plots of
land; when Robert Frost wrote, 'something there is that doesn't love a
wall', he surely wasn't talking about the Irish. I was told, though, that
many of the walls were built simply to clear the fields of the boulders
strewn across them like so much sand.
From Dun Aeongasa, perched along a 300-foot cliff wall, you can see these
walls drawn over the island in every direction on the lowlands. And
somehow, maybe because the walls follow the curves of the hills and mark
out the shape of the land, they look like a part of the natural landscape.
The fort was first established as a ring wall for defenders about 3,000
years ago, which is how old some of the walls on the rest of the island
are. 3,000 years is a long time to be building walls between neighbors,
but then, the people of Inishmore are pleasant to talk to, so maybe it
works--as Frost, good walls make good neighbors.
Inishmore is one of those places on my travels I feel I could stay and
live. Everywhere there is the sign of long ages--the rough rock plates
that bust through the turf are cracked in a strange quilt of horizontal
and vertical rifts, and along the beach, fists of rock have been hollowed
out on the face of the boulders revealed each day when the tides recede.
There is no bustle there.
As we drove to Rosseval, where the ferry to the islands docks, on the way
from Galway, we passed a long stretch of land, which, for the first time
in many days that I had seen, had no walls, no houses, no animals. It was
barren in that natural, moor-ish sense of barrenness, just moss and turf,
small bushes and inclines, little dots of water here and there. I asked
the Irish woman next to me why there were no people there.
"That's bog land," she said, "and nothing grows there."