Hi, Gunther here again. I’ve resumed posting now that the adults have returned from their sojourn over to the Emerald Isle.
Even though I wasn’t there…I’ve discussed the pros and cons of going to Ireland extensively with Neil and Connie this week and thought that it might be appropriate to pass along a few observations, tips, cautions and whatevers just in case you ever think about going over there.
Ireland does a lot of things right…and while the converse of that might be that they do a lot of things wrong it’s more correct to say that they do a lot of things differently. Some small number of those might seem wrong to us but hey…it’s their country so I’m not about to tell them they’re wrong.
So…things that Ireland really gets right.
Top of the list is gas mileage in vehicles and the cost of driving. We spend a lot of time in America driving huge, gas guzzling cars for no true purpose other than we want big, fancy, and expensive. Ireland in particular…and I guess Europe in general…has actually proven that you can have cars that get good mileage and still get the job done. Most of their time was spent on the road with a 4 door VW Golf. Not a huge car but big enough and they averaged over 45 miles per gallon the whole time. A lot of this is done by tricks like using diesel engines instead of gasoline, having the car stop when you pull up to a traffic light and start again when you take your foot off the brakes to start up again, and having 7 (yep, 7) speed auto transmissions even in basic economy cars like a Golf to maximize fuel efficiency. With gas at an effective price of $7.50 a gallon for diesel (gas was 40 or 50 cents more) in the Republic’s when paying Euros and about $8.70 a gallon when paying in Pounds Sterling in Northern Ireland they have to be frugal. So…people have the size car they need and not the largest one they can afford. BTW…paying that much for fuel didn’t kill the economy over there either Of course…having smaller cars makes it easier to drive on their narrow roads…see things they do different later.
Second would be the service industry. While it’s common in America to pay waiters or bartenders a wage less than the minimum wage and force them to depend on potential tips to make a living…tipping is very rare in Ireland. The servers get a salary they can live on for doing their jobs…and strangely enough it hasn’t killed the restaurant business or bar business.
Pubs…we don’t really have anything like an Irish pub in America. We have bars and upscale restaurants but very few that have the atmosphere, great conversation, and generally nice-place-to-be attitude of an Irish pub. We ate most of our meals in pubs and usually sat at the bar (you meet a whole better class of people sitting at the bar then you do sitting by yourself with your family at a separated table.
Friendly people…we really found everybody in Ireland to be extremely polite, helpful and genuinely glad to meet us and either explain some intricacy of soccer (since the World Cup was going on while we were there), or correct a misinterpretation of something Irish (there were several of those along the way).
Courteous and civil drivers who didn’t try to run you off the road. Frequently on their roads (did I mention they were narrow with no shoulders, twisty, hilly, generally hard to see more than 50 yards ahead and usually had speed limits of 50-60 miles an hour) you would meet up with another car. While most roads allowed enough room to pass (as long as it wasn’t a large truck) if you got way over and slowed down…there were many that made that impossible and the only solution was that somebody had to back up. This was almost always the guy that had the easier way to back up to a slightly wider spot…or if they saw you coming and had a wide spot right there they would pull over and wait; then give you a friendly wave when you passed. We did the same for others when we had the easier time of it and there was none of the “I drive a Beamer, get out of my way” attitude that a lot of drivers in America.
Nobody drives the speed limit…except on those aforementioned really narrow roads that Neil slowed down on. On roads that more closely resembled what we would see in America driving slower than the limit was normal.
There were a lot (and I do mean a lot) of tractors pulling loads of hay or tanks of whatever driving down the roads. Ireland seemed to be mostly rural in nature so this was completely normal…as was the fact that they would pull over onto the shoulder if there was one or wave you by if you were having trouble seeing around them.
No passing lines on the road are just a suggestion.
Road rage…non existent as far as we could see.
Parking…well, let’s just say that it’s an art form over here. As long as there is no double yellow line indicating no parking then almost anything is considered fair game…cars parked facing both ways on both sides of the road and frequently had one set of wheels up on the sidewalk.
Traffic enforcement appeared to be mostly non existent as well…we saw a total of 2 Guard cars on the road and one speeding camera van parked…along with a couple dozen signs warning you of speed cameras. In spite of this…nobody was speeding, nobody parked illegally (well, not blatantly anyway).
Food was actually pretty decent. We ended up eating big breakfasts most days so had a late lunch that was more substantial then we were used to…which meant that usually dinner was a shared appetizer and a couple of beers. Bacon…on the other hand…was an adventure as was the sausage and the black or white pudding.
The beer was excellent…although always served at a warmer temperature than one would find back home. Stouts and porters in particular taste better at 55 degrees or so but even the ales, IPAs and Ciders were served at that temp. We had plenty of Guinness of course…but also a whole bunch of others that are rarer in the states like Beamish and Murphys…but then we had Franciscan Well Stout and Kilkenny Cream Ale (this has a head and texture like a stout but is a red ale like Smithwicks or Yuengling would be) that we thought were the best beers we had in the country. We also sampled O’Hara Stout and Irish Red, Bulmers Cider and another dozen or so beyond that…although our go to beers were Guinness and Smithwicks unless there was something local more interesting on tap. We saw a lot of craft beers but they were all in bottles so we didn’t try any of those.
The Irish whiskey was also excellent…and we had a distinct impression disproved. We pretty much thought that Irish was all smooth as opposed to Scotch which was usually peaty or smoky tasting. Turns out that there are many Irish whiskeys…particularly those made in the north and eastern parts of the country…that reminded us much more of Scotch than of Irish. We didn’t sample them all of course…but did have a dozen or so. Of those…Greenore, Yellow Spot, and Tyrconnell were the best as we decided that the smooth ones were much more to our liking than the peaty ones. Bushmills and Connemara were good but not our favorites. We got a recommendation from one of our pub men that we should try McKinnon’s Dark Spiced Rum as it was the original spiced rum but haven’t found any yet to actually try.
Pancakes…these were excellent; the best Neil has ever had. Rather than the fluffy cake like texture we’re used to these were made of some combination of corn and wheat flour and had a very nice texture, chew and flavor to them. They’re pretty thin but very tasty indeed.
Chip and Pin credit cards. These are genius and much better than the swipe cards that we more typically see. The latter have essentially no security at all while the former have all the financial info on the chip and can’t be read unless one puts in the PIN number. The server or pub man always brings the card machine to you so your card never leaves your sight as it almost always does back home. We can’t wait for this to be universal in the US as it’s a no-brainer as far as maintaining security of your financial information.
Customs and immigration on leaving Ireland…although this may be more due to a US government request. We actually completely cleared US Customs and Immigration before we even got to our departure gate. On leaving we headed through the Irish equivalent of the TSA then over to the departure terminal. Once there we went through US TSA, Immigration, and Customs checkpoints and had all that jazz done before getting into the departure areas with all of the other international destination travelers. It was in an international cleared terminal area but was not separated by country.
Things they do differently.
Roads I already talked about…but didn’t mention that many of them (including the 60 miles and hour limit ones) might have livestock (mostly sheep) wandering freely across the road.
Driving on the other side of the road was disconcerting the first day or so but one pretty quickly gets used to that. Driving on the other side of the car (the right front seat) was a much more interesting idea. Neil actually found that much harder to do than driving on the left side of the road as one’s perspective changes and it makes it really really hard to stay in your lane and not either end up across the centerline or with the wheels on the shoulder (which might or might not be there).
Bacon…well, Irish bacon isn’t. It’s pork belly all right but it’s much more like a salt cured ham than what we would call bacon. Tasted pretty good…like ham…but it just wasn’t bacon.
White (or black) pudding. The closest I can come to describing this is a meatloaf like consistency with very finely ground pork mixed with some sort of grain that Neil could not identify. It tasted OK but he only had a couple of samples before giving it up as not something he wanted to eat every day. Black pudding is the same but has blood added so it’s the color of a blood sausage…tasted really livery.
Sausage…Irish sausage only comes in links (no patties) and is much more finely ground pork than American sausage is. The flavor was close to what we have back home but had a unique something in the spice mix so it tasted just a bit off. No texture at all. We decided that Irish people must not like texture in their food as a whole lot of it is pureed…potatoes, parsnip, carrots…as well as the soups. With the exception of vegetable soup it’s all processed through an immersion blender (what Emeril would call a boat motor) before being served.
Eggs. I think the concept of a liquid yolk must be illegal or something.
Weather…Irish weather has the reputation of being lousy but either the reputation is wrong or we were extraordinarily lucky. It never got hot or cold…we had to wear a fleece or rugby shirt in the early morning or late evenings but it was comfortable the rest of the time with high temps in the 70s. We had 2 days that were really rainy, 3 that were beautiful all day and the remainder of them were partly cloudy to partly sunny depending on time of day. All in all we thought we had great weather outside the 2 rainy days.
Ice…again, ice must be illegal or something. Most places had none and those that did you would get maybe 2 cubes in your glass of soda (not that we drank any soda of course…it was more expensive than beer). The whiskey we drank neat with just a few drops of water added to help the flavor bloom.
The Republic of Ireland was nicer than Northern Ireland which is still part of the UK and the people were a bit nicer in the Republic as well…not to say that their northern brethren weren’t nice but they just lost a bit in comparison. The north was more industrialized and the cities and towns looked a lot more like US inner cities do rather than the quaint and charming little towns you saw in the Republic. Even the bigger cities in the Republic like Dublin, Sligo and Killarney were nicer looking than their northern counterparts. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting not going to the north…they have some sights like the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim that definitely make the trip worthwhile…just plan on spending most of your time in the Republic. Three and a half weeks overall is just about the right amount of time…you can’t see everything but you can see a lot and you can proceed at a pace that keeps you from getting run down…we enjoyed not having to be in “vacation mode” as that’s much more tiring once you go over about a week or so.
OK, let me toss in a few photos you haven’t seen yet…no blog post is complete without some pictures.
The library at Trinity College Dublin.
Wicklow Mountains National Park.
A charming 250 year old country cottage…with a satellite dish on the rear that you can’t see.
The Rock of Cashel.
One of the few castles we saw with a moat.
Grey Heron…very similar to the Great Blue we have back home.
Fourteen Arch Bridge in some small town we passed through…we actually stopped to find a rest stop and spotted this.
Cliffs along the Dingle Coast.
Puffins at Skellig Michael.
The monastery on top of Skellig Michael with Little Skellig in the background.
Leaving Skellig Michael…the monastery is right above the large section of green to the left of the peak.
Cliffs of Moher.
Fourth and a Foot Mary.
All in all…a really great vacation. But we’re happy to be back home and ready to head off from Camp Horizons tomorrow.