An American verdict: ‘There seem to be fewer assholes in Ireland’
The Trip: ‘Bring on the leprechauns,’ says one of our group of North Americans mischievously as I join them for a tour of Cork and Kerry. They like it here, but they aren’t as wide-eyed about Ireland as we sometimes like to think
Ericka Zagorski and Jane Davis from the US enjoy a day on the Ring of Kerry. Photograph: Domnick Walsh
Kathy Sheridan with Julia Eveleen Hickey and her mother, Julia Esperanza
Jane Ogilvie from Newfoundland, Canada, at the Kerry Bog Village, where she enjoyed Irish music played by locals Ciara McGillcuddy and Niamh O’Connor. Photograph: Domnick Walsh
Julia Eveleen Hickey with father, Patrick Hickey and her mother, Julia Esparanza Hickey, from California, at the Kerry Bog Village. Photograph: Domnick Walsh
You know those tour groups – the ones chattering and laughing loudly and taking over the pavement? Well, that’s not us. Our reserved carriage on the 7am to Cork is as silent as the grave. In fairness, the civilian passengers are not exactly en fête either. But when we board the blinding yellow Railtours bus at Kent Station, and Norman the tour guide has to call twice for a ghost of a “good morning” greeting for Tom the driver, I text our photographer in Killarney. Gird your loins, Domnick, this could be a tricky one.
I had this billed as a random trip. Me as a proper tourist. Big ebullient group, probably from the same Kansas City suburb. Chats. Laughs. Irish coffees. Good times. In my head.
Hours later, near Cobh, we are on a gentle wander through Old Church Cemetery with 400-year-old tombstones and the mass graves of drowning victims from the Lusitania, a passenger liner torpedoed in 1915 by a German U-boat. That’s when Californian Patrick Hickey quietly mentions his military service as a pilot in Nuremberg and a grand-uncle and son who were killed by British soldiers on a Dublin street. It’s around now that I realise the foreboding and stereotyping were all mine.
What we have is an intriguing mix of about 20 pleasant, appreciative, outspoken, reserved, reflective, wryly funny people. People recovering from serious illness, people who have saved for years or used a small legacy to see this country with its storied beauty, or from where ancestors set sail. Chicagoan Ericka Zagorski has no Irish blood. And crucially, they are not a “group” but a scattering of self-contained, little family units and individuals from California to Newfoundland, on a rail tour trip for anything from a few days to few weeks.
Our first, lengthy stop is somewhere I had long sworn never to visit: the home of the Blarney Stone. It’s about 10am and a duo is belting out The Holy Ground on a stage near the castle entrance. Without us, it must be a fine, romantic, atmospheric, 600-year-old ruin. As it is, two underwhelmed New Jersey women are eyeing the castle’s genuinely imposing north face: “Wonder where the legend comes from?” “Ah dunno, Tilly. Some leprechauns, prolly”.
The way to the stone is via a slow, faltering queue, up 100 narrow, winding, well-worn steps. A perky woman from Buffalo in New York State asks me what’s the difference between blarney and baloney. I’m considering leaving the roof the quick way when I spot the answer right there on the wall: “Blarney is the varnished truth. Baloney is the unvarnished lie.” Muriel delightedly takes a picture of me and the wall.
Meanwhile, a permanently smiling Canadian is counting out every step for her companion, who has limited vision and mobility but manages the feat of lowering himself and achieving a yoga-like back-bend to kiss the blasted stone. Unlike me. “Hygiene” is my excuse. Above us, a static camera records each ungainly kiss, the photos available for purchase downstairs.
On the more challenging way down, one of our group glances back at her husband. “He’s going to have a heart attack,” she whispers. I titter. “No, I’m serious. He shouldn’t be doing this but [sigh] he’s Irish. Well, sort of.”
Certificates of eloquence
Armed with certificates of eloquence, photographs and a light lunch, we get back in the bus. I suspect it won’t feature among many of their highlights.