A visit to the (Irish) White House

On this final day of the presidential race in the United States, I thought you might like to see a few iPhone pictures from Ireland’s White House, Áras an Uachtaráin.

This is actually the rear facade, now used as the main entry


It is home to Michael D. Higgins, the current (9th) President of Ireland, who was elected last year. Unlike POTUS, the presidency in Ireland is largely a ceremonial role. (Ireland has a prime minister, or Taoiseach.)

The house is in Phoenix Park, (the largest park in Europe), which is also home to the zoo and the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence.

The harp is the national symbol of Ireland and it is featured throughout the house, even on the tea cups.


This garden is also harp-shaped


Portraits of the past Irish presidents line this state room


Divisive politician Eamon de Valera, and a portrait of Lady Lavery, an American who married artist Sir John Lavery. Her likeness (painted by her husband) appeared on Irish banknotes during the 20th century before the Euro


The American Women’s Club of Dublin

The website says they do free public tours on Saturdays. We were supposed to meet the First Lady, but alas, last minute schedule changes and all…

Halloween in Dublin

We went with a few of their buddies from creche. I have no idea why I didn’t emphasize the candy part of Halloween sooner. After the first house, G’s eyes were wide with excitement as if he couldn’t believe his luck. “Let’s go to the next house!” he said, after every house.

This is another friend. The three of them would shuffle to a door and knock one at a time in a back-of-the-wrist, barely audible knock, then they would step far back from the threshold, apparently in case they encountered something other than a candy-offering stranger. A few households invited us all the way in, in the tradition that the children would do a song or dance for their treat. The moms ended up performing on behalf of their children. All we could come up with was the theme song to “Bob the Builder.”

It’s a long way to Tipperary

My mother left yesterday, and again I am reminded why living abroad for all its excitement is hard. I am not sure when I will see her next. We had such a whirlwind visit of road trips and I wanted to write this post before autumn gets swallowed up by the holidays and it is the end of the year.

We have officially entered what I call “the drift:” the original term of Sascha’s contract is up, and yet we are still in Ireland for various reasons, mostly summed up as it is much easier to stay put until work forces the next relocation. Not that it’s a complaint. When I’m healthy, I love Ireland. It is an absolutely beautiful place to live and I know we are so lucky.  It is complicated to be without a plan, but we have so many opportunities we might never have otherwise.

One of those opportunities was the chance to meet my late grandmother’s first cousin and family, who live about 2 hours from Dublin. So two weeks ago, when Sascha was in NYC and my mother was here, we packed up the Micra and strapped in the boys and hit the road to meet our Irish relatives.

I don’t know if we would have gone to the Killaloe/Ballina area were it not for the family, but I am so glad we did. The area is rich in history, with Killaloe being the birth place of Brian Boru, the last high king. Killaloe and Ballina are villages opposite each other on the River Shannon, which forms a watery border between the counties of Tipperary and Clare. They are connected by a stone bridge, which is over 300 years old. I mostly have iPhone snaps, so the quality isn’t amazing compared to our new camera, but at least you have some idea.

The village of Killaloe

The bridge is too narrow to allow two-way traffic so a light at either end regulates the flow.  The river here is wider than the Liffey and it empties into Lough Derg, the biggest lake in the Republic of Ireland. Rimming the lake are the Slieve Bernagh Mountains (Co. Clare) and the Arra Mountains (Co. Tipperary).

Top picture is a plaque on the bridge looking toward Lough Derg that commemorates four men shot by Auxiliaries in 1920. The middle picture shows Killaloe Bridge, with some of the original arches from over three hundred years ago.

We passed under the bridge on the boat tour. It being off-season, we were the only people on board, so James let the boys (and me) drive the boat. G really grabbed the wheel and enthusiastically turned it back and forth, so the boat fishtailed a bit. I actually got a bit nervous that while the captain took our photo G would run us aground.

A rare picture of the four of us!

We met Michael, his sister Nellie, and his wife, Nancy, at our hotel on our first night and then we made a plan to visit them at the farm the following day. My mother had not seen Michael and Nancy since the 70s, when they visited the U.S. before I was born. She remembers having them over for a barbecue but they didn’t want to eat corn on the cob. They called it “horse food.”

Apparently, after I went back to the room to put the boys to bed, my mom got excited about the potential for a secret smoke. Michael invited her out for a smoke, but she was disappointed to discover it was a pipe, not cigarettes. “Well, I’d’ve given you a pull or two,” he said.

Because the farm is not on the GPS, we were to meet Michael at a place called “The Lookout.” Around this vast lake, you might imagine there are many lookouts, and we spent some time driving on the wrong side of the lake before I figured it out. We did enjoy the unplanned tour of the Clare County side of Lough Derg and were grateful for Michael’s patience.

Michael. Some islands in Lough Derg are visible in the background

Michael took us down to the graveyard where his grandfather and father are buried. Over the years, it had been neglected and he and some other volunteers did a lot of work to restore the grounds and they even won awards for it. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, resting at the bottom of a graceful green slope to the shores of the lake.

Nancy and some other women planted many of the flowers in the foreground of the first photo. Michael helped restore the ironwork on the church ruins.

This is the grave of Michael’s grandfather, who was my mother’s grand uncle

After walking the wet grounds of the graveyard, everyone’s feet were soaked. At the house they had a fire going in the sitting room and we were happy to take our shoes off. Out in the country, Nancy says, it seems like things never really dry.

Michael, my mom, Nancy, and Nellie

The house they live in is a new house built around the original two-room home where seven children were raised, including my great grandmother. Michael’s son now runs the thriving dairy farm.

The boys were mad for the tractors. Millie the dog was mad for them

I really enjoyed spending time with them.

“Oh to be young again,” Nancy said to me when I looked at her wedding photos. “Some years really make all the difference, don’t they?”

Michael and Nancy recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I love the confetti on his shoulder

Nancy told me she would have done things differently if she could go back.

Like what? I asked.

I would have traveled, she said.

Barefoot in Dublin

Image

It’s a really good thing that we finally have some short-sleeved-weather days. Since moving to Ireland, C has seen people in shorts and T-shirts so infrequently that he thinks if arms or legs are showing people are “nay-nay” (naked).

My neighbors soak up the sun in the lane. One by one they had to pick up their chairs and move so we could get through with the car.

Kinvara, Ballyvaughan, and a bit of The Burren

Driving out from Galway into the backwards “C” of the coast, towards the very tip of County Clare,  we were finally in “postcard Ireland:” wet fields of cows and sheep, low piled-stone walls, and winding, shoulderless roads where I felt I had to hold my breath every time another car passed.

There are may inlets and small harbors dotting the coast, and the landscape changed dramatically based on whether or not the tide was in.  We stopped at Keogh’s for lunch in Kinvara village, where we enjoyed talking with one of the owners who had lived in Northern California for a while and then we let the boys run around in the playground of the local primary school before going up to Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house.
The house has passed though many hands, some aristocratic and some not; at one point it was a literary gathering spot for the likes of Yeats and Synge. The history of generous patronage has embedded itself in local lore: one merely needs to ask a question at the gate, and by the end of the day, it will be answered.

We climbed the damp, circular stairs all the way to the top. The wind shrieked through cracks in the small stairway windows. You can see how windy it was (and narrow!) in these pictures.

After the castle, we headed toward the village of Ballyvaughan. Along the drive here, some of the massive limestone hills of a geoological area known as The Burren began to loom over us.  They look vaguely lunar, and in better weather (perhaps later this June)  I hope we can see more of the slab fields and dolmens and some of the unique plants that grow in the area. We were headed to the Aillwee Cave, one of the oldest caves in Ireland, which had some Easter activities going on for kids. We thought it would be a good entry point for the boys to experience some of the Burren without loosing them down a “crike” (a crack in the rocks).

Let me tell you about touring a cave with toddlers: We had driven 45 minutes from our last location and we were determined to go. We were also sleep-deprived and wind-lashed, and possibly could only think of activities in terms of inside vs. outside as the weather over our weekend on the west coast got worse each day. As we waited in the tearoom, we discovered the tour was a half hour and that strollers/buggies couldn’t come along. A young girl ran screaming from the caves, followed by her exhausted-looking father a few seconds later. S and I looked at each other and just started laughing. Definitely not the best idea we’ve had.

We straggled behind the tour group, trying to prevent the boys from veering off course into a chasm or from picking up some of the thousands-of-year-old-brown bear bones to put in their mouths. At one point, the tour guide shut the lights off completely. I don’t know exactly what he was saying then because all I heard was:

“It TOO DARK.”

“Turn the YIGHT on!”

View from the terraced hillside where the cave is located. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see Galway Bay

We waited in a long queue for the restrooms before getting into our car for the return trip. To be more efficient, all four of us went into the “family” bathroom with the changing table. It was so tiny that the smallest movement I made in changing a diaper meant I would set off the automatic dryer on the wall. (You would be hard-pressed to find a paper towel dispenser in Ireland, and the boys hate the noise of the machines.) Every time I set off the dryer, I also set off rage and tears in whomever happened to be standing on the floor. G at one point started kicking and banging at the door, apparently in the hopes of soliciting help from the throngs of people outside who gave us dirty looks when we finally exited.

Because you should always end a travelogue with a photo of the majestic public rest room!