Tag Archives: Ireland

My Irish Weekend Part 4: In Faeries’ Wake

Ireland is very much in touch with its ancient self. I think I mentioned this in part one. It feels old. It feels ancient in a way my home country doesn’t. The U.K has plenty of ancient things, but they’re all at odds with everything else around them. And that’s the difference- Ireland feels like an ancient land.

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Elizabeth and George would take me down to the lake at the back of their country house. We’d sit on a large rock with our feet in the water and drink beer. There were no boats out on the lake and no cabins and no docks. Just the reeds blowing in the wind and the faint outlines of mountains on the other side. George smoked his pipe while Elizabeth pulled bottle after bottle out of her dungarees like a magician performing a circus trick. There were no paths leading to the lake and the whole place was just so natural and untouched. It was awkward making our way through the undergrowth; it was a place wholly disinterested in catering to the desires of Man- and that’s what made it special.

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There are no shops or amenities of any kind near the house. No footpaths and no communities. Only farms, and one or two other such isolated cottages. We made our fun just walking down the roads as far as our legs would go, talking tirelessly about everything from political ideologies to petty gossip. We stopped at several pastures to boop the animals that greeted us.

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We found a path made wholly of daisies that led into the woods, that supposedly was left there by the faeries. We followed it and came out the other side in the shadow of a small castle. It was completely deserted and uncommercialized. Past the castle a different side of the same lake. The lake is too big, and we had walked to far, for us to be able to see the house. At this point we had been walking for about two hours. We continued to follow the shoreline, passing an empty football field and a few country homes. A local gentleman greeted us and chatted briefly with Elizabeth about the unforgiving Wisconsin winters.

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We found ourselves next at some ruins. There had been a chapel here or something. Centuries ago. I took a picture of Elizabeth wearing the Hungarian scarf I had bought her in Szentendre. She grinned at the camera as she stood beneath a stone archway, and I realized that she has the same smile as her mother and her sister. It’s very distinctive. It dominates the face, and speaks to a hereditary sweetness.

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The next day George dropped Elizabeth and I at a pub on his way to work. It was a small place and the menu only had two options. We decided to get ourselves a roast dinner, and I opted for my first ever Guinness. I figured I had no choice really. When else would I be in an authentic Irish pub? I got a photo of me with the foam mustache like the trend-following social media whore I’ve become. Elizabeth and I did some people watching as we drank our beers and ate our gravy-lathered beef. It was the only place for miles around, with no municipal body to call home except a crossroads through the bogs. It served the farmers and country folk around it, and in its own way the pub was the center of community. Most of the people there were watching a sport known as Hurling, which I had never heard of, but which I have since come to learn is 4000 years old. It’s kind of like Gaelic lacrosse I guess? But with the temperament of Canadian ice hockey; the old lady at the bar was quite animated, dropping F-bombs left, right, and center.

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The pub has an adjoining convenience store with a few things for sale like scratch cards and onions. I said we should get George something to surprise him with when he gets home from work. I asked Elizabeth what her husband’s greatest vice was.

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“Jaffa Cakes,” she said instantly. Jaffa Cakes. They power him like a punch card activates an animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disney World. They are to him what a murdered uncle is to Spiderman. Or something like that. Anyway, we got him some Jaffa Cakes, and walked home.

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My Irish Weekend Part 3: Ode to a Compost Converter

As I stated in part one, any discussion of my trip to Ireland is impossible if not told through the lens of my friendship with George and Elizabeth. No blade of green Irish grass exists, without the framing device of these two people, upon which it depends. There is no smell of gorse, there is no twinkle in the eye of curious dairy cows, and no flicker of church candles, unless given life from George and Elizabeth. Ireland is opened up through them; there is no other way in. And this is because, unlike Budapest, I was not in Ireland on official Tumbleweed business. As I said- I was desperate to see my friends, and in that sense my trip was wholly self-serving. There was no mission statement; I was just following an urge- a gnawing, biological impulse- which is the need for companionship and the redress of separation anxiety. I wasn’t buying plane tickets with the excitement of seeing windswept castles and jagged white cliffs. I was very much going there to soothe an open wound, to cauterize the ache that comes with missing people to whom you form strong attachments. I’m not really ashamed of that. And it’s worth pointing out this self-centered motivation, because I don’t want to do Ireland a disservice- nor indeed my readers- by pretending that this is a focused and objective account of the country. It’s not. As I told Elizabeth- I would have visited her if she and her husband were living in a Wampa ice cave on Svalbard, with nothing to do except get cozy in the slit-up abdomens of walruses while eating curried reindeer. The place was not a factor to me- but, I knew that wherever they chose to settle, it would become one of fascination to me, whose aesthetics I would attach inexorably to George and Elizabeth’s personalities. I would cherish these rows of gorse and miles of peat bogs, these tranquil lakes and cutesy farmyard animals, as playing a role in their continuum as a couple. Therefore it was inevitable that whatever I saw, I would in some way romanticize it.

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So, unlike Budapest, I didn’t have a bucket list. I just wanted to soak up as much of their personalities as possible. I wanted Elizabeth to do as many theatrical comedy routines and tell as many shock-value “pipefitter jokes” as she could. I wanted quintessential, vintage Elizabeth at her rowdy best. I was not disappointed. Throughout the whole five days I was there, the three of us talked without pause from sun-up to sundown. By noon every day my throat hurt, but I went on talking anyway. The entire trip was a five-day conversation, in which the only moments of silence were the hours in which we slept.

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We spent our time at their house, sitting by the lake, or going for walks in the surrounding countryside. The house, to me, was a symptom of George and Elizabeth’s romantic worldview. When I got out of the car, I knew that there could be no other house for them. This place was straight out of a fairy tale. It could have been one of those ceramic miniature cottages you see for sale in gift shops. The thatched roof, the hanging kerosene lamp, the cobblestone walls, the little red gate, the Dutch door with its bottom-half shut, the lilacs growing down the wall like Nature’s tapestry, were all qualities that spoke to George and Elizabeth’s collective identity.

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As we stepped inside I told them that the house reminded me of the holiday homes from my childhood vacations to places like Wales, Devon, and Normandy; the downstairs a single room, no TV, windows flung open, a few troublesome houseflies, great wooden roofbeams holding up the ceiling. There was no TV and no Playstation- instead; there were boxes of audiobooks and old board games. It gave me the feeling of being on vacation, and Elizabeth echoed this sentiment, saying that the house had a vibe not unlike that of her family’s summer cabin in the Wisconsin northwoods. It was just so charmingly disconnected from urban life. Aside from its romantic, rural qualities, I was also struck by how “lived-in” it felt. They had really furnished the place into a home, a place of their own, a place of love. The house was brought to life by the little things- the tins of spices and teas on the old shelves, George’s handsome collection of tobacco pipes, the framed photos of them together that made ascension of the staircase a timeline of their relationship- which caused me to think of the house as a house of marriage. Elizabeth delighted in showing me their honeymoon photos, kept in large old school albums underneath the wooden coffee table. We drank beer that she and George had brewed themselves. When the horse in field opposite the house started staring at us through the window, we cut up some apples and went out to feed him. We sat on a large rock by the lake and marveled that all this was even happening, ticking off all the coincidences on memory lane that contrived to bring a country girl raised in the shadow of Lambeau Field and a kilt-wearing Oxfordshire Brit to building a life together in the western Irish countryside- as well as the little coincidences that facilitated my humble cameo to their story. It’s quite a thing, I said.

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Staying with them in this house, I got to know George and Elizabeth on a deeper level. I was really experiencing them for the first time as a married couple, as homeowners, and as a family. And they revealed themselves at once to be gracious and natural hosts. I always get embarrassed when I’m being waited on hand and foot, but I couldn’t help enjoying seeing them this way. George and Elizabeth love to entertain. Throughout my whole stay I was lovingly tended to; scarcely a moment passed when I was not handed a beer or outfitted with an extra cushion. Knowing as intimately as anyone my history of mental health issues, they enquired often about how I was feeling. At one point I was even set up in a hammock, and brought a plate of sausages that had been boiled in cider and barbecued. Now this is living, I thought, feeling the sun warm on my closed eyelids and the fresh, country air rising in my nostrils. George and Elizabeth made me feel like the Sultan of Brunei, treating me with such affection that they resisted all attempts on my part to give a helping hand. One of the highlights of my trip was our adventure to the hardware store. We excitedly purchased one of those massive, Robby-the-Robot-shaped compost converters and hurried back to the homestead to assemble it. When it was ready for use, we each pinched our noses with laundry pegs (which fucking hurt like a sonuvabitch I might add) and proceeded to dump as much rank waste inside as possible. With the lid open, George held up the garbage bags while his wife tried cutting out the bottom with rusty garden shears. When Elizabeth started making a series of retching noises, I insisted they let me help.

“WE COULDN’T POSSIBLY.”

“Liz, you’re about to barf,” I said.

“OKAY.”

So I took the shears from her and finished the job, stabbing at the swollen black refuse sack like a Jedi Knight would the pregnant gut of a pot-bellied rancor. After penetrating the bulging sack I had to act fast as the smell of rancid trash grew ever thicker- as though the mortally wounded beast aimed to take us down with her- and I cut crossways with the shears. An immense feeling of accomplishment and self-worth came over me as the entrails burst forth, and our mission was complete.

My Irish Weekend Part 2: A Rural Snapshot

One of the most common observations Americans make upon seeing the United Kingdom for the first time is how small the roads are and the cars that use them. In fact, it was this very observation that gave me my inspiration to take up blogging in the first place. In the spring of 2016, my friend Marielle, a Wisconsinite, traveled to the U.K to study at The University of Winchester- which just so happens to be my alma mater. She started blogging immediately about everything she noticed regarding life in England. Nothing touristy, but the subtle everyday stuff- the kind of stuff I’m interested in. I eagerly kept up with her blog and decided it was something I’d like to try as well. Write what you like to read, as they say. Anyway, I distinctly remember her characterizing the cars she saw in the U.K as being like “little clown cars” or “bumper cars”. It’s true- everything in the U.K is smaller, everything crammed in. Well, that’s kind of how I felt when I set foot in Ireland. I felt like an American tourist seeing England for the first time.

As quaint and old and slow-paced as the U.K is to an American, Ireland to me seemed even quainter, even older, and even slower. I really did get the sense that I was traveling back in time. By comparison the U.K seemed like a slick capitalist metropolis. The roads in Ireland seemed smaller and less busy. The cars looked old. The infrastructure in general seemed smaller, and less developed, less modern. The stores didn’t have as much variety of products. But don’t get me wrong- I’m not castigating the country for these deficiencies, I’m celebrating it. It’s also worth mentioning that I was never far from the country’s western coast, so my visit was exceedingly rural. As always when I write about a place, I am describing it as it existed according to my impressions of it. The Ireland of my visit was one of cattle guards and moss-covered stone walls. My impression of the place was that it was less flashy and less commercialized than both the U.K and the USA. I found its “deficiencies” to be very charming, and given that Ireland has consistently ranked highly in terms of “quality of life” perhaps these folks are on to something. It felt good not to be faced with a sea of billboards and neon signs and strip malls and car dealerships. Ireland offered me a return to place we don’t often get the chance to revisit in today’s bustling world. It felt more connected to the ways of the past- there were no harsh juxtapositions, but rather a smooth and steady blending of cultures and lifestyles.

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The second thing I noticed was the prevalence of the Irish language in signposts. I guess I was ignorant as to how widespread Gaelic was. I knew that there was a native, presumably Celtic, language that was the language of the island. But I hadn’t expected to see it in a functional capacity. This pleased me. I’m one of those people that can’t sleep at night for fear of losing things forever, whether it’s the Cornish Language or a Leatherback Sea Turtle. So I was glad to see there was a defiant blip on the Gaelic heart monitor yet.

The third thing I noticed, once we had left the Shannon airport, was how inundated I now was with greenery. It’s often said how green the grass is in Ireland and now that I’ve been, I can confirm it ain’t fancy talk. Driving through the countryside of western Ireland your eyes are assaulted by the richest greens you can imagine in the way of grass, hedges, moss, deciduous tree leaves and so on. It was really beautiful.

I’ve never seen so many farms (and cows) in my life. All the farms were bordered by stone walls rather than fences, which I couldn’t help but notice. And the farmyard animals in Ireland are all outrageously extroverted. I’m not even joking here- every time we walked past a farm, the cows and horses would come over to us and stare at us as though expecting our craniums to pop open and project the bingiest of Netflix originals from a hidden antenna. I couldn’t help but think they were bored. But it was a really special experience. I patted several cows and horses during my trip and they were all keen to get as close to us as the stone walls would permit. They were really friendly.

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If I could point to one defining image as being a snapshot of western Ireland however, it would probably be the rows of gorse across the peat bogs. We drove past a lot of bogs and they seemed quite big. They were flat expanses of land that went on for miles, that seemed completely untouched by human interference. They really struck me as wild. And the bright yellow flowers of the gorse shrub have such an arresting beauty- your eyes are drawn straight to them. It’s an image I hope I never forget.

My Irish Weekend Part 1: “The Happiest Place on Earth”

When I started writing blog posts that included references to real people, TumbleweedWrites was still in its infancy, and I was ignorant of the ethics of such a thing. I took advice from my roommates- who, being central figures in my life, feature in a lot of my posts- about what was the right thing to do. I made a commitment then to always use pseudonyms when referring to real people, and (perhaps more importantly) to never include mention of a person’s address or place of work. With a glass of Captain Morgan in my hand and a border collie nuzzling against my hip, I went through all my previous posts and edited them accordingly.

As a general rule, I try to avoid writing about people unless they give necessary context to a post. I think that’s just good practice- whether you are writing a short story or an article- to leave out any extraneous details, to make sure that every sentence relates to the overarching theme. And a digression into something that only makes sense to myself and a handful of chums would only diminish the quality of the piece.

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Today, I will be breaking both of these rules- but not without valid reason. Firstly- I will be giving the actual name of a place. However, this place is a business operated by my friend’s uncle, so its address is already in the public sphere. Secondly, any adventure I have with Elizabeth becomes inextricably linked to her character, so my descriptions of the places I went and the things I did will be infused with insights into her personality. It would be impossible to narrate something as simple as going to the DMV with her without revealing some aspect of her wit. In fact I’ve done that- and it was hilarious.

Elizabeth has featured a few times on this blog. Diligent readers will remember her from such posts as Our Only May Amelia and Lamb Boobs. I first met the lady I call “Elizabeth” in 2012 through her older brother Aaron. And to this day she still comes out with stuff that completely catches me off-guard. I think that’s one of the defining things about being friends with her; even her siblings will be left dumbstruck by some of her jokes. In that way, she is utterly unique. The effectiveness of her humor comes from a perfect storm of juxtapositions that makes remarks that shouldn’t be surprising to those who know her seem as fresh and shocking as if you just met. She’s neither a girly-girl nor a tomboy. She can be cooing about how “precious” a fluffy lamb is one minute, tying daisy-chains into my hair and calling me “doll”, before turning around and uttering something so crude that we can only categorize it as “pipefitter humor”. She would be just as much at home shotgunning beer in the center of a rave as she would be going through stamp collections in the company of an old bat with a goiter the size of Azerbaijan. No description I give can really do her justice or give you a truthful account of her persona. She’s an actress, a singer, a dancer, an archeologist, a historian, a swimming instructor, a pre-school teacher, a writer, a comedian, a scholar, a prom queen, a roller-blader, an audio-cassette enthusiast, a Pokemon trainer, and she’s fluent in Swedish. In high school she was voted the friendliest kid in her grade. I look at Elizabeth and I see flashes of Scout Finch’s sass, Tom Sawyer’s thirst for mischief, Mad-Eye-Moody’s wildness, Ella Fitzgerald’s rhythm, and Bob Ross’s chilled-out oneness with the universe- but those are just impressions, and not really that helpful. They say more about my associative thought processes than Elizabeth herself, because in truth she is none of those things; she is simply Elizabeth.

Her husband George is similarly hard to categorize or draw comparisons to. He asked me during my stay at their house what my preconceptions of him were prior to meeting him, and I couldn’t really give an answer. I had no idea what Elizabeth’s soulmate might look like, because Elizabeth herself doesn’t fit a certain mold. I answered that I could remember being very curious who such a person might be like; everything from his accent down to his moral values. I had no idea what to expect- what was the perfect match supposed to look like? After meeting him, however, their relationship seemed to make perfect sense. Their personalities seem almost tailor-made for one another- which is not to say that George is simply a male Elizabeth. It’s more like they are two pieces of a functioning whole, and I had a great time in the company of that dynamic synergy. George is just as quirky and unique as his spouse, and I am convinced that if I met him first, I would have been similarly stumped as to who in the heck would turn out to be his other half.

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Even though George and Elizabeth came to visit me in January, I began to miss them terribly. After just a few weeks I was desperate to see them again. They had just moved to Ireland and I lamented how out of reach my close friends were- but such is adult life; I think your 20s really are the decade you begin to realize just how important people are to you. I had so much to talk to them about that I was sending them 10-minute voice messages on Whatsapp every time I walked home from the warehouse. A weekend was agreed in which I could visit them, and the timing could not have been better. I got a dirt cheap flight to Shannon and a couple days off of work, which, combined with the bank holiday Monday, gave me five precious days with my American family.

Getting to Shannon from Bristol was the easiest flight I’ve ever had. We had barely been in the air for half an hour before the captain told us to sit our asses back down and buckle up for landing. The customs process was as smooth for us as gaining admittance to a Mad-town frat party is for the owner of a D-Cup bust. The duty free was full of jerseys for the Irish rugby team. It’s a tiny little airport but very neat and super-relaxed. Before I knew it I was outside, breathing foreign air for the fourth time this year. That’s always the first thing I think about when I exit an airport- the air. I always seem to be trying to get a feel for the wind and- I know this sounds crazy- in that moment it always seems different. I look at the sky and the trees and the cars and I think about how I’m in a new land with its own customs and history. I think about the lives of ordinary locals who look at what I’m seeing with as much familiarity as I would the sky, the trees, and the cars that pass through my peripheral vision in my hometown. I obsess about that sort of thing- the lives people lead in other places, and whether or not they disregard as “ordinary” the aesthetics that are for me so fresh and exotic. And I’m not even talking monkey-puzzle-exotic or pagoda-exotic; I was staring at parked Ford Fiestas, chain-link fences, and the brick backs of pubs where disgruntled employees sucked on cigarettes while taking the bins out.

Whenever I meet George and Elizabeth we do this big group hug thing. It’s more than a little bit adorable, and it always acts as a way to quickly soothe my built-up anxiety and loneliness. My trip to Ireland was convenient for a number of reasons- I was feeling particularly melancholy and stressed at the time. I’ve come to terms with the fact that depression isn’t really something I can permanently exorcise from my existence; however much progress I make it will always be there, and it comes and goes in its intensity like the tide. When it comes around, it has a way of magnifying everything I feel and think so that little worries become big ones. But standing in the Shannon airport parking lot with each of them under my armpit I felt a different kind of tide, a happiness washing over me, the cleansing effect of which I can best describe as “soothing”. Sometimes I think of depression as being like a balloon in my skull that grows in size, and as it gets fatter I become less rational, more agitated, and it’s hard to think or communicate- but then something comes along and pops it, and all the toxic air is farted away. And there I am- my mind is my own again.

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As we drove through the Irish countryside Elizabeth threw packets of Salt & Vinegar crisps at me from a giant bag between her knees. For some reason they had the mother-load of this particular flavor. I never asked why and they never explained, and it’s entirely possible with them that they were fresh off an impromptu heist of the Walkers factory.

“We gotta surprise for yoooou,” Elizabeth trilled excitedly.

The surprise was a visit to George’s aunt and uncle, who run an award-winning fairy garden outside of Limerick. It’s called Terra Nova and you should totally go if you’re ever in the area. It’s ranked number one on TripAdvisor out of 116 things to do in the Limerick area. I’m always surprised when people I know turn out to be successful for some reason. It’s like I never considered that the people behind roadside diners, traveling circuses, and baboon sanctuaries were real.

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We arrived at Terra Nova before it opened, and I was lucky enough to be given a free private tour. At first when Elizabeth told me that her husband would be serving as my tour guide, I just assumed that she meant it in that casual way a gracious dinner host would say “I’ll give ya the tour.”

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But it turned out that I was getting an official, scripted tour. George picked up the Terra Nova leaflet and looked back at his wife.

“Why don’t you tell it, dear? You’re so good at it.”

“No. You tell it much better than I do!” she insisted, and I could tell that Terra Nova really had become a second home for them.

George cleared his throat and put a hand on my shoulder.

The tour wasn’t, as I would have assumed, a string of facts about the flora or the history of the garden. The tour was a story. It was an original fairy tale, blossoming with creativity and whimsy, that brought to life the plethora of gnomes and hobbits and other statues throughout the garden. I was in awe of how detailed it was- going in depth into the habits and neuroticisms of the garden’s inhabitants. Because I’m lazy, I probably wouldn’t read a written tour if it were handed to me, and if I had come by myself it is likely that I would have missed out on this imaginative experience. George led me from one part of the garden to the next, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

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What struck me about the garden were the little details. It seemed that every possible corner, alcove, and space was crammed with eclectic faerie motifs- and each with its own story to tell. Elizabeth told me that she discovers something new every time she visits. You really can’t rush through this place- there’s so much to see that it’s easy to miss something. When you first arrive it looks smaller than it actually is, because there are no wide open spaces. The whole place is made up of tiny, enclosed grottoes and narrow footpaths shaded by thick canopies. You go from one little area to the next and remark “Well heck, there’s more!”

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George’s uncle joined us for some scalding-hot instant coffee by the pond, and told us how he is always adding to the place, thinking up new stories to tell. It’s such an interesting and quirky place, and you’d be remiss to leave it out of your trip if you find yourself in the greater Limerick area. I lamented that I was only stopping by; if I were a local I would come to Terra Nova on my weekends and just read in one of the gazeboes. It’s so serene and enchanting. It actually won the title “The Best Garden in Ireland”, but I prefer Elizabeth’s name for it: “The Happiest Place on Earth”.

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Wanna know more about Terra Nova Gardens? Click here to see their website!