Ireland doused in friendliness

Carol Pratt, 68, divides her time between Eugene, Ore., and the Dingle Peninsula in southwest Ireland. She and her husband have spent most of the last two years in Ireland.

Q. Both places where you live are lush green and have a maritime climate. What physical differences come to mind most quickly?

In Oregon, we live in a city with a metropolitan population of over 250,000; in Ireland, we live in the country – on farmland, among people who raise sheep and cattle. Towns in our part of Ireland are very small; villages are even smaller.

There are differences in the weather, too. Even if it's rainy in Ireland, the sky will be blue part of the day; and with huge clouds. The Pacific coast off Oregon tends to have gray skies; it is overcast much of the time. When it rains in Ireland, there will be a squall that will blow over. You'll get totally soaked in two or three minutes, then it's over, the water drains away. The sky will be blue for a while, then another squall later.

Q. When you arrive, what are the tell-tale we're-not-in-Oregon signs?

What we notice right off, in first week, are the numbers of friendly people. You tend to know people quickly if you try.

There's also the difference in motor patterns. The Irish generally drive smaller cars; huge parking lots are rare. Roads are narrow, and there aren't the huge freeway systems we have in America. Trucks – called lorries – are smaller, too.

Q. The place where you've been living – what's the area like?

We were renting a house in a townland called Kilmurry, which had four houses. We've given up the house and will be renting a different place when we go back.

A townland is a cluster of homes that may have a family connection, or two or three farms that are close to each other for support. A son or daughter may have had the house next-door.

As townlands grew, a pub or store or post office or school might have been added; the townland would become a village and eventually a town. There are thousands of townlands all over Ireland, each with a name that often ties the community to the landscape. Even the fields were named.

“Kilmurry” or “Cill Mhuire” can be Anglicized into “Church of Mary.”

“Dingle” has to do with an early settlement – an early fort that on maps is called “AnDaingain” in Irish. All the signs are now in Irish in the Gaeltacht – the Irish-speaking parts of Ireland. Each Gaeltacht has a certain percentage of people who speak Irish on a daily basis. In those areas, the government has taken down the English signs. This makes it interesting for visitors who don't know any Irish!

Q. Did your place have a thatched roof?

No. Those generally are giving way to fake slate, which is much less expensive and longer lasting. It is so wet in southwest Ireland, where major storms hit. It's windy, too. Thatch doesn't last long enough.

Ireland still has thatchers, but they tend to not use Irish straw. A better quality of reed is imported from Turkey.

Q. It is said that the warmth and moisture of the Gulf Stream enables palm trees to grow in southwest Ireland. Is that true?

There's an imported New Zealand tree called the cabbage tree that does well. I find them ugly, but they tolerate the climate, the weather changes and the wind. You almost never see a palm tree toppled.

You don't see many trees in Dingle. The old Irish – the Celts – cut down trees for smelting iron. From the 12th century, the English overlords cut trees for boats. In the 17th or 18th century, more were cut down for the boat-building industry and to create more open spaces for raising sheep.

They say Ireland used to be covered with great oak forests; there are virtually none left. They're trying to replant, but it's difficult because of centuries of tree-cutting and cultural acceptance of open fields.

There are trees of a sort, but not like what we're used to in Oregon. A big tree in Ireland is 30 or 40 feet.

Q. How far from the sea was your most recent house in Dingle?

If you follow the lanes down to the shoreline, probably a half-mile at most. We could look down on the water, of Kilmurry Bay. The ruins of one of the old castles were directly below our house on the shore.

Q. What castle?

Minard Castle, a fortified castle. It was ruined in the 1640s when Cromwell's forces took it down.

Q. Holidays in Ireland. What sticks out in your mind?

Christmas is becoming more Americanized – the frenzy of spending and materialism. But up until four or five years ago, it was still a very holy time. It still has this centering on the Nativity and the 12 days of Christmas. Christmas isn't over until Epiphany, in January, as is true in much of Catholic Europe.

A big deal there is St. Patrick's Day – their national holiday and a church day. After the parades and church celebration there's a big secular holiday.

Easter is still very holy, and the week following that is a work holiday: Many people have several days off, and the kids are out of school for two weeks. They have the usual Easter candy and all that.

One we don't celebrate in America is Bealtaine – pronounced “be-ELT-a nah – the Irish word for “May”. May 1 is the first day of Irish summer: Their seasons start at a different time. There are festivals that week all over the country. Their arts fest in Dingle is particularly rich. It lasts four to seven days and has music, plays, book launches, exhibits, studio tours and all kinds of things. Most events are free.