You know you’ve found a popular tourist attraction when you see a statue with a shiny spot. From Ireland‘s Blarney Stone to Istanbul‘s “weeping” column in Hagia Sophia, visitors love any place that has brought luck to others. Today’s Photo of the Day, by Flickr user Kumukulanui, is from Paris‘ Montmartre, and of Jean Marais’ sculpture “The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls.” Based on a short story, it’s believed that if you touch his left hand, you might be able to pass through some walls yourself, or at least take some zany pictures giving him a high five.
Ireland’s president has been a poet, a factory worker, a statesman and a traveler. At 71, he’s still very much the crusading liberal interested in social justice issues in Latin America, the Middle East and around the world. He grew up poor in Limerick and followed a meandering career path that eventually led him to politics.
These days, he’s an Ambassador and champion of Ireland who wants Americans to visit the Old Country. I’ve been interested in all things Irish since studying abroad in Galway in 1993 and had a chance to speak with him earlier this year about why he digs the Midwest, how his liver survived St. Patrick’s Day in Bloomington, and why the demise of the Celtic Tiger economy in Ireland is a good thing for Americans who want to visit Ireland this year.
You studied at Indiana University in the ’60s and later on you taught at Southern Illinois University. Tell us about your experiences in the Midwest?
I flew into New York, stayed in a youth hostel in Times Square and then took a Greyhound bus all the way out to Bloomington. Everything was closed when I arrived, but the people were very warm, very generous. Bloomington was beautiful, especially in the autumn because of all the trees.How did you end up studying sociology in a graduate program in Indiana?
An Irish professor had toured in the U.S. and was then trying to recruit Irish students to study there. I was accepted at Berkeley, but Berkeley had allocated all of its scholarship money, while Indiana had not, so because I could get a fellowship there, that’s why I went to Indiana. I went in late summer, 1966 and was attached to an empirical based program called the Indianapolis Area Project. I was there for a year and a half. It was a training program for young social researchers. I was looking at attitudes toward religiosity amongst different social groups.
I had good results in school but because of my family’s (financial) circumstances, my brother and I worked in a factory, so I did that. And then I was a clerk and was writing and then I borrowed some money and went to work in England for a time.
You studied in the U.S. at a time when there were a lot of protests against the Vietnam War. Did you take part?
It was an interesting time to be in the U.S. I would have been very strongly critical of the draft, but your permission to study in the U.S. was dependent on staying out of trouble.
You had to be careful. If I was correcting exams in those days, if you gave someone below a C, it changed their draft status. So I would call in students and say, ‘Look, do you want to have another go at this paper?’ It was an unorthodox approach to teaching to say the least.
Did you envision back then that you’d go into politics?
I wasn’t only interested in sociology. Politics might have been at the back of my mind, but matters literary interested me most at that time. I read Allen Ginsberg. I wasn’t used to having to wake up early for 8.30 a.m. classes. It was a huge cultural experience for me, but one that I very much enjoyed.
What did you enjoy about the Midwest?
I played handball; I was brought to basketball games. I was invited into everyone’s homes; there was hardly a day when someone wasn’t inviting me somewhere.
If you were a single Irish man in Bloomington around St. Patrick’s Day you were massively at risk. It was very demanding, but my liver survived it all. I enjoyed the Midwest; I had the warmest feelings about it.
Were you drinking Guinness in those days?
Guinness? Oh no, you’d be very foolish to order a heavy drink like that. I liked to go to Nick’s English Hut. I think it’s still there.
Have you been back for a visit to Bloomington?
I went back as Minister in 1996 but school wasn’t in session. I’d very much like to go back again, but these days I have to travel with an enormous apparatus so it isn’t easy to plan.
In your inaugural speech last year, you said that Ireland needed to re-engage with the Irish diaspora around the world, and you’ve been trying to champion Ireland as a tourism destination. Why should Americans visit Ireland now?
They would find Ireland a great value right now. In my memory, I’ve never seen such values on hotels and guesthouses and so forth as there is right now. It’s also great value because part of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years has been blown away.
And those with Irish roots can go back to learn more about their ancestry.
By now the original census materials from the 19th and 20th centuries have been put up online and digitized. So it’ll be possible for people to trace where their ancestors came from – even on a brief holiday.
There’s incredible warmth towards people who come from the United States to experience Ireland. And it’s a beautiful country to visit and the people have time to stop and talk to you. With the Celtic Tiger, there was a certain emphasis on getting things done, but now we’ve gone back to the best of ourselves and I very much welcome that.
The Asgard was built in 1905 for Erskine and Molly Childers, leading Irish nationalists. In 1914, they used the vessel to run guns to the Irish Volunteers in Howth. The smugglers brought in 900 German Mausers and a stock of ammunition, some of which later saw use in the famous standoff at the Dublin General Post Office during the Easter Uprising.
Authorities learned of the shipment, but that helped turn it into a propaganda coup. The Asgard had slipped through a British fleet to make it to shore and Irish nationalists managed to spirit the guns away. The soldiers stationed nearby only managed to grab three guns, and had to return them because they had seized them illegally!
Tragically, when marching back to their barracks, the soldiers met an unarmed crowd that jeered them. One of the soldiers fired, and this led to more shots. Four civilians were killed, including one by bayonet wounds. The Asgard’s victory and bloody aftermath added more fuel to the fire of Irish nationalism.
Erskine Childers was a keen sailor all his life and wrote the classic spy novel “Riddle of the Sands,” in which two yachtsmen discover a sinister German plot in the Baltic Sea. Well worth reading!
Have you ever touched down on your hard earned vacation only to find you’ve landed in a tourist trap? GQ decided to help ensure none of their readers stands in a long line again. As part of their August issue, the magazine has put together a list of cities where travelers are guaranteed to escape the crowds. It begins:
Europe’s mega-cities have their justly enshrined Famous Things You Must See and Do-but it’s easy to grow weary of the obligation (and the traffic, and those damn sightseeing buses). This is when you turn to the second cities of Europe, those middle siblings and funky cousins of the overcrowded capitals that are both less familiar and more knowable, offering a release from the pressure of hitting all the right places.
The article goes on to list atypical places to go and things to see in Germany, England, Spain, Italy, France, Sweden, Ireland and more. Many of the places GQ suggests-including Porto, San Sebastian, Seville, Corsica and Valencia-have already been chronicled by Gadling writers (are you surprised?).
When you travel, do you prefer checking landmarks off your bucket list or disappearing into small towns? If your answer is the latter, is there a second city in Europe you’ve discovered? Help your fellow traveler out by spreading the word in the comments below.
Image of Padova, Italy by Italy Travel Experience, flickr.
The stone, which stands upon the Hill of Tara in County Meath, was smashed with a hammer on all four sides. Chips broke off from it but were not found, suggesting that the culprits took them.
The stone is the traditional coronation site for the ancient High Kings of Ireland, semi-mythical rulers about whom little is known for certain. The last king was supposed to have been crowned there around the year 500 A.D. The stone was said to be magical and when the rightful king touched it, the stone would roar in approval.
The stone is a menhir, or lone standing stone, dating back to the Neolithic some 5,500 years ago. Many megalithic monuments such as menhirs and stone circles were seen as magical by later cultures.
This is the latest of several acts of vandalism against ancient sites. Unrest in Syria has led to destruction and looting of archaeological sites. In Israel, a 1,600-year-old synagogue mosaic was wrecked by ultra-orthodox Jews. Then there are the oil pipelines passing through Babylon in Iraq.
At this rate of ignorance and greed, there won’t be any ancient sites left for our grandkids to admire.
[Photo courtesy Andrew Dietz]