For many years, my wife Mary Ellen and I have planned to visit Ireland. During the Cold War, when I was an Air Force intelligence officer, we had flown through the Shannon airport in southwest Ireland on our way to and from European duty stations in England and Germany. The countryside was indeed emerald green each time we saw it from the air. This past year, our friends George and Martha Holmes, who live in Plymouth, MA, had expressed similar hopes to visit Ireland. George and I served with the US Army Signal Corps in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II. Things got serious when George called and mentioned that he had found just the tour for us. It would be by bus, beginning at Shannon and going clockwise around Ireland, back to Shannon via all the places that we wanted to see - the West country, Galway, Connemara, Northern Ireland including Antrim and the Giant's Causeway, then Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, and Limerick, which is near Shannon.
We left from Washington Reagan National Airport on May 30 for Boston, where we met George and Martha Holmes for our Aer Lingus connection to Shannon Airport. After we arrived in Ireland about ten AM the next day, we were met by Tommy Barnes, our tour guide, and Christie O'Sullivan, our bus driver. Tommy was short and merry; Christie was tall and taciturn, but each had the map of Ireland on his face, as my Mother used to say. They took us to the Limerick Inn, where we rested a while. In the afternoon, we visited Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. In the evening, we were guests at a traditional Irish Ceili, during which wine and dinner were served while the local folk entertained us with country dances, singing and music. It was "total immersion" in the Irish culture, which we enjoyed very much.
On June 1, we drove to the Cliffs of Moher, which are a spectacular feature on the western shore of County Clare, 600 foot high sheer sandstone cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, where the surf beats incessantly against the base. There is no beach at the bottom of the cliffs. Overhead the screeching of the gulls and other sea birds is carried past on the stiff breeze, and the sunlight is fleeting as the clouds zip past. A stone watch tower at the top of the cliffs is a remnant of the time when the inhabitants kept a lookout for marauding Norsemen in their long ships. Next we drove across the Burren, a deeply fissured limestone plateau where rocks are sunk in the mire of the bogs. We ate lunch at the Rathbaun Farm, where the young farmer owner proudly showed us his crops and animals. He sheared a sheep for us, and told us of his life in rural Ireland. He was an enthusiastic and well educated farmer. The lunch introduced us to home made Irish soda bread which we enjoyed at least once a day for the rest of the tour. Our last stop for the day was Galway Cathedral, an impressive structure in the town center. After dinner at our hotel, we strolled along the shore and watched the sun go down in Galway Bay, far away on the western horizon.
The highlight of the fourth day, June 2, was a counter-clockwise drive around the Connemara peninsula. On the way to Clifden, we stopped at the lake side Kylemore Abbey, which is a 70 room neo-Gothic mansion, now occupied by an Irish Benedictine community which came to Ireland after World War I, since their abbey at Ypres had been destroyed. Clifden is a charming town, near which the Canadians Alcock and Brown landed after they had flown across the Atlantic Ocean in 1919. We had a salmon lunch in the Alcock and Brown Hotel, the first of many during our tour. We also used a Bank of Ireland Automatic Teller Machine, a welcome change from the travelers' checks which we have used since our first European trip in 1951. We drove on through villages and bog land to the Connemara Marble Factory, where we learned about quarrying and polishing marble of various colors. The owners of the Connemara Coast Hotel in Galway are so proud of it that we were given a tour of the entire establishment,including the kitchens.
On June 3, we drove north through Counties Galway and Mayo, stopping first at Clonalis House, the ancestral home of the O'Connor's, descendants of the last High King of Ireland. We had an O'Connor in our group, Patricia from Boston. She and the rest of us were regaled with stories of the "O'Connor Dons", as the family leaders are called. County Mayo is the location for some of J.M. Synge's plays, like The Playboy of the Western World, which is typically Irish to my mind, a mixture of the serious and hilarious experiences of Irish men and women. Our next stop was in Sligo, where we visited the churchyard at Drumcliff. The poet William Butler Yeats is buried there, and on the gravestone is his enigmatic epitaph:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by.
Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Irish poets have long been recognized for their imagination and unique way with words. And that also applied to tour guides, on this trip, since Tommy Barnes all during the trip regaled us with songs, jokes, funny and serious stories, all in his native Irish brogue. Our last stop on June 3 before signing in at the Manor House Hotel in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, was the Beleek China Factory. Many presents were purchased there. The porcelain workmanship is very good, and the prices reasonable.
The next day, June 4, began with a drive along the shores of Lough Erne. We stopped in the market town of Enniskillen, where we boarded a small cruiser which took us to Devenish Island. On the island is a monastery, founded in the Sixth Century. The outstanding feature is an 81 foot high stone tower, which was used to warn the monks of approaching Viking raiders. The ruins of a church and priory are in the midst of an emerald green field. It is now an idyllic scene, reminding us of the time during the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, when Ireland was one of the few places in Europe where classical learning continued. After lunch, we drove on to the Ulster American Folk Park in County Tyrone, just north of Omagh. This park was funded by the Mellon banking family of Pittsburgh. Its theme is the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century emigration of 250,000 Ulster Scots to America. The Old World section consists of a typical Eighteenth Century Ulster village, including a ship and dockside gallery, which leads to the New World section which shows the way the early immigrants lived in New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies. The Center for Migration Studies contains an extensive library. I collected reading lists from the librarian for family history research, American sources for genealogy and the Plantation of Ulster. The librarian also provided me with lists of research organizations, and county based Irish Genealogy centers. As you know, we have recently connected eight CMA family lines with their Scottish families, and hope to do the same for our Irish Family lines. Many CMA members are pursuing independent research in both Scotland and Ireland toward this goal.
We drove on to Portrush in County Antrim on the afternoon of June 4, where we spent the night at the Magherabuoy House Hotel. On the way, we spent a few hours in Londonderry, where some of us visited a shopping mall, similar to one in any medium sized town in the United States. We spent the next day touring the spectacular sights of the Antrim Coast, and the Vale of Antrim. The highlight of the day was the Giant's Causeway, a volcanic formation of basalt stone columns. According to legend, it was built by the Scottish giant Finn McCool, so that he could accept an invitation to Ireland for a test of strength. After Finn was defeated, the causeway sank beneath the sea. There is a similar formation in Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa in Scotland. Nearby are the ruins of Dunluce Castle, captured in the Sixteenth Century by the McDonnells of Scotland from the MacQuillans. This is the castle often called "McAllister's Castle", and described as such in contemporary literature. It would take a great deal of money to restore the castle to its former condition. It stands on a crag, on a cliff edge 100 feet above the sea, and is separated from the mainland by a 20 foot wide deep defile. Also nearby is Bushmill's Distillery, where the golden Irish whiskey has been made since the Thirteenth Century. Our tour included a final tasting just before lunch, where each of us was given a glass of one of Bushmill's Irish whisky products. Bushmill's is one of Ireland's best known exports. The afternoon was spent driving through the Vale of Antrim, which included a slow drive through the village of Cushendall, on the North Channel, in sight of the Kintyre Peninsula of Scotland across the water. Unfortunately, the visibility was not good enough for us to see Scotland. Cushendall is the home village of the A02 (Archibald and Mary McCary McAllister) family line. I was amused to see that in this small village, the family name was spelled two different ways on the signs of the shops and professional offices. One CMA member of the A02 line told me that there were so many John McAllisters in a nearby valley, that the postman delivered the mail to the house addresses named for their wives. The country scenery in this section of Antrim is very reminiscent of Kintyre, and also of Appalachia in the United States.
On June 6, D-Day, we drove from Portrush to Dublin. On the way, we stopped at Downpatrick in County Down, south of Belfast. The Cathedral graveyard in Downpatrick contains the legendary gravestone of St. Patrick himself. He was the man who converted the Irish to Christianity, and is also reputed to have chased out all the snakes as well. It is a peaceful place where the spirit of Ireland's past hangs heavy in the air. During our trip, the weather was typical of Northern Europe in the spring - cool and rainy. It was sunny and warm in Downpatrick for the few hours we spent visiting with St. Patrick. In the afternoon, we drove on to Dublin, where we stayed at the Burlington Hotel the next two days.
Dublin is a beautiful city. On June 7, we drove to a location from which we could walk to the statue-lined O'Connell Street, and the General Post office, the scene of the 1916 Easter Uprising, which led eventually to the establishment of the Irish Free State. Many of the houses in Dublin are the elegant Georgian style. We visited St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift is buried. He was Dean of the cathedral and one of the great satirists of European literature. A memorable monument in the Cathedral was the one commemorating the service of Irishmen in the British Fourteenth Army in Burma and India during WW II. My service in the China-Burma-India theater in 1944-46, was at times in support of the Fourteenth Army. .We also visited the Trinity College Library, where the Book of Kells is exhibited in the Treasury. It is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels in Latin, written on vellum. The Book dates from the Eighth Century. Although it was kept at Kells until the Seventeenth Century, it is not known where it was produced. The illuminations, or illustrations, are among the most beautiful in existence.
After a spending the rest of the day shopping in Dublin, we spent the evening at the Abbey Theater, where we saw, "Kevin's Bed", a play about a contemporary dysfunctional Irish family. Since that is a familiar theme in the American theater, for a few hours it seemed like we had not left home at all. The acting was very good. Our guide Tommy Barnes went with us. He provided a free translation of some of the more opaque passages and scenes in the play. For that matter, Tommy and Christy O'Sullivan, the driver, were never at a loss for words. Like most Irishmen, they are friendly, witty and full of stories and songs for any occasion. They proudly showed us some of the typical Dublin streets, where there are houses very reminiscent of London, and some sections of East Coast American cities like Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Baltimore and Charleston.
On Monday morning, June 8, we drove south from Dublin to Glendalough, "Valley of the Two Lakes", in County Wicklow. It is a stronghold and monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the Sixth Century. For many years he lived there as a hermit. His tomb is called St. Kevin's Bed. After lunch in a picturesque restaurant nearby, we drove on to Waterford, in County Waterford, where we stayed in a private guesthouse for the night, and breakfast the following morning. This was a good experience, for we were able to talk with an Irish family, a young couple with a teen age daughter, who was excited about finishing high school and going on to college.
The next day, we visited Waterford. The Waterford Crystal factory is the principal attraction in the city. We were given a tour through it, which was very informative. The workers there are quite skilled in making some of the most beautiful crystal ware in the world. Since they reject about forty percent of every item that they make, there are no "seconds" for sale. The showroom was able to process many orders by members of our group, which included packaging and mailing, so that we didn't have to be concerned about taking them in our luggage back through U.S. Customs. We drove on to Blarney Castle in County Cork, where all of us kissed the Blarney Stone. As we waited on the stone parapet, I enjoyed the panoramic scene. In all directions was rural farmland, rivers and lakes. Finally my turn came, and I lay down on the stone pavement, dropped my head into a well-worn window, and hanging upside down, kissed the famous stone. When I was back on my feet, I realized that I was possessed with the gift of gab once again, having lost it for the thirty seconds it took to get back my breath. We were able to look at the Blarney Woollen Mills, but the main attractions for us by then were cups of tea and Irish scones, with butter. In the afternoon, we drove on to Killarney, "Heaven's Reflex", in County Kerry, where we stayed two nights at the Royal Hotel.
The next day, June 10, we drove around the Ring of Kerry. Our first stop was at Macken's of Ireland, an interesting craft store. The rest of the day was spent driving along the very scenic coastline of the Iveragh Peninsula, and its villages of Killorglin, Cahirciveen, Waterville and Sneem, where the natives speak the Irish language. One of our more interesting lunches was had in a pub in Cahirciveen, where they served open faced sandwiches piled high with salmon, and a side of salad. George and I had ale to drink, while Martha and Mary were warmed with their cups of tea. It is easy to see why the Irish love their country. The weather isn't too bad, the scenery is spectacular, there aren't many people about, and there is time to enjoy life. Many of the young people are not emigrating any more, since there are many new industries locating in Ireland.
We were almost at the end of our tour on June 11, when we drove from Kilarney to Tralee, in County Kerry, where we visited the Blennerville Windmill, and the exhibition of the "coffin ships" which carried many emigrants from Ireland to America during the terrible famine years of the 1840's. The trials which many of our ancestors went through to come to the United States and Canada became almost real when we saw the cramped quarters on the ships in which they spent weeks crossing the stormy Atlantic Ocean, and thought about what little they had to eat, and how sick they must have been in mind and body as they left the only homes they had known. It gave new meaning to me of why we call our group the Clan McAlister of America. The rest of the day was spent driving on through the small village of Adare to the Flying Boat Museum at Foynes, in the Shannon River delta. This was the place where the trans-Atlantic flying boats operated by Pan American Airways and British Overseas Airways Corporation made round trips from 1939 to 1945 to the United States in the summer. In the winter, the base used was Lisbon, in Portugal. Remember in the movie "Casablanca", when Paul Henried and Ingrid Bergman left on the night plane from Casablanca to make the connection in Lisbon to the trans-Atlantic flight to America? The aircraft used for the over water flight were made by Boeing in the United States and the Short Company of Belfast. The flights were always long and cold, so the cafe owner in Foynes invented a drink to warm the passengers arriving from America. He put a dollop of cream atop a cup of sweet hot coffee generously laced with Irish whiskey, and called it Irish Coffee. We drove on to the Limerick Inn to spend the night. On our final evening in Ireland, we went to a medieval banquet at Knappogue Castle. It was a mixture of good food and excellent entertainment, much like an American dinner theater. A good time was had by all.
After breakfast on June 12, we boarded the bus for the last time, and were driven to Shannon Airport, where we got on the Aer Lingus flight to Boston. As I looked down on the emerald green of Ireland, I thought again of the Gaelic Blessing that Tommy Barnes would say,
May the Road rise to meet you;
May the wind be always at your back,
The sun shine warm upon your face.
The rain fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.
And that prayer is for you all, too.