These are impressions of a recent trip through Ireland, Wales, and England. One major difficulty in setting down these observations lies in the fact that those places are so familiar. This is a paradox. On some level, it is easier to collect impressions of a thoroughly unfamiliar locale, including—especially—unfamiliarity with the language. In those cases, the lack of orientation is overt. Any impressions are the impressions of a foreigner who isn’t expected to know that much. There is something freeing about this.
This trip was just the opposite. Ireland and the UK—even for those of us lacking any familial ties whatsoever—are very familiar. It is well-trodden ground, literally and metaphorically.
In Dublin one could partake of a sparkling water named after W.B. Yeats. A visage of James Joyce trumpeted a lodging’s free Wi-Fi. A billboard beckoned Irish visitors to come to France, their closest EU neighbor. For a brief moment I thought I’d encountered the sort of geographic illiteracy so common in the United States: the erroneous assumption that France is closer to Ireland than the UK. I immediately ascertained the reference was to the EU, not Europe. And the larger reference was, of course, to Brexit.
The toxicity of nationalism and imperialism was never far away—of the British variant, obviously, here in Ireland. There was the here-and-now issue of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, but the toxicity was, of course, historically entrenched. Road signs were in English and the Irish language. (Wales, as well, had signs in Welsh.) Under British imperial rule, the Irish language was suppressed—just one component in a cruel history.
When I arrived in Europe, I expected, from this vantage point, to view the United States as a nation of psychopaths. It did look that way, of course. What sort of country refused health care and flooded its environs with guns? (And this was before the Roe reversal.)
What I really felt, though, was that the United States was part of a long continuum of inhumanity. These road signs in Irish and English—such tangible evidence of oppression—lessened the idea that America’s lethal pathology was unique in any way. This made me feel worse, not better. European history was an endless cycle of conquest and subjugation. What was going on in the United States was business as usual.
Dalkey was a beautiful, picturesque town in proximity to Dublin. George Bernard Shaw lived here. Bono currently lived here, as did New Age chanteuse Enya. Van Morrison, according to locals, either lives here or did live here. Then there was The Dalkey Archive, the novel by Flann O’Brien. For a small town, Dalkey packed a lot of punch.
One table over in the hotel dining room, three older, exuberant couples were in the midst of some celebratory dinner, their table festooned with miniature flags of indeterminate origin. Perhaps this was a regimental commemoration or members of a fraternal organization and their wives.
The next morning, I unexpectedly saw one of these wives in the lobby. Curiosity got the better of me and I inquired as to the nature of these flags. To my surprise, I was informed that those were the flags of Norway and their celebration had honored, of all things, Norwegian independence day.
Was there a Norwegian community in Ireland? Or were these people simply admirers of the country? Social strictures often melted away when traveling, conversation becoming easier. This was not the case here. The woman seemed slightly irked by my imposition, absolutely uninterested in elaborating for a moment longer.
Dalkey was a small enough town that one began, very quickly, to spot familiar faces. A waitress startingly reappeared a few weeks later in the lobby of a London hotel. A husband and wife were spotted at several intervals around town, the last time with the wife’s father. With her father in attendance, the woman informed us that he’d had some drinks and a good feed, as if she was discussing a prized animal or a toddler.
I became addicted to flat white coffee. This was part of travel’s pleasant illogic. I had no interest in flat white when I was stateside. Only in Ireland.
There were no working ATMs in Dalkey. It was also impossible to convert dollars into euros. The situation became more pronounced later on in the trip, near Cork, where there seemed to be no ATMs—working or otherwise—whatsoever.
This would not be an issue in the United States. ATMs, sometimes in the most unlikely venues, could be found at the drop of a hat. There was a particularly American genius in supplying an ever-ready level of minor comforts. ATMs, snack food, hot and cold beverages—these were ubiquitous. The United States failed miserably in providing adequate health care or ensuring a basic standard of living. It made no effort to shield its populace from violence. What it could do was ensure that nobody was too far away from a supply of potato chips or Dr Pepper.
Ballycotton was near Cork. Even with my superficial familiarity of Ireland, there was the noticeable feeling that you were in another part of the country. The accent, for one, was very distinctive. Dalkey was in proximity to Dublin, a European capital. That feeling was noticeable and—just as noticeably–did not apply to Ballycotton. The regional distinctiveness, for a relatively small country, was fascinating.
Ballycotton was punctuated by twisting, windy streets; tight little houses done up in vibrant colors. All of this was framed against the bay. It was all stunningly beautiful. I wondered, not for the first time, how painfully difficult it must have been for those waves of emigrants to depart, to be separated from this land- and seascape forever.
There was a vista of lush, green fields behind our lodgings. The Emerald Isle, after all. A cow or two could be seen ambling along the path. Our daughter began to practice her guitar. A few of the cows, intrigued, approached. Soon other cows arrived in a more-or-less orderly procession, gathering for this impromptu guitar recital. They were a thoroughly attentive audience.
The journey from Ireland to Wales would be undertaken via ferry. The waters, which were reputed to get a little choppy, were calm on the day of the voyage.
Calling this vessel a ferry did not convey its immensity. There were tiny, utilitarian cabins; a commodious lounge, food, a gift shop. There was the option to bring one’s automobile on board.
There was something intrinsically, wonderfully old-fashioned about the very idea of a sea crossing. Likewise the ferry itself, which felt like a well-maintained, modest resort, circa 1970. What felt even more old-fashioned was my daily purchase of the New York Times International, successor to the fabled International Herald Tribune. It was hard to imagine, before the internet age, what a conduit of information this was for American travelers. Habit compelled me to avail myself of a copy whenever I could. But much of this newspaper’s function had been rendered superfluous. Up-to-the-minute updates could be checked on one’s phone pretty much anywhere, including while imbibing flat white.
The weather, upon disembarking in Wales, was appropriately cold and drizzly. A large sign in Ukrainian could be ascertained immediately, presumably for an influx of refugees. The European continent, at war once again.
Pontyclun: The lobby was of a quiet, classic elegance, with the option of afternoon tea. If this was in the United States, I would have found it all very dull and not a little pretentious. Since this was the United Kingdom, there was the charm factor. In the background, the incongruous strains of the Cure and the Smiths emanated from some unknown source.
The Welsh language, like Irish, was a living thing. I heard it spoken from time to time and happened upon a kids’ TV show in the language.
Wales, of course, was also possessed of rolling hills and stunning vistas. Cardiff, on the other hand—despite a genuinely vibrant city center—seemed a little on the dull side.
I partook of Welsh rarebit, the existence of which occupied a strange, minute corner of my brain. I remembered being very young and watching some long-forgotten TV show involving Welsh rarebit (which I heard as Welsh “rabbit”). The show incorporated the folklore that consumption of Welsh rarebit had potential nightmare-inducing properties. It was all, at the time, thoroughly mystifying to my younger self. And now, here I was, eating Welsh rarebit in Wales. For a moment, it felt significant.
Sheep, not cows, populated the fields behind these particular lodgings. They seemed, by and large, like an energetic cohort, grazing with much enthusiasm, traversing large sections of the acreage. They could be a noisy bunch, bleating out to each other in random intervals. Those bleats might not have been random at all, of course. There were probably specifics and nuances in what the sheep were communicating to each other.
Somewhere on the way to London, Stonehenge could be observed; just like that, off in the distance. To view Stonehenge while driving by was startling and deeply intriguing; it could be simply glimpsed outside the window. (And honesty compels me to confess that, a short time later, I thought of the Spinal Tap Stonehenge segment.)
There was a centrality to London that had no direct correlation in the United States. New York City certainly came very close, but New York was not the seat of governmental power, nor had been such an imperial behemoth.
In many other ways, London bore a striking resemblance to New York. Much of the architecture matched that of New York’s; likewise the feel of the city. Even when the urban schema was strikingly different, the similarities could be very much apparent. Camden Town, for example, had no physical resemblance to anywhere in New York, but its composition was strikingly similar to the touristic enhancements that used to characterize the Village: a little offbeat, a little tawdry, a little hucksterish. (Camden Town also boasted a large sign offering American candy for sale, which I had no idea was such a desirable commodity.)
But then, suddenly, you weren’t in New York at all. It felt akin to visiting a parallel universe.
In London I heard a historic tall tale: King Henry was a devoted enthusiast of a particular cut of steak: loin, in the parlance of the day. He loved it so much, as a matter of fact, that he granted this cut of beef its own knighthood, insisting on the respectful appellation Sir Loin. And, hence, sirloin. The story was just that: a story, lacking any historical veracity. But tall tales were instructive. This one delineated an imperious, power-mad despot forcing everyone to bend to his nutty whims. Imagine that.
The arrival into London coincided with the queen’s seventieth anniversary jubilee. London cabbies spoke favorably of the monarch. As a rule, though, they detested Boris Johnson, an opinion expressed freely and without much, if any, prompting. The case could be made that the cabbies were a political bellwether. Only one cabdriver out of this unscientific sampling expressed enthusiastic support for the (then) prime minister, displaying the same sort of historical expertise that would do his American counterparts proud: opining that if the socialists had their way, the British people would be speaking Russian.
London was visibly multicultural, as befitted such a global capital, but this very observation gnawed at me a little. The implication was that, as an American, I represented the gold standard of heterogeneity and could evaluate multiculturalism.
(And speaking of heterogeneity, London abounded with Turkish barber shops. I offhandedly agreed to some extra grooming along with my haircut, and a few moments later a hot, burning something-or-other was painfully applied to my ears.)
Perhaps the most unexpected conclusion I came away with was a distinct appreciation of the English language. There was not a laudatory comment on the language’s superiority or virtues, nor an unawareness of the bitter reality of how the language spread across the globe.
But I became aware of the English language’s immensity, the vast, sprawling loci. By no dint of accomplishment of my own—simply because of an accident of geography—I had unlimited access to this realm, to its nooks and crannies. It gave me a strange feeling of satisfying comfort. In today’s political climate, there sure wasn’t much comfort, to say the least. One should take any amount of comfort when it presents itself.
All photos by Richard Klin.