There are many reasons for the vacations we take—the kinds and the places. For me, the constants are a good place to sleep and lots of fresh air, in an inspiring landscape. My kids promise that I’ll find that when we take a family vacation at the Cape this summer, and I can’t wait for those aspects and everything else that our time together (all eight of us, spouses and grandkids included) will bring.
In the meantime, however, I took a shorter break but farther away—in Ireland, where I used to live.
I booked a room with a view north of Dublin—looking out to the Irish Sea, with Howth Head (memorably visited in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”) off to one side and the islands known as Ireland’s Eye and Lambay, farther north, straight ahead, all just beyond the broad, dune-bordered five-mile strand (Portmarnock beach) edging the water.
Decades ago, when my husband and I lived in Dublin, I loved this stretch of seacoast, which was the site of some early aviation experiences (including the touch-off point for the first solo east to west crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, in 1932, by James Mollison), and its appeal still holds. Easy access to the beach is from the grounds of the old Jameson (of whiskey fame) estate—house and grounds are now the core of the Portmarnock Hotel and Country Club, voted in 2009 the top course in the country.
My dad, who was an avid golfer, taught me many things in life, including how to play golf, but I only got hooked on the long walks, not the game itself. “So why stay at a golf course?” my son asked me upon my return. It’s got “everything else,” I told him.
I didn’t even unpack before heading out along the dunes and onto the strand. I set out under the mid-afternoon sun and swept by wind and shower, and when the clouds burst I knew there would be a rainbow.
Over the next few days, I headed north, to Carlingford, just shy of the border of Northern Ireland—for oysters, which are farmed in Carlingford Lough (above). It’s what the town is known for, other than its three castles (one below). I’m a recent convert to the slippery mollusks, and The Carlingford Oyster Company says to chew them, rather than just swallow them whole—how else would you know what they taste like!
Another time I crossed the Boyne Bridge over the Boyne River (above) and into the Boyne Valley (with a long-distance a nod to New Milford’s new police chief, Shawn Boyne) to see again what is said to be Ireland’s most important prehistoric site—Newgrange, a Neolithic era megalithic passage grave that is older than the pyramids of Egypt and the Stonehenge circle in England. When we were living in Ireland, my mother paid us a visit—“to see how you’re living”—and I took her there, expecting her to be impressed. “That’s a tomb, isn’t it?” she said, and refused to go in. A UNESCO world heritage site, it was surely worth a return visit, and the pelting rain (notice the raindrops dripping from the fence post) was a boon, seeming to deter hordes of visitors and to blur the distraction of an appealing landscape.
Afterward, thanks to an obliging driver, I headed south to another site of some historical significance—the County Kildare farm where 18th-century patriot Wolfe Tone was said to have lived, hiding out from the country’s British oppressors. Once his uncle’s place, it now belongs to friends of mine, who cherish the land.
As I do, cherishing both dear friends gone and present and the country that is theirs. I have to inhale it—anywhere, but most especially in the west, and the wilder spot the better.
I originally went to Ireland, drawn by its literature, to pursue a postgraduate degree in Anglo-Irish studies (a nine-month plan that ended up being a nearly four-year sojourn, with further postgrad studies and also getting a toehold in the book publishing industry). The country soon became a bigger university, making me see things afresh, or differently, and bring the lessons back home.
The weekend before I went on vacation, I interviewed David Monagan, an American author (most recently, of “Ireland Unhinged: Encounters with a Wildly Changing Country”), who moved with his family from the Northwest Corner here in Connecticut and laid new roots in the south of Ireland. As it turns out, we had been kicking around Dublin at the same time as students.
As we got to talking, we shared the experience that once bitten by “whatever” is Ireland, never forgotten, which does not mean caught up in some nostalgic attachment. The reality is more essential.
The country arose out of a historically straitened economy to a decade and a half of a seemingly miraculous boom period beginning in the early 1990s, and then the bubble burst.
“Unhinged it is,” said Mr. Monagan, adding that “the greedy—banks, developers, private and business investors—like petulant children ruined anything they put their hands on.”
“The country has known depression and real hardship before,” he said, and when the miracle of its prosperity arrived, its traditional values quickly became adrift.
Now, “it can’t afford much of anything,” as he said in the March 11 story that appeared in The Litchfield County Times (also online at http://www.litchfieldcountytimes.com/ and http://www.housatonictimes.com/). “But there is a sense of human and song of life still here,” he said, speaking long-distance from Cork. “I may find that I live out the rest of my life here, and I know it won’t be easy but it will still be rewarding in many ways.”
Mr. Monagan went forward, as I do, to meet Ireland on its own terms. And how I do agree with him, as he said in the last words of his new book: “What one loves about Ireland is that it talks as readily as it breathes.”