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 Little more than a decade later, it is almost an historical document.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.
. The first morning of my first trip to Ireland, I shuffled down, zombielike from jet lag, feeling my way to the kitchen for a good strong jolt of caffeine, my first step on the long road to becoming human again. We ate cold cereal made by appointment to H.R.H. the Queen mum, and H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, before getting a late start into nearby Bantry town.
. After a stop at the bank to exchange our currency, we went to lunch at the wrong place. Entering the restaurant, we were immediately engulfed by a cloud of acrid tobacco fumes. (I should have taken it as a prescient omen. Clouds of billowing smoke would soon prove to be the bane of my Irish existence.) Schmaltzy American ‘Top 40’ hits were playing somewhat incongruously over the loudspeakers: Jefferson Starship and such middling ilk- not my favorite milieu. Creeping jet lag, coupled with a terrific headache and an annoying inability to breathe, was making me too queasy to have an appetite, so I excused myself for a brief stroll outside. Prominent in Bantry’s town-square, is an imposing sculpture of Saint Brenden standing in an impossibly tiny boat, pointing out to the lovely bay like George Washington crossing the Delaware. Some folks believe, that he was really the first European to ‘discover’ the new world. I sat on a nearby bench, and sucked in the ozone laden sea-air. Something in it eased my unrest and made me somewhat light-headed, in a not particularly bad way.
. Returning to my party, we left the restaurant to go on a short shopping spree. I looked for a Guinness tee-shirt, while Mom took my traveling mate Tina to shop for the wool she would need to make the handmade sweater, she offered to knit for my new friend. Now that I was feeling up to snuff, my appetite returned, so Mom suggested we stop in to her ‘regular’ spot, where my Mother’s comrades should be gathering to meet us. (Though I suspect they would have been there, regardless.) It was lunch time at ‘Vichary’s Hotel and Bar’, and the place was beginning to get crowded. We sat in a corner booth and awaited our company. The charmingly tacky wallpaper, depicted a bookcase which seemed to have the exact same titles, repeating in endless sequence- a limited if plentiful 2-D library. The fancier restaurant in back, displayed large reproductions of classical etchings, depicting dramatic scenes from various Shakespeare plays. Over the next two hours, we met six or seven people, almost all of them expatriates from some other state, who deserted their countries when they discovered that Ireland, though not the nation of their origin, was surely the land of their hearts.
. Firstly, my sainted (German) Irish Mum introduced us to “Adrian Scott Wilson”- a tall, thin, dapper gentleman in a blue-gray pin-stripped suit. Adrian had a bearing and manner that seemed calculated to announce a man of some social prestige- real or imagined. My Mother’s friend gave the distinct impression of a sharp mind and witty tongue, both emboldened and frayed at the edges, by alcohol. Helping himself to the bar, he introduced himself as a writer, explaining that his one success kept him going for decades, on residuals that trickled in with thankful regularity. Sometime in the mid fifties, Adrian had written a popular children’s book. “Still selling well, in some countries!”, he offered cheerfully, before discovering the bottom of his drink with a frown. Then Adrian proceeded to regale us with Hemmingway-like tales of gonzo journalism- stories of crouching under a desk with a heinous African despot, as insurgents sprayed bullets through his office overhead- relating the sordid saga of a particularly profane all-night roaring drunk, he shared with black literary luminary James Baldwin. Sloshed to the teeth, Adrian mindlessly blurted out: “You’re quite a nigger, Jimmy!”, to the affronted but unruffled author, who considered his reply for a moment, and then responded: “I quite agree”.
. While my Mother greeted some new arrivals, Tina and I conversed with “Major Patrick Hadden”. A towering, portly figure, the Major was no trifling personage. Patrick had the face of a friendly fish: all google-eyed and disjointed from some unkind malady. Thick of speech, he was as lugubrious as Alfred Hitchcock. “Tell me,“ he queried in his leaden English accent, “are you planning to take the tour at Bantry House?” Yes, we told him, we had planned to visit the following day. “Oh DO!”, he encouraged. “And whilst there, you simply must purchase the guidebook. I wrote it.” The Major confessed to being a: “dyed-in-the-wool Royalist”, expressing the belief that the “colonies”, (as he called the U.S.), would one day return to Her majesty’s fold. He professed absolute confidence that this little “separation” between us was merely a hiccup of history which would soon be rectified. Then, without prompting, Major Hadden began to recite the tale of his first arrival in Ireland: “I was a young pup, back then…” he began, “-a sailor in her Majesty’s Merchant Marines and the world was my oyster. When my service was at an end, I continued seeing the world, because that was all I knew, you understand? I caught a ferry from England with some mates, but fell asleep on the way. Something about the Irish air, there is, which makes one very groggy and nappy. It’s most extraordinary, really. Well, when the ferry approached the island, my friends decided I should wake, to could get my first glimpse of Ireland, you know- as we pulled into port. Now, I’m not an emotional man- anyone can tell you. I’m not the sentimental sort. But I tell you true, that the minute I laid eyes on Mother Ireland- I knew I was Home for the first time in my life- and I’ve never looked back.” Eventually, I would come to know and feel Patrick’s words, in a way couldn’t have imagined at the time.
. Lastly, and most notably- we were introduced to my Mother’s best friend: “Audrey Kaulbeck”, a.k.a.- ‘Lady Belcher’, and ‘The Badger Lady’, also affectionately referred to as: “Bitch”, in a mock cat-fight with my Mom. Audrey was a proper blue blood, with the dignity and bearing of a Grand Duchess. (Mother told us that her patrician friend was in fact, peripheral to royalty. The Kaulbeck ancestral estate is so grand, it was the subject of a huge glossy picture-book that dominated Audrey’s coffee-table, leaving little room for anything else.) Though wrinkled and shrunken in physique, Audrey’s spirit seemed just as barbed and feisty as she must have been in her prime. The more she spoke, with her well-bred upper class British accent, the more convinced I became that Audrey had to have been the black sheep of her family. Energetic and irreverent, Lady Belcher could unquestionably be counted on, to speak her mind at all times. Before long, the assembled company brought us up to speed on the origins of Audrey’s peculiar nick-names:
. The first, happened in her much younger days, when Audrey was a kind of ‘Florence Nightingale’ for the animal kingdom. While on a nature walk near the hotel she managed with her famous explorer-husband, she happened upon two orphaned baby badgers emerging hungrily from the den. Wrapping them in a blanket, Audrey took them home for intensive care, where she nursed them through the critical period, and raised them as one would raise any domesticated dog, insisting that contrary to their fierce reputation, badgers were just as amiable and loving as any house pet. My Mom showed us a marvelous photo of young Audrey, barely coping with an arm full of unruly badgers.
. Audrey’s other moniker came quite by accident, during an outing to Spain with the Liley’s. They were in a cafe, where Audrey ordered a beer- befuddled and dismayed when it arrived in an open bottle. (She was raised to believe that only cretins drink refreshment straight from the bottle.) But the brusque waiter departed without ever leaving a glass. He seemed to disappear into a void, or suddenly turn invisible- because time wore on, and still he was nowhere to be seen. Giving up on the receptacle, Audrey attempted to suckle the bottle like any football fan, but this method seemed barbaric. Try as she might, she could not seem to drink that ale without swallowing great mouthfuls of air, triggering an interminable attack of unseemly hiccups and resonant burps. The spectacle of such a proper English lady, sitting in a public house and belching with royal gusto, earned her the new pet-name: Lady Belcher.
. As we heard these anecdotes, Audrey consumed one cigarette after another, leaving bright red lipstick prints on an ashtray filled with smoldering butts, before our afternoon at Vichary’s was over.
© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2010. 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.