My second of 10 sojourns to Ireland was a summer-long storytelling tour of the island that was certainly one of the highlights of my life. I kept copious journals recording my remarkable experiences. When I read them in 1996, I realized there was a book in it. So I wrote one. Took about a year and a half, but it was time well spent. I am a much better writer as a result, and let’s face it: anyone can begin writing a book. It’s an achievement to FINISH writing a book. I never attempted to publish, as travel writing is like milk: it has an expiration date. The Ireland I describe in this book no longer exists. Little more than a decade later, it is almost an historical document. But it’s good. I like it. It’s fun to read. That is enough. It would be even better if people would read it. Books like having readers. It makes them happy.
> MAY 22 to MAY 26, 1994: Toad Hall:
. After five days of nurturing R & R, I itched to head back out on the road. The question was where to go. My quandary was solved when I chanced to see a clown, cruelly twisting balloons into deformed animal figures on the cover of the Irish TV magazine. Below him beckoned the caption: “Follow Me Down to Carlow!” I checked the copy, but all it said was: “Come one, come all- to Carlow’s annual Éigse Festival!” I hoped to attend at least one of the many Irish village festivals- lord knows there are enough of them, especially in the summer months. I’d heard they were among the best ways to fully experience rural Ireland. But what, I wondered, was an “Éigse”? Nobody at Toad Hall had any idea.
. I decided to go and find out for myself…
> MAY 27: SECOND ROAD TRIP, DAY 1: —————————-
“Follow Me Down to Carlow!”
. Again, I was up with the sun and out to catch that 8:01 bus to Cork, followed by the train to Kildare, where I had an hour-long layover. After a brief jaunt up the hill, past Kildare’s ubiquitous stone church and into ‘Silky Thomas’s’ for a quick pint, I returned to the station and sat down next to an agitated nun. A moment later, I understood the source of her agitation: The hapless sister was being persistently harassed by four local youths, taunting and throwing pebbles at her from an elevated pedestrian walkway, traversing the railroad tracks. Not much else to do in tiny Kildare, I imagined- certainly nothing so fun as tormenting elderly nuns. I stood up to shoo them away, but the station-master beat me to it. A shrill blast of his whistle sent them scurrying like cockroaches in the light.
. Entering the station, I phoned ahead to the local tourist board to inquire about cheap accommodations in or near Carlow, but to my consternation, the friendly lady told me there were virtually no youth hostels anywhere near town. This was Carlow is an inland county and strictly country-livin’. Being nowhere near the lure of sea and city, few travelers actually found themselves tourists in Carlow town. With such a dearth of visitors, there was little demand for low-cost lodgings. Since bed & breakfast places and especially hotels were a threat to my long-term budget, I was in a bit of a fix. Though armed with a trusty plastic money card, I was loathe to start accruing debt so early in my Celtic summer. The sympathetic voice on the telephone suggested that I ring a young fellow named “Trevor Gillespie”, who surely would be able to help with my situation. Calling the number the tourist guide had provided, I was momentarily thrown-off by the greeting I received: “Gillespie Hardware. Can I help You?”. Trevor was paged, answering the phone as if my call was expected. I told him of my need for lodgings and he responded with a hearty welcome. “Yes! Sure. No problem. ‘Urglin Center’ is completely empty at the moment, so there are dozens of empty beds. You can have your pick! Come round the store at lunchtime and I’ll drive you out there, say: one o’clock?” It was settled I had a ‘where’ to be.
. On the short train jaunt into Carlow, I met a local-girl who inquired about my itinerary in her hometown. She was baffled that anybody would actually choose CARLOW, as a place to go on holiday. (She and her friends were anxious to grow up and get the hell OUT of Carlow!) When I told her of my instructions to call on Trevor, she turned up her nose and sniffed: “Gillespie? Well! You’re sportin’ with the rich folk!” (Our arrival in the Carlow train station verified her assessment. Walking towards town, the first business I encountered was ‘Gillespie Oil’!)
. I arrived at the store a few minutes early, and inquired after my host. A bright, handsome young buck with boundless energy and a real sparkle in his eyes, Trevor greeted me warmly, but asked me to step outside and wait briefly, while he concluded some business I had interrupted. The Gillespie family enterprise was adjacent to a small creekside park, that would have been very lovely, had it not been almost carpeted with litter. Leaning against the building, I relished the yummy sun pelting down on my face and neck like a dry rain. Carlow seemed much bigger than I had envisioned- really bustling with life and living- choked with lively young folks and pretty girls in perky school uniforms.
. Before long, Trevor came flying out the front door in action-mode. Cheerfully grabbing my pack, he threw it in the back of his sporty new car, chirping: “Let’s go. Kevin!”, and leaping into the driver’s seat. The moment I closed the door, Trevor burned rubber down the road like a racecar driver on speed. We were on a mission to retrieve the keys to the hostel and grab his golf-clubs, both of which were in his bedroom back home. Our pit-stop lasted sheer minutes. Making a mad dash through his home, Trevor slapped together a hasty sandwich as he introduced me to his parents, who seemed like two of the most relaxed folks I had ever met. Lugging his heavy golf-bag, we lumbered out the front door and seconds later we found ourselves bouncing speedily along some truly beautiful back county roads.
. It seemed like a good time to ask where we were going.
. ‘Urglin Center’, explained my breezy new mate, was a large private hostel deep in the Carlow countryside. Several miles from town, it was used mostly by scout troops and youth groups for summer camps and assorted seminars. Trevor had been instrumental in buying the property and converting it with the help of a government grant. (Inside the entryway there hangs a commemorative plaque, and a photograph of the dedication ceremony, showing Trevor looking on as Irish president “Mary Robinson” officiated.) As we approached, Trevor pointed out the first important landmark I needed to remember. The turnoff to Urglin Center was marked by a big tacky green restaurant, appropriately called ‘Green Acres’, which seemed obvious enough to find in the dark, while navigating from the back seat of a taxicab. After a ten minute drive up a dusty rural road we came to the second crucial landmark: a slim driveway squeezed between a homestead and a long-disused church. Urglin Center was recessed at the end of a long gravel access, that came to a halt amid a cluster of nondescript concrete bungalows. Trevor gave me a cursory tour of the main building. It contained several large dormitories filled with bunk beds, along with two shower rooms and a large communal kitchen. A second, smaller unit housed a rec room with ping-pong tables and foos-ball. Impatient to hit the links, Trevor offered to drive me back into town, since he had to go that way anyhow. Eager to explore the festival and find out what an Éigse was, I threw my gear onto the nearest mattress and followed Trevor back to his racecar. My unofficial tour-guide indulged in a short detour en route, to offer me a glimpse of Carlow’s famous Dolma, a simple but mysterious, construction of three enormous boulders, which boasted the distinction of being the world’s largest known tombstone.
. Once in Carlow town, I realized that I was absolutely starving, summarily choosing a benign-looking Chinese restaurant. “Peter” was the chef- bright and effusive as the Irish can be, he was eager to engage me. But especially memorable, was lovely young “Linda”, my absolutely darling waitress. Throughout the meal alluring Linda engaged me in conversation, displaying a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the details of my life. I could barely take an uninterrupted bite. It was a little annoying- but I understood. It’s the Irish nature. Besides, there wasn’t much else for Peter and Linda to do. I was their only customer.
. After the meal, I ambled across the street to the community hall, where the opening ceremonies for the festival had just been held, heralding the unveiling of this year’s official Éigse art exhibit. Predictably, it was a whine and cheese affair. All the best of Carlow society was there, dressed in their finest finery. Keeping with the turn-of-the-century theme of this year’s outing, ‘Fair Ladies’ peppered the crowd, in colorful pastel gowns, topped with broad, gaudy hats, preening and parading on the arms of their ‘Dapper Gentlemen’, trussed in formal evening wear. Typically, the artwork on the walls ranged in talent and taste, from the awful to the sublime, and back again. When the hall filled with hoity-toity art patrons, none of whom seemed willing to return more than two or three words to me, I decided to adjourn and go find Alcock’s Pub.
. Thankfully, considering my state of advanced impairment, Trevor shuttled me back into the dark Carlow countryside to spend my first night at the deserted country hostel. Man, it was quiet in there. Almost TOO quiet…
> MAY 28: SECOND ROAD TRIP, DAY 2:
. Urglin Center was a strange environment to wake up to. In the blackness of the previous night, I had let myself drunkenly in and passed-out on the first mattress I came to. Now that the daylight had arrived and consciousness returned, my surroundings were more evident. The place was unkempt and dusty, the floors and windows grimy and laced with spider webs. Clearly, it had been a while since the inn had seen any serious housekeeping. I was struck by how huge and empty the place was, how deathly quiet. There were rows and rows of unused beds… and then there was me. No caretaker. No lodgers. Just me and the keys. I began to feel a little like Jack Nicolson in The Shining, and this was not good.
. After fixing myself a rudimentary breakfast in the cavernous kitchen, I went outside to investigate my surroundings. Along one side of the property a crumbling gray church tower stood sentry over a forgotten graveyard. The plaque on the stone wall said the original church was built in 1629 and renovated after a disastrous fire in the 1800’s. This was easy to believe. Weeds, moss and wildflowers strangled every feature. The thick gravestones and Celtic crosses could hardly be read anymore, their engravings all but erased by countless seasons of elements.
. When the coffee kicked in, I called Trevor to see what he was doing with the day. He said he’d be right ‘round to show me something special. About an hour later, he came roaring up the driveway, tooting his horn and waiving his hand, chiding: “Let’s go! The day’s passin’!”. As he drove me too speedily through landscape that I could only describe as my idea of Nirvana, Trevor filled my ears with stories about everyday life in the eddies of County Carlow. He loved it. Couldn’t be happier! Knew everybody, everybody knew him. Had great friends and a fine girlfriend. Money, privilege, youth- what more could a guy want? I envied Trevor to no small degree.
. Soon, we came upon a fork in the road. The turnoff was straddled by a magnificent Irish ‘folly’: an elaborate structure built for no apparent purpose or function, save to decorate and impress. The edifice was tall and sculpted, the facade fanciful and charming. I was enchanted. It reminded be of the Dr. Suess architecture that had so fascinated me as a child. Trevor veered suddenly and we passed under the jolly folly, heading towards a large ruin that lie in a distant pasture. The closer we got, the more impressive the landmark became, until we pulled up to the sheer walls of a very imposing half-ruined castle. The antiquity’s perimeters were overgrown now, and strewn with trash and car parts. Untethered horses grazed contentedly on plentiful tufts of grass. Barking dogs inside the compound began to announce our arrival.
. Leaping from the car, we marched up to the open gate, past a rough sign proclaiming: ‘Ducket’s Grove Riding School For Girls’, and entered the interior courtyard. Chickens, horses, sheep, geese, yapping hounds and a preening peacock greeted us. Young women in riding suits milled around. They seemed tired, as though they had just returned from a long ride. Trevor asked one redhead where he could find the lady of the castle. The freckle-faced pubescent princess huffed and turned away, tossing the words: “Follow me.”, over her indifferent shoulders. As we passed him, the peacock turned our way and screeched an unholy cry, unfolding it’s resplendent plumage in a dazzling display I felt privileged to witness. Leading us to an off-kilter oak door which barely seemed able to hang on its rusty hinges, our bored escort droned: “Knock here.”, and turned away. A moment later, we were let in to the kitchen to greet “Yevette”, crusty riding instructor and mentor to young girls. I’m tempted to use the word ‘rustic’ to describe Yevette’s kitchen, but I’ve already used the adjective more than once, and “rustic” doesn’t even begin to suggest the rough griminess of the place. I thought I stumbled into a movie set: simple county kitchen circa 1930, maybe? 1940? I didn’t notice any electricity. The kitchen was a wreck. For starters, the spice rack was so crudely fashioned, that it seemed to defy gravity, threatening to send the tumblers crashing down into the stained sink, which was piled high with dirty dishes. Junk was scattered everywhere. Bees buzzed over something sweet that was spilled on the floor. A calico cat was eating from an unattended plate on the table. Yevette, who seemed scattered and absent-minded in the extreme, tussled the wisps of wiry hair that played havoc with her head, to get a clear view of me, as she took my hand in her dry paw. Lifting a greasy cup from the sink, she offered to brew us a nice pot of tea. I politely declined her offer. Trevor was in his typical hurry, with places to go and things to do, so it was time to move on anyway. As we said good-bye, Yevette insisted I return soon for a free riding lesson. I told her I would try to take her up on the gracious offer. After all, apart from the old ‘Nature’s Wonderland’ attraction at Disneyland, I’d never been horseback riding… (And come to think of it, those were mules, not horses.)
. Trevor had just enough time to take me on a whirlwind tour of Ducket’s Grove. We crossed through an area now being used as a stable, past a midget pony that stood about as high as my chest, and into the bowels of history. This part of the castle was derelict to the point of looking dangerous. As he pointed out the crumbling castle’s many charms, Trevor began to share his vision for restoring the place, and converting it into something useful, like a fine hotel with a nice restaurant- or a book store. “A BOOK STORE?!”, I marveled aloud. Sure. Why not? Urglin Center had whet his appetite for entrepreneurship. But his was a big vision- a pipe-dream, really. The site was out in the middle of nowhere, and the success of such a venture seemed highly unlikely- almost to the point of absurdity. Nonetheless, Trevor gave the impression of being invincible enough to do anything he set his mind to, so I didn’t dare doubt him.
. Then: zoom! Down the road we sped, back to town where we parted ways, and I went looking for a hot lunch. Stopping into a likely blue pub called Tully’s, I was pleased to discover a menu that offered a number of things I could actually eat- like cheap, filling vegetarian lasagna- bearing only a marginal resemblance to cardboard in tomato sauce. I claimed a booth with a view, large enough to accommodate guests, should any new friends present themselves. Making the first pint of the day last hours, I sat in the corner people-watching as the afternoon rolled by. Patron after patron came in, drank up and moved on. I remained. It wasn’t long before a happy loving couple asked to join my party. “Annette” was born and bred in Carlow town. She met “Jay” while going to school in Dublin. They were a handsome couple, young and healthy and normal in an absolutely wonderful way. I enjoyed them so much, I convinced them to pose for a grinning portrait.
. Soon, a swaggering herd of brash young ones sauntered in, commandeered a table near mine, and set right about having a great time. It was obvious they were oblivious to mortality and decay. I hope I’m forgiven for noticing that one of their gang was spectacularly attractive. (No matter how in love he may be, a [hetero] guy can’t help but notice the most beautiful woman in the bar. It just comes with the genetic hard-wiring, I suppose.) But this woman was a stunner by any measure: lovely and lively, sparkling and luminescent. I had to concentrate not to sneak lingering looks at the lithe new Goddess of Tully’s. To redirect my energies, I got myself a fresh pint and began to scribble away feverishly in my second Irish diary. But I barely managed to compose my thoughts, before I felt a soft arm drape around my neck, a pretty face moving in close to mine, a sweet female voice asking me: “Are you writing about us?”, as she placed her supple hand on the book. Yikes! It was her: the sexy angel. As it happened, I wasn’t writing about them, but given a few minutes, I probably would have been. Hastily tucking the diary into my daypack, I told her as much. Her first question was: “Where are you from?”. She seemed surprised by the answer. “I thought you were from Spain! You must be an American Indian, then…” Deploying my line about being descended from the lost tribe of Armaugh, I provoked a beautiful laugh that made her face look radiantly lovely. Taking her arm from around my neck, she shook my hand and introduced herself as “Soibbean”, (pronounced “Sha-von”). I thanked her for coming over to say hello, which puzzled her. “Don’t people say hello in America?”
. “Sadly, no.”, I explained. “Rarely.” At this, Soibbean insisted I come over to her table to meet her long-time cronies.
. Among her crew, was an earnest lad named ”Redmond”, who let go a big guffaw when he heard my name, saying: “KEELAN?! I have a cousin who was recently elected to the Northern Irish parliament, but they wouldn’t let him serve because he’s from Sinn Fein. HIS name is: ‘KEVIN KEELAN’!” Our new alliance had a predictably great time. The hours flew by, until it was time for me to say good-night. As part of the Carlow Éigse Festival, the Bidwell Lane Theatre was presenting several plays I wanted to see. That night, the town’s own Little Theatre Society featured an evening of one-act comedies. I tried to convince the group to join me, but none among them took the bait, despite my entreaties that they really should support what little live theatre there was in their own small town. Like most people, going to the theater wasn’t even an option. It’s possible that none of them had ever seen a play. Cornering me as I left, Soibbean insisted I drop round afterward to tell her all about it. Chances are, I would find them right where I left them, invincible and thriving in their beautiful ignorance.
. The Bidwell was a squashed box of a theatre, with low ceilings, a small performance space and little or no backstage areas, but it was serviceable enough. In my theater days, I dreamed of having half so much. A gallery of pictures and newspaper cuttings lined the walls, depicting the famous Irish literary and theatrical figures who had visited the theatre in its lengthy history, including what appeared to be autographed photos of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw! Best of all, the Bidwell had a tidy little bar in the back, which was wide-open to the house. I couldn’t tell where the tavern ended and the theatre began.
. Seeing someone examining a clipboard, I approached him, asking to speak to the house manager. It happened, I already was. “P. J.” remembered getting my Fortunate Billions package, but didn’t respond because he was unsure about previous bookings that might have monopolized the theatre, and couldn’t commit to a specific time slot.
. Taking my program, I sat down near a young pup of perhaps seventeen, who immediately spoke up, introducing himself as “Marvin Myers”, beginning at once to interrogate me. When he heard I was an American he wanted to talk about popular music, identifying himself as an aspiring bass player. When he saw my the length of my hair, he was even more keen to chat about the world hemp-culture, saying: “I hear the weed is spectacular in California!”. I assured him that it was, if very expensive for my means. Above all, Marvin was eager for me to meet his brother ”Neville”, who was going to be in the first play: More Than Just a Fairy Tale. “You can’t miss him!”, Marvin insisted. “He’s the Big Bad Wolf.”
. The play was pretty darned funny, actually- much wittier than I had imagined, given the hackneyed theme. The first act featured three twisted modernizations of the familiar storybook classics, and the second half consisted of one really fractured play called Small Box Psychosis, about three men trapped in an elevator, a daft romp that made me laugh out loud. During the ‘interval’, (P. J. said: “We don’t have ‘intermissions’ here.”), I went to get a drink, pleased to discover, that it was entirely Kosher for the theatergoer to take their refreshment back, to enjoy it during the play! U.S. theaters are always so persnickety about food or drinks in their precious auditoriums. What if something spilled? What if somebody slipped on it and hurt themselves? Then what if they SUED the theatre?! Too much hassle. They found it easier just to banish all comestible conviviality- to just say NO. It’s sad, really. Uncivilized, in the extreme.
. When I returned to my seat, I found that we had been joined by Marvin’s older brother Neville, signs of wolf make-up still outlining his face. Hearing I was a storyteller, Neville was anxious to corner me and find out what I thought of his performance. Squirming a bit, I told him that I thought he played the juicy role of the villainous wolf with gusto and unbridled bravado, going waaaaay over the top perhaps, but pulling it off. Whatever his shortcomings, he did have real stage presence… (I did not tell him, that his skills were amateur at best, that he demonstrated no discernible technique or training whatsoever, and that his one-note swagger did wear a bit thin before the curtain call. I didn’t see what useful purpose these observations would serve.)
. When the show let out, it was only 10 P.M.- so I ambled back to Tully’s pub for more craic. The joint was transformed. It was PACKED with people, squeezed into nearly every square inch. I can only conjure the overused ‘sardine allegory’. In my home town, the fire marshal would have shut it down flat. I tend to loathe such environments, so normally I would have pivoted and walked away, but it was early, I was on holiday, and Soibbean and friends were somewhere in that madness, so I took a deep breath of good air and plunged into the smoky melee. I didn’t see my newest friends, as I worked my way through the sea of humanity up to the bar and ordered a beer, warily wading into the swarm. Soibbean found me first, standing on tiptoe and yelling above the roar of the crowd to get my attention. The goddess of Tully’s introduced me to her good friend and birthday-girl “Vicky”. The guest of honor took my hand and yelled intimately into my ear, that I should consider myself invited to her late-night birthday party. As we were talking, the jukebox cranked out the great Elvis Costello song Oliver’s Army. As a big-time Elvis fanatic, I was thrilled to hear how many people were singing along, word-perfect. Never heard anything like it, stateside. Then, inexplicably, the song went silent. The crowd buzzed, parting for someone moving through them, strait towards us. Heads looked up. It was a Scotsman, in full regalia, shouting into the crowd: “Vicky! Who among you is Vicky, my bonnie Irish lass?”
. Soibbean hailed him, grabbing her friend by the waist and pushing her forward, yelling: “Here she is! This is Vicky!”. Stepping forward to take her by the hand, the ardent highlander serenaded the embarrassed birthday-girl with the most suggestive ‘poetry’ I had ever heard. “Vicky, my darling! Have you ever wondered what was under a Scotsman’s kilt?”, he asked- offering to show her his “pipes”. Soibbean and her crowd took rude delight in Vicky’s blushing embarrassment. It was clear that over the next four days, Tully’s would become home base, Carlow.
. When I’d had just about as much as I could stand of the human zoo, I said goodnight to my new comrades and retreated to a more sane bar up the road for a quick nightcap. Among a boisterous party in the bar, was a woman who kept flashing me long looks and wan smiles as I nursed a whiskey and waited for my cab. Sure enough, after a few minutes she came over to play with my hair and admire it. (Though I usually wear it tied back, to keep it out of my face, I had my long, dark brown hair down in a wild mane, because a bevy of beauties had wanted to fondle it in Tully’s, while I sat there and beamed, thinking: “a guy could get used to this…”.)
. I decided to have the taxicab drop me off at the cutoff, opting to walk the remaining way in the void of the moonless Carlow night. Without streetlights to guide my way, I soon found myself in near-total blackness, plotting my course by staying under the swath of stars visible above the road and tapping ahead with each step to test for asphalt under toe, fearful of tumbling headlong into an open ditch. The occasional house shone light over brief portions of the road, but most of the way was traveled on faith alone, that foreword was the right way to go. I’d traveled the route several times now- back and forth between Urglin Center and Green Acres, but on foot in the near pitch blindness of the midnight countryside, it was another experience altogether. I began to walk faster and then faster still, and wonder what kind of wild animals might be nocturnally roving the Irish countryside in search of human meat. It was a perfect night to hear the shrill cry of the fabled Banshee. My heart got to pumping in an exhilarating hybrid of terror and wonder. By the time I found the hostel and locked the door behind me I was relieved and exalted, thrilled by the unexpected adventure, and so stimulated by the experience that it was hard to get to sleep…
> MAY 29: SECOND ROAD TRIP, DAY 3:
. Another glorious morning greeted my sleepy eyes. Since I had no coffee at the hostel, I took a quick shower and hitch-hiked into town to enjoy the days festival. This was the first non-traveling day of my vacation, where I actually had a set itinerary: at noon master shanachie Jim Nolan was performing at Tully’s- followed by a late-afternoon street parade and an evening play. But first and foremost, was coffee and breakfast at a quiet little Carlow cafe appropriately called “Coffee Shop”. Bryan Addam’s song The Summer of ‘69 was blaring on the tiny, tinny stereo. Hearing the nostalgic refrain: “Those were the best years of my life!”, I became unstuck in Time. ‘No shit!’, I thought to myself. ‘Me too.’ The reverie jarred me into the realization that the same could be said for the moment I was living. 1994 was shaping up to be one of the most full and satisfying years of my life. (They way things were going, who wouldda thunk it?)
. Tully’s was almost empty when I arrived, but this was normal. I was always the first to arrive anywhere. Today, this was a good thing, because it meant I got to spend a couple of hours in conversation with Mr. Nolan, watching as the pub filled up, the lunchtime crowd mingling with the people who came to hear his storytelling. When he spoke, the audience treated Mr. Nolan with a reverence and respect that was striking. His voice and delivery was solid and professional, but I found it difficult to relate to most of his stories in much the same way Irish audiences seemed to see me as a fish out of water. Because they are all told in rhyme, Jim’s traditional tales seemed more like dated old poems to me. His best piece was a real tearjerker- a modern Irish classic about a mixed Catholic-Proddy marriage that ended, as one might expect, in tragedy. By now Trevor and some pals had joined the gathering, and the audience had swelled to quite a crowd. I shouldn’t have been- considering my earlier experience, but I was genuinely surprised when near the end of his presentation, Jim Nolan introduced me, as guest-storyteller. With nothing prepared, and remembering how hard it was to keep the attention of an Irish audience for a full six minutes, I decided to present the briefest bit in my repertoire: ‘Dave Holland’s Stupid Stunt’- the story Martin the Neanderthal plagiarist called “Bullocks”. With a full nights sleep and no beer in me, I managed to give a much better performance than the fuzzy blur I offered at Alcock’s, receiving a considerably less tepid and more whole-hearted response afterward. Two Germans bought me a pint.
. At the appointed hour, I rambled out to find a good vantage point from which to watch the parade. Frankly, I’m not a great fan of parades. (They’re not dreadful experiences for me, but they don’t ring my bells either.) That being said, this procession was a real delight. The vanguard was composed entirely of children. Row after row of adorably costumed school kids passed in a meandering ribbon of miniature humanity. To my surprise, Carlow’s festival parade was filled with American icons: pilgrims and Indians, rowdy wild west rustlers and cowgirls, even a row of tall-hatted Uncle Sams clad in stars and stripes. Among the few Irish themes: a smattering of fairies, followed by two groups of kids carrying a mock up of an Aer Lingus 747, and a foam sculpture of the Carlow Dolma. Lastly came the adults, marching in rows of pipers piping- drummers drumming and gypsies dancing. Bringing up the rear: a giant puppet of Ireland’s biggest momentary celebrity shook hands and patted backs. I fumbled with my camera, as the giant bulbous head of “Jack” the heroic World Cup soccer coach, teetered above me like a Satanic apparition induced by a bad acid-trip. After the menagerie passed, I joined the crowd who poured into the street and followed behind, in a kind of impromptu citizens parade.
. When the energy on the street began to dissipate, I returned to Tully’s. Suddenly and without warning the jukebox music abruptly stopped, only to be replaced by TV- World Cup soccer cranked very, VERY LOUD: Ireland versus Germany- my heritage at war with itself. This travesty drove me out of the dim bar and into the lovely day happening outside. Breathing deep the intoxicating gift of fresh, smoke-free air, I decided to stroll lazily down to the ruins of Castle Carlow, which I had seen several times in passing- standing stoic sentinel along the banks of the River Barrow. When I arrived, I was bummed to discover the antiquity completely cordoned off to the public. All that remained of the once-grand structure, was one tenuous wall that looked as though it might topple over at the slightest provocation. Erected in 1217 and long since destroyed, the ruin was impressive nonetheless. I had my camera in tow and was hoping to get some good exposures, but as I circumnavigated the castle, I discovered that all the best viewpoints were inside the fenced-off compound surrounding the crumbling edifice.
. Fortunately, the trash-strewn field behind the ruin had a clear footpath etched through it, leading up to a brick wall, were it was obvious previous trespassers had gained surreptitious entry. I decided to follow their lead, carefully avoiding the treacherous shards of broken glass, to hop the fence and prowl along the base of the lonely relic. Nervous about being caught, I hastily snapped my photos and clambered back over the barrier. From here, it was a short stroll to the overgrown banks of the River Barrow, where I perched on a bench watching the silky water trickle over the weir, as hungry birds swooped for insect meals, in the waning late afternoon light of a perfectly serene Irish day.
. Come nightfall, it was back to the Bidwell, where a traveling theater group was presenting an original work about Irish emigration, entitled: On Broken Wings. ‘Original’ it was- also bizarre, abstract, strange and compelling. Not every segment worked, but parts of the play dazzled the audience with trippy visuals and fascinatingly grotesque oversized masks. At the interval, I joined the crowd at the bar, where I fell into a conversation with a traveling Brit who without provocation, launched into a staunch defense of the French, raving: “I just got back from a great holiday to France, and let me tell you- don’t judge the French by a quick stopover in Paris. Once you get outside the city and into the countryside, they are the kindest, most gracious, friendly, hospitable people I’ve ever met!”. Assuring the man that I would not think badly of the French, I returned to my seat for the second act.
. After the show, I adjourned to a bar called The Acorn. Inside, three men sat at the bar, clutching their pints droopily: two perfectly nice gentlemen and a drunken lout who felt compelled to give me a generous helping of shit. Not only had I dared order something other than Guinness, but I asked for a glass and not a full pint. “Glass of lager? That’s a woman’s drink!”, sputtered the ungracious lush. I exhaled, bit my tongue and explained that I’d already had several pints of the dark stuff, and I had really only come in to ask the barman to call me a taxi. I ordered a small glass of lager just to be polite, really, which was more than he seemed capable of being. “But Guinness is good for you, man!”, he persisted. “It’s FOOD. Drink as much as you want, and the next morning you won’t even feel it!” This, I knew, from personal experience, to be absolute bollocks. “And ordering a tiny little glass like that? A total waste of money! Have you no sense of common ECONOMICS?”, he bellowed, beyond self-control. Because my father had a drinking problem, I have very little countenance for sloppy drunks, and the more sociable they are, the more they bring out the intolerance in me. “Unlike some people,” I retorted, “I have the common sense to know when I’ve reached my limit.” Setting the empty glass on the counter, I thanked the barman, said a cordial goodnight to the two non-offensive fellows, and went outside to wait for my taxicab back to Urglin Center. As I walked out of The Acorn, I could hear the drunkard’s mates roar with laughter, and begin to rib him mercilessly about the exchange…
> MAY 30: SECOND ROAD TRIP, DAY 4:
. It was around eleven when I hiked out to the Dublin road to hitch a ride into Carlow. After a long time thumbing with no luck whatsoever, I began to walk in the direction of town, confident some helpful Irish Samaritan would give me a lift as they passed- as they always had in the past. This time however, it was as though I wasn’t there. Car after car whizzed by me without one driver taking pity. I ended up walking most of the many miles into town and running the rest, fearful that I would miss my one o’clock lunch rendez-vous with Trevor. Sure enough, I arrived, breathless in Carlow at 1:03, and rang Gillespi’s Hardware. Too late. Trevor had already gone to lunch without me.
. I took solace in The Coffee Shop coffee shop, for decent quiche and strong java. It was a comfortable place to catch my breath before setting out to leisurely rove about town with no real agenda. My perambulations took me through the town’s cursory health food store, a dusty bookstore and the new shopping mall built in a rotunda surrounding the old jail, before finally returning to the hardware store to meet Trevor. Being the boss’s son, he was able to take a short break to escort me through this years Éigse craft fair. Most of the merchandise was mediocre, to be polite- dreadful, to be honest. Oddly, the highlight of my afternoon, happened as we emerged from the tacky crafts exhibit, when who should stride purposefully across the street in front of us, but a tall, thin, shirtless young man, carrying a large, obviously very heavy log over one shoulder and busting out in a big, wide grin. “Just one of the local kooks.”, said Trevor. “He does it for God. We call him the ‘Log Man of Carlow’.” As we parted, Trevor agreed to meet that night in the bar at the Seven Oaks Hotel, to enjoy the traditional session listed in the festival schedule. (I had agreed to meet the Sayers siblings there, as long as they would stop asking endless questions and just hang with me.)
. Finding a unique bar called the Scrugg’s Alley Pub, I entered through the train caboose grafted into the rear of the building. The music and ambiance were great, but the tight-knit cliques of student-types roundly ignored my presence, so I drank up and went to check out Tully’s, where the exact same thing happened. In contrast to the prior highly sociable hours spent there, not a person so much as smiled weakly in my direction.
. At dinner, two young girls in a nearby restaurant grilled me with the same gusto I had come to expect from Mervyn and Neville. They were going to the U.S. soon to do a year of ‘au pare’, child-care work, and they were eager to know: “Where do we go? How’s the night life? Are there friendly Irish pubs in America?”. I tried to let them down gently.
. That evening at the Seven Oaks, I was prompt as ever, but the musicians were over an hour late. I spent the time talking with two schoolteachers, one of whom I recognized from the cast of More Than Just a Fairy Tale. The Sayers siblings arrived just as the women left, and immediately began grilling me about the three paramount subjects in their thoughts: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Mervyn accused Neville of being a hopeless poser around women. From my own observations this was, if anything, an understatement. I offered the good advice Polonius gave brash young Laerties in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: “To thine own self be true.” I felt positive that if only Neville could learn to relax and be himself around women, he would have a lot more luck with them. The pitiable oaf was just so hyper around the opposite sex, like a crazed little dog who might piddle on you at any moment.
. Soon, Trevor arrived with a mate. From the character of his voice, you would have never known “Lester” was born and raised in Ireland. Four years of living in Ann Arbor, Michigan had all but obliterated in him, any trace of hometown brogue. Finally the band assembled and began to jam. Their performance was underwhelming in the extreme. But as they played, I couldn’t help but form a superficial crush on the fiddler: round face, killer eyes and a gorgeous shock of curly brown hair. Either we kept exchanging glances all night, or she just kept looking up to see if the American creep was still staring at her. At one point, the band announced that it was the cute fiddler’s birthday, regaling her with a traditional Irish take on ‘Happy Birthday to You’. I applauded, wondering aloud if I should slip her a birthday note as we left, something to the effect of: ”I’m sorry I kept staring at you, but I couldn’t help myself, considering you’re the loveliest woman in the pub.”. But Trevor was mortified at the suggestion, neighing: ”Oh, DON’T do that! It’s so tacky!”. Lester agreed, explaining: “The Irish don’t know how to take compliments, Kevin. They’re very suspicious of the motives behind the kind words of strangers.” I bowed to their wisdom, waving a weak good-bye to the pretty fiddler as we left. I saw her giggle and bent over to whisper something in the guitarist’s ear.
. On the ride back to Urglin Center, the talk turned to Irish chauvinism. It seemed to me that Ireland had much stricter gender stratification than I perceived in America, recounting my ‘Neanderthal Plagiarist’ story by way of example. Lester noted that even though women were more overtly treated as second class citizens here, it was really the matriarch who held the true power in the Irish family. Trevor insisted that his generation had made some progress since the dark days of his father’s time, but his pal disagreed vociferously. “No way!”, insisted Lester. “Nothing’s really changed that much. Trevor’s attitude just reflects the circle of friends he hangs out with. Believe me, Kevin,” he argued, “Irish men are just as thick and bullheaded as they ever were!”. Lester was so adamant on the subject, I decided to take his word for it.
. When we pulled into the Urglin driveway, Trevor killed the engine and turned to face me. Having heard I had written a Cub Scout story, he simply had to hear it, since Lester and he were in the same scout troop when they were boys. I resisted, but Trevor had been such a gracious host, it would have seemed ungrateful to refuse him, so I complied- poorly. Too tipsy to remember it all, I fear the effort left a distinctly lame impression. Waving good-night, I fumbled with the key and let myself in to the dark, deserted hostel…
> MAY 31: SECOND ROAD TRIP, DAY 5:
. My original plan was to hit the road today, but I was having so much fun in Carlow, I decided to give it one more day, so I wouldn’t miss the “film-festival”, screening that night at the Seven Oaks Hotel. After a lonely breakfast of tea and potatoes in the empty cafeteria, I decided to seek out Yevette at Ducket’s Grove and take advantage of her kind offer to join them horseback riding. Unfortunately, I couldn’t call ahead to confirm, because the castle had no telephone, so I would have to go all that distance on faith alone, hopeful it would all work out. The day was spectacular: warm, still and peaceful beyond words. In this light, the countryside radiated a shimmering green that reeked of Life. The smells were rich and earthy. The sky was so blue it looked like a popsicle. Barely a car or truck ambled by. Except for the passive company of cows, horses and sheep- I walked, all alone for hours on end, enjoying every second of it. Coming upon the ornate roadside folly marking my turnoff, I paused to snap a few photos of the impossibly thin building, setting my camera on a fence to pose for an automatic self-portrait that looks kinda goofy.
. I arrived rubber-legged at Ducket’s Grove, only to find the grounds absolutely deserted. I pounded at the entry to no response. The only living things I saw were two chickens who had taken up residence in a long abandoned truck, and a lame horse grazing. Tired and hungry, I collapsed on a picnic bench under the welcome shade of a leafy tree and devoured the fruit I had packed for the journey. Just as I began to contemplate the long journey back, a small car came sputtering up to the compound, and stopped. I rose to greet the driver as he crossed towards the gate. “Nobody home!”, I broke the bad news. “Pascale” was a welder who had come to visit Yevette on business. Frustrated, he cursed: “Jesus Christ! When is she going to join the modern world and get a goddamn telephone?!”. Since he was returning by way of Carlow, I hitched a ride with Pascale. Thankfully, the talkative blue-collar fellow chauffeured my tired feet right up to the front doors of Gillespie’s Hardware.
. My timing was good. Trevor agreed to join me for lunch at a classy Indian restaurant I was eager to savor. I was surprised to find out over a plate of delicious vegetarian curry that my kind host had planned my entire travel itinerary for the following day, checking the train and bus schedules and working out the best option. As we parted, Trevor offered his final in a long string of kindnesses: he would come ‘round early the next morning and give me a lift to the train station.
. Now, it was on to the Seven Oaks Hotel, where I lounged on a comfortable square of manicured lawn near a well-kept but under-appreciated garden. In fact, I did exactly what I promised my last open mike audience I would do: lie on my ass and contemplate the Irish sky: dark clouds sliding through an azure blue. The birds sang. The sun beat down intermittently on my face. It was brilliant!
. The ‘Éigse Film Festival’ was a near complete bust. Most of the local films screened fell somewhere between tedious and boring, with the exception of the final short, which was pretty cool. During an interval, I went up the filmmaker to offer my encouragement, assuring him that Infected City compared favorably with most of the student films I had seen during my stint at Cal Arts. Unfortunately, the archival footage that followed, was silent, pale and scratchy. Worse, the commentary was useless to anyone not born and raised within a twenty mile radius of Carlow. I gave up, slinking silently to the door, but the dedicated young filmmaker intercepted me, asking me to join him for a drink at the bar, where he hoped to “pick my brains”. I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that, but I agreed, sharing a pleasurable chat about the state of world cinema, until my cab arrived and it was time to return for a fifth and final night at Urglin Center.
. As soon as I put the key in the door, I realized that when I snuck away from the archival films, I also inadvertently abandoned my most prized possession- the handsome gray wool ‘jumper’ my Mother had knit for me! At once I went to the pay phone, which gobbled up all my coins without giving me a dial tone. (I realized, too late, that I had used the newer, smaller 10 p. coins, which the phone had not been retrofitted to recognize.) All I had left were punts, and for some stupid reason, Irish pay phones don’t accept punt coins. If I didn’t want to let the matter slide ‘til morning, my only option was to walk to a neighboring farmhouse, and bother them for a phone call at 10:30 P.M. I decided that the sweater was just too personally valuable, and so important to have on the road with me that I would have to go out and try my luck.
. Coming to the end of Urglin’s recessed driveway, I saw a big lorry parked some distance up the road, its emergency lights flashing a beacon. My urgency compelled me to run all the way there, lest the driver suddenly pull away before I arrive- but he was still tinkering under the hood when I caught up to him. Explaining my predicament, I found the driver very sympathetic. He offered at once to let me use the radio phone in the cab of his truck, but foolishly, I hadn’t brought the number with me, so I would need a phone book to look it up. No problem. He knew the couple who lived in the house. They were wonderful people. “Go right on up and knock on the door and tell ‘em I sent ya…” Following his advice, an older man answered the door and listened patiently to my tale of woe, promptly letting me in. Two house-dogs greeted me in their disparate ways. The old black terrier was as friendly as the day was long, and the feisty toy poodle never stopped yapping at my heels the whole time I was there. The woman of the house came to greet me, offering freshly baked cookies and a telephone. (Everywhere I went, I was disarmed and touched by the generous goodwill of Irish country people. I could never imagine pounding on a strange door at that hour, to ask a similar favor in the U.S.A.- where I might well be greeted by the barrel of a gun!) I ate the cookie, (delicious), looked up the number, (easy), and made the call, (all arranged). Early the next morning, my precious jumper would be at the front desk, waiting for me. Thanking my helpful temporary-neighbors, I ambled very slowly back to the hostel, in the peaceful serenity of the black Carlow night…
> JUNE 1: SECOND ROAD TRIP, DAY 6:
. At first, I slept very well in the womb of Urglin Center. For one thing, it was so dark when the lights were off, out in the wilds of the Irish countryside as it was- and it was incredibly quiet, with nothing to prevent or disturb deep slumber. Unfortunately, with each passing day, the prodigious shroud of dust that carpeted everything inside the hostel made me more and more miserable. Add to this the raging pollen-factory that is the Carlow countryside and it was not surprising that my recurrent allergies had gone from bad to TERRIBLE, from terrible to WRENCHING, from wrenching to HORRENDOUS. It was just pitiful. I hardly slept that final night, in anticipation of my early start the next morning. To make matters worse, I woke up repeatedly throughout the night, with the infuriating inability to breathe through my nose, which made it nearly impossible to get back to sleep. Frustrated, I got up much too early, showered, and made myself an unusually opulent breakfast of scrambled tofu with fried onions and grilled tomatoes, leaving plenty of time to loaf around the hostel and take another leisurely tour of the neighboring graveyard, before Trevor came honking up the driveway, just like the first time, calling: “Let’s go! Time’s wastin’. The train waits for no man!”.
. My intrepid host roared away as usual, like a puppy on speed, swinging me by the hotel to retrieve my wayward sweater, in plenty of time to catch the morning train. Returning the keys, I extended my hearty thanks, and paid Trevor the very modest fee of £5 per night. As the train whistle sounding in the distance echoed the eminent arrival of the westbound train, Trevor turned to me and blurted out: “I just wondered Kevin, who told you about me? I have no idea how you would have stumbled upon Urglin Center.”. I told him about my telephone conversation with the nice lady from the local Bord Fáilte, who insisted Trevor Gillespie was the man to call. He said he had no idea who the testimonial was from, but it felt nice to be thought of in that way.
. As the train pulled into the station, we said our good-byes. “Trevor!”, I exclaimed, suddenly remembering the initial curiosity that had started this whole adventure, “What the fuck is an ‘Éigse’?” Laughing, as I boarded the coach, my selfless patron explained: “Festival! It means ‘Festival’. Technically, it’s the festival FESTIVAL!”.
. Perplexed, I waved farewell, as the train pulled away from Carlow station…
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