If there ever was a place that appeared to come straight out of a fairy tale, it’s Ireland. It was the year 2000, and although we would only be there for a few days (my friends and I had five cities and four countries to visit in a matter of two and a half weeks, so we were on a tight schedule), it would turn out to be one of the most unforgettable places I’ve ever visited.
While most might have planned to visit Dublin during their first trip to Ireland, we decided to spend our short duration of time there on the more rural, west side of the Emerald Isle, visiting Limerick and the surrounding areas instead. We wanted to experience the beauty of the countryside, although I admit that my vote was also largely influenced by the fact that I was a big fan of Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, which was set in his hometown of Limerick City). Since it was our first stop, it would be my first impression of western Europe, and what an impression it was.
The first thing I noticed when we stepped off the plane was how clean the air was (coming from southern California, it was a strange and foreign feeling in my lungs). The air was crisp and brisk, almost intoxicating. I felt a bit out of my element, but in a good way. The second thing I noticed was that Ireland is perhaps the friendliest country on the planet. (Well, in all fairness, I haven’t visited every country on the planet…but it definitely tops the list out of everywhere I’ve been.) Our taxi driver was a sweet older gentleman named Noel who offered to be our personal driver for the remainder of the visit. He handed us his card, and we called him anytime we needed a ride for the rest of the trip (we nicknamed him “dad” because he was a kind, concerned father-like figure that made us feel like there was someone looking over us.)
All of this was impressive, but Ireland’s breathtakingly beautiful scenery is probably what stands out most in my mind. It was everything I’d dreamt up in my mind and more: bright green grasslands as far as the eye could see, set beside a deep blue ocean and beneath a vibrant blue sky. Even during the cloudy hours, it was magnificent. The 15-year old printed photos that came from my old 35mm camera unfortunately don’t do it justice, but I promise you: it’s a place you want to experience in person.
We were fortunate to be able to visit the must-see scenic landmarks, like the Hole of Sorrows, Ailwee Cave and my favorite stop: the Cliffs of Moher, which were simply majestic! At that time, we were free to approach the edge of the cliffs and look straight down (I understand that some protective walls have been constructed since then). Of course, the only way to do this safely was to lay flat on our bellies and peer down from a horizontal position. With my fear of heights, I didn’t even get that far…I stood a little further back and admired the wonder from slightly afar. Either way, it was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
We explored the coast, including a day trip to Galway, and of course, Limerick City itself. From King John’s Castle to the Shannon River, there was history and charm at every turn. It was amazing to see hand-built stone walls and ancient castles that had stood there for hundreds of years. It was like stepping back in time, and in the most thrilling way. We enjoyed the pub scene (including spending time at the original Durty Nelly’s), enjoying Guinness and Baileys Irish Cream (yes, my sweet tooth even spilled over into my cocktail choices: whiskey and sweet cream…what’s not to like?), and singing along to what would become our favorite traditional Irish folk song:
Her eyes, they shone like diamonds
I thought her the queen of the land
And her hair, it hung over her shoulder
Tied up with a black velvet band.
(Listen to the whole song here.)
Probably my favorite moment during our time in Ireland happened while enjoying a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle. It was a fun, lively and boisterous event, but right in the middle of it all, a young violinist was introduced to the crowd. He couldn’t have been a day over 21. He was shy and quiet, hiding behind his long, wavy strands of hair. He appeared humbled to be in front of an audience, as if he almost felt unworthy; he didn’t say a word or make eye contact with a single onlooker. And then, he started to play. The room fell silent. Like the rest of the crowd, I was mesmerized. From his violin, he played one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard: restrained, spell-binding and profoundly moving, a complete contrast to the rowdy noise we’d been a part of just moments before. It actually brought me to tears and in the most unexpected way. There’s something about being on-the-go in non-stop activity — constantly doing something — and then suddenly being thrust into complete quiet, being stopped in your tracks, forced to pause and take notice. He brought everyone in the room up to their feet, and he meekly accepted his standing ovation. I never learned the name of that talented young violinist but nonetheless, he left an impression that will remain etched in my mind forever. Although we were awed by the history and beauty of the castle itself, it was his performance that made the night simply enchanting.
And that pretty sums up Ireland: beautiful, spirited, rich in history and tradition…kind of magical, actually. Just as if it was straight out of a movie or the pages of a storybook, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to what was then the beginning of my European travels. I always planned to return to Ireland and see more of it (including Dublin), but that trip still has yet to happen. Until then, I have vivid memories that will always hold a special place in my heart. And with that, I’ll leave you with a famous Irish blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Until next time, Ireland.