Friday, March 16, 2012

3 Things I LOVE About Ireland & Why Do We Celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

It’s curious that all across America, on one day each year, we celebrate a country that very few of us have roots in or have visited. Sure, we have a significant population of Irish immigrants and their descendants in America. But I’m not sure that explains our willingness – en masse – to don the green.

I can’t think of any other single country and culture that has such a wide and diverse fan club. Can you?

As I ponder why St. Patrick’s Day has become a phenomenon for people who aren’t Irish or Catholic, I think back to my trip to the Emerald Isle in 2010 (for the magical story of how I won that trip, check out this post).

Me, Enjoying Ireland
Before I went to Ireland, I'd read many books and articles about its history, scenery, and culture as research for my novel Emily’s House. I thought I knew something about the place.

But you can’t know a place or its people from photographs and books. I tried my best to capture something of Ireland in Emily’s House, but to be honest, I don’t think my descriptive powers are adequate to describe for the reader the magic that is Ireland. You have to experience it for yourself.

For St. Patrick's Day, in honor of a place – and a people – that I love, here are the top three things I love about Ireland (and why I miss it daily since I left):

1.  Real, Delicious Food. Ireland’s cuisine gets dogged by foodies. It’s true the Irish cuisine is not varied and it’s not very “serious.” But if you enjoy fresh, unpretentious food that tastes like what it is and where it came from, then you’ll love feasting in Ireland.

Lets start with cows. I was prepared to see a lot of sheep in Ireland. And to be sure, there are plenty of the woolly creatures roaming the green hills. But there are a hell of a lot of cows. And those lovely, happy cows produce the best butter in the world. Irish butter from County Kerry is so golden yellow - so buttery looking - that I thought it was artificially colored.  But the yellowy-orange color is real and comes from all the chlorophyll in the riotous green grass Irish cows eat. I think bread may exist solely to be a place to spread Irish butter. Irish butter is in and of itself reason enough to go back.

And lest you think the Irish have cows roaming every square inch of countryside just so we can have delicious butter, some of those bovines end up as the best steak and hamburgers I’ve ever had (vegetarians, you might want to skip this paragraph). I’ve eaten steak in Omaha, Nebraska and Texas. Sorry American west, but you can’t hold a candle to Irish beef. If you love the taste and texture of a good steak like I do, then you can appreciate my statement: Ireland may have the best beef in the world. And it’s not because they get massaged (Kobe style). No, the beef is delicious because the Irish cows spend their life eating delicious grass and living a blissful cow life. If you’ve been to the American west, then you know that much of America’s beef cows live in the arid and semi-arid Southwest, eating a dry diet of dry plants. I have long thought that the cows don’t look all that happy to live in a dry, hot arid climate with dry, hot plants. And now that I’ve eaten Irish beef, I know that I’m right. Happy cows produce happy butter and happy beef.

Happy Irish Cows
I could write a whole post just on potatoes but I’ll save you that – for now. Suffice it to say the Irish love their potatoes and if you love potatoes, you can have at least one type of potato dish per meal. Did someone say mash on the plate with a side of fries? Yes they did and you gotta love a place that doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

Irish potatoes whipped with Kerry butter with a side of Irish steak. Have I made you hungry yet?

2. Green. Yes, I miss green. I live in the desert which has its own kind of spiritual energy and rugged beauty. In my home environment, the plants do have green leaves. But the plants have adapted to the bright sun and intense heat by growing silvery green leaves that reflect sunlight, thus conserving their precious water.

In Ireland, water is not scarce and plants aren't into water conservation strategies. Irish plants proudly display their verdant leaves. Every color of green that you can imagine (except maybe for the silvery sage green of the desert) lives abundantly in Ireland. Ireland is so green, it really is beyond description. But the effect is of an oasis and a feeling that life thrives in every corner of the island. I think that our love of green spaces is primordial. There’s something about immersing yourself in a green forest or verdant hills that makes you feel – human. Alive.

If you go to Ireland, spend some time driving on the narrow two lanes out of Dublin and into the rolling hills of the Irish countryside. There you will be surrounded by the green hills of legend, criss-crossed with ancient stone walls and dotted with cows – happy, beautiful cows.

Ah – the memory of green.

3. The People. If there are friendlier, more hospitable people on the planet, I’d like to know where they are. From the moment we stepped off of the plane to the minute we took off to go home (a sad moment), we had not one single negative experience with the people of Ireland.

And in the land that has produced such literary greats as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Becket, people are quick with  a story, a laugh. Sharing. A country filled with people happy to be Irish and eager to share their home with you.

Ireland also has a history filled with harsh conditions, famines and difficulty. But the Irish people are resilient. A country that has throughout its history been beset with plenty of reasons to make her people give up has produced instead the most affable people on the planet.

I cannot speak of the people and the land and the food without mentioning a pint – of Guinness of course. You haven’t had a beer until you’ve stepped up to the bar and ordered a pint of Guinness in Ireland. The bartenders there are serious about their beer and it will be expertly poured for you. Go, sit in the pub with your new friends and enjoy the music, the stories and the delicious pint.

And perhaps this last reason I love Ireland is the secret to why our entire country is willing to become Irish one day a year. One day when we share a tradition that the world could use more of – to sit together with old friends while you make new ones, sharing a pint, telling a story and laughing together. The Irish know how to create joy from any circumstance. Oh, and a pint of Guinness helps.

Hubby having a pint with Danny O'Donoghue,
Lead Singer of The Script
Even their Rock Stars are Good Folk

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to the Irish and Irish at heart.

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