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What It's Like to Walk Through Ireland 🥃
...it was worth every second (yes, even with 43 people)
How can I possibly write about the entirety of emotions, experiences, and epiphanies from leading a group of strangers for one week in Ireland in just a few paragraphs?
I can’t, so I won’t try. But I’ll share the highlights.
To start, Ireland is otherworldly. I’d been to the Emerald Isle two other times, but not to this extent and in a much different (younger, single-r) stage. Yet every time I’ve gone, I’ve left knowing I want to go back because there are layers of history, culture, and meaning in this relatively small island in the North Atlantic that can’t possibly be scratched in just one visit.
In Ireland there are similarities to places like Italy, where I led a group in the summer of 2022: the people really live within the land, taking what’s there and making from it not only their livelihood but their culture. It’s damp and cool year-round, it’s rocky and hilly, and it’s relatively isolated from its closest mainland, Europe. This makes the country greener than green, a gritty feat to cultivate, and its historic people therefore hearty, hale, and prouder-than-proud.
Every single Irish person we met, from the farmers to the musicians to the servers at our high tea in the castle, was beyond friendly, more than willing to share their stories, and genuinely pleased to have us visit their homeland. On more than one occasion, a local guide would ask, “Who here has Irish ancestry?” and when a few from our group would raise their hands, they’d reply with a “Welcome home!” or a “Welcome back!” It was unexpected and endearing.
One of my kids had an astute observation: the Irish are the Texans of Europe. They’re gregariously friendly, they’re fiercely proud of where they’re from, they’re a bit loud and plucky, and they have a food and music culture genuinely distinct from their immediate neighbors. Yes… I’d have to concur. They’re the Texans of Europe.
A Few Highlights
I won’t bore you with a rehash of our itinerary—instead, I’ll hit up some of the highlights from our time together.
I knew about traditional Irish music, of course, and had fond memories of late nights crawling the Temple Bar region of Dublin in my twenties. But their music is truly steeped in their DNA, in what it means to be Irish.
My favorite afternoon was spent in the literal living room/kitchen of a widower named Oliver O’Connell, who along with his oldest friend Micky Dunn, regaled us with music, poetry, stories, and cordial hospitality. We were a group of 43 people, and his house wasn’t big—but he made space to welcome us into his ordinary home overlooking the Burren region of western Ireland nonetheless to play us their traditional music.
Micky hails from a family of street musicians and specializes in the “elbow pipes,” the Irish version of the more ubiquitous bagpipes. Next-door neighbor women served us homemade scones and tea, and another neighbor friend popped by during our visit and dispensed one-on-one wisdom to more than a few of us in our group.
I witnessed many a tear down our North American cheeks during this afternoon.
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Ireland is old, of course. But it doesn’t quite hit just how old to our North American sensibilities until we’re standing right where St. Patrick baptized the last Celtic king around 450 AD. Stony cathedrals and castles still stand from the time of Viking invasions around 900-1000 AD. Modern-day folks we interacted with could trace their own family ancestries back to the 1300s.
My brain cannot compute these things. 🤯 My country’s early documents date to the late 1700s, well over THIRTEEN HUNDRED YEARS after St. Patrick’s revival of the Celts. Every Celtic cross gravestone held a story, and we could simply stand there and still witness its presence in 2023.
I was also surprised how much the potato famine that led to the mass immigration of millions of Irish is still at the forefront of many modern-day Irish folks. I’m fairly certain it came up in some way every single day we were there. Likewise, the 1916 Easter Rising is still raw in Irish minds, which only stokes the fire of the fierce pride in their Irish identity. Waiters, storekeepers, and guides would frequently mention some sort of personal family lore about any or all these relatively recent events in their country’s history.
I’m not sure what I expected regarding this, but their deep personal connection to their national history surprised me.
The very first activity our group shared was a baking class with two retired women, best friends since age 12, and enthusiastic historians and holders of their Irish culture. As we strapped on aprons and dug our hands into the dough, they taught us little hacks from their mamas for making otherwise common bread their way, while simultaneously regaling us with stories about their childhoods.
They sang the praises of their dairy culture, emphasizing why their cows are the happiest in the world. They showed us how to make homemade butter. They gave us an impromptu lesson in making Irish coffee the “right” way. And they sat down with us afterward to break bread and drink whiskey, no us-and-them division between teacher and students.
Sprinkled in all the lessons in both cuisine and life, they warned us of the Irish fairies and the importance of not messing with their forests or hills, of keeping them out of kitchens, and how more than a few ghosts still wander the Irish countryside.
Copy-and-paste this same posture of hospitality to the women who sold us locally-made sweaters on the Aran islands, whiskey distiller guides in Dublin, sheepdog farmers in the Connemara region, and the local experts at the Rock of Cashel and St. Kevin’s 6th-century monastic village Glendalough. Even Eoin, the tattoo artist who inked my daughter’s arm in Dublin, welcomed her with stories from his life as an urban youth in today’s Ireland.
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I know, I know, “the real treasure was the friends we made along the way” about these sorts of trips is the equivalent of the “Jesus” Sunday school answer. But dangitall if it isn’t simply true. This was my fourth pilgrimage to lead in six years, and with each one, this maxim proves true: we begin our short time together as strangers, and we end it as real friends.
This was the largest group I’ve yet led, and I was admittedly concerned whether this mainstay feature of pilgrimages with me—kinship—would become watered down. There was no way I could have meaningful conversations with every single participant and still get enough sleep at night. There’s a chance we’d feel like cattle on a bus, being carted from one place to the next en masse. Odds were strong we’d get annoyed at that one or two in a group who’d steal the show with their big personality and proclivity for chatter.
But on our family’s final flight back home, Kyle said this: “You know how there’s always that one person in a group you wish wasn’t there because they take up all the oxygen? That never happened once in our group. I’d legitimately share a drink one-on-one with literally every single person in our group.”
I agree wholeheartedly. From our small chats on the bus to shared meals at pubs listening to live music, the best part of this pilgrimage was the people, hands down. For whatever reason, the folks who take this step of faith (because it is one!) to travel with me find a certain unexpected camaraderie with a shared common ethos of what really matters in life.
We may hold differing doctrinal beliefs, journeys of faith experiences, life stages, and personalities, yet we share this desire: an earnest quest for the beautiful, good, and true in life. And that right there seems to be the most important baseline foundation for a shared kinship as we explore a land and seek out meaningful conversations in meaningful places.
That is why I’m such a believer in pilgrimages. They’re not just vacations, or even group experiences. They’re an intentional desire to hear from God in a particular place among particular people. And they can’t be forcefully orchestrated with human hands and minds. They can only be gathered by God. And God meets us there whenever we step in faith with our “yes” to go, every single time.
If joining me and a group of your future kindred spirits next summer in Greece is your next “yes,” please sign up soon. I promise you, you’ll be beyond surprised at what you experience, and it’s worth the time and money.
Head here for more info, but as a quick reminder, a few highlights will be:
The Parthenon, Erechtheum, Propylaea, Mars Hill, & the ancient Agora in Athens
A 4-day Aegean cruise
The narrow, cobbled streets on the island of Mykonos
The island of Rhodes’ ancient Roman & Byzantine architecture
The Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete
The iconic whitewashed cafés & side streets on the island of Santorini
Ancient Corinth and the Temple of Apollo
The island of Patmos and the site where St. John penned the Book of Revelation
A day trip to Turkey to walk through the ruins of Ephesus
….and plenty more, including breathtaking churches and monasteries, delectable local cuisine, Greek folklore dancing, and beyond.
…And all this with your like-minded future friends. I do everything I can to hold for you a spirit of laid-back adventure joined with an earnest posture to be surprised by God. Please consider joining me.
I’m dusting off 5 Quick Things starting this Friday, so I’ll see you here in a few days — I hope you’ve been having the just-right summer you’ve needed. I know I needed my brief annual time away from the screen—it was too short and too fast, as always, alas. …I’ve got plenty to share with you soon!
Ora et Labora,
Huzzah, highs in the 60s Fahrenheit in late July!
My scones there were remarkably better than what I’ve long made in my own kitchen.
I mean, after looking at thousands of cows along the hilly green countryside en route to our next place, I’d be an Irish cow over a Texan one any day.
At high tea at Ashford Castle, my daughter asked our waiter if any ghosts wandered the halls. Without hesitation or beguile, she launched into a description of the young Victorian girl—friendly and well-intentioned—who wanders the halls and occasionally welcomes visitors, who then claim witness entirely separate from each other. She can be seen in one of the portraits in the main lounge.
Cue Michael W. Smith’s Friends Are Friends Forever.
I’m often asked why I no longer lead trips just by myself, as I did originally with Literary Londons. This is a chief reason: working with a company like Select allows these trips to be much more affordable than if I spearheaded them alone. There's no way we could experience all we ultimately do at these prices if I orchestrated it myself. I want to keep my pilgrimages ordinary-person accessible.
This is an hour away from where our family once lived for three years! …A miniature “coming home” for us.