In this account, Italian black hole physicist and photographer Matteo Broccoli shares his words and images during a trip around Ireland taken with his girlfriend in the summer of 2019.
Imagine you are on holiday in a country you have never been to before. Beautiful things are said about that country: the people are amazing, the landscapes are breath-taking, the beers are the best and you will surely have good times. You have two weeks and you want to see and experience everything, so much that you decide to travel around with public transport to stay with the locals and thus you plan every detail not to get lost in the middle of nowhere. But then, the time comes when you are in the middle of nowhere. Precisely, in a bus station on an early Sunday afternoon in the middle of nowhere. And there is no sign of the bus that you were supposed to take. Of course, you are still quite far from your final destination of the day and the bus was the last one scheduled. You could get quite upset, couldn’t you?
But then, you think that so far it has worked out quite well. After all, it’s Ireland. Everything is different from what you are used to and from what you expected. You have already learned that there is no need to worry. In fact, the bus eventually comes. The driver seems to know everyone, since he greets all the people walking down the street. Maybe he really knows everyone, because he can’t really stop talking with the passengers close to him. A man gets on with some berries taken from his garden’s bushes for the driver and his wife, and another one gets off while talking with someone on the phone, but not before handing the phone to the driver because the speaker wanted to say hi to him. And while you are witnessing these scenes, you are surrounded by the greenest green hills you have ever seen, dotted by an endless number of cows and sheep. Then, you realize that, yes, in Ireland landscapes are really breath-taking, just as much as the people are amazing. The only thing that you miss is a good beer, but you just have to wait for your destination. Indeed, there was not really any need to worry after all.
This happened to my girlfriend and I this summer. We decided to spend two weeks in Ireland, and we ended up with a full tour of the island’s coast, covering more than 1500km (950miles) starting and ending in Dublin. We travelled around with public transport, through Kilkenny, Killarney, Portmagee and the Skelligs, Doolin, Galway, Donegal and Bushmills. We were hosted by Irish people, we met them along the way and in the pubs. And they always shared their stories with us.
She is Brazilian, while Kevin is from Dublin, and they encompass beautifully a common theme we were to find on our tour: foreigners feel at home in Ireland.
Our first hosts in Dublin were Larissa and Kevin. She is Brazilian, while Kevin is from Dublin, and they encompass beautifully a common theme we were to find on our tour: foreigners feel at home in Ireland. When he was a teenager, Kevin could not really stand Dublin and moved to Australia. But then he missed the people and the land, and when he came back he felt he could understand Ireland better.
He is not the only one who missed his homeland, and perhaps it is not a coincidence. In Ireland people are really friendly and chilled, and they say that when they travel abroad they miss this aspect of life.
It happened for instance to Mike, a banjo player we met in Kilkenny. He has lived abroad too, but at some point he wanted to be back. He realized that there was more in Ireland than he thought he knew, and started travelling around the island. Oddly enough, this only made him feel like a stranger in his home country, the reason being that there is quite a difference between the east and the west of Ireland.
At school, everyone studies the Irish language, but in the east nobody really uses it in daily life. Instead, in the West there are still small villages were everyone speaks but Irish, so that Mike said he felt like a stranger there. As if he were not really Irish. And he pointed out that you can tell the difference even from the landscapes, because the West is more Irish while the East is more English. Of course, the fact that in the West it rains almost twice as much as in the East might be a reason why the English preferred to stay in the East. But anyway the result is that “at Newgrange you can see an ancient Irish tomb and perfect English-style houses close by”.
The day of the interview there was a terrible blizzard, but since he lived near by he decided to dress up and go there anyway. He was the only candidate to show up. When he said to the boss that he was there for the interview, the boss replied: “What interview? If you made it through this blizzard, you can do the job!”
Speaking of bad weather, the story I enjoyed the most was that of Jim, who once lived near a distillery and applied for a job there. The day of the interview there was a terrible blizzard, but since he lived near by he decided to dress up and go there anyway. He was the only candidate to show up. When he said to the boss that he was there for the interview, the boss replied: “What interview? If you made it through this blizzard, you can do the job!”
We have been lucky enough with the weather. Only once, in Portmagee, there was quite a lot of wind. When we mentioned it to Mary, our host there, her expression said it all:
“Darling, you really have no idea what the wind is”.
Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine the harsh conditions they have in winter. The few trees that grow there are swept by the wind and it is not uncommon that people move somewhere else during the winter only to return in summer. The Skellig Islands are probably some of the most iconic symbols of the dramatic conditions there. Visiting them during the summer season (as no one dares to take travellers there otherwise) you are simply captured by the amusing wildlife they host – dolphins swim with you during the boat journey to the island and gannets and puffins are all around, to name but a few – but the sea and the harsh weather have ruined the lives of the lighthouse keepers and their families who lived there.
“There is always tomorrow. You don’t have to worry, if you can’t do it today you can do it tomorrow”
Despite the difficulties (or maybe due to them?) it’s really amazing how positive the locals are. On our way to county Clare, we took the Ring of Kerry line and we met Tim and Helen. They worked in Italy previously and now are back in Cork. When they want to enjoy the landscapes, they take the Ring of Kerry line. They like it here, Helen in particular says that here “there is always tomorrow. You don’t have to worry, if you can’t do it today you can do it tomorrow”.
This philosophy is so widespread that it infects foreigners as well. Like Stephen, who came from the US to Donegal looking for some distant relatives. We were once sitting next to each other at a pub’s counter and he simply started talking with us. “You know, in the US I would not do it, I would not talk to a stranger on the street or in a pub. But here is different, everyone does it, and it’s so nice! So that I think I’m starting to be friendlier myself!”
He was afraid that his trip would have been pointless, but when he got to know the place he began to think differently. “You know what? Tomorrow is Sunday. I will go to the service and ask around. I will probably find out something”. There is always tomorrow.
“You should always smile, even if you have troubles. There is no point in making people feel sorry for you”
Back in Dublin, we wanted to bid farewell to John and David, whom we had met at the very beginning of our trip in a pub in the Liberties area of the city. We had shared our trip itinerary with them at that time and now we wanted to share all of the beautiful experiences we had had.
Life has not always been too kind to them. John had lost one of his sons, who was a boxer. At the funeral he met his son’s friends from all over the world – Canada, Australia, Ukraine, Russia and so on. All big men, boxers. And John tenderly remembers the biggest of them all, crying like a child in memory of his son. David has lived in Germany in the past and he is almost stone-deaf due to the Second World War bombings there.
The first time we met him he was particularly concerned that we stayed away from the most touristic parts of Dublin, where we could not appreciate anything else but the foreign tourists who think that Dublin is all about getting drunk in a pub. “But you know it already. Indeed you are not foreigners, you are Europeans”.
John and David were the most cheerful people we met in our trip. It was an immense pleasure to listen to their stories and to see how happy they were to share them and to hear ours. As John said, “You should always smile, even if you have troubles. There is no point in making people feel sorry for you”.
Matteo Broccoli is a photographer and physicist originally from near Bologna, Italy. He is currently undertaking his doctoral studies on the topic of Quantum Gravity and Unified Theories at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (The Albert Einstein Institute) in Potsdam, Germany.