Moseying Through March in Ireland

My husband and I spent most of March in Ireland, and I’m still seeing green. Not from the landscape, which was bare and wintry, but from the shops, where nearly every item was emerald. The Irish take their green seriously, especially in the weeks surrounding St. Patrick’s day. For the big day itself, there was many a green-painted face watching the parade with us in Galway, and nearly every child’s cheek or forehead sprouted a shamrock.


“Loovly day, isn’t it?” was the inevitable greeting from landladies (and lords) at the B & Bs where we stayed. The weather was gray and cold, in the 40’s, leafless trees swaying in chill wind. “Is it?” I responded, until catching on to the fact that “loovly” meant not raining. It rained hardly at all. And sometimes the days warned to the 50s, with patches of blue peeking through clouds. The Irish could sense what I couldn’t—that spring was coming at last, after the longest, coldest winter and hardest spring any of those we talked to could remember.


For a week I drove a rental car, the only good way to visit the villages and sites we wanted to see. Maneuvering that Renault Megane down the left side of lanes built for horse and cart, shifting with my left hand, trying not scrape hedgerows on one side and buses and trucks on the other, was an exercise in extreme concentration. I pasted a pink arrow on the steering wheel, a reminder to keep left when all my instincts screamed right. Roundabouts were always a challenge. Pub visits hit the spot after a day of that kind of driving.


The car paid off, though. There was no other way we could have seen the Dromberg stone circle in County Cork, for example. Also known as the Druid’s Altar, it’s a miniature Stone Henge, with 17 standing stones six to seven feet high. To find it we followed a narrow dirt road ending at a cow pasture, then walked a path bordered by yellow gorse (pretty much the only thing blooming in all of Ireland). The stone circle stood on a rock terrace looking out to sea, windswept and lonely. Marking the days until the solstice sun fills the circle with light, the stones are an ancient clock, enduring, shrouded in old mysteries, the untold stories of its stone-age builders.


The Irish were invariably warm and welcoming. Walking small town streets we were greeted by most everyone we passed. Asking for directions always started a conversation, complete with detailed instructions. We had some great talks, ranging from the burning of Polish coal in Irish fireplaces to the history of the uprising against the English to the sad state of the Irish economy. In an antiquarian bookstore in Athlone, the owner recited poetry to us, and I got to hold a sheet of paper hand-written by William Butler Yeats. We found that Obama was popular there (O’Bama tee shirts in green) and that the Irish were very alarmed by what they saw as a cover-up of the church sex scandals (on the front page of every paper).


On the little-traveled Beare Peninsula we visited the ruined medieval church of Kilcatherine, a lichen-covered stone shell, the nave filled with old grave markers. (All the old abandoned and broken churches and abbeys were filled and surrounded with graves.) We were alone at lonely Kilcathrine except for a couple of gravediggers carrying out their shovels. The freshly dug grave already had a marker for a man named Sullivan who’d died 17 years before. Later when we came upon the two men leaning against a stone wall, I asked why they had dug up Sullivan’s grave. They laughed. Sullivan was still down there, they said, under a couple inches of soil. His wife, recently deceased at  88, was going in on top after mass tomorrow. The grave was dug by hand out of respect, they told us, the only cemetery around where that was still done. For gravediggers, they were chatty and cheerful. “It’s where we’re all headed,” one man said.


The gray rubble of fallen churches, castles and towers almost litters the landscape, constant reminders of the country’s long and often violent history. While the old farmhouses are uniformly gray, village row houses are painted the bright pastels of Easter eggs. A government program called “Tidy Towns” provides money and awards to the cheeriest, best-kept towns. The coastal village of Kinsale, where we stayed a couple of days—and  the scene of a bloody English-Irish battle—proudly advertised its Tidy Town award.


In every town, tidy or not, the distinctively marked pub figures prominently. Even the smallest villages have several, a testimonial to the importance of these communal watering holes. A city the size of Carpinteria would have 8 or 10. In Ireland’s oldest, Sean’s, a 900-year-old pub near the banks of the Shannon in the town of Athlone, a section of the ancient wall, built of clay and wattles, is still visible.


Pubs fill up in the evenings, especially in cities like Dublin and Galway, where live music is a regular feature. We looked for pubs with “trad,” Irish traditional music played with fiddles, concertinas or accordions, flutes and sometimes guitars and drums. My all-time favorite was the Four Courts Ceile Band which played in a set dancing barn in the tiny village of Kilfenora—a six-man group that had 32 set dancers wheeling, high stepping and stomping till the floorboards bounced and the sweat flowed. This was only topped the next morning by spotting one of the country’s famous high crosses in the field outside our hostel’s window—right there, behind a stone wall and surrounded by calves with yellow-tagged ears. That was Ireland, land of heady contrasts, where past and present collide in a dizzying jig.