Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Travel Matters - Irish Inspiration

I have just discovered my Irish connection, so I thought it timely to post a travel story on Ireland I wrote back in 2001.
But first, the family history. My great-great grandfather, Charles Ainsworth was a 20-year-old woodcutter from Oxford, England who was transported in 1840 to Hobart Town, Tasmania for nicking some tools.
After serving a 10-year sentence, he married an 18-year-old Irish lass, Ann Carroll, who just the year before was transported to the penal colony as a dependant of her Irish convict mother, Ann Birnes, a widow whose crime was stealing sheep and potatoes to feed her children.
Together Charles and Ann ran the Man of Ross Hotel in Liverpool Street, Hobart Town and had four children.
I am inspired to know that the young couple overcame their harsh treatment to make a success of their lives. And I am thrilled to confirm what I’ve always suspected; that I have feisty Irish blood running through my veins!

This is my Love Letter to Ireland, which was published in the Sunshine Coast Sunday on August 12, 2001. I hope you enjoy a little trip to the delightful Emerald Isle.

Lost Aussie finds herself at home amid the charm and beauty of the Irish, to be sure, to be sure
When I first set foot on Irish soil, it felt like a homecoming. It stirred me Irish blood. It did me heart good. In a flash, some lost part of me was reclaimed.
We hit a pub in Dublin’s Temple Bar, ordered our first half pint of Guinness (not being big drinkers!) and Shepherds Pie and a mountain of chips. The raunchy music of the Pogues was pumping and the crowd was wild and rowdy. It was a bustling Saturday afternoon in the city and the excitement was so great for this Aussie gal I could barely contain myself.
I am 44 and embarrassed to admit it has taken me this long to re-connect with my heritage. My husband Andrew and I set off without our teenage kids for this overdue and craved-for trip. Yet we can’t blame ourselves too much for our tardiness in discovering our homeland.
Like most Australians we are victims of a great conspiracy to keep us
exiled on our far flung island. It’s a conspiracy of economics. For what hard working middle-income Aussie family can afford the exorbitant cost of overseas travel exacerbated by the crushing exchange rate of the sad little Aussie dollar, which is worth roughly one third of your Irish currency? If it’s a choice between feeding the family and an extravagant OS holiday, well, the realities of life take precedence. We devoted two decades to raising kids and being slaves to a mortgage and careers before we could splurge 20,000 bucks on a six-week jaunt through Europe, England and Ireland.

Condemned to the Tyranny of Distance
And Australians are also encouraged to stay home on our remote shores by the tyranny of distance, that poignantly accurate phrase made famous by historian Geoffrey Blainey. We are not condemned to sail dangerous seas in squalid ships anymore. We enjoy the creature comforts of modern air travel; those cute little eye shades, rich food and in-flight movies. However 24 hours on a flight does play havoc with one’s body clock and is not for the faint hearted or feeble. People who live in Europe, the UK and US can zap anywhere in the world in a fraction of the time and cost.
Within days of arriving in Ireland, I realised how isolated and cut-off I am from the rest of the world, my roots and my personal history. I felt cheated.
Two hundred-odd years ago the English ruling class tore us from our families, blood ties, communities, culture, religion, history and heritage and hurled us across to the other side of the world. We are a displaced, disconnected, confused people. No wonder Australians, especially our youth, are so lost. No wonder we suffer an inexplicable aching emptiness.
Our predecessors were transported, in some bizarre and cruel social experiment, for minor offences of theft, born of abject poverty; banished to a harsh wilderness that didn’t belong to them but to a strong, intelligent indigenous people.
We live in Australia with plenty of sunshine and a magnificent natural environment (which tourists devour and adore) but we are mostly devoid of history, culture and meaning.
Enough belly aching. I’m here to tell you what I love about Ireland. I love the entire country, from lush farmlands dotted with dozy sheep and pretty townships pulsing with the slow rhythm of daily life to the rugged coastline and gentle rivers and lakes.
Andrew and I marvelled at the spectacular Cliffs of Moher one misty morning before heading for the vibrant university town on Galway and visited Yeats’ grave in picturesque Sligo. Hugging the northern coastline overlooking the pristine Atlantic Ocean we reached the awe-inspiring Giant’s Causeway and stood gleefully on top of the world! So much natural beauty and splendor in such a tiny, accessible country; tiny, that is, to an Australian’s perception.
We loved the small scale of Ireland which would fit 90 times into Australia’s land mass. We loved the fact we could drive for five minutes along quiet, safe roads and find ourselves in a different town. We delighted at the close proximity of community life; the strong family and friendship connections.
Just as Australians are isolated from the rest of the world, we are isolated and disconnected within our own vast, inhospitable country; east and west, north and south, divided by endless dusty red desert.
Families often live apart in different states, separated by thousands of miles. Our rural folk live on remote homesteads an hour’s drive from their nearest neighbour or shop. And in towns and cities our suburbs are sprawling wastelands of segregated quarter-acre blocks where locked inside four walls, a struggling young mum or sad old man could die of despair and loneliness.
In contrast, Ireland offers close community and a visible history; medieval castles, ancient buildings and churches, Celtic high crosses and sacred ruins. To be surrounded by history gives a depth of meaning and security, a solid foundation of knowing where you’ve come from.

Tour by Folk Songs
I’ve been a staunch folkie since I was 18 and sipped my first red wine in the Dan O’Connell pub in Melbourne. So it was logical that we should do a folk tour of Ireland. I insisted we visit every placename that has ever rated a mention in any heartfelt ballad. And since the Irish love to sing about every township and geographical feature of all 32 counties in the seven regions of their beloved country we were compelled to cover a lot of territory.
Heading south out of Dublin, in a clockwise circuit, we found ourselves on Dingle Beach (Song for Ireland) in County Clare (thank you Ralph McTell); seeking out Donegal Danny in his hometown, visiting Derry (The Town I Loved So Well); Carrick Fergus (traditional plaintive lament); Carlingford and Greenore (jaunty ditty rendered by the Dubliners) and many more melodious destinations.
I experienced my personal version of heaven on earth that perfect afternoon when we left the Blarney Castle on the way to the lakes of Killarney. We were cruising around the idyllic country roads with the sun streaming through the sun roof. The poignant strains of Mary Black drifted from the CD player and filled the air. I looked across at my best mate in the driver’s seat and in an exquisite moment of joy knew that life doesn’t get any better than this and the tears streamed down my face and splashed all over my traveller’s guide to Ireland!
And that brings me to the next thing I love about Ireland; the music. I especially love how music is meshed into daily life in a reliable routine of kicking off at the sensible hour of 10 pm at every pub across the country and playing until the midnight hour. This allows civilised people time in the evening to eat their dinner, gossip and socialise before settling into some lively jigs and reels.
With daylight saving the sun is up until 9.30pm so tourists like us can walk the streets until the band fires up as it did that fine Monday night at the Danny Mann Inn in Killarney. The resident band of accomplished musicians, who had no doubt been playing for several decades, performed one fabulous number after another of which I insisted on singing along to, which irritated the French couple next to me no end!

I appreciate that the pub was named after our son Daniel who grew up being called Dan The Man and thank you for his song, Danny Boy and the cute little music box of the very same name I bought from the fabulous Blarney Woollen Mills!
And I love the fact that traditional music is open to all ages across generations. In a tiny bar in Ballycastle, teenagers played their tin whistles and fiddles alongside grand dads.

Is there enough pubs around here?
I love the Irish pubs, pubs, pubs …everywhere. Killkenny boasts 80 and not one too many I say. They are not sleazy dives like you might find in some unsavory parts of Australian cities; hostile macho bastions where women and children fear to tread. No, these pubs are brightly painted with pretty Celtic lettering and sweet names, warm and welcoming with cosy open fires and endless pints of wonderful Guinness and Bush Mills whiskey to lighten the heart.
And of course there’s real live music and real live people. Cyber entertainment, thank Goodness, hasn’t taken off in Ireland. And these flesh and blood people actually like to talk to total strangers with funny Aussie accents. As the Irish say: When God made time he made plenty of it! There’s no rush to get away and frantically make business calls on your mobile. No, stay a while, we’ve got all day and all are welcome, to be sure.

Spreading the Luck and the Charm
I love this sweet country where kindness and generosity are woven into the fabric of the culture through superstition. It is bad luck to be rude or cheat someone and definitely good luck to be generous and friendly.
One beautiful B&B owner in Blarney, whom I swear had kissed the Blarney Stone a hundred times such was her formidable gift of the gab, gave us back a pound when we paid her a modest price for her hospitality and lavish Irish breakfast. Why the refund? For good luck in our travels!
And when Andrew sought out a haircut in a sleepy little township, the lovely lass sez to him: “Is this your first haircut in Ireland?” He admits it is. And she sez: “Well I can’t be charging ya then. It would be bad luck to charge ya!” What a unique, refreshing country where kindness is more important than money.
The Irish people we met were warm, sociable and passionate and more than anything else, charming. The Irish have cornered the market on charm. When God was handing out charm I think every Irish person lined up for a second helping. They would charm you out of your socks.
The way the Irish speak is blatantly seductive. I swear I could fall in love with every Irish man aged 16 to 80. An Irishman only has to unfurl that lilting accent and I go weak at the knees. And he could be talking drivel for all I care! And then those saucy Irish wenches would make any red blooded male swoon.
The Irish are sexy and they’re also a heart-centred people. Green is the colour of the heart and everywhere you travel is the symbol of the heart; in the national emblem, the shamrock, and in the beautiful claddagh; a heart for love held by the hands of friendship and crowned with loyalty.
The fundamental Irish values of humanity, equality, respect and honesty and the politics of freedom resonate with my heart. No wonder I feel at home in Ireland.
I loved the cold climate which gave me welcome respite from our tropical humidity and a chance to indulge in Baileys and chocolates while snuggling by an open fire, reading a Mauve Binchey novel and listening to Irish music.
For someone who wears nothing but a skimpy dress and sunnies throughout our sweltering summers, I got to rug up in a bulky Aran jumper and leather jacket!
And of course I like the tradition of not rising too early. 9 am is a fine time to rise to face a Big Irish Breakfast. Some fitness fanatics on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland where I live are known to throw themselves out from under the warmth of the doona and hit the walking track at the beach at the unholy hour of 6 am. I have returned to this masochistic habit however I now have The Pogues blasting through my earplugs to propel me along at a rollicking pace. I just have to remember not to sing out loud and appear quite mad to fellow walkers!
I love Ireland for giving me the opportunity to discover my Irish roots, which helps explain something of who I am. I suspect I hail from impeccable convict stock.
As the Irish say with pride; ‘Tis a Blessing to be born Irish’. And if you can’t be born Irish, at the very least have a drop of Irish blood in ya veins!
If you are lucky you will get to visit Ireland as a banished Aussie. And exceptionally lucky outcasts might even get to live in Ireland during their lifetime. I’m dreaming of having such luck one day. To be sure. Thank you Ireland for your warm welcome. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.