So far, I’ve been across the pond to visit Ireland 10 times. Halfway through the first trip I knew there was a book in it. I hope you agree. This manuscript covers my first two Irish sojourns. Uncharacteristically, I scribbled a freewheeling diary during these adventures, giving me rich source material and accounting for the occasionally embarrassing admission or two. The first segment exhaustively covers the events, impressions and feelings of 17 quick but heavenly days in the early autumn of 1993, falling in love with the country and my traveling companion at the same time. Heavenly! The second segment recounts the highlights of an entire summer spent fruitfully immersing myself in the Irish culture. These 3 miraculous months of 1994 encompassed the beginnings of my real Irish education. I hope it’s fun to read. It was fun to live. Life is cool. I suggest life.
. Long before I ever went to Ireland, I was drawn there- captivated by the lure and lore of the oft-rhapsodized ‘Emerald Isle’, splendiferously carpeted by forty shades of glimmering green- one for each of the forty original counties. I was fascinated by the paradox of Ireland: ancient enigma and modern miracle. So far, I’ve spent a large swath of my life investigating the mystery and irony of this magical isle, jutting defiantly from the icy waters of the North Atlantic- and I don’t feel any closer to understanding it than the day I first set foot on Irish soil.
. It was 1993 when I made this, the second important pilgrimage of my life. The first major journey happened in 1959. My family was migrating westward from Pennsylvania to the enticing promise of the Golden State. Mom tells me that I wandered the aisles charming the friendly voyagers with my proud boasts: “I not French- I IRISH!” Even at three years old, I recognized this as something special. (Turns out, I was only part Irish really- one fourth on my Father’s side, one half German on my mother’s and a terrible shameful secret 1/4 English I rarely cop to while visiting Ireland.) The story says, that my Father’s-father and his two brothers emigrated from County Armaugh as “O’Keelan”, but upon disembarking from the ship and seeing all the signs barking “No Irish Need Apply”, they discreetly dropped the ‘O’. If this is true, I doubt this transparent subterfuge fooled anyone.
. But now, after a childhood spent gazing lovingly at 3-D ‘Viewmaster’ pictures of the enchanted island, after a lifetime of absorbing the American bastardization of Irish icons, after a week of sleepless nights, I was finally going to see for myself. As the plane touched down, I was drowned in a bewildering flush of powerful emotion that quite stunned me. Stepping onto the tarmac at Shannon airport, I beamed with rapture and enthusiasm for the adventures soon to come.
. Thirteen years! Had it really been over decade since my Mother and her husband had retired there? It was in the early eighties that “Arline” and “Paul Liley” bought a cozy cottage in southwestern County Cork- near the tranquil village of Glengarriff, roughly translated from the Gaelic as: “hidden glen”, an idyllic spot with a prime view of exquisite Bantry Bay. They christened their new home ‘Toad Hall’, after the splendid abode of amphibian-hero ‘Mr. Toad’ in Kenneth Graham’s classic whimsy, Wind in the Willows, living there quite happily for many years without visits from me or any of my four siblings. Once I found out what I was missing, I couldn’t help but wonder what my damn problem was! Why had I procrastinated so? Oh, we Keelan kids were full of good excuses for not having yet made the journey: we were too busy- too disempowered. lacking vision, drowned by the overburdening responsibilities that life throws at you- too bottom-of-the-barrel piss-poor to purchase the tickets. We had dozens of reasons- lame excuses really. Clearly, we had been listening to our heads, and not our hearts. While we concocted bad new excuses, more than a decade passed us by! It always amazed me how many kids I met, fresh from their education, mother’s milk still wet on their lips, and without two coins to rub together- who somehow managed to roam Europe and the world on amazing excursions. I knew these people. They were all but penniless. How did they do it? What was their secret? In retrospect, I think it was sheer desire that made their im-possible journeys possible- the blessing of naiveté. They just didn’t know it wasn’t possible. They didn’t care. The fervent, tangible desire to BE in all those magical places they had seen in movies and TV and Viewmaster discs, was simply more powerful that the fear or doubt that holds so many of us ‘adults’ in jobs we hate, towns that have grown too-familiar, lives we feel disconnected with. “No” and “can’t” were just not a part of their vocabulary. From their experience, and a lifetime strapped to the tarot’s spinning ‘Wheel of Fortune’, I decided that if one has the courage to want something badly enough, though one runs the risk of disappointment- one plays the roulette wheel of chance, where Magic is not impossible.
. Excuses are easy. As the ad-campaign suggests: JUST DO IT.
. Like most Americans- probably like most foreigners- I thought I knew Ireland by its’ cultural icons. (Lord what arrogant bastards these Yankees be!) Throughout my upbringing, the TV flashed me images Irish: the shilleighleah and the shamrock, kissing the Blarney Stone, ‘the luck of the Irish’, Saint Patrick’s Day, and the Lucky Charms leprechaun searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! Though fun to indulge in, these stereotypes do a disservice to all that is Irish. They bear as much relevance to the Irish national character as Hollywood does to everyday life. When you deconstruct the media mythology, what remains?
. Let’s break it down starting with the Shamrock: an analogy psuedo-Saint Patrick used to explain the concept of one God in three parts, while indoctrinating the local savages.
. The shilleighleah: a good thick wooden rod with a knob on one end, once used as a battle-cudgel now usually employed as a walking stick and for warding-off unwanted fairies and sprites.
. And then there’s kissing the Blarney stone of course: said to imbue one with charm, a wealth of wit and the gift of loquacious gab. Once a year, the entire world celebrates Saint Patrick’s Day. In America, we observe the occasion by going pubbing with our mates and overindulging in the ‘Beer Arts’. All we know about Patrick was that somebody said he was a saint. He drove the snakes out of Ireland with his divinely-inspired super-powers. It wasn’t until I visited Ireland myself, that I began to see Saint Patrick in an altogether different light.
. In Donegal, Irishmen with weathered faces and dog-eared caps, swore to Hell and back, that the ostensibly pious ‘Saint’ was actually a despot Englishman, a lunatic cleric who embarked on a mad mission to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the native Irish of their spiritual order. According to their view of history, what the Celtic people saw as their folk-religion, the Catholic church saw as amoral paganism of the most depraved sort. Communing with Earth spirits! Cavorting around fires! The sensual worship of nature! In this version of the story, God told Saint Patrick, while deep in the throes of a crazed fever, to go forth across the Irish Sea and begin the church’s barbaric ‘re-education’ of the sinful isle’s misguided peasants, and replace a belief-system that had evolved through the mists of time, with a stiff shot of ascetic Christianity. (All this, should it be closer to the truth, making Saint Patrick a curious figure for an American hero, I think- considering that ‘freedom of religion’ was one of the principals the U.S. was founded on.)
. Which brings us to ‘the luck of the Irish’, a shockingly inappropriate aphorism, given Ireland’s tortured history of invasions by Vikings and Christians, Normans and Saxons, blights, potato famines, diaspora, plagues, McDonalds and Microsoft! Until very recently, when economic prosperity and European unity has proffered unprecedented Irish wealth and comfort, those poor bastards have had one hell-of-a time of it. Not the kind of luck I should like to have!
. I suspect it’s more than luck that I should be part Irish. I mean- who isn’t? Those people propagate like rats! (Just kidding- but they are mostly Catholic and Catholics do tend to reproduce…) Since the potato famine, the Irish have taken the world like a virus. Fleeing that cursed ‘luck of the Irish’, they emigrated in wave after wrenchingly painful wave, scattering around the world and carrying on- until now, there are at least three times as many Irish worldwide as there are in their tiny homeland.
. Though divided politically into Northern Ireland and “the Republic” in the south, another less dramatic but equally significant division runs up the center of the isle. The east is heavily populated, dominated by teeming Dublin- the west, still considered a frontier. The east-face of Ireland stares-down historical nemesis England, the West gazes out towards the unforgiving Atlantic.
. Take my word for it: If you’re looking for unbelievably resplendent vistas, majestic seashores, and quaint villages- if you want to experience the real Ireland- not the commercial blarney, but the modern practice of an ancient way of living, if you want to meet people whose destiny has been tied to the tenuous land and the insistent sea for untold generations- then the West is unquestionably the best. Travel the Ring of Kerry, (preferably in the ‘off-season’, when the road isn’t choked with gargantuan tourist busses.) Visit counties Clare and Galway, to hear the fiercely feisty traditional music of the Gaeltacht: Ireland’s Gaelic-speaking regions. Visit pristine Connemara or the glorious Dingle and Beara peninsulas. Relax in the perfect little Mayo town of Westport. Thrill to the wild country of Donegal.
. But wherever you choose to travel, leave your preconceived notions at the airport, and trust in Ireland to fill your vessel…
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.