[This was originally part of the entry called 'Hope', but since it was getting a bit long, I cut it into two parts. I'm not sure how related they are, but maybe it's better to read that one first...]
After leaving Belfast, I went to Dublin. It's a nice city, but it's growing very fast. Ireland has a huge number of guest workers, being one of only three E.U. countries to have opened up it's labor market to eastern Europeans. And most of them are concentrated in and around Dublin. In fact, in certain areas it's more common to hear foreign languages than English. Although this makes for a very cosmopolitan atmosphere, it doesn't feel like you're in Ireland. The problem is that because of the rapid growth, the locals tend to be getting big-city attitudes. As in they're becoming quite rude, and drugs are becoming a major issue. In fact, most of the public washrooms have blue lighting to keep people from being able to find a vein.
There are still some people that are very nice. When I was eating lunch in a pita restaurant, the owner came over to me personally and asked me how I was enjoying my sandwich. Yet earlier that day, when I was standing on the sidewalk reading my map, some guy walked right into me. Instead of apologizing, he started yelling at me to watch where I was standing. I thought he was going to attack me. It seems that people are either extremely polite, or extremely not. Very few are in between.
Perhaps the best part of the city is the music scene. Mostly for the sake of tourists, pubs usually offer live Irish music in the evenings. But you have to go out early, as by ten o'clock they've usually switched to dance or rock. Also, you can usually hear good buskers on the main streets.
From Dublin, I moved on to West Port, a small village in the midwest. It had a typical Irish feeling, very quiet, but with lots of rain. In fact, I've heard that in the area it rains sixty percent of the time. As a consequence, the countryside is one of the lushest in Europe. Vines and flowers cover most of the fences, climbing up the trunks of trees as well. The country is well deserving of it's reputation.
After West Port I went to Achill [pronounced Akill] Island, which is one of the most isolated parts of Ireland, still relatively undiscovered by tourists. Unfortunately, without a car, it's hard to get around, and so I spent my time walking the roads near the hostel, enjoying the countryside. In the end I only stayed for one night, as the second day was wet and windy, and it was better to spend my time in a bus than sitting around in the hostel.
While I was waiting at the bus stop, someone drove up and offered to drive me to wherever I was going, as he was heading east. Typical Irish hospitality. He told me stories of the history of Ireland, plus recommended some places to see. Although I was on my way somewhere else, he talked me into stopping in a town called Oughterard, which is very pretty, before he kept going farther inland.
As usual, the weather was a bit of a downer. The wind was exceptionally strong, and the rain seemed to be going more horizontally than anything else. I was hoping to hear some Irish [or Gaelic, depending on who you're asking]. Unfortunately, the first day wasn't so successful. All that I heard of it was an old lady yelling at her dog [does that even count?]. And the next day wasn't much better. Again, I only heard it once, in a bar. This time it was an old man who was doing the talking, but to himself. Since the weather wasn't improving, I decided to go the Aran Islands, which were just off the coast.
Although Aran refers to a collection of three small islands, most of the people that live there are on the biggest one. They aren't as accessible as Achill, which is connected to the rest of the country by a bridge. Instead, you have to take a ferry for half an hour. Yet they've done a great job of promoting their tourist industry, which has done wonders for the local economy. The islands are very beautiful, but they have only a few inches of top soil, with the rest just being a big hunk of rock. Hence tourism is about the only industry they have.
Apparently, when the island was first settled, there was no top soil at all. But over the centuries, the people who lived there would cover their property with sea weed, trying to make it suitable for farming. The cliffs on the far side of the island are very beautiful, being about one hundred meters high.
Despite all of the tourism, it's one of the places where the Irish language is best preserved. Most all of the locals speak it to each other, although sometimes they mix in a bit of English. For instance, they'll be chatting away, and just stick in a 'And lemme tell ya'.
Most of the island is has also been covered in a sort of stone grid. Without using anything to properly stick the rocks together, the locals constructed walls about one meter tall all over the island, dividing it into a series of squares where the cattle graze. The rocks are just stacked on top of each other, but fit in a way so that it's more or less stable. I have no idea how, but the walls have stood up to the harsh winds for centuries.
After the Aran Islands I spent a few days in Galway, which is the center for Irish culture. It's a lovely city, my favorite that I've seen so far in Ireland. It has all of the pluses of Dublin, but minus the urban sprawl.
While there, I met two more people from the Couchsurfing website, Saera and Rose:
Saera showed me around town, and told me stories of life in Conamara, where she was raised. It's along the coast, a bit north of Galway. Some of her family members don't speak much English at all, and her brother has an especially hard time speaking it, as he doesn't travel much. They get many students of Irish that come to stay with them, so as to get a full immersion in the language.
Rose [who's last name, by a bit of a coincidence, is also Barrett] was amazingly nice, offering to drive me all around County Clare, which is where the famous Cliffs of Moore are located. Although the cliffs are quite lovely, they're a bit over-hyped. Those on the Aran Islands were a bit nicer, plus much less commercialized.
Much nicer was the drive around the rest of the county, which lasted for eight hours. Yet it felt like much less. The scenery was gorgeous, green as always. At times she had to stop the car and wait for cows or sheep to move away from the center of the road.
To top things off, she refused my offer to pay for our lunch, and insisted on picking up the tab herself. Her reasoning was simply that I was 'a guest in her country.' What's said about Irish hospitality is if anything understated.
One of the things that I enjoyed the most was the local accent. Although all of the Irish accents sound pretty, the one from this part of the country is exceptionally nice, more like singing than anything else. Sometimes I had a hard time to concentrate on what they were saying, as just listening to the rhythm was almost hypnotic at times. And every other sentence was punctuated with a 'Dooyeknou?'.
After moving on from Galway, I headed for Dingle, in the southwest. The roads in that part of the country are mostly curves and turns, so getting anywhere takes quite a while. To go about 250 km takes almost six hours by bus. Dingle is a very nice place, and at this time of the year quite quiet, as the main tourist season doesn't start until June. The couple of days that I was there were spent either strolling around the back roads or reading by the fireplace in the hostel.
Today I arrived in Cork, in the midsouth. It's a pretty town, bigger than any place that I've been to for the last week or so. As usual, the weather is a bit nasty, so I haven't seen as much of the town as I'd like. Hopefully tomorrow will be a bit sunnier.