Saturday, March 15, 2014

Reading my way to Ireland, Part 2: travelogues

I've always been an easy mark for the travelogue.

Travel guides are fine, but they are very dry. Travelogues make no bones about it: they are personal, and opinionated, and eccentric, and everything that's wonderful about traveling.

I've been lucky to stumble across some nice travelogues about traveling in Ireland:

  • McCarthy's Bar: A Journey of Discovery In Ireland

    This book will be no surprise to anyone who's ever read anything about Ireland. Pete McCarthy was a prolific writer and a prolific traveler and rather a funny man as well. Sadly, he died only a few years after writing this book, but what a good book it is!

    Rather than take the easy way around Ireland, McCarthy goes out of his way to have a real experience. He deliberately gets lost. He sets out in the morning without knowing where he will stay that evening. He takes every opportunity to put himself in situations where he can't just be a spectator. He lives, breathes, sweats, and cries Ireland. And, all the time, you find yourself laughing and crying with him:

    I drove on, stopping a couple of times to go ferreting up mountainsides looking for mass rocks and standing stones. I know this passion for old stones is beginning to seem like an obsession, but when there are no sushi restaurants or art-house cinemas to hang out in, you have to make your own fun. At one point I followed a waterfall up the hillside through ferns and thick woods. At the top, I stopped to gaze out over the mountains, lakes and islands of Kerry, but found myself instead gazing in wonder at the beautiful emerald moss that covered the rocks at my feet. Wow, I thought. At home I go mental trying to get rid of the moss in the garden, but here I realise how beautiful it is. It was a moment of great realisation. I realised the solitude and the natural beauty were turning me soft in the head. It was time to go somewhere with lots of people and buildings, so I could get back in touch with my uncaring, cynical side. I needed quality time in a major tourist trap. I went back to the Tank and hit the road for Killarney.

    It was gorgeous moss though.

    I wish McCarthy had lived longer, to write more, but I'm pleased to have found him nonetheless.

  • Round Ireland in Low Gear

    Eric Newby is rather a well-known travel writer, though this was the first book of his I've read.

    When I read the blurb before buying the book ("Touring Ireland by bicycle in the winter is a daunting prospect even for the most seasoned backpackers, but Newby and his wife Wanda weathered it with good humor and resilience."), I anticipated that I was going to be reading some sort of adventure travel book, about a pair of 20-somethings who sleep in the fields and scale the cliffs in between epic bicycle sprints from one place to the next.

    Oh, how wrong I was!

    It turns out, at the time of this trip, Newby and his wife were in their late 60's, and were only occasional cyclers.

    Moreover, they chose the dead of winter for their trip.

    So large parts of this book involve passages like this:

    In the morning we rode out to a huge white sugar-loaf beacon known as Lot's Wife which looks across a narrow sound to Sherkin Island. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining but the wind was blowing so strongly that we could lean out on it without falling over, which meant it was Force 9. Gouts of froth streamed up the face of a precipice on the extreme edge of which a herd of cattle stood grazing, accompanied by an enormous, wily-looking goat; apparently the cattle often fall over, having neither apprehension nor fear of heights, but never the goat. Having done this there was not much else to do, the mail boat not being due to sail for Clear Island until half past two in the afternoon.

    "I'm afraid I can't go on with much more of this," said Wanda, as we sat in a deep valley leading down to the sea next door to an abandoned Morris done out in jungle camouflage with nothing inside except seatbelts. "The winds and the rains are simply killing me." And she shed a tear or two. Nevertheless she promosed to delay her decision about abandoning both me and Ireland until our return from Clear Island.

    I'm not giving much away to admit that, somehow, they persevere.

    Newby's book is delightful. He's interested in everything: history, culture, scenery, religion, art. In between the two-wheeled stretches, he discusses all sorts of topics, and his writing is fluid and natural.

    If it weren't for McCarthy's Bar, I'd be raving about Round Ireland in Low Gear.

  • Keep to the Left!: Freewheeling through Ireland

    It is, perhaps, easier for Europeans to appreciate Ireland, as they have some idea of what it is that they are seeing, and why it is there.

    We Yanks have it harder. To us, a historical building was built around 1905 or so, and clans and kings and queens are things we only learn about on TV.

    So off go Jesse and Micki Lovelace, two middle-aged Midwesterners, to Ireland, doing their best to approach things with an open mind and let Ireland show itself to them.

    Jesse takes copious notes, and is very good at re-telling what he had for breakfast, and who had the better meal at the pub. At at times it seems like all he manages to do is to make it from one door to the next.

    Our evening was another memorable pub-crawl. There were several pubs we had missed the night before, so we had to take up the slack before we left County Mayo. Our first stop was the Parting Glass.
    But when he's not simply regurgitating the facts of the matter, he has a lively appreciation for Ireland that makes his book a genuine kick to read:
    With that reassurance, we returned to Abbeyfeale for dinner. Kathleen had recommended a place called O'Riordan's and had said the food was good and reasonable. We found it, since we had noted it as a landmark a few hours earlier, and went in to have one at the bar. As we were sitting there, a big fellow sat down at the bar next to us. He bore a striking resemblance to Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor: thin hair, round face, prominent ears (like mine) and an infectious grin.

    Since pub manners prevail, we weren't surprised (or offended) when he struck up a conversation. After the usual "How are you enjoying your holiday?," we got to chatting about things in general. He was (and I hope still is) a police officer (Garda) and had just gotten off duty and dropped into O'Riordan's to unwind. When Micki told him that she was a nurse in a small town hospital, the two of them had a grand old time comparing hairy emergency room stories. People who deal with the wreckage of humanity and the disasters that befall people have a sort of bond that defies all boundaries; they know and understand things that the rest of us are completely clueless about. It was an amazing and inspiring experience to listen to an American nurse and an Iris cop discuss the things they had in common.

    Lovelace's book isn't nearly at the level of the other two, but it's enjoyable and entertaining, and most of all it's heart-felt: Lovelace deeply treasured his trip to Ireland, and his enthusiasm is infectious and pleasing, and I can't say I regret the time I spent reading his stories of his adventures.

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