Are there any of you reading this who traveled with me between 1982 and 2008? This was an exciting time when I would lead travel-learning trips abroad under the supervision first of Carol McMillan (1982-1996) and then Dr. LeRoy King (1997-2008). We called ourselves “Dickens Disciples” and then later “Dickens Destinations.” I would lecture on site at least five times during our ten-day sojourns, and a grand time was had by all.
Because Dickens was front and center in our travel name — and, let’s face it, in my life — I came up with the gimmick of publicizing that we would only go to the places that Dickens himself had visited during his lifetime. That led to delightful trips to England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, and Italy. But I soon felt needlessly constrained by my arbitrary restriction.
So, never a purist, I soon scrapped that idea and proclaimed that we would now be visiting places Dickens WOULD have traveled to if only he had lived long enough. My, that certainly opened the world to our caravan! But before we added such locations as South Africa and Hungary -- and I just knew that Dickens would have craved to go there since my dad was born and reared Hungarian -- we first had great adventures in Dickens’ old tromping grounds — and certainly a favorite one was Ireland.
Could there be a better destination for a literary tour than the Emerald Isle? It should astound you that four Irishmen have won the Nobel Prize for literature — George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Seamus Haney, and Samuel Beckett. “Big deal,” you might say, “After all, doesn’t France have the most literature winners with fifteen?”
Indeed they do. But consider: population of France — 68 million; population of Ireland — 5 million. France has more than thirteen times the population of Ireland! And so equating populations, France would need to have 52 winners to equal Ireland’s mighty four.
I have always had a special affection for all things Irish. Perhaps I get it from my Russian grandparents. When they first came to America in 1909, they settled in New York City. They were fleeing czarist persecution all too similar to Putin’s today.Their New York immigrant neighborhood was primarily Irish, and they found the Irish the most charming people in the city. I remember as a child saying hopefully that I was sure people loved Russian immigrants, too. “Well, maybe...” my witty Uncle Leon answered, “but you know, Elliot, I don’t think we ever could have gotten away with saying ‘Kiss Me, I’m Russian!’”
Of course that Irish expression originated because of their Blarney Stone, which is so associated with kissing. Kissing that ancient symbol is supposed to give you not just eloquence, but also the ability to talk anyone into anything through charm and flattery. So “Blarney” has come to have a bit of a slippery, con-man connotation too.
If you’ve never actually been to Ireland to kiss the stone (it’s five miles from Cork, in case you’re interested), you may not know that it’s a bit of an ordeal. You have to lie on your back and hang head first over a cliff, gripping iron railings, until you either kiss the stone or dizzy yourself silly. When we arrived there in 1995, I was under the age of fifty and one of the youngest in our group, so it was assumed I should be agile enough or foolish enough to go first and demonstrate for our mostly older, wiser participants. I reluctantly accepted the challenge, since I didn’t want to seem a coward — a “Blarney Fife”, so to speak.
I ended up quite pleased with my performance and came strutting back to our group. As I was passing two of our women in the first row of spectators, one of them smiled at me and said “Now why would YOU, Dr. Engel, ever need to kiss the Blarney Stone?” Before I could zing her with a witty reply, her companion piped up with “Oh, he wasn’t kissing it; he was RECHARGING it!”
And so now, twenty-seven years later, this Energizer Blarney-Bunny wishes you a “Haddy Saint Paddy’s Day” (I’ll always sacrifice spelling for the sake of a rhyme). I know I have already found my pot o’ gold with you, my faithful readers.