Monday, September 12, 2016

In our own backyard

Top o' the mornin to ye all! And welcome to the main event of my humble journey, where I bring ye tales of a distant land. After months of conjured images, at last my eyes have seen the Land of Saints and Scholars. And I am here to tell you...It's really wet.

While I have encountered a few "shocks" in the cultural acclimation process, in most ways Ireland is exactly as I expected. Chiefly, it is green. When the clouds broke as we descended into Shannon, I took in what looked like a patchwork quilt rolled out as far as the eye can see, with squares in every shade of emerald. 
Every unpaved space in every city is carpeted with a grass so fine that when the wind picks up it's as if the land has green fur. The air is so perpetually humid that a fuzzy sort of moss flourishes in every crack of every sidewalk and building, giving the many stone structures an ancient mystical appeal. It truly is the Emerald Isle. 
The sheer age of the country can be felt in every corner of the town. The narrow streets, the dated building style, and the general rhythm of the city all speak of a simpler time. Of course, some of these charming nuances have taken some getting used to on my part. For example, many Americans take for granted that any whim ever known to come over a man can be satisfied at any hour on the clock (save, of course, beer after midnight). Here, the working class does not live to sate the late night cravings of inebriated college students. Any place that doesn't serve dinner or liquor closes by six, even the coffee shops. If you plan to become deathly ill, schedule it for Monday morning as the Pharmacies stay closed on Sundays. This early closing culture also applies to the amenities in my apartment complex (or "village"), which put me at quite an inconvenience when I had my clothes locked in the laundry room at eleven. But oddly enough, one can still obtain some decent Chinese food as late as midnight at the lovely little money laundering front just down the street from my flat. 
Window shot from my
house in Limerick

The technology within residences also speaks of a simpler time. By this I mean that heating systems haven't been updated since shortly after the Second World War. If you want to shower, you must go to the "hot press," which is apparently the closet containing the water heater (yea, that one's lost on me). Inside you'll find a dial with a switch for every half hour of the day. You must flip the switches for the hour during which you plan to bathe, then wait twenty minutes. If you wait too long, you'll simple receive a slightly more invigorating shower than expected. But it's good for circulation, and will save you a cup of coffee that morning. 

Now this flat I speak of is more like a house. It has eight separate bedrooms, all of which are occupied by the aforementioned Americans from my study abroad program. I must say I panicked a little upon learning of my housing placement, as this made for an unsettling (and you guessed it, loud) first couple of nights. But at least the shenanigans were entertaining. One night a week ago, some friends and I encountered a drunken pack of students hauling several large traffic cones from a construction site nearby. We inquired as to what on earth they were doing, to which one boy responded in an Irish slur, "We pay our taxes!" Some of the girls giggled and they continued dragging the city property in the direction of my village. The next morning I awoke to find an orange cone in my living room. 
But alas, as classes commenced we've settled into a daily rhythm. The noise has subsided, along with the number of beer cans I find in my kitchen each morning. A few of us have fallen into a semi-nightly routine of returning from whatever party, putting on sweats and laughing at the names of the horses in televised races. Some of the top names have been "She's So Mean" and "How Big's the Hole."
While I could crank out several paragraphs on the joys of living with seven females and no microwave or dishwasher, I have been eager to recount what little exploring I've managed so far.
I've discovered that the kind of un-commercialized cultural experiences fit to make a tourist wet themselves can be found right here in Limerick City if you know the right folk. My favorite so far is a pub in a less-than-savory side of downtown called Dolan's. It's a cozy, candlelit joint with a booth reserved for musicians who play a traditional Irish session every night. I was puzzled, though, when I saw them stop between each song to sip their beers and chat. When I commented on their unorganized set, a new friend of mine quickly pointed out that the Irish Session culture is not performance based. "They're not playing for us," he explained, "it's social time for them. The conversation between tunes in a session is as important as the tunes themselves." I was enchanted. Soon he pulled a tin whistle from nowhere and much to my surprise, sat and asked to play a tune. They recognized the reel and joined him, first the guitar, then the harmonizing fiddles and finally the flute. I wasn't sure if it was real, or if I'd been cast as an extra in a James Cameron movie. 
Dolan's is a delightful best-kept-secret sort of attraction. But well known throughout County Limerick is a large farmer's market that sets up downtown each weekend called the Milk Market. A giant canvas tent keeps the Irish weather off of dozens of booths selling produce, tea, and crafts. It's a great opportunity to see some quality street performance while supporting local entrepreneurs. Doing my best to hold onto my euros, I settled for some herbal tea and a slice of the best French brie I've ever tasted. I'd recommend a visit to anyone craving bite of local culture. 

If that doesn't sate your appetite, the short walk from the market centre to the Frank McCourt Museum on Harstonage Street is worth anyone's time. The building itself was once Leamy's School for Catholic boys, where Frank was first inspired to pursue his career in writing. Now book worms from across the globe have come to see the memorial to the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Angela's Ashes. Inside are countless tokens and memorabilia from throughout Frank's life, including his childhood toys, his collection of rosary beads, and a letter from our very own University of Limerick announcing his honorary doctorate. Most days a friend of Frank's himself guides fans on a walking tour past many of the sites and churches mentioned in the book. The museum has less of the formal appeal one would expect, and more the feel of a personal tribute run by his closest surviving family and friends. A friendly tour guide named Lenny informed me that just last night, the museum employees and actors from the film adaptation joined Frank's brother Malachy and childhood friend Billy Campbell at South's Pub to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the book's launch. The entire visit inspired me in a way. To think that so much love remains for an ordinary man who did little more than tell his story. 

Two weeks into my stay here, I feel like I've already seen so much of the culture Ireland has to offer. And it cost no more than a bus fair and a couple of afternoons! I'd encourage anyone reading to act like a tourist in your own city for a while. Visit the museums, hit that coffee shop you keep driving by, find out what famous figures lived and died there. For just one week, don't go to the same place twice. You'd be amazed what you can find in your own backyard.

To making it count, friends.

If you can think of a cheese, they'll have it at the Milk Market's Flying Cheese
Impressive graffiti across the street from King John's Castle
This frog is cut off!
Pano of Arthur's Quay, overlooking the Shannon


  1. Love this,Katherine! thanks for taking us along!

  2. Loved reading and seeing pictures of the sights you've been seeing. Ireland is beautiful!