Archives for category: County Clare
It looks like evening outside but it was afternoon, I think. A rare Irish rainbow in a gray sky, with a lit-up pub across the way. Doolin.

It looks like evening light outside but it was afternoon. A rare Irish rainbow in a gray sky, with a lit-up pub across the way. Doolin.

As of Monday May 20th in the afternoon, Marie and I had had zero — count em, 0 — lessons in bodhrain and hadn’t yet even managed to borrow a drum. On the other hand, Marie had taken herself into the Doolin Music shop and purchased a CD called Total Beginners Bodhrain Lesson. She showed it to me triumphantly when she picked me up to go have lunch. Delighted by her ingenuity, I said, “If we had a CD player we could start to teach ourselves how to play, if we had a drum.”

But we didn’t. I’d be leaving Saturday morning, and Marie not long afterwards. If Blackie or someone didn’t start teaching us soon, we’d miss our opportunity to learn, which had been the whole point of the trip. This prospect seemed bleak, especially as I was hungry and broke and couldn’t find anywhere to buy groceries.

So we went out for lunch. Our third meal in Doolin was the third one we’d eaten out (at a cafe or pub, not in the hostel), and like all the others, it was fantastically down-to-earth and satisfying. Soup and chips for me; fish casserole for Marie.

At McDermott's, we were just about the only patrons at lunchtime.

At McDermott’s, we were just about the only patrons at lunchtime.

We were almost the only people in McDermott’s, the third we’d visited of Doolin’s  famous live-music pubs.Marie's lunch: fish casserole, no chips, more brown bread and butter It’s a red-trimmed, white building, old and redolent of live music and live craic, and like the other two pubs its walls are hung with interesting photographs of the same pub in the old days with the old musicians and the old craic.

As we sat looking around at all the interesting stuff on the walls they have to look at while you’re sitting there, I glanced out the window and noticed a rainbow. Despite the frequent concurrence and collision of rain and sun in Ireland, I’d never seen a rainbow there before. I took a photo out the window: it shows not only the rainbow but McGann’s pub across the street, plus a reflections of the interior of McDermott’s, plus a reflection of my face looking pleased and surprised as I looked at the rainbow.

Marie and I ordered lunch from the only other person in the place, a a slim, short-haired barmaid of about 30. We we both thought she was a lesbian, though Marie was more sure than I. We engaged her in engaging conversation, and she was happy to pose for photos and answer questions about the town, but didn’t proffer any information about “where women went to meet.” She was cheerful and funny, though, about the pub and the clientele, and we liked her.Nice barmaid, cropped Finally, Marie asked her who took care of her little boy when she was at work, and she said, happily, “my husband.” I nudged Marie and reminded myself that a) just because a woman is make-upless, short-haired, and outspoken doesn’t make her a dyke, and b) my gaydar sucks.

It’s fortunate that Doolin’s increasing popularity with tourists has meant that more shops have opened – music shops, a used book shop, craft shops, as well as numerous new cafés. It’s unfortunate that the groovy, independently owned, desirable businesses have edged out the one place in town where a person could buy groceries. On previous visits to Doolin, I could walk a half mile or so from the hostel down the main street to buy loaves of bread, wedges of cheese, apples, and the other staples of hostel cuisine.

But on this visit, the only food available within walking distance was that which someone else hd prepared and would serve at a decent table at a decent price. The first day I arrived, a Sunday, I went hopefully to the weekly outdoor “market” but found it full of handcrafted Irishobelia but almost nothing edible. I did, however, get a loaf of designer bread.

By Monday afternoon, after three restaurant/cafe/pub meals, I was eager to stop dropping $15 every time I ate. Happily Rob, the hostel owner, offered me a lift to the nearest place I could stock up: a small shop attached to a petrol station about 3 miles out of Doolin. Rob needed tpetrol, and he said he’d wait while I picked up some supplies.

About the size of the smallest convenience stores in America, the place had tins of beans and packets of soup, and cabbages and apples and enough potatoes and onions to feed everyone who could walk or hitch there from Doolin. I got tinned soup, butter, eggs, and carrots and crackers to supplement the Cashell Blue cheese.

When I walked out of the little shop, clutching to my bosom several of the the tiny, waxy, flimsy paper sacks that Irish shopkeepers use to punish people who forget to bring proper bags, Rob was waving me over to the side of the forecourt. He wanted me to meet a friend he’d just run into: a wild man, tall and angular, with bad teeth and great white hair flying around his large head like a halo.Willie Daly is the official matchmaker of the Lisdoonvarna festival and, it turned out, willing to take on occasional work as a bodhrain tutor!DSCF0746

As I approached (careful not to let the apples tumble from their envelope), the wild-, white-haired, big-headed man – I got an impression of an Irish Rastafarian Lion King — was talking about his main line of work, i.e. getting people married at the match-making festival. Probably for my benefit, he was saying, “Yes, the best time is between about 11.30 and 4 a.m.; that way they don’t know what’s happened till the morning. I introduce them in the pub. Instead of saying, “How are you?” the boy asks “Will you marry me?” and the girl says yes, then in the morning it’s all done.”

I knew  then that, if I ever got a lesson in bodhrain playing, it was going to be interesting. I received from Willie a promising hug and half a promise of a possible drumming date sometime to be planned at a later time, before I left, to be sure.

That evening, Rob joined us for a drink before we went out to the pubs. In the big hostel kitchen – the only one I’ve ever seen in which there is a) enough room for everyone’s stuff and b) a supply of clean, dry dishtowels, I attempted to prepare enticing snacks. Despite the limitations on presentation, I cut up apples and sliced carrots, and laid out water crackers in an even curve around large, crumbly mounds cut from the huge Cashell Blue. Marie came in to see if I wanted help, saying, “I’m sitting out there like a visiting dignitary.” She took out the food and we sat with Rob on the L-shaped bench by the fire and ate Cashell Blue and water crackers and  sliced apples and carrots. They drank the excellent Irish reserve whiskey – I’d swiped several of the little gift bottles that my table-mates had left behind at the Castle Martyr reception — and I drank the excellent tap water.

The best session that night, Rob told us, would be at McDermott’s. So about 9.30, in the warm-cool, pink-yellow dusk, when I wanted to go to sleep, instead I walked with Marie the half mile or so back to the the pub where we’d had lunch.

What a difference six hours and a world-class local band made. The place that had been nearly empty at lunchtime was crowded, and as soon as we opened the door we encountered a wall of sound – but not like the electronic wall of ear-bashing speaker-sound at a rock concert. This was a soft, dry-stone wall of sound, old as the earth and equally natural.

In one corner of the pub stood Blackie and Cyril, this time with banjo player Karol. Karol was a wavy-haired man with a sweet, square face DSCF0515 -Foolin in Doolin McDermott's Blackie, Karol, Cyriland an even sweeter sound on the banjo, a great accompaniment to Blackie and Cyril: this was the full, official Foolin’ in Doolin.

Once again, I was thrilled by the music and by the crowd’s engagement with the music. Marie and Andrea, a German woman from the hostel, and I had to stand up at first, but then found a couple of stools, and eventually took posession of a bench that was vacated in the first break.

Marie in center, Andrea from Germany on right of photo.

Marie in center, Andrea from Germany on right of photo.

While Marie grabbed the seats, I got a round in for us and bought pints for Blackie et al as well. Blackie passed by on his break, and I got a quick word with him on his way out to smoke. I told him again how great the sound was, and asked how his gig had gone that afternoon. “It was great,” he said. “Savage.”

“Savage?”

“Yeah, savage is great, awesome. Fekkin’ savage.”

He reminded me that after that night’s gig he’d lend me his drum. We clinked glasses and I went back to Marie and our friend to share my new vocabulary word. She and Andrea were in merry conversation which I could not hear over everyone else’s merry conversations, but I drank my cider and looked around at all the people apparently enjoying themselves and wished once again that a) we had pubs like this in Florida or b) I could get to Ireland more often or c) I lived in Ireland.Good night at McDermott's & the view from my table

DSCF0549In the second set, Marie could no longer sit still, but got up to do her tap routine set to the Irish jig rhythm, which she’d been practicing for some weeks in preparation for her mother’s upcoming birthday. She stood up and danced, alone, and was much smiled at and praised, and Blackie said after the songs, “Well done the dancer,” which made me proud of her. DSCF0544

Also, a woman bent over me at the table to tell me that my friend’s dancing had “made her night,” that she always herself wants to get up and dance but doesn’t have the courage. She seemed truly delighted by Marie, which delighted me (and Marie, too, when I told her). On the next song, Marie had someone else to dance with her.

DSCF0548

Below is a link to a short video of Marie dancing. Worth it just to hear the music, though the visual is a bit confusing. It may look like film taken by a tipsy amateur who was using Marie’s new Iphone and was unfamiliar with how phone-video cameras work, but really Marie is just a really good dancer. She can dance up the walls, going horizontal without breaking rhythm. She turns the place on its head!

After a few more tunes, a man came up to the front of the room near the band with a broom. I thought that someone had knocked over a drink and he was clearing up, but in fact the broom was his partner. As Foolin’ in Doolin did another superfast reel (or jig – I can’t usually tell the difference, despite my Texan teacher demonstrating for me many times that a reel beat matches the rhythem of “ag-i-ta-ted all-i-ga-tor” and a jiggoes “cho-co-late, cho-co-late, ch-co-late”) the man lay the broom down and hopped and skipped fast over it, with his heels clicking, but soon he lifted the broom up higher so he was jumping as well as dancing, faster and faster, like a Russian acrobat, defying gravity and normal space-time limitations, and the bodhrain grew louder and the music whirled upwards, till he – clack — dropped the broom and quick grabbed it up again, an incident for which he later apologized to Marie and say he hadn’t danced for years and was out of practice.

But Marie asked him to dance and they instantly made a grand pair – she learnt some Irish steps from him, and they got more  approval and more space as people obligingly shuffled their stools and chairs back, giving room.

Marie learning steps from Broom-Dance Dude in McDermott's

Marie learning steps from Broom-Dance Dude in McDermott’s

More women got up to join in, and then a few more men, and then our German friend, and by the last tune I was up along with Marie and Broom-dude and Andrea and everyone else, all of us grooving Gaelically in the small spaces between the tables, and people smiling and taking our picture and then leaning around us to see the musicians. We were getting our Gaelic moves down and about to get a drum to learn on, and everyone in the pub was having a really good time in time to this terrific music. It was savage crack. Fekkin’ savage.

DSCF0551 Blackie lending us a drum

Many pubs have signs like this one, keeping a few seats for the musicians.

Many Irish pubs have signs like this one, holding a place for the musos  to sit among the crowds who come to see them.

Note to readers: I have no photos from this evening. In lieu of visual aids, please click on this YouTube link and let the music (by Foolin in Doolin, Blackie O’Connor’s band) play as you read my blog.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3-6PiBCzFU

From Doolin, Ireland, on Monday, May 20, 2013

“Have you a few drinks in you?” Blackie looks closely at me, his black eyes shining through the black curls surrounding his long, narrow face. It’s about 8.30 p.m. in McGann’s pub where plenty of people already have a few drinks into them, so it isn’t an accusation, just a sympathetic enquiry.

“No, I’m just slow,” I admit. “And dopey.”

Like O’Connor’s pub (see “Buttersweet” blog entry), McGann’s is another famous music pub in another very old building where the wooden beams are steeped in three centuries of pipe and cigarette smoke. Marie and I have come to Ireland and this pub with a soft-edged plan to meet Blackie O’Connor (no relation to the pub) , a musician who’d been recommended to me before my trip by Failte Ireland.

I’d phoned Blackie a few weeks before the trip, to ask for drum lessons. I told him that Marie and I were coming to the center for Irish music (Doolin) to learn how to play the instrument that I mispronounced “BOUGH-rain,” and he’d corrected me, saying, “BOE-rohn” and thus giving me my first lesson. Though his speech was quick and his wonderful accent thick, I’d understood him to say that he’d “be very happy” to help us out and lend us a bodhrán, though he himself was not a teacher, so we could “learn the bodhrán and have the craic.

Note: as anyone who has spent five minutes reading any guidebook or searching any website (e.g. www.ireland.com) to Ireland knows, craic is a Gaelic word, meaning “good time,” or, specifically, “good time in a pub involving drink and live music.” It’s pronounced “crack.” One of the Irish slang synonyms for “fun-loving person” is “ho” (as in “ho-ho-ho”), so I have deduced that when entering Ireland it’s perfectly respectable to tell the immigration authorities at passport control that you are visiting their country as a “craic ho.”

Entering McGann’s is like entering O’Connor’s in that there is no music audible from outside, but as soon as we open the thick wooden door and walk in through the thick stone walls, we hear singing and playing. But in McGann’s two things are different: 1) the music we hear on entering is a recording, and 2) I do not recognize the layout. Apparently I didn’t go to McGann’s in my trips of 1996 or 2001, or if I did, I’d had too many lager and lies (stet) to remember it.

Marie and I take a seat in the back of McGann’s as far as we could get from the American woman who offers to move her stuff so we can sit next to her and her boyfriend. Both of us are hungry and surprised to be hungry, me especially given that I’ve eaten a breakfast of Irish vegetarian champions (scrambled eggs, thick brown toast with butter and strawberry jam, baked beans, and anachronistic and imperfectly cooked haloumi with pesto and red pepper) at midday. But by the time we reach McGann’s it was 9 p.m., or 4 p.m. in Florida, so soup and green salad sound fantastic, along with my soda water and Harp lager for Marie.

The American woman’s boyfriend sounds bad. Tall and bushily red-haired and red-bearded, he’s  telling a story at top volume in a harsh, nasal, possibly Chicagoan accent. He’s almost shouting about how he told the people at work he was going to Ireland, and a coworker asked him how long it’d been since he’d been back, and even though he’d never set foot on Irish soil before, and he – oh soul of Chicago wit – had said, “Fourteen years,” ha ha ha HA! The point of this long, loud retelling is that the teller looks Irish, but this is not a point worth making: anyone with red hair can be said to look Irish.

But soon there will be much better things to listen to, and for now there’s plenty to look at. The pub has red tiled floor and walls of light knotty pine, but old light knotty pine so it doesn’t look glossy and fresh like my cottage in California with its relatively new pine walls from the 40s. High above eye level, just under the roof, runs a shelf holding things to look at, such as a yellow-and-green ceramic jug with a flower on it, a Chivers Jelly box, odd glasses, a wooden box coffee grinder, a rust-pocked red kettle, a large, colored cardboard box — marked importantly ‘EGGS’ — a pewter tankard, and four or five flatirons.

As Marie and I partake of soup and salad – both accompanied by brown bread and butter, like every meal we will have in Ireland – a very tall, thin young man with a curly black ponytail walks by, winking at me en passant. Even though I imagine he winks at everyone, and even though I’m twice his age, I’m still pleased. I like Ireland.

Ten minutes later the ponytailed man is setting up his mike in the musician’s corner and taking something like a big flute out of a big bright red case. The man who has winked at me is Blackie, the one we’ve come to meet!

When I step over to introduce myself, Blackie seizes my hand and welcomes me, his long thin sad face turning happy. He sets aside his instruments and comes back to meet Marie, kissing her on the cheek. “We’ll work you hard this week,” he promises. Then he says, “I was supposed to bring you a drum, but I haven’t. I’ve to play it tomorrow morning, though it’d be a year and a half since you’d catch me with a drum.” The quick speech, pure black eyes, and unfamiliar use of tenses confuse me, but I assure him it’s no problem that he wouldn’t be lending us a drum that night.

We’re eager to set up a lesson, but neither Marie nor I can pin him down to a specific time, place, or teacher, at least not as far as we can tell. His friend Geraldine McGann (no relation to the pub) is coming later, and she too has said she’ll give us a “get to know your bodhrán” session, but she too claims not to be a “proper teacher.” Both she and Blackie have offered to help us get proper lessons later, but it’s Monday night and there’s no drum nor lesson in sight, and I’m leaving on Saturday.

“So will you like a lesson later in the week?” I think that’s what Blackie is saying, or maybe at least that’s his meaning, or at least that’s what I’ve been thinking he is going to say based on what I’d thought he’d said on the phone some weeks back, wasn’t it?

“Yes, when?” I said. “Any day. Any time. I’m at the hostel and Marie’s next door.”

“I’m out tomorrow afternoon,” he said, “playing with [more unfamiliar names]  at [some town I’d never heard of]. But I can lend you my drum after that. And Geraldine will help you tonight a bit, perhaps.”

“Would you give us a lesson, then?” I said, confused. “Or would she? Or did you say something about someone else?”

“Ah, well, we’ll see about a lesson for you,” he says. “What day would you like?”

“Any day is fine,” I repeat. “Anytime. But I have to leave on Saturday.”

“Ah,” he says. “And today is Monday, isn’t it? I’m here tonight…” he rattles off a bunch of names, days, times, and places, all of which sound similar. McGann’s on Monday with Geraldine McGann, or O’Connor’s tomorrow or McSomeone else’s on Wednesday for a lesson perhaps that day or the day before or after or both, if I like, in the pub or before or after the session in the hostel perhaps, someone will call someone, here’s his cell phone number.

I could not keep up. “So, when might we get a lesson in, do you think?” I say, politely.

That’s when he looks at me with that devastating, sympathetic gaze. Probably his eyes are just very, very, very dark brown, but they appear black.  “Ah,” he says, suddenly seeming to understand. “Have you a few drinks in you?”

I give up, but hope that Geraldine will sort out some kind of lesson for us later in the evening.

Geraldine turns up and turns out to be built like me, but unlike me she is wearing a tight black jacket and even tighter black jeans and enviable ankle boots. She has big, shiny, diamante earrings and a big, shiny, off-white smile, and she gives the impression as she shakes my hand that she is giving me a hug and kiss at the same time.

“I’m no kind of a teacher,” she says. “I taught myself as a child and just to make some noise, so, but I spoke to a man who’d give me some things I can show ye, shure. I’ll come to you at the break and we’ll have a chat, like.”

Marie flew in from Florida the day before, and I’d been conferring hard at my conference for the last several days, so we both want to go to our respective rooms and respective beds, but in order to get Geraldine’s help we stay till her break. I am glad we do, because the music she and Blackie and the banjo player Cyril play is so fantastic that even I, musically illiterate and usually unable to concentrate on sound, find it compelling. Actually, I find it far more than compelling – I respond to it the way my sister and my other music-loving friends respond to music they respond to: I love it. Listening to it was so good I sometimes closed my eyes, but when I opened them again to look at the musicians or gaze around — I’m in Ireland! in a pub! —  there’s a lot to look at.

Up by the bar as in many bars and shops in Ireland are the multicolored, palm-sized, cloth badges of American public servants and sports teams: the Boston Fire Department and the Nashville EMTs and the Los Angeles Police Department and the public works and baseball teams of small towns in Kentucky and Idaho and a veterinary service clinic from Hawaii. All of the badges look fresh and stiff and official, as if torn off a brand-new uniform. I wonder if I should bring a handful of badges on my next visit, to endear myself to the publicans and shopkeepers of Ireland, and if so, how I will acquire those badges when I don’t know even one American who is a firefighter, police officer, professional sport player, or public servant, unless you could count my mail carrier, a lovely blond lady called Karen, and I don’t think the Manatee County USPS employees have badges.

On the other hand, my best friend’s son is a reservist in the US Marines, and four months ago I met in a bar an attractive lesbian whom my friend Marie insisted was a transgender man, who was a police officer. She claimed to be a better shot than any of the men in her squad or team or whatever they call her coterie of shooters, but she wasn’t in uniform, and I’ve lost her number, so I don’t know if she wears a badge or if I could get one, but I’ll work on it. Maybe the fire-fighters sell badges as fundraisers, the way the police fraternal league sends out decals to affix to the driver’s side window of your car so that if you get pulled over for a ticket, the first thing you do when the cop approaches is make sure the window is fully rolled up, so that he’ll see that you’re a Supporter of The Law and not a public menace even if you were doing 40 in a 25. Failing that, maybe I can buy badges on Ebay.

Meanwhile, I get Blackie a pint of Guinness and he looks up through his waves of hair and says, “Gillian, you’re a star,” and even though he meets a million people, he has remembered my name, so I’m flattered even though we did just meet in person a few minutes ago and anyone could remember a name of a person who’d been emailing and whom they’d just met. Still,I don’t usually merit attention from young, good-looking musicians, especially not men, and never in my life from a famous Irish fiddler, since I’ve never met one before, and it’s fun to meet one who looks like a hip warlock and speaks so nicely and who winked at me.

For the performance Blackie has pulled his ponytail out so the curls are dangling down his shoulders as he plays, and the Irish bagpipe is huge and unwieldy across his narrow lap. After the first song, Blackie’s joined by bandmate Cyril, who, sitting wide-kneed and scraggly haired with a mandolin in his arms, looks as if he’d seen many years of long nights in pubs. There’s gray in his wild hair and the way his glasses fit deep into his eye sockets suggests that he makes up for lack of sleep with Jamieson’s.

After the second song, he unsmilingly introduces first himself and Geraldine, then Blackie. He murmurs drily against the terrific applause for Blackie, “He’s well known in these parts.” The applause increases, and Cyril adds cryptically, “We love ourselves, don’t we?” Though he has little facial expression, everything he says about Blackie seems insulting and funny. He mutters that Blackie is playing “the pipes,” about which “he’ll give a short lecture later on.”

And then all three of them play and sing and break our American hearts because we will never be Irish. Blackie, Cyril, and Geraldine sit on narrow black benches in the corner and sing like the future of your favorite life. Between, before, and sometimes during songs Blackie and Cyril laugh hard at something no one else knows about, and the laughter blends with the music, their human noises building and harmonizing even as they play their instruments with their faces turned down. It’s as if they’re laughing at the floor, as if the floor is cracking them up, and some other spirit is playing the music for them while they have a laugh.

The three of them sit simply on their bench, making a perfect storm of perfect sounds, and in between verses Geraldine raises her chin at us and lifts a happy thumb to see if we’re okay, and I raise my glass back to her.

Again, I think about how accepting Irish people are. Here are the musicians and the stars of the crowded pub treating us like old friends. Crowded cheerfully into the pub’s two little rooms are many dozens of people of all ages and degrees of dental health, all kinds of bodies in a range of shades of pale, from the “black Irish” white skin to the freckled redheads, and everyone is welcome for the craic.

All the singers I’ve seen so far on this trip have been chubby or pinched, and the men playing music are often wizened or wearing weird clothes. Even beautiful Blackie’s in a floral, black-and-white, long- sleeved button down shirt and jeans faded to blue-white like the spring skies when it’s not raining, and I believe that he put no thought into what he would put on that night, though it looks great on his Black Irish self anyway. I think how far it is from how an American band would dress themselves, how they’d present their image and their songs to match their outfits.

When Geraldine picks up her bodhrán I tell Marie, “Watch, she’s going to play now.” But I can’t see because Geraldine’s left-handed like me, which is great for my hopes of learning to play from her, but I’m on her right side, kind of behind her, and can’t see the drum. After a few minutes of staring at her rocking torso I hear a sound like the pub’s heartbeat and only then realize that she’s playing.

The reel gets faster fast, and Blackie adds some amazing-grace notes, and the pipes and mandolin players play so fast their fingers blur, and if I could see Geraldine’s left hand I’m sure it’d be even blurrier. I’m so excited I’m tapping the table, jigging knees, clapping hands, tapping toes, bobbing my head up and up and down and down, and I call to Marie, “Just think, in a few days we’ll sound just like her!”

I’m joking but I’m hopeful, too, thinking how, after most of a lifetime of listening to this music, starting when I was 17 at The Place when Joan Ogden kept bringing home people to play folk music, and after 20+ years of owning the instrument my sister bought me when she was learning fiddle, finally finally I’m going to learn to play the drum, the bodhrán.

The bodhrán – I feel it as much as hear it, reverberating under me through the wooden bench and the stone floor. The beat’s in front of me, in the bobbing heads of a man and woman, whose silhouette is suddenly joined by two tiny hands flung up: a previously unseen child on the woman’s lap is praising Glory in time to the bodhrán, her little starfish fingers spread wide, her mum jogging her in time, her daddy flopping his head and long hair up and down for his little girl like an 80s rock star, all in time to the music she is growing up to and will learn to play in time, in time.

Less coordinated and less cool than the exuberant infant, I’m tapping and jigging everything, thwacking the table with my fingers like sticks, tipping my toe and sometimes stomping a heel on the floor, stomp, stomp, clack. It’s all, all of it, so fast and fluid, so fluid and getting even faster, yes, and I feel as if I’m matching the drum. Surely I can do this with a tipper in my hand and a bodhrán on my knee. Maybe for once, I’ll be a natural at something. I understand that this is the first lesson from Blackie — this immersion and enthusiasm is the unschedulable learning. I understand!

Maybe, I think, in the light and misty heat of the spinning music, my lost Irish roots will blossom into buds of musical ability that have only to be nurtured with whiskey and rainwater and practice every day. Right.

Doolin, County Clare, Ireland

May 19, 2013

Marie fits in so well here I didn’t recognize her in the Shannon airport. As I was looking up at the arrivals board, and thinking it was her flight from JFK that was going to land 3 hours late, I was approached by a blond woman wrapped in gray and green wool, with a cute wool cap, walking towards me, looking Irish and intent. Only when she was within a few yards did I realize it was Marie. She was not only not late but was bundled up ready to leave the airport, having been waiting for some hours.

Marie in front of Aille River Hostel, DoolinHer dark green coat, gray hat, and wool scarf hid her figure and face, which was why I hadn’t recognized her. She looked much like many of the other, Irish women in the airport, and out in the Irish air and rare Irish sunshine she blended into the landscape, as if she’d lived there all her life.

She looked great, but we were both tired. She’d had no sleep on the plane, and I’d had little, having spent the last night of the travel writers’ conference at a long, strenuous reception/cheese tasting/whiskey tasting/dinner at the old Jameson distillery, County Cork (see photos below of exterior of distillery and interior of reception area with first spread of food).

Meeting Patrick Perry was one of the highlights of a great conference.

Meeting Patrick Perry was one of the highlights of a great conference.

Even I who hate whiskey had been taken by the ginger-lime-Jameson’s cocktails. Quite taken.

This was the spread in the reception area -- before the cheese tasting, before the whiskey tasting, and before our four-course dinner. Is it any wonder I gained weight? Note the Kerrygold cheese, of which I ate my own bodyweight.

This was the spread in the reception area — before the cheese tasting, before the whiskey tasting, and before our four-course dinner. Is it any wonder I gained ahem a few pounds? Note the Kerrygold cheese, of which I ate my own bodyweight.

*                                                          *                                           *

After our taxi-ride from the airport and after we’d both had a rest in our respective rooms, Marie and I set off up the main street of Doolin. Well, I think we walked “up,” but perhaps we walked down it. The street went uphill in both directions from the B&B and the Aillie River Hostel, where Marie and I respectively were staying; the direction we took was towards the coast, and towards the slightly more shop-dense end of the village, so would you say we went up, or down?

Aille River Hostel cropped

Aille River Hostel, Doolin, my favorite hostel in the world, which recently was named Best Hostel in Ireland

Whether it was up or down, we walked about half a mile to O’Connor’s pub, because Ann the Aussie hostel warden had told us they’d have music at O’Connor’s “in the afternoon.” It was about 7 p.m. then, still yellow sunlit daytime to my eyes, and I wasn’t sure what time the locals thought “afternoon” began or ended, but I was hoping for a “trad session,” or in other words some live traditional Irish music. Although I didn’t know which way I was going or what time of day it was, I tempted the rain by not wearing my raincoat but only a warm wool sweater and a thick wool cardigan that comes down to my thighs. In Ireland in May, that’s living on the edge.

Blinded by the sunlight, 7 p.m. in May, County Clare

Blinded by the sunlight, 7 p.m. in May, County Clare. Photo by Marie Corbett

It stayed brilliant sunshine all the way to the pub, as bright as it would be in Florida at about 5 p.m., but the yellow light was mellower than it is in the tropics, maybe tinged by the glowing green fields. The cows, rust- brown and cream, glowed, too, not only from the shine of their mink-like coats but also from their timeless, deep, inner beauty. Their faces show their sense of fulfillment, and their dark cow-eyes shine with bovine well-being. Dove’s Natural Beauty campaign could hire them as plus-size models.

Cows in Doolin

Gillian sampling Kerrygold butter at Ballymaloe, Ireland

Nothing says “Ireland” quite like a gob of butter.

The butter here (or at least the Kerrygold butter of which my friends and I partook so heartily) is as yellow as egg yolks, from all the beta-carotine in the milk that comes from the cows that eat the grass that grows extra-green from all the rain that falls from the gray clouds, which hang above the land perpetually and precipitously except for that Sunday afternoon, or evening, when the light slid through partings in the clouds like an Irish blessing across the narrow road we walked on the wrong side of, and we did not get hit by any cars, but there weren’t very many cars that afternoon, or evening, and we were as happy as little butter balls, rolling along to the pub.

Writer Sarah Rose partaking of a bit of Irish butter at Ballymaloe

Writer Sarah Rose enjoying a bit of Irish butter

Ellen Redmond and another lovely Irish lady, sampling Kerrygold

Above: Impromptu butter tasting  at Ballymaloe.

*                              *                           *

I was hoping not only not to get hit by any of the cars but also that it was late afternoon, as I’d been told cheerfully by Ann the warden that the heat in my room would come on “in the afternoon.”  She’d said that about 1.00 p.m., after I’d checked into my room and checked it out and found it sunless and chilly. Although I didn’t want to seem American and demanding, I pleasantly asked her if “afternoon” – and the advent of the heat – might be about 3.30 p.m., to which Ann from Australia slightly less cheerfully said no, not that early, but later in the afternoon.

thumb_doolin_02

Thumbnail image courtesy of Gus O’Connor’s pub’s website. The pub is much bigger in real life.

Marie and I reached the wide wooden door of Gus O’Connors pub, which is at the top (or bottom) of the village, in an old building near a few new craft and music shops in adjacent old buildings and not much else. From the outside, it didn’t seem as if there were any music, but as we stepped in the wide entry, two things happened: first, I remembered the whole layout of the place, including where the barmaids and the musicians would be; second, we heard faint but lively and distinctively live music, coming from the rear through about twenty feet of thick stone walls and around dozens of thick bodies on stools, in booths, and at tables.

Marie went back to find seat near the music, and I went to the corner of the half-square bar get the drinks, and one of the bodies at the bar addressed me, asking if I were there on holiday, which is a pretty sure bet for a positive response here in Doolin, as the entire town is full year round and especially now, in mid-May, with people coming from around the world to hear trad music, and he’d heard me speak with an American accent, so he knew I wasn’t local, so it was slightly disingenuous, but still friendly. I appreciated it.

I got the drinks in – half of sweet cider for me, half of Harp lager for Marie – and we found a bench seat with a back directly to the musicians, so we turned 180 degrees and put our legs at odd angles and peered over the back to watch as we listened. Not only the layout was the same as last time I was there, in 2001 with Nic, but also the bar staff were the same and the customers were the same and the musicians looked the same as last time and identical to all the photos on the wall of the all the musicians who have been there forever, including those in black-and-white photos of women in cat’s-eye glasses and men in hornrims, and even older pictures with the men in suits and boots, and they were playing the same instruments as well: a sort of banjo-mandolin thing, and a flute, and a guitar and sometimes other things which I could not identify, although they sounded familiar.

No bodhrán appeared, but the beat was kept by the accordian player, a bald-headed, smooth-faced, round-skulled man who looked more capable of smiling and speech than the other musicians, who mostly looked as if they were awaiting unanesthetized dentistry, even as they played wild and gay Gaelic jigs and reels at speed that always seemed to increase, never slow down.Gus O'Connor's musos, May 19 2013

The fiddler – I could tell it was a man by the flat outline of his green jacket and wide shoulders – kept his head so far down that his long black curls obscured his face. Most fiddlers face upward or at least forward when they play, but this one tucked the fiddle under his chin and hunched over it the whole time, like an model for hair conditioner or Irish angst.

His fiddle-playing was terrific. We couldn't see his face, though.

His fiddle-playing was terrific. We couldn’t see his face, though. Photo by Marie Corbett.

Between songs – which were long, maybe ten minutes – the men took up their glasses and drank about a third of a pint in one serious draught. In that way they made up for the period of time in which they were not drinking, and kept up with their peers who were not playing.

Although so much was the same, the great difference between that night and the last time I was there, twelve years ago, is that there was no smoke. Twelve years ago and sixteen years ago, being in that pub meant straining to breathe through a cloud hanging at eye-level and above, all the way up to the dark-stained-yellow beams, smoke so thick it made us cough and order pints. But as a consequence of the anti-smoking laws enacted in the early 21st century, I could that evening in 2013 see the things on the walls, and even see windows in the walls. It was great to be able to breathe without a sensation of internal burning, and I breathed quite a bit, enjoying the pure air as much as my cider and the newly visible decorations. I looked at the photos of musicians, the painted mirrors, US license plates and dollar bills. I could see the windows – no two alike, and not one set square in a wall — and the stained glass in some windows. Across from me was “Slainte” (pronounced “SLAHN-shuh,” and pronounced often) which means “cheers,” and some faint pink curls and ribbons that looked suitable for a stained glass window in a 1920s Parisian haberdashery.

I told Marie that she was the best drinking companion I’d taken to O’Connor’s. The first friend I took there drank like a college kid – because she was 23 – and the second would embarrass me by going in pubs and ordering orange juice or cups of tea. But Marie was born in a remote part of Newfoundland where everyone sounds, looks, and drinks like their Irish ancestors, and she ordered a few sequential halfs of Harp which she drank in moderation, leaving her glass on the table for long periods while she looked gently around the pub and made occasional interesting comments. For instance, she told me that she owns a harpsichord, and that many of the men in the pub looked like her cousins and uncles from Newfoundland.

For the first time since I’ve known Marie – 2 or 3 years – I had pencil and paper and time to ask her about her 40+ first cousins, and we ended up doing a bonsai family tree for her, showing the Annes and Catherines, showing Cyril, Len, and Martin, and Francis, Mary and Joseph!  And it showed other relatives in family groups of 11 and 13 and 4, those who died and those who lived, those who  stayed in Newfoundland and those who emigrated across the US and beyond. Marie mentioned that one of her uncles had been a construction worker on the Empire State Building, which pleased me because one of my uncles (Bill Williams) also worked on the ESB. Maybe our uncles – Marie’s and mine – might have known each other, worked together, even been friends who drank together in an Irish pub in New York in the days when Clare was an even longer way from there.

And that brings me back to the music. My favorite Irish song is one I first heard in Texas, which goes “It’s a long, long way, gets further by the day, it’s a long long way from Clare to here.”  The nostalgia and un-provable, improbable logistics of this homesick-making song are emotionally enhanced for me by the fact that “Clare” spelled that way is my middle name, a fact that does not hearken to my ancestral lineage even though my ancestor Mary Scanlan did come from this county, but to the fact that my mother liked the name ‘Clare’ and spelled it without the ‘i’ for reasons she has never explained. It’s a great song. I have asked for it several times from trad music players in Northern Ireland, New Jersey, and Alabama, but no one has ever been able to sing or play it for me; indeed no one I’ve spoken to has ever even heard of it.

But earlier that day, I’d seen it. After arrival, I’d gone to the open market, which like everything else is “just across the road” from the hostel (i.e., over the bridge and down or up the street). The market was, fittingly, in a “marquee” behind a hotel. To get there, I passed Fitzgerald’s pub, a light orange building with a washed-out mural of bar of music painted across the side, and although I can’t read even a bar of music without sitting down with it for ten minutes and a keyboard, I can read English words readily, and the lyrics printed below the notes in a curly but clear script were:

“I sometimes hear the fiddles play, maybe it’s just a notion
I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean
It’s a long way from Clare to here
.”

 So even though the market had no produce, and there is no longer any shop in Doolin that sells food, so I had no way to buy the things I need to eat for my stay in the hostel (eggs, fruit, tomatoes, onions, and chocolate biscuits, for instance), I did on my outing get a loaf of homemade (of course) soda bread, and hope of hearing my favorite song here, in Doolin in County Clare.

2 girls at O'Connor's pub playing their own songs

Two brave Canadian girls singing their own songs at Gus O’Connor’s pub. Photo by Marie Corbett

I liked how all the musicians were  grown-ups, dressed in normal clothing, instead of kid rock stars. Some of the men playing were in their 60s, and the man with the long black hair and no face might have been 40, and the people watching were all ages, many white-haired and some bald, and some so little they were carried into the pub and sat on laps. The two young women who turned out to be from Quebec borrowed instruments and sang a song in French and then one in English, and they received warm applause, neither more nor less than the other musicians.

A chubby cherub with blonde curls falling like ribbons down her back danced and ate a chocolate biscuit at the same time, her face a Rubenesque portrait of pink-cheeked joy. The young Canadian women took the little girl’s hand and danced in a circle with her, including her, and making her sticky-fingered, sweet-mouthed pleasure complete. To be dancing with the big girls!

As I was watching another, tiny little girl watching her dad toss his head back and forth, teaching her the rhythm, Marie turned to me, to say how nice she found it to see all the different generations together. That too reminded her of Newfoundland, where people of all ages socialize together, instead of everyone in a bar or a party being within ten years of each other’s age, as it often is in the US.

I told her I’d just been thinking the same thing. It was the first time Marie and I have had that kind of synchronicity, but I bet not the last.  I was glad we were traveling so well together. I’d thought we would, and we’d spent plenty of time together before, but you never know till you actually go somewhere with someone if you are going to end up wanting to push each other off a scenic overview. I’m feeling optimistic about our cliff walk on Wednesday.

After a couple of instrumental songs, someone started singing. I looked around further, curling backwards on the bench at risk of slipping off my seat and into an undignified puddle of cider and wet wool on the hard stone floor, to see the singer: an old man with white hair and beard (is there any other hair color for old men in Clare?), singing with a crutch tucked under one arm, leaning on the bench where the musicians sat, singing with a somber face and looking as unselfconscious as if he were ordering a pint, which he no doubt has done every day of his life since he was a lad, and that was a long, long time ago, when they sang songs like the one he was then singing, about a boy who sees a beautiful girl, the most beautiful girl in the village, whose skin was like roses and cream:

Singer at O'Connor's pub

Old man standing up and singing at O’Connor’s pub. Photo by  Marie Corbett

“But if at those roses you ventured to sip,
the color might all come away on your  lip.”

This man was wearing a green button-down shirt and a black woollen vest, and he had lines down both sides of his face and across his brow under the white hair, and he sang with the conviction and certitude of a man often but not always disappointed in love. When his song ended he ignored the applause and picked up a tiny red-and-black bottle of Coke, and I said to Marie, who has recently begun dating a person she considers considerably younger than herself, how beautiful he was, how one would not want him any other way than exactly as aged and purely white-haired and wrinkled as he was. She said she knew the song, “the Cliffs of Mourne.” She made no comment then on the age/beauty/desirability question, but I kept thinking warmly of how accepting the Irish people I’ve met seem to be, how in the pubs, even singing in the pubs, people seem unselfconscious. And they seem to like each other. A day or two later, Marie told me that she’d liked my observation on the old man — how lovely he was, how we wouldn’t want him any other way.

A few weeks earlier, in a Sunday night session at a famous music pub (The Moorings in Portmagee, County Kerry), I had noticed a similar vibe. That night I’d been approached by the lead singer, a plump, beautiful black-haired blue-eyed alto, who on her break wandered over to me and asked a friendly question. We talked a little, and I said that one of the people sitting in the musicians’ circle, a little blonde woman, looked terribly serious, even teary. The lead singer, who is renowned in Ireland, said something about the girl being “special needs,” and carried on chatting.

Later, as I looked more carefully at the people sitting in the stage area, I noticed that several of the people playing or just sitting near her, the big-name beautiful singer, and the other professional musicians, did indeed have the slightly lost, young, out-of-place expression of people whose intelligence has not formed in time with their bodies, and then I was full of feeling for the kind people of Ireland, who judge a person not by the color of their skin or type of passport, not by age or clothes or the shape of their figure or comeliness of features, but by the content of their hearts and, maybe, their willingness to sing openly.

Ireland 2013 notes

May 9th – Clare Inn, Dromoland Estate

BA Flight 2166 Tampa-Gatwick

 

I got an upgrade, but I kind of regretted it. The PR person for BA had kindly arranged for a lounge pass for me before I left Tampa, and at check-in I was given a better seat than the one I’d booked (and paid an extra $50) for. At least, I was told by the check-inagent that it was better: “It’s a bulkhead,” he said, and I thought of all that room by my feet and agreed.

Since the gate agent hadn’t put me into business class, I decided at the gate  to try an upgrade-getting maneuver that I’ve heard from more than one flight attendant can work: I bought a box of chocolates at duty free ($30 liqueur truffles) and presented them with my business card to the lead flight attendant, Reynolds. With that gift I stuttered out that I was a writer on assignment for CURVE Magazine and hopedwe’dhaveasweetflight, thanks. Reynolds, a tall thin black-suited man with ironic 50s glasses, accepted the gift with perfect panache, and promised to come and see me in my seat shortly.

Before takeoff, he did come to my bulkhead, bringing me a glass of champagne from first class, and asked about my assignment. I told him I was going to learn how to play bodhrain in Doolin, and after a few pleasantries he said, apologetically, that he had no room in the forward cabins, they were full, but his staff would take care of me

Damn, I thought, $30 wasted, but I thanked him and said I’d appreciate the space.

“And there’s no one sitting here,” he said pointing to the second seat in my row. “So you can spread out.”

Reynolds was right inasmuch as I could spread out my stuff, and I did so: pillows, blankets, O Magazine with Oprah in a big pink skirt, my papers and pen, nuts, neckrest, water, trash bag, trash, pen, paper, extra gray jacket, headsets, toothbrush, gray socks, landing card, shoes, popcorn, face-spray bottle, chapstick, second water bottle, earplugs, green eyemask, etc etc etc as the trip went on. All my stuff took up all the space in both seats, but in the bulkhead, for some godforsaken reason, the armrests don’t move, so I couldn’t lie down or even slump over to one side very well.

So I didn’t sleep, but I dozed, and read O Magazine, and planned some pitches for editors (including the editor of O), and watched some of CLOUD ATLAS, which makes me think of my friend Rick Rutherford, who first recommended that book to me in a hot tub at Esalen,  but which  is of course not half the film that the book was a book, and thought how lucky I was to have a bulkhead row all to myself,

It was only an eight-hour plus flight, so I knew I wouldn’t get too restless. I took hourly walks around the cabin to keep the blood moving, and I drank a lot of water, and ate the pasta meal and brushed my teeth and read my magazine and dozed and drank water and read my magazine and watched the news and used the loo and got more water and dozed and crossed my legs and changed my position in my seat and adjusted the lights on my magazine and recrossed my legs and stretched them out in the aisle and took walks and spritzed my face and ate nuts and drank water and in that manner the minutes flew by like hours

Although it was dark and the window shades were down, I could tell when we were getting close to the coast of the British Aisles by the rain tipping on the window. However, for only the second time in my life, it was not raining when I landed at Gatwick – further evidence of global weirding.

I had to get across London to Heathrow for my flight to Ireland, so I bought a ticket for the Express bus, which has gone up a lot since last time I used it, about 2 years ago. It’s 25 pounds now for the trip, which is under an hour without traffic.  At Gatwick, the National Express ticket  lady asked me which terminal I wanted at Heathrow, and I gaped in the manner of someone who has just traveled 4,000 miles over 11 hours with no sleep. I’m sure she sees the look all the time.

“It’s overseas, to Ireland,” I hedged, fumbling with my itinerary.

“Is it British Airways?” she asked. “If it’s BA it’ll be from Five.”

The itinerary said it was, so I got a ticket to terminal 5.

On the coach, I had a window seat, and from it I could see a typically stunning series of views of rolling green hills, country mansions dwarfed by country trees, and huge gray gothic and Norman churches poking up high above the hills, built to summon Christians every time they raised their eyes from the soil, I suppose. There were clots of sheep like cream on the deep green hills divided with those very English hedgerows, and though like most places in the world it looked a little bit like parts of New Jersey, I was excited to be in England again.

The winter’s deluges had done good work in making everything green, and the woods we passed were made up of all different trees, aspens maybe, and oaks and  beeches and lots of things I couldn’t identify, in all different shades of green. There were daffodils out in great clumps as big as sheep, all along the way we drove  — and the amazing thing was, all this beauty was along the side of  a major thoroughfare, between the two biggest airports in England. That’s the difference between here and New Jersey: you don’t see clumps of wildflowers from the turnpike driving to JFK from Newark Airport.

I was extremely tired, having not slept in my specially upgraded seat with extra legroom but no folding armrests, and I was falling asleep yet trying to keep my eyes open so I could see England. My eyes were closing, but then I saw a blur of blue – wild bluebells, I suppose. They were along the side of the road, in spots where there were no daffodils. They were small, iris-colored flowers in the shape of little bells, so although I’ve previously known of bluebells only as a theoretical image from Enid Blyton’s books, I felt sure these were they. How could I sleep?

At terminal 5, I took the lift up in the new, all-ugly renovated terminal to the departures area, where the board showed lots of other flights leaving at 1105 but not mine to Shannon. That, I soon learnt, was because it was an Aer Lingus flight, which would go from Terminal 1, which I’d have to reach via Tube. The good news was that the Tube was free. I spent my ten minutes waiting for the Tube to move by reflecting on how I’d made such a stupid mistake, and how John Zussman and my other so-called writer friends were going to write a comment on my blog, as he did when I forgot to check the currency exchange rates in Cappadocia and accidentally gave someone a $80 tip, that he would’ve thought a travel writer might know better…I couldn’t believe that a travel writer wouldn’t know better than to check a departure terminal too. But then I remembered: I HAD checked. Nowhere on my ticket or itinerary does it indicate that flight 65 from Heathrow to Shannon is in fact operated by Aer Lingus, so watch what terminal you go to, Yankee.

The Tube was decorated in Cadbury-purple and it was truly the most beautiful bit of public transport I’ve ever seen. There was a “first class” section – presumably for people who had actually paid for their tickets – which had floor-to-ceiling draperies and dancing girls, somewhat like the Orient Express, but even the plebian section where I sat was stunningly clean and comfortable and sensibly laid out. It was also swift, and I made it to Aer Lingus check-in by about 10.20.

My flight left at 1105, so I headed through security as fast as I could, hoping to buy a camera at duty-free. The first security check was a new type for me: as well as the usual metal detection and shoe removal and taking out and putting in of laptops and liquids and gels, I had to stand on some yellow footprints and gaze into a red-lit camera, presumably while the device took my photograph. It seemed to take a long time, and I gazed at the little red light for quite a while before it turned green and I was free to re-dress and re-pack and go.

In the main departure area, I found the electronics shop and told the salesman, “I have about five minutes to buy a camera,”  The one I wanted was called a ZX30 in the USA, or maybe it was a FX30 in Australia, but it was the one Nic has, and I knew it was a Linux with a Leica lens.

A little dark-haired man with a nice accent showed me the cameras. He didn’t recognize the description I gave of my ideal camera, but he  pointed out a Linux  for 199 pounds that had a big zoom. “Is that a Leica lens?” I asked, peering at it. I couldn’t remember what Nic’s camera looked like; this one seemed to have an unusually large lens aperture, and it didn’t look as neat as many of the others.

“No,” he said. “But it’s built to Leica specifications.”

“It says Leica on it,” I pointed out.

“They’re allowed to do that,” he said. I decided that this camera was as close as I was going to get to the one I wanted and asked him to sell it to me as fast as he could. “I’m at gave 82,” I said. “Can I make it?”

He was on his knees, looking into a cupboard underneath the camera display. “Some of the gates are a fair way,” he said.

“Right,” I said briskly. “That’s why I’d like you to make the sale as quickly as you can.”

“There’s a board,” he said, dimly. It was hard to hear him as he was peering into the dark cupboard and looking at boxes, reading their labels. “It’ll tell you how far — the gates …maybe…”

“OK,” I aid, but I didn’t want to go check the board because I thought it might delay the purchase.

He withdrew from the cupboard and stood up. “I don’t have the camera,” he said.

And that was the luck of the Irish already, to be sure to be sure, because even though I would not have a camera for the trip, if he had had it I would certainly have missed my flight.

I followed a sign to gates 77-93 (a strange arrangement, to be sure to be sure) from the departure lounge and duty-free shops down about 6 corridors each a few hundred yards long, and only one of which had an automatic walkway. We passed a sign leading to another corridor and gates 77-79 and I thought, great, only a few more of these corridors and I’ll come to 82. Instead, the next sign said, “80-93” with another sign pointing left, towards the end of a queue.

This queue snaked into a small corridor that appeared to go nowhere. I couldn’t see the top of the line, but I could see that the queue had dozens, maybe a hundred people in it, and it was not moving. In that way – the length of the line and the arrangement of barriers – it reminded me of a ride at Disneyworld. But in no other way at all did it remind me of Disneyworld. For one thing, there were no games to play or visual enticements to keep our excitement up. Also no one was excited. A very cross woman ahead of me said, “Is this the gate for Ireland?” I confessed I did not know but that I hoped so.

After about five minutes I’d progressed to the point that I could see the action at the top of the line. There at about 10 feet from the head of the queue, sat two identical, sadistic-looking men at two identical black desks, and in front of them a column with a red eye, like the one I’d looked into earlier. It looked like some kind of torture chamber from the future, a little like the scenes in CLOUD ATLAS set in 2090 Asia. A sign informed me that this camera would compare my face to the picture the other camera had taken earlier, presumably to make sure I hadn’t added a false beard and tattoos in the loo in the terminal, or taken off any similar costumes since arrival.

I think this technology must be new, because none of the passengers seemed to know what was going on, despite the sign, and every single person – all of whom must have gone through the same facial-recognition process on entering the terminal, as I had — had to be told  stand on the yellow footprints and look into the red eye on the column, after their documents were checked. I stood and watched as about 40 people stepped too far forward, handed their documents to one of the evil-looking twins, and then had to be told to walk backwards and stand on the yellow footprints and look into the black column. I couldn’t understand how so many people, all of whom had been in the same line and watching the people ahead of them, could not understand that they’d need to look into the camera themselves. Every single person stood and waited to get their documents checked and then was told to go back and look in the machine. It was incredibly slow, not only because everyone was backtracking but because even once they were on the yellow footprints, they had to peer into the red light for quite a while. It took from about 10 seconds to several minutes, in some cases. It was as if the program had a lot of faces to consider, and we all looked alike to it.

I didn’t know what time it was, but very close to my flight time and my flight was boarding. When it was at last my turn to step up, I was probably the most efficient traveler they’d ever seen. Cleverly, I handed the man my documents and then stepped onto the yellow footprints without being prompted, and while he checked my papers, I looked into the red eye with my own red eyes and what I hoped was a distinctive expression, one easily recognizable.

The red eye turned green in record time, and the man handed me my documents with an approving and relieved, “Thank you!” and I headed back to the signs for my gate. I went at a concerned, rapid walk down more of the long corridors. These are all raised, metal-framed corridors that look as if they’re made out of erector sets. The design appears to be 60s futuristic, kind of Jetsons style, with each set of corridors leading to a pod of gates. When I reached a pod labeled 79-87, I thought I was nearly there, and I was: the next gate, oddly, was 82, and although the sign said SHANNON, CLOSING in bright red warning neon, there was another long line of people in front of the gate. I asked a man, “Are you going to Shannon?”

“I am,” he said. And then, evidently fearing that I might be I was thinking of cutting into the line, and thus somehow gain some advantage in boarding, he added, “We all are.”

.

“Glad to hear it,” I said, and went to the back of the line to get on my flight to Ireland.

***

Clare Inn, Dromoland Estate

The view outside my ground-floor window is entirely green and gray. It’s mostly sky, a lovely soft opaque cool sky full of clouds like large lumps of dirty cotton wool. The ground is green fields marked by gray lines of hedgerows, and a road (I think it’s another major highway, though how would you know?) of gray asphalt, and fences and dark gray swallows dipping in and out of view.

This is my favorite weather in the whole world, such an incredible relief after the scorching heat of Florida. It’s been so hot lately that I can’t even enjoy going in the garden except early in the morning, or at dusk, when the mosquitoes are fiercest. But here, the air is sweet and fresh, and the water is absolutely delicious. Ireland is the anti-Florida, I’ve decided, and I like it.

After a long thick sleep I woke up  — it’s still light at about 10 pm – and had some broccoli soup and a mediocre salad and incredible brown bread and butter. As I sat having dinner in the pub, a live musician showed up to play live music. He’s been playing Irish ballads and Johnny Cash and from the very first song, the other people in the pub joined in!  By the third song they were dancing. I am amazed: this is a pretty ordinary hotel in the middle of nowhere, though only about 15 minutes from the airport, and the people here must, I think all be en route to somewhere else. There are a couple of party groups, so I suppose they might be locals, but I have never seen such a jolly crowd in any similar hotel anywhere else in the world.

He’s sung “Rock Around the Clock” and “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Cockles and Mussels Alive, Alive-Oh,” which is a song my mother used to sing and which I’ve never heard anyone else sing in my life, and he has a great strong, happy, tuneful voice.

I’m already having a good time and the jetlag hasn’t even hit yet and the press trip hasn’t started. Already, the destination was worth the trip, even with the armrests, even with the 40-Euro taxi fare and the 25-quid bus, even with the lack of sleep. It’s raining, we’re singing, and the water is wonderful.