Tag: Ireland

The Importance of Being Sheen

Back to the Raddison for dinner. Someone in our party spotted Martin Sheen at our hotel, rumor is that he lives in Galway part of the year and goes to university.

The lobby was full of Australian football players, in town for the anual Irish/Aussie grudge match of International Rules football. The Aussies stayed up all night drinking and singing, making it understandable why a gentleman sharing our elevator said, “Damned Australians. The only thing I hate more than Australians is Californians.”

Then out again to another pub, An Pucan–known for some of the best traditional Irish music in all Galway. A scruffy trio in plaid flannel and t-shirts sat at a table inside, picking out traditional reels on four string banjo, guitar and concertina. I wish they would have stayed longer–the next duo set up their microphones, guitar and Yamaha keyboard on the stage made from a Galway hooker (traditional fishing boat) and proceeded to play Roy Orbison and Elvis accompanied by a drum kit on floppy disc.

Williamstown: Barking Up the Family Tree

Williamstown Circa 1930By all appearances Williamstown is a typical Irish farming community. The population is about 300. The town consists mainly of three pubs, each next door to the other, and a church across the street. What’s different about Williamstown is that two of the three pubs are up for sale while the church is undergoing a major rennovation. I wish we had a chance to meet that priest. He must have tongues of fire dancing above his head.

Campbell's MeatballsWe stopped in the local market to see if anyone might know something about the Dillons (Maureen’s grandmother’s family) or the Nees (her great-grandmother’s family.) The woman running the cash register gave us the name of another woman who keeps all the parish birth and death records. Unfortunately I was so taken by the Campbell’s Meatballs “in AWESOME onion gravy” that I didn’t catch the name, while Kathleen and Maureen were too busy trying to de-broguify what the woman was telling us that they didn’t catch it either.

Everything happened so fast that I’m not sure I have the details straight. Next thing I knew I was in Mick Kennedy’s bar with a pint of Guiness in my hand and we were talking to a man named Finnegan who seemed to remember his father talking about the Dillons. I think he said that his father was a shoemaker and Finnegan used to run errands. The Dillons lived in a red house. But maybe his name was Ferguson and Dillon was the shoemaker. And I really think that Finnegan is the name of the woman who keeps the parish records.

Possible Site of Dillon Home

Next thing we knew Finnegan-Ferguson, whom we later gave the unfortunate name Meat-in-the-Trunk because he had a raw pot roast in a loosely knotted plastic bag pleasantly stewing on the rear shelf of his Ford Focus, was leading us out to the possible site of the Dillon home. Each of us took a turn poking his or her head through the hedgerow to catch a glimpse of “where it all began.”

Finnegan-Ferguson Meat-in-the-Trunk was very enthusiastic, taking us next to the villiage cemetery. We stampeded the place but most of the limestone grave markers were too weathered to read. A caretaker who was working at rennovating a nearby grist mill took me to one side. “There are no Dillons buried there. Some Nees, though. In the Northwest corner.” He took off his baseball cap and scratched his head. “Oh, and say hello to George for me. Tell him I don’t like him very well.”

At that point a green Eurovan pulled up. The woman in the passenger seat told Maureen that she remembered Rita (Dan, Maureen and Kathleen’s mother) from school. That was convincing proof that we’d hit the mother lode, so to speak.

I think some addresses were exchanged, meaning that I should end this post with a TO BE CONTINUED and a handful of ellipses.

Williamstown Cemetery

Connemara, for Peat’s Sake

Bog in ConnemaraPeople tell you how green Ireland is, but they’re only telling you half the story. You never hear how brown the countryside is, grass turned to rust by the high iron content of the soil. Even the fresh mountain streams run a kind of gunmetal color with yellow foam breaking around the rocks. Some places the water is red as rust– Ruamheirg is the Irish word for it.

The peat bogs are a strange habitat. They are so saturated with water and tannic acid that there is no room for oxygen. In fact, the only place on earth where oxygen is scarcer is on the Senate floor when Ted Kennedy is making a speech.

The preservative quality of bogwater is so excellent that turfcutters will sometimes turn up a bog person dating back 2,500 years or more. You would think that bog baths would be in higher demand at health spas.

Time was when every man would grab his flachter and skroghoge and cut long strips from the turf to use as fuel. These days there are machines to do most of the dirty work. The Irish still burn turf in small zinc-plated barrel stoves. The peat is processed into compact briquettes and burns with more heat than light, much like coal.

From the boglands we swung by the Twelve Bens, sometimes called the Twelve Pins.

The region is beautiful beyond words. But it’s a pitiful excuse for a mountain range. Is this the best that Ireland can cough up? The tallest mountain in the country is just 3,400 feet, and the tallest Ben is about 2,400 feet. Seeing that mountaineering poses no challenge in this fair country, athletic types have taken to running the Bens. The goal is to climb all twelve mountains–combined elevation of some 28,000 feet–in a single day. If that isn’t enough of a challenge for you there’s always bog snorkeling. With or without a mountain bike. The championships are held in Wales.

There are no peat bogs in the US, that I know of. But if you want to rekindle memories of your time in Ireland you can always have real Irish peat delivered to your door.

Geocaching Galway: A Feckin’ Wild Goose Chase

Otter Gargoyle in Galway Feck (pronounced “fake” or “fehk” in Irish) is an acceptable word in mixed company, whereas fuck (pronounced “fook”) is vulgar. Feck is an obscure word, meaning something in the neighborhood of “forceful.” The word feckless means the opposite–weak and impotent. Just don’t overuse feck or feckin’…especially not around a crowd of native Esperanto speakers or you’ll earn a reputation as a potty-mouth.

Yesterday afternoon I snuck away from Maureen and the girls so that I could have some personal time with my GPS and treasure maps to do a little geocaching. Geesh, what a nerd.

I found a longitude line in John F. Kennedy Park and stayed long enough to listen to a trio of high-energy rockers that call themselves Woof! Woof! Woof!

Woof Woof Woof

After that I wandered every way but the right way, taking pictures of chimney pots and starlings, cracks in walls and mailboxes. Something like a mixture of a Japanese tourist and Rainman. I finally found myself down by the Forthill graveyard with no place else to go.

Forthill ChurchBest I could tell, my GPS was pointing me south in the direction of Donelly’s Coal Importers. On one side of the road was a gated yard with a high link fence, some seafaring barges and a mountain of coal dust. On the other side of the road…dead people. And plenty of them.

It was getting close to supper so I decided to leave the geocaching for another day, meaning this morning.

Reviewing my charts it seems that I not only confused left with right, but I’d gotten “up” and “down” reversed–perhaps the influence of the Australians staying in our hotel, in particular the bridesmaid covered in Emu feathers.

But it was soon clear what I needed to do–hoof it and fast over the bridge at Father Griffin Road and walk out Claddagh’s Quay to the end of Nimmo’s pier. It turned out to be a longer walk than I thought. I broke out in a heavy sweat as I passed the wild swans at the dock in front of building designated by a sign reading “Galway Rovers.” Maybe this is the headquarters of Galway United, I don’t know. It looked more like a smoking and drinking club to me, Eire’s version of the VFW.

My GPS took me straight to a smallish bronze plaque with the clue to the puzzle. I followed this to a section of ancient stone wall…and broke off a few of the stones trying to find the secret Tupperware. This I found, took out stuffed Doubletree cookie man and left a keychain from a San Jose Ford dealer in its place.

I was late getting back to the hotel. Maureen was ready to tell Tom McCoy, our tour guide, to go head and leave without me. Everyone had been on the bus waiting a good fifteen minutes and they were pretty steamed…the whole feckin’ lot of them.

The Quays, Galway

The Quays

It didn’t take long for this group to find itself in a pub in Galway. The pub was The Quays (pronounced like “keys” and rhymes in Irish poetry with “today’s” and “always.”)

The decor of this pub is one part Gothic cathedral and one part shipwreck. Colored glass blocks are set in the floor and lit from below to give a stained glass effect, as if there wasn’t enough stained glass in the place already. The bar fittings and lights are polished copper and the bar rails solid brass. The floors are roughhewn timbers with gaps between them–a fact that I noticed after Emma dropped her engagement ring. It’s a good thing that the ring didn’t drop through one of those cracks, it would have gone straight to Hell, I’m sure.

There is no end to the alcoves, nooks and snugs in The Quays. Stairways lead in all directions like the Winchester Mystery House. Part of our group stayed at the bar where the Smithwick’s flowed freely. The rest of us went up one of the crazy flights of stairs and found table where we could talk.

I’ve lived most of my life not far from Disneyland and Hollywood, where things are never what they appear. So it was hard to know whether we were living an authentic Galway experience, or simply having a tourist trip designed by a pub consultant from Palm Bay, Florida. But apparently The Quays is the real deal. Originally a cottage pub with thatched roof, it became so popular that it grew into a cellar-type pub, importing the interior from a medieval French church. I have no idea when the remodel happened, but if I was wagering I’d say in the 1950s at the latest.

Irish Rovers

We reached Ireland in the dark before the dawn, flying over the towns of Doonaha, Kittish, Knock and Kilmurry McMahon. The little villages looked like light-up models of neurons–a central nucleus with branches in five or seven directions, connected to other village neurons by a ganglia of early morning motor cars. I imagined a parade of tweedy farmers each driving a small smokey car something like a Morris Minor.

Touchdown at Shannon was rather lively, the pilot seemed to have a tough time keeping the plane level. This, at a speed of 300-400 mph, gave me an opportunity to consider my own mortality.

At the airport we met up with the rest our our party. Martin and Beth were on our same flight. Kathleen; Jimmy and Mary Duffy; David, Jeanne and Daniel; Jennifer, Laura and Lee; Christy and her friend Megan–we were only waiting on Tony and Amy whose plane was delayed in Boston.

With an hour to kill we went to the airport commisary and introduced ourselves to the Irish breakfast–scrambled eggs, small uncircumcised sausages made of finely ground pork, sauted mushrooms and what appeared to be light and dark sausage patties. I asked the server what these are and what I heard her say was “vit and vek.” Later I learned that these were puddings, white and black.

Emma and I took a short walking tour of the estuary, looking at the wild swans and reed grasses. Large black crows with light grey beaks foraged for worms in the lawns around the airport.

Irish Land Rover Defender

I was surprised by the variety of automobiles in the airport car park. Weird little freeway flyers like the Ford Ka, utilitarian vehicles like the Ford Transit, and a boatload of Mercedes Benz. Land Rovers are considered luxury vehicles in the US. Here in Ireland every fifth farmer and his uncle is driving a Land Rover Discovery and towing a livestock trailer. The Land Rover Defender, considered the “Rolls Royce” of the off-road set in the US, is the Irish equivalent of the Ford Econoline, driven by window washers and utility repairmen, frequently with a couple of ladders strapped to the top.

Another thing that surprised me was the fact that many Irish have magnetic “ribbon” stickers on the back of their cars. This is a truly strange semantic leap. The yellow ribbon comes from a 1970s song by Tony Orland and Dawn, in which a paroled prisoner (or possibly a soldier returning from war, the song isn’t clear) asks his sweetheart to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree if she still wants him back. The yellow ribbon was used as a socio-political statement after a number of Iranian students stormed the US embassy and held embassy workers hostage. US citizens started wearing yellow ribbons as a way to signal that they wanted the hostages back. Now I guess a ribbon simply means “I support something.”

Day One: The Enchanted Way

Journey to Ireland This is as good a place as any to start the story: thirty thousand feet over Atlanta and about to begin our descent to Hartsfield-Jackson. My legs are griping from five hours tucked under the seat and I’m too bored to spit.

What do I expect from this trip? I’d like nothing more than to rove the wild Irish countryside. But this is a tour and our itinerary is fixed. We’ll be traveling with relations, twenty some odd first and second cousins. Each with something different on his or her mind. The only hope for survival is to be flexible.

Still, deep in my bones I sense this is a pilgrimage. A quest for something other.

The flight attendants are collecting litter now. This is the most amusement I’ve had in the past hour and a half.

I pick up the inflight earphones, each the size of an Oreo cookie and clip them to my ears. Delta radio is featuring a terrible hip-hop groove on channel nine, an over-exhuberant performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 on channel ten. Channel eleven is inhabited by a woman with a woody Gaelic lilt to her voice. She says something about Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh and segues into a familiar Irish melody:

On Raglan Road of an Autumn day
I saw her first and knew,
That her dark hair would weave a snare
That I might someday rue.
I saw the danger and I passed
Along the enchanted way.
And I said,”Let grief be a fallen leaf
At the dawning of the day.”

On Grafton Street in November, we
Tripped lightly along the ledge
Of a deep ravine where can be seen
The worth of passion play.
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts
And I not making hay;
Oh, I loved too much and by such and such
Is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind,
I gave her the secret signs,
That’s known to the artists who have known
The true gods of sound and stone.
And her words and tint without stint
I gave her poems to say
With her own name there and her own dark hair
Like clouds over fields of May.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet
I see her walking now,
And away from me so hurriedly
My reason must allow.
That I had loved, not as I should
A creature made of clay,
When the angel woos the clay, he’ll lose
His wings at the dawn of day.

Shannon River Estuary

Photo: Shannon Estuary; Raglan Road courtesy of Cantaria