Thursday, March 01, 2007

Harlaxton Adventures -- Ireland


Silly leprechaun! Not only did he manage to sneak into my backpack and eat some English crackers while he was hiding inside (later claiming, ungratefully, that Irish crackers are far superior), but now the scoundrel won't give me a share of his gold until I finish writing a blog about Ireland! Righteous indignation! I mean, if he takes a bit of the load I was carrying, am I not entitled to some of his? I guess I better start writing, though: the villain is prancing around my room and looking with yearning eyes towards my stash of Belgian chocolate. And until I can show him some honest writing for his review, I won't have a decent enough excuse to get up and sneak the chocolate out of my room...

Ireland. Pretty. Saw a castle. Great mountain- and ocean- views. Good times. Enjoyed it.

... The leprechaun says it's not enough. I need a more exciting storyline. And complete sentences. What am I, a bloody writer? Didn't he get the memo that I'm a computer scientist -- that I’m useless for anything beyond Java script or C++ code? Oh, fine: Belgian chocolate, I'm only doing this for you! ...

* * *

On the first Wednesday of February, following a British Studies examination, over half of the Harlaxton student body went on a "long-weekend" trip to Ireland. The trip was a lengthy one: we got on the bus at 6pm, arrived at the ferry some six or seven hours later, rode the ferry for about three hours, and then got back on the bus for another several hours of travel. Along the way we watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off -- a surprisingly witty and enjoyable movie -- followed by a banal and rather repugnant "Roadtrip". I tried sleeping along the way, but that was made quite difficult by the loud and unexciting conversations of my night-owl co-travelers.

It was in this mood of tiredness and considerable irritability that I stepped off the bus at Blarney Castle. ... And then I looked around. Trees. Pretty trees. And green. Green grass, green plants, green shrubs, green moss... Probably a green leprechaun, too, though I didn't notice him then; however, I did leave my backpack next to a tree for several minutes as I went exploring around, so that's probably when he snuck into it. The sky was a pretty blue, as was a quiet stream nearby. The place felt like paradise. And amidst it, at the center of the tree grove, stood our Mount Olympus: the Blarney Castle.

But, unlike the summit of Mount Olympus, I'm not sure that the pinnacle of Blarney Castle was inhabited by gods. Rather, it was inhabited by an old man, who seemed to compete both in age and in rigid-ness with the 15th-century fortress. But, whereas age had only brought glory to the castle, postcards of the same man from many years past (!!!) showed that he had seen primer days. Yet the old man was not entirely unlike his Mount Olympus counterparts, for he too held a special divine-like duty: he stood in the path towards the Blarney Stone, and only with his approval and guidance could the Stone be kissed.

The Blarney Stone: the legendary Stone of Eloquence. A stone of power and might, of wealth and glory! A stone so revered that it can only be kissed by laying on one's back while half-suspended in mid-air. Quoting from the Blarney Castle website, "Kiss it and you’ll never again be lost for words. ... Everyone from Sir Walter Scott to a host of American presidents, world leaders, and international entertainers has been eager to take advantage." By God, what a marvelous stone!

And yet, with some feelings of shame towards my stoic readers, I must confess that I did not kiss the Stone. No, Heavens forbid, it was not due to false pride: I, like my readers, know full-well the extent of my less-than-silver tongue. Nor was it due to fear of heights: if anything, those who know me will testify of my foolhardiness in that matter. But seeing the regimented stone-kissing procedure -- a mechanical, assembly-line sort of affair -- I feared that whatever bit of Eloquence I possessed might slip away at such a prosaic act. Instead, I climbed a beautiful tree that stood next to the Castle, and gently -- quietly -- kissed one of its higher branches. It felt more natural, more pure: closer to the living branches and the eloquently-chirping birds than to a cold stone and to a quiet old man. May the Muses, in whose power Eloquence resides, accept my kiss and answer my request!

Even aside from Blarney Stone, the castle itself proved to be quite interesting. Dark and monumentally-built, it had withstood the tests of Time with unfaltering grace and demeanor. Inside the castle, countless narrow passageways and stairs led to interconnected rooms and upper floors. The only light that came into the castle arrived through small slits in the stone walls. At earlier times, those slits must have been used to stealthily watch approaching travelers, or to fire bullets and arrows at oncoming armies.

After exploring the castle, we climbed back down to the ground level and spent the next couple of hours walking amidst trees and stones. We found a small cave, along with beautiful Wishing Steps and other natural wonders. Then, several hours later, we got back on the bus and headed onward to Killarney, where we were to stay for the next two nights.

Killarney. To me, that name has always seemed magical, probably because of it's inclusion in an Irish song, "Red is the Rose": "‘Twas down by Killarney's green woods that we strayed | And the moon and the stars they were shining...". Unfortunately, by the time we got to Killarney it was already dark, so any exploration of its natural beauties would have to wait until morning. However, even as a town Killarney seemed quite charming, with its small streets, friendly atmosphere, and plentiful pubs resounding with traditional Irish music. Upon arrival, a whole group of us went to a pub that served, among other things, wonderful chicken curry, to which I gave my due. The atmosphere in the pub was friendly and relaxed, and we had a really great time.

About chicken curry -- and this is both a reminder to myself and an advice to any other non-vegetarians who happen to be exploring Great Britain or Ireland -- when traveling, chicken curry is ALWAYS a great option. It is quite delicious, relatively cheap, very filling, always served hot, and quite well-seasoned and spicy. I have ordered chicken curry at almost every restaurant occasion since I first tried it in Killarney, and I have yet to be disappointed with it.

After dining, our group set out to seek traditional Irish or Celtic music. We found a guitarist and a singer at one pub, and then a smaller group of us headed over to another pub where we discovered a whole ensemble of guitarists, violinists, drummers, and singers. Both pubs were non-smoking and pleasant, and reminded me more of coffee houses than establishments for alcohol. Perhaps this was the fundamental difference between European and American drinking practices: people here went to pubs to socialize, rather than to get trashed or drink away their sorrows. Either way, we had a wonderful time listening to Irish folk tunes at both pubs, before heading off to bed in preparation for the next day's adventures.

* * *

Friday was by far my favorite day in Ireland. It was almost solely devoted to traveling with our school group around the picturesque Ring of Kerry, getting off the bus at many points along the way for sightseeing and exploring. It was a day of amazing ocean- and mountain- scenery and of near-perfect weather for most of the day. It was a day that, for the sake of my readers and for the pleasure of my Irish leprechaun, I will now endeavor to describe:

Our bus left early in the morning, heading west for half the day before turning south and eventually north-east to return back to Killarney. For much of the trip we traveled either on the sides of mountains or in lush valleys between them, often overlooking the ocean. Our first stop was at a re-creation of a traditional Irish old village, complete with straw-thatched roofs, smoky fire pits, and tools and clothing from that period. Even more impressive was our next stop, perched right on the side of a mountain slope that offered a beautiful view of the ocean. We were given twenty minutes to take pictures and admire the scenery, and, as there was a huge conglomeration of students all standing at the side of the road, I decided to head down the slope to a more secluded spot. The upper part of the slope was a little thorny and bumpy but not particularly steep; I thus ran down the initial part, not realizing that, to the horror of our accompanying dean and assistant-dean, I had just started a whole exodus. As I struggled to get away from the influx of students whom I myself had inspired, I proceeded to go down the steeper part, disappearing from view.

Unfortunately, the steeper part turned out to be steeper than I expected: no sooner did I step on it that I slid through plants some 30 feet down before coming to a stop. The view from there was indeed magnificent, but I now faced the problem of getting back up. The exhilaration of the great view soon wore off as I realized the doom of my task: by this point, I only had 5-10 minutes left to reach the bus in time, the students and administrators above had probably already noticed my absence, and I was no superman to climb up a near-vertical slope. Still, unable to think of anything better to do, I grabbed onto the somewhat-thorny plants and pulled myself up, almost reaching the top before accidentally uprooting the shrub that I stood on and sliding back down. I tried again, sensing futility but also being motivated by the honking of the bus -- a previously-agreed-upon signal for the students to start heading back. In a surprising feat of convincing Gravity to turn a blind eye, I managed to get up the slope and run back to the bus, reaching it before the last two or three people did! All in all, it was a foolhardy -- albeit exhilarating -- experience, but the hard-earned ocean views that I saw had indeed been second to none.

As we rode onwards on the bus, all around us we saw small villages sprawled out on the mountainside. Many had old stone fences separating the plots of land (according to Lierin, such fences could be 200-300 years old), with sheep or cows often grazing on nearby fields. Small houses with narrow pathways completed the illusion of driving through the countryside of previous centuries. There was a pastoral, rustic sort of feeling in the air, and it was this "unpolluted" atmosphere that made that day so enjoyable.

There were several other memorable stops on the trip. One was next to the ocean shore, where Paul and I and several others attempted to skip rocks against the waves. Another was high on a hill, from which a wonderful view of the ocean and of some small islands opened before us. We also stopped by the village of Sneem, renowned for its colorful houses. For myself, after taking a look at the houses, I spent most of my time jumping from stone to stone across (and alongside) Sneem Creek. Unfortunately, the weather -- which up till now had been nearly perfect -- began worsening around this time, turning from sunny to cloudy to rainy in the course of an hour. We made one additional short stop at the spectacular Lady's View, admiring the mountain lakes below us, but the weather did not allow us to stay for too long. By the time we got back to Killarney, darkness and rain had firmly set in.

In the evening, following a short nap, I accompanied Lierin and Corey to a Chinese restaurant. The food and the conversation were highly enjoyable, as was another trip to a pub after dinner, where I had my first Bailey (an Irish chocolate-y whiskey drink). At the pub, we were joined by a whole bunch of our other friends -- Scott, Devin, Steve, Kym, Kirby, and a handful of others -- where we sang choir songs and listened to Devin's amusingly-narrated tales. It was another great evening that completed an already-excellent day at the Ring of Kerry and Killarney.

* * *

Early on Saturday we left Killarney and headed to Dublin. As I had never been a fan of long bus rides, rainy days, or cities in general, that day was not nearly as exciting for me as the fabulous day before it. By the time we arrived in Dublin, it was already 4-o-clock in the afternoon, so most museums and shops were soon beginning to close. We did see a handful of pretty sculptures, the historical Ha'Penny Bridge, and a couple of other visitor attractions, but I realized yet again that I could never live in -- nor even desire to visit -- a another city.

As I walked around, I did see an exciting souvenir shop with all sorts of amusing Irish merchandise. One little sculpture, for instance, depicted an Irishman successfully avoiding a banana underneath his feet, only to step into an unexpectedly-uncovered manhole. An inscription below read: "In Ireland the inevitable never happens and the unexpected constantly occurs." And, indeed, as I went through the streets of this densely-populated city, I unexpectedly ran into three other groups of Harlaxton students whom I managed to spot amongst a sea of people! As it was getting to be dinnertime, I finally joining one of the groups (with Kirby and Devin) for a reasonably good Mexican dinner.

After dinner I meandered aimlessly about Dublin some more, finding comfort in neither loud bars, rainy streets, nor a French music concert (played in preparation for an upcoming rugby game against the French). It was surprising how quickly Dublin grew old for my tastes, whereas I can't imagine myself ever tiring of the outdoors. As I mused over that idea some days later, an interesting though occurred to me:

Everything grows old, proportionally to its age. For example, a young baby can grow noticeably older in a week, whereas such a relatively short timeframe could rarely bring any physical changes to an adult. So maybe that's why I can't get tired of the outdoors: with their millions of years in age, they can't get "old" from the passage of whole decades, whereas centuries-old cities may get old to me after just several hours...

* * *

On Sunday, a little before dawn, our group departed from Dublin to head back to Harlaxton. Within an hour we were on a ferry -- a bigger and more luxurious one than the ferry we had taken on the way to Ireland, with plenty of comfortable cushions and couches. But by far the most exciting part of the ferry was the deck above, where I spent most of my time as I watched the waves and, later, the approach of land. So peaceful were the waves, so ancient, so free; so pure and unchanged were they from times long past; so gracious as they collided into the cold hull of the ship, only to bounce back with calm and natural force...

Waves. The Romans have sailed through them, the Spanish Armada lost their ships in them, the British exported their tea on them... And yet what transformation could come over the waves? Waves. Mighty, reassuring, indestructible waves... Waves that carry the sorrows and joys of the past, and that will someday carry our echoes to the societies of the future.

By an hour till noon we had reached land. We were now in Wales, still among picturesque hills and mountains, and under perfect sunny weather. An hour later we stopped for lunch in a small town with a rather long name, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, meaning "St. Mary's Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the red cave". We visited neither the Church, the cave, nor the rapid whirlpool, but I did manage to climb a pretty hill while the rest of the group ate lunch. Wales left me quite exciting about an upcoming trip to North Wales on the following weekend, but I'll leave that tale for a future blog post.

At dusk we returned back to Harlaxton, whose facade was beautifully lit up in honor of our arrival. The building was so magnificent at night! As I stood there, watching stars and marveling at Harlaxton's and nature's beauties, I reached into my backpack for a camera. It was then, alongside my camera, a set of spare batteries, a British Studies book, and a packet of what used to be uneaten crackers, that I noticed my little leprechaun friend.

* * *

My story here comes to a close. Perhaps my reader will think that the end is too abrupt: maybe he/she had expected a marvelous showdown between myself and the leprechaun, or a tragic report of the loss of my Belgian chocolate, or a frank acknowledgement that the leprechaun never existed outside my imagination. Or perchance my reader imagined that upon reading my tale, the silenced leprechaun retreated back into his rainbow, or caught his native country's RyanAir flight for a cheap fare back home. Or possibly my reader predicted nothing at all, relying on my storytelling to tell him/her what happened next.

But I did not kiss the Blarney stone: my eloquence, if ever I possessed any, has long since vanished. The curtain fell. The computer screen ran out of paper and ink. All four legs of the desk spontaneously folded. The leprechaun announced a checkmate to the purple knight, before disappearing into thin air and editing himself out of existence. My journey to Ireland was complete.

1 comment:

Jim Nariel said...

Hi Michael

Very nice neat blog very colourful - love to go to Ireland - only rambled and walked in the UK and just started my blog