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 Little more than a decade later, it is almost an historical document.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.
* * *
. Awaking from a groggy nap, just in time to meet my newest Irish mate Joanne, I splashed some water in my face and resumed my bleary escapades. Next up: the ‘Literary Pub Crawl’. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I really liked the sound of it- and as a free event, the price was right. Without explanation, the poster urged folks to show up at 7:30 in the lobby of the hotel and join the fun. For the third time, I was stood up by Joanne without explanation. By now, I didn’t even care enough to feel let down. People were gathering in the sitting-room and there was some intangible expectation in the air which diverted my attention away from my frustrating acquaintance and towards the eminent magic of the evening. Falling into conversation with a contented Canadian couple, I asked them if they had any idea what this event was all about. “James” and “Lorraine” grinned at one another and clucked: “We were hoping you might be able to tell us!”. The impending event conjured the same image in all three of us: Were we really going to crawl from pub to pub- and if so, what did this have to do with the written word?
. Only fifteen minutes after the scheduled starting-time, a silver-haired gentleman stood on a chair and called for our attention. “Hear ye, Hear Ye! All are welcome to follow our merry band in search of the best life has to offer! If you are ready for a great night of craic, please assemble and follow our wandering minstrels, who will lead us through the portals of wonderment!” A three-man-band in the corner struck up bodhran, fiddle and accordion, turning and marching out of the hotel lobby. Our smiling herd of perhaps thirty would-be merrymakers followed with an excited buzz, in a motley parade across the Listowel town square.
. At first, the pub we walked into seemed unprepared for us. Locals looked up and squinted at the invading twilight, perplexed by the onslaught of unfamiliar faces suddenly pouring into their local. The musicians found a corner to huddle in and crescendoed to applause. Our mysterious leader commanded our attention, telling us this was only the first of several stops on our circuitous tour of Listowel’s many fine drinkeries, and introducing the evenings ‘players’- two actors from Dublin who would present short scenes from Ireland’s rich literary cannon, at each pub. “Short scenes, mind you…”, he cautioned. “Not long enough to draw, let alone drink a pint of stout, so we suggest glasses of lager- or you really will be crawling come the end of our program! Now order-up and gather ‘round!” The free-for-all at the bar resembled a swarm of sharks in a feeding frenzy. This is when I realized we had been expected by the publican. Watering the clambering throng could have been a crazy task, but freshly-drawn mugs of Guinness and Harp were lined up across the bar, awaiting our arrival.
. After the thirsty had secured their first drink of the night, the entertainment began. Our big-city thespians launched into a scene from one of my all time favorite plays: Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT. The play is so brilliant, it’s difficult to perform it badly, but these guys were dynamite! I’d seen many actors play the duo ‘Vladamir’ and ‘Estrogon’, yet these two were able to wring subtleties from the text that I had never seen illuminated. Introducing myself after the scene, I congratulated them on their inspired clowning, telling them how popular Godot remains in the U.S. and how different it sounded on Irish tongues- a clear connection to Beckett’s Irishness that often gets lost in the transition. They greeted me warmly, as brethren in the brotherhood of the stage. “Drink up, folks!”, announced our ringleader. “It’s nigh time to be driftin’ on!”
. Again, we filed into our musical parade, crossing the street, turning the corner, and marching up an alley to our second stop. Another quick brew! More high craic! Another riveting drama! George Bernard Shaw was followed by Brenden Behen, then James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and finally Oscar Wilde- six performances, at six pubs in all. After each stop, when the band cranked up the departure music, a few of the less-hardy souls among us would drift away from our collective. By the end of the evenings debauchery, less than half of us remained. Each parade was more ragged and madcap than the one before. Each time, our whacked crew was louder and more drunken, lurching our weaving way boisterously through the streets of Listowel, Ireland.
. In the process, I bonded some with James and Lorraine, who shared their story in a quiet moment. The couple had only recently emigrated from Toronto, settling in a small village called ‘Kells’, just off the ring of Kerry. Generously, they insisted I come to visit them sometime during the summer. “Only not while James is abroad…” insisted Lorraine, so proud of her man, she just had to brag: “where he’ll be having his first major photography exhibit in a prestigious Toronto gallery!”
. One of the pubs on our itinerary was right next to Joanne’s habitual, so I slipped away from the group and stopped into Tankard’s to look for her. As soon as I opened the door, the relentless driving roar of traditional music plowed over me. Sure enough, there she was- partying with her cronies amid the swirling haze of smoke. I didn’t ask why she stood me up for the pub crawl. She didn’t offer an excuse. I tried to convince her to join me for the rest of the event, but nothing could pry her from that barstool, and since I had decided to leave for Toad Hall the next morning, it was time for good-byes. Joanne pecked me on the cheek and insisted I write sometime, returning at once to the hubbub of her social-circle. I ran out to join my band of revelers, who were already stumbling out into the street and zig-zagging off to the next saloon.
. It just so happened that the next bar was right up the street from “John B. Keane’s”, the world-famous Kerry pub my folks insisted I visit, while in Listowel. Years before, they had stopped in and met the man himself. A successful writer and publican, his books were prominently displayed in every shop window in Listowel- especially THE FIELD, which had only recently been made into a film. Stealing away, I slipped into Keane’s to satisfy my curiosity. It was perhaps, the smallest pub I had ever set foot in. Every usable space was crammed with humanity. Negotiating a shot from the bar, I found a place to stand near the restrooms, under a big portrait of a man I took to be himself. Not one minute later, the same man depicted in the painting, flesh and bones, live in person- emerged from the loo, and loitered beside me surveying the situation. ‘Carpe Diem’, I thought, extending my palm. “John B. Keane, I presume?” Tilting his head in confusion, he shook my hand, saying: “Yes… Do I know you?” Introducing myself, I related my parent’s admonition to stop by and say hello to the man who had treated them so well. The literary celebrity shook his head and frowned. “Can’t remember them. Must be the drugs. I’m dying of cancer you see- and they’re treating me with some pretty nasty stuff. They say my memory will return in about four months or so…” Having no idea how to respond to this, I was a little relieved when the blunt author said good-night and waded smiling into his sea of admirers.
. After the sixth and final performance at the last pub of our bleary ‘crawl’, I fell into a stimulating talk with Lorraine, concerning our deepening understandings of the limits of Irish friendliness. After some illusion and disillusionment, we had both reached similar conclusions. Though the Irish are so celebrated for their warmth and friendliness, we became to feel that this revered trait only extends so deep. Once the Irish establish contact, they begin to retreat, going from a disarming engagement to an aloof distance. Of course, I recognize that dance people do, when they are just beginning to get acquainted: two steps boldly forward, one step timidly back. Tina and I danced that dance during our courtship- but this was different, more like: ‘two steps forward, three steps back. Lorraine wondered if this pattern might not be one of the effects of so much emigration and tourism on the Irish psyche. They are naturally hesitant to invest their hearts and souls in people who they might well never see again. There is so much loss in the Irish heart, of course it is wounded and guarded. I certainly felt something like this from both Joanne and Soibbean. At first, both just were so very interested in me. The following day, they seemed hesitant to acknowledge my presence on the same planet. (Perhaps this is a byproduct of alcohol consumption as well. Folks are open and gregarious in the evening pub, after a few pints down the gullet- reticent and contrite in the morning light.) The two Dublin actors also seemed so open- warm and friendly when I approached them in the first pub, but after their final performance it seemed as though they just couldn’t be bothered to carry on a conversation with me. They acted bored. I know I’m not that tedious… They just weren’t interested in taking the relationship any further. When I was their audience, I served a purpose. Now, I was useless. Sadly, this just makes the Irish, despite their many wonderful qualities, seem so capricious and superficial.
. I began to understand Paul’s cautions about why the insular national character would make it difficult to make connections and find gigs in Ireland. Truly, many Irish I met didn’t seem all that interested in any foreign culture- a bit of a tragedy for both myself and the Irish people. (Truth is, this less-than open-minded trait is a shame they share with many Americans. In Trevor’s U.S. travels, he just didn’t find people to be very aware, or even interested in the world beyond their borders. Clearly, both peoples tend to view life through a culturally ethno-centrist lens.)
. This sad rumination brought a close to our evening of exceptional craic. We stuck it out through all six watering-holes, and though we were still standing, it was a good thing I had the door jamb to lean against, and that James and Lorraine had each other. Saying farewell to my newest road-amigos I wobbled back to the B & B, a satisfied man. As was often the case, I was exhausted but too inspired to sleep. I had to whip out my journal and scratch it all down on paper before I forgot a single detail- beginning with the observation: “Man, is this wallpaper LOUD! I sure hope it doesn’t keep me awake all night!”…
© 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.