Ireland's Warm Cold Season

By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 23, 2005

WINTER IN IRELAND? Right. Wait until August to go to Mississippi. Be sure to mark your calendar for the rainy season in Chiapas.

One of the key differences that define the Irish, as opposed to the other nationalities in the British Isles, is that Rome, that source of civilization, order and homogeneity, settled Britain but decided to leave Ireland be, naming the place on their maps Hibernia, the land of wintry weather. But some people, even Italians, now actually prefer Erin in winter. There's no accounting for taste, said the man who kissed the cow.

Kevin Myers, a columnist for the Irish Times, is one who sings arias to Ireland in the winter months. "The nights are cold now, and they are longer, but the shortness of the days is offset by their beauty. The hedgerows are losing their leaves with the reluctance of children undressing in a cold bedroom, and around them the great broadleaf trees are touring the colors of the rainbow before going naked for the season which becomes us best: winter. Summer in this country is a fraud . . ."

Myers, it should be disclosed, is never happier than when standing contra mundi, a wit who will never be out-curmudgeoned in a country filled with razor-tongued misanthropes. But he is right on this score -- if you pick your spots. Avoid the flat Irish Midlands, which in winter can remind you of horror film sets. You wouldn't be surprised to come upon a black mass over the next rise or a mad dog howling on a hilltop.

No, go to the West. Take long lovely drives where the towns of Castlebar, Westport and Sligo Town are safe harbors in the sea of moor, bog and mountain. Out of season, when the coach tours are gone and the days shorten, the West seems haunted with melancholy, that feeling of sweetened sorrow the Irish have a lock on. It is a place where landscape rules emotions. It can be grotty, cold and drizzly, but you can spend June in Ireland and have the same weather.

The light at times, late or early in the year, is highly polished, scoured clean and hallucinogenic, providing fragility to things as rooted and ancient as stone. The seasons slipping away from summer turn the land shades of maroon and heather to complement the eternal green. People sometimes are an afterthought here. It's a place Seamus Heaney describes as "the empty amphitheater of the West."

Airlines practically pay you for flights to Shannon and Dublin, and you can get great deals on car rentals and hotel rooms in the larger towns. Once there and rambling around, you will be seen as an individual, not part of a battalion of mass tourists besieging the place. Many attractions and museums will be closed in the small towns, as well as many small-town restaurants, but you will never go hungry. Many pubs in the West serve three meals a day, and the food is good. Europe's feeling for food has even penetrated the locals of small towns. Sometimes it will be plain, but there will be plenty of it. And in the pub, as opposed to chic restaurants, you won't go hungry for Ireland's second most popular indoor winter sport, conversation.

Take some time to get to Dublin, that most hospitable city, where all the attractions and museums will be open. The Fair City, along with New York and London, has the best theater in the English-speaking world. Those chic restaurants are there, too, and in the cold months it's easy to book a table after the play. It's a cozy place in winter, with pubs serving rich soups for lunch, and soda bread as dense as cake. In the chilly streets of Dublin there is the comforting smell of rashers and bread in the morning, and coal and turf smoke in the evenings.

It's the time when ghosts are most at home. Laugh, but Irish people are not so quick to disparage people who believe in spirits that reside in places other than bottles. After all, the pagan Irish invented Halloween, the night when there is only the thinnest of veils between this world and that of the dead.

Myers's idea of summer being a fraud has to do with Ireland as a place more than a postcard, and long lingering twilights, salmon jumping though the mist and all the rest of that flapjaw toora-loora-loora. When the short days come, dominated by high rushing skies and a sharp perfume of sea and bog, then what you see, hear and smell teaches you an essential lesson of what makes the Irish separate from most people. It has to do with an unembarrassed belief that there is another, richer life occurring simultaneously with all this fiddle. Call it mysticism, call it whatever you want. But just remember to believe nothing you hear and half of what you see.

W.B. Yeats, Ireland's greatest poet, living or dead -- say that in a pub in Ireland and be ready to defend your position, and sometimes your person -- firmly believed that spirits roamed the world and that you could talk to them and they'd bend your ear back. Edna O'Brien, daughter of County Clare, has written, "You are Irish you say lightly, and allocated to you are the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living."

In the winter you'll be spared the most odious traveler outside the wine snob -- the literary cannibal. This is the individual so pumped with condescension that telling tour guides they're misinformed is his greatest joy, and he will happily knock you down on pathological quests to find the last pencil shavings of the master.

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