Archives for category: Tourism Ireland and Failte Ireland
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.

(Photo credit Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel -- or someone -- leaves clean, assorted sized Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests' use.

(Photo by Barbara Orr) The superb staff at Park Hotel — or someone — leaves a variety of sizes of clean Wellies (rubber boots) in the front hallway, for guests’ use.

After feeling sad under the Fairy Tree, I grew even more sorry when we returned from our walk, because we had to leave the Park Hotel. By 11 AM, everyone else — four writers, two PR persons, one guide and one driver, plus their luggage — had gathered in the hallway to say goodbye and put on coats and open umbrellas for the short walk out to the bus. This writer, however, was not there.

I was in my room, packing reluctantly, when some soft-spoken Irish person called me from reception.  At the Park Hotel, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken staff and the polite, kind, well-mannered, well-dressed, well-spoken guests, and no one would ever be gauche enough to introduce themselves (unless they were local gentry) but whoever it was ringing me — an employee, the third-generation owner of the manor, a helpful stranger  – told me in a voice no stronger than a beloved auntie might employ in a similar situation she’d thought she’d give me a ring as my friends were just wondering about me, as they were gathering in the lobby. And, she didn’t need to add, they were ready to take off and wondering what the feck was taking me so long.

I rushed along the curious stairways and corridors leading (I use the term loosely) from my wing to the lobby, but the other people in my group were hatted, jacketed, and out the door getting on the bus by the time I arrived. After shouting after them in an unmannerly manner, saying I needed another minute, I stood panting by the beautiful, very antique, 8-sided leather-topped desk that presides in an aclove off the foyer, which desk is the closest thing I’ve seen at the Park Hotel to any kind of office-like infrastructure, or any suggestion that the hotel is a business and is not the home of your best and wealthiest friend. There is nothing so garish as a “reception desk” or a “cashier” or even a “concierge’s stand” at the Park, but every time I came into the little reading alcove I found a conveniently placed, soft-voiced, well-groomed person who behaved in a manner befitting one of the cherished Park Hotel retainers.

There was just such a person there, looking as if she had nothing she’d rather do than help me with any arrangements I might like to make, and to whom I tried to make payment for the incidental charges tomy room. (We TC writers are the guests of the generous tourism boards and hoteliers et al, and we enjoy the tours, entries, wines, meals, and suites without charge to our good selves, but we do occasionally have to pay for our own incidental expenses such as laundry.) I’d ordered room service instead of going out the night before, and I’d had my filthy, wet, trousers that I’d worn on the boat and in the horse-cart and in the rain cleaned, and so I owed the hotel about 14 Euros. But I couldn’t pay my bill — to the extent that any bill actually existed, because of course I was not presented with one — because I couldn’t find my wallet! Horrified at myself, I asked if I could ring later with my credit card details, and the beautiful young lady assured me that of course I could, no problem at all at all. She gave the wide-eyed, dimpled impression that my leaving a bill unpaid was an honor for the hotel , and that I was being endearingly over-conscientious in my obvious design to pay it. I left smiling with embarrassment and gratitude,  and hoping that she was a hotel employee.

If my colleagues awaiting me on the bus were slightly less gracious than the young woman, it’s only because they were tired, hungover, and pissed off at me. It didn’t help that when I ran, wet and breathless and still embarrassed and newly in debt, to get on the bus, late, I was still, even while climbing the steps of the big Mercedes, groping through my carry-on bag, hoping to find my missing wallet, and after the bus started up but before we pulled all the way down the half-mile driveway, I realized that I’d left my laptop in my room. I had to make a quick decision – never a good idea in my case – between saying nothing and hoping that the Park Hotel would forward the laptop to me at our next hotel, and stopping the forward progress of the press trip, thus delaying our departure even more and incurring more enmity of my peers and up-until-that-morning new friends.

“Oh no!” I said. “My laptop’s in my room!” Tiger, one of the two really gentlemanly, chivalrous two men on this mostly female trip, silently downshifted and U-turned the bus, crunching back over the long ancient gravel road to the hotel’s front gate. As we went, I stood up and apologized, rocking in the aisle, to my sister- and fellow-tour members.  ““Oh no, I know,” I said. “Now I’m the person on the press trip that everyone hates.” By the time Tiger had shifted into park I was crouching at his elbow, and ducking down the steps, I added,  Even I hate me!”

When I got back to the 8-sided desk, one of the ubiquitous elegant doormen informed me without my having to introduce myself or announce my plight that the laptop was already on its way to reception. He conveyed this information in such a way as to make me feel the hotel’s deep regret at having inconvenienced me by not chasing the bus down and handing it to me through the window. Once the machine was in my sweaty incompetent little grasp, I once I clambered back onto the bus I also perchance found in my suitcase my wallet, so we set off just about 15 or 20  minutes beyond the time we should have gone.

One of the two PR ladies — Ruth, I think, who was not the one who’d suffered through the boat ride with me the day before and thus still positively inclined towards my presence on the trip —  assured me that it wasn’t such a huge thing to leave a bit late on a Sunday morning, but I felt guilty and embarrassed, anyway, about being so chaotically unprofessional and having thereby inconvenienced a considerable percentage of the employees of County Kerry’s tourism industry, and so I sat quietly and self-accusingly in my cushy seat and determined that I would have to be scrupulous for the rest of the trip about not being late or inconveniencing anyone – let alone everyone. For at least the next hour I did not ask for anything or proffer opinions about, say, whether we should or should not make a stop to take photos or drink Irish coffee. I sat meekly in my rightful seat and tried to work out how to work my new camera, a Fujifilm EXR, I think.

Before lunch we were taken to a place called Valentia Island, although William the tour guide said apologetically that it was no longer an island, as it had bridges. In Ireland, a land mass is not considered an island if it is possible to reach it other than by boat. Skellig Michael definitely qualifies as an island, still, despite having all the mod cons of stone steps and beehive dwellings, but Manhattan, for instance, would not count.

On Valentia, we had a tour from a local man and pub owner, Mauris, who is an expert on the first transAtlantic international cable and who has built a road up a cliff lookout and put up signs about the Irish legends and local history and so on. Mauris had a great, sometimes incomprehensible Irish accent and he talked  knowledgably but fast, and the wind was blowing my ears off and I got a bit confused about the various politicians, transAtlantic telegrams, freedom fighters, notification of the Titanic disaster, dates, and legendary events, and I came to think that O’Connell had been thrown off the cliff by someone called Finn, leader of the Vikings, or maybe by a troupe of imaginary legendary beings called Finnoghs, or maybe Firblogs, ancient Irish bloggers who invented the ancient Irish warning system for shipwreck notifications and telegraphic (telepathic?) calls for help.Rules for joining the warriors

There's a lot of information on these signs, and I was hearing it out loud while trying to take in the scenery and atmosphere. I got a bit muddled.It was all muddled to me, but while we were on the cliff the sun did come to a thin place in the clouds, and I took a few pictures that had more than one shade of light in them.

As I was pointing my camera out to sea in the direction of the cloud gap, a writer named Cathy, who joined our group yesterday, and who has family in Killarney and spends a lot of time there, pointed out the Skelligs to me. I didn’t know what “the Skelligs” were when she said I could see them “over there” and pointed across the hills: I didn’t know if I was looking for a kind of bird or some trees or a village or a group of people, perhaps Irish gypsies. She said something that suggested that “the Skelligs” were the ghost-like mounds of islands in the far distance, briefly visible through the mist and clouds.

Cathy was excited about their appearance because it was so overcast, and in her excitement she said, “See? They’re sharp!”

What with the misted morning light, the fog, the clouds, the incipient rain, and my own inherent blurriness, I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t very extremely fuzzy around the edges, so I was even more confused. “What?” I said. “Sharp what? Where?”

“See, it looks like a pointed hill,” she said. Looking where she was gazing, I saw a pale shadow shape that I would said was the underbelly of a cloud. And, again prompted by Cathy, next to that one I saw another, larger, similar shape.

“Sharp?” I said. “Those are very soft focus to me…”

“No, I mean the shape,” she said. And okay, when I squinted and used my imagination, and because I am very suggestible, the tops of the islands did look a bit like the shape of spears – not like a rounded hill or even a single Alpine-style peak, but narrow, pointy things like flinty broken arrowheads. And then the mist closed in again and they were gone.

After that sighting, we were taken to the “Skellig Experience,” a visitors’ center which turned out to contain an amazing, thrilling introduction to and history of the islands but which looked unamazing and unthrilling from outside. It’s nearly invisible as it’s been built into the hillside, with a grass-topped roof, and so in the mist and overcast daylight it looks much like many of the other hills in the area. At night I’m sure no one could find it.

Inside, we were shown a film about the Skellig Islands, which fascinated all of us and made us all ready to beg, bribe, or in case of the important writers demand to be taken there, but the man who ran the museum, who is also a world’s leading expert (as opposed to a following expert, as all of us were becoming) on the islands, told us that there would be no opportunity to get there for at least another week, because of the heavy rain, heavy waves, and heavy tides. Considering how miserable we’d been yesterday just puttering across some inland lakes, you’d have thought we would not be keen to cross 8 miles of open water in similar conditions, but several of us were ready to row ourselves there at first light if we could get a boat.

Our enthusiasm was slightly dampened, ahem, when we came across the exhibit of the iron gates that once guarded a pathway on the Skellig Lighthouse station, which is, note, on land, NOT on the 8-mile-out Skellig Michael. Here is the sign, and what’s left of the gates:

A former gate...

Skellig Lightbhouse gates sign...and it's former mate

Anyway, we couldn’t get to Skellig Michael, not that week. The tour leaders told us to give up, but I kept praying for a break in the weather, as Mother Theresa did for a cease-fire in the Bosnian war so she could get through with the Red Cross trucks. She made it; I did not.

What made Skellig Michael attractive to me was its strange history. The film showed how in about the year 600, on Skellig Michael, which is in case I haven’t impressed this on you enough eight miles out to sea from a barren cold Irish coast where hardly anybody lived anyway, some monks who had been living on the mainland built – and I use the term loosely, because they actually hacked it out of stone – a monastery. Using only hand tools, and hands, they cut into the rock three different sets of 600 steps each going up the extremely steep, arrow-head-like sides of the rock-island.

Why such redundancy? Why build three separate entrances to a monastery that only they and occasional pirates even knew about? No one knows. They built the three massive stairways with no handrails, presumably to make it that much more challenging to reach the top – which was desirable as a building and prayer site why, exactly? Because it was 600 steep steps closer to God? According to the film and the historian, no one speculates or can imagine what possessed those monks, but something must have fevered their imaginations and fueled their spirit, because once they’d reached the freezing cold, barren, top of this Godforsaken rock-mass eight feckin’ miles out in the Northern Atlantic, there they built six stone “beehive” houses and lived, two men to a hut,  so apparently 12 men, alone on the rock, until death. Perhaps fortunately, death was not that long in coming for most of them.

Extremely little is known of how they managed any of it, let alone WHY they managed it, or how many of them were killed or kidnapped by Algerian or Spanish or Portuguese or African pirates, all of whom regularly attacked the defenseless, innocent monks and took their gold, silver, and lives. But it is clear from the archeological evidence, most of it still standing, that after about 200 years of that cold monastic lifestyle — which would have made a Spartan villa seem like a high-end resort — that is, about 800 AD, the later monks of the same masochistic order found it necessary to build, at an even more extremely distant point on the rock, a hermitage!

Seeing this small, grey-brown, lichen-covered stone hut on the screen — it looks like something from the Stone Age — and hearing from the narrator that it was a “hermitage,” I started laughing. Seated behind me, the other writers responded similarly, that is, with incredulous snorts. The evidence was on film in front of us, but we still wondered why even the least sociable of the 9th-century monastic brothers would feel the need to get away from the the tip of the island and the other 11 monks. Beleaguered, maybe even self-righteously fired up like my neighbors on this Floridian island organizing a noise-reduction petition against the giant, pastel-covered party houses whence every weekend emanate the whoops and house music of overprivileged twentysomethings at the beach, those monks went off and carved a little cave space where a guy could get some peace and separation from the things of this world.

Well, I thought, as we left the Skellig Island Experience (enthralled, but still embittered at not having experienced Skellig Island itself), maybe I could see where those monks might have been sick of the clamor of the group. I know what it’s like. To have to live and eat and move with the same people day after day, packing in and out of five-plus-star country house hotels, attending champagne receptions and six-course dinners with selected wines, or trooping in and out of trad nights at wonderfully bright cozy pubs to see world-class musicians, being fed locally produced and lovingly prepared meals from third-generation chefs and prizewinning someliers, being walked up and down pebblestone pathways through rich botanical gardens by rich thirteenth-generation estate owners, and of course being driven collectively in a new Mercedes-Benz luxury bus while addressed by an expert on the history of the areas we were visiting was stressful in much the same way as hacking out a stairway from bare rock in the middle of an Atlantic storm, sustained only by pelican meat and seagull droppings. Look at how easily we journalists got annoyed with each other and began to despise one member of the group: that morning, I’d just about become the one person that everyone would have wished to send to the hermitage, if we’d had one.

In the next few days, I’d make a point of getting everywhere a few minutes early, and, being as helpful as it was possible for such a cossetted guest to be, I also made a point of being ready to carry my own luggage, reconsider seating arrangements, or elucidate my vegetarian preferences anytime, in order to make up my standing with my fellow and sister penitents on our pilgrimage of luxury and Irish culture.

And it came to pass that I escaped censure and ostracism, perhaps because I worked so hard to make amends, perhaps because our press group was an unusually mature, relaxed, and pampered one, led by unusually capable and broadminded and fun-loving PR people (see photo below of Ellen and Ruth)

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts.

Ruth Moran (in red) of Tourism Ireland, and Ellen Redmond (Kelly green) of Failte Ireland (which I suggested should rename itself Slante Ireland), our beautiful, joyful, oocasionally tipsy PR hosts, two women who know how to have fun, even in the rain and regrettable wind.  For more on their companies, itineraries, or drinking suggestions  go to visitIreland.com, and tell them I sent you.

or maybe because One Other Person at the conference was so dreadful. But that story is for the private, not-to-say secret-gossip blog: let me know if you want to read it.

Anyway, having had the Skellig Island Experience but not the experience of Skellig Island, I desperately want to see these islands for myself, and I will. Soon. Anyone want to come with me? Start training now for those 600 stone steps, with no handrail, in extremely high winds. And don’t be late!