Close to heaven

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his issue's date is March 17, St. Patrick's Day, so what else could this column be about but Ireland?

I've enjoyed my time there immensely and count it as one of the great destinations.

This year, rather than my going on about it, I asked Jim Murphy, chairman and CEO of Brendan Worldwide Vacations, to explain Ireland's perennial appeal. Brendan has sent thousands to Ireland over the years, and no one knows the place better than Jim. Here's what he says:

"Americans like Ireland because, with all due humility, I tell you that Irish people like Americans, and it comes across.

"Even if the original name came to America in the 1700s, any American with names like Kelly, Murphy or O'Reilly is considered Irish by the natives. Of course, every Irish person has a cousin in the U.S.

"For Americans, the 100,000 'welcomes' is a fact and not fiction dreamt up by someone in the tourism industry.

"From my own visits to Ireland, I still enjoy -- just as I did 40 years ago when traveling with my children -- staying at an Irish farm house.

"Sitting around a dinner table, it is wonderful to watch the interplay of the lady of the house with Americans visiting for the first time.

"It was in one of these farmhouses where my children, Sharon and Gary, were told they were Irish. When they objected and told the farmer's wife they were born on Staten Island in New York, she nicely asked, 'If the cat had kittens in the teapot, would you call them tea leaves?'

"At the other end, a couple of nights in the luxury of Ashford Castle and the grounds around it are as close to heaven as I am apt to get; a couple of nights in the Sand House in Donegal give you the solitude of miles of beach -- even in Irish climate.

"For my sins, I get to own a small Irish farm, which carries no Brendan identification, near Galway. We, and a number of other operators, bring our clients along for a working farm experience.

"The farmer whistles up the dog, separates the sheep, shears the sheep and explains the economics of Irish farming. It is such a joy to watch people interact.

"You probably would be surprised at how many people do not know where the wool in their woolen sweaters originates or the number of young people who have no idea of how you get the milk out of a cow.

"Compared with 20 years ago, Ireland today is wonderfully prosperous, and that genuine fondness for Americans has in no way diminished."

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