Éirinn go Brách

 

My last day before vacation was the first time I replaced the motherboard in a Thinkpad. It took me better than two hours, but I put it back together, booted and applied the BIOS and UUID (unique user identification). At that point I needed a vacation.


We took off that next morning for New York City, to spend a day with friends - and because you can’t fly directly from Jacksonville to Dublin Ireland. Or couldn’t at that time. For the first time in twenty
nine years I flew into JFK, and we figured out how to get from there to Riverside Towers on the Upper West Side. Somewhere halfway through Brooklyn I began to think Oh, Shit! What have we got ourselves into? Riding a crammed full subway is one thing; it becomes entirely another with full baggage. We finally got within missile range of the hotel, hiked through the streets and checked in, and discovered it was not at all what I was led to believe.....well, not what I chose to believe. My friend Dai in Wales had recommended it with the stipend it was not large, elaborate or upscale. But - had we been higher up than the fifth floor - we would indeed have had a spectacular view of the river. As it was, we had a great view of trees. We would only spend the one night, but had a spirited debate over the comparative size of the shower and elevator: a tie. We agreed they were ex
actly the same in size, character and comfort. And soap.   



We met with our friend Bobby, I was introduced to Mary’s friend Yumary, and we ran around this city I was certain I would despise some twelve (very) odd years ago. I couldn’t afford to live here unless I took over multinational corporations, but four days is truly transcendent. Everywhere you go, people are glad to help if you approach courteously and with personality.


The next day was one of waiting and eating, but we finally took the subway to JFK about three in the afternoon, fought our way through customs, and parked our selves in the terminal. I was appalled there was no Wi-Fi in JFK International eff-ing airport, but eventually we boarded and began the interminable flight. I was instantaneously asleep.

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The Irish have the friendliest people - including customs agents - on the globe. “Is this your first visit to Ireland?” he asked in a brogue I wish it were possible for me to reproduce here. Is dis yer ferst visit ta Erland? (See what I mean?)


I replied, “I was here thirty four years ago, and fell in love.”


His eyes crinkled. “And is this the lass?” He inclined his head toward Mary.


“Well, yes,” I laughed. “But I meant with Ireland, herself.”


He seemed to remember his duties. “And where will you be going?”


I had learned just enough Gaelic to get myself in trouble. “Ahn Dahn-gun,”, I replied, unsuccessfully attempting to conceal my pride.


Anne DAIN-gun,” he grinned, giving me the first valuable lesson in Gaelic I was to receive. (Pull your cheeks apart in a grin when you pronounce DAIN.) I repeated it to him and grinned back, and he waved us through. We plowed our way outside, grateful for the waterproof windbreakers we had carried, flagged a cab and collapsed in the back seat, exhausted. I thought of Mike Love’s remark to the London audience when Carl Wilson informed him he couldn’t take something from England home with him: “I’m gonna wring it outa my socks.


Our cabbie, guessing from his accent and demeanor, was a Scot. He told us most of the marginally clean ethnic jokes I have heard, using the Irish as the point, or butt. An equal opportunity insulter, he overcharged us by about ten euros: something we did not discover for several days.

We arrived at Clontarf Castle, north and east of Dublin, about eight thirty in the morning,
determined to stay awake to acclimatize to our new time zone. The castle is built on a remnant from the epic battle between legendary Brian Boru and the Leinster hordes - principally vikings - circa 1014. Currently purchased as part of Crown Plaza Resorts and way beyond my means (I suspect the renovation accounts for our incredible deal), I was not hoping for anything nearly as  wonderful as what was manifested. Staff were typically friendly and helpful, and the pub had several of the new Guinness specialty stouts on draft: particularly the Northstar. Guinness in it’s homeland city must be tasted to be believed.




After a quick local geography lesson from the staff, we set out to explore and find provisions. It is astonishing the difference between June in Ireland and June in Florida. We walked by the river Liffey, windbreakers turned up against the frigid, brutal wind. We discovered a few pubs and restaurants, and grocery stores, and the bus stops that would be our transportation base for two days - until I picked up the car I had rented to drive across the southern part of the countryside to the Dingle Peninsula: An Daingan.


Finally we stumbled back to the castle, pulled the shades, and became dormant for hours: a few, in my case; several, for Mary. Having failed dismally in our attempt to sync time zones, upon awakening we went downstairs to the pub (officially called The Knight’s Bar) for some dinner and what we imagined would be an early bed. Two locals were conversing at the next table, and Mary realized at least one of them was a teacher. An inevitable conversation
ensued - they were Kennedy’s - and added to the pile of evidence that supports my belief that the Irish are the friendliest people on the planet. I had two of the wonderful Northstar Stouts, doubling my beer intake for the previous month.


We arose early the next day, had a small breakfast in the Knight’s Bar, and saddled up for our first foray into Dublin. Taking a bus parked conveniently at the side of the castle, we followed the Liffey River, crossed the Amiens Street bridge and rode until we saw the imposing square block of Trinity College. Mary’s original plan was to stalk Martin Sheen, but logistics and the incessant rain chased us into a deli - I’d bet it wasn’t called a deli, but we were already entranced with the Irish breakfast tea, and it warmed the frozen nubs that were once our hands. We wandered about Dublin for a short time, but walking in the cold is only for lost Eskimos and Siberians. Tomorrow would be a long one, so we wended our way back to the Castle for a dinner, sandwiched by a nap, and bed.


The cab showed up promptly at eight, and a young fellow from Cork took us the short way to Dublin Airport (the only place in Dublin we could rent a car, and not my first choice), charged us quite a bit less than the Scot, and we signed our life away and piled into our little Peugeot. I had last driven a stick shift in 1997: in the US, and on the right - or starboard side - of the road. This would be an adventure, on the left hand side of the road; on the right hand side of the car, shifting with my left hand. I was concerned about roundabouts: in the UK, these take the place of stop signs at intersections. They are just now being introduced in isolated areas of the US, with one big exception: in the UK, traffic goes counter clockwise, port side out. I do not recommend beginning an automotive journey in the capitol city of an unknown country, but thanks to a boatload of luck and our GPS - which Mary dubbed Bridget, after Bridget Jones and listening to the voice directions - we made it safely to Tralee, skirted the edges of McGillicudy’s Reeks, down into An Daingean - Dingle - town, and west toward Ventry. And every time we approached a roundabout I would chant to myself: counter clockwise, counter clockwise, counter clockwise.


Our B&B was on Ceann Sleibhe - Sleigh Head - drive, almost to Ceann Tra, known also as Ventry. An Daingean is part of the western Gaeltacht, where they preserve the Gaelic language that approached extinction in the early twentieth century. This movement was introduced in Clochan Keri - County Kerry - in 1974. There is a predictabl
e backlash, mostly from merchants who justifiably complain of  recognition issues, as this has only been actively encouraged/enforced since 2005. As previously mentioned, I had made shallow inroads toward speaking the language. Which is to say I could ask questions, but not understand the answers.


On our westward drive we began to notice the increasing warmth in the car about Roscrea, north and east of Limerick. Taken aback, we rolled down the windows, which was far more effective than the vestigial air conditioning. The Gulf Stream, which pushes northward about sixty miles off Jax Beach, fetches up at the foot of the An Daingean peninsula to provide this semi tropical clime. When we arrived at Jackie O’Shea’s Torann na D’tonn guesthouse, it was like we’d never left home: eighty degrees; twenty foot yucca trees lined the drive; asparagus ferns and other tropical foliage ran rampant. I’d love to trade some of our sago palms for their fuschia (< left), or foxglove. I’d bet they would love the transplant, and - we were about to meet the icing on the cake.   

There is apparently one canine family on the island: the border collie. Jackie’s oldest daughter had adopted one, and then left it with her mom. Now, as we crawled out of the Peugeot, it bounded up to lavish attention on us: the new kids in town. Still raw over Mel’s loss, a condition that may last as long as I do, I melted immediately. Lucky was her name, and she followed us everywhere we went, even through the house which was strictly verboten.


Jackie is a wonderful lady, dealing bravely with her husband Paudi’s recent heart attack, and showed us upstairs to our room: big king bed, and the mind-watering view seen above right. We unpacked, set up my Toshiba for music, and tromped downstairs for tea - pronounced tay. Irish breakfast tea - Lyons - is now one of my addictions. We unwound, frolicked with Lucky, and eventually headed into Dingle town to eat and explore.


I am still, from this vantage point, amazed we didn’t return with our car painted purple on the doors: the Sleigh Head road was so narrow, and the fuschia towered overhead and so close on either side. When a car appeared coming towards us, I would hug the left side of the road, sighting down the port rail and the edge of the road, envisioning a plunge or a crash.


We found a place to park our Peugeot, explored a bit, and settled into Murphy’s Pub, as Jackie had recommended it to us. Attempting to relive my past, I ordered a Smithwick’s - pronounced Schmiddicks - the other Irish beer, from Kilkenny and the oldest brewery in
reland: 1710 - as of 1965 a part of the much better known Guinness family. I first had it in Dingle, circa 1973, and sought for it in vain ever since. Seldom does a memory live up to it’s reality, but after due consideration - this is the best beer I have ever tasted. In that distant past I would drink it surreptitiously, as Guinness was - and IS - the true religion of this very religious nation. Recently it had become available in the states, and I had  jubilantly bought a six pack when I found one and....it was good. Very good, but not at all the same. The bottles had been shipped three thousand miles, shaken like margaritas, and noticeably aged. Take into account I was twenty years old when I originally tasted it, and all that implies. Now, back in the motherland: HOT DAMN! At Murphy’s I accompanied it with one of the best steak and kidney pies ever assembled, and ordered a blackberry crumble for desert. I briefly contemplated purging in the lavatory just so I could eat more crumble.

The next day we again wandered into town, and expanded our territory to include the old church at the top of the hill. Just inside the encircling stone wall, carved into the remnants of a tree were some of the most amazing embossments. The similarity between Irish and Caribbean accents has always nagged at my ear/mind, and the similarity in style of the representative wood carvings added to the evidence stockpile for this synchronicity. Oh, Oliver Cromwell....


Close by was a tea room, or more accurately a tea yard, as it was the outdoors that appealed to us, with the unusual, unlikely, un-Irish name of Heavenly Sins. Natural towering stone walls were covered with the native flora: heather, ferns, blackberries, and bush daisies; giant flagstones led to an internal meadow, where we learned quickly to find a table in a sunny location.  


We found a place to do laundry, and stored that nugget of information away for later. Mary gamely put up with my single minded determination to locate every standing stone circle

in the surrounding area, and we partially circumnavigated the peninsula. The Prehistoric Museum, just past the western roundabout was an unexpected find, and only my hip prevented me from climbing to the top of the Giant’s Table so I could grunt and wave an imaginary club. Stonehenge, you may have guessed, made a lasting impression on me.


The next day we truly decided to drive around the peninsula, so we headed west past the Prehistoric Museum and on to Dunbeag. A promontory fort constructed some three thousand years ago, it was held together using no mud, mortar or super glue. Commanding a breathtaking vista over the Atlantic, and a commanding position on the headland, this marked the last occasion that day we saw something like this and did not say to ourselves: Oh. Another beehive hut.


That being the case, I will not detail subsequent sightings.    



        

As the road continued, it became more narrow and more precarious. If you’ve ever driven north over the Golden Gate bridge and up 101, you have a pretty good mental picture. It became obvious why it is suggested you circle the peninsula clockwise: there are places where two directions of traffic would be obligated to drive over the cliff into the Atlantic, or into the mountainside. At last, we came around a particularly rousing

corner and Ceann Sleibhe (Shawn Slay-vuh) reared up it’s Sleigh head before us.


It slowly began to dawn on us we had woefully underestimated the Irish climate. Prepared for sixty degrees - accurate for Dublin in the east - we had no shorts, or sunscreen and were sh_t outa luck. As the temperature climbed past the higher eighties, I could sense my nose becoming a pork rind on my face. In a fortu
nate but rare example of foresight, I had at least brought a hat. We parked and wandered across Sleigh Head and a narrow ribbon of land to Clogher Head, where the cliff had fissured off two weeks before, tumbling hundreds of feet to the Atlantic below. The road wisely took a detour to avoid this chasm. Below, the ferry to Na Blascodai (the Blasket Islands) left from a harbor carved out of the living rock. We decided we were none too enthusiastic about hiking down there.


Further on, Sybil Head - you guessed it: Ceann Sibeal - was hidden behind a long promontory, and in the foreground was an honest-to-god stone circle. Mary doggedly followed me out on the vast plain, ignored by flocks of goats, and we began to h
ike upwards to what we imagined would be a panoramic vista.


Two guys on bicycles had passed us several times on the road, and now we watched them from afar as they exited the road and begin the climb to our lofty position. Mary - who’s gaydar is much more finely tuned than mine (I have none) - somehow divined they were in fact, friends of Dorothy. I cannot recall their names, but they were from Vancouver, British Columbia. We traded photographic favors at the top of the rise - for which I thank them, as seen below - and we pressed on to Baile an Fheirtearaigh, charitably called Balleyferriter.

                                                here we are:



























                                        king and queen of the hill.


We passed through Ballyferriter, which was apparently in nap time, turned south and headed back toward Ventry and our home away from home. You could fry eggs on my face, at this point - forget about the hat - and I was determined to find some shorts, full well knowing it would turn cold as soon as I procured them. I am still astonished to be wrong in that prediction.


I suspect shorts are a subterranean commodity in Ireland, but after tay at Heavenly Sins, we were successful at last. The next day we would drive east on the peninsula, hook to the south through Cill Airne (Killarney), shallowly penetrating the Beara peninsula and on to Kenmare. To witness - of course - a stone circle of particularly impressive magnitude. On my first trip to the Emerald Isle, lo those many years ago, I had flown into Shannon and taken a bus to Killarney. I was informed by reliable sources Killarney had become to Ireland what Orlando - which we call Whorelando - is to Florida. We were looking forward to stopping there for lunch, but the veritable flotilla of tour busses effectively derailed that train of thought, and we pressed onward.


Through only slightly annoying traffic, we began to climb into Cill Airne National Park, which more than compensates for the town. The park was breathtaking, encompassing the fringe of McGillicudy’s Reeks (a magical name for me. No idea why. Something to do with my shadowy, ongoing childhood.) and descending to sea level just before the approach to Kenmare.  There were places where it matched the Dingle road for TPi2 - terror per square inch - but the vistas were gasp inducing (>, from our lunch spot). We parked the car to take a walk in the woods.


We headed back up the trail following a sign to Torc Falls, climbing uphill over fallen trees and
decomposing logs, traversing small ravines. In about a mile the path descended to the road again and crossed into a large meadow where horse drawn carriages rolled by. The path again climbed, still pursuing Torc Falls and eventually reaching the cataract. We paddled our feet in the frigid water, sending the dirt downstream, and strolled leisurely back to the car.


Coming into Kenmare is entering an alluvial plain. We deciphered the map and entered a gated park close by the river, turned the corner, and there it was. Maybe fifty feet across, the circle was comprised of partly polished stones. Not nearly the magnitude of Stonehenge, or even the Giant’s Table in the Burren, but this was impressive. Three thousand years ago, the people who designed this used it to predict the spring and fall equinox and maximize their crop potential. I am told the two-ton boulders came from twenty five miles away.  


The drive back was as leisurely as possible, considering the juggling act going on in my head (counter clockwise). Back in An Daingean town, we discovered an Indian restaurant devoid of


customers - they did not serve beer, more specifically Guinness - and enjoyed a respite from the ubiquitous pub grub. There are, I am told, miracles in the bible, too.     


The next day we followed one of the walking routes suggested by the guide book: east past the roundabout and the Coast Guard Station, and on to the harbor shore. Walking carefully through a gate designed to keep cattle - male and female - inside, we could see in the distance what appeared to be a castle tower. As we approached we could see it was a single spire, maybe a couple hundred years old. It was perched atop the hill overlooking the bay, where Fungi - the town’s pet bottle nosed dolphin since the mid nineteen seventies, when it apparently adopted the town - would frolic and presumably pose for photos. (I don’t think we ever completely believed in Fungi.) Tumbling down to the waterside, we watched as albinos from all over the world slathered themselves with useless sunscreen, and became rapidly incandescent. I wondered idly if they would be visible from outer space by evening.


We had heard about an archaeological tour of the vicinity, run by local Tim Collins and his son. We made a reservation for the next day, when we awoke to discover our weather incantation had done the reverse of evaporate: it was cold and wet, just like the advertisements. Naturally, we wanted the sun again. It was Sam Clemens who wrote “Human beings are put together such that, if they ever make it to heaven, they will surely find the clouds too lumpy for sitting, and the harps out of tune.”


Familiar territory began the tour: west through the town to the roundabout; then left, over the estuary bridge and past the B&B
with the ten foot standing stones in front. But where the road continues on to Jackie’s and Ceann Tra, we took a left, south down a dirt road to the sliver of land that forms the ocean side of Dingle Bay. There a large plantation-like estate contained the house of Lord Ventry, a filthy rich Brit who probably did something impressive in the early nineteenth century....OK - I’m guessing. I’ll look this up like a good native guide, and impart some useful - or at least valid - information. Hmmm, not a bad guess, really. In the early portion of the nineteenth century, Ventry owned basically all the peninsula, leasing tiny parcels of land to poor farmers for raising potatoes. When the great famine began in eighteen forty eight, they either starved to death or emigrated. Ventry’s contribution to rectifying this disaster was to hire a few of them to build a lighthouse (the castle spire we visited the day before), now sardonically referred to as Ventry’s Folly.   


There were several ogham stones - ancient Gaelic standing stones containing horizontal lines designed to be read from bottom to top, assuming you can decipher the marks. The link
above may prove useful in shedding light on that particular mystery.


We continued on, passing Dunbeag and climbing down the walls of the ramparts: and then further by car, again approaching Ceann Sleibhe’s majestic promontory. We stopped for tay at the fade into Sleigh Head, warming our hands on the cups and relishing another blackberry crumble. Stumbling, crumbling across An Daingean....


Taking the road to Baile an Fheirtearaigh we found the track to Riasc which we had missed previously: a monumental archaeological dig containing the foundations of an oratory, or monastery; living quarters, or clochans; a kiln for drying corn; a truly impressive ogham; and a cemetery.


For the end of the day: Gallarus Oratory, built in the seventh century. Put together in the same fashion as Dunbeag, this has withstood the weather here for thirteen centuries. And - it’s really dark in there!  

The week had flown by, and Sunday had whirled around again, so we said goodbye to Lucky, and Jackie, and Julia (the O’Shea’s Austrian exchange student) and Paudi, piled into the Peugeot and began the drive back to Dublin. Mary was to meet her pen-pal Derek at the Rathcoole School, where he taught. Finding Rathcoole would add a layer of adventure to the journey.


Derek’s class were charming - you cannot count your life complete till you’ve heard twelve year old Irish children do a Valley Girl accent - and still laughing, we drove back to the Dublin airport and released - reluctantly - Bridget, and caught a cab back to Clontarf Castle. This felt curiously like home, and we stumbled to the desk to check in. 


An online fubar had us listed for two double beds, and we waited in varying degrees of patience to observe their problem solving abilities. They were stellar! As they were booked completely, the offer of the executive suite as trade was more than we could have hoped for. Unsure of what to expect, we took the elevator to the fourth floor, slid the card in the slot, and almost fell over. A huge four
poster bed, deep window seats and wall curtains, opulent pillows: even with no dank, dusky smell - it was remarkably castle-like. Not a real castle, with soot from the fire and vermin left over from the plague; more of a Disney castle. This felt like the beginning of a phenomenal string of luck. Or - maybe it was a continuation...


We got up early Monday and headed back to the airport for a long awaited pilgrimage to Liverpool. The flight lasted half an hour and cost about three dollars - and twenty five in assorted taxes and surcharges - but there was small chance of getting this close again to the birthplace of the Beatles. It was cold when we left Dublin airport, and the rain began in earnest as we pushed over the English channel.


When we landed at John Lennon International Airport it was howling. Dublin seemed like a tropical paradise in retrospect.  We filed through customs, though it was difficult to remember we had changed countries - until we exchanged currency. Leave it to money to put it all into focus. (That’s what I want.) From Dublin I had put in an email request for placement in the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour, but there had been no response. Nor would there
be, until we were back at Clontarf Castle and saw our rejection email. So - we perused the flyers for the Beatles Story on the Arnold Dock, and Matthew Street where the Cavern Club and Beatles Store were located. I gazed longingly at tours for Mendips - John Lennon’s boyhood home - and Paul McCartney’s at 20 Forthlin Rd. (which has been donated to the National Trust, along with a soap impression of his wife which he ate...) None of this would be possible by bus - we wound up walking through the frigid rain to the Arnold Dock for the spectacular Beatles Story. The reviews were impressed and impressive, and I worked hard to keep my spirits up.


Naively, I had though myself a minority of the planet’s inhabitants whose life had been changed by these four lads from Liverpool. Beginning with voiceovers in the headphones - from Julia Lennon (John’s younger sister), Alan White, Brian Epstein, and the individual Beatles themselves, this tells the epic of the four from childhood.


The collected artifacts are impressive: George’s first guitar; an astoundingly accurate replica of the Cavern Club stage; their seats from the 727 in which they landed for the first time  in New York City, 1964. And the end was startling in the way it affected both Mary and myself:


The White Room. Featuring the piano on which John wrote Imagine and his famous spectacles, displayed in a glass case. I was prepared for the wistful grief that came over me, but it was contagious to everyone there.


Hiking through the rain to Matthew Street, we wandered into the Cavern Pub, which has nothing to do with anything, other than making money. Across the street was the Cavern Club, my personal Macca Mecca.  Destroyed some thirty years ago and filled in during downtown construction, it was rebuilt in nineteen eighty four by Liverpool football (soccer) legend Tommy Smith, using the original bricks and faithfully preserving the atmosphere. It is now an international tourist attraction, still primarily used as a music venue.     


Reluctantly - as much because we were warm and dry as for any real affection - we began to look for a bus to take us back to the airport, stopping for lunch at a diner. I wish I had taken some snapshots at John Lennon International Airport, and their perfect slogan: Above Us
Only Sky. There is also a great bronze statue of John at the base to the steps, ironically from the New York City years preceding his murder. We ate, and talked, and killed time (at least wounded it), and eventually piled into the absurdly small plane that would carry us back to Dublin.


The next day I could not induce Mary to venture back into town. It was, of course, raining, but I planned to search out the Guinness House for a taste and the experience. On the way, as an appetizer, I wanted to find the Porter House - a free house I had read about. I exited the bus on the far side of the Aimens Street bridge and began walking west, toward the brewery.


The Porter House - now in three locations around Dublin - began as a traditional Irish pub, now also a brewery. Whenever I go into a bar (about three times a year, lately) I look for something on draft of which I am completely ignorant. This is the first and only watering hole I had never heard of anything they pour: all thirty two of ‘em. I am drawn to ales and stouts - I suspect being in Ireland and desiring acceptance when I was twenty years old may have contributed to this - and they had a stout called WrasslerXXXX. I had never imagined a quadruple X, so naturally, I ordered one.


It was intense but flavorful, full bodied with an imposing presence. Engaged in conversation with the bartender and people around me, I lost what was left of my mind and had another. And I noticed the fading light outside, so I paid up, stumbled back over the bridge, and caught the bus back to the castle. Always wanted to use that line....


Together Mary and I walked the half mile to an Indian restaurant we had noticed and brought some vindaloo back to our room. We packed up as much as possible and went to bed early for an earlier morning.


The cab waited just outside the side door, and we rode to the airport in comparative silence. Shuffling through customs and the turnstiles Delta had erected in Dublin, we waited as an official examined our tickets and passports, then glanced through some papers on his podium. He looked up at us and grinned. “Mr. Burke, you’ve been upgraded to business class for this flight. Enjoy! “ Mary and I looked at each other. I had a dim idea what business class was, but it sounded encouraging.


We boarded first (!) to discover seats the width of a love seat; the entire seat stretched out into a very comfortable bed; an LCD screen was embedded in the back of each seat; a stellar sound system with earphones designed for something other than torture, and - to Mary’s delight - an immense variety of first run movies to from which to choose.


No eight hours of flying, strapped upright in an anorexic’s padded coffin and the ability to incline almost nine degrees. I plugged in my headphones, wrapped my blanket around me, and sought nirvana.


And - of course - was unable to sleep at all.