The Company You Keep

As the crow flies, the distance from Galway to Tralee on Ireland’s western coast is less than two hundred kilometers due south. And while busloads of tourists traverse major motorways, rushing to their next destination, my guide and I have chosen to weave and wind our way along the Wild Atlantic Way, hugging the country’s ragged, rugged shoreline.

“It’s a little longer,” says Dublin native Kevin Costello from behind the wheel of his Mercedes noir. “About four hours – but you’ll get a truer sense of Ireland and its people that way.

“And,” he smiles, “you’ll have better stories to tell when you get back to Canada.”

As personable as he is professional, Costello is the epitome of Irish hospitality; a wealth of both warmth and wisdom, his knowledge of Eire’s history and culture is second-to-none – all of it accented by tidbits of personal tales and a swath of homegrown wit.

“But remember,” he says with a smirk and a wink, “as we say here in Ireland, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Stories are a-plenty as we pass through The Burren, a 560-square kilometer expanse of barren limestone landscape. Once a tropical sea, the craggy terrain is now inhabited by a sizeable population of flora, fauna, foxes and fowl.

In nearby Kinvara, Dunguaire Castle has towered over the waterfront since the 16th century. A few miles up the road, Kilfenora Cathedral has stood, in one form or another, for almost 1500 years. On site, an ancient graveyard hosts one of the finest collections of Celtic crosses in the country.

“Though no one knows for certain, I believe that the Celtic cross comes from two sources,” muses Costello. “Christianity gave us the basic structure – the ‘t’ foundation – while the Celtic symbol of spirituality – the sun – is set into the top half of the stone. The cross represents an integration of two cultures, rather than the domination of one over the other.”

Like elsewhere, the church has had its struggles on the Emerald Isle in recent years. However, steeples still sit high atop the nearby villages of Ballyvaughn, Lisdoonvarna and Doolin.

The latter town is a gateway to the magnificent and majestic Cliffs of Moher, which, even in mid-January, are still the most popular tourist attraction in the country.

“By spring this place will be full of tour buses,” says Costello. “And you’re likely to hear accents from all four corners of the globe.”

He adds that while Americans and Europeans still make up most of the site’s visitors, an increasing number of folks from afar are making their way up the stairs to O’Brien’s Tower for a clear view of the cliffs.

“We’re seeing more and more Asians, particularly the new generation of young, wealthy and upwardly mobile Chinese.”

While the famed locale still draws hundreds of thousands each year, the real treat for travelers is due south, along the coastal route from Lahinch to Milltown Malbay to Kilkee and Kilrush. On one side of the road, a big sky and stunning shoreline merge into a mural of mauve and blue; on the other side, lush green foliage and muddy boglands blur with quaint inns, cozy pubs and all sizes of sports stadiums.

“The GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) really brought us together as a country,” explains Costello. “Hurling and Irish Football in particular are games that are distinctly our own. These fields are where our communities meet, talk, laugh and share; spaces where we can rally behind the home county, or against opponents; places where people take pride in being Irish.

“When (Oliver) Cromwell arrived in 1649, he all but wiped out our culture,” he notes. “Language, schools, religion – all decimated…we weren’t even allowed to own our own land anymore. It wasn’t until we gained our independence (1922), that we began to recover our sense of identity. And even then, it wasn’t really until the 1980s that we began to appreciate and embrace where we come from, and who we are today.”

As we board the ferry to cross the Shannon Estuary from Killimer to Tarbert, Costello continues.

“Gaelic has been mandatory study in the schools for some time, and there are now all sorts of incentive programs designed to encourage young people to embrace the language. There are parts of Ireland today where Gaelic is spoken openly and fluently.

“You see, we are a people of words; for centuries, our customs and traditions were passed down aurally from generation to generation to ensure the survival of our identity. That’s why we have produced so many poets, playwrights, authors and musicians – it is a guarantee of sorts that being “Irish” will continue to survive, and even thrive. It is also why we continue to celebrate our rich and robust mythology, filled with faeries, kings, queens, leprechauns, legends and lore…we are a storytelling people.

“And remember,” he laughs, “we never let the truth get in the way of a good story…

~ Story by Stephen Patrick Clare