Chicago is a city with deep Irish roots.  What better way to learn more about that part of our culture than to visit the source…the place our grandparents or great-grandparents were raised?

Hopped on the blue line to O’Hare last Tuesday evening with my cousin Casey as we ventured to the motherland for his brother Conor’s wedding.  Neither Case or I had ever been to Ireland.  You can see the excitement on our faces at the gate:

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7+ hour flight into Dublin overnight.  Casey took an Ambien and got some ZZZs.  I hardly slept a wink.  Dropped our bags at with the Aloft Dublin concierge at noon Irish time and went right to the pubs to get started as they prepared our room.

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See?  Same clothes.  I believe it’s true what they say: The Guinness tastes far better in Ireland.  We hit all the tourist spots that night, such as The Temple Bar.  It’s down in what would compare to Dublin’s Rush & Division area.  Visitors from all over, plenty of pubs and live music.  Loads of fun to be had.

We were a little wiped from the red eye flight so we hailed a taxi back to hotel for a cocktail at the hotel bar before deciding we needed one more pub experience in Dublin.  We skipped down the alley to a little pub we’d spotted earlier and knocked back a couple more pints as the barkeep, a charming woman with a heavy brogue who originally hailed from China, kept us company.  My head hit the pillow at midnight and I slept deeply for a precise 8 hours.  Rejuvenated!

Casey headed to meet my sister Meg & his brother Pete for a journey to Galway.  I went a different direction, to the Tara St. DART train station (Dublin’s version of the CTA – nice trains) for a 40 minute ride to Bray.  There, my friend Daire’s father, Noel, picked me up and drove me to the family home in Enniskerry.  After snacking on homemade brown bread courtesy of Daire’s mom, Ann, Noel and I set forth to conquer a Wicklow County hiking trail through the mountains and around a lake.  On the way, Noel took me on a tour of the surrounding areas: waterfalls, fields of peat and natural settings just dozens of miles outside of Dublin city centre.

 

 

We stopped at a couple historic sites as well – none more poignant than the Glencree German War Cemetery.  I know what you’re saying…German?  Buried here are around 200 WWI and WWII German soldiers who died when their planes went down across Ireland.  In the 60s, Germany worked with Ireland to create this memorial space.  It never occurred to me that one country could honor fallen soldiers from the other side.  This poem explains the philosophy:

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Hits you right in the soul, doesn’t it?  Well said, Stan O’Brien.  Looking at the gravestones, then and realizing these were 20-something kids being loyal to their country.  Fighting for the Nazis, in the case of the WWII soldiers, but brainwashed to believe they were patriotic Germans.  Worthy of mourning on many levels.  This place taught me a lot about Irish sensibilities.  Most of the remains are identified, some are not.

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After a bit of a drive, Noel and I arrived at our destination and walked beneath an arch noting entrance onto hallowed grounds:

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Remains of buildings constructed a thousand years ago stood there in Glendalough, including the Round Tower, built by St. Kevin’s monks as a watchtower, bell tower and place of refuge.

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St. Kevin’s bed is a cave where the monk spent alone time.  Treacherous to approach by land, one can peer across the lake and catch a glimpse of Kev’s little getaway.

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Noel recited the lyrics of a comical song about St. Kevin’s piety and a woman determined to test it.  I found the Dubliners’ version:

At this point in our hike, the crowds of tourists thinned considerably.  Busloads from Dublin brought folks out to take photos around the tower and at the base of the mountains.  The higher we climbed, the more sparse the passersby.  We stopped at the base of an 1800s lead mining camp for lunch – ham & cheese sandwiches packed by Ann.  Mountains goats hopped from rock to rock far above.

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Noel has a couple decades on me, but he’s spry and hikes often.  Before we were halfway up, I started to wonder how I would hold up.  His determination inspired me, and by the time we’d reached the top – following a couple water breaks – I was rewarded for soldiering on.  Sitting atop the hills in Ireland, I felt a sense of accomplishment combined with awe at the pure magnificence of being there.

 

 

I failed to bring proper footwear for a 5-hour hike through the mountains.  Could’ve sworn I packed some gym shoes, but no.  I soldiered forth in a pair of Tom’s slip-ons.  I texted a podiatrist/mountain climber friend of mine that she’d be proud/disappointed.  She lol’d.

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Here’s Noel and I in home stretch:

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He’s a great conversationalist and knows everything about Wicklow County.  I was blessed to have such a knowledgable and kind tour guide/host.  Noel shared a story about witnessing a hiker enter a pub and order a pint after a particularly grueling journey one day.  The hiker sipped deeply from the glass, taking down half of it before setting it down on the bar.  During an ensuing conversation with the pub owner, the man said it was the best pint he ever had.  I’m paraphrasing there, because I’ll never be able to tell that story as well as Noel tells it.  The point is, that’s the day Noel decided to get into hiking himself.  He said to himself, I want to be like that man.  Climbing a mountain or walking an arduous trail and earning that pint afterwards.  We stopped at a pub not far from the trail and Noel bought me a pint.  I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the best Guinness I had on the entire trip and the best beer I’ve tasted as far back as I can remember.  Noel was right, as was the hiker who’d inspired Noel years before.

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We returned home for dinner – a homemade shepherd’s pie.  Ann’s cooking is extraordinary.  Noel and I freshened up and drove to the local pub.

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I thought my day had been enthralling, yet the night may have topped even an Irish mountaintop.  Noel’s friends brought their musicians and turned the Powerscourt Arms into one big singalong for the next 3 hours.  Noel himself sang a few tunes, including a knee-slapping back-and-forth tune with his dear pal Big Frank.  Big Frank plays no instrument.  Instead he brings a broom in a guitar case and strums along.  Strangers stare, trying to determine if the brush is some sort of traditional instrument they’ve never heard.  Quite the character.  Check out his antics in the 3rd clip (Lyin’ Eyes) below.  Earlier in the day, Noel and Ann played for me on the stereo a beautiful Rod Stewart song called “Grace”.  It’s about a young Irish rebel executed for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising against the British.  Joseph Plunkett was allowed to marry Grace Gifford at Kilmainham prison just before he was put to death.  Hugo, the kid from Enniskerry in the video below, sang a nice rendition for us at the Powerscourt Arms:

After a fabulous Irish breakfast the following morning, I took the DART back to the city to meet my cousin Tom & his girlfriend Hannah to catch a train to Sligo.

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Three hours and fifteen minutes later we arrived in Sligo and went right to a pub for a pint.  Nice little spot across from the train station.  The entire family gathered at Belfry Pub to rev up for the weekend.  Sligo is a charming town with shops, pubs, restaurants and coffee shops. IMG_1261

Friendly folks at every turn.  I did my souvenir shopping there Saturday morning before we headed to Markree Castle – about 15 minutes outside of town – for the rehearsal dinner.

The wedding weekend is a story unto itself…Part 2 coming soon.