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 Little more than a decade later, it is almost an historical document.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.
. Tina and I caught the morning ferry to the largest of the three Aran Islands: Inishmore, where English is almost a second language. Our a combo-package included two round-trip fares and one night’s lodgings at an island hostel. (Apparently the dorms are segregated by gender, because the booking agent asked us if we had one female and one male in our party. “Last time we checked…”, I replied, tongue firmly in cheek.)
. The quayside village of ‘Kilronan’ seemed out of an era I would have thought long bygone. Tranquil to the point of being sleepy, the waterfront was picturesque. We walked past a battered wooden dingy, half sunk into the harbor sand, curving past a bicycle rental shop, and strait up to our accommodations, which were ideally located on a gentle hillside overlooking the harbor. On the ground floor was “Tigh Joe McDonagh” or ‘Joe Mac’s Pub’, a handsome, intimate maritime drinkery. Above, was the small, shabby hostel where we would stay. Introducing ourselves to the caretaker, a chipper thirty-something man named “Adain”, we checked into our dormitories, and bobbed downstairs for a pint.
. Clearly, when it comes to rural Irish pubs, Joe Mac’s is the REAL DEAL. One wall of the tavern is lined with finely lacquered wood paneling, another bears the silhouettes of several local fishermen, carrying their canoe-like traditional ‘carraughs’ into the sea. All the tables are fashioned from converted cast-iron Singer sewing machines. The gentlemen lining the bar at were unmistakably Joe Mac locals- pretending to ignore us, but secretly very sensitive to our presence. (By now I had noticed, that at virtually every Irish pub I walked into- all heads turn immediately to me. At first I wondered if it was the length of my hair they were gawking at, but over time I came to think that it was just the natural curiosity strangers illicit in the Irish people. The fascination soon fades and thankfully, I become part of the environment.) Sparing the fetid details, Joe Mac’s had the single most disgusting men’s room I have ever been expected to use. (Glad to report, I returned the following year to find them thankfully renovated, modern and clean. I couldn’t believe I was in the same place. Apparently, some things do change for the better.)
. Though walking can be difficult for Tina, she took to a bike like a bird to the sky, so we rented bicycles from the quayside hut, setting off on an afternoon expedition to explore one of the islands primer antiquities. Our destination: “Dun Aonghasa” or ‘Dun Angeus’, the ruins of a bulwark older than the Pyramids, built by an ancient people called the ‘Fir Bolg’, about whom very little remains known. They arrived on Inishmore, thrived, built magnificent battlements and vanished mysteriously in the cloudy shroud of Time.
. I (almost) managed to keep up with Tina- (mostly), who tore-off like an adrenaline-charged Olympian. Older, fatter and creakier, I took a while to warm to the ride- but eventually all those childhood years spent astride a bicycle came back to me, and the wheels began to feel like an extension of my legs. Our excellent trek took us up the meandering road that circles Inishmore in a big lazy loop. We peddled past a dizzying grid of intersecting stone walls, criss-crossing a landscape for which the word “barren” must have been created. Occasionally we passed islanders’ homes, some patrolled by giant Irish cows that dwarfed any cattle I had ever seen. As we passed one thatched-roofed house, a gray stallion poked his head into the open kitchen window, begging for treats. The hilly trail took us past clusters of long-abandoned crumbling stone huts, most missing doors and roofs. Dropping our bikes by the fence, we trespassed into the field to explore the ruins, and pose for photos in these evocative shells of the past.
. Further up the way, we came to a splendid roadside shrine, depicting the savior in all his glorious suffering. After a brief conversation, I asked the two giggling Irish schoolgirls who were sitting on the fence beneath it, if I could take their picture with Jesus- but they only looked at each other and doubled-over to be out of my shot, so I had to be content to snap a photo of the anguished prophet towering above their cowering figures.
. At twists and bends in the meandering road, we came upon intimidating signs labeled ‘BLACK SPOT’ and depicting the figure of a hapless biker flying ass-over-heels down an embankment, bike airborne above him, in an almost comical depiction of potential tragedy ahead. We came to an awesomely lovely beach, (what the Irish call a ‘strand’,) where bright-faced locals splashed carelessly in the cold waters, shaded a tempting Mediterranean blue-green. When the road gave way to fractured rock, we were forced to stash our bikes in some bushes and walk the final stretch of our expedition.
. The plain stretching out at the base of imposing Dun Angeus was like a sea of rock. Almost devoid of trees, or even shrubs- the fractured granite was scarred with deep crevasses and pits, like the surface of an alien world I had imagined as a child. Bowl shaped indentations dotted the massive slab of rock, some filled with water, some encapsulating micro-ecosystems, which seemed, against all odds- to be thriving in small pockets amid the vast desolation. Deep green grasses and tiny, delicate flowers took root below the windswept surface, filling every crevice with tenuous but determined Life. I tried to capture it with my ‘idiot-proof’ layman’s camera, though I knew no photograph I could take could possibly do justice to the otherworldly landscape surrounding Dun Angeus.
. The ancient fort was not much more than a crumbling edifice, really. No doubt, most of it’s former glories were all but erased by the passing eons. What remains, is impressive nonetheless. Dun Angeus is a tall open-air semi-circle of stacked stone walls, hugging a sheer cliff that plunges a dizzying 270 feet down into the violent turbulence of the crashing Atlantic. There was no fence or guardrail to prevent tragic accidents, as there would surely be anywhere in the United States, where the insurance companies rule the roost. With equal measure of courage and insanity, we lay on our bellies like two snakes, inching forward till our heads were hanging over the precarious ledge, and witnessing the timeless battle of saltwater and rock unfold below. I couldn’t do it for long. It made my testicles tingle.
. After seeing the antiquity, we retreated downhill to our bicycles. Various ilk of dumbfuck had left the trail littered with an unimaginable amount of garbage and debris. Other than the thick clouds of cigarette smoke, this is the only part of Irish culture that I absolutely deplore. How could the Irish and Irish visitors be so caviler as to trash the very paradise they lived in- or came to see? I didn’t get it, but it pissed me off. There is an aluminum recycling bin in town, but no one seems to use it. Empty soda cans dot the landscape like cylindrical metallic flowers. It can only be described as sad and disgusting. By the time we came to our bicycles, my daypack was filled with the residue of morons.
. It was downhill most of the way back to Kilronan, and the view was magnificent. I stopped for a moment to watch, as a lithe Irish cat scurried along a hedgerow wall, against a backdrop of twinkling sea, bustling Galway shimmering on the distant mainland.
. Again, the exertions of the day had made us famished, as we always seemed to be. We were growing tired of the usual limited pub fare we had been eating for days, longing for something more nutritious and substantial- a meal we could really sink our teeth into. But as traveling paupers, we just couldn’t afford the exceptional fish restaurant everyone had raved about, so we had to settle for the snack-bar next door. To my amazement and delectation, they offered passable veggie-burgers, something I had yet to see on an Irish menu. From there, we crossed the road to another Celtic pub with the curious, and to us unappealing name of ‘Cafe American’. Ordering a couple pints of light lager for a warm afternoon, Tina took a seat at a table on the patio outside, while I went to use the facilities.
. Making my way back, I had to squeeze through a small clique of rowdy Irish youngsters, celebrating boisterously at a table next to Tina’s. They seemed too self-absorbed to notice me trying to negotiate their obstruction, until the hip-sack I was wearing knocked one of their beers onto the floor. They erupted in laughter and a chorus of carefree cheers. I took an impromptu bow and improvised: “For my next amazing stunt, I will singlehand buy the offended party a replacement pint!”. But they waved me off, claiming that the glass was almost empty anyway, and insisting we shift over to join them.
. Our new chums were an energetic crew of five guys and one gal- all, on weekend getaway from jobs or summer studies in Galway, which though right across the bay, seemed a million miles away. The ringleader introduced himself as: “Paul Mary O’Connley”. Seeing the confusion we tried to conceal, Paul Mary pulled out and kissed a crucifix that hung around his neck, tucked beneath his shirt- explaining that lots of Irish men were named after the holy virgin. There was nothing funny about it…
. All that day and most of the night, Paul never removed his sleek, darkly-tinted sunglasses, so I never knew where he was looking, but he seemed to take a particular interest in me. The guy was a player, oozing charm like snake oil. Gregarious to the point of being manic, he was nonetheless easy to be with in that disarming Irish way….
. Distracted by my inner-monologue, Paul grilled me about everything American for nearly an hour, before I grew weary of their incessant alcohol-worship, and Tina’s obsequious flirtations. Abruptly excusing myself, I left Paul to enjoy his alcoholism and Cleopatra to flirt with the beefy English meatballs, retiring to my room to write in my journal.
. Legs dangling over the upper bunk, I began to write. Soon, a fellow dorm-mate came in to get something from his luggage, introducing himself as: “Niall O’Neill”, (technically: ‘Neil’, descendent of ‘Neil’). Niall, who struck me as a sincere, good-natured fellow, was on a break from life in Ulster, where he was an architecture student at Queens University, in Belfast. At once, he commenced asking me the usual slew of polite questions we had come to expect from almost every Irish person we met: “Have you enjoyed your holiday?” – “Where have you been?” – “Where are you from?” – “How long are you staying?” and: “Where are you going next?”. Niall insisted Dingle, or a village called ‘Doolin’ were must-see places in the west. I simply couldn’t go home without visiting them. It would be a sin. As he left, Niall invited Tina and I to join he and his companion for evening drinks. The first round would be on him. I couldn’t bring myself to write anymore, so I had a bit of a lie down- eventually dozing off for an hour or so.
. When I came-to, I decided to track down Tina. Starting with the last place I had seen her, I returned to The American, and there she was- still enthralling the Galway crew with her many charms. But when I arrived, Tina decided that she wanted me to walk her back to the hostel. Ever the gentleman, I obliged. Once there, she went inside to clean up, while I dawdled the glorious afternoon away, with the group on the verandah. Our hostel manager Adain, was in the thrall of a typically animated Irish conversation with my new acquaintance Niall and a stunning, slightly Rubenesque redhead, later introduced as “Donna”, Niall’s travel-mate. For the second time that day, I knocked over a pint of beer. (At least this time, it was my own.) Apologizing to the assembled group as I mopped up the mess, I tried to explain that I really wasn’t as drunk as everyone else… yet. Thanks to my nap and a late start, I was two or three pints behind the average island reveler. I was just clumsy, that’s all. “Yeah, yeah, yeah”. They brushed it off when I bought the next round. My Northern Irish friends turned out to be great company. We swallowed pint after pint, while exchanging personal histories- like the best of friends, just met.
. A heavenly twilight was falling on my beautiful day. The topics of conversation went from love to war to world politics to youth-culture, music and morals. The discussion was always somewhere between entertaining and fascinating, never descending to dreary or mundane. Neurons were firing in my brain, that hadn’t been triggered for a long time. It was good. It was all good.
. Finally, Tina emerged from the hostel refreshed, suggested we have some dinner and go check-out the traditional music ‘session’ that was happening just up the road. I’d heard and loved Irish music at home, thanks to bands like The Chieftains and Steeleye Span, but I was genuinely excited to attend my first live, Irish jam. (I’m addicted to them now! When in Ireland, it’s something I’ve just gotta have.) So, bidding a temporary farewell to our latest circle of friends, I joined Tina for another sumptuous feast of veggie-burgers, and a big mess of hot, greasy fries. By the time we ambled away from the snack bar the night had fully arrived. Plesantly sated, we trudged off, up the moonlit road to find the Kilronan community center, where the locals were about to crank up the carousal.
. When we arrived, the joint was swingin’. Three ruddy-faced locals sat on a raised stage, earnestly churning out serviceable Irish joviality. Two middle aged men strummed guitar and banjo. One stout matron played accordion- without, as far as I could discern, a single change of expression all night. After securing our ubiquitous pints, we managed to claim the last two seats in the nearly full room, which were right next to the stage. As per protocol, introductions were made to our immediate neighbors. The smiling lady we shared the table with, identified herself as the banjo player’s wife. I liked her at once, because she seemed happy to be alive. The music unreeled joyfully, as heads nodded, shoulders bobbed, knees knocked and toes tapped, to the cheerfully infectious melodies. The trio played a string of traditional songs they characterized as Irish or ‘Arcadian’ tunes, as well as sappy John Denver ballads and the Cat Stevens tearjerker: “Father and Son”. Though there were still four or five songs to be sung, the ‘last-call’ lights flashed, prompting Tina to excuse herself for bed. Enjoying myself too much to leave, I chose to stay put for the duration.
. Couples jumped up to claim the dance floor, when the trio burst into “Sweet Caroline”, by Neil Diamond. While the band played a surprising Cajun take on Tom Petty’s “Yer So Bad”, a sweet girl-child with strawberry blonde hair and a handsome crop of freckles, clambered over the empty chairs to our table, looking right at me. She seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Sitting at the chair left vacant by Tina, she beamed at me and chirped: ”I met you today- at the shrine.” Indeed she had. I recalled asking her if she lived on the island. She said that she did, but her friend was visiting from the mainland. I teased: “You must be sick and tired of tourists asking you stupid questions, then!” She laughed at my saying the unspeakable out loud, and nodded in enthusiastic agreement. “Don’t worry.” I assured her, “The season’s almost over.” That was when she refused to let me take her picture. I asked her why she did that, but she only shrugged and looked away. “Shy.”, the musician’s wife offered. “I should know! ‘Ellen’ is my youngest.”
. While Ellen careened around the hall, dancing with her pudgy playmate in an ecstasy of endless giddy circles, I conversed with her mother, who spoke to me in perfect English, but addressed everyone else in fluent Gaelic. “Ruth” told me she had lived on Inishmore all her life, which looked to me to be about fifty years. She was married to the banjo-strummer, who was one of the few islanders who managed to make a living as a full-time musician, hopping back and forth between Inishmore, Inishman and Inisheer. Ruth and her man raised seven healthy children on the island. Each was wanted, and welcomed as a blessing from God. They were a contented lot. Life was good. It wasn’t always easy, but she wouldn’t have things any other way. Setting down her empty glass, she leaned forward and said: “They say the world’s changing- but it’s not. It’s the people who are changing…”
. Interrupting us, the room broke into a cheer when the band played a familiar sing-along that almost everyone in the room seemed to know well. Men, women, and especially grinning young children, lustily called out the naughty refrain at top-volume: “Alice? Alice?? Who the FUCK is Alice?!” The Galway crew dominated the dance floor, arms draped around each other in a group huddle, designed to keep them from falling over drunkenly. Their human-amoebae began to spin round in sloppy circles. Paul’s sunglasses flew off his face and landed on the floor between them, one lens detaching from the frame. For a moment they fell silent, gazing down mournfully upon the broken sunglasses. Then, without a word exchanged, they all began to stomp violently on them, dashing Paul’s glasses to gleeful pieces. Cheers! Laughter! Contentment.
. Suddenly and without warning, everyone in the pub, (save myself,) leapt to their feet, as though prompted by a secret cue that eluded me. From their pious reverence I finally deduced, (rising sheepishly to join them), that the band had to be playing the Irish national anthem- a sure signal that the night was coming to a close….
. Climbing the stairs to Joe Mac’s outdoor verandah- there was Tina, not sleeping at all, but partying with Niall, Donna and Adain- and a few friends I had yet to meet. I think she could sense something different in me when I joined them. I thought her face wore a quizzical expression. Perhaps I was imagining it. After a long day of drinking, everyone present seemed thoroughly pissed– none more so than Niall, who was plainly shitfaced in the extreme. Niall was so smashed, he seemed to have completely forgotten our earlier discussion. Every few minutes he would forget again that we‘d been introduced several times already, repeating his parrot-like greeting: “Hi! I’m Niall!”, for the umpteenth time. Fortunately, Niall was a sweet drunk and not a belligerent one. Smiling woozily, he kept asking me the same questions he had already asked and I had already answered, repeatedly. Through a bout of hiccups that were getting the best of him, he kept insisting that we absolutely had to stay an extra day on the island and go see ‘Black Fort’, the real treasure of Inishmore. Because it was off the beaten path, tourists rarely went there. “It’ll clear the cobwebs right out of your mind, I tell you!”, he proclaimed adamantly… three times at least. Finally, just to get him off my back, I assured Niall we would stay and take his advice.
. All night long, our inebriated friend had been urging his pal Donna to sing something for us, insisting she had the loveliest voice he had ever heard. Finally, in order to shut him up, Donna complied, topping the evening off with a haunting Gaelic ballad- sad and melancholy as they all are. I couldn’t understand the words, but I understood the song.
. The following morning, I was again the first one up, adjourning to the nearby Bayview Inn for a welcome cup of decent coffee and a slice of yummy ginger cake. Three young travelers at an adjacent table gabbed away in a foreign tongue that I could not identify. (Italian, perhaps? Greek? Portuguese??) Within minutes, each of them pulled out a pack of vile cigarettes and fired them up, while sitting directly under one of the most cleaver NO SMOKING signs I had ever seen. In a fancy ‘Olde English’ font, the sign used the following allegory:
“Cigarette smoke is the residue of your pleasure. It permeates the air and putrefies my hair and clothes, not to mention my lungs. All this takes place without my consent. I have a pleasure also: I like a beer now and again. The residue of my pleasure is urine. Would you be annoyed if I stood on a chair and pissed on your head?”
. Putting my coffee in a ‘to go’ cup, I bought Tina a jolt, to kick-start her morning. Over a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried tomatoes and toast, she agreed to delay our travels for a day, and honor my insincere promise to Niall, to see obscure Black Fort before we left. To ease the burden on Tina’s Arthritic heel, we decided to hire one of the many townsfolk who offered taxi services in open-air ‘traps’, or horse-drawn carriages, to take us as far as the road would allow. The horseman wanted £6 for the trip, which seemed a bit high, but we didn’t have the heart to dicker. We were relatively wealthy, as Americans, and we could afford it. Besides, who knows what life is like for the poor fellow in the dead of winter, when the ferries full of tourists are nowhere to be seen. Our coachman probably needed every punt he could earn.
. Like the typical islander, our rustic driver was shortish and stoutish, with broad, manly shoulders, graying hair and a flushed face- mapped with crimson red blood vessels, burst from a lifetime of heavy alcohol consumption. “Seamus” was a jolly, aging, partially toothless bachelor, who claimed to be waiting on marriage until he met a good California girl! Laughing, I promised I’d try to find him one, which delighted Seamus to no end. Finally he posed the question: “So… are you two boyfriend-and-girlfriend, or man-and-wife?” ‘Oh no.’, I thought. ‘Not this again!’ Apparently, it’s inevitable that the issue be raised again and again, when friends of the opposite sex choose to travel together. Just to tease my companion, I told Seamus that we were newlyweds, honeymooning on Inishmore. Not surprisingly, Tina objected vociferously, making me wonder why in the world she cared what Seamus thought? So I said: “No. Actually, Tina’s my daughter.”, a fib Seamus didn’t buy for a second. He cackled triumphantly and boomed: “You’re in love with her! I can see it on your face, plain as day! Why don’t you marry the young lass?”, he urged with a hearty wink. “Unfortunately,” I lamented aloud, “she’ll have none of me.”, quipping: “Oh we’re engaged, but she doesn’t know it yet.” Seamus seemed unalterably convinced that Tina and I were coupled or in the process of coupling. No amount of contradiction could shake our coachman from his fixed belief that there would be an island wedding by sunrise.
. The point arrived where Seamus had no choice but to stop, before the road got too narrow to turn around. “She’s good at goin’ forward, but ol’ Missy ain’t too good at backin’ up.” From here, the remainder of our endeavor would have to be on foot. As he rode away waving, Seamus insisted we pick him to be ‘best-man’ at our island nuptials.
. Slowly, we continued up the road a piece, until the pavement beneath us began to vanish into open rock. Almost at once, I looked down to find someone’s keys, attached to a cute miniature leather jacket. I decided to pocket them, for later delivery to our hostel manager. Adain, would know better than I, how best to reunite them with their owners. All but barren, the topography of Inishmore seemed tragic and haunted. Surveying the bleak serenity of wind, rock and sea, it was little wonder that historically, these people were forced to fabricate soil by grinding rocks into sand and mixing it with livestock manure and kelp. No trail was apparent, no signs pointed the way, so we had to follow our instincts ever upward to the horizon…
. It was a long hike to the ruin, but poor arthritic Tina didn’t complain a peep, successfully hiding from me the fact that all this exercise was getting her profoundly sore and exhausted. Tina was a trooper, marching on over miles of exposed rock, before at last, we reached our destination- a site so wondrous, it borders on the mystical.
. Black Fort’s curving walls of unfathomable mystery, bend and twist like a wintry hag’s bony fingers. A lush carpet of moist grasses, smothers every feature surrounding the antediluvian ruin, which is perched precariously on the tip of a savagely rugged peninsula. Contrary to all accounts of Irish weather, we were enjoying yet another clear, sunny, gorgeous day. The crystal sky shimmered overhead, the stalwart ocean churned down below, while we shared a picnic on the plush green velveteen mat. Better still, we had the whole place practically to ourselves. The history, and, (Dare I use the word?), magic of that place was almost physical, like an electrical charge that arched through the rarefied air and jolted the open-hearted visitor with bolts of sheer joy.
. Simply put: if Dun Angeus had a butt- Black Fort kicked it!
. It wasn’t till we were well on our way back down, before Tina’s ailment overcame her pride, and she insisted we sit for a spell by a boat sitting on a trailer next to someone’s driveway. Reluctantly, she admitted that she’d spent much of the day in severe pain, choosing to keep it a secret to avoid slowing me down. I really had no idea her affliction was that bad, beginning to feel guilty after the fact. While we sat there resting, a mail truck came by on its’ rounds. Since he seemed to be working his way towards town, I approached the letter-carrier and explained our situation, asking if he could give the poor lass a lift back to town. To my surprise, he refused without seeming to give her a second thought, saying: “Nope. Sorry. Can’t. Insurance…”, before puttering off and leaving us to our long, slow, painful descent into town.
. Halfway down, we were approached by two couples, picking their way slowly up the road. They appeared to be looking for something. Producing the leather-jacket key-chain, I rattled it to get their attention. “Looking for these?”, I queried. All four of their faces lit like the sun coming out from behind dark clouds. “Our keys! You’ve found them!” Apparently, they had dropped out of somebody’s gear, while they were biking up the road the previous day. Unfortunately, they hadn’t noticed them missing until they returned to their car in Galway, and found themselves unable to get to their luggage, most of which was locked inside the trunk. Worse, they were prevented from driving home all the way to Wexford, where they would have been locked out of their house anyway! Forced to retrace their steps, they had taken the ferry all the way back to Inishmore to hunt for their errant keys. Since they weren’t at the B and B they had stayed at, they decided to hike back up the trail to Black Fort in sheer desperation. Extremely grateful, they wanted somehow to reward us. I suggested they buy the beer, should we chance to meet in a pub sometime in the coming days. Laughing, they agreed, deciding to continue their hike up to the fort, since the ferry back wasn’t due for a couple of hours. Parting ways, we made the final descent into Kilronan.
. By now, Tina was limping so pathetically, that I offered to carry her through the village, piggy-back past gawking vacationers and grinning pubsters, raising their glasses to us as we passed, and calling out: “Slante!”, “Skoal” and “Cheers!”.
. After collecting our bags, we went into Joe Mac’s to await the afternoon ferry back to Galway, over a final pint of Ireland’s best. Things were easy between us. The tension seemed to have abated, and our interplay was light and positive, but now it was time for our departure. So after thanking Joe McDonagh for his hospitality, we ambled out and strolled around the quay to meet the arriving ferry.
. Bidding good-bye to the desperately beautiful Aran isle, we watched Inishmore recede in the distance from the port-side of the boat, before turning our gaze to the bow, toward our final night in wonderfully wicked Galway…
© 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.