Ireland, not just Guinness.
You (I) want to say, but that would be incorrect in many respects, above all economicly (GDP growth). Ireland has outperformed the European average over many years. But this, it seems, has done away with the talked about friendliness and laid-back attitude of the Irish. It's December, Christmas time and all we meet is all-stressed-out folk roaming the streets, shopping as if there's no tomorrow. Pubs are crowded with people on office do's and other gatherings. Is it just, what they call, silly season over here?
It is the aggressiveness and haste that we encounter that make us wonder. Maybe double-digit growth, after all, is not so good for you. It changes the character. Newly found pride combined with the daily struggle of chasing the thing called money, lets you forget your roots. Just my observation - I don't want do deny anyone the right to economic growth.
It seems, EU money has not done good to people and country. Farming and road building, has damaged much of the countryside and enriched people who do not seem to give a damn about it. The law goes, I think, something like this: "If you own the land, you are allowed to build on it wherever and whichever style you want to." The result is you have "lovely new" houses of questionable style just about everywhere, dotted into the landscape on many stretches where we came through. Apparently the law dose not say much about a village is a village and countryside and farmland is farmland and countryside, free of residential buildings. Even worse old houses often seem to have been left and fallen into ruins.
Funny, the Guardian just recently (Dec.04 04) published The Concrete Isle, which basically tells the story, just much better researched.
In pictures this is what you get to see:
"Ireland is a corrupt country!"
Before I turn your attention to the nice and beautiful side of our Ireland section I want to lay down my personal real reason why I never want to return and what especially I feel disappointed about and cheated upon.
The price of a bottle of Jameson Irish Whisky, 0.7 litres at Euros 23.99 in Ireland in a retail outlet is simply too expensive. Especially when compared to the usual Euros 14 or so, I used to pay in Austria. (added post scriptum 10/03/05: Spain, Carfour Madrid price Euros 11.10)
It makes me angry to say the least. "You know, Ireland is a corrupt country" is the reply of the sales lady at the till to my obvious question. Reminded of Scottish Single Malts that I deemed cheapest in Scotland I conclude that something must be rotten in the State of Ireland. Thinking further I start to believe that this must be one of the reasons why Irish turned such an unfriendly lot over those past years. How can a government punish its own people that way? I assume its taxes. Often we hear it in the pub: "What do you think of alcohol prices in Ireland? Don't you think they're high" a man in his 50s in a pub in Bangor, a little village in the West. Doing a bit of research, this is what I find in Euromonitor International. It says there for example: "Excise of €9.88 is paid per every 100 litres of beer of 5% abv in Germany whereas in Ireland excise for the same amount is ten times higher at €99.35".
Or imagine this super-value offer at SuperValu, a retail chain. 6 cans of Heineken, 0.5 litres for 9 Euros, one of the cheapest beers on the shelf. WOW... I can buy a case of 20 bottles 0.5 litres of similar brew for 9 Euros in Austria. 100 years ago people would have manned the barricades. Life is expensive today, not what it used to be. The average Irish man/woman does not like the daily struggle, but for the moment seems too busy chasing his/her business/illusion, still believing to become rich one day and end all struggle. In the process he/she forgets his/her roots, to smile, to relax to be what visitors still refer to as Irish. I still remember well Andrew from Blackpool, who I met on the Scottish Hebrides. "In Scotland clocks tick slower then elsewhere, but if you go to Ireland - there, they actually stand still!" Not quite what Heidi and I experience.
Our impressions are different, especially in Galway, a town on the west coast, described as laid-back with atmosphere. But Galway is everything we tried to escape from: Shops and pubs, all offering super-bargains, trying to steel your money, rip you off, sell you stuff you don't want or don't need, or worst get for free elsewhere. 5 litres of water for 1 Euro. Probably from the tab. But still a bargain compared to what you can encounter sometimes (a litre and a half for nearly 2 Euros at petrol stations!).
We have it usually for free from the stream. Whenever we travel through mountainous regions with lots of rain we try to find waterfalls or streams, the higher in altitude the better, and fill up all our bottles and buckets and live of them for the next couple of days.
Back to Galway, it is Sunday, Christmas 3 more weeks to go. We are getting stuck in a complete traffic stand-still in the middle of the town for 3 hours and the shopping craze seems to have put everyone into an aggressive, bad mood. And it is addictive...
"Don't get towed away or clamped!" Those threats! You're going to prison! Behave!
"Have you fastened your seatbelt? Up to 4 penalty points" reads another big sign on a road, so small, it most likely was not paved ten years ago. Then donkey carts did not have seat belts.
Again, this is what I believe. With economic growth come more money, more cars, more traffic, more hassle, better and wider roads, that allow you to get faster to where you would have never attempted to go before anyway, which leads to more accidents (that's why we see the 4 penalty points signs), so actually less freedom, less quality of life. And the environment you operate in in the meantime seems to have changed as well. You pay more for less, or you pay for what has always been free. And the average guy asks himself: "How did I get here? Why did we get here?" Or does he rather go "Oh, let's have a Guinness because it is Friday and they've run out of Kilkenny's again (Happened to us in Lanigan's bar in Kilkenny!!)."
Finishing my rant, I have a feeling Ireland is going down, America-style.
On a nicer note, seriously! we manage to get away from it all and discover remote coastlines, cliffs and beaches, and beautiful sceneries. The weather was nice to us. Quit dry with sunny patches on most days. Temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees are unusually warm for this time of the year. Thanks god EU money had no effect on the weather.
Walking a beach near Inishcrone, our first day in Ireland.
Dec 2nd. After arriving in Ireland the night before, and driving as long as we could towards Sligo on the east coast we fully inhale the breeze that is being brought in from the sea.
Later in the day we arrive on the Mullet Peninsula while it is getting dark. But as this is our first day in Ireland we are longing for our first "real" Guinness and hence leave for Bangor to set ourselves up in a quiet pub.
Something is odd about this pub. This, you realise immediately but it takes a good while to determine what? It does not stink. Ireland is the first country in Europe introducing tough non-smoking laws. I don't smoke and enjoy to breath normally for once, but Heid does. We still are to find out the new law's impact on the pub scene in Ireland.
Sunset on White Strand near Barnabour Point, in Mayo.
3rd of Dec. A wide sandy beach on an overcast and stormy day turns itself into one of the most breath-taking sunset we have experienced. I regret not digging out my real camera at any point. The spectacle carries on and on for about an hour and I keep thinking. This must be the end, the last red glimpse.
4th of Dec. A bad evening in Clifden. Bad food, in the Off-Market Square restaurant that we thought was worth trying out. Frozen fish, advertised as the day's special. This is coastal area and you would expect the day's catch.
And we are starting to evaluate the consequences of the newly introduced non-smoking laws. People now smoke outside pubs and it is usually blokes smoking in the doorway thereby blocking the entrance. Pre-Christmas when you enter a pub you may not want to rub bellies with a group of lads on their annual due. So your choice is to go somewhere else. Simple things in life have just become a bit more difficult.
Then Galway. And I have had my rant about it already. Don't go there unless you are into partying and shopping. Nothing special or original that you would be able to find there anyway, just the usual pubs and retail chains that you find elsewhere.
After Galway, we know why we have come to Ireland.
We head further south along the coast of county Clare and the scenery turns stunning and spectacular. Cliffs of Moher is where the tour busses and the tourists turn back
But we keep going further south-east along a breath-taking coast-line of cliffs and basalt rocks rising up to 200 metres from sea level. Winds blow fiercely and waves roar like thunder, frighteningly dangerous over 10 metres in height. The rolling sound when they crash onto the shore, washing and molding out the rock from underneath makes me tremble. Waves have my utmost respect after I was nearly washed away by a big one while walking Vatersay Island in August 2004. Several times I see myself running away for cover, just in case the perceived monster wave manages to send significant amounts of water high enough up, my way.
more pics on next page...
We spend the night on the cliffs near Kilken. Next day, 7th, again we follow the coast still further south-east. Bridges of Ross and Loop Head, again it's the cliffs and the sea raging high that draws our attention for hours. And I have to say the black basalt rocks are impressive sculptures by themselves.
Only later in the day we continue our journey crossing the Mouth of Shannon at Kilimer south to Tarbert. Quickly we make our way south to Tralee turn east onto Dingle Peninsula. Passing Castlegregory, the Clochán beach in Brandon Bay makes an ideal place to stay for the night.
What a feeling an entire beach, many kilometres long for ourselves. Weather is still windy, so we cook food and tea and settle to reading the book, taking notes or some computer work for a while before dozing away. Two camping ovens (just a candle in a tin) spend sufficient warmth.
Black Valley, the Gap of Dunloe and the Killarney National Park
Weather stays foggy and rainy while we tour the Dingle Peninsula on the 8th and the Iveragh Peninsula on the 9th. But on the 10th when we revisit parts of the latter the sun is nice to us.
We get up early and drive back from Kenmare to Blackwater Bridge then north to Black Valley. We set up camp near a little stream which we use to take our weekly bath. We enjoy the usual breakfast of coffee, tea, Chinese noodles, cornflakes and milk and bread with butter and honey and the delicious marmalade we still have from Heidi's mum. And all that outside at mild temperatures of 15°C. This is the 9th of December 2004.
Something is driving us away from here, pushing us forward. We would only realise later that we could and should have stayed as this is the best spot in Ireland we would discover.
Instead we drive and drive all day in search for what else Ireland has on offer. Kilkenny a town I feel attracted to. It must be the name of a brand of the beer I quite like. But to our disappointment, they do not even serve Kilkenny's in all the Kilkenny bars or have just run out of it (even worth).
What else: The Shannon River, what a name. A life long I wanted to come to see it, feel it. Such was the mystery surrounding it. So it is River Shannon where we are headed for on the 11th of December. From Kilkenny to Nenagh, we cross Tipperary county probably the worst, most desolate place in Ireland. It says the county of Tipperarry is one of the the richest in Ireland. It seems that is because they take the least care of the environment/exploited their farm-land as much as possible. The land is simply not taken care of with rubbish littering most road sides. It seems there isn't a square inch that is not farmland. And for the first time the whole McMansions tragedy becomes all too clear.
Reaching the Shannon does not change anything. Firstly it is hard to get a glimpse of the river. Secondly it is harder to actually get to its shores as most bordering land is farm land and fenced off. We follow the river up-stream, try to stay as close to it as possible, often follow a road that may lead to it but rarely get to see the river itself.
We drive north for hundreds of kilometres, a frustratingly cruel task. The following day, we search for the source of the Shannon, the pan where the biggest river in Great Britain and Ireland has its origins. We expect this country to be of some specialty or beautifulness. Admittedly some land up here is not farmland. But most is and the McMansions are unbeatable in style, trying to imitate Southfork Ranch in the TV series Dallas. The land is destroyed. Peasants-capitalism, a wrong understanding of laissez-faire combined with pride and selfishness, all has contributed to the current state of the country.
That day we continue our journey to Dublin where we would stay for 3 days. After the disappointments of the last two days it takes us some time to cool down and not perceive everything Irish as bad.
Sitting at breakfast one of the following mornings, listening to some woman on a Dublin radio-show, citing the Guardian article, which I have not heard of until then, she adds that Mark Lynas, the author, must have exaggerated, probably just citing his private view. And I want to shout, cry it out: "NO, leave Dublin, travel your country see it for yourself!"
We are struggling to take Dublin by itself, large is the impact tourism has, the sole purpose being to cater to drinking hordes who come here to enjoy their pre-Christmas binges.
Only after a while, we learn our way round, to escape, and find the presumably old Dublin. And we manage in the end, in the very end, to succeed in inhaling the "laid-back atmosphere" in The Stags Head, an old, stylish Dublin pub and enjoy the best Guinness in the world.
One fine brew - but I have never understood why there is just one beer in Ireland with a make of any significance.
And, we have a couple of Jameson Irish Whiskys. We have held back for a long time. In the end we simply have to have it.