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Travel: Ireland, an island of wonders

PORTUMNA, Ireland — The myths fade almost as soon as you land on the Emerald Isle.

No one greets you in Ireland with “top of the morning.”

Corned beef isn’t the national dish. It’s not eaten here at all, St. Patrick’s Day or not.

Despite the stereotype fueled by film star Maureen O’Hara — a Dublin native — only 10 percent of Irish are redheads, known as gingers.

And travel in Northern Ireland is quite safe, even on the streets of Derry, where 14 unarmed men and teenage boys were shot to death by members of the British Army on Jan. 30, 1972, in the massacre known as Bloody Sunday.

Landing at Shannon Airport — on Ireland’s western front — a few days after Thanksgiving, an Aer Lingus crew member greeted passengers with “Céad míle fáilte” (pronounced kade may-luh fault-cha), Gaelic for a “hundred thousand welcomes.” During a two-week visit to Ireland, I felt more welcomed than anywhere I’ve traveled. Nearly everyone I encountered in shops, restaurants and on the street greeted me with a friendly “hiya.”

With 32,599 square miles, Ireland is a third the size of Oregon. The Republic of Ireland has 4.6 million people, while Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, has 1.8 million, compared to 3.9 million in Oregon.

Nearly 40 percent of the republic’s citizens live near Dublin, which borders the Irish Sea on the east coast. Belfast, the Northern Ireland capital, is also its largest city, with 281,000 residents. Both sections feature vast areas dotted with small villages.

Popular foods include roasted lamb, Irish stew, Indian curries and fish and chips and the ever-present potato. The traditional full Irish breakfast, also known as a fry, includes rashers (bacon), link sausage, fried eggs, mushrooms, a fried tomato and white and black pudding, a combination of pork, suet, bread and oatmeal. The black pudding has added blood.

Ireland’s size makes it easy to drive yourself around if you’re comfortable driving British-style on the left and navigating roundabouts. Road signs are in English and Gaelic. And no matter where you are, the coast is never more than 75 miles away.

It takes three hours to drive from Galway, the main city on the Republic of Ireland’s west coast to Dublin, the nation’s capital. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, a province of the United Kingdom, is 105 miles north of Dublin, about a two-hour drive.

A decade ago, crossing the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland required stopping at a security checkpoint. Today, there isn’t even a sign letting you know you’ve crossed, but you soon notice road signs in kilometers and prices in British pounds rather than in Euros.

I stayed in Portumna — from the Irish Port Omna, the landing place of the oak — a small town of 2,000 people located 44 miles east of Galway. A friend from back home in Idaho lives there and Portumna proved the perfect spot for venturing in all directions.

The island is full of breathtaking views. My first glimpse was of small, green tracts outside Shannon separated by low stone walls.

The Giant’s Causeway along the Northern Ireland coast is one of Ireland’s most spectacular spots. It features 40,000 hexagon-shaped basalt columns that look like stepping stones. They rise from the ground up to 40 feet against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean.

Forty-five miles west lies Derry, long the flash point of tension between Protestant unionists aligned with Great Britain and Catholic nationalists looking to unify the island.

A series of murals painted on the sides of buildings in the city’s Bogside area provide striking reminders of Bloody Sunday. One shows a youth, a rock in his hand, standing behind a safety shield eyeing an armored army vehicle. Another shows a group of men carrying the dying Jackie Duddy, 17, after he was shot.

The thing that struck me about Ireland is how steeped it is in history. Many old buildings in the United States date from only a few generations. In Ireland, the ruins of many old monasteries — still standing — are more than 800 years old.

The ruins of the Portumna Priory, built in 1254 by a group of cloistered priests, are a good example. The rock walls, including elaborate window openings, remain. Headstones and burial crosses still stand on a grassy knoll next to the priory.

Nearby is Portumna Castle, which dates from 1610. Built at a cost of more than $16,000 U.S., it was without equal and incorporated many French and Italian refinements not yet seen in Ireland.

On a clear day, it’s said, you can see America from Galway. Many Irish still long for the United States, where 40 million people claim Irish descent.

The ancient fishing village of Claddagh, first settled in the fifth century, once had its own king. Today, fishermen still use the traditional currach boat, a small vessel made from animal skins and sealed with tar.

The village is known worldwide for the Claddagh ring, two clasped hands holding a heart topped with a crown, symbolizing friendship, love and loyalty.

Across the River Corrib, the Latin Quarter of Galway attracts locals and tourists alike. Shop Street, closed to vehicles, features a mix of brightly painted buildings housing bakeries, clothing stores, pubs and chippers, where they serve fish and chips.

No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to Dublin, the home of author James Joyce, playwright George Bernard Shaw, painter Francis Bacon and Dracula author Bram Stoker. It’s also the home to Guinness, the quintessential Irish beer that sells more than 10 million glasses daily worldwide.

The River Liffey splits the city in half, with most of the popular tourist sites located south of the river. Dublin Castle, built in 1204, is a popular free destination. Spread over 11 acres, the castle contains museums, gardens and various government buildings.

Thousands of visitors with ties to Ireland are expected to visit the island during 2013 as part of a yearlong celebration known as The Gathering. Irish citizens were invited to send out special postcards to relatives and friends abroad to encourage them to come to Ireland during the year. The Gathering links clan and school reunions with festivals throughout the island.

Since this is St. Paddy’s Day, I leave with this. The Irish in Ireland are more likely to wear blue — the color of St. Patrick — than green. They won’t go around pinching anyone who doesn’t conform. And they’ll dine on boiled cabbage and bacon, a cut of pork we’d call ham.

• You can reach reporter John Sowell at 541-957-4209 or by email at jsowell@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Mar 19, 2013 08:07PM Published Mar 19, 2013 09:34AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.