1. LauraBeth and I drove 1800 kilometers, about 1100 miles, when we were in Ireland, starting in Dublin and ending in Belfast. Technically, I only drove about 3 miles, a harrowing stretch during which I nearly ran us off the road several times before being demoted to navigator. My previous trips to the country had been conducted via bus and were restricted to major roads and large tourist destinations; now, in a rented Peugot-- riddled with dents and scratches and seemingly reserved for American tourists not used to driving on the other side of the road-- we had access to so much more. We drove through the Sally Gap, a tiny road—barely wide enough to fit our car, but still two-way—winding through the Wicklow mountains. A thick fog hovered just above us, creating a weird, mystical atmosphere. We cruised through the kind of unspoiled, ancient scenery that makes you think of pretty good adventure movies. Occasionally, an impatient Irish driver sped past us, but for several hours, it felt like we had this entire majestic scene to ourselves.
2. In the months preceding our trip, LauraBeth had studied two travel guides, scoured dozens of travel sites, and compiled a book full of notes. She spent a few hours most days planning. She likes to have things under control. She is appalled by the thought of just dropping into a country with a backpack and no plan. I offered some suggestions during the planning, but I’d let her do hundreds of hours of work with very little help. She often bears the burden of this kind of invisible labor in our relationship: remembering people’s birthdays, planning events, reminding me to call friends and family. I realize this arrangement is unfair, a byproduct of gendered expectations, and just because I mow the lawn I’m not precluded from having to think about other people. I’m trying to get better about it, to be more aware of the ways in which I benefit from being allowed to be inconsiderate. But my contributions to this trip were, in order of importance: hauling my body from one place to another, carrying the money, deciphering the thickest of Irish accents, reading the GPS in the car, and making some jokes at dinner.
3. This was a vacation of scenic drives. We took country roads and avoided highways whenever possible. We drove around the Dingle peninsula. We toured the Ring of Kerry. We drove and we drove and we drove, and it never got boring, because every moment there is something amazing to see. Ireland is green, which you know, but do you realize how fucking green it is? The reason Irish people curse so much is that they're constantly in awe of every fucking thing around them. On one of the drives, we lost the connection to our GPS and we drove along unmarked roads until we pulled over to eat our lunch. We strolled down the road and climbed a small hill, at the top of which we found a glacier-made lake. A sheep drank calmly from it and watched us from the other side. From our perch, we looked down through a foggy valley and seemingly across the whole country. We were greedy for as much of the landscape as we could consume. It’s so impressive you begin to feel guilty for spoiling it with your presence. To see the existence of such perfect sights is reaffirming; for someone like me who struggles to see past the hostility of the world, let alone to maintain faith that it can be a good or even decent place, there’s an immeasurable value to just seeing it at its best. I know terrible things have happened in Ireland, some of them in my lifetime. Atrocities have happened everywhere, and yet we persist, and if there’s not a lesson in there, exactly, there’s something to hold on to.
4. Driving toward Antrim, Northern Ireland, we stopped at Ailwee Caves. We saw almost nothing inside the cave. Outside, we visited a bird sanctuary, where we saw a handler tenderly kissing an eagle on the beak. We bought a half-pound of fudge and a half-pound of cheddar cheese in the gift shop and ate lunch behind the bird cages. If it were possible, that would be my lunch every day.
5. In most cities, most pubs promise authentic Irish music most nights. Most nights, it’s only authentically Irish in that at least one of the musicians is from Ireland. Our first night in Dublin, we sat in a pub while a band of Englishmen took requests from the largely American clientele. They played American classic rock hits, and, whenever possible, inserted the name “Barack Obama” into the lyrics. They ended the show with a rousing rendition of “Sweet Home, Barack Obama.” It was 2009 and the Irish loved our new President. They stopped us to shake our hands and congratulate us. When I’d been there in 2004, they yelled at me about the Iraq War while I apologized and said I’d had nothing to do with it. They would shake their heads in disgust and then buy me another pint so they could berate me some more.
6. We visited a bog village, where we learned how Irish villagers lived centuries ago. As with many of these types of sites, we saw lots of crude pottery and I tried very hard to make myself care about the crude pottery but I could not make myself care. I understand the archaeological value of pottery shards, and yet I have no need to ever see them again. We learned that bogs are a strange ecosystem that can mummify people and animals, and so we saw the mummified remains of some unlucky cats and one villager. There are things we try to preserve and things that are preserved whether we like it or not, and they’re all there in the end. We wanted pottery and we got bodies. You keep digging in the bogs, and you don’t know what you’ll turn up.
7. Most of the drinkers in Dick Mack’s, a small pub on the Dingle peninsula, were commercial fishermen. They knew we were Americans as soon as they saw us, and they welcomed us, wanted to talk about Obama, and to tell us about the American cities they’d visited. Only one of them had ever been to Philadelphia; he’d flown there with a woman he loved and driven west with her to Arizona, but they broke up before even reaching their destination. He hadn't been back to the US since. Another American entered—a preppy young man who ordered a Guinness and demanded it be served ice cold. When the bartender scowled at him, he tried to explain: “I’m in the beer industry in America, and that’s actually the proper way to pour it.” Someone booed him. Someone else tossed a piece of candy at him and said “maybe you’d like some sweets instead.” Everyone in the room laughed. I’m not proud of it, but I very much enjoyed the feeling of being the Good American in the room, the one who had adapted to the culture and made himself relatively inconspicuous, who didn’t show up and tell everyone they would be better if they just acted a little more American. The bartender served him a warm Guinness and he was laughed out of the room. A few minutes later, a man with a fiddle stepped inside and started playing a song. Suddenly three other instruments appeared in the room and everyone was singing along to a song I’d never heard before. Our beers refilled magically. At the end of the song the fiddler checked his watch and said, "Oh shit, I'm an hour late!" Then he ordered another beer and said he'd leave soon. It was the most Irish thing I’ve ever seen. It was one of the happiest travel moments of my life. I wanted to move to the Dingle Peninsula and spend every day for the rest of my life in Dick Mack’s.
8. Dick Mack’s is a small room that used to belong to a cobbler, and so it is sparsely decorated with old shoes that had never been picked up. Everything in Ireland used to be another thing. Even coming from one of the oldest cities in the US, I was reminded repeatedly of how much older these nations are than ours. There are remnants of centuries-old battles scattered across the landscape, constellations of bullet holes in the walls in Dublin, fortified town walls armed with cannons around Derry, half-burned lookout towers along country roads testifying to Oliver Cromwell's reign of terror a hundred years before the US became an independent nation. Throughout Belfast, we saw murals dating back to and referencing The Troubles, and were reminded that even now in a time of peace those tensions are still real. It’s easy to see how a place with such a long, convoluted history could test your belief in the goodness of humanity, but it also seems easier from that perspective to take the long view. So much has happened there, and the place has persisted, evolved, turned into something new and functional. It’s not quite what it used to be, and it’s not quite turning into what it was expected to be, but it’s a place where people can live and succeed and feel safe and fulfilled. I’m writing this during a week when it seems like my country is burning down, when people are being killed by institutional racism and other people are being killed by military-grade rifles just for having committed the sin of going outside, and it seems like the most useless thing I could possibly do is write a fractured essay about the time I went to Ireland with my wife. But now, as I scroll through the pictures from my time there, and I remember the things Ireland has endured, I think: maybe this is just what times of transition are like. They are terrible and frightening and yet you survive them and you continue doing what you do because there’s no other option. You stake yourself out on the good and moral side of the debates and you make yourself heard and you hope that when the dust settles, things will be a little better. And if they're not, then you have another beer and try to be good to the people around you as long as you can.