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Travelling around Ireland by train: ‘I think the friendliness is part of the Irish spirit. I even like the blarney’


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For Marie Des Marais, a septuagenarian from Wisconsin in the US, being in Ireland is all about “the blarney”.

She and her younger sister Nancy Lietz (78) are standing among four generations of her family on the concourse of Kent Station in Cork waiting to board a train to Dublin. A habitual traveller, Marie has treated the group of 12 to a jaunt around Ireland.

In my case, a longer but more regularly taken journey is about to begin: home to Westport, Co Mayo via Heuston Station. It should take about seven hours but there are some hurdles to clear. There’s the onslaught of pecking pigeons to avoid while queuing for a coffee in Heuston; finding a seat on an often-overcrowded westbound train with no catering facilities and few staff; and enduring the chatter of excited GAA fans sneaking in a few beers, their post-match analysis reaching cacophonic levels by the time the train crosses the Shannon in Athlone.

The Wisconsinites know nothing yet about the pigeons in Dublin’s main train station – they are just excited about staying in a city centre hotel and visiting Temple Bar. A week earlier they flew into Shannon Airport, rented three cars and toured around Co Galway before travelling to Co Cork and basing themselves in the scenic village of Crosshaven.

“We are very excited about going to Dublin now,” says Marie. “We are staying at the Drury Court Hotel by St Stephen’s Green and the Temple Bar is first on our list to visit. A number of the group will be visiting the Guinness factory which I’ve been told is like going to the Holy Land.”

Some of Marie’s younger nieces and nephews had never travelled abroad before this trip and Marie wanted to treat everyone to a visit to “the friendliest country in the world”.

“This is my fourth time here and in all of my travels I can’t think of a country whose people are more personable, friendly and down-to-earth,” she says. “I think the friendliness is part of the Irish spirit. I even like the blarney. I love the fact that if you ask for a direction and even if they don’t know the way, you will be given a route anyway.”

The level of friendliness among Irish Rail staff in Kent Station is always palpable, as is the consistently high standard of cleanliness in the ladies bathrooms. That certainly is not this frequent train traveller’s experience in Heuston, which has teams of contracted security guards walking the concourse but a sense of support from Irish Rail staff is not clearly evident or always available there.

Catherine Jetson, a tourist from Hobart in Tasmania, noted a similar issue when travelling from Limerick Junction to Cork a few days earlier. She was using a Eurail pass, which is valid in 33 European countries.

“I thought coming to an English-speaking country would be easier, having just visited France and Italy, but the level of information and communication in the station [Heuston] wasn’t good and I wasn’t sure who to ask,” she said.

“I had no idea I could book a seat online on Irish Rail and when I arrived in the station I found that there wasn’t a lot of information about where to go on the platform.”

Like so many visitors, Jetson’s ancestors came from Ireland. Indeed, some of them were convicts from Kerry and Cork who were transported to Tasmania in the early 1800s and around potato famine times. She also has maternal relatives from Co Clare who emigrated to New South Wales in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Apparently some of the convicts committed petty crimes – stealing food, sheep rustling – so that they would be sent to such a faraway land. I think the parish priest used to help to send young girls especially for a better way of life, or in many cases they were sponsored by older brothers already out there.”

Jetson’s visit to Ireland is the culmination of a European trip during which she visited Rome and Milan, Nice and Lourdes and met her husband in Bordeaux after he had completed a 900km trek along the Camino de Santiago. He then returned home to their young adult children.

“We were here for our honeymoon 23 years ago but on this return visit I plan to visit the little villages where my ancestors came from and go to the cemeteries where some of them are buried,” she says. “I’m also really looking forward to meeting my grandfather’s late wife’s family and to exchange some photos which are over 100 years old.”

There are members of another family planning to open old photo albums on the train from Heuston to Westport. Joanie Murphy, from Chicago, is travelling with her daughter Ellie and niece Moira Tierney, with other members of their travelling party having driven ahead to Westport in a hire car.

Murphy’s late father was from Castleisland, Co Kerry and her late mother was from Bushfield, near Charlestown, Co Mayo. They emigrated to Chicago in the 1950s, aged in their late teens, and now their descendants are gathering in the auld sod to meet two maternal aunts still living in Co Mayo.

“We came into Ireland three days ago and this has been our first train journey. It really has been a real easy ride. We bought the tickets online, although we were a little confused initially because our hotel receptionist sent us to Connolly Station by mistake, and then we had to take the tram to Heuston, so that got us a little messed up,” Murphy says.

Despite the temptation, a question was not asked about a certain upcoming electoral battle involving a prominent US figure whose ancestry has been traced back to Co Mayo. However, in Kent station, an Irish Rail conductor confirmed what will happen in the event of a defeat for president Joe Biden.

“If [Donald] Trump gets in, they all say they are moving here.”

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