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Irish Eyes Really Do Smile

October 22, 2007
By HEATHER ZIEGLER Assistant City Editor

Before Rick Armstrong and his sister Kelly Baker stepped foot in the emerald green fields of Ireland for a vacation, they did their research.

It was the first such trip to Ireland for the siblings and they wanted to make it worth every penny. They scoured the Internet and read up on the country before setting foot on the lush, green land.

Armstrong said he wanted to know more about the country, its government and people before going on the trip. Armstrong is from Wheeling, and his sister lives in St. Clairsville. Armstrong said he believes they did enough homework to enjoy the trip without looking too much like tourists.

“We had two days in Dublin and went around on the bus. The tour guide was the driver and he talked the whole time. You learn a lot riding on the bus.”

In Dublin, the group went on a tour of the Guinness Storehouse and later to a Jameson whiskey distillery that Armstrong said was more like a museum than a distillery.

“But at the end of the tour we had an unbelievable dinner and enjoyed traditional Irish entertainment. They even sang ‘County Roads.’ They gave us three different Jameson whiskey drinks including an Irish coffee. I slept pretty good that night.”

Armstrong’s tour group stayed at a contemporary hotel the first night and soon learned the real meaning of “contemporary.”

He said a lot of hotels in Ireland do not have air conditioning, and the temperature climbed into the high 70s during their trip this summer. “It doesn’t usually get above 75 there; it’s usually a cool climate. We did ask for fans because we were used to air conditioning,” Armstrong noted.

 While the temperatures remain cool most of the time, Ireland’s winters rarely see snow even though the mercury can dip near freezing. Most of the houses are made of masonry instead of wood because the large amount of rain Ireland receives would warp the wood.

“They get a lot of rain. That’s why it’s so green,” Armstrong added.

On the second day in Dublin, the group toured Trinity University and viewed The Book of Kells. It is described as an ornately illustrated manuscript produced by Celtic monks around 800 A.D. It is one of the most lavishly illustrated works to survive from the Middle Ages.

 “After that, we were on our own for the rest of the day. Of course we checked out the pubs. Most of them are quaint, narrow and cozy.”

With Ireland’s pubs often thought of as legendary drinking establishments, Armstrong said he was surprised to learn that Budweiser was the “big drink” in most of the places he visited. Some places did have 10 or more beers on tap but they were pricey by American standards — four to five Euros or about $7.50 in U.S. currency.

“We did the right thing by exchanging most of our cash for Euros before we left the Pittsburgh Airport,” Armstrong said. Armstrong said he believes he and his sister selected the right tour package because it included breakfast and dinners most every day and many of the hotels put on huge buffets or five-course meals with very generous portions.

The tourists were on their own for lunch and tested out the traditional fish and chips with cole slaw. Each table had a bottle of vinegar as most Irishmen prefer that with their fish and chips.

“They gave us huge pieces of fish. We learned that Irish people are not big seafood eaters and the majority of the fish is exported. The clam chowder was excellent. It had clamshells with the clams still in it.”

On the third day of the whirlwind tour, Armstrong said they visited the Blarney Castle for the traditional kissing of the Blarney Stone which is supposed to give the person “the gift of eloquence.”

 This was not an easy task, he admitted.

“The Blarney Stone is at the top of the castle, up a narrow staircase. You had to hold onto a rope because there was no handrail. Up on the top, the castle is in ruins, and you have to be careful where you walk. They lay you on your back and you pull yourself up against the wall and kiss the stone. That’s it.”

Armstrong said the ground surrounding the castle is beautiful, green rolling meadows.

“Ireland is both modern, but mostly old. In Dublin and Galway, there is a huge economic boom going on there.”

Armstrong said while tourism is Ireland’s No. 1 business, the country also is one of the largest exporters of software in the world.

Modern buildings are going up, but they are nothing like the skyscrapers in America. Just outside the city proper are plenty of mountains, hills, goats, sheep and horses.

“It’s the best of both worlds — old and new,” he added.

Ireland continues to attract many people from other European nations, especially Poland. Locals said the immigrants work for a few months in Ireland, earning enough money to then live the rest of the year in Poland.

“They make such better wages in Ireland. That has attracted a lot of young 20-somethings to Dublin, sending real estate prices through the roof,” Armstrong said.

 The rest of the trip included extended drives along the inlets and through the countryside. The picturesque surroundings  spurs the tourists into taking a tremendous number of pictures.

“My advice to anyone planning a trip like this is definitely see a travel agent. Never try to do it on your own. And do a little study of history before you go. It helps you appreciate what you see and how their government works.”

Armstrong said the pre-planning paid off with CIE tours of Ireland booked through Beverly McVay-Musilli at Uniglobe travel in Wheeling.

McVay-Musilli said she advises anyone wanting to visit Ireland to do so the first time with a group tour. “You will see so much more on a motorcoach. Driving in Ireland is really tough for Americans because you drive on the opposite side of some very narrow roads. Sometimes we have to pull the mirrors in on the motorcoaches just to pass one another on the road,” she noted.

Ireland is McVay-Musilli’s specialty as she has traveled there often, and each time finds another reason to fall in love with the country.

“I cannot begin to tell you how beautiful Ireland is. It’s a city of contrasts between the old and modern. And you don’t have to stay at five-star hotels. We often book the tours with modest, family-operated Irish hotels and bed and breakfasts because you get a little better feel for the culture.”

Armstrong and Baker quickly learned that McVay-Musilli’s advice held true during their June trip.

“We thought about going on the trip, renting a car over there and touring around ourselves. Then we learned by talking with Beverly at Uniglobe that gasoline in Ireland ranges around $7 a gallon and the cars are tiny Volkswagens, Opals, Fiats, BMWs and Mercedes,” Armstrong said.

“There are some American cars — Chrysler, Ford and GMC — but going on the tour buses as part of the group was much more affordable.”

Armstrong, an advertising representative for The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, also noted that driving in Ireland could present some challenges for Americans because you sit on the right side and shift the manual transmissions with your left hand. If that’s not enough, the roads are very narrow and winding.

“Beverly said the first time you visit Ireland, you should stick to the guided tours on the buses. You really do see a lot from the bus.”

With all the unrest in the world, Armstrong said he had no fears traveling in Ireland. In fact, he said most of the native Irish folks love Americans.

McVay-Musilli said the Ireland tours are quite popular with Ohio Valley residents. “Ireland’s history is so enmeshed with ours. So many people here in the area are of Irish descent. When they go to Ireland they enjoy the music that is interwoven with our mountain heritage. Even moonshine comes from Ireland,” she quipped.

Rolling through the postcard-perfect land, visitors to Ireland will see clean, modern buildings in the cities. In the countryside, you may get a look at the ruins of homes long ago abandoned during the famines that struck devastating blows to the population. “You might see these stone walls or a fireplace in a field where a home once stood. Ireland is an ancient country and you get a sense of that when you see some of these places. They say those walls are left standing as a monument to the people who lived there and had to leave because of the famines. Over here, we would just tear them down and be done with it.”

McVay-Musilli said, depending on the extent and design of a tour, a 10-day trip to Ireland next summer would range on average from $2,500 to $3,200 per person, which includes many meals and extras.

Armstrong said he was so pleased with the tour and was glad he listened to his tour planner.

 “It is an incredibly beautiful country; the people are wonderful. It’s definitely a trip anyone would enjoy.”


Article Photos

Photos by Rick Armstrong - The ruins of a small fortress sit on the Cliffs of Moher.

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