We have now spent over a week on the Emerald Isle and thus far it has been a beautiful, albeit often a bit challenging, experience. Our first impressions of Ireland were slightly grim as, after an over-priced and under-serviced ferry from Cherbourgh, we were greeted by the port town of Rosslare with wet skies and heavy winds. We promptly ducked into a pub, understanding almost automatically why such places are so popular in Ireland, and enjoyed our first pint of Guinness. Excellent. We set out a bit begrudgingly an hour or so later, packing away our sunglasses and pulling out our gloves that had been hibernating throughout our French adventures. We began our trek west, straight into the gusty winds.
After about 20 or 30 kilometres we decided to have another break due to too much rain, seeking refuge in a rural roadside pub. As luck would have it, we arrived in the middle of a championship rugby match, and one of the teams came from the province we were in (Lienster). As we again enjoyed a pint we watched Lienster pull further ahead of their opponent, and simultaneously the good spirit of the pub also grew. We were soon chatting with the patrons, most of whom lived just down the road, and all of whom were impressed that a pair of soggy Canadians had stumbled into the establishment and predicted we must be the first ever. We got great travel advice from a variety of people, and a better summary of Irish history, politics and economics than a guidebook or Wikipedia article could ever provide. We were just so impressed by the friendliness and good quality of people we came into contact with that evening.
Especially generous were Donal and Joanna, an outgoing and intelligent couple who had also done a fair share of travelling. We felt immediately connected to and comfortable with them. We were very thankful for their conversation while at the pub, and as a truly wonderful episode of hospitality they told us that we needn’t worry about setting up our tent in the downpour and offered us their home for the evening. They were excellent hosts to us in their warm house, and the bed they gave us was one of the most comfortable ones on the trip! The food they shared happily reminded us of home: omelettes and fries for dinner and bacon with brown toast for breakfast! It was very comforting. We’re lucky to have come across Donal and Joanna; they set an excellent tone for the rest of our Irish journey.
After leaving their country home, we continued our way west with a goal in mind: we knew that Caitlin’s lifelong family friends, the Kietzmans, were also in Ireland and would be in a relatively close town called Kinsale on Tuesday evening. Caitlin hadn’t seen the family since the summer of 2009, and wasn’t sure when she could see them all again. Alec, having heard so much about the Kietzmans, was also keen to connect with them. Thus, we set off with determination. We only needed to bike 150 kilometres in three days, a distance we could usually accomplish without much effort. However, the three days towards Kinsale were spent exclusively biking since the winds howled directly towards us with astonishing force; sea foam being blown onto a road 100 metres up a cliff demonstrated the wind’s strength. In fact, the northwestern part of Ireland suffered from such intense winds (clocked at 144 km/h!) that houses were damaged and towns left without power. To add to this, the skies often opened up into rain. The (very rural) roads were also challenging: a narrow patchwork of potholes with thick hedgerows which meant there was often little to look at.
But was it ever worth it! We arrived at the Kietzman’s B&B before the family had checked in, but nonetheless were welcomed in by an amiable host named Victor. He was happy we had come, as he had forgotten about the Kietzman’s booking, and let us relax in the living room, serving us a tray of tea and delicious fruit loaves. Once the Kietzmans arrived, the reunion was grand. They kindly gifted us a room in the B&B (which included our first complete “Irish Breakfast”!) and also treated us to dinner. But the truly priceless part of the evening was the chance to share conversation and laughs with each one of them. They are all such special people. Such an extended trip has made us better appreciate good quality friends, so we feel so lucky to get to spend time with important people while still abroad. The time with them gave us both a lot of joy and energy.
After the Kietzmans, we turned inland to head towards the town of Cork, one of the larger cities in Ireland. Thanks to the wind now being in our favour, we had fun flying down the roads towards the town. Alec’s family has roots in Cork. However, since there were no relatives to be found we went to the next best thing: Warm Showers! We spent two nights with Jim, who has lived in Cork for ten years and works for Apple (a fitting profession as Ireland is a major centre of tech companies). Besides being a fellow cyclist, Jim was also a Vipassana meditator and an avid gardener, growing a wealth of vegetables despite the harsh Irish climate. We enjoyed the city of Cork as it had a very energetic and alternative vibe. The largely pedestrian streets were lined with colourful buildings stacked alongside one another, most of which housed pubs and cafes. On Wednesday night, Jim took us to the most “authentic” pub we have ever been to. A real highlight of many Irish pubs is the live music, known as “trad sessions”: good Celtic melodies informally played on Irish instruments by a group of friends around a pub table.
On the topic of pubs, we should mention that going out to the pub seems to be a sort of responsibility while travelling through Ireland. Whenever we speak to people about our travel itinerary their suggestions primarily include which pubs we should visit. The stereotype of the Irish drinking holds true! We are enjoying taking the time to explore the pubs as the cold and rainy weather is not conducive to taking breaks outside. Reminiscent of our perpetually wet tour through Croatia, the rainy weather right now is apparently very abnormal. However, unlike in Croatia, there are many other tourists here also surprised by the weather. We’ve seen lots of other day cyclists, which is always nice, and motorcyclists as well. We met a lovely Spanish/German couple who have been all over the world with their bike… a different type of two wheel travellers but with the same mentality.
As we progress further west on the island we realize that the poor weather doesn’t take away from the country’s beauty, and often enhances it. Ireland is stunning. The landscape, especially where we currently are in the southwest, is wonderfully dramatic: small mountain clusters jut out on peninsulas into the sea, and while some sections are barren and ripe with exposed rock, the lush forests contain all shades of green and drip with colourful flowers. We can’t complain about the rain as it allows us to cycle past beautiful waterfalls and rushing streams, and the dampness in the air adds a mythical, ancient weight to the landscape. It exceeds the imagination. And the thousands of sheep roaming the hills add a real air of authenticity. We are looking forward to continuing along the west coast of the island, with hopes we can also see what this dramatic place looks like with sunshine.
In many ways Ireland has felt a bit like coming home. At the most fundamental level, it is brilliant to be able to speak English with everyone again. We are having frequent and fluid conversation with local people and are relishing in easily reading the newspapers, listening to the radio in stores, and getting to eavesdrop again! However, it’s important to note that although English abounds, the Irish people do have their own language and in some counties it is still the conversational language. Like in other parts of our trip, Gaelic Irish was seriously suppressed by Ireland’s colonizers: the British. The oppressive and abusive position the British took against the Irish is really incredible, and we are so impressed by the Irish people’s ability to maintain their culture despite 800 years of British occupation and active attempts to eradicate Catholicism and consequently Irish way of life in general. You can see one very small example of cultural maintenance in our slideshow, as we went to a Gaelic Tug-O-War match!
Another way that Ireland feels like home is the food. We have enjoyed a few hearty meals full of meat and root vegetables… mainly potatoes. We’ve so far had potatoes made eight different ways, and counting! The bread and the beer are darker again too, there’s ketchup and mayonnaise on the table and peanut butter no longer costs an arm and a leg. The coffees are “normal sized”. And speaking of coffees… in Irish corner stores you can buy Tim Horton’s coffee from a machine! Who would have guessed it!? A funny, yet very true, taste of home.
Well, we’re off again. We just finished cycling the absolutely epic “Ring of Kerry” and now will continue on to the famous Dingle Peninsula.
Alec and Caitlin
P.s. We were generously given a book called Just a Little Run Around the World by Joanna and Donal. An incredible story of a Welsh woman who sets off on a world run at the age of 57, travelling 20,000 miles over 5 years for cancer awareness and funding. We are flying through the book and being blown away by her efforts, and enjoy reading about another’s travels. Check out Rosie Swale Pope’s blog at http://www.rosiearoundtheworld.co.uk . Rosie is a relative of Joanna.