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My guided tour of Ireland

When you go on vacation, the last thing you need is a guide. Your goal is to relax in a new setting and return to normal life renewed and refreshed. When you go on tour, as Christopher MacPhee, our guide on a recent coach tour of Ireland explained, you’re out to see the world. Your plan is to see stuff, do stuff and learn stuff. For that, it’s best to have a guide.

When my husband Ron and I signed on for a “Shades of Ireland Tour,” we only knew we’d only be visiting the high points of Ireland. This was our first trip to the Emerald Isle, and though I compared this package with a few others before putting our names on the dotted line, I didn’t know much about what we’d be seeing. I didn’t know who our tour guide would be either.

Several years ago, we went on a coach tour of Italy. We learned then that a guide comes along with the bus and that it’s not really a bus; it’s a coach. A coach has a biffy but a bus doesn’t. Strange, but in 10 days in Italy and another 10 in Ireland, I never personally evaluated that difference.

Our guide in Italy, Austrian- born Helmet Hofer, taught us all about Tuscany and the Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy, flavored with Italian spoken with an Austrian accent. Our bus driver, Giovanni, was learning English and often talked with his hands, which was a little disconcerting considering they were also needed for driving the coach.

Two years ago when our son-in-law, Jim, planned a tour of Peru, he served as our general guide since he had already spent time there. We still relied on local guides. “Oscar,” our guide for a trip down the Amazon and a stay at a wildlife center, was invaluable in navigating the river (along with the guy who ran the motor on the 30-foot canopied canoe). He could spot a toad on the riverbank from 100 feet away in the middle of the river, a caiman eye in the dark of night, and knew the behavior of the parrots, macaws and other birds in the area’s only salt lick. I asked him about his name since it didn’t sound very Peruvian. He said there was a trend when he was born for people to give their babies North American names. I believed him but have since wondered if the guides choose names like the workers at foreign call centers.

Our Peruvian guide at Machu Picchu not only knew the site, he was also passionate about the Incan culture from which he had descended. He explained the mysterious flowers, tobacco and other small items we noticed in niches in the rocks. “Missionaries have made us Christian, but we still hold to our old religion.”

Either we’ve been lucky or every tour guide is passionate about history and the countries they share with those on the bus, coach, taxi or canoe. From geography and history to politics and cuisine, tour guides offer a rolling education.

But, they can’t know everything. Noticing a variety of “black” birds in Ireland’s trees, greens and rockeries, particularly unfamiliar ones with gray heads, I asked Christopher about the crows. He said there were several kinds but that you had to catch one and spread the large feathers, the pinions, and know the differences in these feathers to determine which bird it was. He said it boiled down to “a matter of a pinion.”

I asked Jeremiah, our horse tram driver on the way to Muckross House, a Victorian mansion (once owned by a Californian) with beautifully landscaped grounds, about the crows. He told me there are three kinds: rooks, jackdaws (the ones with the gray heads) and hooded crows. Someone asked him about snakes since we’d previously been told there were no snakes in all of Ireland. “Oh, yes,” he said, “we have snakes. But they all have two legs.”

Christopher MacPhee is among an elite class of tour guides. Having lived on four continents, he speaks four languages and is a current Canadian resident. Through his Scottish father, he retains citizenship in the United Kingdom. In 16 years of guiding for Collette Vacations, he’s led groups in 26 countries on six continents. He met us at the airport in Dublin, educated us and kept us entertained on the coach, shepherded us on walking tours, and encouraged us to get out and experience the culture during our free time.

Since my mother’s paternal side of the family came to America during Ireland’s potato famine of 1845-1850, I wanted to find some information about the Maroneys. While in Waterford, Ron and I stepped into Jordan’s Pub and met a couple of older gentlemen who seemed to be semi-residents of a comfortable corner of the bar. Our ears were still adjusting to the Irish brogue and their enunciation of words had been further oiled by the local brew. One of them was a slight slender fellow whose career had been in fishing. His companion had the ruddy complexion of an outdoorsman. This man said he’d driven a taxi and that five members of his family had been police officers. This revelation connected with Ron, a retired Minnesota State Trooper.

When the retired fisherman pulled out a small white cylinder and tucked it over his ear, I had to watch. He pulled out a cigarette paper and tobacco and proceeded to roll his own. I told him I hadn’t seen anyone do that since I’d watched my dad do it many years ago. After shaking the tobacco into the paper he took the small filter from atop his ear and fitted it on one end. He licked the paper, as I’d watched my dad do so many times, and expertly rolled the tiny package. “The filter makes the tobacco go farther,” he said. Since smoking isn’t allowed in Irish pubs any more than it is here, he tucked the finished product over the ear where the filter had been.

I asked the former taxi driver about Maroneys. He said he knew of people with that name up Tipperary way. Then I noticed that the bar, with an angled end and spindle-topped wall, resembled a ship. When I asked the publican (the keeper of the pub) about that he said he hadn’t noticed. He was young. But, he said the pub had been a hotel before it became a pub and that during the potato famine people came there to buy their tickets for passage to America.

I was fascinated by the possibility that my ancestors had maybe come through this very building on their way to America.

Since I had downloaded Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes on my Kindle at the onset of our trip and had spent odd moments reading about the less fortunate of Irish folk while touring the grand castles and cathedrals, I knew better than to romanticize the lives of desperate starving people who had two choices: leave or die. One million people did die and another million emigrated, among them my great-grandfather and his young family.

What remains uncertain is what that man’s actual surname was. I talked with a man self-described as Ireland’s only heraldic researcher. His job was to document all of the surnames of the country as well as the shield symbols for that name. He wasn’t aware of the Maroney spelling; Moroney is the apparent local form although it could as easily have been Maloney or Mulroney. A quick search at The Irish Times ( revealed one Maroney in Dublin and two in Tipperary in the mid-1800s. However, they were spelled Moroney. The site further explained that the name could have derived from Mulrooney, devotee of Rooney.

The old waters of ancestry get rather muddied when names and spelling are changed making genealogy uncertain if careful records and anecdotal details haven’t been written down.

Another facet of travel is sampling the cuisine. I had anticipated that Irish cooking boiled down to boiled everything. How wrong I was, from the food we found in pubs to that of castles and the oldest pub in Ireland. Delicious salmon, fish and chips and Irish stew were everywhere along with “bangers and mash” (sausages and mashed potatoes), “coddle,” (sausages, bacon, onions and potatoes) “boxty” (potato pancakes) and “black and white pudding” (a sausage of pig’s blood, barley, oats, beef fat and spices- the white variety is made without the blood- and both are served as parts of a traditional Irish breakfast). Irish restaurants and pubs also tend to serve a couple of scoops of mashed potatoes either under or on top of the entree or as roasted potatoes on the side.

The dish that mystified me most was a side dish in a small paper cup. It was served with the coddle but also often accompanies fish and chips. It looked like green mush, but I wondered at first if it was some kind of tartar sauce or salsa. One taste told me it was peas. I’ve found recipes that call for frozen green peas that are cooked and mashed with butter and cream. Authentic mushy peas seem more of a chickpea consistency but with a distinct green pea flavor. Other recipes call for “marrow fat peas” which are large mature garden peas that have been dried. These need to be soaked overnight before cooking. Interestingly, in the Irish way of renaming things, “marrow fat peas” are known as “matter of fact peas” in some places. (The church’s “patron saint days” have also become “pattern days.”) Many people shudder at the mention of mushy peas, but I think it’s a side dish with possibilities.

If you want to see the world and learn about geography, history, food and fun (I haven’t mentioned Europe’s oldest match-making festival in Lisdoonvarna, Ireland’s traditional heating with peat, Waterford crystal, Connemara marble, and not kissing the Blarney Stone, but articles on these topics may appear in future issues of the Senior Perspective) keep an eye out for guided tours. You’ll be amazed, and you can always plan a return trip to dig deeper into areas of particular interest.

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