Falling for Ireland

We all have those places we’re dying to see–they’ve been on the top of the list for years, after we saw a picture or read a story and they captured our imagination. Other places don’t quite pull at our heartstrings so hard. They’re there, to be explored someday but not today. No rush, only a little curiosity to see what beauties they hold.

Ireland was like that for me. Honestly, it wasn’t until I started watching the show Reign that I became interested in the history of that part of the world, Ireland and Scotland and all the complicated history with England. It truly helps to visualize a place and its people in order to want to go there. After watching the show (which is filmed in Ireland), I read some books about the history of royalty in Ireland and Scotland and became even more intrigued. When I got a flight alert for an insane deal to Dublin for January, I knew it was time for me to behold the Emerald Isle for myself. And when I arrived, I fell hard for it.

Stepping off the plane is always an experience for the senses, the fresh air hits you after being stuck in the recycled air of the cabin. It was slightly pine-scented when I got off the plane in Ireland, not in an artificial way, but in a you’ve reached a wildly natural country type of way.

As I shared on Instagram, Dublin was exactly how I imagined it and not at all at the same time. Gritty at first sight, pubs on every corner, men in emerald green track suits with cigarettes sticking out of their mouths, cloudy skies and a myriad of grey and brown buildings punctuated by storefronts and ads that popped with bold colors. Dublin is a city that greets you with a rough slap on the back, but bids you farewell with a warm hug and a friendly shake of the hand.

Walking through the city that first day, scouring every corner for a good lunch spot, I was feeling elated to be back in Europe. Hearing so many different languages swirling around me, the street style, the attention to human interaction, the PDA and no one caring about it, walking as the main mode of transportation, navigating a new culture yet again. These were all the things I knew would be waiting for me when I returned to Europe, and the start of a journey that would turn into so much more. I was back!

We spent the day in a go-go-go type of mood because our flight had been delayed and we only had one shared day with my brother and his girlfriend, who road-tripped the country after they heard how cheap my flight was. It was a great first day in Dublin regardless of time. Fish and chips and a port beer with the thickest foam ever constituted lunch, then it was on to the Guinness Storehouse where I reveled in the design and the love for my favorite beer (it’s pretty much the only one I drink). A shot of espresso midway through the tour helped combat my jetlag, and chatting with a couple cute Dutch men while I waited for my brother to get his pint with his face on it reminded me again of just how much I love Europe.

By the time we were done at the Storehouse it was dark. My brother and his girlfriend headed to a pub to watch a soccer game, so I took the chance to stroll and take the city in. My friend and I ended up winding toward Grafton Street, and the holiday lights, bright storefronts, and live music welcomed me with open arms. I was beginning to get a vibe for Dublin, and pieces of it felt familiar. The quaint streets off of Grafton that could’ve been Paris if the pubs were actually all bistros, and the white facade of the store which felt so European but brought me back to SoHo. Traversing the cobblestone streets filled with beer caps and discarded cigarettes. I could feel a spot in my heart opening up for Dublin to fit right in with all of the other places in the world I had already fallen in love with.

Once we made it to dinner (no small feat with four people throwing opinions out), I was practically falling asleep from jet lag. Then I nodded off in the taxi on the way back to my brother’s Airbnb. Warm moving vehicles and jet lag are basically equal to taking a sleeping pill.

We collected our luggage we had stored with them for the day and my brother drove us back into the city to our hostel. It was so crazy to be with him in a different country. He talked unceasingly about Supermac’s (Irish McDonald’s) and the shakes he was going to pick up on his way home. I was so excited to see him so excited about Ireland. I was also feeling anxious about our impending hostel arrival during our car ride back into the center, but I cherished these last few moments driving on the left side of the road with him, navigating the roundabouts and unfamiliar streets.

I had nothing to fear at the hostel I quickly realized. Don’t you love when you walk into a place and you feel at home? That’s exactly how I felt walking into the Generator in Dublin, which was an especially good feeling because I was the definition of a tired and weary traveler by the time I walked through the doors. But all nerves and thoughts of assigned bunkbeds and sufficiently sized storage lockers subsided as soon as I entered.

Maybe I felt so at home because it reminded me of other favorite hostels I’ve stayed at across Europe, maybe it was the super friendly front desk guy, or maybe it was nostalgia kicking in and the excitement of being a European Hostel Traveler once again. Either way, it was the perfect Dublin base with spacious rooms, connected bathrooms, comfortable beds, and the sweetest roommates (not always a guarantee!). My friend and I both collapsed into bed as soon as we could, and I slept like an exhausted baby.

The next morning, the sound of seagulls as I walked in the dark along the river made me believe I was in a coastal town, when in fact I was still in the bustling capital of Ireland. At seven am, it seemed like I was somewhere quieter. We boarded a bus and headed out of the city for the day, our destination: the other side of the country.

Touring with Viator Travels, our humorous (aren’t they always?) Irish guide took us to the Cliffs of Moher, the Baby Cliffs, along the Wild Atlantic Way, and finally to Galway before returning to Dublin. It was a day that was dreamlike and idyllic in every way. The sun shined the whole time, including the entire two hours we spent walking up and down the windy shore line admiring the cliffs (and let’s be honest, the sheep who were the real stars). After that, we witnessed a scene that could’ve been out of a fairytale…more than twenty horseback riders and double that in hunting dogs, trotting along the road then on a green pasture right on the seaside. I couldn’t stop watching, nevermind the fact that they had just caused a huge traffic jam on the two-lane highway.

We drove past majestic castle ruins that spoke of different times, and small stone houses with animals happily grazing out back. It was one of the most beautiful days I’ve ever experienced, and I could feel myself falling deeper for Ireland. The atmosphere on our tour bus was cheery and friendly, and the music on the radio (a mix of Irish and American hits) was the perfect backdrop to the thoughts that poured out of my head and heart and onto the pages of my travel journal.

My only regret from the day was that we had hardly enough time in Galway to shop. It’s known as the home of the claddagh ring, and is close to the Aran Islands where the famous Irish wool sweaters are made, so they can be easily bought in Galway stores. Though I missed out on both a sweater and a ring, I did take home a memory from Galway better than any souvenir I could have bought.

Ten minutes before I had to catch the bus to head back to Dublin, I frantically ran around trying to find a cafe to use the bathroom. I found a Sicilian restaurant and ran in, ordering an espresso as soon as I walked through the door then asking to use the restroom in the next breath. When I came back out, I noticed the barista didn’t know English well so I asked if he spoke Italian (after all, I was in a Sicilian restaurant in Galway of all places). We ended up having a whole conversation in Italian while I stirred the sugar in my espresso and paid with my euro coins. I then had to sprint to the bus right before it took off, but it was so worth it.

Those kinds of interactions make traveling so worthwhile to me, and it reminded me of who I am in Europe. I immediately leapt into the situation without fear, like when I was faced with two Dutch men asking to share a table at the Guinness Storehouse. I always have to make the most of interactions abroad and my curiosity often leads me to ask questions, in an effort to get the most out of every conversation I have. How could I find out about these people without being willing to be vulnerable? I hope the barista appreciated that I took the time to try my Italian, he was so sweet!

Back on Grafton Street the next weekend it was easy to see that while Ireland is undoubtedly a European nation, it seems the Irish haven’t adapted the slower walking pace most of their fellow Europeans (read: Italians) are so well-known for. I was quickly swept up in the chaos of people hustling and bustling to start their Friday night. Girls were dolled up to the nines, hair curled and full face covered in a thick layer of makeup, talking a mile a minute and walking just as fast.

Another reason it was so easy to fall for Ireland was the people. They are uncommonly nice, from the waitresses asking if everything was okay to the taxi driver apologizing for his broken card reader due to his granddaughter using it as a toy. Friendliness exudes from their very pale and delicate skin despite this rough exterior they often wear. Once they open their mouth and start talking you see their warmth flows as freely as the cold milk on tap at every restaurant (they seem to drink it like Americans drink water).  

Despite all of the lovely experiences and people, a highlight of my whole time in Ireland may just have been a conversation one night within the walls of our hostel suite. Our room consisted of girls from France, Great Britain, Spain, and Los Angeles. I was elated to be talking to them, when else would I get a chance to casually chat with girls my age from all of these other countries? This is one of the main reasons I love hostels more than Airbnbs–the connection to other travelers who are often so similar to you despite where they come from geographically.

That night conversation spanned from hair to makeup to fashion to consumption of dairy and milk and diets. It was so comical at times and so serious at others, but as a former vegan for environmental reasons I reveled in the fact that my generation, across the globe, was concerned for the planet and what our diets were doing to it. And I loved the warmth and openness of everyone to converse and find out about each other and our various points-of-views.

As I packed up and left the hostel the next morning, peering out at the sunrise over the rooftops of Dublin, my heart was full of gratitude. After visiting I fully understood the appeal Ireland had held for other travelers. Its cozy and cheery pubs, the warmth of the people, the beauty of the country, the fresh Guinness…I fell hard for all of it and I can surely say I want to return soon.