Archives for posts with tag: County Kerry

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!

May 11, 2013

Image

Photo thanks to: www.kimberleylovato.com

“Wow.” “ Have I died and gone to Heaven?” “ Indescribable beauty…”

Few things irritate me more than the language of bad travel writing: superlatives, extremes, and rhetorical questions. The <noun> is always the best, the most, utterly and unbelievably <adjective> the writer has ever seen, in his/her whole life!

The problems with this kind of writing are many, but one is that when a traveler comes upon something – a view, an activity, a town – that really does trump all the others in that traveler’s experience, there are no words left for it. Not everywhere can be the best, the most beautiful, the least describable in words.

When I read, often in the Sunday travel supplements to major papers, that a writer “cannot put into words” how wonderful a place is, I say, “Try. It’s your job to put it in words.”

And so, instead of resorting to the language of hyperbole, I’ll write about the trip I’m on right now, and attempt to finds words to tell you about a pretty good time.

Last night, dining at Dromoland Castle, Will our tour guide told me that the blue flowers I was describing to him (see last two blog posts!) were bluebells. “The woods are full of them,” he said, with authority that comes with being at least six feet tall and having pure white hair and a deep voice. He said he’d been golfing two days ago and had seen the bluebells everywhere. But the same morning, my sister-in-law, Lyn, wrote back to my blog post saying that she thought the flowers I’d described were grape hyacinths, which I’m pretty sure correspond to the “grate” hyacinths of Sarah’s email, earlier. Both Lyn and Sarah are from England, so they should know. But Will is from Ireland and from right here in Ireland and has seen the flowers this week, so he should know better. This morning on the bus as we left Dromoland and headed west towards the Ring of Kerry and Gap of Dunloe, Will noted in passing a few patches of blue among the green fields, saying, “There’re some bluebells, Gillian.” The bus was moving, and the clouds were drizzling, so I wasn’t sure that what he was waving at were the same things I’d carried carefully indoors the previous day, nor that those were the same as the first blue blossoms I’d spotted in London. Later, when we reached the spot where we were to catch a boat across the lakes, I pointed out still more blue flowers, which looked similar if not identical to the ones from the day before, and one of the PR women said she didn’t think the flowers were bluebells, but Will should know.

There are two PR ladies on this trip, Ellen and Ruth, both petite, pretty blonde women, both cheerful souls with appropriate raingear, and neither of them thought we should go ahead with our proposed boat trip across the lakes to the Gap of Dunloe. Neither did Will or any of the other writers except me.

It was, admittedly, undeniably, inevitably, raining. And the boats had no coverings.. A., the only male writer on the trip, said he had “done the lake twice” before, didn’t want to go.  And D. who is quite sick, definitely could not go. And so our leaders, Ellen and Ruth, turned back from the boats and started herding us towards the coach again, saying, “No, no, no,” but I refused to turn back and kept walking towards the boat saying, “Who says no? The boat man?” because the boat man – an old man in green overalls and a cloth cap – was sitting in his boat, and with him were about four people who obviously were NOT boatmen but tourists like us wanting to go across the lake.

“No, we’re saying it,” Ellen said. “It’s too cold for an open boat.”

“No it’s not!” I said, with my usual diplomacy and charm. “Can I go? I can meet you all at the other side of the lake?  Because he’s going anyway, and I’ve never done this before.”

Kimberly, my new friend from the night before, looked undecided. Earlier she’d said she’d go with the flow. Ellen reconsidered, and said, “I’ll go with you.”

Just like Jesus, or maybe it was Judas, I asked her three times if she wanted me to go alone. She didn’t have to come in the boat, I told her. I was perfectly fine to go by myself and meet everyone later. I didn’t need her to come. Three times, she said she’d go with me. And then, suddenly and bravely, Kimberly and Barbara came too.

I clambered in first, hauling myself over the edge of the long red boat – like a very long rowboat, big enough to hold about 12 passengers on six little rows of seats – with no assistance from the boatman, who was standing in the middle of the boat watching me, silent and still. Ellen followed and the two of us sat at the bow, backs to the front of the boat, facing in. Kim and Barbara followed, and quickly pulled up a tarp from the bottom of the boat to put over our knees. The dull red tarp was filthy, and wet, but my legs were warmer beneath it than without it, so I gratefully kept myself under it as much as I could, which was not much. “This is going to be great,” I said as we set off. “Look, the sun is coming out already.”

“It’s an hour and ten minutes,” Ellen said. “We’re going to get wet.”

“I thought it was twenty minutes!” Kimberly said. She pulled her collar up over the back of her hat. “Didn’t someone say it was twenty minutes?”

“Are we heading towards the ocean? Are we in a bay, or is it the mouth of the river?” I asked. The water was thick and mercury colored, like a tarnished mirror in a sunless room. Ellen wasn’t sure.

“Well, is it fresh or salt water?” I asked, thinking that would clear up where we were. “Or briny?”

Kim looked over the side of the boat at the chop a few feet down. “Only one way to find out,” she said.

At the stern, the boatman was talking to the other four passengers, but the wind took away his words.

“Can you speak a little louder?” I shouted to him, across about 20 feet of boat.

Ellen shook her head. “He can’t hear you.”

“I thought this was going to be a twenty-minute trip,” Kimberly said again. She was the thinnest of the four of us and  thus the most prone to hypothermia. Earlier in the day she’d  been saying how she hated to be cold. I was reminded of my sister Valerie, who turned blue when Nic and I took her snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef – in Australia, in summer. Here in the North Atlantic in a cold spring, Kimberly’s hands and legs were hidden beneath the tarp, but her shoulders were shaking..

“Too late now,” someone said, but then and a wave broke over the bow and over Ellen and me and Kimberly and Brenda, interrupting the conversation, as did Ellen’s scream.

We were wet but still seated. “Well, it’s fresh,” Kimberly said, licking her lips.

A few more waves crashed on board, and the two women across from me pulled the tarp up to cover their faces, hiding from the wind and rain. As they did, several gallons of rain and lake water  that had collected on top pf the tarp drained down my left leg and into my shoe.

“My ass is wet,” Ellen said.

“My foot is wet,” I said.

“My whole right side…” Kimberly said. “Are you just kidding about the hour and ten minutes?”

Barbara, who as far as I could see was drenched, didn’t say anything. She was raised in extreme northern Ontario, in a remote mining area, by polar bears.

But the scenery, as I kept maddeningly pointing out to my dripping boat mates, was fantastic. I said inept and annoying things like, “Wow,” and “How beautiful,” and “Just amazing.” I know I used the word “fairyland” at least twice. This is what it looked like, in part:

The very choppy, mercury-gray water flipping up triangular waves to knock against and break against the boat. A thousand meters away, dry-looking, rocky points of land or little islands, one of which contained the ruins of a monastery from the 6th century.

“I can’t imagine what possessed them,” Ellen said. She shuddered, or maybe shivered, as she looked at the wet gray ruined ruins. “They must have been mad. It was hard enough for normal people to get a living. But on that rock – they couldn’t have any animals, and they couldn’t grow anything except a few herbs…”

“They could fish,” I pointed out. I was thinking it sounded like a nice existence, at least for a writer. I bet those early monastic scribes were very happy in their 6th-century life on the remote island and would feel very sorry for us 21st century writers with too much food and not enough God and no peace.

Ellen looked dubiously at the sharp brown cliffs over the rough water. “Fish…” she said faintly. “They might fish. But they’d be dependent on puffins, and seagulls…and religion. Mad. My ass is soaked through.”

So this is how the scenery looked: a chop of silver-gray water, thick and hard with points of waves on it, occasionally sharpened by little wet flames of sunlight, when the damp and soft-edged sun appeared in a hole in the clouds. Above the waterline, the islands and banks were rocky, gray and strangely dry-looking. Above them rose dull brown cliffs, with little vegetation, no houses, no visible animals, no livable-looking habitat. On the bank of the mainland, on my right, the earth held millions of trees of different shades of green, but the islands had none. Above the brown stretches of hillside was pale blue, thickly clouded sky.

I named and studied the colors, trying to memorize the shades for my painter and interior designer friend, Miho: dark gray, gray-brown, rust-brown, pale blue, gray green. Who would think such a dull palette could result in such spectacular and soothing scenery? There was no warmth in it except some of the peaty browns.

“Are we almost there?” someone said. Kim and Barbara were not looking at the scenery; they were keeping their heads down, as the rain was driving into their faces if they looked up. I was glad to be sitting with my back to the weather and thought of the Irish blessing about having the wind at your back. My father had given me part of it as I left: “May the road rise up to meet you.” Maybe it was.

Over the chop and the wind, we talked about how great it would be, later, to get in a warm bath, into dry clothing. We speculated about the central heating of our rooms at the Park Hotel, and about the likelihood of our getting Irish coffees on our lunch stop – a barbecue at Lord Brandon’s cottage, at the gap of Dunloe, an outdoor meal which Ellen was sure was going to be moved indoors because of the weather. Ellen apologized for the rain and cursed the young PR woman who’d encouraged her to bring us on this venture. “But it’s great,” I said, gratingly. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Neither have I,” she said, grimly. “And never again.” Later, she amended it to say that in future, she might tentatively plan the boat trip but “call it on the day” dependent on the weather. Well, I didn’t want to draw her attention to the fact that she had called it off, on this day, but someone (I) had talked her back into it. So I told her  that any PR person could take a group of writers to a five-star hotel for lunch. But it took an independent thinker, a brave and hardy soul, I implied, to bring us to a freezing cold lake to be drenched with rain and out of sight of civilization— to show us the real Ireland.

The boat slowly veered towards a marshy bit of island. “Are were there?” Kimberly asked. She was huddled tightly under the tarp and her cheeks and hair were streaming with water sluicing off her cap.

“You know last night, you were saying you had trouble with narrative?” I asked her. “Well, conflict is at the heart of all fiction.”

“We’ll start a fight on the bus,” Ellen offered.

“No, really,” I said. “Those people on the bus are dry but they’ll have nothing to talk about later. We’ll all remember this for ages. If nothing bad happens, there’s no story.”

Barbara – the one from the Arctic Circle – nodded as well as her frozen muscles would allow. “It’s true, Gillian. We will remember this a long time.”

The boat was nosing into some grasses. There was nothing man-made in sight except for an ancient stone bridge, apparently the same vintage and structural stability as the monastery. I wondered if we were going to have to go rock-climbing to get to our barbecue lunch.

“That’s an unapproved road,” Ellen said. “Don’t write this down. I took a car there once – you’re not supposed to; the road crumbles away under you as you drive. It’s very dangerous. The views were incredible.”

The boatman gesticulated and yelled silently from his end of the boat. Somehow, we realized we were supposed to get out, and somehow, we did. The other passengers said that the boatman was going to shoot the rapids under the bridge, and pick us up on the other side. I was jealous: I wanted to go white-water rafting in the 30-foot rowboat with the old man. “Shall I get back in?” I offered.

He shook his head wetly and vehemently. I got out and joined my friends walking down the stony, slippery path to the bridge. Every time I put my left foot down, water sloshed out the top of my shoe, but every time I put my right foot down, it didn’t.

We were traipsing through a kind of glen or small valley, with the river on one side and little fairy villages made of boulders and ivy and lichen-covered trees on the other. Weird fey hillocks appeared for no reason, and I was sure that under them were coffins or corpses or more monastery ruins or castle foundations or more rocks; everywhere there were turns and twisties  of barely visible paths, and all was green and gray and gleaming with rain.

We walked past the old bridge and down further, out of sight of the boatman. We talked longingly of the hot food we might soon be getting, of the hot drinks and hot baths. The boatman did not appear on the water; a few people went back to see where he was, and one man stood atop the bridge and leaned over and shouted. Ellen promised us that after lunch – which might well contain hot whiskey drinks or at least cups of tea, in our barbecue on the beach – we’d be taking “jaunting cars,” i.e. pony traps, up to the top of the gap, and the  traps we’d ride in had roofs, and the jaunting-car drivers carried blankets for the passengers. This was quite exciting, and we discussed at length the relative merits of dirty cold wet woolen or horsehair blankets compared to dirty wet tarpaulins, and the insulating qualities of both. We decided that wet blankets on dry land would be better than a wet tarp on a wet lake.

Everyone else had by then gone back to watch the boat, so Ellen and I followed. Through the bushes, I saw the front of the red boat nose forward, against the current, and then slide back. “He’s been doing that for half an hour,” someone said. “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

The tiny engine wasn’t strong enough to push the boat upstream through the narrow part of the river flowing through the bridge. We watched, our heads turning right then left as if at a very slow  tennis match, as the boat slowly surged forward a dozen yards, and then was sucked backwards over the boulders.

After a long time, we saw one of the other passengers inside the boat, pushing against the edge of the bridge with a long thin boat-hook. After many, many tries, he succeeded in adding enough forward momentum that the boat passed through the rapids, and the boatman – whom I had not yet heard utter one word – came and picked us up.

There are degrees of coldness and wetness that a person from Florida can understand and relate to, and then there are degrees beyond that that raise primitive fears and long forgotten instinctive reactions. I get tense when I’m cold, and nervous. Kimberly, who lived for many years in St. Petersburg, looked dangerously frigid and could not stop shaking. Barbara sat as close as she could to her, but they were both wearing rain jackets so not much body heat got shared. Ellen, on my side, tried to cuddle up to me, but when she out her arm around my back, she pulled back, newly sodden. “You’re SOAKED!” she said.

“It’s a raincoat,” I said. “Better it than me.”

She didn’t try to get close after that, but just kept herself hands under the tarp as best she could against the flapping of the wind and the breaking white water.

County Kerry barbecue

To our horror, the barbecue was not cancelled. When we reached Lord Brandon’s cottage, a sprawling white house on the side of a cliff, there was an outdoor patio set up with tables, and a  barbecue stove with glowing coals, which we all gathered around and leaned into, trying to dry our clothes and faces and hands and spirits.

Through the steam, Ellen asked Grace, the woman running the outdoor café at St. Brandon’s cottage: “Is there a place we could eat inside?”

Grace shook her wet head. “I’ve got steaks coming out,” she said. “And there’s salads over there, and cold drinks.” We looked at the array of beer and colas, the green salad and tomatoes in festive little bowls.

“Is there a fireplace inside?” Ellen asked.

“Is there a heated room?” I said.

Grace shook her head. “All I’ve got to get dry with is paper towels.”

“Is there anywhere we could go in for a few minutes to warm up?” Ellen asked.

Grace shook her head. “I’ve got baked potatoes coming out, too.”

“Nothing for a vegetarian,” Ellen said. (PR people don’t like writers to miss a meal.)

“There are baked potatoes and salad,” I said. I don’t like people to make a fuss about my not eating meat. “That’ll be great, no worries.”

“I’ve got some vegetable soup in the shop,” Grace said.

“Yes, please!” I said. I’d never been so grateful to have a fuss made over my vegetarianism.

I removed my outermost two layers – my long blue raincoat and a gray velour hoodie – and left them in a sodden heap on a bench as I tried to dry out my sweater. I was ignoring my sodden lower half, as my left side was miserably cold and wet and there was no hope of any warmth or dryness for a long time. I was looking forward to the blankets in the jaunting cars, though.

As we huddled over cooling plates of food in the wind, but out of the rain, Ellen made phone calls to find out where Ruth and the others had ended up. There were a lot of buses involved, a lot of changes of schedule and re-arrangements. I focused on my baked potatoes (not very good, despite my hunger) until I heard Ellen saying something about a taxi.

She wanted to cancel the jaunting cars and get some real, nonjaunting cars, with hard roofs and sides and electric heating instead of blankets. I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to lead my friends into being wetter and more miserable than I already had led them to be.

Just then, the rest of our group arrived.  Ruth, a very pretty woman, looked like an otter with rain dripping from her sleek wet head. She peered over Ellen’s shoulder at her steak, saying, “I hope that’s really, really tasty.” She and the other writers– including the very sick woman who should have been resting in bed or at least lying down in the back of the bus – had descended from the top of the gap via jaunting car, none of them having realized at the outset that it was an hour’s journey and that the rain would be driving directly horizontally into their faces the entire way.

Ellen explained about the taxi she’d summoned, and then looked at me suspiciously. “Do you still want to go in the jaunting car?” I did, especially if I could take an Irish coffee with me. She told the driver to wait for me and then, perhaps out of a sense of PR duty or insane curiosity about this attraction her friend had put her on to for the benefit of visiting journalists, she decided to join me.

I went to get us hot drinks, thinking that with hot coffees and warm blankets, we’d be laughing all the way, ho ho ho ho. The lady behind the counter of the coffee bar was making teas and coffees as fast as physics allowed. I ordered a hot chocolate and an Irish coffee to take away and then, as she spooned cocoa powder and poured shots of whiskey into cups, I said, “Could you make that an Irish chocolate?”

“No,” she said, with unIrish brevity and obvious displeasure. “I can’t.”

Something about her tone suggested that she wanted to say more, and I thought perhaps she thought it a waste of good whiskey to add it to sweet cocoa, and it would be entertaining to hear her say so, so I said, “Can’t or won’t?”

“I can’t,” she said. “I’m not allowed to serve whiskey in any other way besides Irish coffee.”

“Ah,” I said, glimpsing behind her dark eyes many pages of fine-print rules and regulations for the serving of alcoholic beverages in the County of Killarney, or wherever we were. “Is that because Irish coffee’s a food, and you’re not a bar? So you can serve food but not liquor?”

She nodded tiredly. I got the impression that she thought it was a stupid and confounding rule, but being Catholic, she was used to such impositions of authority and would not risk her eternal soul to try to overturn it.

“I see,” I said. I handed her a 10-Euro note for the drinks, and she gave me two covered cups, whispering, “I did it for ye anyway. Don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t!” I said. “Thank you!” and I went jauntily back to the jaunting car.

Our driver was Casey and the horse’s name was Charlie. Charlie was a big black and white cob, wet to the withers, but Casey owned him and assured me that he took good care of him and indeed, the entire way up the mountain, about an hour, didn’t use the whip once except to touch Charlie’s hip as gently as I might nudge a kitten. Charlie responded to clacks and whistles and singing from Casey, and even, when Casey sang a certain Irish ballad, Charlie seemed to step up his own tempo to match the rhythm. I am aware that that last sentence sounds like something in an Enid Blyton story, and I’m sorry, but it is exactly my adult and sober perception that on the three occasions when Charlie began a particular song, the horse changed its pace, and that the latter pace went better with the song.

Charlie pulled us strong and sure up the potholed, rutted pathway of the gap. It was very steep in places and I offered to get out, but neither Casey nor Charlie took me up on the offer, and indeed I don’t think the cob was much bothered by his burden. The strangest thing was when Casey stopped the horse and told him to back up, back up, back up, and Charlie did so, in blinkers, blindly following girders and pushing back the little cart with his sizable rump. We must have backed up about 40 feet, over potholes full of wet muddy rainwater, before Casey stopped and reached down to pick something up off the road. “Someone lost some sunglasses,” he said, and tossed them onto the seat.

I was amazed. Ever since I lived on the beach I have vowed never again to spend money on sunglasses or beach towels, since both items are available free and in great variety and quantity on Anna Maria, every morning after there have been tourists or a storm or both.  But Casey apparently rarely sees sunnies lost in the roadway, and evidently they’re worth enough to inconvenience his favorite horse considerably. I don’t know why he didn’t just have one of us hold the reins while he jumped off and got the glasses, but I was having a hard time understanding his accent and didn’t want to complicate things by bringing up questions of animal welfare ethics.

At the top of the hill, we met the other writers and Will and the other PR lady in a lovely pub with a big red fire. Everyone who came in went straight to the fireplace and stood with their back to it, warming up, until a newer person came in and took their place. Ellen got us hot whiskeys and hot waters with lemon and we all stood around steaming and drank the steaming drinks and survived.

The Park Hotel

The Park Hotel Kenemare made me go and buy a camera. There were only two shops in town that sell cameras, and one of the shops sold only one camera, but it was on sale at 149 Euros marked down from 249 Euros. I looked at its 15X zoom, and then I walked to the other shop, which had two Panasonic Linux (not Lexus!) cameras, one of which had a 5x zoom for 99 Euros and one of which had a 8x intelligent zoom for $139 Euros, none of which made any sense to me. The two salesmen in there, amazingly, seemed to know even less than I did about buying cameras, and could only read to me the information on the boxes in front of my nose: 16 megapixels vs. 12 megapixels.

I wished Nicole were there. She’d have told me in seconds which was the best buy, and why, and if I’d dithered she’d have bought one for herself and sold it to me later. After a lot of wondering, I returned to the first shop and bought the one with the big zoom, hoping I’d made the right choice. As soon as I can work out how to use it, I’ll start sending photos with these blogs.

I would love to send a photo of this room, which is one of the nicest (superlatives be damned) I’ve ever had (in my whole life, damn it). 216 was a huge semi-divided room, with old grand wooden canopied bed curtained with dull gold and dull pink drapes, and a beautiful sitting area with an antique writing desk (where I am sitting with my laptop on the green leather) and lots of big dark glossy furniture. At my right, the green-velvet-curtained window opens to a swath of green grass and gardens to a lake. I would like to stay here for the rest of the press trip, if not the rest of my life.

Dulling the senses

The spa at this hotel has a motto: “Awaken your senses.” After a day of being freezing cold and windblown, wet-arsed and red-cheeked, I didn’t want my senses awakened any  further. I wanted them dulled to gentle soothing numbness, thank you. But the ads and a desire for warmth led me down a copper-and-dark brown corridor, each step nicely dry and dryly carpeted, into an urban sleek spa full of harmonious scents and redolent with Enya music.

As usual in such places, the receptionist was a beautiful young woman with large soft eyes and an even softer voice. As usual the changing area was equipped with locally made toiletries, standard luxury, all very nice, and the two saunas, wet and dry, were pleasingly tiled in off-white little tiles with occasional tasteful touches of red or black or green, and though lying down in  the dry sauna wasn’t “just like lying on the beach” as the soft-spoken receptionist had said it would be, it was very pleasant, and after I sat for a few minutes in the wet steamy eucalyptus-lavender-oil misty wet spa my bottom was warm for the first time in many hours.

And then there was crushed ice to rub on my hot skin, and then a shower with three degrees of intensity, marked from “Irish Spring” to “Tropical Rainfall” to “Monsoon,” and all of that was charming and pleasant and standard five-star kind of thing, all lovely and great but all pretty much on a par with other spas I’ve enjoyed and then I saw the hot tub.

Wow. The tub was in fact an outdoor heated pool the size of a small bedroom, perched on the outer edge of the building, overhanging the hill, and surrounded on three sides and on top with glass, with one open face towards the lake. I had to myself the whole big tub, which was warm, not too hot, and I lay on my back and floated, looking up at the pale blue-gray sky and the pelting blue-gray rain, and I felt very futuristic, somehow, in all that glass and metal and clean air, and at the same time I felt a kind of animistic Druidic sense of occasion – a sort of solstice, a celebration of warmth after an endless period of coldness.

In the park, which is to say in the space around me on three sides, the wind was blowing the neon-green leaves off the laden branches, and the new branches of buds and baby leaves waved like football crowds. The treetops reflected, gray and green, on the surface of the clear water of the pool, and the shadows of the reflections blended with the mottled green-blue and black-brown marble of the bottom.

Face up,. I floated suspended, warm and wet and with a dry warm face, between cool fresh wind and warm clear water, between rain on roof and water beneath me, between indoors and outdoors, between the gap of Dunloe and the Park Hotel of Kenemare. I looked out at the soft gray sky and the green trees and fresh clear transparent air moving the tree limbs around, and I felt very human in a strange, futuristic, beautiful space that was new to me.

And then I got a massage! It started with a footbath and foot massage while I sipped hot ginger-lemon-honey tea made from fresh ingredients that very morning by the beautiful woman doing my massage, Louise, and  then she gave me one of the best most superlative massages of my whole entire life, and wow, it was indescribable, and then after my massage, once I could rouse myself to move again, I was told to relax in the relaxation area, another large quiet glass room surrounded by green and gray nature. Again I had it all to myself, only this time I was reclining on soft dark brown pillows in a heated robe, drinking hot ginger tea and eating lime sorbet from a silver bowl.

Ravens flapped against the wind through the sunlit evening, calling across the quicksilver water. Firs and deciduous trees swung their branches, baby spring rabbits grazed on green green grass, ivy climbed across ancient crumbling stone walls, and azaleas and camellias blazed in full hot bloom. Some pink red-hot-poker type of flower stood up from the grass where the rabbits bounced and played, and around the hills the light lit up the white, twisted trunks of old silver birches, and sometimes the soft-edged sun sifted through the soft, thick gray clouds, and all the time, all the old trees leaned slightly in the same leeward direction.

On my left, the huge gray-stone building of the hotel rose, massive and reassuring as religion, solid and dry under a slate-blue slate roof, and in it was my canopied bed with warm covers and serenity. Wow, I thought. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I thought. Have I died and gone to Heaven?