“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man, nor soil to bury a man,” said one of Oliver Cromwell’s generals. And while I couldn’t give a flying fig what any of those sociopaths thought, the quote did enter my mind as we drove through our first early hours in Iceland, the sun melting the frost off the black, volcanic rock covering as far as the eye could see—rock, as it happens, that had been strewn by forces down deep and not all that long ago.
It was like Frodo and Samwise Gamgee setting sights on Mordor for the first time, pondering if they might ever see the shire again or partake in a drink that comes in pints. In fact, I recall wanting to film a little humorous video on our phones with me as the somewhat portly sidekick to the hero of the story, ready to ferry him on my shoulders into the dreaded mountain, but the other half was quite tired and not in the mood for antics of any sort.
What, in the name of all that’s holy am I talking about? Well, as it turns out, we traveled to Iceland—the land of fire and ice—to see what it was all about. And we were not disappointed. When we landed, there wasn’t a wisp of light, it being the end of April. We landed somewhere in the region of 6 a.m. and it wouldn’t be long before the sun began to show itself. Iceland, you’ll find out, either sees a lot of dark or a lot of light. We were on the light side.
Do not mess with these people. I’m pretty sure this sign is instructing Reykjavic motorists to drive over families.
So, what was it like? What if I told you that I had the best ramen noodles of my life, felt the heat of molten lava filling up the room and sat in freezing temperatures inside natural hot spring pools by the ocean, watching birds play on the stones, the stark mountains in the distance? In a word, it was magical.
The other half and I decided that it was high time we eschewed our usual travels of shopping, eating and drinking and branch out to something more earthy, a place where we could be at one with nature, so to speak.
Our first stop, in the wee hours was the “Bridge Between Continents,” where North America meets Europe. You can stand with one foot on each continent and momentarily become king of the world (or something similar). This, I might add, was the height of Mordor, for all of you Hobbit fans.
The country was dealt a devastating blow after a volcano erupted in 2010. You might remember it. Airports around the world shut down due to ashen clouds and the economy of Iceland was in free fall. The country took on a new strategy. They tried to lure tourists with the promise of living the outdoor life and as you might have discerned, their gamble paid off. Iceland has become a huge tourist destination.
The citizens are openly appreciative, with one hotel employee in Reykjavik telling an apologetic tourist such as myself that we saved their country. What a lovely take on the situation thought I.
Iceland is teeming with waterfalls. We happened upon this one, Skógafoss, between Reykjavic and Vik.
For those of us of Irish descent, I need to make a caveat. Iceland, although it sounds an awful lot like Ireland, is most definitely not Ireland. Expect very few corner pubs. And if you’re a drinker, plan accordingly. We stayed in the picturesque town of Vik for several days and assumed that alcohol would flow as it does in most of Europe. It most certainly doesn’t. (Hint: Stock up at the airport.)
We purchased a bottle of wine at the local grocery and when we returned to our most decidedly beautiful hotel room afterwards, we were beguiled to discover how much it tasted like grape juice. The reason it tasted like grape juice is that it was grape juice. Upon further examination, we realized that there were no alcohol sales in town until Tuesday (it was Saturday) unless we wanted to make a 60-mile jaunt to a “nearby” shop. But that’s neither here nor there.
Vik lies beneath a glacier, which provides much splendor, but all that frozen water comes with a catch. When the volcano underneath said ice erupted in 1918, the majority of fatalities actually came from the rushing waters of the melted glacier and not the lava.
That gruesomeness aside, we enjoyed a lava show in Vik, which is highly recommended. The company name is a bit hard to remember…what was it again? Oh yes, Lava Show. They heat actual lava rock to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, then slowly ooze the lava into a darkened room of spectators, heating the vicinity up considerably. The affable representative noted that if the volcano were to erupt, all of our mobile phones would alert us to the quite unsettling fact that we had a half hour to get to higher ground. Ha ha, thought I. Wonderful stuff.
From Vik, we headed north to Geysir, where erupting waters awaited. Once again, you can imagine a Tolkien-like landscape with waters boiling on the ground and geysers erupting every few minutes. I could finish an entire column on this area, but space is short and suffice it to say, Mother Nature is awesome.
On our way out of Geysir, we stopped at Hvammsvík Hot Springs, a set of naturally heated pools, lying on the beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. What a gem. After a freezing jaunt from the shower areas to the outside pools, visitors can submerge in one of eight open-air pools, the mountains and ocean offering a backdrop, and in our case, only four other people to contend with. Pure heaven. (And quite a bit less touristed than the infamous Blue Lagoon.)
My man, Leif Erikson looking ever forward.
From there, we made straight away for the capital city of Reykjavik, with its hot dog stands and Leif Erikson statues. It’s quite a small city, but we tourists were more than happy to fill in the empty spaces. Should you try the hot dog stands? Yes. Should you visit Ramen Momo? Most definitely. Are waterfalls as common as traffic jams in the States? They certainly are.
A serving of Tantanmen from Ramen Momo in Reykjavic. This was a bowl of pure gastronomical joy.
But once again, my space here is limited. How is visiting Iceland even realistic, you ask, when Ireland awaits with all of its charm? As it happens, Icelandair allows travelers to stopover anywhere from one to seven days if they’re continuing on to Europe—for free. So you can book a flight to Dublin on the airline and choose to stop for a few days in the land of fire and ice.
What’s the downside? I don’t have an answer for that one.
A cousin recently returned from holidays in Barcelona, Spain with her family, raving about the sun and culture and it brought to mind my own treks through the European hotspot. It also started me thinking about the benefits of Barcelona, over her own hometown in Northern Ireland. She lives in Derrynoose, a “suburb” of Keady, Co. Armagh, so I decided to see how Barcelona stacks up against our ancestral home, a place my father referred to as the “hub of the universe.”
Ryan Air flies direct between Dublin and Barcelona, the trip only taking a bit over two hours and a cursory check on barebones prices shows roundtrip tickets at $164 for middle of the week travel.
One won’t find that kind of price from the States. A trip at the same time of year from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Barcelona will run you $1,152 for a nonstop flight of over eight hours. (Direct to Dublin was $668 at the time of this writing).
Comparing these two vastly different destinations is no easy task, but you’ll receive nothing but 110 percent from iIrish columnists. Let’s jump in, shall we?
I’ll start with the caveat that the great Spanish city indeed sees more sun, so I’ll give that one to Barcelona, but seeing as how my entire family goes from pale white straight to cancer, I’m fine with them having that particular title.
Sun: Advantage Barcelona
How do the populations compare, you ask? Well, here Keady has a slight advantage with a smidgen over 3,000 people, compared to Barcelona’s 1.6 million. I’ve done a quick calculation based on numbers I’m just making up, and if you stacked Barcelona’s vehicles across the entire town of Keady, you’d have a scrap of metal that reaches to the moon.
Additionally, Barcelona is jam-packed with tourists. The only tourists I’ve ever seen in Keady were ones traveling with me.
Population: Advantage Keady
Barcelona boasts more tourist sites than does Keady, so we’ll need to select a couple to compare. For Spain, I have chosen La Sagrada Família, an ostentatious church that isn’t even finished after 141 years. I think that says as much about the Spanish work ethic as anything else. Designed by Antoni Gaudí, it’s a wonderful example of the marriage of Gothic and Art Nouveau, with an impressive number of spires and probably even more pews inside.
As you can see, La Sagrada Família, left, boasts a great number of spires, but the structure still isn’t finished after 141 years. The monument in Keady, right, was completed in a jiffy and has a catchy song written about it.
By comparison, the monument in the center of Keady (literally the hub of the hub of the universe) has a very catchy song written about it:
Is the monument where it used to be?
Are the boys all there?
Do the girls go skipping around the ground, where it’s nice and fair?
Is the market house where it used to be?
Sure, is everything all right?
What would I give to be with you
In Keady town tonight?
Let’s see Gaudí top that!
The monument also boasts several spires and was erected by the residents in 1871 (so even older than the Spanish church) in honor of William Kirk, who brought the linen industry to the area.
This was a tough decision, so I’m going to call this one a draw, with both monuments about equal when considered in comparison to the vastness of the universe.
Tourist sites: Draw
Unique advantages: One of my favorite television characters was Manuel, from Fawlty Towers. He was from Barcelona. Advantage Barcelona; The Tommy Makem Arts and Community Centre resides in Keady. To my knowledge, Barcelona has nothing named after my father. Advantage Keady. Likewise, my cousin, Eddie, owned a butcher shop in Keady. He never owned one anywhere in Spain. Advantage: Keady.
Speaking of Eddie, he and other family members rebuilt an old cow barn on ancestral land and turned it into arguably the best Irish session house in the world, labeling it Tossie’s. Gaudí erected Casa Milá (or La Padrera) from scratch and the architecture is world-renowned. It admittedly has more going for it visually than Tossie’s, but everyone I know who has been to Tossie’s has said they had the time of their lives. Casa Milá is just really incredible.
Casa Milá, top, has a slight visual advantage, but I dare you to spend a few hours in my cousins’ former cow barn, current session house, below, and not have a better time.
New/rebuilt structures: Advantage Keady (Derrynoose).
One area of contention in this great comparison is found at midday. While the people of Northern Ireland are drudging through another work day, dreaming of the time they can head home to the telly and frozen pizza, the residents of Spain are catching up on a little rest. Yes, the siesta is a real thing. Expect, even in large cities like Barcelona, to find shops and restaurants closed for a few hours so workers can recharge their batteries, so to speak.
Both Irish and Spanish cultures seem to savor nighttime, mornings not so much. The dinner crowds in both countries (I’m combining Ireland and Northern Ireland for simplicity) don’t even really start appearing until seven p.m. When I was younger, I couldn’t imagine a different way of life. Nowadays, my mind is a fog any time after eight p.m. I’ll admit that sometimes I’m jealous of those who can still remain alert into the wee hours. It’s always something I try to muscle through when visiting new places.
So as far as siestas, I suppose I’d say I’m a fan. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful example of the breadth of experiences you can have in different cultures. It’s why we travel, isn’t it?
Sleeping in the middle of the day: Advantage Barcelona
Well, I think I’ve proven that Keady and Barcelona are far more equal than it would appear at first glance. And for the record, you now know why I don’t have a job that anyone would consider “important.”
What a long, strange trip it’s been. Twenty-twenty-two has come to a close and to celebrate, I’m offering up my memories of this tumultuous, news-laden catastrophe of a year. So, place a seat belt around your head, because I’m about to take your eyes on the ride of their life.
It’s a difficult task narrowing down a year’s worth of news stories to a single column. I could do ninety inches on the James Webb telescope without breaking a sweat, but the editor at iIrish is renowned for his hard-as-nails approach to columnists. And thusly, I must stay in my lane.
Let’s do this chronologically.
Prince Andrew is stripped of his military titles and charities. Irish residents, some of whom have a slight inclination away from monarchies, issue a collective yawn.
Russia invades Ukraine, cementing Vladimir Putin’s role as most hated person on the planet.
Piel Island, off the English coast, announces that it is seeking a new monarch. The new monarch will be in charge of the island’s crumbling castle and its 300-year-old pub. He or she must also swear an oath to be a good smoker and drinker and “to give anyone found dead on the sands free refuge in the pub.” An iIrish columnist was reputedly denied the throne.
Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the ninety-fourth Academy Awards (the Oscars). It was the slap heard ‘round the world.
Twitter agrees to sell itself to Elon Musk. Tesla shareholders agree that it’s no big deal as long as he doesn’t offer up any controversial opinions. Wallets are then emptied out.
A scientist at the University of West England announces that he has concluded a study of mushrooms and determined that they can communicate using electrical impulses. Apparently, their vocabulary is up to 50 words, which legally allows them to hold accounts on Twitter. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg simultaneously nod their approval.
Sinn Féin becomes the largest party after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Several people passing by Ian Paisley’s grave claim to have heard elongated groans coming from the ground. This has not been corroborated by iIrish, but we’re working on it.
Nothing officially happened in June.
Two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner pleads guilty to marijuana charges in Russia. At that same moment, both Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg bend over in pain sensing a strange disturbance in the force.
The James Webb Space Telescope produced its first images, stunning the scientific community. Astronomers explained the need for such a telescope, noting that since there was so little intelligent life on earth, they needed to look elsewhere. The search continues.
The F.B.I. executes a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago and there’s nothing I can add here from any angle that won’t flood my inbox with anger.
For the first time Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland. The 2021 census showed 45.7 percent of the population are now Catholic, and 43.5 percent are protestant. Once again, several people passing by Ian Paisley’s grave claim to have heard groans coming from the ground.
Liz Truss is named the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister. The tabloid The Daily Star announces a contest to see if she will outlast a head of lettuce. She does not. (I didn’t even have to make this one up).
In Panama, a $1.5 million prototype floating home plunges into the water during its unveiling ceremony. Simultaneously, a cutting-edge engineer is seeking “new opportunities in the job market.”
The prosecution of Soldier F resumes for the role in murdering two men on Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972. The charges had been dropped in July 2021. The soldier also faced five counts of attempted murder.
President Joe Biden announces he will pardon all prior federal offenses for simple marijuana possession. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg spontaneously erupt in muffled giggles.
The other half and I traveled to Denmark and Sweden. This isn’t a tidbit you’re likely to run across in the New York Times or on the BBC, but iIrish delves a little deeper into some subjects than those rags. Feel free to peruse my column on the trip in this esteemed journal, which pitted Denmark against Ireland, with some remarkable results. Take that, so called other news outlets!
The midterm elections surprise pollsters and lead everyone in the country to ask why anyone pays attention to polls anymore.
Experts declare the latest Covid variant XBB.1.5 is spreading like wildfire, leaving people worldwide excited for 2023, because it can’t get any worse. Can it?
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