As I picked up the remains of a shoe my one-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback left in the yard this morning, my thoughts went to the sheep dog demonstration I recently watched while traveling in Ireland. When John, the sheep farmer, gave a whistle, his trio of border collies sprang into action. They moved the flock up a hillside and across the valley like a carefully orchestrated swarm of bees. Every stray was steered back to the herd as the dogs took turns sweeping the rocky terrain. With a point of John’s finger and a slight nod, his dogs sat obediently near the final pen. Amazing. I couldn’t help but wonder what my dogs could learn from their Irish counterparts. Which led me to ponder, what did I glean from my Irish friends in that fun-filled week?
Here is my Top 10 List of Lessons:
1. I learned to pour the perfect pint in a class at the Guinness Factory in Dublin. With my fancy certificate in hand, I started critiquing each barkeep’s pour. Did he wait to let the beer settle before pulling back the tap to etch a shamrock into the foam? As part of my research, I was often obliged to ask for a second pint for comparative purposes only.
2. I learned a few new Irish songs. After a coastal walk on the Dingle peninsula, we stopped in a pub for a hearty Irish lunch. As we enjoyed our Irish stew, the bandleader invited my husband to sing with them. Despite my warnings, they went for it, and before long the entire pub was singing along to “Mary with the Black Velvet Band.” Evidently, in Ireland, what you lack in talent can be made up for in volume.
3. I learned about Irish immigrant history. Although I have Irish ancestors who came to the U.S. from County Cork, I don’t know a lot about their journey. I found our visit to the Blasket Islands Heritage Centre a big revelation about how the immigrants escaped the famine and a poignant parallel to today’s refugee crisis.
4. I enjoyed a not-very-useful but fascinating turf cutting lesson. Walking out on the bog, my boots sank deep into the rich peat. With a specially fashioned turf-cutting tool (think: a hoe crossed with a bayonet), I dug into the peat bog with all of my strength. The result was a turf blob that the farmer said would take forever to dry. My second cut, however, was perfection.
5. I learned that eating an ounce of dark chocolate a day is healthy. The chocolatier we met was a mad scientist of chocolate, explaining the molecular content of chocolate, the antioxidant benefits and how best to sample the abundance of chocolate he shared. Needless to say, I have added this to my daily regimen.
6. I learned if the Queen of England is going to stay at your manor house for two nights, you could spend seven years getting ready. As we toured Muckross House (Ireland’s version of Downton Abbey), we saw how far the Herbert family went to impress Queen Victoria on her stay. Besides a massive remodel, they commissioned tapestries, Persian carpets, silverware, linen, china and servants’ uniforms. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Herberts ran into an unstable financial situation after the Queen’s visit.
7. I learned that the term “hoodwinked” comes from falconry. The term refers to the tiny hood the falconer puts on the raptor’s head to cover its eyes so it cannot see what is happening around it. The hood seemed like a very good idea as I had an up-close look at the bird’s razor sharp talons and the relatively thin layer of leather glove that separated them from my arm.
8. I learned that, when you’re traveling in Ireland, the food isn’t all corned beef and cabbage. These days, monkfish with chorizo and salmon with beetroot salsa are Irish, too. Fortunately, my Fitbit swears that we walked enough each day to burn off the rhubarb tartlet with ginger crumble.
9. I learned that a wooden skiff, much like salmon, can go up the shallow streams that link the three lakes of Killarney. As we navigated across gray-blue water bordered by hills covered in pink rhododendron, our boatman entertained us with local stories — most of them true — en route to Lord Brandon’s Cottage for lunch and hot Irish tea.
10. I learned to love the fatalistic, yet undeniably optimistic, outlook of the Irish. As we embarked on each adventure, our guides let us know what was in store for the day, “the good lord willing.” If plans did change (in Ireland you pack sunscreen and rain ponchos), we knew that our guides would take great care of us, and the day would be filled with fun moments, history and culture.