Travel Sick in Ireland

by A. J. Traikle

I am reasonably certain that I have been unwell on almost every form of transport – cars, buses, boats, trains, not to mention one very unfortunate scenic trip in a sea plane in my youth that involved a makeshift sick-bag made from an inflatable life vest, but very little appreciation of scenery. I’ve not yet become queasy in a hovercraft or nauseous in a blimp, but there is, I suppose, still time in life for that. The distinct possibility of becoming sick just by making use of some modern form of transportation adds an extra nuisance to the prospect of visiting another part of the world – another bother on top of long boring waits, and being trapped in uncomfortable seats never designed for human posteriors, and the ennui of watching flat dull countryside endlessly passing the windows, and the irritation of the shrill noise of thoughtless fellow passengers. Oh, I know these are all petty complaints, that I am fortunate to live in an age where you can pop onto a plane and be in another country in an hour. Of course I know that I am absurdly lucky to be able to go and bumble about the world. But as ever, being able to think rationally only goes so far, and never far enough that I can actually escape the unpleasant process of being dragged about the globe. My travel sickness is a meagre sort of ailment to the rest of the wide suffering world, I’ll warrant, but it is still rather an inconvenience for me. And yet, I once read somewhere that people who spend their money on ephemeral but possibly meaningful experiences like travel, rather than on shiny new editions of objects, those lofty earth-striders and citizens of the air apparently tend to feel content and fulfilled with the memories of their trips.

My companion, a professional bustler by the name of Betty, is by nature given to wander the world for one reason or another. As a result, since I lack the motivating force to drag myself from the comfort of my own bed, she has often provided a prod for me to seek out other patches of the world, to go and see some of those many places filled up with their own people going about their own business, all in as deep ignorance of my own existence as I am of theirs. Betty has two old friends who happen to live in Dublin. Like many Irish people of their generation, when they were a little less old, they moved away from their homeland in search of work. We knew them when they lived in cramped scholarly parts of England, but now that the Irish boom is back again, the pair of them have decided to add to their family by way of a small son, and return home after many years away. Visiting this trio was as good reason as any to travel to Ireland, a country that it has never occurred to me to visit before. Betty, as it happens, lived there herself once upon a time, but was so inexplicably busy at the time with things she can no longer recall that she apparently only ever saw the barest of outlines of Dublin when she had the chance. Her Irish friends most kindly, and at no small disruption to themselves (for I am a sluggish and unlively guest) even offered to host us in their new home.

Besides the delightful prospect of spending time with people we hadn’t visited in some time, and of seeing how their new little Irishman was coming along now that he was old enough to start speaking and wreaking havoc about the place, I had one other modest and unoriginal aim in visiting Eire. The Guinness, everyone has always said, tastes better there. Guinness was perhaps the first grown-up drink I ever tried, after several years of probation on suspicious sweetish lager. Lager was a contest – a race to finish first. Guinness was not like that. You wait for a Guinness. There was a solemn ritual of putting the drink together before you were allowed a reverent first sip, down through the white foam on top to the cool dark-chocolate depths, where you could gently sink down and down. None of that scratchy acidic lager gas here, thank you very much. Drinking Guinness in Irish-tinged diaspora pubs became a clear-headed, refined, leisurely activity, a strong contrast to the lager-downing of youth, where the object was to swallow as much as possible as quickly as you could, before I would inevitably feel like bringing it up again. Guinness was too full and slow and dignified for that sort of manic foolishness.

Over the years, I had moved on to other ales, and Guinness had fallen by the wayside, I believe, because I snobbishly started to think of it as far too commercial and mainstream. There also comes a point in every man’s life when he has to take good hard look at his waistline and decide how much indulgence he will allow himself in the maintenance of his rapidly decaying body. I had made the mad and noble decision to give up beer some years ago, so that I would not continue to swell in corpulence. A quick rough calculation would seem to indicate that as a result of these little meanderings in my personal history, I had not tasted Guinness for some ten years. I may no longer drink beer, but for Guinness, for Dublin, for Ireland, I would make an exception.

Dublin

Dublin seemed a fine enough city. I am, regrettably, a terrible tourist, and thus am poorly placed to sing the hidden beauty of a city I saw for only a few days. My most vivid impression of Dublin was that I was oddly struck by how luxuriously spacious the pavements were, large enough for four people abreast to stroll along in conversation without tipping me into the gutter. This fascination with such a small detail is perhaps a worrying sign of how used I have become to the tight, winding, claustrophobic afterthoughts that make up the pavements of many British towns. We went walking in St. Stephen’s Green, which was a half-remembered setting in several Irish writers’ books I had read. It was a perfectly nice park, and it is always splendid to put a face, or a landscape rather, to a name you’ve heard so many times. Our Irish friends took us walking there with their little Irishman, a young fellow of barely two years but of prodigious energy who, despite his current diminutive size, requires regular exercising to tire him out and give his parents some peace. The little Irishman immediately shot off from his poor parents as soon as he caught sight of some open spaces, running in a sort of drunken Zorba the Greek dance, arms and legs wobbling and flailing. His uncertain running-dance, as it transpires, is surprisingly effective at propelling the short fellow at a rapid clip. The little Irishman was narrowly prevented from dashing into a pond by his parents, when he changed tack and escaped from them and wobbled speedily straight for a patch of grass. Now, I regret to inform you that the Powers That Be have decided that you must keep off the grass at St. Stephen’s, a ruling I disapprove of vehemently. A public patch of lawn that you are only allowed to look at from a distance to keep it orderly looking has always struck me as a rather mean and pointless thing. I was quite delighted that the little Irishman, whose reading comprehension is not yet such that he could decipher these petty guardian signs, immediately rushed across the grass with great zeal.

One evening, when the little Irishman was safely tucked away for his enviable night’s sleep of twelve hours, his mother stood watch and his father took us out to some local pubs. The first drinking establishment we visited was one of those faded venues that had no doubt once looked grand. Even now, its fine features were not entirely obscured – an elegant worn wooden bar with tasteful bronze features, some fine old frosted windows, and the length of the floors and walls wrapped in beautiful chequerboard black and white tiles. When we visited, however, the elegant décor of the pub was somewhat obscured, as the bar was filled with angrily ageing men the colour of cigarette smoke, all furiously watching a football match on some five or six noisy glaring television screens set blasphemously about the place. We found a table squashed beneath a screen and our Irish host bought me a pint of Guinness. I suppose I must have enjoyed the first sip, but I couldn’t tell you, because much to my surprise, I looked at my glass and I had already drunk half the pint without even noticing. It transpires that I must have had a thirst for Guinness for years and never noticed it. With great exertions of self control, I slowed down my drinking of this long-delayed pint in order to pay attention to actually drinking it. Every swallow was a wonder. It was cool and gentle and perfect. Embarrassingly, I finished my pint when our host had barely moved a third of his, which, as I am not a particularly sporty drinker these days, is a testament to how little resistance I had to the allure of this stout. I barely even noticed the din of the televised match while I was swimming in my delectable drink.

We had a second pint at another pub – this one a sprawling Sunday roast sort of venue. This second Guinness was not quite as glorious as the first – how could it be when it did not have the advantage of a decade of delay to flavour it? But it was still a delight at every sip. Our host had been given a small glass of some new local lager that was being advertised on almost every unoccupied surface of Ireland. We both agreed that it was a watery and loathsome waste of everybody’s time and happily returned to our stout, the little free sample of lager barely touched.

Sligo

Betty had decided that she would like to see some other patch of Ireland besides Dublin, and after some debate, we had settled on Sligo, a place which I’d probably thought about even less than Dublin, if such a thing was possible. We woke up early one morning to the sound of the little Irishman’s morning routine – for he is a prompt and noisy riser – and bade our kind Dublin hosts a fond farewell. The train to Sligo took several hours, and I don’t recall our having seen anything particularly of note in the landscape passing by the entire time, besides the unexpected brief glimpse of the whites of an Irish cricket match taking place in some distant field. Sligo itself is an odd sort of garment. It is my understanding that business is booming in Ireland again, but we could not always see evidence of this in Sligo. There were some delightful cafés and eateries using fine ingredients and producing inventive flavours, but at the same time, every third or fourth shop front in Sligo seemed to be abandoned, the dusty empty remains of a failed business. Yet, as worn as Sligo feels in parts, in other ways it could be as comfortable as an old dressing gown.

We lunched at Strandhill, on the coast just outside Sligo, where the wind blows unceasingly and the waves wash over long distances to reach a beach terraced with grey and white and green stones. It requires a great amount of concentration to walk on an uncertain surface of beach stones, or at least it required a lot of effort for me. Betty mostly marched ahead over the uneven surface without a care. Luckily, I had fortified myself with an expansive Guinness beef stew at a Strandhill pub – and the stew was so thick and deeply flavoured that Betty was probably quite correct to insist that it would be excessive for me to match the stew with a pint of the same beer that had gone into the making of the sauce. I opted for a glass of Argentine Malbec on the side instead, which was perfectly lovely, even if I did drink it with a touch of the sulks.

We also visited Rosses Point outside Sligo – the opposite side of the bay from Strandhill, but the weather had shifted from wind and snatches of sun to good, honest, furiously pelting Irish rain that kept hitting me with painful icy accuracy right in the ear. The roaring winds also made it impossible to shout to each other with any intelligibility as we walked along the rises, looking over the dark sanded beach, the thrashing grey waves, and the sky filled with rain and mist. On the bus over to Rosses Point we had seen a rumpled looking woman in glasses peer out at the rain and then take a nip from a half-drunk bottle of white wine in her backpack. No doubt, she knew more about dealing with the local weather than we did.

Since we were in need of warmth and feeling in our limbs and earlobes after being so thoroughly thrashed by the weather, when we returned to Sligo, we visited a drinking establishment that had been recommended to us. I was perfectly content with the pub providing solid walls and a roof to keep wind and rain out, and considered anything else a delightful bonus. The establishment is called the ‘Shoot the Crows’, and features, perhaps in a ploy to keep visitors on their toes, nothing obviously crow-like about the place, but instead has a painting on the window of a hare done in a sort of rough-around-the-edges church stained-glass style. As this window is one of the few natural light sources for the establishment and is covered with the aforementioned medieval-style hare, inside the Shoot the Crows the light is fairly dim, but as far as I was concerned, this low light did not make the inside unpleasant in the slightest. In fact, I firmly believe that a demure pub should be just a little bit poorly lit. There were all manner of knick-knacks about the place in the Shoot the Crows, and the whole drinkery has the sort of messiness that I find reassuring, like visiting an old friend’s comfortably cluttered living room. Not only do such places have tangible history in their clutter, but they make me feel welcome, as if they already know you well and respect you too much to make a show of trying to make everything shine and glare in neatness, and that you should feel equally relaxed with them in turn. The Guinness I had here was excellent, as was the music – ranging from Leonard Cohen to a sweet song I’d never heard before, where a woman sang a gentle ode to the simple joys of owning a dog. I sipped my pint with deliberation, enjoying the warmth, the music, and especially the fascinating sight of a sharp-bearded Spanish man who was dressed exactly as if he had stepped out of the pages of a Hergé comic. He was wearing a tweed flat cap and a bell-shaped pea-soup green coat of a style that surely has not existed for fifty years or more, and the very improbable sight of him brought a lightness to my old marrow. In the duration of my sensibly drunk pint, which, incidentally filled me so well that dinner would later be a struggle, I decided that I very much approved of the noble comforting scruffiness of this pub, and I heartily recommend that if you consider yourself a connoisseur of shabbily genteel pubs, then the ‘Shoot the Crows’ of Sligo is certainly worth visiting.

Knock

My final pint of Guinness was at the West Ireland Airport in Knock. Despite my tour of their lovely museum section, I don’t fully understand the history of the construction of the place, but it seems to have been spearheaded by some sort of local celebrity priest, and they appear to be very proud to have got the airport finished. I had a lunch-time pint, served to me by a very busy old woman in a hair-net who took a moment from manning the cafeteria section to pour me my last stout. The airport mostly seemed to be populated by people in yellow vests who worked at the airport, and while they were having their sensible lunches, I tried my pint. Unlike those I had drunk in Dublin and Sligo, this sip was slightly unpleasantly metallic – and it occurred to me that this note of old tinfoil was how I remembered Guinness tasting in the old beer-drinking days. It wasn’t the effortless velvet drop I’d so greatly enjoyed in Dublin and Sligo. I suppose you cannot expect too much if you decide to drink at lunch time in a small airport.

On the flight out of West Ireland Airport, the pilot told us that there would be minor turbulence due to all that strong Irish wind. He was a damned accursed liar. The turbulence was not minor at all. Betty and I gripped each other’s hands for dear life as the plane thrashed and plummeted through the skies – Betty because she innately and quite reasonably fears small aeroplanes, and for myself because that sort of wrenching about the place makes me feel as if I am about to die from my innards pouring forth. The parting pint of Guinness had not, as I had hoped, made this unpleasant flight any better. It had been delightful to visit Ireland for the first time and to revisit Guinness for the first time in a decade, but with flights that are too sickening for my poor feeble self, I suppose I am quite content to wait another decade for the next pint.

Comments are closed.