My husband Ray and I love to travel and have spent the last 21 years traveling all over the world. We’ve backpacked the Great Wall of China, stood in the DMZ staring out at N. Korea, motorcycled to the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. In all, we’ve visited over 15 countries together, having adventures, meeting amazing people and seeing incredible landscapes. But there is one country we keep returning to, over and over. No matter where else we go, Ireland with its beautiful scenery and lovely people, keeps pulling us back.
We first went to Ireland in 2009 when our daughter, Hayley, was 14. We spent 3 weeks traveling the entire northern half of the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland. We landed in the west coast town of Shannon, and traveled north along the coast, around the very northern tip and into Northern Ireland. We then headed south along the Irish Sea to spend time in Dublin and then back across the midlands to spend a week in the Connemara. We saw ancient castles, walked the Giant's Causeway, tasted Irish whiskey, and stayed in a thatched cottage. It had been a lifelong dream of mine to visit Ireland. My people come from Ireland. Farmers in County Armagh in Northern Ireland, pushed out to find a better life than their hard scrabble existence as Catholics in a Protestant-run country.
So I knew I would feel a kinship to Ireland and the Irish people as do millions of other people around the world who claim an Irish heritage. It is said more Irish people live OUTSIDE Ireland than live in this small island nation. Ireland has about 4.7 million people, less than the population of the State of Washington. As we travelled,we stopped in small villages here and there, listening to traditional music (Trad music as the locals call it) and hearing some good Irish Craic (Irish slang for great conversations amongst friends), and I was unexpectedly struck with an overwhelming sense of “having arrived home.” How could I, an American who’d never set foot in this small, lovely, unassuming country, feel any sense of “home”? And yet, as we sat in a small, cozy, family-run pub one night in Donegal, that is exactly what I felt. I had arrived. I hadn’t known I was missing anything, but there it was – a home unknown to me before.
Perhaps that explains our inexplicable longing to return time and time again to this “home.” This past September marked our fifth trip to Ireland. This time it was to retrieve our now 24-year old daughter, who had just completed her Master’s degree at Trinity College Dublin. Even though I missed her terribly during her year in Dublin, there was something so comforting and reassuring in knowing she was there, living with a lovely family, having an Irish mum to take care of her and getting to call Ireland “home.”
This time we spent a few days in Dublin, exploring Temple Bar, visiting St. Patrick's and Christ Church Cathedrals, eating at Brazen Head – Dublin's oldest Pub dating to the 12th century – and generally just enjoying being part of this workaday, busy European City. But then it was time to head west to share our favorite place in all of Ireland with Hayley — Dingle town on the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry.
After our first trip to Ireland in 2009, I knew we’d go back to visit areas we hadn’t seen the first time, and something told me we had to go to Dingle on the far west coast. Here, in the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking parts of Ireland), the first language is Irish and all the signs are written in Irish and maybe in English as an afterthought. In 2013, Ray and I rented a cottage in Kilmakedar, about five miles outside Dingle town with my parents and spent a month traveling every backroad on the Dingle Peninsula and hiking every hill and valley.
On a hike one day, we happened upon a scene in a long-abandoned fort, where some romantic lad had left rose petals scattered and a small note reading, “please don’t disturb. I plan to ask my girlfriend to marry me here.” And in fact, as we looked back down the hill, we could see them hiking up toward us. We hurriedly made our escape and continued our own adventure, looking back toward the old fort from time to time to see their progress. It was with much joy and gladness that after a time, the young man yelled down to us, “She said yes!”
That inspired Ray to do a little romantic planning of his own. Without telling me, he purchased two Irish wedding bands engraved with “Mo Anam Cara” in Irish, meaning “My Soul Friend.” On a lovely, sunny late afternoon, he brought me to the 12th century Kilmakedar church out behind our cottage and we renewed our vows.. We dipped our rings in an ancient holy well and promised to continue our journey together. Not only were we renewing our vows, but we were deepening our sense of belonging to this place and these people that touched us so profoundly.
Our third trip was just Ray and me and we decided to rent a little apartment right in Dingle town so we could be closer to the music and could walk to groceries and really get to know the people better. And that’s when we realized we were more interested in finding a sense of place during our travels than rushing through as many sites as possible without ever really getting to know what a place was about or who the people that make their homes there are really like.
Our five weeks spent living in Dingle not only cemented our love of Dingle, its people, and Ireland in general, but we met and have kept some incredible friends. And despite it diminutive size of roughly 1,300 souls (including fields of dyed red and blue sheep) it’s quite a cosmopolitan hub, thanks in large part to the European Union and open borders.
Our first friend was Sarah, a lovely English woman who ran the Little Cheese Shop we stopped into every day on Main Street to gather our picnic goodies before our daily hike. After seeing us day after day, she finally asked what we were about and we got to chatting. She suggested a lovely hike on the north side of the peninsula, at Brandon’s Point, which included an incredibly beautiful and slightly terrifying drive over Conor Pass—a road that often has less than one lane and is a popular scenic drive for tour busses. As long as you can steel your nerves, it’s totally worth the moments of sheer terror.
On the day we drove over there to hike, we were astonished to see Sarah and her friend Tim walking the other direction. It felt like kismet, this chance meeting on the other side of the peninsula and it just seemed to make sense to plan a more formal gathering from there. We were kindly invited to their beautiful little cottage outside Ventry village for dinner, where we met a host of other locals—some Irish, some not-- who regaled us with stories of their own travels and we all connected over a deep love of finding a sense of place when traveling.
We also met and became close friends with the woman who rented us our little apartment, Rachel. She had lived in Dingle for 15 years with her husband and daughter but was originally from Belgium. She and I still write to each other and share stories of our busy lives and our growing daughters and our many adventures.
Our next-door neighbor, Paddy Curren, raised sheep dogs and we got to watch them from our back window in the garden below being trained to herd the sheep that provide a livelihood for so many of the farmers on Dingle Peninsula. One of the best experiences we had was attending the Sheep Dog Trials one weekend in Dingle, where farmers from all over the county came to compete and show off the skills of their adorable, but hardworking dogs. It was fascinating to watch these smart dogs do their work with a whistle here and a hand gesture there, guiding the sheep into a pen and then waiting for a “That’ll be all” from their master. It was a true highlight of our many trips to Ireland for sure.
And of course you can’t spend any time in Ireland without seeing signs and hearing stories of their profoundly deep and sometimes tragic history, from British control and their struggles for Independence to the Potato Famine and the Diaspora that occurred in the mid-1800s as millions of Irish (estimates place the death toll at 1 to 1.5 million people) either died or left the country to survive, as my ancestors did. One day, as Ray and I were taking a ramble, we stumbled upon a Famine Graveyard. These graveyards that are scattered all over Ireland, and most of the grave markers are simple stones with no information at all. So many were dying they didn’t have time to mark their passing with anything other than a marker and a farewell prayer. This deep sense of loss was so overpowering we silently sat on a bench looking out over the valley and cried for all those lost lives.
And yet...even with all the sadness the Irish people have endured, they have such a tremendous capacity for kindness and compassion and joy. They exude an amazing resilience and quiet happiness that is expressed in their love of music and poetry and stories. If you want to get a real sense of who the Irish are and what this place means, stop into any pub, order a pint and listen to the lyrics of an Irish ballad. Our favorite pub, John Benny’s, sits on the Dingle Harbor Road and was a nightly must after a long day of hiking. We got to be friends with the bartenders, Paddy and Mike, who made us ask for all our orders in Irish before they’d pour. We even met the owner himself, John and his lovely wife Éilís Kennedy, a professional singer who could often be coaxed into singing a few songs if there was a band playing. It wasn’t uncommon to see many locals sit all evening nursing a pint of Guinness and tapping their toes to the fiddle playing or sitting quietly as Éilís sang songs of Ireland's history.
One of our best memories was meeting an old farmer who was out in his pasture running his sheep dog back and forth keeping the unruly sheep in line. We stood at the stone wall and just watched for a time until he noticed us and wandered over. His face was etched with lines of sun and weather, but obviously lots of laughter too and his thick Irish accent took a bit of careful listening. Without much coaxing, he told us about his many dogs and his sheep. He laughed about his weakness for bringing home pups just for the sheer joy of training them. He had lived his whole life in the farmhouse behind us. He and his brother were the only ones left to run it now. He told us about the time it snowed in Dingle back in ‘59 and how all the sheep disappeared into the snow. He remembered when they first got electricity in 1953. He explained that his brother did the cooking and he did the shepherding. He never mentioned a wife so it was safe to assume he and his brother were lifelong bachelors and happy to keep it that way.
As we chatted over the fence, I realized there was nothing for us to rush off to. No meetings or agendas needed tending. We were content to stand there in the fading afternoon light and listen to his stories. This sense of place continues to wash over me in sweet moments like these and I'm struck again and again by how wonderful it is to feel such a deep connection to a place and a people.
Ray and I have many more adventures planned. Not all of them to Dingle. But we know it’s only a matter of time before She comes calling and we’re back there getting new stories and meeting new and old friends. Some places are like that. And my gratitude is boundless.