As we prepare to take our leave from Ireland — for a while, at least — we’ve been reminiscing about all the colorful Irish places we’ve visited. Despite being a relatively small, homogenous country, Ireland’s towns and cities are surprisingly unique; each has its own special character — and cast of characters — just like the major cities of our own home continent.
Which got us thinking one night at a pub: What would be the American spiritual sisters to some of Ireland’s gritty cities and tidy towns?
Dublin: New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
Let’s get this one outta the way. The “Big Shmoke” — home of roughly a third of those in the Republic of Ireland — is the center of most of Ireland’s major industries. It’s the home of Ireland’s fashion capital (unless you’re counting Aran Islands tweed as fashion); its film, television, and recording business (although those in Hollywood, County Wicklow might object); and the seat of government power — when the government is actually at work, that is.
Cork: Chicago, Illinois
This one is a perfect fit, although I can hear angry Corkmen and Corkwomen tying American Confederate flags around their shoulders like racist superheroes and typing hateful responses already.
From the Industrial Revolution through the twentieth century, the city of Chicago tried desperately to outpace New York in manufacturing and development, only to always fall short. Out of this was born the nickname “Second City,” a moniker that Chicago first rejected but now embraces. Cork has a less…accepting view of its second-place status in Ireland — ask any Corker what she thinks of Dublin and make sure to pack a lunch; you’ll hear a laundry list of complaints going back at least 600 years, most points emphasized with the word “boy!”
Athlone: Omaha, Nebraska
Both of these cities are seen by locals as perfectly functional but otherwise unremarkable places to live in the middle of the country. Both are on a major river — Omaha the Missouri; Athlone the Shannon — and both are skipped by cross-country travelers, but by different means. Omaha is a “flyover” city; Athlone is a sleepy “stopover” on the train or bus.
Kilkenny: Green Bay, Wisconsin
Both of these cities are defined by rabid fandom of a single sport. The relatively small population of Green Bay is more than offset by the unbridled enthusiasm with which the plucky local “cheeseheads” cheer on their beloved Packers. Waiting lists for tickets are measured in decades and season tickets are passed down through the generations, kept in families as treasured heirlooms.
Across the sea in Kilkenny, the sport is hurling, but the fans are just as fervent. Local babies seem to be born with a hurley in hand, and weddings, confirmations, and even funerals are scheduled around the local hurling club calendar. When the local Kilkenny Cats are in the championship — which they are nearly every year — the county enters a state of chaos as businesses close, livestock are left to fend for themselves, and pub-owners struggle to keep up with the enthusiastic crowds surrounding every TV screen in the parish.
Galway: Austin, Texas
Young, hip, artistic, socially and economically fueled by a large university, and terrifying to the conservative rural locals. These are the central, defining characteristics of both Galway city and Austin, Texas.
Known as a hub for loud music and weirdness, Austin is a perfect cultural contrast to the rest of sleepy, Bible-thumping, tumbleweed-friendly Texas. It draws artists, hippies, young tech entrepreneurs, craft brewers, and career hitchhikers. In other words, not the Hank Hill–approved former high school quarterbacks and cheerleaders getting married at 19 to take over the family ranch.
Galway may have fewer unicycles per capita, and the folks in County Galway may not wear cowboy boots on a daily basis, but the average Galwegian and, say an Aran Islander, might not have much to talk about — in fact, they might not even speak the same language.
Stay tuned for more in my series on Irish-American spiritual sister cities!