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Skip the tour bus-and meet the people of Ireland

On a visit to Ireland I overheard this conversation between two Americans at Dublin Airport. “Wow, we saw the whole country in five days. It’s beautiful! What was the name of the one place? It began with a D.””Dingle,” I had to chime in. “That’s right,” she said, “Dingle.” Where tour buses shuffle Americans and others between gift shops.While it’s natural to want to see as much of a country as possible on the first visit, it’s not necessarily the best way to understand the heart and soul of a place. Plus, if you are surrounded by Americans the entire visit and stay at hotels catering only to Americans, why bother to leave home?There is no doubt that Ireland has wonderful scenery with sea cliffs, rolling hills and heather-covered bogs, but the spirit of Ireland lies in its people. And the best way to become immersed in the culture is to skip the tour bus; instead, take a train, local bus, or taxi to each destination, then get out and walk. Meet the locals and have lunch at a real Irish pub, not some tourist trap, and your visit will be packed with memories of great conversations, music and sights not often seen by the average tourist.The Irish gift of gab is not a stereotype; it’s a fact. Early accounts of Irish history show poets were given as much respect as kings. Poets roamed from town to town and were invited into homes for a night of storytelling. Neighbors gathered to listen to stories, sing and enjoy each others company.Today, the Irish continue to respect good story telling and music so much that the government has granted “tax-free” status to its writers and musicians since 1969. Unfortunately, the country has been swamped with artists from all parts of Europe who want to take advantage of the tax loophole, so legislation may soon be passed denying “artist status” to anyone making over $325,000 a year. But it is doubtful the new income tax law will affect the Irish love for good conversation.In small towns and villages people often shut off their TV’s and gather at the local pub for a night of good “craic” (pronounced “crack”). No, they are not drug addicts; the term refers to conversation, and those who can spin a good yarn have a captive audience. Along with the conversation, there is music by local performers. Whole families arrive at the pub around 9 p.m. and sit playing cards or catching up on the gossip until the musicians wander in around 10 p.m.Take a few taxi rides during your vacation. Visitors quickly notice most Irish taxi drivers love to talk. They are a great source for information about local attractions and are quick to engage in conversation which might include topics forbidden in the United States such as religion and politics. Many also have a wonderful sense of humor.Brendan McGing, taxi driver and undertaker in the town of Westport, County Mayo, entertained us for an hour with his recollections spanning over 50 years. His most famous fare was Princess Grace. McGing claims he received free drinks at a pub for two years after stopping there so her highness could use the restroom on her way to Shannon Airport. His business card reflects his sense of humor with the catch-line “For your last ride call McGing.”Whether using local transportation or walking through fields and villages, the most memorable part of our days in Ireland is often the conversations we have with strangers. While researching our genealogy this September, we met an elderly gentleman, Patrick Logue, at a church in Kincasslagh, County Donegal. He invited us to his home for a cup of tea. We spent the next hour talking, only to discover his family was from the same town as my husband’s relatives. He filled in some gaps in the genealogy while also regaling us with colorful stories about the local history.On a walk between Dungloe and Burtonport, we stopped and talked to a man who was building a beautiful stone wall. The conversation quickly turned to other topics. Locals have no problem disagreeing with you without the talk becoming heated.One impression I have taken away from Ireland over the years is that Americans have lost the “art” of conversation. Maybe it is our busy schedules, or perhaps we are afraid of offending someone. Or maybe “political correctness” in our society has gone so far as to inhibit honest conversation. For whatever reason, things in Ireland are different and the Irish still know how to conduct a good debate.Staying in B&B’s and hotels that do not cater to the tour bus crowd is also a great way to find out about sites few tourists will ever see. Mrs. Alcorn, a B&B owner in Burtonport, directed us to Aranmore Island, which resulted in a peaceful day of hiking out to a lighthouse on the far side of the island. At Harvey’s Point, a hotel in Donegal Town, the proprietor told us where to find a grave in a remote spot with an impressive cross, elaborately decorated and standing 10 feet tall. We found the monument after hiking through mire and bushes. Discovering those secret places is much more fun than going to over-developed tourist stops.Some non-tourist hotels also host traditional Irish music nights or cabarets. The Irish love American country western music, and the show usually has at least one comedian who pokes fun at all cultures. Before the show is over, visitors will probably find themselves joining hands with the locals, singing and swaying to the music.A train trip from Dublin to Galway also gave us an inside look at modern Irish culture. On the platform in Dublin there was a large group of young people hooting and howling. The group split up when they entered the train. Males sat in the car we were in, and the females entered another car. I wondered what was going on and quickly found out they were holding “bachelor” and “hen” parties between cities.The guys started drinking Guinness and playing cards. When the unfortunate groom lost a hand, a loud roar went up from the crowd. It seems part of the game requires the groom to change into a dress when he loses a hand. The poor guy went off to the restroom and changed into the outfit provided by the best man.He then paraded through the train into the “hens” car where loud roars of laughter erupted. He proceeded to play cards in his dress until the train pulled into the Galway station and even posed long enough for me to take his picture. Unfortunately, it may be too risquÈ for the New Falcon Herald.You just won’t find that type of cultural experience if you’re sitting on a tour bus. So visit Ireland and take in all the beauty, but don’t miss the best part. Get out and enjoy the Irish people.

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