“Welcome home.” That seems like an odd greeting to hear in Ireland for someone who has lived her entire life in the United States, but that appears to be the sentiment amongst the Irish who consider their beautiful country to be home for anyone with Irish ancestry.
You wouldn’t have to dig too deep to find my Irish roots. My grandfather, John Purcell, was born outside Kilkenny City in Ireland in 1904. Sometime after WWI he immigrated to the United States, married a woman with Irish ancestry, and together they lived in the Bronx with their three sons before his untimely death from heart issues at the age of 39.
My husband and I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland this summer. The first five full days were spent sightseeing off the beaten path with our amazing tour guides — my Uncle Frank and his wife Ellen. Frank is my godfather, and to be honest, until last fall, we really didn’t know each other much at all since we’ve never lived in the same state (or country, for that matter, as he has lived all over the world with his family). In October of 2017, John and I visited them at their home in Texas. We had the chance to spend hours together and realized we had much more in common than we could have imagined. Out of that visit came the invitation to come see Frank and Ellen at their summer home in Castlegregory, nested upon a hill overlooking the western coast of Ireland.
When we found great airfares to Ireland for this summer, we took advantage of that and booked our trip. On July 9, we flew from Chicago to London (FYI, 45 minutes is not a long enough layover to make a connecting international flight, which involves going through customs again, without sprinting through Heathrow Airport like crazy people), and from there to Shannon, Ireland.
We took a bus from the airport to Tralee, from where we were Ubered back to the house by my Uncle Frank. Their house has the look of an oversized quaint English cottage and the views from the front overlooking fields of sheep and cows grazing and the shore of the Atlantic Ocean were nothing short of spectacular. We watched the sun set every night, at nearly 11:00, and the sight never grew old.
Every day was an adventure when we were on the West Coast. The first full day at my uncle’s house, July 11, John and I enjoyed a walk along the beach, we got to eat fresh fish delivered to the door by the fish man, and took a tour of the surrounding area in my uncle’s SUV on crazy, winding roads that aren’t much bigger than one lane, have no shoulders and speed limits way too high (80 to 100 kph, roughly 50-62 mph). We found a lovely (the most popular word in Ireland) Marian grotto, we picked up a hitchhiker from France who was working on a farm in Ireland for the summer, we went to a couple of lakes tucked away in the mountains, and we finished the day solving the problems of the world over a couple pints for the guys and a delicious coconut liquor/coconut milk concoction for the ladies.
The next day we were treated to a tour of the Dingle Peninsula and got to see all sorts of villages and shops that aren’t included in the commercial bus tours. We even got to see where parts of the newest Star Wars movie were filmed, the location for the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, the house that the late Dolores O’Riordan from the Cranberries lived in, The South Pole Inn, and got to share a drink in a snug (private booth, back in the day reserved for women pub patrons) at The Colony Pub. We ended the night at Tomisin’s — the Cheers of Castlegregory, cheeky barmaids included.
That Friday we gave my Uncle Frank a day off of SUV tour driving and went on a bus trip to see the Ring of Kerry. The entire course was beautiful but our favorite spots were probably Ladies’ View in Killarney (the name stems from the admiration of the view given by Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting during their 1861 visit to Ireland) and a waterfall tucked along a hiking trail. Luckily, the water was flowing because, at that time, Ireland was in the ninth week of a drought, which was unfortunate for the farmers, but a blessing for us as we had fantastic weather the whole time we were in the country. Every day felt like a beautiful September day, which was even better because back home they were experiencing a heat wave.
On Saturday, July 14, John and I went to the beach to watch the Brandon Bay 10K/Half Marathon. When we found out they took last-minute sign ups, we gave them what Euro we had in our pockets, got shirts, an ended up racing. It’s Ireland’s only all beach 10K/Half Marathon. Assuming these divisions are legitimate… John and I each took first place in our respective divisions (Wisconsin M, 55-59, and Wisconsin F, 55-59). We ended the day sore, tired and hungry but ready for a night out. After going to Mass (30 minutes in and out, these Irish priests don’t fool around) we had a wonderful meal at Tomisin’s cooked by the proprietor, who is a native of China. Chinese food at an Irish pub — it doesn’t get much more unique than that!
On Sunday, John and I made our farewells to my aunt and uncle and took a bus to Dublin. The city reminded us so much of London and Paris — it is a melting pot of people from all over the world. We stayed at a Travelodge (sparse but comfortable) that adjoined an Aldi grocery store. The prices for fresh food, bakery and European chocolate were unbelievably low. We stopped there about once a day. Our hotel was walking distance to Mother Reilly’s Bar & Restaurant, where we were able to eat and, later in the week, enjoy genuine Irish folk music up close and personal.
The next day we bought a two-day pass for a hop-on, hop-off bus so we could get the lay of the land and then go back to see all the spots that caught our eye. Some of the highlights were the Irish Whiskey Museum, Temple Bar, River Liffey, Phoenix Park, St. Patrick’s Cathedral (where we attended the evening prayer service), and St. Patrick’s Park.
Tuesday our stops included St. Stephen’s Green (where we enjoyed amazing, oversized donuts which were available on most every corner in the city), Trinity College, Guinness Storehouse (the tour includes a free pint), Kilmainham Gaol (which was featuring an exhibit on the life of Nelson Mandela who would have turned 100 in July), and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
We took another bus tour via Paddywagon Tours on Wednesday for a day trip to Northern Ireland. We traversed the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge (piece of cake after our rope bridge experience in Mexico last year), we had an excellent traditional lunch of Irish Stew and Brown Bread, we walked on the tree-lined drive from the Game of Thrones set, and we got to experience one of the wonders of the world — Giant’s Causeway, which is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption per Wikipedia. That was worth the trip alone! With the sunny, dry weather we were able to go to the edge of the columns that overlooked the ocean. The trip ended with an hour or so in Belfast. It’s an interesting city but I didn’t feel comfortable there considering the animosity that still brews between the Irish and the Northern Irish. Back in Dublin we did more walking (put in about 9 miles on foot per day) and had a great dinner at the Hairy Lemon.
On Thursday we started the day with Mass at Mary Immaculate – Refuge of Sinners, which was a few blocks from our hotel (17-minute Mass start to finish, definitely a record in my books). Lots more exploring of Dublin on foot but the highlight that day was seeing the religious art from the 1200s to the 1800s at the National Gallery of Ireland, in particular a Caravaggio (who is known for his depictions of the Blessed Mother) painting which was on loan to the museum. They had food tents set up in a park that day that included fare from around the world. We ended the night seeing the original Riverdance musical. The dancing, music and singing was unbelievable! It’s a production we’ll always remember.
Friday, July 20, saw us on a train to Kilkenny City, the city in which my grandfather was raised. It is such a charming place — it was well worth the trip to get there. Our first stop was the Smithwick’s Tour, which was fun and yes, ended with another round of pints. Afterwards, my cousin Walter picked us up to take us to the farm where our grandfather was born and raised in an area called Windgap. While there I got to meet his parents — my dad’s first cousin Kieran Purcell, who was a national champion hurler back in the day and now raises and trains champion race horses, and his wife JoJo. From there we went to the cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried and met the parish priest. Next to the church was an Old League House, which once served as a home for poor tenant farmers whose land had been confiscated during British occupation of Ireland, St. Kieran’s College, where my grandfather attended high school, Sweeney Todd Barbers, and Matt the Miller pub where we saw the band Wildfire perform one of the best early Beatles sets we’ve ever seen live.
The next morning we toured Kilkenny Castle which is a well-preserved castle that depicts life in medieval times. After that we were on a bus to Cork. On the way there we passed through Waterford which is famous for its crystal. In Cork we had the best food of our trip at Coqbull (Avocado BLT Rotisserie Chicken Salad — that chicken was amazing) and The Corn Store where I got the Rosemary & Honey Crème Brulee with Ginger Shortbread (Crème Brulee is a must for me when we travel abroad) and the Peanut Butter Cheesecake with Banana Fritters & Vanilla Ice Cream that John swears is the best dessert (next to my mom’s homemade strawberry rhubarb pie) he’s ever eaten in his life. The night ended with a bang as we were able to secure last-minute tickets to see The Wizard of Oz at the Cork Opera House. They did an awesome job — it was fun hearing their “American” accents.
July 22, John got to celebrate his birthday on a bus to Shannon. There’s not much more in that city than the airport, but we did find a nice walking trail around a lake. We were there less than 24 hours as the next day, which happened to be my birthday, we had a plane to catch back to the U.S. The cool thing was, because of the time zone changes as we flew, I got to celebrate my birthday for 30 hours instead of the typical 24, so that made my day extra special!
Those two weeks in Ireland were something John and I will always treasure. The Irish people, particularly on the West Coast, were some of the friendliest and most welcoming folks we’ve ever met. The historic sites were spectacular and the views of the ocean were breathtaking. Like Dorothy Gale says, “There’s no place like home.”