Ireland – Four Nights in the Republic – September 2018

September 19, 2018

Another early start and befuddlement as the alarm goes off at 4.15am. Ryanair’s flight to Dublin sets sail at 6.30am and we need to get our skates on. On arrival we found Leeds Bradford Airport (40 minutes drive at this ungodly hour) was gridlocked as other airlines also had Stupid O’Clock flights to Greece and France departing. Getting through Security involved patient queuing with hundreds of others. The present Mrs Ives was in meltdown about them shutting the Gate and our missing the flight. She had to dawdle in a long security queue, however, we got to the Gate  20 minutes before the flight took off.

The flight to Dublin was attracting weekend revellers. In my adjoining seat was a chap leading a stag weekend. It had started the night before with 5 pints at the Saltaire Beer Festival. Add to this only 4 hours sleep and he wasn’t in great condition for his first Dublin drink at around 9am (followed by karting at a nearby track). He’d never been karting before and so looking at images of the outdoor track on his phone we discussed how to cope with wet asphalt, late braking and other tactics.

Behind three women of around 30 years old were making a bewildering din as they howled and shrieked about nothing much at all. Again, another celebratory outing I expect. In fact as much as I loathe turbulence it did have the effect of making them all shut up as the plane bucked in the wet and cloudy skies. On landing the empty headed babbling resumed and their conversation turned to posting pre-drink Facebook selfies to their friends (no doubt sorry that Dublin bars were going to be deprived of their talents and money).

Passing through Passport Control was quick but memorable. The officer checked my details, looked up, smiled and waved me through saying “Thank you Anthony, have a good day”.  Just the way he did it was so open and welcoming. “Well done Ireland” I thought as I strode off toward Baggage Reclaim.

Car collection was routine albeit the Europecar website boasts all cars are 6 months old or less. Ours was two years old and had lots of dents and scratches. The collection procedure included a piece of paper with the car outline for you to mark up the blemishes with an operative: but they seemed to have no interest in completing this. When asked our handler just said “email the images to us”. If this wasn’t unsatisfactory then our first car had an oil warning message flash up before we swapped it for another car.

Leaving the airport and finding the motorway for the west coast was easy and in the drizzle we reached Athlone, equidistant from the west and east, quite quickly. Athlone was a ramshackle town on the Shannon River.

We weaved through it and then sped on to Galway. In fact many roads during our Irish drive were in excellent condition. I’m sure their recent construction with European Union money added to their quality. In fact this is a good use of EU money and in the smaller emerging nations then you can see large transformational transportation infrastructure investment.

Galway was just very sad and wet. The rain thumped down and ambling around the town with the Saturday shoppers wasn’t much fun. As with all the larger Irish towns then there was the serious parts that contained residential housing, industrial estates and the generally mundane. In the centre were the touristy restaurants, bars and endless souvenir shops.

Where else in the world would you have a man in the street with this type of sign? How many passers by were needing repairs to their musical instruments! That being said there were buskers ruining guitars in the rain bashing out Springsteen covers to the rhythm of an Irish jig.

We mooched around Galway, got sodden, and then headed for the suburbs to find our hotel. Here we dried, chilled and then got back in the car to drive west and discover the Connemara headland. It was flat, grey and raining lightly but interesting with its numerous small lakes and rocky outcrops that rendered agriculture impossible. We eventually circled around until we got to Oughterard.

The town had little or space to park but eventually we did find a slot and looked for a restaurant. It seems that Irish families all come out on Saturday night and the most popular venue, according to Tripadvisor, hardly offered standing room let alone a table. We ended up in Hallorans and ate like royalty: tremendous seafood and some treacle bread that will live long in the memory.

On the drive there we noted that all the buildings had their signage in Irish. Often it didn’t include the same information in English. I was quite impressed and asked our young waitress about the use of the language. She said that it was taught at school but that no one spoke it and, frankly, most folk had the knowledge of a few words but after that it stopped. She, personally, had attended some annual weekends away where the attendees spoke it to polish up their skills. In my opinion, in the face of the ubiquitous ‘English’ then it stands little chance of being ever more than a need for additional signage. (In fairness when we were in the Wicklow Mountains we did hear a couple of teachers talking to their young students in Gaelic).

It’s worth adding that at the next table in the restaurants were North American tourists. This followed a pattern of coming across more tourists from this part of the world than the UK or Europe all together.

Next morning after the first of several cooked breakfasts, in heavy drizzle we left our Galway hotel and headed south. The road network was excellent but we were now heading onto a tourist route and long coaches full of North Americans and Australians blocked our path. We also came across to a few cars struggling with junctions – I put this down to the manual gearboxes (stick shift) of rental cars and the novelty/difficulty of these to drivers from across the pond!

We stopped to photograph Galway Bay and the sun appeared to illuminate the sea and the rocky coastline.

Eventually after following a track that involved several traffic jams due to coaches we came to the Cliffs of Moher. There is a visitor centre with a cafeteria, souvenir shops and several paths and viewing stations onto the rocky cliffs. We were disappointed in that the cliffs were not overly spectacular and I think the importance of this feature is that it enables the coaches to break a long drive to ‘feed and water’ their passengers as they head south. I counted 25 coaches parked up. The car park cost €8, which was quite outrageous really.

The Stars And Stripes flew everywhere on the west coast as did the current flag of the latest colonial power, the European Union. Occasionally you’d see a Canadian Maple Leaf. The British visit the Republic (overall and not maybe the west coast?) the most with just over a third of the total numbers. North American visitors make up about a quarter. Whilst never expecting to see a Union Jack flying in Ireland (again) I did feel sorry for Australians and New Zealanders who’s only chance of getting their flag flown is to extract the Union Jack from the corner.

Despite my haughty disapproval of all these selling shops selling Irish souvenirs (probably made in China, Bangladesh and Indonesia) we, of course, bought an overpriced fridge magnet for our Favourite Eldest daughter who likes this type of tat.

From here we followed the coast south and faced a long detour through the city of Limerick to reach the south west. As a consequence we chose to detour and cross the Shannon by a ferry near Killimer. Our timing was perfection as we were waved on board just before it sailed. Anna struck up a conversation with a man who was a local. The Irish accent was so thick we truly struggled to know what he was saying. (I think we nodded and smiled at the right points in the conversation).

From here we trundled into Tralee for some lunch. In fact despite passing en route too many cafes to count we found most closed on the Sunday. After some vegetable soup and a chat with the owner about the merits of a drive around the Ring Of Kerry we set off to complete the circuit.

Anna and I are avid followers of England’s cricket team. A real boon of modern technology is the ability to play a mobile/cell phone via Bluetooth through the car audio system. So we found the commentary on a UK internet radio station of the 5th Test between England and India being played at The Oval in London. One further Irish discovery was the popularity of Gaelic Football (GAA). This variant on rugby is enormously popular and widely played throughout the Republic. There were a number of grass pitch stadiums and considerable roadside decoration with flags supporting various men and women teams in upcoming games. I knew it was played but not supported as passionately.

The Ring Of Kerry is a world famous drive. The northern road was quite unspectacular with traffic heading to and from their homes. There was an attractive coast and some distant valleys but nothing special. All that changed when we got to the southern route. Simply gorgeous with mountains, valleys, coastline and sheep… We came around a corner to find a car parked at a jaunty angle in the middle of the road. With our arrival they wound up the windows after waving goodbye to each of the three sheep (I jest ye not) grazing on the verge and drove on. I worry that they have friends who will want to see the selfies of themselves with Irish sheep.

The road fell and rose and at its height we were in quite an exposed landscape looking down on sensational lakes. Eventually we descended and wound our way into Killarney. Our hotel was quite a large affair. Another quick turnaround was needed to get some food and a Guinness. The present Mrs Ives was temporarily contemplating the 27 minute walk (thank you, Google Maps) to the centre of the town. In my usual collaborative way I thought this might be something she’d enjoy and promised to meet her there as I was driving into the town!

Killarney is, I would suggest, the central point, on Ireland’s west coast for North American tourism. The town was so busy with American and Canadian tourists that you could be forgiven if you thought you were in the Ireland zone of Orlando’s Disney Epcot Theme Park. Maybe a giveaway that you weren’t was the gloomy and chilly evening. In bars there were US dollars pinned to the wall or US Police shield badges and my favourite (not) American Football being beamed onto the TV’s on the walls. There is nothing wrong with this at all, and everyone appeared to be having a splendid time, but it was quite a shock to experience this concentration. A barman said that the attraction was of course the connection many had in terms of their ancestors. I also expect scenery as well as the golf courses were a draw. 

It has to be said that throughout our trip the service was always friendly, attentive, given always by young Irish women and men; helpful to the extreme. This must reflect favourably when visitors talk of a trip to Ireland compared to, say, London where the service is more likely to come from a Spaniard, Romanian or Pole who despite their diligence and engagement do not have English as their first language and neither are they steeped or have knowledge of the tradition of the region they work in.

Eventually I got my first pint of Guinness and we found a bar playing traditional Irish music. Oh how I especially enjoyed the traditional rebel folk songs about their heroic struggle with the British (cough).

After a leisurely start we hung around the Ring Of Kerry before continuing south. Again the scenery was inspiring and magnificent. I pined to be on a bike pushing up some of these inclines and watched with envy as cycle tourers passed leaning into the wind no doubt contemplating a coffee and large cake over the next steep hill.

The above image is from Torc Waterfall (just outside Killarney) in the National Park. The trail up and around it is in delightful woodland and helps you get those early morning steps accumulated!

Being organised and finding major outlets in Killarney we’d bought some food for a picnic but predictably when we got to Bantry we found a superb café selling fresh salads, delicious coffee and cakes to die for (see Organico below). In fact Bantry actually was the type of small town that I had expected to find on our trip.

Throughout our drive we saw little in the way of monuments, museums or tours commemorating the struggle and eviction of the British in the early 20th Century. The above is one of the few we came across. There certainly were more monuments and signs covering the famine.  

The Irish Free State was created in late 1922. This transferred Ireland from a Colony to a Dominion of the British Empire, like Canada at the time. (Six counties in the north did not secede to become part of the Free State and as ‘Northern Ireland’ they continued to be part of the United Kingdom).

Factions objected to the acceptance of this halfway house with the British Government via the Anglo-Irish Treaty and a civil war between Nationalists and Republicans started. The death toll is estimated at c2,500 with the Free State Nationalist winning. The deaths included executions by the Free State of rebels. Ireland became fully independent in 1949 but to all intents and purposes the creation of the Free State liberated Ireland from the British. Ireland was neutral during WW2.

Bantry’s history centred on its maritime tradition of either fishing, being a base for the British Atlantic Fleet in WW1 or having jobs at a nearby oil container installation until it closed and then reopened with a fraction of the headcount Throughout this they had experienced the English, famine, major emigration and now a more certain future as a tourist spot. It was a little off the beaten track and not, in anyway, polished. Much of it looked like something from the 1950’s in term of shops and architecture. It was linked by a very wide A road. In fact all the route from now on was on easy to navigate pavements.

We wended around the coast and detoured to the Drombeg Stone Circle. This set of large stones is in a field that looks out toward the coast. The explanation for their location is to do with a memorial for the dearly departed. Nearby were some other layouts with stones that were practical points of shelter for cooking. 

We were now off the west coast and on the south coast. This was not spectacular but still attractive and, dare I say it, we were heading away from the more detached tourist communities to where the population lived. The population of Ireland is around 4.8 million and over half live around 5 towns. This statistic is not unusual for any country but when you have so few large towns it appears more concentrated. Dublin and its surrounding areas nearly accounts for 40% of the population. The landscape flattened.

The night’s stop was Cork. Our hotel was again on the outskirts and we checked into a smoky room that Anna objected to and we were happily swapped to something less odorous. Prior to coming to Ireland I’d been to Dublin several times before, as well as Belfast, on business. My company and team sold a lot of kitchen furniture in the Province and Republic. Two lasting impressions remain: One was the fact that the Province seemed in a time warp compared to the Republic in behaving and looking like a modern European country. The Province somehow enjoyed its divisions and was very restrictive to do business in. It really was a step back in time and was completely different to the rest of the UK. I haven’t been for many years and maybe the North is now different. The second thing was how unattractive the large towns were across all Ireland. They were lacking redevelopment and looked like Northern English towns in the 1970s. 

Despite all the EU largesse then Cork city centre was such a disappointing vision. Often grubby, sectors in needs of a makeover and unappealing. Of course, some parts of the city near the river that flows through it were more attractive and I noticed that the new high building structures being erected was for the ubiquitous student accommodation (also taking over every university town in the UK). Cork is flourishing economically and I expect there are prosperous suburbs keeping the Mercedes and BMW dealerships busy.

The pub wall with three Irish legends painted on it: two played electric guitar and the other played bass and had the voice of an angel. Two were also in the same band at one point. The other was so revered that the Republic has just minted a €15 coin to commemorate his life and work. Answers on a postcard (…not you Jessney).

However for all this we experienced a western society blight of beggars approaching us. I’m not overly judgemental, as who usually does this unless they are in considerable distress (?), but it does illustrate that for all the historic authenticity, beauty and delight of the tourist areas then the familiar urban challenges can be found.

So why is Cork prosperous? Ireland has a €64 billion pharmaceutical business (tourism is less than €5 billion p.a.). A young well educated workforce self perpetuates the pharmaceutical presence and the support of universities specialising in science helps, not least by being a magnet for international talent. Ireland is one of the largest pharmaceutical and biotech locations in the world with over 300 international companies located across the Republic employing around 40,000 people. In addition to this then their presence creates other jobs in construction, services etc.

Apple has an office on the outskirts of Cork employing 5,500 people. Microsoft, Google and Facebook employ thousands in Dublin. Modern relatively ‘future proof’ technologies appear to be well established on the island.

The reason for this is historic and allied to low corporate tax rates. Ireland has a rate of 12.5%. By comparison the USA has a top rate of 35%. For highly profitable industries then the attraction is obvious. Whilst this low level is controversial given Ireland’s EU member status (France and Germany are just under 30%) the real debate is on the use of Ireland as an accounting/tax centre for international companies’ revenues achieved outside Ireland.

In 2017 Apple had revenues in the UK of £1.2 billion yet paid corporation tax of £10 million there.

I can’t pretend I understand all the complex machinations (intellectual concessions, other off shore subsidiaries owning various part of the taxable entity etc), which make up this tax avoidance. The continued investment by the multi nationals in Ireland suggests no future problems from a pending crackdown. The concentration of expertise and plant alone means that Ireland is probably unshakeably established. However, some of this prosperity is built on foundations, which make even the most staunch capitalist hold his nose. Trump in his prospecting around for their offshore money has these multi nationals in his sights. However, ultimately the cash reserves of these companies and political clout is such that they can buy their way out of any inconvenient legislation.

The next morning we proceeded down the exceedingly picturesque coastline after stopping for breakfast in Midleton. From here we drove slowly to Waterford for lunch. 

Note the Gaelic football sign

One of several thatched cottages found on our circuit.

Our ‘Chariot Of Eire’

I’d been to the outskirts of the town about 40 years ago. I was responsible for buying electrical wiring for Ford Motor Company (Tractor Operations) in Essex, UK. A German company had opened a plant here, no doubt enjoying various grants and tax concessions (!) to do so. Despite my visit we never pursued our interest and I note the plant closed 20 years later to relocate to a cheaper central European country. I must have made a hundred of ‘vendor appraisal’ visits around Europe at the time, yet this sticks in my mind for several reasons. The first was how long it took to drive from Dublin on small windy roads that drove through every town in between, the presence of Japanese Hino trucks that appear to have disappeared as a brand off the island and also tribulations with shaving! 

The morning after a stay in a hotel I discovered there was no shaving socket in my bathroom. I went to Reception hoping they might have an adaptor or similar. “Follow me” the receptionist said. Dutifully we proceeded back up to the bedrooms and she unlocked a door and we strode through to the bathroom. As we’re bowling through a man (previously) asleep in a bed shot bolt upright! “Don’t worry about him” she advised. There was a shaving socket in the bathroom. I had my shave and sheepishly departed to leave him to his slumbers. 

Like Cork I can’t find anything very positive to say about the town apart from these murals and a tasty Chicken Caesar bagel. Oh and I nearly forgot, you can take the girl out of Yorkshire but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the girl. Anna found a Uniqlo branded down filled coat in a charity (thrift) shop for €5.

Some gentrification near the estuary close to a Viking Centre.

Arriving at out B&B just outside Wexford we couldn’t find anyone to let us in. I wondered around the back to find someone to note that a kitchen door was open with a radio playing with two friendly dogs seeking a pat. As I was exploring some barns a young chap strolls past wearing headphones. He sees me and eventually another man (the owner) arrives and explains he’s been mowing the grass at a local golf course and lets us in.

We settle in and note the testimonials in the book near the front door. This is not untypical.

Later other guests (American golfers) arrive and we shoot the breeze (as they say!)

Dinner in the town is more sensational seafood at a bright and popular restaurant. It’s here that we hear of the Wexford Festival Opera event in October and November every year. Wexford has a working harbour with attractive shopping precincts but opera? Various discussions with a waitress, a chap in the pub and Betty, our B&B hostess reveal that the visitors are a ‘tough crowd’ to keep happy, that the music is quite Avant garde and not just the ‘hits’, that the whole event is high brow and the same ‘tough crowd’ come every year. Betty reserves her rooms for the same attendees most years.

I mention the pub. This was my last opportunity to drink some more Guinness before the flight to Blighty and I didn’t pass up the opportunity. We struck up a conversation with a chap who carved bog oak sculptures and panels. The parley became a little surreal as he slagged off the arts community in the town suggesting that he was treated as an outsider despite his own enormous gifts, that he had 4 tons of wood of bog oak at home for future use and that despite having sold several pieces in the USA he didn’t like letting go of his creations despite receiving money for it! Complicated supplementary questions like how he made a living were not broached or the intriguing ones that might have followed when he declared that he was separated from his wife (lucky girl) but still living in the same house (that resembled a timber yard).

(Bog oak is timber that has been retrieved from the boggy ground after centuries. It is enormously dark, hard (petrified) and even if random trunks are sanded they are very attractive).

Anna assumed the role of Marketing consultant and suggested ways for him to more actively promote his work. Shortly after the start of this free ‘consultation’ he made his polite excuses escaped the pub to have a smoke and make a call.

Lastly, the bearded young man who stood opposite the pub delivering a long shouty sermon on the good works of the Lord to occupants of the chairs outside the pub (smokers) had completed his work and left when we emerged. (This may work better than nicotine patches for stopping your relationship with the dreaded weed).

So back to the B&B and our splendid accommodation. This is the only time we’ve had Lladro figurines in our rented room.

The final day was mainly about finding our way back to Dublin Airport via the Wicklow Mountains just south of the city. They were scenic and we joined bus loads of elderly French nationals and school children walking up to a couple of lakes at the National Park at Glendalough. They were lovely and the whole park reminded us of Canada around Banff.

Sustenance was found at a café in the grounds of the elegant 18th Century Russelborough House as we sped toward the loving arms of Ryanair. The ring road led us around Dublin city and disposal of the rental car and return flight were trouble free.

In summary a few thoughts:

Firstly, there was no visit to Dublin and that was deliberate. That can be done easily on another visit but it never held the same interest to me than the west coast. Maybe, we should complete that one day but you’ll note my comments about the big towns.

Ireland is very accessible and hassle free. It is set up for tourism and despite our driving just under 900 miles there was always something to see from the car or stop and investigate. The people are truly delightful. Sincere, engaged, naturally inclined to talk and always welcoming. Prices were not cheap, but there again never eye watering. All Euro zone nations are not inexpensive and this was typical. Most of the food was well prepared and appetising wherever you might stop – the Irish can cook!

The history is not that evident. You’d have to do prior research tour if that was an attraction of your visiting. The journey of the Republic over the last 150 years is a dramatic story. As regards that journey then the route has not been completed in my opinion. The economic growth has been turbulent and may yet have vulnerability. In addition the future of Northern Ireland is still uncertain as demographics and the world changes.

The island looks prosperous from the scattered residential properties on the west coast to the levels of employment. Membership of the EU makes sense to smaller nations and you can see that Ireland has benefitted from the subsidies and membership.

Lastly, the similarities between the UK and Ireland are tangible and evident. Our shared history and mingling of people makes this inevitable. The food, architecture, landscape (similar to the Scottish Highlands or the Welsh coast line), common language, attitudes, institutions of State, love of the same sports and shared culture, affection for North America and other Commonwealth countries are literally identical. This was also volunteered to me during a conversation and whilst I concurred then I wasn’t the first to make this observation!

Now for that trip to the Province.

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