Dear Ireland, I love you

DUBLIN, IRELAND

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The ROCK of CASHEL, TIPPERARY

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SWINFORD, Co MAYO

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A Conversation over the Golden Harp

20150225_174558I spot Sheepwalk Bar on the corner, a shelter from the wind and rain of backcountry Ireland. I’ve been wandering around the town graveyard all morning, looking at Irish names like Mildred Dunleavy and Patrick O’Hara. (My favorite was “Padraic O’Connor” – pronounced “Porrack.” It’s a name I’ve never seen before and I find it absolutely fantastic).

Letting the deep green history of Ireland’s far-reaches settle into my pores, I step into the pub. It’s dimly lit. Large flowers crest the stained-glass windows on the door and the only seats taken are around the bar. I can see an empty back room behind the divider with a pool table and plenty of privacy, but I plop my back down on a stool next to the corner where the wall meets the bar counter and ask for a Guinness.

The horse races are on behind me and down the bar a collection of Irishmen are watching with varied levels of interest. The bartender, a young man with a bald head and a long, straight nose puts a pint on a coaster and slides it my way. “Oye,” he says and I nod my head in thanks.

The glass is tall and cool. ‘Guinness’ is written along the side with a tiny symbol of a harp above it.

“It’s not every day you see a girl drinking Guinness,” says the elderly gent to my right. His hair is completely white but his thin mustache is clinging to its peppery gray color.

“Have you tried American beer?” I ask. “Anything is better.”

“Where in the States are you from?” asks the barman.

“California,” I answer, taking my first sip of the bitter black beer. An older man, who looks rather like a goblin, at the end of the bar hears me and asks in a slurred brogue, “San Jose?”

“No, San Diego,” I say.

“I’ve been there, six months,” he says, holding up five fingers. “In California.”

“Where?” asks the younger chap next to him. “San Quentin?”

The bar breaks out in chuckles and the old man gives his neighbor a drunken glare that could kill a horse.

“So, is the stout a more southern thing, then?” I ask the barman.

“The stout?”

“Yeah, a Beamish or a Murphy’s?”

“Oh yes, you won’t find those up here,” he said.

“What? A Beamish?” asks the red-head beside the goblin. “Those are much sweeter than Guinness. From Cork, I’d say.”

“Bad traveller,” mutters the goblin before breaking into a milk-curdling laugh.

A discussion breaks out about how far up the Irish coast a stout will travel. Unsurprisingly, no one quite agrees.

Mr. Mustache leans over to me and asks what I’m doing in Swinford.

“My family was originally from this area,” I tell him over the rim of my Guinness. “I teach English in Prague and we have a school break this week, so I thought I’d come over.”

The horse races behind us lose interest and the five Irishmen turn around to look at me.

“What’s your family name, then?” asks one.

“Nolan and Durkin,” I say. “But we’re also related to the Forkans and Morans.”

“Forkans,” says the young chap. “They’ve got a shop just up the street.”

“Durkins though,” says the red-head. “They’ll be farther up the county. Plenty of them.”

“Nolan and Durkin will be north of here,” says the mustached gent.

“Ardlee is where they’re from,” I say. They all nod and agree that that sounds about right. “I took a walk down there yesterday,” I added. “It’s a lovely area.”

“Sure, sure,” says Mustache Man. “Pretty enough. You walked all the way there?”

“Mhm. It only took about an hour.”

He gives me a look I can’t quite decipher and says, “Are you traveling by yourself, then?”

“Yes,” I say.

“That’s not often done.”

“Well,” I say, very used to this line of discussion, “It’s hard to find a traveling buddy. All my friends are working and, because I teach, I have a different holiday schedule than them.”

The young chap at the end laughs a bit and Mr. Mustache says, “You mean you get holidays and they don’t.”

I smile. Fair enough.

“Say, what’s your name, lass?” asks the goblin.

“Mary,” I tell him. There’s a small chorus of “aahhh”s and the goblin pats his chest respectfully. “Well, Miry,” he says with his brogue. “I’m John. Now, Miry, have you ever heard about…”

Despite leaning forward and keeping unbroken eye-contact, I was unable to distinguish the latter half of his sentence.

“Pardon?” I ask, as politely as possible. He says it again, and I still don’t understand. By this point, the other men at the bar are smiling to themselves and have turned back to the horse races (red-head has some skin in this game. “I’m always second,” he says).

“I’m sorry,” I say again. “I have American ears. What was it you said?”

“I’ll repeat myself,” he answers and launches away, a third time, into an uncollectable dialogue. I look at the bartender who is grinning at me with one eye, and watching the race with the other.

“I only got about fifty percent of that,” I tell him.

“You’re in good company,” he says.

Goblin John seems to have given up on me, though I notice I’ve become the newest victim of his rather intense glare.

The barman and Mr. Mustache are talking about immigration to Canada. The barman says unemployment rates are better because the unemployed are leaving.

“You know what, I’ll tell ya one thing,” says Goblin John. “I’ll tell ya, I’ll tell ya that…” He pauses, hand raised in dignified exposition. We wait patiently. “I’ll tell ya that Ireland only has two exports. Guinness and humans.”

Appreciative laughter follows – though none more shrill than his own raucous chortle – and someone says, “And Bailey’s.”

“Australia and Canada are where most folks go,” Mr. Mustache tells me. “Canada is closer, but Australia has such fine weather. They used to say, Ireland would be perfect if we could build a roof over it.”

“Now they say it’d be perfect if we could put some money it,” says the barman.

“What is the industry over here in Swinford?” I ask about the small town we’re situated in. “What do most people do?”

“Drink,” says Mr. Mustache. The barman laughs and refills a Heineken for the younger chap and his friend. “No, that’s a good question, though,” he says, turning to the younger fellows. “What’s our industry here?”

They look at each other for a moment and then say, “We have a Tesco.”

I’m quickly learning that conversation here is broken up by laughter and betting as each topic is bookended with either a joke or a stir in the horse racing carrying on behind us. Mr. Mustache explains that when the place fills out with younger guys on Sunday, they turn on football on the spare screens but that he likes this pub cozy and quiet – like it is now.

“I’ll tell ya something, Miry,” says Goblin John, catching my eye with his fastidious gaze. “That Olvr Croml, do you know him?”

“Who?” I ask, leaning in again.

Croooooml.”

I look at Mr. Mustache.

“We’re getting a bit of history now,” he says with a chuckle. “Oliver Cromwell.”

“Ah, yes, I know of Cromwell,” I say cheerily.

“Well, I’ll tell ya,” says John. “He’s a s*** awful bastard, he is.”

My mouth swung open slightly as John lets loose a slew of colorful language to describe what seems to be his least favorite historical figure ever.

“Why don’t you like Cromwell?” I ask when he seems to be finished.

“He owes him money, most likely,” answers the red-head.

“G**-awful bastard,” mutters Goblin John.

“That Cromwell was after the famine, wasn’t he?” encourages the young chap with a smile.

“Brought it on, himself,” says Goblin John with conviction. “Mary and Joseph, he did.”

Old Mr. Mustache tells me about his son working in Galway who’s been to California a few times. Mr. Mustache only has two children but is one of twelve (“That was before condoms,” he explains). I say I’m one of seven and he gives me a sly look and nods at the barman. “He’s one of nineteen. Ask him to name them all.”

I give the barman a smile and he glowers at Mr. Mustache. It takes a bit of coaxing to get him started but he gets to sixteen without a problem (his own name being, “Matthew”) as I count down on my fingers, then pauses. The young chap’s friend looks over the bar counter at him and mouths out a letter. (“They’re brothers,” Mr. Mustache tells me). Matthew gets the last two names and lets out a little sigh. His brother laughs at him and then turns back to the horse racing.

“You must not like Guinness,” says Mr. Mustache kindly, observing my half-empty glass. It’s been about an hour and my progress has been slow.

“No, it’s good,” I assure him. “I’m just a slow drinker.”

“You should squirt some black currant juice in there,” suggests one of the men. “That’s how the ladies take it.”

“I’ll tell ya what, you know,” starts Goblin John loudly at this. He says something that I don’t quite catch and a few abashed chuckles find their way out.

Mr. Mustache leans over, a little red, and asks, “You didn’t get that, did you?”

I shake my head.

“Good,” he says.

“Well,” offers up the younger chap, “You’re a good girl to take drinking if you tackle a Guinness like that. Won’t be embarrassed by you, I’d imagine.”

“You know what,” begins John again. “Spring is a funny thing. Spring is a funny thing because farmers and chickens…”

He stops mid-sentence and we all wait.

“He’s not going to get it this time, is he?” asks the bartender’s brother as Goblin John sits perfectly still, mouth ajar, eyes groping for the next line of his well-aged joke.

“Well, he’s had a few,” says Mr. Mustache. “Help him out.”

“Spring is a funny thing, becaaaaause…” says the brother with the patience of a kindergarten teacher.

“Because what’s the bird do? Lay eggs. And what’s the farmer do?” Goblin John pauses again but is unable to remember what the farmer does so he continues. “And what’s the hen do? He prays. The Hindu. He praaaays.”

Bemused chuckles fall at Goblin John’s expense – not that he can tell the difference.

“Now you’ve met a real Irish character in a real Irish bar,” says Mr. Mustache to me in a low voice. I don’t tell him that I think he’s much more the real Irishman I’ve imagined stumbling upon than poor Goblin John.

My Guinness is getting low and the men are paying for the last of their drinks as the horse races finish. Mr. Mustache insists on paying for my Guinness. I thank him and then lean over.

“So that’s John at the end there,” I say. “And who is the red-headed man next to him?”

“That’s Petey Moore,” he tells me. “His family owns the pub up the street. He works there once a week but spends the rest of his time down here with us. Knows about everyone in the county, he does.”

“And the bartender’s brother?”

“Jon – Well, Jonathan,” he tells me. “They’re about the same age. Jonathan is older with a sister in between.”

“His friend, that younger chap at the corner?”

“Also John,” he says.

I smile.

“Three Johns in one pub?”

“We’re a quaint group,” he tells me.

“And your name, sir?”

He gives me a wide smile and bats his soft, Irish eyes.

“Padraic.”

Finding Blarney

As a little girl, I used to suffer from frequent ‘bad dreams’ (probably due to my wildly over-active imagination). I’d wake up and patter down the shaggy-brown carpeted stairs, past the shadows and silent corners of our sleeping house, to the living room where my dad would be sitting in the soft lamplight, a book resting in his lap.

These were probably my dad’s only peaceful hours, when the rest of the house had finally fallen asleep, and his handsome grey-blue eyes would be so steadied on whatever he was reading that he wouldn’t see me until after I had crossed beyond the old, red armchair. But when he did notice me, he’d let me curl up into his lap, no matter how late (and, even though it seemed like the wee hours of the night to me, it was mostly likely never past 10:30 or 11:00) and he’d exchange his reading book for one of the many glossy picture books we kept beneath our coffee table.

Oh, the worlds we’d discover in those pages – deep seas and faraway lands. Dad always seemed to know more about the pictures than the book did (although, I guess I never considered that he may have just been reading the captions). Every picture had a story and he talked about them with such wistfulness that, even as a little girl, I imagined he secretly wished he could live inside the pages we visited.

If he ever wonders where I get my wandering feet, he has no further to look than his own shoes.

It was on one of these evenings that I first fell in love with Ireland. Granted, it was bound to happen eventually. With as romantic and mist-driven as I am, there was little chance I wouldn’t discover the mysteries of my ancestors on the Emerald Isle.

We were looking at a book of Irish castles and countryside. I was enchanted by the patchwork of rolling green fields, sewn up by stone walls and muddy roads. The grey skies, the gulls, the old carts rolling past fields of sheep. And the castles.

My imagination took flight and I was equal parts delighted and saddened by the abandoned, forlorn fortresses. Blarney Castle, in particular, peaked my interest. Not the castle, necessarily, but the stone.

Kissing the Blarney Stone, Dad told me with his soft, story-teller voice, will give a person ‘the gift of gab.’ I didn’t understand what that meant, so he just said it makes a person really witty.

I didn’t really care about being witty, but I knew then that I wanted to kiss that stone. It was the first adventure I ever remember wanting to take. The first time I thought to myself, “I want to do that someday.”

How was I supposed to know, as Dad tucked me back safely into bed a second time, that my trip to Ireland would actually happen and just what it would entail?

***

It’s dark outside and Dublin’s pre-7 a.m. streets are surprisingly awake, considering that most of the city spent the previous night drinking until just several hours ago. I know where I’m going only because I spent two hours lost on these same streets the day before.

Around the corner from Trinity College is my tour bus. The driver is called ‘Gentleman Dave’ and it becomes apparent why very quickly. He’s a sweetheart.

Bustling us cheerily into the vehicle and giving us explanations about Dublin’s sights as we drive past them, he comments on how nice the weather is today. Off and on during the next hour, he talks about bits of Irish history or ruins as we pass them.

After a fifteen minute coffee stop, our first official sighting is the Rock of Cashel, an ominous sight from the cozy village dozing below it.

We climb the hill (“Because the only person ever to be drive to the front door was Her Majesty, the Queen of England”) and step into another age. The damp grass and roofless church become even more menacing as crows fly around us, swooping low and then settling in small groups along the crumbling edges of the ruins. The graveyard, too, looks foreboding. Silhouettes from the large headstones stand against a pale sunrise. The sky looks like milk and it mitigates the frigid feel on top of the hill here.

We awkwardly ask each other to take pictures of our respective groups and stomp around in the cold before heading back to the bus. I meet a few American girls when I get stuck behind a door because I never learned how handles work. We bond over mutual-incompetence.

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It’s another two hours to Blarney Castle. Our heroic bus driver spends about a half hour explaining Irish agriculture to his audience of half-comatose passengers. It’s interesting. Something about sheep wool. Eating baby lambs. I won’t remember all of it because I fall asleep.

Most of us are brushing sleep from our eyes when we arrive outside the castle grounds. We have two hours to wander, so we start down the path, across a creek, through lush lawns and winter trees.

Blarney Castle rises up above us and I feel a piece of me get unreasonably giddy. Most of the ride (and most of my life) I heard nothing but how many thousands of people have already kissed that stone (‘two hundred million’ according to the eleven year old boy behind me). It’s a tourist trap. Whatever. I’m excited.

But I believe in doing things properly, so rushing to the stone was not an option. I wandered through the dungeon below the castle, crouching down to follow some little girls through passageways not meant for adults over five feet. Then I read every possible sign and informational poster. THEN I climbed the castle.

Blarney Castle has a 100-stair trek up through four floors, many of which have lost their roofs. I’m not great with heights and spiral staircases have always been a test of my courage. But we climb on, through bedroom chambers and great halls, none of which look great anymore. I remember why those picture books used to make me so sad. This castle is such a desolate shadow of its former glory – the moss on the stone walls say so themselves.

By the time we reach the battlements, we’re all past the uncomfortable stage of being shared-tour goers. It was all jokes about getting stuck in the narrow passages or wondering how on earth we were supposed to get back down.

And, of course, a fair amount of our jest was directed at the stone. Gettin’ a piece of that Blarney. Should we really be kissing something so public with the current ebola scare? I mean, it’s no wonder the Plague broke out.

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The dark sky above us splits into pieces and rays of sunshine fall down like torch lights on the velvet green below. The stone gets closer.

When it’s finally my turn, I take off my glasses and scoot towards the battlement on my back. Gripping the irons, I lean over backwards and the red-bearded Irishman helping people keeps a grip on my torso. The heights thing isn’t even an issue because I can’t see anything but the smooth surface of the rock in front of me.

The kiss is quick. The stone is cool.

I struggle back up and wait for the others. We laugh about how inglorious and unelegant a process it is to get up and down. We pull out tissues and sanitizer. We ask each other if we sound better.

But the Blarney Stone isn’t just about the gab, for me (honestly, that gift has already gotten me into more trouble than it’s ever helped me out of). The Blarney Stone is my adventure. My first adventure. A piece of my childhood wishes that I’ve carried around in my pocket. That kiss was everything it should have been.

It’s back down into the castle gardens (including the ‘poison garden’ with a sign specifically asking visitors not to touch or smell anything because of the hemlock, mandrake and other dangerous plants). I fall behind the group and wander along the river, past the (poisonous) ancient yew trees, through gardens from nowhere. Finally, the path spills into a lane that takes me across the field and toward the village where our bus waits.

I think I need to mention that at this point, my last meal had been breakfast the previous day and I’m starving. Our bus chugs slowly into Cork and we park along the river right as a rain storm blows through (“I never saw this one coming,” says our driver).

The driver tells us to sit it out for a few minutes to see if it clears up. We wait a moment and then it starts hailing.

I gather my things and walk to the front of the bus.

“Can you tell me how to get to the English Market?”

“Sure lass,” says Dave, a little surprised. “Are you sure you want to tough it?”

“Yes,” I say, emphatically, glancing back at the rest of the surprised crew. “What, am I the only one who’s really hungry right now?”

They all laugh and a few people wish me luck.

Cork is a charmer. The main street looks a bit like London with its boutiques and shops that stretch for blocks and blocks, but the vibe is very Dublin-ish. The neighborhoods are layered on the surrounding hills, with some streets running straight up them, so it looks like San Francisco, but the river running through it, laced with bridges, is so like Prague. And the seagulls everywhere remind me of home. So I’m quite happy as I troop through the streets looking for lunch.

The English Market is an indoor market selling fresh, homemade everything – fish, meat cuts and pastes, vegetables, jarred goods, candies, cheeses, breads. A few people suggested finding sandwiches there, but I decide against it. Passing up on several little restaurants and cozy haunts, I meander farther and farther away from charted lands in search of a real pub. My watch tells me I only have 45 minutes till the bus returns for Dublin and every street I turn down seems to be as pub-less as the one before. But my determination to find authenticity, the knowledge that I’ll hate myself if I quit, and an insatiable thirst for adventure keeps me turning corners. Tattoo parlors emerge along the stone wall and the neighborhood gets ‘a wee shady.’

Perfect. This is where the real pubs will be.

Cork, according to our bus driver, is the rebel child of Ireland. They didn’t want to have to import Guinness from Dublin so they made their own black beer: the stout. The two Cork stouts are Murphy’s and Beamish, so when I see a sign with the Beamish logo, I duck inside, ignoring the lude posters and nightclub promotions. Can’t judge a pub by its front window.

The inside is dark, with the only light coming from dusty cross-paned windows and tinted lamps. There are a few bar stools but mostly an odd jumble of tables and chairs of different sizes and levels of comfortableness. I get a toasted ham sandwich with cheese and red onion, fries and an extremely-mayonnaised coleslaw salad with a pint of Beamish. It’s literally perfect.

As I sit and devour my first meal in 24 hours (reasonably priced because… real pub), I listen to the waitress, barman and lone customer talking. Sometimes it’s in accented English that I can’t understand and sometimes it’s in Irish that I really can’t understand (save the cuss words), but it’s charming. An old man walks in and gives me a smile and the waitress says sweetly, “Hello, Bob.”

I’m halfway through my pint, brushing crumbs off myself when I realize I’m wearing my dad’s sweater. I stole it from his closet two Christmases ago, in part because it’s super comfy and in part because I was hoping it would make me feel like I wasn’t so far away from him.

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I pay, get directions back to St. Patrick’s Bridge (which I have to ask for twice because I honestly didn’t understand what he was saying the first time).

Dave gives us the history of St. Patrick as we pull away from Cork, which is basking in the late-afternoon sunshine.

The gentle rocking of our bus and the Irish music piping quietly overhead puts the rest of the bus to sleep (except for Dave, thank goodness). I watch the fields fly by, snuggling into the fuzzy folds of my dad’s sweater. Pale this morning from the frost, they are now emerald green in the glow of the sinking sun. They look just like the pictures in our coffee-table book. ‘Molly Malone’ starts playing and I can almost hear my dad’s voice singing along.

Ireland hasn’t been quite what I expected – though, admittedly, my expectations were high. I don’t know if I’m going to find what I’m looking for here because, to be honest, I don’t think I know just what I’m looking for yet.

But if Blarney is the itch in your feet to go somewhere new, if Blarney is the love of the quest, if Blarney is the knowledge that the ones we love never leave us, that they are the very best part of who we are – if that’s Blarney, I think I had it already.