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Postcards from Ireland: Golf, soccer and the good humor of the good people

Posted by: Michael Rand under Golf, Soccer Updated: June 12, 2012 - 11:54 AM

Disclaimer: It's vacation, and the royal "we" is also on vacation. Also, sorry for the length. This is what happens when I don't post for 10 days.

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I almost made the first eagle of my modest golf existence. It was the Par-5 fourth hole at the Westport Golf Club in Westport, Ireland, and there is a metaphor somewhere in here.

The hole was playing at about 480 yards – easy for a robust course that plays nearly 6,500 yards from the forward tees. For once, I didn’t spray my drive to the right. It was center-cut, leaving about 220 to the hole. A three-wood from there needed to be true and split a load of bunkers on either side guarding the hole. Improbably, it did – leaving me about a foot from the front of the green and about 25 feet from the hole.
 
From there, I putted from off the green with the stick in – a decision that would prove to be regrettable. The put was true, near center, with speed but not too much speed. It did not come crashing into the stick. It was firm, but had it not hit the best guess is there was only another 4-5 feet of roll left in it. But it did hit the stick – which would prove to be tilting left on further examination – and kicked out to about a foot away. No risk (pulling the pin), no reward. And no eagle.
 
But maybe it fits the narrative better this way.
 
Traveling in Ireland over the past week-plus has been enjoyable, but it has also been rewarding in a way that vacations (or holidays, as is the custom here) seldom are but should be. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a place in which I gained, at least from my warped perspective, a better sense of the people and the culture around me. This is owed to the way Ireland wears its heart on its sleeve, the expression of which comes pouring out of rarely shy mouths and even less-shy taps.
 
I had never even really considered Ireland as a must-do travel destination, but when the RandBall Better Half had an opportunity to come here for a graduate school program, we decided to make a vacation out of it. I mention that only to note this: I have no discernible Irish blood that I know of. This was not some sort of pilgrimage to a home land. It was a practical decision since the RBBH was coming here anyway, but it was also a bit of a whim – which, as it turns out, is perfect.
 
It is a country where you are better off not having a plan. It is a country designed not for things to go in specific places but for things to go wherever they fit – of streets made with shoehorns, of congestion and vastness, of tourists left to their own devices, but usually with smiles around the corner.
 
We arrived in Dublin last Tuesday, 7 a.m., exhausted from what amounts to the loss of a night with the flight and time zone change. We had no idea what to do that day. All we knew is that it would be hours until we could check into our hotel. Dublin was grey, wet and dead. A fine mist – like a garden hose with a puncture – lingered constantly, except when it rained harder. We dropped off our bags and walked the city like zombies, huddled under a single umbrella, until it was mercifully time to check in. This is how Ireland starts you: On the lowest of lows, wondering if every day will be more grim than the next.
 
As it turns out, every day gets better. In the spirit of not turning this into a 4,000 word post/travelogue, we will only say that Kinsale (south of Cork on the coast) is exquisite and beautiful, while Dublin improves immeasurably with a little sun, a little sleep and a little bit of Guinness at night. I diverted from the RBBH for a couple days in Westport – deciding to go there and making all the accommodations about two days beforehand – while her program started. There, I found more of the same, and then some.
 
The people are first-rate, even as they wrestle with a numbing housing/economic crisis. One taxi driver talked of his home, which was once valued at 500,000 Euros and is now for sale at 170,000. Every coin that changes hands feels like a big deal, a personal favor. When they aren’t talking about the weather, Irish people talk of money all the time – how much this or that costs, where the good values are, etc. One memorable older woman was telling our bus driver about a flight she took. To save money, she bought a bottle of wine and brought it on board with her to drink. The flight attendant scolded her and told her it was against the rules and that she was never to do it again. “The nerve!,” the woman said. “I should have given her a smack – that cheeky little monkey.”
 
That really happened. So did our bed and breakfast proprietor in Kinsale running outside to make sure our bus wouldn’t leave without us. So did my bed and breakfast proprietor in Westport insisting that I take his clubs to play with instead of getting rentals, as well as giving me two unsolicited rides into town. So did meeting five students from Cork at the top of Croagh Patrick, a significant mountain near Westport as well as a strenuous 2,500-foot climb [photo: view from as close to the top as the clouds broke]. I skidded back down on the descent with the group, hearing all about Irish politics and telling them about hot dish and such things before grabbing a pint after.
 
This is a sports blog, though, as some of you mention from time to time. I wanted to do two things in particular while I was traveling solo: play a round of golf and see a soccer match. The former came to fruition, as noted. The latter, sadly, fell prey to a greater good. Because Ireland qualified for the Euro Championships, happening now in Poland and Ukraine, all the local clubs were on break. But it meant I was here for Ireland’s first match against Croatia – a bigger deal than any club match could be.
 
Ireland was playing in its first major international soccer competition in 10 years. In this proud country, even qualifying meant so much. Our initial cab driver from the Dublin airport, a woman about 50ish, started immediately talking about the Croatia match, which at that point was still five days away. She talked of past Ireland glories, of what the qualification meant, and this would be a common theme. Newspapers devoted 6-8 pages daily to the buildup, with the key figure being Ireland’s coach –  Giovanni Trapattoni, the 73-year-old former Italian national team coach.
 
Ireland under “Trap” is all about defense -- keeping the sheet clean and taking its chances with counterattacks or earning scoreless draws. Nobody can argue with the merits, as it earned the country its berth. But the writers and fans alike, even as the Croatia match drew near, were itching for a less conservative strategy now that the big matches against better opponents were here.
 
Still, the days before were filled with a mix of cautious optimism, hopeful predictions and, perhaps, the overvaluing of the local lads. It is what the underdogs do, and it reminded us so much of how Vikings fans react to big games that it left us shaking our heads. Predictably, then Ireland was routed 3-1 Sunday as we watched on from a packed pub. Some inauspicious refereeing, called out by team members and fans alike, only added to the local parallel – as did the complete 180 folks have done with that outcome in the rearview mirror. There are two group games left (admittedly very difficult tasks vs. Spain and Italy), and victories in both would send Ireland through.
 
Cautious optimism, though, has been replaced by the term “snowball’s chance,” which we heard more than once on our way out of Westport. The team’s captain is being savaged in the press, and players who were praised just days ago are suddenly rubbish.
 
At the very least, everyone would probably be satisfied if ol’ Trap let the boys loose for 90 minutes against Spain on Thursday. Go down fighting or maybe, just maybe … No risk, no reward.
 
As I write this from the train back to Dublin, it’s just started to rain rather significantly. The man across from me just looked out the window, rolled his eyes and shrugged. You don’t go to Ireland for the weather, as about a thousand people have told me here, though they are always watching the skies like a hawk, hoping the good will stay or the bad will pass.
 
I’ve already forgotten countless things that made me smile, laugh or shake my head – but I will leave you with a fresh memory from Tuesday, garnered before heading to the train station. The proprietor at Lavelle’s (not to be confused with E-III) and another customer there rank among the more memorable characters in a memorable country.
 
My introduction to the proprietor was as he worked away with bright markers to make a sign advertising that night’s two Euro matches, to be shown at the pub in HD. He asked what colors the participating team wore, so he could match them to the markers. When nobody really knew, he improvised. “Will blue do for Poland?” he wondered. It was generally agreed that blue would do for Poland.
 
As for the customer, the introduction was him walking in at 11:50 a.m. The standard, I gather, is that drinking generally doesn’t start until noon. He sat down, looked at his watch and said, “How about a pint of the black stuff. What’s 10 minutes between friends?”
 
Eventually, the topic turned to my travels and what I had been doing while in Westport. I mentioned the round of golf. The proprietor roared with approval, saying he would play seven days a week if he could, while the customer scoffed and invoked the Mark Twain expression about a good walk wasted.
 
“I tell you what I would do if I was on the course,” the customer said.
 
“Yeah, I know what you would do,” the proprietor sighed, knowing the customer was going to say it anyway.
 
“I would drop me trousers and leave you a special [redacted] present,” he said. “And I’d make sure I had 40 pints of Guinness the night before.”
 
This was not a bar on any special map, nor had it come recommended. It just became part of the random, roundabout way of Ireland. I’ll reiterate that the journey is the reward, something I tried to remember halfway up that mountain, but mostly, I just wanted to write a little of this down before all of it became too blurry.

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