WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING!

Photo: A January morning at Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, Co. Galway.

After almost a full year away from home we decided, at the last minute, that we needed to come back to Ireland to celebrate Christmas with our friends and family. Initially, we had considered flying family members out to Indonesia to spend Christmas in the sun, but serious earthquakes and tsunamis were expected, and happened before Christmas, which made us change our plans. We were missing home and our loved ones and to spend Christmas away from them was not an option. And so we booked our flights, and planned the next six weeks of travel around Ireland over Christmas and the New Year, before heading to Greece to work with Lifting Hands International at the Yazidi Refugee Camp in Serres.

When I thought about writing this particular blog about our trip back home, I remembered all of the previous blogs I had written about other countries I had visited. Countries where I detailed both the “roses and the thorns” of what I had experienced during my time there. To approach this blog any differently would be disingenuous and so the “roses and thorns” approach therefore is the only approach I believe I can take when writing about my own beautiful homeland of Ireland.

If you ever travel to Ireland, one of the first things you will notice, aside from the most spectacular scenery, is the huge number of “Cead Mile Failte” signs everywhere. The phrase “Cead Mile Failte” (meaning, one hundred thousand welcomes) is there for very good reason. You will never feel more welcomed anywhere in the world, than when you land on Irish soil. People will trip over themselves to help you and to ensure you have the best experience you can have while here. Although, on the flip side of this; if you’re looking for a holiday where you can be left in peace and quiet, Ireland is not really the place to venture. When we meet strangers along the road, we chatter, and chatter and chatter and then some more; about the weather mainly, politics, about religion and every other subject under the sun. It’s our national pastime. We can basically “chat the hind legs off an ass”. Despite this, many celebrities choose Ireland as a holiday destination because they can go about their daily business with a reasonable amount of anonymity. You see the Irish don’t go in for the whole hysteria around meeting celebrities or about people being hugely successful. The majority couldn’t be arsed to get ruffled about people having celebrity status or about anyone who climbs the ladder of success. There is a ‘who does your man/woman think he/she is’ sort of begrudgery which is, I believe, the hangover from the famine years where the wealthy landlords were foreigners. Good old Irish begrudgery is a unique trait that we have and are well known for internationally. There is a famous saying about this and it goes something like…If an American passes his neighbour’s mansion on top of a hill, he will point to it and say…”some day I’m gonna be like that guy”! The Irish guy passing the same house will say “some day I’m gonna get that b**tard!” 😂. And woe betide anyone who thinks he’s “a cut above the rest”. Many a man/woman has been “taken down a peg or two” to make sure they “don’t forget where they came from” when displaying any semblance of arrogance about how well they’d done in the world. Being humble and unassuming, no matter how successful, is the key to getting along with the Irish people. I have always wondered why this way of thinking is not evident in other countries around the world. I suspect both the colonization of Ireland by another country, and the Catholic Church teachings about modesty and humility being a huge part of becoming a “good Irish Catholic” could go some way towards explaining this national psyche. In certain parts of Ireland begrudgery is almost a sport! 😂😂😂

However, I hasten to add, it is only one of very few negative traits we Irish have. Irish people, in the main, are laid back, easy-going characters who take life as it comes. I am proud to say we are a warm and wonderfully funny group of people who are known all over the world for our wicked sense of humor, our friendliness and of course our ability to party. I hadn’t realized the full extent of our reputation on the world stage until I undertook this journey. I am happy and proud to say that our reputation internationally as a people, is exemplary! When we passed through security at every airport we visited (and it numbered over 40), on almost every occasion, once we produced our Irish passports, we were waved through, with warm smiles and a quick discussion about being from Ireland. It was like they were implying “sure ye’re Irish, ye’re harmless. Go on through”! I couldn’t believe it! Almost everyone we met claimed they had Irish blood in them (even in Cambodia!). Once people heard we were from Ireland they couldn’t do enough for us. My thoughts on this whole experience is how grateful I am to all of the Irish people who travelled the world before us, including all of the Irish football and rugby fans, for leaving such a positive lasting impression in every corner of the world. It really has to be seen to be believed and I am very proud to have been on the receiving end of so many wonderful, warm receptions in every country we visited because of this.

Photo: Doolough Valley, Co. Mayo. (Near Leenane, where the movie “The Field” was filmed)

Before undertaking this journey, I had a very limited vision of my country on the world stage. I believed, and still do, that we have one of the highest standards of living in the world. And trust me on this one! Having travelled to some of the most poverty stricken parts of our planet…we do! There is no such terminology as “keeping up with the Jones” in most parts of Asia for example. They simply don’t have, or value, material things enough to compete with their neighbour. Our education system is most definitely up there as being one of the best in the world. Our food and health and safety standards are rarely seen anywhere else. Our music, our art, our tradition and culture are world renowned, and it is absolutely mind blowing to see peoples reactions when we recited poems or sang songs in the Irish language and witnessing the appreciation that others have for our traditions. On a different note, And this is the “thorn” amongst the “roses”. Our health system, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired. No shocks there I guess! Even in China, (with population of 1.4 billion), where I had been quite ill for a number of days, I was referred to a doctor, then to the hospital, assessed, diagnosed and treated within 2 hours! That would be unheard of in Ireland. Entering an Accident and Emergency Unit in any of our cities major hospitals, unless you are literally on death’s door, will result in a waiting time of anything up to 24-48 hours before being fully diagnosed. It is every Government’s nightmare as they take up office, to try to “fix” our health system. Separately, the homelessness situation is also an absolute atrocity. The global banking crash of 2008 which resulted in the bottom falling out of the Irish economy has left thousands and thousands of families homeless. Prior to the crash, banks were lending money by the lorry load to all and sundry. Huge mortgages were dished out to anyone and everyone, whether people could afford to repay those loans in the longer term or not. There was no proper stress testing done at that time to establish whether the impact of rising interest rates would result in homeowners struggling to repay the monies owed to those same banks. It was a nightmare waiting to happen, and in 2008, it did. The economy came crashing down! And then, just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, the nightmare continued. The government decided to “bail out” those same banks who had irresponsibly handed out money at high interest rates to the Irish people. And yes, individuals also had a level of responsibility to ensure that they didn’t borrow money above and beyond their means. But the banks were basically “pushing” money on almost every Irish citizen, and many took the bait, thinking this was manna from heaven. Since that time, promises were made by successive Governments never to allow property prices and interest rates to rise in the same fashion again. However, in 2019, yet again, we are seeing property prices soaring and banks lending money for those same properties. I have no doubt that if this trend is allowed to continue again, we will have another “crash” where people will be in negative equity with properties worth only half of what they borrowed for them today. It’s a vicious circle and one that our Governments don’t seem to have learned from!

Ireland is referred to as a tax haven because of the country’s taxation and economic policies. Legislation heavily favors the establishment and operation of corporations, and the economic environment is very hospitable for all major corporations. Before deductions, the United States has a corporate tax rate of 35%. Ireland’s taxation rate for corporations is 12.5%. In addition, Ireland only charges a corporate tax rate of 6.25% for revenue tied to a company’s patent or intellectual property. So with a shoddy health system and thousands of homeless people on our streets, one would wonder why the Government waves the 12.5% corporate tax haven flag at multinational companies to over 70 countries. Yes, to attract foreign investment, I get it. But at what price?

The multinational company ‘Apple’ , for example, decided to set up branches in Ireland in 1991. In an unprecedented move, the Irish Government decided to reduce the corporate tax rate even further for Apple, and offered them instead a 2% tax rate when setting up in Ireland! This, according to the European Commission, is illegal, and according to the Commission, Apple should have been paying the 12.5% rate and owed, therefore, huge revenue to the Irish government retrospectively. It has stated that Apple now owes the Irish Government a whopping €14 BILLION in unpaid taxes, and a further €6 BILLION in interest on that tax! Now wait for it! The Irish Government has voted not to impose these costs on Apple, despite the ruling of the Commission, and have refused to accept the monies offered by Apple, instead lodging these billions of euros into a “holding account”. The Government has since appealed the judgement of the European Commission and want Apple to be declared exempt from paying this retrospective tax! I kid you not! At a time when the health system is in tatters, and thousands of homeless people line our streets, the Irish Government is refusing to accept the original judgement of the European Commission and in turn is refusing to accept the almost €20 BILLION payment being offered by Apple to resolve their tax debt! This money would provide homes for every single homeless person in Ireland and would also go a huge way towards providing a proper healthcare system for the Irish citizens. And yet, the multinational corporate bodies are given priority! As a result, there is a huge amount of unrest and anger within Irish society against its Government right now. There is an increased perception amongst the citizens of Ireland that the divide between the rich and the poor is growing at an alarming rate, and naturally with the Government refusing the retrospective tax owed by Apple, it is certainly not helping the situation at home.

I digress, yet again! 😂. It was also an education in itself to land in places all around the world, only to discover that the population of the towns and cities, (not the country) could be in excess of five or six times that of Ireland’s population. I had never really thought about this in the context of the size of our country! It is merely a “dot” on the planet by comparison to other European countries, America, Canada, China, Japan, South East Asia, Australia and other islands we visited. For the first time, I think I truly began to understand why we say that “Irish mothers rear their children to emigrate”. This is true. And while I used to think this was dreadful, particularly for the mothers who remained at home, I now realize that it is not necessarily a bad thing for the children of Ireland to spread their wings and experience what it’s like to live and work outside of Ireland and explore and educate themselves about other cultures and traditions throughout the world. When I looked at Ireland on the map so many many times, and from so very far away, I realized that it is so important for people to leave, even if only for a short while, to see what lies beyond our beautiful Emerald Isle.

I met people in the far reaches of China and South East Asia who had never heard of Ireland. I eventually carried a photo of the map of the world on my phone and when asked where I was from, produced it and explained in great detail where Ireland sat in the context of the world map. Most people who had “vaguely” heard of Ireland, knew only about people with “red hair” and asked if it was true that people in Ireland truly had this hair. 😂 Thankfully, my aunt sent me photos of her grandchildren who have heads of the most beautiful vibrant red hair, and these were also displayed along with the map of the world when asked where I hailed from. Gasps of disbelief were commonplace when I produced the photos of the red-haired children. It was hilarious!

I travelled home to Ireland from Barcelona on a cold December morning with a whole new perspective and appreciation of the country I call home. I saw everything through a whole new set of lenses. From the taste of a roast chicken, stuffing and gravy dinner at my aunt’s house on arrival, to the vision and taste of an Irish breakfast, with real Superquinn sausages greeting me on a cold wet Irish morning. The absolute love, happiness, warmth and welcome from family and friends on our return home was immeasurable. There were tears, and hugs and of course a few dinner parties and drinks each and every single day. After a brief stop off in Dublin, we travelled to Colm’s hometown of Our Lady’s Island, Wexford on the south-eastern coast of Ireland. We booked a quaint cottage- style house just outside Wexford town to spend Christmas with members of both families, including Colm’s elderly father who we regularly visited at the Nursing Home nearby. Christmas Day dinner was spent squashed around a small table in our little cottage with family reciting poetry and stories. Colm’s mum recites poetry with such passion that it never fails to leave my jaw hanging. I spend my time pleading with her to recite a particular poem she recited when I first met her called “In a little pub in London”. A bottle of ginger flavored gin, a gift from Colm’s sister Mairead, helped with the recitals 😁 My son Cathal is a student of theatre and drama, and so he shared the same enthusiasm for Colm’s Mum’s poetry and also shared some Shakespeare moments with us. Everyone eventually chipped in with poems and songs that resulted in one of the most memorable and beautiful family Christmases I could wish for. The absence of other family members at the dinner table was difficult. I know it’s the time of year that every family feels the absence of loved ones and reflects on the memories of Christmas past, and move on from it to create new memories . I was no different. Remembering the wonderful Christmases I had as a Mum rearing my children in Tullamore. The excitement on Christmas Eve, when my late Mum would come to stay and we would go to the evening Mass and return home to help “Santa” set up the toys under the tree and prepare the dinner for the next day. Since Mum’s passing and the children growing up, I found it challenging to create new “Christmas memories”. But this Christmas certainly was as close as I could get to that. The availability of social media meant that we could contact those loved ones who were abroad, and the day didn’t pass without us talking to family members abroad and my beautiful grandson in Chicago about Santa, and the excitement of what he had brought for him for being such a good boy 🎅. We cooked (I absolutely love cooking Christmas dinner and badly wanted to cook some “Irish” food – and so it was). In the annex of the building next to ours, a voice coach and pianist played Christmas carols on her piano for her guests; their singing permeating through the walls like angels from heaven. It was as near to a perfect Christmas as we could wish for!

A big highlight of the trip to Wexford for me was when I received a message from a woman who I had accepted as a friend on Facebook prior to our arrival home. She had the same surname as me, and lived in Wexford where my grandparents had lived at the early stages of their lives. I guessed we might be related and so we excitedly arranged to meet up. It turns out she is my first cousin, once removed! I’d never known of her existence or her of mine (long story with family history) until just before I arrived back to Ireland. And when I met her at a hotel in Enniscorthy in Wexford on Stephen’s Day, it was like we knew each other all our lives. She looked so like my other family members on my fathers side, and so we were both flabbergasted and delighted to have at last found each other. We had another family member to add to our Christmas list from here on in 😁. It was like an unexpected Christmas gift meeting her and we have both kept in touch with each other since. How wonderful!

Photo: My newly discovered cousin, Catherine Whelan – our very first meeting in Enniscorty, Co. Wexford.

Next on our itinerary was a trip to Westport to take Colm’s Mum to visit Colm’s Dad’s only brother Nicky Lambert and his wife Maureen. With Colm’s mum Anne and her best friend Peg in tow (a friendship of almost 70 years), we made the long 12 hour journey (with stops at some of the most beautiful scenic places in Connemara) from Wexford to Westport, Mayo. It was Colm’s Mum’s 80th birthday during the time we were there and we had secretly planned a surprise gathering at our accommodation so she could celebrate with all of the Lambert family. Late on a January evening we booked into our lovely Airbnb house in Westport. Having showed Anne and Peg to their respective rooms, we went about unpacking and getting ready for bed. Just as we were locking up the house for bedtime, I heard screaming and screeches from the ladies’ bedrooms. We both bolted up the stairs to see what was happening, only to find them both in the middle of a pillow fight on the double bed in Anne’s room. Now when I talk about “first time experiences” on this journey…trying to separate two 80 year old women from a pillow fight is definitely up there. 😂😂😂. Despite their age, when they get together, they revert to being children. It was the most wonderful sight to see and proof that age is most certainly all in the head. We spent the next few days taking the ladies around Mayo, visiting the Knock Shrine where apparently Our Lady had appeared, flanked by Angels, at a church in the village back in 1879. It has since become a Roman Catholic Pilgrimage site and National Shrine, attracting thousands of excited visitors every year. Anne and Peg were no exception. The sheets of rain and howling wind didn’t prevent them from paying their respects at the Shrine. Their faith is something that has sustained them and given them both great joy and strength in life; something I have learned to respect despite my own views.

Photo: Anne (Colm’s Mum) and her lifelong friend Peg outside the shrine at Knock – a friendship that has lasted 70 years)

Nicky, Colm’s uncle, had recently taken seriously ill and so was confined to bed when we arrived. We spent some time with him at his home before the night that the 80th birthday celebrations got underway. He was his usual smiling, jovial self that he always was when he met with us on our previous visits to Westport. Sitting up in the bed chatting away and joking with us, he seemed so comfortable and content. Little did we know how precious this visit would be. It would be the last time we would get to be with him before he passed away shortly after we left Ireland for Greece. He is a huge loss to his family and to the wider Westport Community. The whole town of Westport closed down for his funeral, with hundreds and hundreds of mourners lining the streets to pay their respects to him, his wife Maureen and his family. And that’s something that is unmatched anywhere in the world. An Irish funeral is something to be experienced. While mourners grieve, there is also a huge celebration of the person’s life and a huge wake always gets underway following the burial of a loved one. A funeral will often be a bigger event than any wedding ceremony in Ireland. Nicky’s was no exception. It was a noble, legendary send off by all accounts.

Our visit to the west of Ireland came to an end all too soon, and it was time to head back to Wexford, via the Wild Atlantic Way, one of the most beautiful coastal drives you will ever experience in this world. The scenery along the drive of the great Atlantic Ocean, through the wilds of Mayo and Connemara is breathtaking. It was chosen as the location for famous movies like “The Quiet Man”, and more recently the movie “The Field” where the late Richard Harris played the old “Bull” McCabe spending his life tending to rented fields on the west coast of Ireland, when the woman who owned the land decided to sell them off. It’s a must see, and both movies would entice the devil himself to visit this part of Ireland. It’s mystical beyond words and there is nowhere in the world that I’ve seen yet to compare to it.

Photo: Peg at “The Quiet Man” cottage, Maam, Connemara, Co. Galway.

Onwards from Wexford we travelled to our hometown of Tullamore, where we spent the rest of our time meeting with family and friends. Every day and night was spent surrounded by all of those people we missed so much along our journey and would no doubt again as we headed away to Greece. We stayed in the beautiful surroundings of the Tullamore Court Hotel, where they looked after us like royalty. One important thing to note about the Irish is their generosity to those most in need. Given that we were travelling out to do volunteer work at a refugee camp in Serres in Greece, we had asked people to donate clothes etc. so we could take much needed goods out with us. I can’t begin to explain the generosity of people, donating money so we could buy warm scarves, clothes, underwear etc. and bags of clothes were delivered to the hotel every day. To that end, one of the most touching moments of generosity that I encountered was a young barman who was working at the Tullamore Court Hotel. He had learned about our upcoming journey to Greece during our stay. We were heading to our room on the last evening, when he came up to our table and opened his hand. He placed a donation of money on the table in front of us, and said, “these are my tips for the last few days, and I’d like you to have them to buy something to bring with you to Greece. I’d like to be able to donate more, but this is all the extra money I have right now”. I was moved beyond belief at the kindness and generosity of this young man. It was one of those moments when I’d love to ring his Mammy to tell her what a great kid she had reared 😂 Unfortunately I didn’t get his name, but I heard that he had been awarded “Barman of the Year” at the hotel just after Christmas and it brought a smile to my face to think that he had been given recognition he deserved for his work there. We need more of him in this world for sure!

Photo: Colm, me and Cathal waiting excitedly for Christmas to arrive in Wexford.

At the end of January, we left Ireland, knowing that we would never return to live here again permanently. We boarded a flight that would take us to the city of Thessaloniki in Greece, travelling onwards by bus to the city of Serres where we would begin working with an organisation called Lifting Hands International. It is an understatement to say that this organisation has been nothing short of a life line to the beautiful Yazidi Community housed in a refugee camp there. Victims of ISIS and absolute genocide; meeting and working with these people would have a greater impact on us than we could have ever, in our wildest dreams, imagined!

More to follow on our time at the refugee camp in Greece soon!

http://www.sceala.com/phpBB2/irish-forums-594.html (Click here to hear the poem “In a little pub in London” recited regularly by Colm’s Mum).

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