My heart is in Ireland, it’s there I long to be
Her hills and her valleys are calling to me.
(Wolfe Tones: My Heart is in Ireland, Text: Brian Warfield)
It’s been a year since I’ve last been to Ireland and I miss it.
I arrived late on Thursday evening. It was the fourth time I travelled to Ireland, yet it had been four years since my last visit. Arriving in Dublin almost felt like coming home, it always does. That first time, in 2004, I arrived in an unknown place. I managed to find the right bus, but missed my stop and had to walk back. I started walking in the wrong direction, until I saw a sign to the hostel, pointing the other way. Yet, after a day of walking through the streets, always with a map in hand, I felt like I already knew the city. Now, I know which bus to take, where to get off (well, almost), which way to get to the hostel, how to get to the train station or to the shopping center on the other side of town. I hardly need a map anymore (though I still carry it with me, just in case).
Friday morning I walked to Connolly Station and took the DART up to Howth. That’s always the first thing I do, it’s become a tradition for me. Up on the cliffs, looking out at the sea, hearing nothing but the wind, the waves and the seagulls, that’s where my vacation really begins. I walked along the pier, watched the fishermen, remembered the first time I was there, when the wind was so strong I didn’t know how to stay upright. It wasn’t as strong this time, but it was cold. I put the rain cape on top of my jacket, hoping it would ward off the wind a little bit. It didn’t help much. Seals were swimming in the harbor looking up expectantly. Some people came over from the store across the street and threw fish into the water. I don’t know if it was leftovers or if they bought the fish just to feed it to the seals. Before the seals could get to it seagulls darted down to take the best pieces. When I came back to Dublin in the afternoon I realized the talk about it being the hottest day of the year may have been true after all. Here in the city, away from the coast and the wind, it was actually hot.
I got on the LUAS, which had still been under construction the first time I was in Dublin. I wasn’t headed to any particular place but just went randomly in one direction then the other and listened to the voice announcing the stops in English and Irish. I compared the written names of the stops with what I heard, fascinated by how different the spoken word is from the written. I love the Irish language. I love the fact that all the signs are bilingual. I do recognize some words when I read them and know what they mean. I just wish I knew how to pronounce them.
One thing that was new to me was being in Ireland in summer. The heat was new. When did I ever wear t-shirts in Ireland? Also, being two weeks away from summer solstice I realized for the first time how much further north Ireland is compared to my hometown in southern Germany. Honestly, I just never thought about it. When I left the movies at 9 pm that evening, I was stunned to walk outside into the bright daylight. While it would already be getting dark at home sunset was still over an hour away in Dublin.
The next day I headed out with one of my roommates. We visited the Leprechaun Museum, which had just opened a few months before. It was fun to walk through, being dwarfed in the giant’s living room, throwing a coin into the wishing well and finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Best of all, though, were the guides telling Irish legends about Finn McCool and other heroes. Next we went to Dublin Castle, which I hadn’t visited before. It was great to walk through the beautiful rooms, but I was most intrigued by the remains of the old city wall and the moat underneath the castle.
In the evening I headed over to Croke Park Stadium, not to see a GAA game, but to watch the concert of my favorite band Westlife, which was the reason why I came to Dublin on an extended weekend trip. I had missed their first show at Croke Park in 2008 being in New York at the time. I was glad I got another chance to see them perform in that gigantic arena, holding over 80000 people. I hadn’t seen them in four years and I enjoyed every second of their show in that spectacular atmosphere.
The weather held out during the concert, but the next day it was raining. Undeterred, I went on a day trip with Bus Éireann. The bus driver promptly taught us an Irish saying: “When you can see the mountains in the distance, it’s going to rain. When you can’t see them, it’s raining.” We drove off into county Meath, first stop: Tara Hill, ancient seat of the High King of Ireland. From a ground perspective you can only see some banks and ditches and can’t quite make out the circular structures of the complex. Yet, it is still impressive walking around the site, past the Mound of Hostages into the Royal Enclosure and to the Stone of Destiny. According to legend, the stone cries out when touched by the future High King. From the Hill of Tara you can see about two thirds of Ireland on a clear day. It certainly was not a clear day and since I didn’t see any mountains either, I guess it was still raining. Before we walked off into the wet field to explore the site we were warned to watch out for the landmines left behind by the sheep who maintain the grass. Lawnmower and fertilizer in one, very practical and certainly neat to watch, but it also makes the place difficult to navigate.
After a quick photo stop at Trim Castle (the rain had almost stopped) we arrived at Newgrange. I had been there already on my first visit to Ireland, but it certainly didn’t lose its fascination seeing it the second time. Newgrange is a passage tomb in the Boyne Valley, built about 5000 years ago. It is older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. Huge stones had been transported to this site from all over Ireland to build the tomb. A long narrow passage leads into a large chamber. Around the time of the winter solstice the rising sun shines through the opening above the entrance right into the chamber. Otherwise, no light penetrates into the structure. During guided tours the spectacle is demonstrated to the tourists with electric light. First you stand in total darkness. You can hear the other people in the room, yet you cannot even see the person standing right next to you. Then, you see the light moving up the corridor and finally lighting up the entire chamber. I imagine how much brighter it must be when it’s the real thing, actual sunlight shining into the chamber. Various symbols are carved into the stones, though no one knows what they mean. Just as no one knows why the tomb was constructed and what the site was used for. It is a place to let your imagination run wild.
Monday was already my last day in Ireland. I spent the morning walking around Dublin, along the River Liffey, to Trinity College, Christchurch Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, into St. Stephen’s Green, a park that isn’t really that big, yet I still manage to get lost every time I try walking through it. On to Merrion Square looking at (and taking pictures of) some Georgian doors and then back through Grafton Street past the statue of Molly Malone where two young lads played music. Even though it was a public holiday many stores do open for a few hours. That way, I could do some last minute shopping, especially replacing the scarf I had bought in Dublin in 2005 and lost in Yellowstone National Park in 2008. Then it was time to grab my bag at the hostel and catch the bus to the airport, since that wonderful and much too short trip was already over. And I do hope to come back very soon.