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Learning from Ireland

In May we took a real vacation. To Ireland, for three weeks. You learn so much from another country — how they govern and play, how they solve problems, how they deal with adversity. Their art, humor.   

It all started when our friend Arnold Collman said suddenly at breakfast a year ago, “I want to go to Ireland.” Though he’d travelled all over the U.S., even to Alaska driving, he’d never been on a commercial airliner. We decided to make it an 80th birthday present — a trip for all four of us.

We planned for three weeks and spent a year preparing. Reading books. June Collman: former President Mary Robinson’s 2012 memoir, “Everybody Matters.” I reread William Butler Yeats, my favorite lyric poet and histories of the famine years, emigration and “the Troubles” that preceded Ireland’s 1948 independence from the UK. We watched some great Irish movies: “My Left Foot,” “Dancing at Lughnasa,” “Waking Ned Devine,” and a documentary, “The Irish Pub.” Using the Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland, we all contributed to a wishlist of places to visit

Lesson number one: You can learn to drive on the left side of the road. Piling into a roomy car, we spent our first day white-knuckled with raspberry-covered rock walls four inches from our left! Trucks hurtling by at insane speeds. Rod is an excellent driver, and only once, on a relatively deserted street did he make a right turn and move momentarily into the right lane.

Number two. You can feast your eyes on landscapes all day, every day. You can walk in them, share them with sheep and cows and birds. We visited the ancient Glendalough monastery built by a hermit, St. Kevin, and wandered in among 500-year-old gravestones. We made the arduous and dazzling climb up the valley beyond, hiking down at dusk among abandoned mining operations.

Number three: Some cultures are truly friendly and fun-loving. On our Lough hike, we met a group of young Filipina women living and working in Dublin. They asked us to take a photo of them and obliged us by taking ours. They shared their stories with us — we were all a little breathless at that point — and we did the same, stretching the water break into 20 minutes.

Number four: If you don’t really know who your ancestors are, you can imagine them with the help of others. On the farthest southwest Irish corner, Mizen Head, we picnicked on fish chowder outside of O’Sullivan’s Pub, the first of many encounters with all things “Sullivan,” the family name of Arnold’s grandmother. We spent the next two days on the Beara peninsula, ridden with Sullivans who made great instant friends. I found a beautiful gravestone for a Rose Dillon, my great aunt’s name, and made a mental note to visit her in the Faribault cemetery.

Number five: Cultures can survive scourges of invasion, expropriation, serfdom and impoverishment. A Copper Museum showed us the work of 19th century miners exploited to generate riches for absentee owners who built a mansion larger than our White House. The work was laborious and skilled — digging down deeply along copper seams with hand tools. Shoring up the walls, hand-hoisting heavy loads with ropes. Shoeless children working in the mines, little or no schooling, a diet of potatoes only, fathers dying violently. The museum documented the emigration of Irish miners to the copper mines of Butte, Mont., where they formed a union and won wages good enough for decent housing, clothes, food and schools.

Number six: Famines aren’t just about plant biology. At an Irish famine museum, we learned the potato blight was global, including the Andes where potatoes first were cultivated. But only in Ireland did massive numbers of people die. Poor farmers’ diets had been reduced to potatoes — a hard-working man might consume 40 pounds of potatoes a day and nothing else. Rich rural landlords had created an economy where every bit of wealth was squeezed from the farmers. The population of Ireland fell from around 11 million to 8 million during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Millions died, millions more emigrated.

Number seven: Art and humor can bear up a society during the worst of times. Ireland’s struggle for independence from Great Britain took three centuries, well into the 20th. The Great Recession of 2007-10 was terrible for Ireland, because its banks and government had colluded in housing and asset speculation as deeply as ours. But the Irish know how to sing, dance, tell funny stories, write powerful novels and poetry, and create beautiful artworks. Our Irish friend Patricia and husband Jim hosted us for a day and night, viewing her installation works: one a series of dirt piles from every county in Ireland, addressing the most recent Troubles. An abandoned rural house she converted into an Emigration Museum with the help of town residents, asking people to bring in mementos, letters, and left-behinds from people who had emigrated over the years. Another project, beautifully colored jellies that she made and placed on the sea beach so that people could watch them disintegrate over 24 hours as tides came and went.

We left reluctantly. Sated, and full of wonderment, insight and stories.

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