From the editor: Ireland, a place like no other

February 27, 2012

Emerald Expressions: A photographic journey of Ireland by Rob and Becky Alway debuts Saturday March 3 at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts.

 

Cemetery west of Galway

 

By ROB ALWAY

mcp editor

 

Have you ever felt called to a certain place? Like a place you think about several times a week, maybe even several times a day? This is how I feel about Ireland.

 

I first visited Ireland six years ago with my oldest brother, Tom. We traveled to western Ireland in early January 2006 for a whirlwind nine day trip. We really didn’t have much knowledge about it nor did we realize we had roots there (a fact that we only found out recently). It just seemed intriguing and the airline tickets were cheap.

 

Clifden castle

Those nine days left an incredible impression on me. A year later, I was married and I pretty much talked to my wife, Becky, all the time about Ireland. We don’t camp, we don’t own a cottage or a boat. Instead, we like to travel and we enjoy taking a trip most every year. While it’s great to relax for a few days, we really enjoy learning about other cultures and seeing new things. So, in late 2010 we started talking about our next trip.

 

Becky had previously taken a trip to Great Britain and France. Her favorite place in that trip was Scotland. Just like I talked about Ireland all the time, she talked about Scotland all the time. We decided that that’s what we would do, we would go to Ireland and Scotland. We had hesitated to go to either place before because we wanted to explore places neither of us had been to.

 

Our trip would be 14 days in early May. We wanted this to be a working vacation with the outcome of an exhibit of our photographs.

 

It became obvious that we wouldn’t do Ireland and Scotland justice if we explored both places in the short time of 14 days. Plus, the rental car company frowned on taking cars off the island of Ireland (it seems that the cars often don’t get returned). We changed our plans and decided to concentrate on Ireland, specifically the west and southwest.

 

Kylemore Abbey, County Galway

This area of Ireland, along with the northwest, has the strongest influence of Celtic culture. It is known as the Gaeltacht, and the majority of people speak Irish (called Gaelige) instead of English. One of the largest areas of concentration of Gaeltacht is in County Galway, particularly the area west of Galway city. This area particularly fascinates me, pretty much because I think it would be cool to live in Galway where I would be known as Alway from Galway.

 

I know there are plenty of places on this planet that have amazing landscapes and rich cultures. I have been as far south as Argentina and Urguay and have traveled to Jamaica and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I have also visited many states and parts of Canada. All of these places are absolutely amazing in their own right and each have worthy cultures. But, for me personally, Ireland trumps them all.

 

The plane to Ireland arrives at Dublin Airport in the early morning. It’s a marvelous site when the plane tips slightly on its approach and, looking out the window, there are acres and acres of bright green fields.

 

Though it’s located 10 degrees further north than Michigan, Ireland’s climate is described as temperate oceanic. Winter snowfall is minimal and typically only occurs in the north. The Gulf Stream, from Florida, keeps the temperatures above average and also keeps the rain coming, thus the year-round green fields. Rain is a way of life in Ireland and it is not unusual to get several short rain storms throughout the day.

 

Alway’s always tip: Always carry an umbrella and bring a rain coat. Always.

 

My first trip, in January 2006, was fun and there was plenty of green. But, being that far north, the sun sets around 4:30 p.m. For a photographer trying to explore a lot of countryside, this is mighty inconvenient. I found May to be a better time of year for a few reasons: The days are longer, the flowers are blooming and the tourist season hasn’t yet begun.

 

Back to those flowers. Becky has what you can pretty much call an obsession with flowers. It’s OK, she’ll admit it. We visited several formal gardens, something I would highly recommend. Many of these are Victorian walled gardens and some are a little less formal. I can’t really say I preferred one over the other, they each had their own charm.

 

Sheep grazing on Achille Island, County Mayo

The most unique garden was Derreen Garden on the Beara Peninsula in County Kerry. The garden includes a collection of shrubs and trees from around the globe. I loved pulling up to this place and putting our euro in a can to cover admission – totally an honor system which everyone is glad to pay. Walking around this park is more like exploring the Ludington State Park rather than a formal garden. The owner has taken a lot of time to make it an educational experience, though, providing a map with information about the variety of vegetation.

 

The Beara Peninsula was an unplanned destination. We had been planning on touring the Ring of Kerry located on the Iveragh Peninsula, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island. But, while having dinner one night at Murphy’s Pub in Dingle, we were given some advise by some American tourists. They said skip the Ring of Kerry and head to the Ring of Beara instead. Though the Ring of Kerry is absolutely grandiose, it is also full of tour buses that clog up the road. The Ring of Beara is located on a slightly smaller peninsula with narrower roads that the buses can’t get down.

 

This advice led us to some unexpected treasures like Derreen Garden, the Healy Pass, Gleninchaquin Park and the quaint town of Kenmare.

 

Of course we also did some more typical tourist stops. A trip to Ireland isn’t complete without visiting the Cliffs of Moher, which reach heights of almost 700 feet at their peek. The cliffs overlook the Atlantic Ocean and are the pride of Ireland. They are located in the area known as The Burren. This area, located in County Clare, is composed of a unique formation of limestone pavements with criss-crossing cracks. The area supports Arctic, Mediterranean and Alpine plants all side by side, due to the unusual environment.

 

If I have one regret from our trip it is not spending more time in The Burren. I intend to go back there sometime and spend several days there.

 

One of the greatest surprises we had in Ireland was the food. This is not a country known for its cuisine but we found it absolutely amazing. I remember driving through a town, about the size of Custer, and needing to find someplace to eat. So, we stopped at the one and only pub. I had lamb with this delicious mint sauce and Becky had stuffed chicken. The food was incredible. This was how the whole trip went. Sure, you can find your typical Guinness stew and corned beef and cabbage (all good, by the way) but there is much more to Irish food. There is a big movement in Ireland to grow and eat local, a lesson we should take note of here in the U.S. The people there have great pride in their food and the fact that it was grown down the road and taken from the nearby sea.

 

Galway

(Just a sidenote: Some of the food inspired by this movement will be featured during our exhibit’s opening reception and at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts’ Emerald Ball on St. Patrick’s Day – see below. PM Steamers will be catering both events. Becky Erickson, general manager of PM Steamers, and her husband, Jon, traveled to Ireland in 2010 where they explored several wonderful dining establishments).

 

Another point of pride for the Irish is the United States, which is often referred to as “the parish to the west.” Unlike many countries around the world, this is a place with people who love America. Just about everybody we talked to had some kind of a relative in the United States, which is not a surprise since there are nearly 36.9 million people in the U.S. who claim they are of Irish decent, and there are only about 6 million people who live on the island of Ireland. When we were there, President Obama was scheduled to visit the next month. This was a pretty big deal, over-shadowed only by Queen Elizabeth’s visit (the first time a British monarch had officially visited the republic of Ireland since it gained independence in the 1920s), which took place a week after we left.

 

The results of our 14 days in Ireland will debut Saturday, March 3, when we host the opening reception of our exhibit “Emerald Expressions” at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts. The 7 p.m. reception is the kick-off of the art center’s observation of Irish Heritage Month.

 

Our exhibit is part of the art center’s observation of Irish Heritage Month, which is observed nationally by presidential decree. The art center has several other events planned. 

 

I will present “a photographer’s journal” on Thursday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m. At that time I will talk about our trip and will be showing pictures that didn’t make the exhibit.

 

My friend, and fellow Scottville area resident, Harold Cronk will be leading a screening of the film “The Secret of the Cave” on Friday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m. He will also discuss the film. Harold is the owner of 10 West Studios in Manistee and he just finished directing his own film. But, a few years ago he was the production designer on the set of “The Secret of the Cave,” which was filmed on Achille Island in County Mayo (also a location we photographed).

 

On Friday, March 16, Professor Seàn Henne, my colleague from West Shore Community College, will lead a talk about “Reading the Irish Landscape,” beginning at 7:30 p.m. Seàn will talk about how the Irish landscape has influenced poets, writers and artists over the generations. Seàn is pretty much pure Irish and has traveled there several times. He has also formally studied Ireland.

The events peak on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, with The Emerald Ball, a concert/dance featuring the General Assembly Orchestra beginning at 6:30 p.m. All other events are free admission but this event is a fund raiser for the art center. Some may wonder why a big band is performing during a St. Patrick’s Day event. If there is one thing I can tell you about Ireland is that it isn’t as generalized as you think. Sure, they are proud of their heritage and the Irish enjoy their time in the pub, where you can find traditional Irish music. But, it’s also a modern country with a diverse population.

 

Downtown Ludington will also be observing St. Patrick’s Day with several events throughout the day, including a parade. I am bummed that I will be missing the downtown events but I will be in Clare, marching with the Scottville Clown Band, in the annual Irish Festival parade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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