Roaming the new Ireland

Frank McCourt or Maeve Binchy may have been to blame. Or it could be Nora Roberts’ fault. One of them is definitely responsible for my impressions of Ireland, whether it was from McCourt’s bestseller Angela’s Ashes, Maeve Binchy’s many books set in Dublin or Nora Roberts’ passionate romances set on the stormy cliffs of County Clare. Those impressions were of a country full of passion and intrigue, romance and fun-loving people certainly but also of a country bathed in dreary weather, strewn with cold, damp mud-floored homes and plagued by relentless poverty.

For sure, it was their collective fault in writing about the island in their books that I was intrigued enough to sign on for a bus trip to visit as much of the Republic of Ireland as I could cram into a week’s vacation.

My impressions were mostly incorrect. In fact, I was awestruck by the surprises this country offered.

Anything but dreary
The new Ireland I discovered as the bus wound through valleys and up and down mountain hairpins from Dublin through the south via Waterford, Cork and Blarney and around the Ring of Kerry, then up to Limerick, through County Clare andround Galway Bay is a stunning kaleidoscope. Okay, the weather has as many plot twists as one of Binchy’s books, but with the changing light shifting over the lush hills and tangled hedgerows, it’s anything but dreary.

Poverty? Not likely. Whatever hardships were endured because of the disastrous potato famine from 1845 to 1879, which reduced the population of southern Ireland from eight million to five million, are no longer evident. In fact, the Irish economy is booming, partly as a result of its inclusion in the European Union in 1972. Joining the union as the poorest country meant the influx of European money.

Ireland also has the youngest population in Europe, with half being under the age of 27. This strong workforce, along with a new software industry inducing Irish emigrants to return home and no industrial strikes over the past few years, helps to feed the economy. The only evidence of the potato famine tragedy are the fragments of stone walls on the mountainsides, lines of demarcation where farms once stood.

And instead of the sad little rundown cottages I expected, the countryside is dotted with gleaming new prosperous-looking homes, all scrubbed and painted to perfection with not a speck of litter in sight, thanks partly to the Tidy Towns Contest held annually in several counties but mostly to Irish pride and reverence for their precious land.

I expected the country to live up to its reputation of being the Emerald Isle. Rolling hills and deep valleys provide lush green pastures for beautifully landscaped stud farms where racing horses graze, and the windswept foothills along the western coast where Kerry cows, herds of red deer and, of course, thousands of sheep roam are green year-round.

A gardener’s delight
What I didn’t expect in mid-October were hydrangea bushes bursting forth in a riot of colour, ranging from white to deep purple and big enough to form massive hedges along house fronts. Near Tralee, roses bloomed in fields as far as the eye could see. Halfway through the trip, I began to envy the Irish for their climate and their seamless seasons as we careened down roads lined with stone walls overgrown with yellow gorse and raspberry-coloured wild fuchsia.

We struggle in Canada to grow rhododendrons in our short gardening season, while they grow wild in the forests along the Ring of Kerry and are considered a nuisance because they choke out other plant growth. If this is what rain does, we could use more of it here in Canada! This corner of southern Ireland has a constant temperature range of 4 to 21 degrees Celsius (40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) and enjoys year-round flora, beginning with tulips and daffodils in January. Our drive from Sneem to Greenane took us into deep valleys shadowed by gnarled alder, oak and eucalyptus trees cobwebbed with morning mist. The drive was romantic and magical enough to make us expect a leprechaun to leap out of the forest or Bre’er Rabbit to cross the road in front of us.

Legendary charm not overrated
The people are not a surprise. They are genuine, fun-loving and proud to share their good times, customs and country. From the man in the hat in a roadside pub north of Waterford who played his accordion and had us belting out Whiskey in the Jar, When Irish Eyes are Smiling and Danny Boy to Anne Hickey, our tour guide, who told stories of gaeltacht (Irish-speaking communities where children can go and live with families for the summer to learn the language) and sang Gaelic songs in her trilling voice, they’re happy to make sure everyone has craic (a good time) — all the time.

Besides coming away with a new perspective, I have learned something. I feel humbled by our comparative infancy here in North America and how much we can learn from a country like Ireland. Despite the successes they are experiencing with a new economy and newfound personal security and wealth, they have maintained the significance of their history and the naturalness of their geography.

Preserving cultural identity
In an economy where highrises and fast-food chains are tempting signs of success, Ireland preserves its identity. Dublin stays true to its Georgian architecture. The sheep grazing the roadsides around Galway Bay are not forced to retreat from massive service stations and fast-food drive-throughs. No camping and no Jet Skis are allowed on the Killarney lakes. In fact, residents draw names to see who gets to have a boat on the lake. Along the Ring of Kerry, contractors won’t get permission to build if the proposed structure blocks the scenic view. No restaurants are allowed on the beaches at Dungarvan.

It takes work, planning and community effort to protect the treasures of Ireland’s landscape. The Irish have proven that “new” prosperity can be enjoyed without sacrificing the simplistic beauty of an ancient heritage.

Congratulations, Eire. Slainte.

For more information about Ireland, go to Tourism Ireland at or call toll-free 1-800- 223-6470.