Al and Marsha's Journal
 

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March 2nd & 3rd

 

As is always preferable, the flight from Vancouver to Heathrow was uneventful.

 

I managed to snag myself a bulkhead row seat, which makes a big difference.  It turned out that I was one row behind Business Class. I consoled myself by realizing that I was four feet behind someone who paid $3,000.00 more for six inches of leg room, six inches of elbow room and a fancier dinner. I guess I got him on the leg room though .. for free!!!  Truth is, I would have flown Business Class in an instant if I thought my client would pay for it. I guess I got the next best thing.

 

Things started to go downhill when we arrived at Heathrow. We sat on the apron for twenty minutes waiting for a place to park!! That in itself is bad enough, but I had a VERY short connection time.

 

It gets worse……

 

After the plane finally parked, and the ramp brought up to the plane (yes, stairs down to the ground!!) and the bus arrived (yes, the bus!!) and filled up, we were on our way. On our way to where? On our way to building where we had to run up a very long escalator, along what seemed like a half mile of empty corridor, down another very long escalator; to another bus which took us to 

Terminal 1……. After arriving at Terminal 1 I waited in the immigration lineup reserved for foreigners. (Foreigners??? How could I be a foreigner???  Don't we both have the same queen?  Isn't that her picture on all of our currency??) I waited like what seemed forever, all the while envisioning my plane disappearing into the sky while I stand weeping at the gate, watching the immigration agent grill a group of swarthy looking gentlemen at great length.  Finally the keeper of the gate let me into the UK citizen’s lineup. After a short bit I again found myself running down an interminably long corridor to the farthest away gate to catch my plane. Got there in time, huffing and puffing and sweating like a porker.

 

The flight to Belfast was uneventful, and I disembarked easily. Before the luggage started coming I heard myself being paged. What I feared clearly had happened; I made the plane but my luggage didn’t.  It was this that brought me to my first experience with how lovely Irish folks are. The baggage agent who told me the sad news was so upset that I thought he was going to cry.  Anyway, he promised they would deliver my bag to my hotel (a two hour drive away) the next day. And they did. 

 

I found my driver (doesn’t that just sound so posh!!!) right away and off we went for Letterkenny  (Letir Ceanainn) and the Castle Grove Hotel.

 

Two quick observations….. Belfast, the people, and the traffic looked like any other place…. No guns, no tanks, no police cars everywhere… just people going about their business. Strange, it doesn’t look like that in the news…. I wonder why????

 

Second… In Ireland if you want to say the equivalent of “Hell, yes!”, you would say “Och Aye!”.  The “ch” part of “och” sounds very much like the “ch” part of “chutzpah”, but gentler. The “aye” part must be said with a little Irish musical lilt to it.  Try it… all together now……with gusto…… “Och Aye!”.    Very well done……

 

Two hours later, after negotiating a series of highway-like roads, some two lane roads, and some one and one-half lane roads, many roundabouts, etc we arrived at Letterkenny. It was much larger than I had expected, but I didn’t see much of it, as at that point as we turned North toward the Castle Grove Hotel about four miles away. Later research indicated that the population is about 15,000. One guidebook said the older buildings were no older than one hundred years, but that's not true as evidenced by this picture of a sign at the Letterkenny Market. (P)

 

When we turned into the entry gate of the Castle Grove Hotel there was a one lane road stretching into the distance surrounded on each side with green fields, some of which were populated with sheep (P), old stone buildings and stone walls. At the end of the road, about a half mile down, was the elegant manor house, which was the hotel, in the center of a large meadow along side Lough Swilly (Loch Suili). (P)

 

I have to admit I was a bit intimidated by this place…. I was clearly out of my league here.  I was shown to my room by one of those sweet Irish lasses, and as I had expected it was totally elegant, with authentic antique furniture, beautiful fittings and a very luxurious bed. (P)  Cold as hell though. I don’t think they’ve yet really got the idea of proper room heating down pat.

 

I went down to dinner about eight o’clock, and was shown into the  drawing room where I sat on a deep cushioned chair in front of the fire, and sipped my diet coke (how gauche!!) while examining the dinner menu. (P)  The waiter took my order, and when it was ready to be served, escorted me to my table.  Boy, was I out of my league!!! (P)

 

The rest of my dinner experience that first night put me in mind of a scene from 2001, a Space Odyssey. There is a scene near the end where the fellow who had been snatched by whomever (or whatever) was now aged and grey (somewhat like myself, which further added to the illusion). In this scene our hero is eating dinner in a very formal setting by himself, and all you can hear is the clink of his cutlery against the china as he eats his meal. That’s what eating alone in this dining room at this hotel was like. Spooky!!!

 

The meal, however was excellent, and the service impeccable. I went off to bed, and instead of tossing and turning all night as I expected I would, I slept ten hours.

 

March 4 - 7th

 

This is the anniversary of the death of my father, and here I am in Ireland. Life is certainly strange.

 

In any case, aside from work during the day I had only time to do a little exploring in Letterkenny in the evenings. I made my way to Main Street in my hire car (left hand drive) and walked up and down for a while. (P) 

 

I was struck by the same thing I have felt in the past when I have been in the UK.  There is a very strong sense of age and history everywhere in everyday life. There are three types of buildings here, new (under a hundred years), slightly old (one hundred to three hundred years) and really old (three hundred to god knows how many centuries old). And, here is the key thing, a very high percentage of the really old stuff is still in use. No throwing away thirty year old buildings like we do… once it’s built it has to do its job (or a new one) for bloody ever. There is a high and obvious degree of respect for what already exists. I have seen many examples in my roamings about of "new" homes being built on a property which may contain a very old stone shed, and/or an ancient stone wall. I have seen several examples of new wings attached directly to what are clearly very old stone structures. This is the best of the art of recycling. And it is what makes the charm in “charming” the quaint in “quaint” and the “esque” in picturesque. It is all very delightful. 

 

I guess one of the differences is that North America once had an abundance of wood, and Ireland of rock, at least in the parts I have seen. I suppose that makes for a different attitude toward the longevity of buildings, both intellectual and practical.

 

I found the library where Marsha hopes to volunteer when we come on the next trip (P) , and a very nice restaurant called “The Yellow Pepper” (P). Good food, good prices.

 

It took me several days to catch on to how food is served here. A salad for instance is not what we are used to. I have yet to see a Caesar salad on a menu. What you get if you order a salad is a little bit of lettuce, some coleslaw, a slice of pineapple, some corn, a hard boiled egg covered in mayonnaise, maybe some beetroot, and whatever meat or seafood you ordered on top, with a little tub of dressing. So the base of the salad is always the same, the only difference is the meat on top. It’s actually quite good though.

March 8th

 

Slept till 9:00. After a usually delightful Irish fry breakfast (Back Bacon barely cooked, eggs fried to within an inch of their lives, and sausages) and a couple of cups of wonderful strong Irish coffee, (Starbucks take note, strong coffee does not have to be over roasted and it most certainly does not have to taste like battery acid.) I spent a few hours at the desk in my room doing book work

 

I decided just after noon to take a road tour, notwithstanding that it was grey, dull and raining. After studying the map for a bit, I decided to head North toward Fanad Head Lighthouse (Cionn Fhanada) (Fanad is pronounced like Canada without the last “a”). The road was Ireland normal for a bit (i.e. slightly more than two lanes wide) as I headed toward Rathmelton . It was only a few miles North, but when I got there it was like going back in time. I’m sure none of the building is under two hundred years old. A very quaint seaside town. (See, there’s that word “quaint”) After poking around for a bit, I again turned North at the start of the Fanad Drive which I was to follow for the next several hours.

 

The road traveled from Rathmelton Northeast to another small town from centuries past called Ratlhmullan (Rath Maolain) (the “Rath” prefix in these names has some ancient historical significance, but I don’t know quite what yet), and from there North along the West coast of Lough Swilly . (Silly to call a Lough Swilly) I continued North following Fanad Drive through many small towns, past many farms to Portsalon (Port an tSalainn) where I stopped in a little seaside café for lunch.

 

BTW – while many of these town names sound at once charming and incomprehensible, they are universally English versions of the original Gealtacht (sometimes called Gaelic) names. All of the road signs show the names in both versions. (P)

 

As I drove North I encountered fewer and fewer cars, which was a very good thing because the roads got progressively narrower and twistier as I went.

 

An observation about the roads….. For the most part they twist, turn and wind around for no apparent reason, neither geographical or otherwise (this is not always true because sometimes they follow the edge of a gorge, or seashore). Being old, and therefore wise, I have concluded that the only logical explanation is that centuries ago farmers and English landowners settled and marked out their land, wagon trails, paths, etc. So the roads as we know them would have had to follow the property lines, and most likely the paths and wagon trails which had already been put in place with due regard to property lines.  Brilliant, eh?

 

Also, as I drove North the land and seashore became more and more rugged. That, combined with the grey skies and rain provided an atmosphere which one might expect had one read any books about the country.  I want to do this trip again in the sunshine, if that ever comes about.

 

Anyway, after about two hours I had driven about thirty five miles and arrived at Fanad Head Lighthouse. It was a very impressive sight. Just beside it stood what was clearly a Second World War bunker and gun emplacement.  I spent a few minutes there taking pictures and shivering in the cold and wet. (P)

 

Finally I turned South and followed the Fanad Drive along the side of the peninsula, down the edge of Mulroy Bay (An Mhaoil Rua) through Milford (Baile na nGalloglach), another sleepy old town, and thence to Letterkenny.

 

(Pictures of the towns, scenes and points of interest on the way to and from Fanad Head)

 

It took me about four hours to travel about 70 miles.  I can cover that much in less than an hour on almost any road in North America . By the way -  some of the drivers here are out of their minds, given no room, no visibility and in their cases, no common sense. I recall hearing on the news about seven road deaths last weekend. The commentator said that it was the worst weekend death toll in several weeks. WEEKS!!!!!  Having observed the idiots today, I know why. Believe me I am being very careful for the other guy when I drive.  On the other hand very many drivers are very courteous, letting each other in when they can, stopping for jaywalkers without honking, signaling following cars when it’s OK to pass, etc. Many drivers and pedestrians walking along the road will wave to you as you pass.  Very nice, and catching too..

 

Some comments about houses.  They are almost without exception dreary looking and devoid of imagination. The new, slightly old, and really old ones all have the same style, only a little bigger with each category. There are very few houses which we in North America would consider having any style at all. The average home that I have seen which appear to have been built in the last twenty years or so is about 1200 square feet, and I mean square… they are nearly all built like cracker boxes, rectangular with small windows and mostly plain decor. Some have dormers and other features, but to me they invariably looked tacked on to the basic do-all structure. (P)

 

Where you see bright colours it often is some developer’s idea of a way to make a row of otherwise identical units look different from each other. (P) Even the larger, pricier houses are only two storey versions of the smaller ones. There are exceptions, but they are rare. (P)  On the other hand, people are very prone to painting their homes in a variety of pastel colours, most likely for the very reason that the styles are somewhat uniform. The most common colours, after white, are yellow, pink, and blue.  

Another totally unsolicited analysis from yours truly; As you drive anywhere outside the towns you see mile after mile of rolling farmland. All of the fields, whether owned by the same farmer or not, are edged or divided up with either hedgerows, or more commonly, stone fences. (P) There must have been a thousand miles of stone fences, averaging about three feet high, in the area I drove today. Most of these were clearly very old. So I asked myself; “Where did all of these stones come from?”

 

As I passed areas which had not been cultivated I noticed that the surface was invariably mottled with rocks sticking out of the soil. 

 

“Aha!” I said, “There is the answer.”

 

My theory is that when the farmers first took over the land to farm maybe centuries ago, they must have spent considerable time removing the rocks for a few feet down on their land so that they could plow, plant and harvest. So, what did they do with these rocks? They built houses, sheds, barns and FENCES!!! And that, my friends explains how all of those fences came to be.  Brilliant, eh? 

 

Last night there was a party in the hotel which was a fundraiser for a new hospice being planned, live band and all. About ten pm I went down to rubberneck a bit and the proprietor of the hotel offered me tea in the drawing room, in front of the fire, and I accepted. So here I was in a grand hotel in Northwestern Ireland sipping tea in front of a great fireplace and being every bit the country gentleman. It’s all a bit too much!!!

 

I must admit, though, that I am warming to the hotel, its staff, and its atmosphere.. a little gem of civility amongst the heathens.  See, I’m even getting the right tone….

 

Tonight the hotel dining room was guest to a large party made up of families and their children. Upon inquiry when I went down for dinner, I was told that this was a group of families whose daughters had just been “confirmed” today (or is it tomorrow?).

 

In any case it was another reminder how strong a part of daily life the Catholic religion is here. At the office the other day a number of the ladies were wandering around with black crosses on their foreheads. Being ignorant of these matters I made inquiry of one of the pretty young Irish lasses (I know it’s hard to believe, but they are all pretty, with a certain Irish air about them) and she advised me that it was Ash Wednesday and that they had been to mass that morning. Ash Wednesday is a preliminary to Lent, where they each have to give up something of value to them, and to fast. I told her that I was familiar with the concept of fasting. And she replied that she meant “sort of fasting”. I thought, “I’m familiar with that concept as well.” 

 

I have read that in the Republic of Ireland the population is 92% Catholic, 3% Protestant, and the rest a mixture. In Northern Ireland it is about 60% Catholic and 40% Protestant. I have also read that the disparity in religious balance between the two parts is as the result of the British some time ago having "seeded" the North with Protestants in an effort to reduce the control that the Catholic clergy of the time had on the country. I wonder if the British now see that little bit of social manipulation as a success.

 

Also, in an attempt to be a good member of the tribe, I investigated the synagogue situation. My attempts so far have yielded the fact that there are only seven synagogues in all of Ireland and four of them are in Dublin. The one in Cork is supported by such a small population that it can't afford a rabbi. There doesn't appear to be one within either walking or driving distance from Letterkenny. The guidebook says that of the 5.4 million people in Ireland, only .1% (one tenth of one percent) are Jewish. That makes a total of 5,400 Jewish people in the whole country.

March 9th

 

Today I was in a bit of a loss as to what to do, as I had to be back at the hotel by 2:30 to meet Glenn who is arriving from San Diego for a week to do some work with me.

 

I decided, because it wasn’t raining, and there were actually signs of some sun, to retrace my route from yesterday, only in the opposite direction. Now that I knew roughly what I was getting into I could spend more time stopping and picture taking and generally admiring the scene. So off I went and found it most enjoyable. The sun broke through slightly just as I arrived at Fanad Head and it was very pretty. There was a brisk onshore wind blowing so the waves crashing on the rocks below were very reminiscent of home.

 

Driving back through maybe a dozen small towns about 11:30 am I noticed another sign of the strength of Catholicism here. Every town had at least one Catholic church and at that time of day the streets in front of the Churches (very narrow remember) were packed with cars parked on both sides of the road, facing whichever direction they arrived in.

 

Practically none of the stores in these towns were open either. Now that I think about it the only store I saw open was a convenience store in Milford .

 

That’s all for now… time to rest. It’s a tough life.

 

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