Ireland really is as charming as it's cracked up to be — even the Irish are conscious of their own quaintness. So how do you get past the obvious?
I'm not at all sure that I returned from a week in Ireland with a more intimate knowledge of the country than I had before I left. Before ever having set foot on Irish soil, I could have struck up a conversation, Holden Caulfield style, with, say, a couple overheard planning their first trip to Ireland in the travel section of some Boston bookstore and advised them on where to go and what to see. I had been enough of a consumer of all things Irish to have spoken feelingly of its beauty. My shelves were heavy with books by Irish writers, and at least a quarter of my CD collection was Irish, like myself. I could claim a great-grandmother from County Kerry who tucked my mother in to bed with a whispered "May all the little angels watch over you."
By the time I went, I had practically already been. As not much that I saw in my week there was out of keeping with the image I'd formed in advance, I felt suspicious. A place and its image cannot be the same. The image is always somehow off, but in this case it seemed to be right on. Was the place itself perpetrating some untruth?
On our drive across the country to the cottage we'd rented in Cooraclare, my companion and I got off the N6 for a break and stumbled upon Thor Ballylee, the Norman tower Yeats restored and used as a symbol of Ireland in his poems. The tower was pretty as a picture, as most of the rest of Ireland proved to be as pretty as the pictures I'd seen before I went. Ballylee was the first of many towers and crumbling castles we happened across during our week, many of them with tea shops attached or close by, where you could order your tea and scones. But somehow every cup of tea I had, every scone, fish-and-chips meal, and Guinness, however pleasant, seemed a cliche.
The Irish themselves seemed so conscious of their country's charms, I felt as though every person I came across was an undercover tour guide. One night, we drove to a town called Creegh in search of authentic traditional music. The pub we walked into, full of very old men who were having their weekly seisiun, didn't disappoint. The only open chairs in the back room were directly facing the musicians, and we sat there roasting from the heat of the turf fire at our backs. The musicians played a few tunes, and then men from every corner of the small space took turns singing ballads a cappella. I know they would have done the same thing had we not been there, but we were, and I think they were aware of us watching them and of their own quaintness.
When I collected my Guinness at the bar, one of the old men said, "Good stuff, doncha know?" and held up his glass. I had the sense he knew the full value of his Guinness. Sure, he liked to drink it himself, but he was also keenly aware of its appeal to foreigners. The Irish love their Guinness in part because they know the rest of the world gets a kick out of their loving it.
In a sense, you are deprived of the opportunity to be genuinely charmed by Ireland because the Irish people so obviously expect you to be, and you end up delivering the requisite delight at least in part out of politeness.
The whole experience was reminiscent of viewing a near-extinct animal in a zoo. When the only tigers left in the world are bred and live in zoos, will they still be tigers? I think they should be called something else, because tigers are wild animals, and wild animals do not live in zoos. Perhaps Ireland is turning into a kind of zoo, its natural, wild environment replaced by something man-made, the idea of itself and its marketability.
What moved me most about Ireland was its mute landscape, indifferent to our presence. County Clare is inhabited by more stones than people. The Burren, in the northwest of Clare, is a strange, barren, limestone landscape with a good share of ring forts and megalithic tombs to stumble across. One day we explored a peninsula in County Clare that extends into the Atlantic and walked along its cliff edge to a point called Loop Head. I have a rock from that walk. You could say I stole it, but I love it more than anything I saw for sale on the trip. My knowledge of geology is slim, but my rock is beautiful. Crisscrossed with raised lines that look like veins, it reminds me of the stone walls that crisscross the country. I keep it on my desk, and when I pick it up, hold it against my forehead, and feel its elemental coolness, I have the sense I am experiencing something true and unknowable about Ireland.