I have just come back from a six day trip around the west of Ireland with my mother, leaving last Monday morning and coming back yesterday. We went to Galway, Connemara, Inis Mór and Kinvara (with a view to visiting the Burren).
It was one of those trips where things did not go quite as expected.
One of the things that Irish emigrés often talk about upon their return is the sense of a “reverse culture shock”, and the difficulty of resolving their memories of what Ireland is like vis-a-vis what is actually confronting them on their return.
On this trip I was confronted by an image of Ireland as saccharine, parochial, charming. The place was set out for international tourists, particularly on Inis Mór, the largest island of the Aran Islands. We took a pony and trap tour of the Island which was informative and illuminating. Alongside us were an Italian family who snapped pictures over and over of the wattle and daub, thatched houses. It was a little bit funny, because my aunt owns a very similar house in Donegal in which I spent a lot of time during my childhood, and I imagined crowds of Germans and Americans standing outside snapping pictures while we shot air rifles in the back garden or walked to the beach.
Nevertheless, particularly on Aran, I had a sense of resentment from the local people. The service we received in local pubs and restaurants betrayed a lack of training and suggested that hospitality was a profession forced on many on the island rather than chosen; we were informed during our tour that 80% of the island’s income came from tourism. For an island which previously relied on agriculture and fishing, it was suggestive of a way of life in the process of destruction and decline. The disconnect between life as lived and life as presented to outsiders was perhaps particularly startling to me as a domestic tourist.
Another point of interest was visiting St. Nicholas’ Church in Galway, which is Church of Ireland. By chance I came across some regimental banners from the Connaught Rangers, which my great-grandfather had fought in during WWI, having enlisted as a supporter of John Redmond (he had been in the Irish Volunteers and was later in the Irish Free State army). I asked if there was information about the banners, but they had none. (Interesting in itself – in my experience living in England, most Church of England churches would have some information about their regimental banners and memorials).
Moreover, as someone used to travelling alone I found being with my mother all the time at times very restrictive, especially as without a driving licence I could not really go off by myself with the car (and public transport is non-existent). The upshot of this is the realization that I really do prefer travelling solo, at least if I’m going for more than 3-4 days (I was worried I was buying into the hype a bit too much), I ought to finally get a driving licence, and self catering is the way to go (there is only so much restaurant food I can take, but this seems to differentiate me strongly from nearly everyone I’ve travelled with). I ended up buying a pack of amber leaf (the 3-in-1 packs banned in the UK are still sold in the RoI), as being around my mother’s chain smoking all day every day was too much for me – though I can hardly hold her at fault for that. I suppose one of the more interesting things about travel, aside from the cultural impressions made on you by the places you visit, is what you learn about yourself and how you relate to others (particularly travel companions).