In 10 days I only saw one sunset, streaks of purple, gold and pink across the swell of the North Atlantic. The rest of my trip to Ireland was bathed in a soggy, glowing grey. Each day's brightest light was from the nighttime streak of tour bus headlights careening around the Ring of Kerry.
County Kerry is everything I imagined: faded sunlight blinking through the hollowed-out windows of castle ruins until the grey of the crumbling walls matched the weepy sky, cows and sheep teetering on the edges of rocky crags and wandering dozily in front of your car, woody pubs full of middle-aged men saying "fook" this and "fook" that as TVs with muted soccer games glow behind the bar.
It's also something I didn't imagine: a food-lover's paradise.
Ireland is a culinary dream the same way that Nova Scotia is (and Nova Scotia is, by the way). While it would never be considered a twin, there is something about the countryside that easily brings a trip to the South Shore, Wolfville or PEI to mind. The local food---lamb, beef and pork, fresh seafood, hearty vegetables and creamy dairy---is also warmly familiar. I grew up on stews, boiled dinners and potatoes---standards in any Irish diet, and standards here in Nova Scotia.
The thick grass that gives Ireland its emerald hue is the foundation on which the best fresh food on the island is built. The country has a reputation for lamb and beef, but it's the dairy products that I find incomparable. To put it simply: the first time I drank a Guinness in Ireland, it was a novelty; the first time I drank milk in Ireland, it was a revelation.
I spent the bulk of my trip to Ireland in a rough-hewn stone cottage, complete with thatched roof and windy sea views. Rainy nights saw a fire on the wood stove, Poirot on the television and homemade dinners on the table, fresh ingredients bought at the English Market in Cork and small village grocery stores we came upon in our travels.
When I stood in the stony alley that leads to the entrance of the English Market in Cork, I was struck by a familiarity---it's incredibly similar to the Historic Farmers' Market in Halifax. There is the same sense of history to it: walls pocked with age, and a labyrinthine interior that weaves vendors into one another. It's a delicious quilt of fresh pink fish, ruddy meats, a rainbow of leafy vegetables and bakeries with beautiful, burnished scones and hearty breads.
The vendors share a great sense of community and shared appreciation for food, recommending and celebrating one another as I wander by adding fresh duck eggs, rich Coolea cheese and a host of fresh herbs and vegetables to my bags.
The dairy basically makes me stop in my tracks. The milk is creamy and full-bodied. Butter is dense and unctuous, a condiment in need of no support troops. Ice cream is almost ridiculously silky, my favourite dotted with chewy honeycomb. In 10 days I ate more dairy than I usually do in 10 months.
There is a saying that everyone is a little bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day, but when you grow up in the Maritimes it feels like everyone is a little bit Irish every day.
After finally visiting Ireland, I have to say that it feels like there is an infrangible link between Ireland and Atlantic Canada, found in the people, the culture, the food and even the ocean and air with the old-timey magic of the telegraph.
There is nothing wrong or wholly inauthentic about an Irish pub---bars with lots of dark wood and backlit bottles of whiskey are a dime a dozen in Ireland, and in the smallest corner of County Kerry you'll find a charming pub filled with ruddy smiling faces, cheering on their football team. But the idea that you need a shamrock or a spate of Celtic fonts in order to experience or appreciate Irish culture is, at its worst, on par with the idea that you need anthropomorphic mice hanging around in order to have fun at a park.
Sure, you can have a Guinness to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, but if you really want to celebrate the Irish, have a glass of milk and call it a day.