When I went to Ireland I wanted to see an ancient way of life, something authentic: monasteries where monks chanted hundreds of years ago, romantic castles and stone walls that still enclose green fields full of baa-ing sheep—sheep that historically have produced Ireland’s famous woolen sweaters. I wanted to sit in an Irish pub, drink a glass of Guinness and listen to a fiddler while the locals danced and convinced me to join them.
Everything that wasn’t part of my vision I tried to edit out—at least from my photos: the surfer in lovely St. Finan’s Bay, the cars that jammed the picturesque village of Kinsale (right), or the modern lime green tractor and bales of hay wrapped in black plastic in front of an old gray stubbled stone barn, The photo above is for me the quintessential Ireland: the omnipresent sheep, a farmer’s cottage and the green pastures rolling down to the steely blue sea. But what you don’t see is the huge tour buses roaming the countryside, all the modern homes or the tropical palm trees and agave plants that shouldn’t be growing in such a northerly climate.
For the first few days, I tried to ignore all the modern stuff that didn’t belong in my vision of Ireland and sought out the ancient places like the Gallarus Oratory, an 8th century place of worship so perfectly constructed of stones that, more than 10 centuries later, not a drop of rain penetrates; the remains of a 6th century monastery; castles dating back to the 12th century; and stone forts (left) used for protection and shelter dating from the 9th or 10th century. But 80 percent of the buildings on Dingle Peninsula are vacation homes, the Irish version of a U.S. ranch house—squat, plain houses, many of which are rented out to tourists.
At some point, I was forced to see the reality underneath the beautiful Irish landscape. The hillsides are covered in yellow gorse, and in my imagination these were similar to the heather in the moors of Scotland and England, long celebrated in song and verse by poets. However, the gorse—just like the scarlet fuschia that borders the lanes, and the palm trees (right) and agave plants—is a non-native species, introduced relatively recently.
I loved the small towns with their brightly colored buildings, but when I asked our tour guide if this was an ancient Irish tradition, I was disappointed to hear that towns painted their buildings in a competition for “Tidy Town”— some ploy apparently by the country’s tourism board to dress up the otherwise drab buildings for tourists.
We stopped at a churchyard on Ventry Harbor where gravestones were marked with the old Celtic crosses. My first thought was that this would be a perfect photo op, until I saw the men wearing fluorescent orange vests and heard the weed whackers. I was able to edit out the invasive signs of modernity but when I look at the picture, it doesn’t mean anything. It isn’t totally true.
In every town, the pubs advertise “Irish music,” and some version of traditional Irish music is played for tourists who want the Irish experience, but most of the time you’re aware that you’re being dished up something that’s not totally authentic. I never found a pub where I inadvertently stumbled in on the locals dancing and fiddling, never got the chance to kick up my heels.
As for the sheep, they’re not much used for woolens anymore; it doesn’t pay, so instead they become someone’s meal.
So Ireland is not the authentic place I wanted. Instead it’s a mixture of new and old, abiding side by side. It’s messy, just like life. But it's all beautiful.