So far, I’ve been across the pond to visit Ireland 11 times. Halfway through the first trip I knew there was a book in it. I hope you agree. This manuscript covers my first two Irish sojourns. Uncharacteristically, I scribbled a freewheeling diary during these adventures, giving me rich source material and accounting for the occasionally embarrassing admission or two. The first segment exhaustively covers the events, impressions and feelings of 17 quick but heavenly days in the early autumn of 1993, falling in love with the country and my traveling companion at the same time. Heavenly! The second segment recounts the highlights of an entire summer spent fruitfully immersing myself in the Irish culture. These 3 miraculous months of 1994 encompassed the beginnings of my real Irish education. I hope it’s fun to read. It was fun to live. Life is cool. I suggest life.
. Late the following morning I awoke to a deserted house, with no sign of the womenfolk’s whereabouts. Making myself a pot of strong coffee, I took a seat on the verandah outside, to soak up the rays of an absolutely glorious day. Despite Ireland’s blustery reputation, there was not a cloud in sight. (Tina had speculated that God arranged this, because he knew we were coming.) Suddenly, the top halves of both of the current ladies in my life appeared from behind the split country doors leading to the pantry. (Mom said they’re actually French doors, but the locals stubbornly refer to them Irish.) My Mom had her arm around Tina’s shoulder. “Breakfast anyone?”, she beamed, every inch the mother.
. After a yummy omelet, Arline led us on a short walk, down a trail that ran between Toad Hall and the rocky shores of the swirling bay. We followed as she worked her way, almost cross-country along an overgrown pathway, leading through delicate flowers, overgrown blackberry brambles and discarded trash, to a landing called ‘Monk’s Harbor’, and back. I was glad to see that at her age, my Mother was still doing things like that. Though her body was aging, shoulders hunched, back curved and figure shrinking- her spirit was still young and downright robust.
. Later, Tina and I took a stroll through Glengarriff’s verdant ‘Amenity Area’, working our way to the pier where we could catch a ferry to neighboring Garnish Island, our enterprise for the day. An Australian touring group arrived just before us. The guide agreed to save us each a few precious punts by integrating us into their party. Even so, the boat was a bit pricey, rudely noisy and unpleasantly smelly- reeking of eye-watering petrol fumes- so we were glad it was such a short cruise to the island. Up the ramp, and whaddaya know- you have to pay another fee to walk the Italian gardens that carpet the isle.
. The rock-strewn seashore was truly lovely- the scenery, bucolic. In the center of the gardens, we found a fine courtyard, graced by refined tile fountains. But the more time we spent walking around the grounds, the more we got the sad impression, that Garnish Island’s glory-days had passed her by. Many of the plants seemed sickly and neglected. Some were dead in the soil. The highlight of our expedition, came outside the garden walls, where we stumbled upon a stone round-tower, built as a lookout for a Napoleonic invasion of Ireland, which thankfully never occurred. Climbing the close spiral staircase up into intimidating darkness, we came upon a glorious vantage point on the roof of the tower. Words like “awesome” and “dazzling”, “spectacular” and “lovely”, barely scratch the surface. A few minutes later, a European tourist joined us on the round platform. Surveying the view, he sighed deeply- repeating himself again and again, almost like a monk chanting a mantra: “Such a peaceful land! So peaceful! SUCH a peaceful land…”, as though he had died without noticing, and unexpectedly gone to Paradise. The blissed-out German agreed to take our photograph, posed against the rich vista of sparkling Bantry Bay, which spread behind us like the finger-painting of God.
. Once we had absorbed Garnish Island to it’s fullest, we made our way to the dock, to catch the next ferry back. It wasn’t long before the boatman called: “Now boarding passengers bearing RED return-tickets. All aboard!” That was us… But almost as soon as we left the dock, it became obvious that we had boarded the wrong boat- or at least a different vessel than the one we had taken to the island. The ferry sputtered towards the pier, but then veered off in another direction altogether, chugging past a rock that was covered with sunbathing seals on holiday, before turning into a magnificent tidal inlet, our captain referred to as: “Blue Pool”, and sailing smoothly to a floating pontoon. We followed the ramp, leading up to a gorgeous seaside glen. It was a fortuitous mistake, because the trail from Blue Pool, (which was clearly marked by a sign humorously declaring: ‘WAY OUT’,) led us directly to Glengarriff-proper, where we went looking for sustenance and drink. We choose ‘The Maple Leaf Bar’, bringing our Harp Lagers and fresh salmon sandwiches to the tables out front, where a smattering of locals were lounging in the altogether too rare sunshine. As we chatted, two large tourist busses pulled up and squealed to a halt, disgorging a full load of mostly elderly sightseers. “Rush hour in Glengarriff”, quipped one of our mates, as the geriatric tourists stumbled out, squinting in the bright sunlight that had been shielded by their darkly-tinted windows, and lurching like blind zombies into the well-stocked pubs and souvenir shops.
. Halfway back to Toad Hall, Tina’s arthritic ankle began to bother her a bit, so we sat down on one of the stone benches across the road from The Eccles, appreciating the almost spiritually-divine view. Each moment brought us nearer. Our friendship was opening like a lotus. While Tina admired the mated swans, gliding two-by-two across the placid surface of the water- I admired her.
. That night, Arline pulled out her old photographs, telling us detailed stories about every figure in them, and each situation they depicted. What a storyteller! That feisty old lady could kick my ass on stage! Was this the source of my generous endowment of blarney? I always thought of my Irish Father as the storyteller of the family. After all, that fit the cultural stereotype, right?: The Irish are eloquent equivocators and the Germans are cold and dour. It was a pleasant upset to discover that my German Mother was neither cold nor dour, and was in fact the real Keelan raconteur. Her stories are comic and colorful and sometimes endless, if she goes too far out on a tangent, and forgets what her tale is about. My Mother had become such a character! Was this a ‘retirement-thing’, or was I too caught up in the turmoils of growing-up to notice? Tina seemed delighted with her. I’m sure the feeling was mutual.
. The following day, ‘Lady Toad’ took us on a drive through some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever beheld. We started out along the north shore of Bantry Bay, passing through the country town of Adrigole, past a huge slab of glacier-tortured rock, called ‘Hungry Hill’, to the small but international fishing village of Castletownbere. The place seemed all but deserted. Parking in the town square, we walked the waterfront between creaky old rustbuckets, docked oceanside, and great piles of tangled netting lining the concrete wharf. On the way home, we spotted two shipwrecks stuck in the bay. One had run aground on a shallow shoal, and would probably be salvaged soon. The other wreck had been there for decades, with only the mast visible above the waterline. The ship was reputed to have meet Davey Jones when it’s disgruntled crew mutinied- scuttling the vessel themselves, when the captain was not forthcoming with monthly wages. The panoramic vistas of the Beara Peninsula are the stuff of literary legend, where the natural beauty far exceeds my meager skills as a chronicler to describe. All superlatives don’t seem super enough to do justice to this magnificent land.
. That night, Audrey stopped by to entertain us. What a dear lady! Her remarkably sharp wit kept us laughing long and hard, into the night. She and Arline seemed to compliment each other perfectly. They were like bickering Siamese twins, who would refuse to be separated even if it were possible. They were ‘Mutt and Jeff’, ‘Siskel and Ebert’, ‘Laurel and Hardy’. The cumulative cloud from three smoldering cigarettes, kept me at bay all evening, gasping for breath at the French- or rather: Irish doors. The girls never seemed to light up at once, with merciful pauses in between, but staggered their smokes so that one was poisoning the air at any given time. It was a fucking conspiracy! I was ready to call it a night, when to my great interest, Audrey asked Tina to grant us a private recital. Though blessed with quite a gift, Tina lacked the self-confidence or burning desire to sing in front of people. She claimed that this was what she wanted to do with her life, but was usually very reluctant to lift her voice in song in front of people she didn’t know well. I knew Tina was capable of sculpting art with her voice, despite her youthful hesitations and the terrible influence of those demons Fear and Doubt. But plied with liquor, and beginning to fall under the relaxed spell of Ireland, Tina let down her guard, and readily agreed to sing- without the requisite pleading and prodding. What a gift that was! We listened spellbound- like rapt aficionados, as Tina serenaded us with skin-tingling renditions of: “Amazing Grace”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Ave Maria”, and “Take Me Home”- for me: the song that started it all. That evening, the diva Tina serenaded us well into the wee hours- with a voice so sweet and lilting, it touched the most guarded heart and clouded the most jaded eyes.
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