Irish Motorcycle Diaries Part 1: Arrival and Galway

By Charles Karel Bouley

Ireland at St. Patrick’s Day and riding motorcycles are two things that interest me greatly as I have done, or do, both. So when Tourism Ireland (www.discoverireland.com) offered to bring my radio show to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day for our fifth time and then threw in a cross country motorcycle tour the only answer was yes, economy (mine included) be damned.

Ireland throws quite an annual party for St. Patrick’s Day, and it stands on its own and is one of the biggest tourist events for the country generating much needed revenues at this time of global meltdown (quite literally, news from Japan is dominating the trip so far, even in the Irish high country).

Because of production requirements we decided that Sunday the 13th to Sunday the 20th would be the best time to come and plans were made and interviews set up.

The first leg of the trip, of course, is air travel. We were booked on US Air, an airline foreign to me as I truly have never traveled on it. And while it is easy these days to find a topic about air travel for a radio show, if one hasn’t been through the wonders of the airport and air travel recently, it can be a rude awakening.

For instance, in today’s world, buying a ticket is not necessarily buying a seat on the plane. Airlines have become corporations that are basically in to reduced service at all levels, fees and a litany of things they won’t or can’t do. Two days prior to departure I wanted to call and get seat assignments. Our tickets were not the lowest bargain basement coach, as they were booked relatively last minute: no, they were full price seats. I rang up the representative at US Air thinking it would just take a moment to pick three seat; silly me.

The policy as explained to me was basic: if I wanted to get our seat assignments prior to airport we had to pay $30 each per ticket, or $90 because these would then be “preferred seats;” I guess because I preferred to have them assigned early. I was told we could wait to the airport and the same seats would be available for free, if they were available. US Airways isn’t the only one doing this now. Jet Blue once you are ticketed asks you to pick your seat. It then charges you more money if you want to sit in certain rows because of their leg room; the ticket again doesn’t give you a seat, it gives you a space.

So airlines start the relationship by clearly violating your Fourth Amendment right under the Constitution to not be unreasonably searched because they can’t do the job of getting passengers from point A to point B safely without violating our privacy and then they continue the relationship by charging for every little thing they can.

I decided to wait to check in at the airport. At US Airways at LAX that means you go to an automated kiosk with an employee assigned to two machines. The employee then tells you what to push and enter on the machine, how to run the passport through and confirm flights and bags. They stand next to you the entire time, and check your passport. So why don’t they just stand behind the counter and do the entire process like before? Why must I now type all the info and do all the steps on a touch screen if an employee has to stand by me anyway to verify documents and tell me what to touch?

The plane ride from LAX to Philly was horrendous. Last row, row 33, window seat. No cool air, no reclining and no food or snacks except what you purchase for huge amounts, credit cards only. A full price ticket, but because we didn’t want to pay an extra $90 we get the worst seats on the plane, and we got the airport three hours early. Did I mention the plane had no in flight entertainment at all? No sound system, no TV, no movie, nothing. But it did have WiFi. For a nominal fee of three billion dollars a second (well, not exactly, but you get the point).

On the trip it never ceases to amaze me why we, myself included, allow these corporations to treat us this way and still hand over billions of dollars a year to them. Hell, we even bailed them out before the banks. And thanks to Regan’s deregulation air travel in the U.S. is a mess. Airlines simply have stolen the entire joy from traveling, and they do it by pleading poverty. When a company cannot provide excellent customer service and a product worth the price they should go out of business. Instead, we funnel more money to them and line up for the abuse because we have no alternative form of high speed travel (rail, for instance). They have a monopoly on moving people in short amounts of time and because of that we are forced to take what we get or stay home. And the classism of giving better or more service to people who can pay more used to be bad enough from coach to business class to first class: now making coach people pay more and more for less and less is simply a business formula that cannot, and should not, be sustained.

Philadelphia to Dublin was a much better flight, at least there was oxygen, entertainment options and even some really bad airplane food (but at least it was offered for free). Sleep was the order of the flight because once on the ground in Ireland, there’s never a dull moment.

Dublin airport is modern and newly redeveloped. They were going to build another airport outside of town where there was military land, but opted to expand the existing one. Over the last two years, according to tourism figures from the country, the airport hasn’t seen as many Americans (or others) as tourism has taken a hit with the economic turndown. However, in 2011 there is some improvement and positive growth being seen and while it may not be enough to save some of the companies that went away, it is much needed stimulus for the Irish tourism industry.

We (my niece Heather and friend Brandon) were met by a representative from Celtic Rider in Dublin (www.motorental.ie) who took us over to their shop to get geared up and on BMW motorcycles. Celtic Rider is a small company that provides motorcycles to tourist and locals that want to see Ireland the proper way and without huge gas prices. Gas in Ireland right now is closer to those in the U.S. than ever before, hovering about $11.50 a gallon for unleaded. Most of the four wheeled vehicles here have switched to diesel and it is available at every petrol station.

While at the shop the conversation quickly turned to the economy. Each staff member (three that we met) at Celtic Rider has a horror story, and the word Banker appears to have been added to George Carlin’s original seven and is extraordinarily dirty here. No one has a kind thing to say about the bankers, the way the government has handled the bailout of their financial institutions and their resulting economic troubles. From taxi driver to restaurateur, anger at the Banks and those who profited off of people losing their homes and jobs is palpable.

Brandon and I mounted our BMW bikes while Heather drove the Sante Fe sport utility vehicle with the luggage and it was immediately off the Galway, all the way across the country! Yes, not more than an hour on the ground and already on a cross country motorcycle ride.

And what a ride. The Irish countryside is some of the prettiest in the world. Ireland is currently having it’s coldest winter on record so to many riding just wouldn’t be on the agenda. Brandon trained for weeks, including taking the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s three day safety course before the ride (www.msf-usa.org). That course removes the need to take a driving test at the DMV and is a great way to get acquainted with motorcycling. I recommend it for anyone getting on a bike. As for the weather, AlpineStars (www.alpinestars.com) provided gear for extreme weather and it really works. The Gortex jacket, pants and all weather riding boots and gloves from their moto collection cuts the wind and insulates the rider very efficiently. We rode across at 120 kilometers per hour in 40 degree temperatures and were not subjected to the biting cold.

Galway is a port city on the West side of Ireland. It is more sedate than Dublin, a city of extremes in many ways. While it is a city of great history, it is also a university town, with the pubs and streets teaming with 18-23 year olds along side people who have lived here for generations. There are accommodations here to suit any traveler, from a castle-like setting in City Center (The Merrick) to the extraordinarily trendy G Hotel; our launching pad for Galway activities.

The G is Hollywood glamour in the middle of charming and rustic Galway. Located right on the Bay it is consistently placed in the top five of hotels in Ireland by critics and public alike. Designed by top designer to the stars Philip Treacy the hotel is ultra modern (think Better Midler’s house in “Ruthless People”) and glittery chic in a subdued Irish way. It features themed lounges with movie star art, black-and-white Marilyn Monroe movies shown and the glass walls of a lounge adored with artwork of the star on a car hood on the wall and a bar with Svorsky crystals cracked in a billion pieces under plexiglass. Breakfast is served as part of the stay and the choices include five star faire.

The rooms are large and well appointed, from the heated towel holders and mirror in the bathroom to the vanity for dressing. The TV is interesting not so much because it’s a TV but because what’s on it. In Ireland, in Galway there are 17 channels on our hotel TV and five of the stations are news stations. No Fox here, it’s CNN International, BBC, RTE, SkyNews, local news and even France24. I consumed more REAL news in 30 minutes in the hotel room than Americans can all day; real news, about Japan and other places, in depth reporting, zero spin or opinion and no pompous politicians lying to the Irish faces.

The first live radio show from the G Hotel went off without a hitch, thanks to two things: Technology and sponsors. Radio stations, print outlets, can’t afford to send shows or reporters a lot of places these days. So I approached the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco, Vitucci and Associates financial planners in the Bay Area and Limboland.net, a search engine optimization company run by a friend of mine. They each came to the table so we could afford the trip, because in today’s world it’s smaller business and people helping people, not larger corporations.

As for technology, the fact that I can plug a small box called a Comrex Access in to an Ethernet cable (standard internet), plug a microphone in to it, connect to my network, GCN in Minnesota over the internet (free), beam that to a satellite and have it picked up by six radio stations instantly is beyond remarkable. As one listener said “It’s the coolest thing that in San Francisco my headphones are connected directly to Galway, Ireland, through you!”

Day 2

Day 2 in Galway began on the bikes. Tourism Ireland arranged interviews for me in advance on a world class moto ride through some of the prettiest high country in the world; winding roads, meandering fields of green, lakes, snow dusted mountains, goats, horses and cows roaming about and the nicest people on the planet.

In fact, the first stop was the Dan O’Hara Cottage at the Connemara Culture Center, about an hour outside of Galway. On the way we stopped at a very rural pub and petrol station, in fact, it was just that, two gas pumps, a general store, a craft shop and a pub. The pub was the Paddy Feist. We entered to tape a radio segment. The first thing noticeable was the TV, it was tuned to news on Japan. Here, in this rural part of this island in the North Atlantic is the pub owner and patrons playing pool, having a pint, and watching a meltdown. Surreal, really.

We hadn’t gotten Euros yet, and we find out after ordering that the pub didn’t take credit cards. In fact, out of the five pubs we’ve been in, none have taken credit cards. In any event, I panicked because there was no ATM or any way to get money. Oh no, my first international incident! Shorting a shopkeeper!

In America, there’d be a scene. Not at the Paddy Feist. “Just stop the cash by the next time you’re by here, no worries, cheers then!” the owner said as he handed me the three pints. I was flabbergasted, literally. That single act alone not only spoke volumes, but really describes the attitude here.

We enjoyed the pint, waited a few, and then it was back on the bikes.

The Dan O’Hara cottage and Connemara Culture Center sits alone on the road that leads to the Connemara National Park area. It’s run by Martin Breatneach and his lovely wife; they also live there and are 80% self sufficient meaning they grow their own food, get their own fuel and so on.

We were taken up the side of a mountain in a trolley car pulled behind a large tractor. On the way up we hear about the Connemara ponies, original descendents of the only indigenous horses in Western Ireland. Word on the street is that in the 1700 hundreds a Spanish Galleon crashed off the shore and two horses made it to shore and mated with the ponies so there’s a little mix in the bloodline.

We were taken to Dan O’Hara’s cottage and heard his tale of woe, a tale that is so relevant today that it is eerie. O’Hara was a tenant farmer, and his cottage and houses were made for him and his seven children. The house became a meeting place, a social place, a place for parties and gatherings. Then O’Hara added a bigger window with glass to his house, and the landlord wanted double the rent. Double. And they wanted a tax. A new tax. A tax that would become known as Daylight Robbery to the locals because it centered around a window.

O’Hara couldn’t pay, and he got evicted. In those days that meant they came and burned your roof and caved in your walls; and while modern day banks don’t do that today, metaphorically, they do. 70,000 Irish were thrown out of their homes this way and headed out of the country; O’Hara included. On the journey to America half of those died, including O’Hara’s wife and three of his children. When he arrived in New York he didn’t speak English and became a street peddler of matches. He died a few years later, and there’s no real record of what happened to his children. To date, none have returned to the cottage.

A man, thriving. His family, thriving. Then, the bank/landlord doubles the rent, throws up a tax, and takes back the house. As we have 2600 foreclosures a day in America this year according to RealtyTrac amounting to 1.1 million in 2011 I can’t help but think of the parallel stories. It ends tragically, and in America, so many of those stories are as well.

After a great tea in the B&B located on the property it was back to Galway and a walking tour with archeologist/tour guide Connor Riorden of Legendquest, www.legendquest.ie

It seems Galway has quite a history, both present and past. There’s Kennedy Square, where JFK made a speech for an hour five months before his assassination. That same square years earlier was used for public lynchings. As for lynchings, there’s a building near there that Mayor Lynch hung his own son from a window for committing murder and it is told here that’s where the term lynching originated (although they acknowledge the connection to the South in the U.S.). There’s the medieval part of time, with buildings dating back hundreds, some thousands, of years. And there’s the pubs. The Quays, The Kings Head and countless others filled with young and old.

After the tour it was time for the radio show and then a night out at those pubs.

And all night, in each pub, in each cab, in each restaurant, everyone was talking about three things: the economy, Japan and Charlie Sheen. Yes, his crazy extends here because there’s a connection. His father, Martin, went to University here for a semester. Everyone knows, they all tell you when you ask! In fact, they’ll tell you a lot. Did you know 22 American Presidents have Irish ancestry? Or did you know that 40% of the milk produced in Ireland is used for Baileys Irish Cream, a huge export? Just ask, people here are so friendly they’ll tell you.

So a world apart, and yet, in the exact same boat.

Next stop, cliffs of Moor and Dublin!

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