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.
Norman maintains an unpatronising, non-folksy informative patter. He’s as likely to mention modern wonders such as the “highly educated young people” streaming out of UCC and the huge Apple plant (quite a reaction to that) with its 4,000 employees as the height of the Pugin- designed Cobh cathedral.
There’s a 10-minute gallop through the English Market in Cork – “not very interesting”, says Howard Chatterton from Ontario. But near the entrance, Jane Ogilvie, a traditional musician from Newfoundland (“all they play in St John’s is Irish-Newfoundland music”) is drawn to a red-haired busker expertly playing a beautiful old concertina, and they have a chat.
Jane’s husband died three years ago and her grown-up children are on the holiday, but she has opted to take this leg alone, striking out without her beloved spouse for the first time. We stroll into Cobh Heritage Centre, past the statue of Annie Moore – the first emigrant to be processed in Ellis Island – with her little brothers. Between Annie, the coffin ships, the convict ships, the Irish wakes, the Titanic, the Lusitania, the sound effects of killer waves, panic and impending apocalyptic doom, I feel the need of a thoughtful scone. Jane obligingly follows and we talk about travelling alone.
“I wondered how I would do but I’m fine,” she says. “I can be with people or not with people. I can talk or not talk. I know now I can do it. And I love the idea of trains. My honeymoon was on a train. You’re not strapped in and you see the world go by through the big windows.”
Back on the train with my graveyard companion, Patrick Hickey; his wife, Julia Esperanza; and their 29-year-old daughter, Julia Eveleen, who lives in Zurich, we discuss their energetic, three-week rail odyssey across Europe. Ireland, says the very fit Julia snr, “is like our trip’s grand finale, and we kinda wanted to be babysat in the end.”
In Killarney there’s a scattering. Most are going to B&Bs, some to hotels. It’s part of the trip’s charm that we are not being processed like sausages in one generic hotel. I wander down the town to Quinlan’s, a proper, diner-style fish-and-chipper recommended by a receptionist in the snazzy old Malton Hotel. Coincidence and crowding have the Ryans from Kansas City and I sharing a table. Over the sole special, he produces a well-thumbed sheet of paper, typed on an ancient typewriter. It’s a thin summary of his Irish ancestry: “James Ryan was born in the city of Pallas Green in 1810. He married Joanna Hayes in 1840.” He just wants to go and stand there, he says. I google the local priests while gently breaking the news that Pallas Grean isn’t quite what we would call a city. We all end up a bit tearful. And Quinlan’s, being a class of chipper, doesn’t sell alcohol.
In our group, there’s a knowing, indulgent attitude towards the business of leprechauns and the little people. Jane is in a pub where a smile at a barman – “an older gent, not many teeth”, as she puts it – elicits the startling response that “smiling will do you no good. I’m a married man.” Still, he winks at her a lot. She reckons he’s a leprechaun descendant. Julia Eveleen welcomes all-comers: “Bring on the leprechauns. I’ll take all the charm and superstition you have to offer.”
We’re on the road at a civilised 10.30am, and Norman announces this will be his 49th trip around the Ring. Today is a very different kettle of tourists. They love Killarney. There is chat and laughter. The first stop is the Kerry Bog Village, where the hospitable John Mulvihill has united the lure of the Red Fox Inn – “world famous Irish coffee” – with a cluster of original thatched buildings, little bog ponies and wolfhounds. The fun bit is watching Domnick lure our people out with their Irish coffees for pictures. They all know it’s a bit touristy, but they play along, and they really like those Irish coffees. Me too. It’s only 11.15am.
The next stop takes in sheep and dogs and is my last. I’m thinking of giving it a miss. Sheep? Dogs? I know them. Then again, the ones I know don’t come with a backdrop of Dingle Bay or with the very cool Brendan Ferris, who’s been whistling his dogs to round up the sheep for 22 tourist seasons and still comes across like a proper, unfolksy shepherd.
It may be the balmy weather, the angel flutter of an Atlantic breeze, the shimmering bay, the sheepish sheep and Brendan’s rapport with his charming little border collies but all together they produce 30 minutes of magic. My fellow tourists are entranced. Julia Eveleen loves it: “Completely authentic and natural.” Days later, Jane Ogilvie says she can’t get them out of her mind. Mary Sarsfield from Ottawa says she has imagined herself “on the trainer’s doorstep with my dog in tow, hoping for a miraculous transformation”.
I leave with regret. Some will be heading on to further highlights such as Bunratty Castle and Kylemore Abbey. The hearts of Jeff and Kathleen Maguire, Mary Sarsfield and Julia Esperanza will transfer to Connemara and the Aran Islands.
They say they like the Irish a lot and there’s no reason to doubt them. They are into the banter and later report random charmers like the 10-year-old boys on a Belfast school tour, recalled by Julia Eveleen. “They started up conversation with my family as smooth as if they were playboys in a pub: ‘Are you watching the World Cup? Where are you from? I’ve been here/there’.” Her mother says if she were young again, she “might want to marry an Irish man”. (We think she has one already.) Patrick’s final comment? “There seem to be fewer assholes in Ireland than in America.” From the droll, reflective Patrick Hickey, we’ll take the praise.
Kathy Sheridan was a guest of Railtoursireland.com
WHISTLE-STOP TOUR: HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Ate: In Killarney, sea-fresh sole, perfect chips and a decent salad in Quinlan’s chipper/diner.
Saw: Miles of green, well-maintained, sunny Ireland by train, the Blarney Stone, Cobh Heritage Centre, the Ring of Kerry and lots in between.
Loved: Brendan Norris and his border collies, rounding up sheep above sublime Dingle Bay.
Hated: Hate is a strong word for a tourist attraction. Let’s say I didn’t kiss the Blarney Stone.
Would I do it again? Parts of it. Trains are a great way to travel. Norman and I gazed upon the disused old line along Dingle Bay and almost wept.