It was a colder than normal winter in Alabama. We sat together studying, in a cold expanse under the vaulted ceilings of the library. The fluorescent lights flickered, casting shadows of books on the walls. We had been dating for over a year now, and we were in love. We leaned upon each other at the end of a long wooden table that sat between the reference books. In our first years at the university, we were feeling small and alone in a very big world.
Getting restless, I browsed the travel books, and picked up one on Ireland. I brought the book over to Susan, and together we poured over the pages. We entered into the images on the page, as if we flew over the hills, villages, cottages, and shorelines strange and wonderful. She nudged me over and over again as we talked of walking among the rolling heather-laden hills, past ancient stone fences, down the narrow streets of the mystical Irish villages.
We talked of castles and fiddles and pubs. The more we talked, the more vivid the dream became, and the closer we came to each other that cold afternoon. We really should have been studying.
We talked as if we would leave tomorrow. Our imagination warmed away the chill of the library. To fly away from this lonely place together –to thrust ourselves into some unknown beauty.
We did not study.
We were busy hoping in tomorrow – for unknown lands, shared adventures. We hoped for the end of feeling alone – we hoped to share, come what may, our little lives together. We hoped for belonging together forever. We hoped.
The attraction to Ireland is ancestral. Susan has long, thick, auburn hair, fair skin, and a generous amount of freckles making her both lovely and interesting. I am what they refer to as “Dark Irish” – dark hair, eyes, and darker skin. The common myth is we are descendants of sailors migrating up the European coast from Spain.
Susan’s ancestors settled around Roscommon, Ireland, in the central region, while mine were mainly in the south west around West Cork and Tipperary. With Ireland being such a small Island, it means our ancestors were practically neighbors. I thought to myself how amazing it would be to walk into these villages, and to meet those who knew of our families. But this would all have to wait.
…..for 42 years.
We were married that next year and immediately began a family. I completed my college degree, while Susan put hers on hold to care for what would eventually become a family of five children. She would later return to school and earn her degree.
For the next forty-two years our lives centered on providing a home for our five children. In those early years we had very little money for anything but the essentials, but we were happy. Our travels were limited to short drives within our home state, with the occasional road trip to see my parents in Minnesota. That little dream birthed in the university library lay dormant, barely flickering. Yet, each year on St. Patrick’s Day it would flare up as we would remind each other – one day, we will celebrate it in Ireland.
It happened suddenly. I received a bonus at work, one that I had planned on using to cover some over-due home upgrades, or knock back some debt. But underneath the reasonable, dutiful response was a deeper driving impulse. I knew there was really only one thing to do with it. It was time to take care of the most important thing in life – our dreams. The waiting was over.
I came home from work that evening, and after dinner I said to Susan, “How would you like to go to Ireland this summer”. Her eyes opened wide, twinkling with moist, and she squealed— “Yes, Yes”. And so, we started planning.
My Uncle Jerry has been in the travel business for fifty years, and he has a saying. “There are three parts to a travel vacation, and all are equally important— the planning, the trip, and the remembering.” I spent the next two months planning this 13 day trip— booking the flight, the car rental, the Bed & Breakfasts, and the route. Susan and I shared with each other our wish-list for this trip: To feel our feet on the Irish earth, to sit and listen to traditional Irish music played in the pubs by the local villagers, to hear the poetry of the Gaelic tongue, to roam around the ancient ruins, visit the literary haunts of the great Irish authors, and to celebrate the Catholic Mass in an Irish Basilica.
We departed from Seattle to New York’s LaGuardia and 16 hours later landed in the Shannon Airport on June 16th – a.k.a. “Bloomsday”, the day made famous in James Joyce groundbreaking novel “Ulysses”. We got off the plane, washed our face, picked up the car rental.
I made the decision to do all the driving while in Ireland. Susan and I talked about how we wanted our experience to be free to go where we wanted to go, when we wanted to go. As I thought ahead of driving on the left side of the road, in standard shift car, on narrow, windy roads, I began to have second thoughts. But the stubborn Irish in me stuck with the plan.
The first four hours of driving found me with my hands gripped tightly to the wheel- my attention on full alert, occasionally on the wrong side, side-swiping a car mirror, and brushing against bushed hiding stone walls. Susan stiffened up at every turn and occasionally lets out a shriek, and thankfully would scream out “Wrong way, wrong way!” But I gradually got comfortable, and I smiled as I noticed myself leaning back in my seat like a seasoned Irish driver.
Ireland does not use traffic lights except deep inside the larger cities. Traffic is managed by “Round-about’s” – a circular with exits radiating out like the spokes on a wheel. Sometimes there were as many as six exits to choose from, and you yield to the right, not to the left. This is where the GPS I included in the car rental became gold…my most valuable possession on this trip. Without it, I had a high percentage of getting off at the wrong exit, and not knowing it for some time.
The patience of Irish drivers should give them a special place in Dante’s Paradise. I appreciated the kind smiles as they move over until I figure out I am on the wrong side, and thought how different would be the reaction here in my state. I made the mistake of mentioning an Irish villager that I was getting used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. She corrected me kindly – “No, you are driving on the right side of the road in our country!” That turned out to be only the beginning of my “American attitude” adjustment.
We were advised to start our vacation activities immediately after landing, and resist sleeping until that night. Our first stop was the Cliffs of Moher on the western coast of Ireland. It was cold, windy, and raining hard. It did not seem to matter. Susan and I looked at each other, and began our mantra we would repeat many times over the next thirteen days, “Can you believe we are here, in Ireland?”
We walked the edge of the cliffs, looking down out at the rugged coastline being buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean. We watched tourists stand only feet from the edge in 20 mph gusts, and I wanted to ask them to please step back. Susan and I held each other as we walked the narrow path along the cliff—the ocean to the right, and green and rocky pastures to the left where sheep lazily grazed, thinking nothing of the blowing rain.
From the cliffs we drove directly to Galway City to spend several days. As we traveled along the Irish country roads, I gazed out in delight at the rolling emerald hills brushing against the wild ocean shore— partitioned into small plots by ancient stone walls. Sometimes I would pay more attention to the roadside than the road, and Susan would cry out “I’ll look, and you watch the road!” Hardly seems fair….
That night, we settled into our room at a quaint bed and breakfast (BnB) in Galway. I had booked it (and all our overnight stays) on line, and thanks to Google Maps, we got a good look at the exterior of the building as well as the immediate neighborhood. Because of this modern tool of the internet, we were able to feel a certain familiarity with our lodging before arriving.
All of the BnB’s were even nicer than I had hoped, with the exception of one. It was a seaside home, was old and the room was tiny. The queen bed touched three of the four walls, and I had to crawl over Susan in the middle of the night to use the community bathroom. But, it was clean, and like every other one, the breakfast was large and traditional, and the conversations with the manager were always informative and casual. It was the Irish “banter” every morning with the host that gave us a true sense of place. We sometimes got opinions on local politics and government that we did not ask for— reminding me that this “Emerald Isle” is a place of human struggle and challenges like everywhere else. It also became one of our unexpected pleasures as well to meet travelers at each stay and enjoy sharing “bright spots” in our travels. We would compare activities, and in that comparing, Susan and I would revise our plans based on fellow guest recommendations.
Every BnB served up the traditional Irish breakfast: A large cooked breakfast of meat (bacon, sausages and black and white puddings), eggs, vegetables and potato all fried in creamery butter, it is served with a generous helping of homemade Irish soda or brown bread for soakage and washed down with a strong cup of breakfast tea. Black pudding is the most traditional and unique breakfast item on the menu. It is generally made from pork blood and a relatively high proportion of oatmeal. White pudding is similarly made, but does not include pork blood. We both gave the black pudding our best effort. I even tried it more than once, but for Susan, one bite was enough to say she tried it. One thing was for sure, we rarely stopped for lunch after the full breakfast treatment.
Galway is a delightful, youthful, and trendy city of 75,000 with a vibrant night life, fed by both tourists and the local university. We could easily walk from our BnB to the bustling city proper and along the River Corrib. It was there we experienced our first of what would be many enchanting evenings at neighborhood public house (i.e. pubs) where both locals and tourists gather to engage in “Craic”, a Gaelic term for news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation—and to play and sing traditional Irish music. In the pubs, you would regularly see groups of three to twelve huddled around a corner table, taking turns leading traditional Irish songs. Anyone with a voice or an instrument was welcome to join the circle. We saw fourteen year old boys sitting next to eighty year old men and women, each taking turns at the fiddle, guitar, Uilleann pipes, tin whistle, accordion, or Bodhran (Irish frame drum). People entered and left the music circle at will throughout the evening.
In Galway, while walking in town, we came upon one of the musicians we had heard the night before. Susan, ever curious and never shy, went up to him and asked
“Your band last night was amazing. How long have you all played together”?
He smiled and replied “That was the first time met”.
Many of the locals have been raised since their youth to play a number of instruments and to sing, and so it is normal to have various circles of music erupt spontaneously in pubs. On the main streets of larger cities such as Galway and Dublin, we could not walk a block without running into an Irish “Busker” playing for tips and for fun. These buskers may be a solo artist, duet, trio, or a full band set up on the streets. It reminded me of the opening scene in the movie “Once” with Glen Hansard busking for tips on the streets of Dublin.
After the exhausting Trans- Atlantic flight, the time change, and the first day of sightseeing, we decided that the next day we would take a small tour bus from our B n B to tour Connemara, a region on the western coast where John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” was filmed. Susan and I stood on the bridge where the characters played by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara discovered they were in love. It was then I thought back again to the scene in the library forty two years ago, and felt gratitude and joy for this special moment. If this is what we came here for, it would have been enough.
The centerpiece of our day tour was Kylemore Abbey; a Benedictine monastery founded in 1920 on the grounds of Kylemore Castle, in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland. The abbey was founded for Benedictine Nuns who fled Belgium in World War I. The Abbey is nestled at the base of a gentle hill, just off the shore of a crystal blue lake. Wild rhododendrons bloom alongside walking paths circling the Abbey and lake. We strolled the lush grounds and ancient buildings, and I felt as if we were in another world.
This was a perfectly restful day, a needed day for me to let another drive and lead – a contemplative day as we allowed the driver to take care of us, fill us in on the hard beauty of the Connemara region, where the land gave very little, yet where the inhabitants worked extremely hard. We watched from the bus young men and boys cutting peat to sell for the evening fires in the cottages dotting the landscape. We navigated small flocks of sheep being nudged along the side of the road by their shepherd. We rode along the winding roads hugging the rugged sea shore, and I marveled at the life our ancestors lived in this beautiful but harsh land.
The next day, after a leisurely Irish breakfast, we left Galway and began our drive northeast up to the Northern Coast of Ireland to visit Susan’s friend Pauline. I did not realize when I made the decision to drive the entire country of Ireland, that the most vital piece of equipment would be my Garmin GPS. I depended on it like I depended on the car itself. We had become soul-mates. So explains my panic attack when, just as we left the city of Galway, the GPS stopped working. This meant that I would have to stop and get detailed maps, and continually refer to these maps while I am trying to numerous complicated round-about’s, navigate extremely narrow, windy roads bordered by stone walls and having only inches to spare between passing cars. Prospect for an incident –free vacation in another country just vanished.
We drove a short distance, my mind in a spin, and saw signs referring to “Knock”, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site and National Shrine in the village of Knock, County Mayo, Ireland. It is commonly accepted that here, in 1879, several villagers independently saw an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, angels, and Jesus Christ (the Lamb of God). On our return home we were to learn that this Shrine is one of the most noted Shrines in the world….and we, practicing Catholics?
While that was all well and good, all I could think about is how to find my way around Ireland for the next 11 days. After a healing mass in the Church, I got down on my knees and I prayed that when I got to my car, the GPS would work
When we returned to the car, I turned the key, started the engine, and my GPS started working again. It never failed again. Maybe it was a glitch, maybe just a coincidence, but I believe stumbling onto one of the greatest shrines in the Catholic Church, and saying that prayer in the Church, then having the GPS start working and never stop for the rest of this trip, was a personal miracle intended for the two of us. My uncle Jerry always said that it was the unplanned events, the things that went awry on a trip that would offer up the most material for lasting memories. I hoped that was the one and only.
My present relief now allowed me to settle in and thoroughly enjoy the rest of the journey. We headed north to Sligo, where we visited the grave of one of the greatest poets of all time, William Butler Yeats. This was an important destination for me, on that I appreciate Susan indulging me in. As an aspiring writer, I hoped a pilgrimage to his grave would have some supernatural effect, some lasting impact that would propel me deeper into the writing life.
I stood in silence in front of his tombstone and slowly read the inscription—as if the very act of reciting it would somehow incarnate me.
“Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!”
From Sligo we made our way up to Northern Irelands furthermost point, driving through Donegal, Derry, and finally to Susan’s friend Pauline’s village of BallyCastle. For the next few days I happily left the driving to Pauline, and we explored some of the most beautiful coastal lands I have ever seen – and I am from the Northwest! It was a joy to sit back for a few days and enjoy fully the passing scenery of this lovely countryside.
We had ocean views almost every minute of those three days, exploring castle and church ruins up and down the coast. The roads were windy and narrow, but the traffic was very light. We would drive for miles without passing a car. Imagine Hwy 1 on the California coast without cars? And, of course, we enjoyed the BallyCastle pubs!
The real highlight, though, was listening to Pauline and her brothers and sisters over a late night dinner tell harrowing tales of growing up in Belfast during the “Troubles” of the 1960’s and 70’s.
I would not have truly experienced Ireland without getting a sense of the sadness of its history. Pauline and her brother told story after story of their days in elementary school in Belfast during those years. They shared with nonchalance— the way I would share of my own harmless shenanigans in my youth. They talked of planning the safest way to walk home from school each day, or of what to say if they were stopped for questioning by a rival gang, or of going to bed to the sound of gunshots and screams. If they recited the “Our Father” with the doxology added, they were Protestants, and if not, they were Catholics. Depending on the religion of the ones questioning, they would be released, or beat up. They told of neighbors who were killed in their sleep because of the work they did for the opposing side.
As Susan and I talked about the undercurrent of sadness and tragedy that ran below the typical, traditional Irish tourist sights, it was becoming clearer to us both that our journey through Ireland was a journey of social awareness and of connectedness. You cannot really know a nation and its people from the pages of a travel guide. You may learn where to stay, where to eat, what tourist attraction is the best value, but you will not connect with the country. Touring physical landmarks, as stunning as they can be, is only a glimpse of the place— a sort of “para” traveling. To allow this journey to impact us at a fundamental level, we needed to dig underneath, like a farmer digging in winters frozen ground for the last of the potatoes. Underneath the traditional sights lies the story of a people, hardened by sorrows, but never willing to stop singing, playing their instruments, reciting poetry, or telling stories.
Prior to leaving, we had both read material on the political and religious conflicts throughout Irelands history, with the cruel absentee landlords who managed their estates inefficiently, where food was produced for export rather than for domestic consumption, leading to starvation for tenant farmers. Then came the second of Ireland’s “Great Famines”, An Gorta Mór struck the country during 1845–49, with potato blight, exacerbated by England’s decision to look the other way, leading to mass starvation and emigration. The impact of emigration in Ireland was severe; the population dropped from over 8 million before the Famine to 4.4 million in 1911. The population in Ireland today of 6.2 million is still below that of 1840. It is a country that had potential to be a great influence upon the world, but has yet to fully recover.
Then came the generations long struggle for independence from England— the Easter uprising and the following war for independence in the 1920’s, through the “Troubles” between England and Ireland in the 1970’s.
From BallyCastle we drove south to Belfast to visit Pauline’s mother—a spry, 80 year old living independently in a tiny but neat brick apartment. She insisted we have tea and biscuits at her kitchen before we went out to lunch. She was obviously expecting us— the table was set for four, a white embroidered table cloth covered the metal table. White doilies set at every chair, with tea and freshly- made biscuits in the center. She talked very simply and matter-of- factly of raising her children in downtown Belfast during such tumultuous times. She claimed that it was her faith and her Church that got them all through safely. Listening to her stories, and seeing the crucifix and statue of Mary in her humble apartment, I believe her.
We attended a Novena mass at the Belfast Cathedral (one of our hoped-for goals) followed by lunch. After lunch, we walked around downtown Belfast, and saw the many murals painted on the sides of buildings depicting heroes of the resistance to English rule. It was as if the buildings themselves bore witness to the troubled times, and to the authenticity of Pauline’s and her families experience.
We said goodbye to Paulin and her mother. I had an intuition as we drove off that this time with Pauline and her mother would have a lasting effect on both Susan and me.
We took the short drive south to Dublin, to spend two nights and three days. I was thankful for the larger multilane highway from Belfast to Dublin. By this time, I was very comfortable in my role as driver/navigator. Checking in to our room, we grabbed a bus and went downtown to walk Grafton Street where we enjoyed the world renowned Dublin street buskers, many of whom were professional musicians playing for tips in between shows.
The following day we joined a walking tour of downtown Dublin. We walked around Dublin Castle, and we roamed the cavernous library of Trinity college, marveled at the Book of Kells and other laminated manuscripts—and how it was through this painstaking process the Irish Benedictine monks saved western civilization from the Germanic invaders.
Later on, our own, we walked the luscious green spaces of downtown Dublin— Stephens Green and Merrion Square. Again, it was rainy, breezy, giving us the full Irish experience. That night after dinner of more meat and potatoes (All Irish dinners come with a side of potatoes, like it or not – not knowing this, I had several servings of potatoes.) we wandered into a pub for more music and conversation. There were several Irish duo acts performing. The music was sensational. As we sat enjoying our music, three young ladies in their twenties entered, and asked if they could share our table. They were dressed like French Cabaret dancers- fishnet stockings, garters, and flowers in their hair. They were celebrating their last night in Ireland as international students and “nannies”. They took the center stage, dancing and having a wonderful time.
Coming in a little later was a group of young ladies, dressed casually in blue jeans and sweaters. They sat down immediately next to us. They were from America studying as well. Susan and I felt the need to explain to them after some time, that the ladies at our table were not our daughters – we simply were sharing the table.
In front of us were a father and son. The son was obviously enjoying the show the dancing ladies were putting on—and they in their turn were very interested in him. So now we had a table of seven. The father and son were on vacation from Boston.
After several hours of enjoying great conversation and some of the best traditional Irish music, we took a cab back to our room. Just as we drove up, Susan discovered she had left her purse at the pub- with all her personal identification. I asked the cab to take us back to the pub. No one said a word- our minds spinning, I am thinking of what to do in the likelihood that her purse is gone.
I rushed in to our table, and we found the father and son still at our table, and there was her purse, just as she had left it. That makes two episodes that we can now talk about for years. I am hoping it will be the last.
We enjoyed Dublin so much that we decided to add another day. I had hoped to visit the Dublin Irish museum of writers. This was our chance. While at the museum, we “crashed” a walking lecture of Irish Literature by a renowned James Joyce professor. Later that day, we walked past Graham Stokers home, and visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral where Jonathon Swift was pastor and was buried. It seems crude to simply rattle all these sights off, like checking a list. For an aspiring writer, it was what invigorated and excited me. To sit and savor the space where Bram Stoker wrote, where Jonathon Swift worked, and walk down the very streets that fueled Joyce’s creativity and eventually his masterpiece – this was yet another of the surprising gifts that emerged over the two week journey to Ireland.
But leave Dublin we must, and so we headed just south to and then onto Glendalough. Powerscourt gardens are a large country estate internationally noted for its house and landscaped gardens, today occupying 47 acres. From there it was a short drive to Glendalough.
Gleann Dá Loch, meaning “The Valley of the two lakes”, is a glacial valley in County Wicklow, Ireland, renowned for an Early Medieval monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by St Kevin.
Getting out of our car, the sense of the sacred permeated the place and this moment. We are quiet, as we walk hand- in- hand down a gravel path. We both strain to see everything at once – our ancestors seem to whisper their ancient stories to us from the stone fences built by Gaelic farmers twelve centuries ago. We intuit to tread lightly, sensing that we might be trampling upon myths that rose up from the turf, and now lives in the towers and the castles and the High crosses –Grave markers for the story tellers, truths converted to stories by tale-bearers who see beneath the paths and underneath the stones – turning up peat to find them crawling unobserved, yet always there, hidden under stones and earth, discovered only when turned up by the spade.
We pause to look above the heather-laden hills where both angels and demons hover, struggling to control a spot of land worth nothing more than the small hearth inside the cottage holding a simmering pot, a taste of boiled potatoes with a sprig of garlic – and another story is born.
Quietly we leave, and for some time did not speak until we were stopped by a walking funeral procession. A Hearse led the way, but it was followed, not by a parade of cars, but by a procession of silent witnesses on foot. We were politely stopped by the apparent leader of the procession, who wished us a happy visit to his country.
As we drove on, we passed by ancient “Bee-Hive” huts, where hundreds of years ago the victims of the potato famine lived, eking out a living until they died before they grew old. We passed by what was considered “upper middle class” cottages, neatly kept with the thatched roofs overhanging the clean white walls. And we passed numerous road-side shrines, reminding Susan and me of the deep religious faith underpinning this nation. We are now entering the last leg of our journey, and we realize we have barely met this country—we are both wishing we could extend our stay by weeks.
One thing Susan mentioned that she had on her wish list was also to drive on the roads of Ireland. We had stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. It was almost empty, with a large vacated parking lot.
We decided this was a good spot for Susan to practice driving on the right side of the car in a standard shift. She got in the car as I watched, and started it up. Taking her foot off the clutch, the car lurched, and died. She tried again, with the same results. Sometimes it lurched three or four times for five or ten feet before it died. I could see her laughing at herself through the window. After some time, she had had enough, got out of the car, and turned over the keys.
She had driven in Ireland! Check.
We travel South through Cashel, spending the night with a lighted view of “The Rock” – the cathedral of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. The following day we join a guided historical tour of this ancient ruin. We then travel the southern west coastline of the Island through Kinsale, Cobh, Clonakilty, and spending the night in Kenmare.
Our final day two days takes us around the “Ring of Kerry” and into Dingle, where we spend the night at our very “cozy” BnB called “The Last Cottage”. Here we were introduced to local Dingle politics by our host, who had some very strong opinions about the way things were being run in her city!
Dingle is noted in Ireland for two things: the first, it is where “Irish” or “Gaelic” is still commonly spoken and preserved, and most all signs are still in the native Irish language. We happened into a music shop in Dingle, where a local was giving a talk on how to speak “Dingle”.
The second thing Dingle is internationally noted for is being the epicenter of traditional Irish music. In a town of less than two thousand, there are more than fifty pubs—most providing live traditional Irish music every night of the week.
On first hearing Irish spoken and sung in Dingle, it sounded like the ocean outside our Window—inspiring this poem
Swirling, churling, whirling, curling
Around my ears the words split apart
Into flying letters, flashing through and down
Corridors looking for new mates
Like electrons screaming through space
Until crashing into protons creating
This — Letters form syllables – sounds
that rattle and hum Like Bono on Temple Bar
among those most gentle folk
That would rather sing than talk their syllables
Float from their mouths like music from a plucked string
Seeking an eager ear tired of empty talk
A simple conversation in Dingle
A symphony when joined by two or more there I am
In the midst of a moment on fire with beauty
And music and friendliness and yes, Joy.
I long to hear the words of everyday
Surge like a hymn to the silence –and yes, Van.
We head north up the west coast to Shannon, where we spend our last evening at a Renaissance feast at Bunratty castle. We decided we deserved one last “tourist” event before departing.
As we take off from the Shannon airport, I look out the window at the lush green landscape as the fog erases it from my view. Susan and I are rested, and ready to be home.
There is a sense of completion, of fulfillment in us both. A winters evening day-dream born over forty years ago in a large library hall in Alabama has come true – yet unlike most dreams that become reality, we both feel the reality surpassed the dream. The dream was not really about Ireland. That was the hook, but not the story. The dream was about hope—the hope of two people, coming from different places and backgrounds, managing to cobble together a life, the same way that somehow their ancestors found each other, found a place, and built a life of hope and joy out of the rocks and turf and straw that was available.
When I look back at this trip, to all the sights, the sounds, and the people we met, I realize a guide book can never prepare you for the gifts that wait for you if you are willing to open your heart and your spirit to the message of the land. This became for us much more than taking a trip and seeing the well-known sites. This was about two people who have lived out their lives together in hope.
And hope, held onto through both good times and hard, does not disappoint.