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Muckross Abbey Nov. 1998

Impressions from my trip to Ireland

    Ireland drew me forth from Seattle. In November 1998, after spending my whole life within Canada and the U.S., I ventured abroad. Why? It was inexpensive, easy to escape Seattle in November, and I had the chance to go with friends. These pages briefly summarize my two weeks worth of impressions. If I saw representative people, landscapes and architecture, my account should supply an accurate overview of Ireland -- as experienced by a first-time visitor from Seattle.
    Ireland is an old island, its hills low and gentle, most of the land less than 500 feet from sea level; the high point about 3,400 feet. The forests are largely logged, replaced with farms, pastures and the built environment. Most of the land is scantily populated and rural; people cluster densely in towns and cities. Dublin is the greatest city, a world-famous metropolis, rich in history, romance, grand architecture, far older than any North American city. Some Dublin buildings are still in use though constructed originally in the 13th century. Where most North American cities are laid out in rectangular grids, with skyscrapers downtown, Dublin is different. Its streets, as seen on a map, look more like the web of a drunken spider. Most buildings in Dublin are four stories or fewer. Churches often stand out prominently as towering landmarks. Dublin's vast treasures alone might've occupied all two weeks of my trip. Still I would've only begun to explore it. I desire to spend more time there.
    Dublin is the most costly place we visited, at least in accommodations and dining. I don't begrudge the added expense. To have bypassed Dublin and stayed only in the country or small towns would have deprived us of a splendid center of humanity. One hostel there was $15 per night, whereas the lowest per person elsewhere was half that.
    Among other things, Dublin boasts Europe's largest urban park, and the world's largest brewery. In 1759 Arthur Guiness took out a lease for -- get this -- 9,000 years, and began brewing an extra stout porter, which has become Ireland's most famous beverage. The marketing of Guiness stout exceeds all bounds of scale we're accustomed to here. Four million pints a day can be produced. So, when in Ireland, visit a pub, order a pint, and gently bid hello to the natives. If you dislike cigarette smoke, know that smoking is taken for granted, and non-smoking sections do not necessarily exist. You can sample various pubs, and find one whose atmosphere, music, decor and clientele suit your taste. They vary greatly. I patronized about 20 pubs during my entire trip, and drank 30 pints. These 6,600 calories of beer cost almost $100.
    It is ironic that recently an English company bought the Guiness firm. Englishmen are largely frowned upon in Ireland, if not hated, since in times past great wrongs were inflicted upon the Irish by the English. But Americans meet with round approval. Ireland's mainstays economically are tourism and beer. The woolen goods, lace, crystal and whatnot are "small potatoes" in comparison.
    All over Ireland stonework is abundant, very unlike North America. Over millenia, people labored to clear stones from fields, to build walls, tombs, towers, churches, castles and more. Of the stone sites we saw, more than one dated to 3,000 years B.C. Northwest of Dublin, in County Meath, is the most famous of such neolithic sites: Newgrange, a passage tomb older than the pyramids of Egypt, older than Stonehenge or any other structure in Europe. Nearly 100 stones the size of bathtubs were laid carefully in a circle covering more than an acre, and elaborate walls and ceilings built, including quartz and granite imported from 40 miles away. Consisting of more than 200,000 tons of weight, Newgrange tomb is still watertight after more than 5,000 years! When the sun sinks lowest on the winter solstice, its beams penetrate 60 feet into the erstwhile utter blackness of the tomb, illuminating it in what surely was a sacred experience.
    Thousands of less ancient, but still fascinating, beautiful stone structures exist. Many are largely in ruins. Nonetheless they command respect. It is common to see graveyards still used, though the first burials were done 500 or 1,000 or 1,500 years ago. Lichens, wind, and rain, patiently erase the engraved inscriptions on the crosses; shifting soil in concert with gravity tilts many a headstone. Sheep frequently graze among the monuments. Rusty gates and stiles squeak in the ever present wind. Such hallowed places are infinitely more interesting than modern American cemeteries, bland with putting-green, edged lawns and flat, polished headstones.
    The calm present is evidently a recent luxury in Ireland (Northern Ireland sadly excepted). The past was bloody, as mutely testified by numerous fortified stone structures such as round towers, defensive walls and moats. Vikings, Normans, Cromwellian troops and others periodically raided Ireland. It may be Ireland's past was actually no more tumultuous and warlike than that of many other people, but the many conspicuous stone ruins definitely make an unforgettable impression. I in particular am drawn to stones, as a building material, so therefore am doubtless more awed and moved by what I see than are most observers. Every time I touched a wall, I thought of how much the rocks weighed, of how long the construction required, of the details I appreciated, or the things I would've done differently if it had been mine own task. Upon returning I was enthusiastic to build another rock wall in my garden.
    Plant life in Ireland recalled Seattle and its country surroundings, insofar as the everyday roadside flora has similar dominant species: grasses, bracken fern, stinging nettle, dandelion, blackberry, hawthorn trees, creeping buttercup, wild roses, ivy, etc. No Irish plant species look identical to our Seattle versions, but most are very similar; it is interesting to note subtle differences. In general the Irish plants are smaller than their Seattle counterparts. The blackberries are less overwhelmingly rambunctious. Irish ivy has brighter green, glossier, smaller leaves; it climbs trees just as readily. A major factor inhibiting many Seattle plants is our near lack of summer rainfall. But in Ireland rain falls plentifully year-round, enabling many plants to thrive there which would dry in Seattle. In particular, plants grow abundantly on stone walls there. Kenilworth ivy, polypody fern, and pellitory-of-the-wall are most common. In Seattle these plants grow only on moist sites, or at any rate not on bare, windswept, sun-exposed walls.
    Besides ample summer rainfall, Ireland also lacks hot sunny weather. Its position in the far northern Atlantic region results in few heat units. The winters, too, are buffered by moist oceanic air, and this fact, plus the low elevation, keeps temperatures mild. Freezes are rare, mild, and brief. Hence many subtropical plants can be cultivated. At Glengariff of southwest Ireland grows a Eucalyptus tree whose trunk is more than 7 feet thick. In Seattle freezes would kill such a tree before it attained anywhere half as large. Tree ferns, fuchsias and myrtles run wild in various gardens. Serious weed problems include Rhododendron ponticum from Asia Minor, and in some gardens Seattle's salal (Gaultheria Shallon). Where sheep overgraze heavily, native gorse and rushes sometimes dominate vast areas -- the former too prickly, the latter too pithy for sheep. All in all, Ireland offers a gardener's ideal climate for its mild, moist weather; but it is considerably windy, damp, and less than warm enough to be deemed perfect by many people. The wind is frequently annoyingly strong.
    In various parks and arboreta stand thrilling trees to see, grandly huge, aged specimens, far larger than any known of their kind in Seattle -- if not North America. But in painful contrast there is the generally barren countryside, mostly long ago logged. Most forests seen are gigantic plantations of non-native conifers. The average residential or farm garden is utterly dull, no better than here. Many if not most of the finest gardens were founded by English residing in Ireland. The love of landscape gardening and artful horticulture is stronger in England than Ireland. If I return to Ireland I shall certainly spend far more time exploring gardens and plant collections. Some members of my group judged the trip's highlight to be visiting Kilmacurragh, an abandoned estate garden in the southeast, near Rathdrum, County Wicklow. We saw its towering, tree-sized rhodies, its massive southern hemisphere plants, its 200 year old oak avenue, and were enthralled. Plans are modestly underway to reclaim the garden as part of the National Botanic Garden collection.
    Across the country, in county Tipperary, we visited Clonmel garden centre at Glenconnor House. We found this nursery better stocked than any we knew in North America. Its trees bewildered me, they were so abundant, diverse, rare and well labeled. It was amusing to see even Seattle's common red alder for sale. Some of the trees I had not seen before, or had only read about in books.
    One aspect of Irish life which struck me as sad was the general lack of recycling facilities. Litter is deplorably common, and recycling containers rare. In the usage of peat as fuel, as well as the treatment of the land, the Irish demonstrate only a budding ecological concern. It gives me renewed pride in Seattle's progressive approach toward land and conservation. Ireland needs more trees, fewer sheep, more gardening, less waste, more recycling. Thus much is my social criticism. I can balance it by pointing out that the Irish newspapers make those of Seattle look amateurish, even childish. And the Irish graciousness and friendliness is a welcome respite from some of the common surliness of Americans. The Irish people we met were uniformly welcoming and made us feel good. To get to know their ways, their work, their talk, their food and drink, and music, was an honor and education. I have not a single regret about the time or money I spent. It was a wonderful trip.

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    Anyone interested in a trip to Ireland? The leader of my successful tour was Brigid Jo Hurley. She has travelled there 11 times. Her trips are limited to few people, and are superb. Airfare, ground transport, accomodations and meals are covered in the fee. For more information contact Brigid Jo Hurley. (In 2008 an Irish online forum devoted to gardening started. Visit it at (www.gardenplansireland.com))



Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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