Lost in ireland

The New York Times
October 22, 2010
Lost in Ireland

THE place was called Cronin’s Yard, and it was somewhere around here – it had to be. Off to my right, past the barbed-wire fences that bordered intense green pastures, rose the first russet foothills of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, the highest mountain peaks in Ireland, swathed in a fog punctured in rare spots by the pale morning sun. In there – somewhere – was the Yard, supposedly the best starting point for hikers in the Reeks, and now, after four days of driving southwest from Dublin to County Kerry without a map, GPS or, really, any sense of Irish geography, I was so close. All I had to do was find it.

I had plenty of time to do so. Although I’d just wasted close to an hour on a needless, if gorgeous, detour down a long, swerving single-lane road to Carragh Lake – thanks for the directions, supermarket clerks – it was not yet even 10 o’clock. And as I drove the rented Fiat back on the tight rural routes, I relaxed enough to enjoy the scenery and the delightfully odd village names (Oulagh, Ownagarry, Kilgobnet) without thinking that I might, you know, somehow get lost.

Except that that was why I was searching for the Reeks – to get lost, sort of. In Dublin a few days before, a bookseller had told me a legend: During World War II, a couple of American soldiers had gone missing in the Reeks when fog engulfed them and they were never heard from again… As I later learned, his story was inaccurate (actually, a Portugal-bound military plane went off course and hit the Reeks), but still, it captured my imagination. I saw myself wandering the same foggy hills, surrounded by the ghosts of those before me – but outfitted, of course, with warm clothes, food, water, headlamp and sleeping bag. I had to go. After all, this really was why I’d come to Ireland in the first place: to lose myself, over the

course of a week, in a country I knew nothing about.

Or rather, to lose myself in a country so familiar to me (and, I’d argue, to anyone who grew up in the United States) that its reputation had eclipsed its reality. From St. Patrick’s Day parades to the peace process, from Guinness fetishism to the potato famine, from “Dubliners” to “The Commitments” to “Riverdance,” Irish history and culture have been such a steady backdrop that I never felt the need to think about Ireland as an actual place. (Or places. “Ireland” is, of course, both Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and the independent Republic of Ireland.) Instead, Ireland seemed like a wholly imaginary source of fantastic good times, tinged with poignant historical misery and populated by characters so vibrant and strange that within minutes of meeting them (and I was 100 percent sure I’d meet them) I’d get sucked into their Wildean dramas.

At first, as I pulled out of the Enterprise parking lot in Dublin, and onto what felt to me like the wrong side of the road, my heart raced with every careful shifting of gears, and I fretted about where I was in my lane. Was I drifting? Or overcompensating? Often, my right hand would flutter in midair before I remembered the gearshift was on the other side. And when, just half an hour outside Dublin, I found myself hurtling down one-and-a-half-lane roads, tension gripped my upper body as I negotiated my way around oncoming cars.

The rewards for such anxiety (and the subsequent neck aches) were immediate and unending.

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Lost in ireland