We swayed back and forth as the small van traveled a remote lane on one of the Aran Islands, massive green hills to our left, a misty stretch of the Atlantic to the right. Bertie Mullin, our guide and a gregarious native of this western sliver of Ireland, talked incessantly as he drove.
It was the eighth day of our first journey to Ireland, a place of intoxicating natural beauty, hospitable locals and tormented collective memory — a trip prompted, in part, by my wife’s ancestral connections (she being a Callahan, probably related to O’Callahans scattered about the old country).
The New Orleans connection
For 12 days, my wife, daughter and I tried to pull close to the essence of Ireland. Apart from questions of ancestry, my curiosity about the Emerald Isle was stoked long ago by its connections to New Orleans, as is evident in our political history, neighborhood names, bars and parades.
A well-tended memorial just off Robert E. Lee Boulevard, in a neutral ground near the lakefront, offers a poignant reminder of the Irish immigrants of the 1800s who did the dirty and deadly work of digging the boat canals that would link Lake Pontchartrain with the riverfront.
Beginning and ending in Dublin, we traveled in a clockwise direction around the independent republic, saving Northern Ireland for a future trip. We explored quaint coastal towns, sheep country and inland historical sites, taking in castles, rocky trails, stone houses and ornate churches.
Fresh food, pleasant weather
Dining exceeded what Ireland’s often given credit for, starting with a traditional breakfast robust enough to get you through lunch too. You find plenty of fresh fish and, of course, an abundance of potato.
The weather was pleasant most of the time, a mix of sun and overcast skies, just a few showers. We were lucky — as the natives will warn you, it can sometimes be wet and dreary for days on end.
Two things become apparent about the Irish. One, they are immensely proud of their record in producing important writers. Walk down a busy pedestrian corridor in Galway, on the west coast, and there’s a bench where one can sit beside a sculpture of Oscar Wilde and read his observations about Irish identity and the arts.
A second characteristic of the Irish is a sensitivity to their own tumultuous history. This complex narrative includes the pillaging by Vikings in the early Christian era, the disastrous potato famine of the 1840s that brought an exodus of refugees — altering American demographics in the process — and, of course, Ireland’s quest for independence from the English.
Keep in mind that the Irish Free State came less than a century ago, in 1922, following a short-lived drive for independence (the storied Easter Rising) in 1916, during World War I. The British marched in, smashed the revolt and executed its leaders, following the historical pattern.
‘Beware of the Risen People’
The 20th century independence movement brought Protestant-Catholic strife, political assassinations and even civil war, and remains fresh in Irish minds. At the old Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, where leaders of the 1916 revolt were held and executed, a tour takes visitors through an archway with a haunting message: “Beware of the Risen People.”
As a staff member at The National World War II Museum, I was curious about Ireland’s officially neutral position during that war, with German subs plying the waters just offshore.
When I broached the question with a young historian during a monument visit, he was blunt: “The English said in the First World War that we were fighting for the right of small nations to have their independence — but then they crushed us when we declared our independence. They were completely hypocritical.”
Harbors, cemeteries, beaches
The more remote places were the best parts of our tour. We could have devoted days to milling about the beautiful coast town of Kinsale, where the star-shaped Charles Fort looms over the harbor; the town has more than its share of good restaurants and B&Bs.
While a visit to the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast means competing with crowds, this windswept wonder is a must-see. A leisurely drive around the Dingle Peninsula, stopping at old cemeteries, beaches and the Blasket Islands center, just might be the best way to spend a day in Ireland.
The bustling capital city of Dublin, where we spent our final three nights and two days, is a very different experience, reminiscent of New Orleans (street musicians, a concentrated pub district, impressive architecture). We had been advised, wisely, to turn in the rental car at the airport before venturing into the congested city; navigating the tangle of streets isn’t easy, and you can get to many of the popular spots on foot.
Another highlight came that afternoon, on Grafton Street, a colorful shopping district near Trinity College. As I listened to an assortment of high school musicians belting out melodies for tips, a well-dressed elderly man strolling down the street stopped.
He looked me over and smiled.
“Where you from?”
“New Orleans,” I answered.
“America! You have Irish blood?”
“I’m not sure — but I know my wife does. She’s a Callahan.”
“You are welcome!” he said, then disappeared.
Coleman Warner is a special assistant to the president and CEO of The National WWII Museum.