Riding a train is like looking at the 10,000 pictures your Aunt Ethel took of her trip to Des Moines. There are so many of them. And half of them are blurry. “And this is another building,” she says a tiny bit too loudly because she notices your head nodding and your eyes closing. “As you can see, I’m crazy about street lights, sidewalks, and pigeons, so I took pictures of every single one of them.”
Seeing Ireland by train is like that but only in the sense that you see a lot of the same things. What you see keeps you wide awake: hill after hill of rolling green, intense rain-drenched green; sheep moving across the fields like small fallen clouds; wind-sculpted rocks and boulders; castles and ancient ruins who stand guarding the past, grey, grim-faced, and fearless; flowers as wild as any you have ever seen; and fields of horses.
If you’re from Ireland, or have been in Ireland, or know anything about Ireland, you know that horses play an important part in Irish history and culture. I, on the other hand, did not know that. You would think that someone with a great-grandfather from Ireland would know a wee bit more about the Emerald Isle. The explanation: one part of me is Irish; the other part is pure ignorance.
On our first day, we traveled from Dublin’s Heuston train station to Cork in the south. We passed nearby Templemore in County Tipperary where my ancestor came from, or at least emigrated from. He landed in St. Louis, Missouri, set up a grocer’s shop, and eventually produced a grandfather for me.
At Cork we un-trained ourselves into a bus, which un-Corked us and took us to Blarney village to visit Blarney castle, home of the famous Stone. (Note to readers who are aging Boomers: Blarney, not Keith Richards.) We climbed the narrow spiral staircase up the castle ruins, gripping the thick rope hanging down from the top for balance. Up top, we walked around the parapet, as well as looked down at the ground through the large rectangular openings that run parallel to the walkway. The only thing protecting me and my camera from falling through were some widely spaced metal rods, which are maybe two feet below the top of the openings. I rarely worry about dropping my purse or camera until I get near gaping holes 90 feet above ground; then suddenly I have to wrestle with my valuables to keep them in my arms. Had I taken a picture of the gaps, I’m convinced my camera would have leaped from my hands to the earth below. (One of us clearly needs counseling. I think it’s my camera, but we both fear exposure, lack focus, and have days when we see the world with our lens cap on.)
Two men had to help me kiss the stone: a photographer who stood on my right, carefully blocking the view so no one else could get a shot, and a man on my left who sat in the ledge next to the gaping hole where the Blarney stone lies (possibly in more ways than one). To kiss the stone, I had to lie on my back atop a plastic liner. Obviously, at least to everyone who is not me, I shouldn’t have worn white pants. The kind man who had my back placed what I prayed were his very strong arms around my upper body and helped me scoot forward to grab the two metal rods running parallel to the wall. Finally, I lowered my head down, mercifully unable to see the now wire-thin rods protecting me from Mother Earth who beckoned me with a voice full of gravity. After one quick kiss, a peck really, I was pulled back up and gently pushed away so the next tourist could contribute to the Irish tourist industry. Since the official photographer stood in the only good spot for picture-taking, my only chance to get photographic evidence of the event was to buy the official picture. I did. However, when my brother kissed the stone, I held my camera over the shoulder of the back man, pointed it in the general direction, and got a fairly decent shot of him just before his lips made contact. It was a good thing I did, too, because in the official photos, my brother’s arm is blocking his face.
Now that I have kissed the stone, I have been granted “a cajoling tongue and the art of flattery or of telling lies with unblushing effrontery.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.
From Blarney village, we took the bus to Cobh with a short stop to see Saint Colman’s Cathedral and a longer stop at the Cobh Heritage Centre.
At Blarney Castle, you are tricked into thinking one kiss will turn you into a trickster, convinced by tricksters far trickier than you. But you walk away feeling good. Your heart feels lighter, and you don’t mind that your pocketbook does too. At the Cobh Heritage Centre, that light heart of yours gets broken.
Cobh (called Queenstown until Ireland became the Irish Free State in 1922) was the last port people on the unsinkable Titanic ever saw, and the first port survivors of the Lusitania saw after being torpedoed by a German submarine.
Even more sobering is the exhibition on the Great Famine and Irish Emigration. In the six years of the potato famine (1845-1851) one and a half million Irish left their homes to build new lives abroad. From then until 1950, about six million people left, almost half sailed from Cobh. The pictures, videos, written accounts, and artifacts, all drawn deep from that well of sorrow called Irish history, tell a story that stays with a person. At least a person like me.
Read even a part of Irish history and you understand why William Butler Yeats said, “An Irishman has an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains him through temporary periods of joy.”