Thursday 11 Nov, 2010

The Emerald Isle: Worth a visit and a return

Gail Ingram - Ireland Giant Causeway

The shag has been the official state dance for South Carolina since 1984. My husband and I never learned to shag, but our children learned to shag when they were in middle school. One of my favorite travel memories has to do with shagging in Ireland (dancing, of course!). One evening in Galway in April 2001, my EF Tour Director, Tony McGrath, took our consolidated group (my high school and a military school from California) to a pub in Galway to listen to traditional Irish music.

Ireland Musicians The pub was filled with many locals who had come out to listen to a pair of talented musicians (at right). Everyone made room for our group, and we all settled in for a great evening of music. A married couple (both teachers) in my group, Joey and Trina, got up in front of the musicians and danced the shag. The dance fit perfectly to the music. Even though their son, Zachary, may have been mortified, Joey and Trina brought down the house with their expert shagging. Trina then demonstrated some Carolina clogging (the official folk dance of North Carolina). When it was time to leave and as I was bringing up the rear (as I always do on tour), an elderly Irish woman grabbed me by the hand and thanked me for bringing my group to the pub. She told me that everyone around her enjoyed watching the American students as they listened to the music, and they loved watching the couple who danced. And here I was feeling a bit worried that we might have intruded on the locals.

The Emerald Isle is one of my favorite tour destinations, and I have been there several times. However, Ireland in the spring of 2001 had a lot of worries. In March 2001, Ireland experienced its first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since 1941. Before my group departed for Ireland, my tour consultant warned me about the possibility of many places being closed to tourists. The foot-and-mouth disease would have a negative impact not only on Irish agriculture but also on Irish tourism. I did not want to set a personal precedent of cancelling an EF tour, so we departed to Ireland with the hope that the luck of the Irish would be with us. We ended up having a fantastic tour, thanks to our expert tour director, a successful consolidation and the welcoming arms of the Irish people. Everything on our itinerary ended up being open. Stepping on “disinfectant mats” and cleaning our shoes were minor inconveniences.

Our 2001 tour even took us to Northern Ireland (a part of the United Kingdom), where we not only enjoyed our time visiting Derry but also felt quite safe and comfortable, even with the manned British army surveillance towers around the city (British troops would not leave Northern Ireland until 2007). To understand some of Derry’s history, we walked on top of the old city walls and toured the murals of the Bogside, where a 1972 clash between thousands of marching civilians and British troops resulted in the deaths of 13 unarmed Catholic protesters, an event known as “Bloody Sunday.” The murals, including a young man in a gas mask with a Molotov cocktail in his hand, provide a stark pictorial lesson of “The Troubles.”

My daughter, Ruth, was also on this tour, and she went on to spend a semester studying at the University of Ulster, located outside of Belfast. The wonderful times I spent in Ireland on several EF tours made her decision to study in Northern Ireland a very easy one for me to support. I remember the time of “The Troubles” (from the late 1960s to the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998). I never thought I would end up sending my daughter to study in Northern Ireland. Time has a way of changing many things. This is the reason why teachers should not shy away from taking students to sites that may have a troubling or even violent past. There are so many lessons to be learned when you visit such sites.

Ireland Folk Park The Great Famine is a turning point in history for both Ireland and America. A visit to the Ulster-American Folk Park can help students understand the magnitude of this tragedy. An outdoor museum, it commemorates the Irish emigration experience by showing their lives before they sailed to America, their ordeal on the “coffin” ships, and their arrival in America during the 19th century. Located outside of Omagh in Northern Ireland, the folk park has many reconstructed 19th-century homes and businesses (at left), including a one-room cottage showing life before the potato crops failed in the 1840s, a forge, a schoolhouse and a post office. The costumed guides and craftspeople answer visitors’ questions, and they help to create a unique living history experience.

A trip to the Emerald Isle does not have to be all about history. There is so much spectacular and dramatic natural beauty. In Northern Ireland, we went to see the Giant’s Causeway, a World Heritage site famous for its 55-million-year-old hexagonal columns or pillars that form a honeycombed pathway to the sea. In Ireland, we visited the Cliffs of Moher, a breathtaking five-mile stretch of cliffs that are hundreds of feet high. I have seen several films that were shot in Ireland that feature the Cliffs of Moher. Seeing places where you have been in films is one of the joys of travel.

Your visit to the Emerald Isle would not be complete without a journey on the Ring of Kerry (or the Iveragh Peninsula). Back in 2001, due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak, our coach was one of the very few vehicles that made the 112-mile trip around the Ring of Kerry that day. A return tour in 2008 was more crowded, but that did not take anything away from the memorable scenery of the Irish coast. Some of the stops you make along the Ring of Kerry are pretty interesting, including a stop in the town of Sneem, whose local hero is Steve “Crusher” Casey, a world champion heavyweight wrestler (1937-47). One of my favorite stops is a restaurant and pub that has a side entrance called “The Vixens’ Den.” It’s an obligatory group photo stop for all of the girls and women in my group.

 Don’t be ashamed to do “touristy” things, and in Ireland, that includes a riding in a jaunting car (horse and carriage) to tour Killarney National Parklands and the famous lakes of Killarney. I was in Ireland for the first time in April 1998, and my group booked the jaunting cars even though it was snowing. All of the seats in the carriage were filled by the students, and I ended up sitting next to the driver, who certainly had the “gift of the gab.” It was freezing cold, but that did not take away from his enthusiasm or ours. The jaunting car passed by some mistletoe hanging from the trees, and the driver (at right) put a branch over my head and gave me a big kiss. I heard my daughter, Ruth, exclaim, “That’s my mama you’re kissing!” I told Ruth, “Don’t tell Daddy!” We were back in Ireland in 2001 and this time with my husband on tour. We ended up getting the same driver. and I went up to the guy and cheekily asked, “Hello, do you remember me?” He replied, “Of course, darling.” I had to remind Ruth not to say anything to her father.

Another “touristy” excursion my groups enjoyed is one to Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone. No doubt the driver of that jaunting car has kissed it many times. You try not to think about the thousands of other tourists who have kissed the stone before you. During my March 2008 tour, my group and I were making regular live reports from Ireland to the local radio station in Cheraw with my EF international cell phone. I went on the radio station’s morning program the week before we left to discuss our tour, and the station manager asked me to call in with regular reports. Everyone went on the air, including my tour director, my coach driver, a local guide in Belfast and, of course, all of my students. One student ended his radio report about kissing the Blarney Stone by saying that he was live from “Barney Castle.”

My group spent Easter Sunday in 2008 in Galway, and my EF Tour Director, Tony McGrath, was able to arrange for all of us to attend a service at the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, the largest medieval church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship. According to local legend, Christopher Columbus worshiped at this church in 1477. The rector delivered an inspiring Easter homily and even referenced “the visiting students and teacher from South Carolina” in his remarks. After the service, tea and biscuits (cookies) were served, and we were able to mingle with the rector and his congregation. It’s a plus when your students get a chance to interact with locals.

Returning to a country where you have visited once before will reap richer experiences and many more fond memories. I love to return to places and perhaps to encounter some of the same people I’ve met before. As you choose your upcoming tours, you may want to revisit a place. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela writes, “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Travel has certainly altered me. Please consider Ireland as a tour destination. You might as well go ahead and make plans to return to the Emerald Isle.

(Editor’s note: Add Gail on Google+ If you have a question about for EF Group Leader Gail Ingram, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Gail here, and she will answer readers’ questions in future blog posts.)