Dublin, bridge over the River Liffey at dusk.
"Just pretend they’re all leprechauns, and I bet it’ll start to get much better."
That’s what we temporarily agreed on after our first few cold, terse encounters with Dubliners, as the light rain poured down on our hoods, just enough to keep our jackets and the sidewalks perpetually wet.
We were walking in the center of Dublin, and I was just beginning to feel like I was in Ireland. The airport hotel where I stayed the first night could’ve been any rainy place in the U.S. – Portland, Memphis, Indianapolis. The bar there looked about as Irish as a TGI Friday’s. So it felt good to finally be on the streets of Dublin, no matter how cloudy and wet it was.
When John, my good friend of 30 years (which sounds mathematically impossible to me), suggested taking a trip to Ireland, it seemed like a fine idea. I had never been. And it sounded more interesting than, say, Iceland.
John has a strong Irish heritage. I have a little Irish ancestry as well. But neither of us was on a search for long-lost relatives or the family crest. Nor were we looking for pots of gold or to retrieve the stolen Lucky Charms – though I confess that some ignorant strain of American media-filled memory brought this to mind as soon as I hit Irish soil. For some reason, I couldn’t stop this reaction – an internal flood of old commercial references (Irish Spring!) and my own urge to utter crappy imitations of an Eye-rrrish accent.
Once in Dublin, the basic travel questions re-emerged: What should we do in Ireland? What is there to see? Where should we go? A week before we were set to fly out, I realized that I had no idea what to do there. Neither did John, so I searched online for “Top 10 things to do in Ireland.”
I found mostly cluttered, ad-infested websites, or various top ten lists that usually contradicted each other. In Dublin, among other things, I gathered from a few blogs that we should walk around the area between St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College, and maybe get a tour of the Guinness brewery and the Jameson distillery. How did that advice translate to me? Walk around and drink a lot and take pictures.
So that’s what we did. And I found out that Guinness is really, really good in Ireland – even though I never made it to the brewery. But it didn’t matter because Guinness was everywhere, in every bar, along with many other great beers. The food was heavy, yet surprisingly tasty: beef stew, chicken wings, french fries.
But at the end of our first self-guided, self-indulgent pub crawl, I began to think – having spent my last two months in Italy – that Dublin seemed very much like any big city in America, only a bit more expensive.
“Goo to the Foggy Jew.” That’s what the front desk guy at the hostel said to us when we asked him to recommend a good Dublin pub. It sounded a bit odd and a little offensive, so we asked for confirmation:
“The Foggy Jew, you said?”
“Yes, it’s a brilliant pub, really.”
Gorgeous? The Foggy Jew?
Well, it was a different country, so who was I to question the word choice, level of anti-Semitism or, perhaps, a Jewish pub owner’s strange choice of names.
We set out into the damp cold and walked around Temple Bar, which is both the name of a bar and the name of a section of downtown Dublin. It was packed with people dressed in Halloween costumes, most of whom didn’t sound very Irish. I heard many slurring Spanish, Italian and American voices.
token photo in front of the Temple Bar
But the Americans were the most serious about drinking. They were the ones connecting to their Irish heritage through beer, whiskey, unsolicited sharing of their Irish lineage, and their never-ending search for castles.
"Where’s the Foggy Jew?" we asked a local passerby.
"Just ah-round the coroner, lads."
The English language connection was a bit hit-or-miss, depending on the use of slang and strength of the accent.
When we stumbled across a popular pub called “The Foggy Dew,” we laughed shamefully at our reluctant-yet-easy acceptance of the name “Foggy Jew,” while reminded of the slight language barrier that divided us.
And that language gap seemed to grow as the bars got louder, the people got drunker, and the bartenders needed to shout above U2, Lady Gaga and Journey blasting through the sound system. Again, I felt like I was in downtown San Diego, minus the attractive females.
When two friendly Romanians in the Foggy Dew asked us our travel itinerary, we said one word: "GALWAY." I’d emailed a friend who had lived in Northern Ireland and she suggested heading to Galway – a city that was on most top ten lists – and was close to the Cliffs of Moher, which was on every top ten list.
She said that it was a very Irish city in a very Irish region. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but rather than piling on the destinations in a whirlwind, marathon bus tour of seven cities in six days, we decided to keep it simple and stay in Galway. We figured if the main thing to do was walk around and take pictures and drink a lot, then we might as well do that in a relaxed, leisurely way in and around one great city.
And we did. Galway has a small-town feel with an attractive old section, river and ocean views, and great restaurants and pubs. And it offers multiple day trips into the countryside.
aforementioned farm animals
If you ever go, I highly recommend the tours to the Cliffs of Moher. They are a spectacular sight, and the scenic stops along the way will definitely satisfy any hunger you may have for green grass fields, ancient-looking stone walls and Irish farm animals.
Now that I think about it, I’m not sure if it was that the Irish beer was so good as much as it was the only enjoyable, consistent activity in Ireland. With the rain and the weather often discouraging much outdoor life, I suppose the pubs offer a wonderfully warm, dry place to drink until the drizzling stops. Or maybe it’s just an excuse to drink more?
Either way, it seemed to be the most Irish of things to do, and it led to our most cultural encounter of the trip. It happened at Kelly’s Pub, which happens to be the name of the Irish pub that’s three blocks away from my parent’s house in San Diego. It didn’t look much different inside either.
So there we were, in a slightly more Irish Kelly’s Pub than the one in San Diego, when an energetic young man named Simon overheard us talking and asked where we were from. I said "California," because I usually say that now instead of "the United States." The United States drops bombs on other countries. Californians surf and make movies.
Simon asked if we surfed and we both said yes. He didn’t ask how often. He called himself a surfer too, and kindly invited us to sit down with him and his friends.
We agreed, grabbed our beers, and were led by Simon to a semi-circular booth where four heavily tattooed dudes were sitting around a table full of pint glasses. The closer I got, the more this rough group of dark-hooded-sweatshirt-wearing guys looked like ex-cons. Tattoos crept up their necks, down their hands, and covered their arms.
Had Simon led us into an organized trap? Were we about to be mugged? No, it turns out he was unintentionally giving me a brief lesson in prejudgment.
His group of criminal-looking friends turned out to be the nicest, most interesting, funny people we met the entire time. They provided us with a good dose of Irish wit, sarcasm, heavy drinking, and some Brit-bashing too. We soon were raising our glasses to "Cheers!" "Fock the Brits!" and an assortment of indecipherable, heavily accented mumbling.
"Your surnames, lads?" asked the most talkative one.
I said, "Carrillo."
"Oh, Spanish… Yeah, they stopped here in Connemara just up the rude after their Armada was def-eated. Then they decided to stay and fock all the Irish women! Haaa!"
Cheers and laughter came from the peanut gallery of guys, followed by a non sequitur "Fock the Brits" for good measure.
The talkative guy turned to John. "And yours?" he asked.
"O’Brien… John Thomas O’Brien."
"My fock!" the guy with the shaved head burst out, "You’re more focken Irish than me! Let me give you me passport for focksakes!" And he slammed his hand down violently on the table to punctuate the sarcasm.
After another round of drinks, learning about particular Irish laws (such as the grass-fed-beef only mandate) and some more Brit-bashing, the shaved head guy yelled out: "For focksake, enough about the mackerel-fannied Brits! It pisses me off so much! If I…"
He paused for dramatic effect and picked up the appetizer menu propped up in the middle of the table with both hands.
"…If this wasn’t laminated I’d" – and he started to rip it in half – "oh, it is laminated… Look at that. Focksakes – I’m stronger than I’d thought, lads."
I thought it was hilarious, but maybe you had to be there.
Anyways, we laughed at each other and drank more and by the end of the night, I was somehow saying "Fock the Brits!" with the same amount of enthusiasm and colonized resentment that they had.
Thankfully, though I didn’t realize it in the moment, those tattooed guys in Galway gave me my most Irish moment of the trip. Because when we returned to Dublin days later, it felt even less Irish than before. It reminded me of downtown San Diego again, minus the Mexican food and the pretty girls, but with much better Guinness.
So would I recommend to Americans a trip to Ireland?
Only if you have specific interests there (e.g., Cliffs of Moher, large cows, sheep, etc.), friends or family to visit, or would like to train for an upcoming Guinness drinking contest.