It’s a long way to Tipperary

My mother left yesterday, and again I am reminded why living abroad for all its excitement is hard. I am not sure when I will see her next. We had such a whirlwind visit of road trips and I wanted to write this post before autumn gets swallowed up by the holidays and it is the end of the year.

We have officially entered what I call “the drift:” the original term of Sascha’s contract is up, and yet we are still in Ireland for various reasons, mostly summed up as it is much easier to stay put until work forces the next relocation. Not that it’s a complaint. When I’m healthy, I love Ireland. It is an absolutely beautiful place to live and I know we are so lucky.  It is complicated to be without a plan, but we have so many opportunities we might never have otherwise.

One of those opportunities was the chance to meet my late grandmother’s first cousin and family, who live about 2 hours from Dublin. So two weeks ago, when Sascha was in NYC and my mother was here, we packed up the Micra and strapped in the boys and hit the road to meet our Irish relatives.

I don’t know if we would have gone to the Killaloe/Ballina area were it not for the family, but I am so glad we did. The area is rich in history, with Killaloe being the birth place of Brian Boru, the last high king. Killaloe and Ballina are villages opposite each other on the River Shannon, which forms a watery border between the counties of Tipperary and Clare. They are connected by a stone bridge, which is over 300 years old. I mostly have iPhone snaps, so the quality isn’t amazing compared to our new camera, but at least you have some idea.

The village of Killaloe

The bridge is too narrow to allow two-way traffic so a light at either end regulates the flow.  The river here is wider than the Liffey and it empties into Lough Derg, the biggest lake in the Republic of Ireland. Rimming the lake are the Slieve Bernagh Mountains (Co. Clare) and the Arra Mountains (Co. Tipperary).

Top picture is a plaque on the bridge looking toward Lough Derg that commemorates four men shot by Auxiliaries in 1920. The middle picture shows Killaloe Bridge, with some of the original arches from over three hundred years ago.

We passed under the bridge on the boat tour. It being off-season, we were the only people on board, so James let the boys (and me) drive the boat. G really grabbed the wheel and enthusiastically turned it back and forth, so the boat fishtailed a bit. I actually got a bit nervous that while the captain took our photo G would run us aground.

A rare picture of the four of us!

We met Michael, his sister Nellie, and his wife, Nancy, at our hotel on our first night and then we made a plan to visit them at the farm the following day. My mother had not seen Michael and Nancy since the 70s, when they visited the U.S. before I was born. She remembers having them over for a barbecue but they didn’t want to eat corn on the cob. They called it “horse food.”

Apparently, after I went back to the room to put the boys to bed, my mom got excited about the potential for a secret smoke. Michael invited her out for a smoke, but she was disappointed to discover it was a pipe, not cigarettes. “Well, I’d’ve given you a pull or two,” he said.

Because the farm is not on the GPS, we were to meet Michael at a place called “The Lookout.” Around this vast lake, you might imagine there are many lookouts, and we spent some time driving on the wrong side of the lake before I figured it out. We did enjoy the unplanned tour of the Clare County side of Lough Derg and were grateful for Michael’s patience.

Michael. Some islands in Lough Derg are visible in the background

Michael took us down to the graveyard where his grandfather and father are buried. Over the years, it had been neglected and he and some other volunteers did a lot of work to restore the grounds and they even won awards for it. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, resting at the bottom of a graceful green slope to the shores of the lake.

Nancy and some other women planted many of the flowers in the foreground of the first photo. Michael helped restore the ironwork on the church ruins.

This is the grave of Michael’s grandfather, who was my mother’s grand uncle

After walking the wet grounds of the graveyard, everyone’s feet were soaked. At the house they had a fire going in the sitting room and we were happy to take our shoes off. Out in the country, Nancy says, it seems like things never really dry.

Michael, my mom, Nancy, and Nellie

The house they live in is a new house built around the original two-room home where seven children were raised, including my great grandmother. Michael’s son now runs the thriving dairy farm.

The boys were mad for the tractors. Millie the dog was mad for them

I really enjoyed spending time with them.

“Oh to be young again,” Nancy said to me when I looked at her wedding photos. “Some years really make all the difference, don’t they?”

Michael and Nancy recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I love the confetti on his shoulder

Nancy told me she would have done things differently if she could go back.

Like what? I asked.

I would have traveled, she said.

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A quick hello from Rosslare (playing with our new camera)

The last few days of my mom’s visit we’re spending down in Wexford County at Kelly’s. It was beautiful this morning on the beach.

It’s hard to believe we are now into our second year in Ireland. The boys have grown so much.  I wish I had done a better job of maintaining the blog for them.

Hope you are all well and I hope to catch you up on these very busy weeks in which I visited the Irish President’s House, met my very distant Irish relatives, and went to Powerscourt.  No tonsillitis since August (all fingers crossed.)

toddler on the beach

Moving target

We’re having a big “Cars” moment in the house

Ice cream moustache

There’s a playground right on the beach

The most haunted house in Ireland

While we were driving for the boys’ nap the other day, en route to Hook Lighthouse, this spooky house arose from the flats of Hook Peninsula. We veered off course to check it out. (The goth teen in me lives on.)

This is Loftus Hall, which sits on a lonely finger of land poking into the sea. The wind rushes in from the water (not much in the way of cliffs here to buffer) and whispers  through the surrounding grass fields. Eerie!

The Jersey Shore of Ireland

We have found the Jersey Shore of Ireland.

Just a 20-minute drive through bucolic green hills of sheep and cows, and distant, shimmering water, lies a fantastically tacky seafront with rides, arcades, souvenir shops, and tragic teens called Tramore. (On rainy days, it also has a warren of corrugated metal buildings known as an industrial park, where one can find such offerings as a paint-it-yourself pottery place, and two different indoor play areas for children staffed by surly teens.) I love it, in the way I loved Coney Island before most of it was razed to make way for luxury condos and hotels, and in the way that it reminds me of preteen summers in “The Sound.”

The morning started off well enough. This is the view from People’s Park in the village of Dunmore East

C in training to be a polar bear with his Gramby. The cold water did not deter him at all.

Based on the 12-year-olds with thigh-grazing hair, severely drawn-in black eyebrows and terra-cotta canned-tan skin that made them look almost forty, there is a reality show opportunity here. One appeared to be wearing a peach toga she clutched at nervously while on a ride. I wanted to scrub their faces clean. “You are my pale people,” I would say. And I would promise they would find someone to love them.

How can you not love such a defiantly summer place even when there is no real summer at all? (Yes, I should have brought my wool coat. In August. To our beach vacation. I am paying for my psychological block against doing this.)

We discovered Tramore out of desperation. Following a morning where we had already gone grocery shopping, eaten two breakfasts, gone to the playground, and the beach, we thought the boys would nap. The rain had started and so we went back to the place we are renting to put the boys down. Thus began the games: G hurled himself out of the pack ‘n play with the skill and body torquing of a pole vaulter. For an hour and a half, we tried threats and low voices. We had throbbing headaches from not enough sleep ourselves. Finally we took them into our bed, and when they still wouldn’t sleep, we put in a DVD. Fear not, American Academy of Pediatrics. TV is no opiate for my children.

We had to get out of the house.

C started having an epic meltdown out of sheer exhaustion. I think the trigger was putting his jeans on, or maybe his socks, but whatever it was we had to carry him, rigid and screaming, to the car. They were out within four minutes.

It is clear that when away from home, we need to be either: 1. Out walking in the stroller during their nap time or 2. In a car driving. It means there is no napping for us, no real downtime, until they finally crash at night. Of course it was too late now for them to have any real nap, so we needed a massive distraction.

Some may call Tramore a blight. For us the blinking, garish lights and din of shrieks and pumping bass arose from the Southeast shore of Ireland like a beacon of hope in a desert afternoon of parenting. The boys drove remote control trucks, rode fire engines, bounced in a trampoline.

G asked: “Are dere mans up there?” Somehow it rained 20 minutes away, but not here

Today we went back for the circus.

Hello from Dunmore East

Today began our planned holiday, so of course that means we found ourselves running to an emergency vet appointment, and Sascha sitting on top of our toy car trying to get the lid of the luggage carrier to close. (Sashi is fine, but she had an infected cut, possibly from a rumble with a lane cat. Also, to those of you who think my cat is a bitch, the vet said “there’s something royal about her.” So there. She can’t help being superior.)

We are in the “sunniest corner” of Ireland and it was beautiful when we finally arrived. Here’s to summer vacations (with no wi-fi). What are your plans?

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Kinvara, Ballyvaughan, and a bit of The Burren

Driving out from Galway into the backwards “C” of the coast, towards the very tip of County Clare,  we were finally in “postcard Ireland:” wet fields of cows and sheep, low piled-stone walls, and winding, shoulderless roads where I felt I had to hold my breath every time another car passed.

There are may inlets and small harbors dotting the coast, and the landscape changed dramatically based on whether or not the tide was in.  We stopped at Keogh’s for lunch in Kinvara village, where we enjoyed talking with one of the owners who had lived in Northern California for a while and then we let the boys run around in the playground of the local primary school before going up to Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house.
The house has passed though many hands, some aristocratic and some not; at one point it was a literary gathering spot for the likes of Yeats and Synge. The history of generous patronage has embedded itself in local lore: one merely needs to ask a question at the gate, and by the end of the day, it will be answered.

We climbed the damp, circular stairs all the way to the top. The wind shrieked through cracks in the small stairway windows. You can see how windy it was (and narrow!) in these pictures.

After the castle, we headed toward the village of Ballyvaughan. Along the drive here, some of the massive limestone hills of a geoological area known as The Burren began to loom over us.  They look vaguely lunar, and in better weather (perhaps later this June)  I hope we can see more of the slab fields and dolmens and some of the unique plants that grow in the area. We were headed to the Aillwee Cave, one of the oldest caves in Ireland, which had some Easter activities going on for kids. We thought it would be a good entry point for the boys to experience some of the Burren without loosing them down a “crike” (a crack in the rocks).

Let me tell you about touring a cave with toddlers: We had driven 45 minutes from our last location and we were determined to go. We were also sleep-deprived and wind-lashed, and possibly could only think of activities in terms of inside vs. outside as the weather over our weekend on the west coast got worse each day. As we waited in the tearoom, we discovered the tour was a half hour and that strollers/buggies couldn’t come along. A young girl ran screaming from the caves, followed by her exhausted-looking father a few seconds later. S and I looked at each other and just started laughing. Definitely not the best idea we’ve had.

We straggled behind the tour group, trying to prevent the boys from veering off course into a chasm or from picking up some of the thousands-of-year-old-brown bear bones to put in their mouths. At one point, the tour guide shut the lights off completely. I don’t know exactly what he was saying then because all I heard was:

“It TOO DARK.”

“Turn the YIGHT on!”

View from the terraced hillside where the cave is located. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see Galway Bay

We waited in a long queue for the restrooms before getting into our car for the return trip. To be more efficient, all four of us went into the “family” bathroom with the changing table. It was so tiny that the smallest movement I made in changing a diaper meant I would set off the automatic dryer on the wall. (You would be hard-pressed to find a paper towel dispenser in Ireland, and the boys hate the noise of the machines.) Every time I set off the dryer, I also set off rage and tears in whomever happened to be standing on the floor. G at one point started kicking and banging at the door, apparently in the hopes of soliciting help from the throngs of people outside who gave us dirty looks when we finally exited.

Because you should always end a travelogue with a photo of the majestic public rest room!

Scenes from the weekend: St Paddy’s Day in Dublin and Bray

There was a funny email going around Sascha’s office last week about what it means to be Irish:

  • Describing someone with longstanding, persistent and untreated psychosis as “a character.”
  • Saying “There’s definitely no recession here!” every time you see more than 5 people in a pub.
  • Saying “Ah but he’s very good to his mother” about some utter langer
  • Liking TK Red lemonade and white pudding. Not together of course
  • Your ma or da greeting you with the phrase “d’ya know who’s dead”?
  • That mini heart attack you get if you go out and forget to turn off the immersion
  • You’re not drinking??? Are you on antibiotics?
  • Wallpaper on your school books
  • Being Grand!!
  • Boil everything in a huge pot for 3 hours
  • Being absolutely terrified of a wooden spoon.
  • Learning a language for 12 years and not being fluent
  • Going absolutely mental at concerts because famous people rarely come over
  • Knowing that Flat 7UP heals all illnesses
  • Calling Joe Duffy or any radio station instead of the Guards from my HTC/iPhone!

I got a good laugh over most of them.  I also laughed over Frank McCourt’s explanation. He was writing about Limerick in this quote from Angela’s Ashes, but it’s still applicable:

Above all — we were wet.

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered….The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges.

This past weekend was perhaps the most recognizable celebration around the world of being Irish–St. Patrick’s Day.  I don’t know why in the U.S. it is St. Patty’s Day, and here it is very definitely St. Paddy’s Day, but it is.  After three sinus infections (something I’ve never had a problem with), and some pharyngitis, laryngitis, and conjunctivitis, I’m pretty sure my respiratory tract looks something like this:

I now understand what "catarrh" is

So I did not attend the parade. Sascha took the boys and braved the crowd of 500,000 revelers to see the parade in Dublin. Some had been there for hours to reserve a spot. Many had brought ladders to stand on; others climbed atop the monuments and statues in the city centre to get a glimpse. The boys could see only when their dad hoisted them onto his shoulders.

On Sunday, we drove south to Bray and visited the The National Sea Life Centre, a small aquarium.

Hi!

Giant octopus! It seemed to respond to our touching the glass.

Touching a starfish. It's not the most impressive aquarium, but the staff was great with kids and there was a playroom with ball pit inside

Bray has the slightly faded, dilapidated feel of seaside resort towns that have seen better days, like spots along the Jersey Shore or Coney Island, which is part of its charm. There was a carnival along the water so we rode the carousel. The boys had great fun digging on the beach and the sea air helped clear my head for a few hours.

Bray Head

Sunday in Skerries

On Sunday we drove out to Skerries in North County Dublin to visit the monstrously talented children’s book author Niamh Sharkey and her family. It was a cold, bright day. Niamh had warned us to dress warmly; the playground was by the sea.

We must have maneuvered through five roundabouts to get there (the traffic circles in Europe take some getting used to), and at the last one, we wound through a railway underpass so narrow we had no idea it was two-way until nearly getting sideswiped by an oncoming car.

One of the two landmark windmills in Skerries

From Niamh’s kitchen, we could see a giant windmill.

We packed up all the kids (she has three adorable older kids who G & C keep talking about) and followed them to Ardgillan Castle.

Ardgillan Castle

Ardgillan is a gorgeous public park with plenty of (free!) parking. The location was spectacular. Standing at the top of a rolling meadow, we looked down to a line of yew trees flanking the castle. Beyond the castle (technically a country house from the late eighteenth century), lay the turquoise Irish Sea.  The grounds have rose gardens (not yet in bloom), picnic areas, and beautiful walking and cycling paths. They even host children’s parties (giving an entirely new dimension to the princess phenomenon among young children).  Looking north, the velvety Mourne Mountains looked painted by watercolor on the horizon.

You can see the Mourne Mountains to the right of the castle

On the almost 200 acres of grounds, there is a wonderland of a playground. With a pirate ship and a submarine, another perilous rope tree and a zip line, this playground was as state of the art as the one in Malahide, though a bit smaller. How will we ever go back to U.S. playgrounds? Why does North County have such amazing playgrounds?

G checks out the view from the playground

On the way back to Niamh’s house for lunch, we drove down hilly roads lined with ivy-covered trees and organic farms out to the road edging Skerries Harbour. Thickets of ragwort banked along the road, pops of yellow as sharp as the sun (the harsh light made for long shadows, despite the place being so photogenic, it was hard to capture in that light). White caps skimmed along the water. The tide was out so the boats in the harbor looked tossed there, keeling over like forgotten toys in the basin.

Who would have thought it'd be hailing a few hours later?

We didn’t explore the village of Skerries on foot but just did a quick drive through.  I would love to go back again (especially when it’s a bit warmer, to get ice cream from the tiny pier-side shack known as “Storm in a Teacup”) to see more and stroll along the beach.  Highly recommend this as a day trip from Dublin with young children. It was about 45 minutes north but it felt a world away.

We had so much fun that the boys missed their nap and we left her house at 4pm, just as our blue sky gave itself over to a dark cloud and hail started.

Niamh gave G his first ukulele lesson

The boys conked out by the time we were on the N1 and C wanted to sleep on Daddy for another hour or so when we got home.