by H. W. Moss
My mother’s parents were born in Ireland, but met and married in Chicago. Their descendents have family reunions in the old country periodically and in July about thirty Americans and three Canadians landed in Hibernia and descended first on Durrow, county Laois, for a small gathering and then in Ennis, county Clare, for a big party.
This was my third visit to the Emerald Isle, the second Donnellan family reunion there. I toured with a cousin on my father’s side, Sarah, who is no relation to any of my cousins on my mother’s side.
We stayed two nights in Dublin, one in Durrow, three in Ennis, one in Galway and a final night near the airport in Dublin.
Along the way we stopped in Gort for a cuppa. I asked if anyone had heard the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto.” No one had.
The first two nights we stayed at the Charles Stewart just up the block from Parnell Square. This is a Georgian bed and breakfast and, because I was given a room on the fourth floor, Sarah one on the third, I have now learned to ask if a multi story hotel has a lift. Breakfast was served one floor below street level. Thus, I had to traverse five flights in order to eat.
Strangely, the most convenient room in the Charles Stewart is number 503 which is on the first floor near check in. When I asked at the front desk how it is possible that a first floor room is numbered 503, I was told, “I didn’t construct the building.”
Sarah did the booking and asked for separate rooms. Perhaps Sarah made the mistake of asking for single rooms, I don’t know. In any event, in each room we were given single beds which I have not slept in since I was six.
My room had a sink in the living area, a shower and toilet behind a door. The sink dripped loudly and would not stop no matter how hard I tightened the handles. The shower was a modern afterthought wedged into the rear of a room that was probably originally a closet. It was only large enough to stand and turn around in. If you dropped the soap, not provided, or shampoo, also not provided, you had to pick them up with your toes.
Faucets in Ireland retain the customary color coding of blue for cold, red for hot, but not consistent positioning. Apparently there is no Irish building code requirement that hot be on the left. In fact, the colors switch sides from shower to sink, even if these are in the same room.
We connected with a friend whom I met over a pool game at the Kilowatt in San Francisco. Mick showed up last January, hung around for a couple weeks, departed. I thought he lived nearby. When I saw him six months later at the Watt he had two grocery bags. I asked why and he said the Air B n B he checked into had no toilet paper, soap or towels. I asked why he was staying at a B n B, didn’t he live in the Bay Area?
“I just flew in from Cork.”
The three of us wandered down O’Connell Street past the Spire, across the Liffey, into the Temple Bar area and eventually took a DART train (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) to Martello Tower which was built in 1804 at Sandymount. That’s where the first chapter of “Ulysses” by James Joyce takes place. He lived there for about a week once. There is a museum in his honor and his death mask is on display.
We rode DART back to Dublin and two hooligans ran past us on the stairs to our right. We came around the corner not twenty seconds later and found them in a fist fight with security. Everyone else backed away.
I moved in for a shot and this is the result. I like to think a picture is worth a thousand words, but it needs a couple hundred of them to explain who, what and where.
Saint Michan’s Church is an Eleventh Century stone structure located, perhaps not surprisingly, on Church Street in Dublin. For whatever reason, the exit is where you approach it from the street. While still on the lawn out back which should be the front and before we could walk up the rear steps, we were greeted by an affable fellow asking if we were there for a tour of the catacombs.
He led us down narrow stone steps to the burial tunnel which, he said, contains coffins discovered during a renovation some centuries past. In these coffins are four corpses he called mummies which were preserved, he claimed, by a unique combination of the cool temperature, methane gas and a limestone surround.
As we departed, Mick observed we just beat them out of perhaps $30 in entrance fees.
Around the corner from the 11th Century church, appropriately to my mind, is the modern Jameson Brewery which also had a tour, this time costing $16 each. We declined it.
On the walk back to O’Connell Street I noticed a window filled with what appeared to be very real rifles, pistols and kalashnikov machine guns for sale. Stopping the others to see this, we entered the shop and at my request a salesman took a weapon out of the box, held it up saying it was a replica. They all fire BBs.
Mick asked, “What’s a BB?”
When I walk down streets in a new city, I peek into stores and take photos of everything we pass. Sarah doesn’t. She moves at a fast clip in one determined direction without a camera. I took over 750 pictures. Sarah took none. I frequently had to call her back to examine, for example, the inside of a bookie parlor.
Paddy Power is one of several competing betting shops on the island. Their television screens show steeplechase horse races with animals and jockeys jumping hedges and ditches; golf tournaments including the U. S. Open which was what Mick bet on while we were in the joint; American NFL football and, of course, what they over there call football which is actually soccer.
Littering the floor at the customers’ feet were scores of scraps of torn paper betting pads and stubby pencils representing nothing but broken dreams.
Since my first visit to Ireland in 1985, the country has become much more cosmopolitan. Everyone in America thinks they are Irish and so too, apparently, do the Spanish, French, German, Israeli and Chinese visitors who throng the major points of interest and occupy bed and breakfast inns.
The mark of how cosmopolitan a city, to me, is whether or not you can buy a taco. I searched in vain for tacos in Japan, found a Mexican food place in Singapore and got a photo of the only burrito stand in Dublin, the only one in all Ireland for all I know.
As a result if the influx of people, Ireland’s grocery stores have improved markedly as they cater to the tastes requested by these visitors. Chicken goujons are breaded strips of chicken, apparently white meat meant to be fried or baked in a hot oven. Never having seen the word, I asked but no one in the supermarket could tell me what “goujon” meant. I looked it up. It’s French for a type of fish, catfish or “mudfish,” or it means breaded strips of fish or chicken or it means a dowel or a pin.
I love to sample new foods and Cheeses of Ireland could take up an entire essay all by themselves. I bought about eight different types to bring home. My first purchase was a Wicklow Blue for $3.79 described as “a mild creamy blue veined brie.” The Cratloe cost $4.79 and was a “Natural Irish Sheep’s Cheese” made of 100% sheep’s milk. I picked up a French blue sliced from a wheel called St. Agur Wedge for $3.49, and a Camembert for $3.49.
Total: $15.56 no sales tax or vat.
I also purchased a Ballintubber cheddar described as “a smooth Irish cheddar with chives handcrafted by the Cahill family on their farm in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.” In addition, I found a Charleville vintage white cheddar and an Irish vintage white cheddar “Matured for 15 months.”
Breakfast at a B n B is a choice of three dry cold cereals and a hot plate of eggs with a variety of meat and toast. Unless otherwise specified, eggs in Ireland are cooked hard. This is supposedly a carryover from the era of bacterial infection and no refrigeration. The cook was always surprised, but accommodating, when I asked for my egg yolks runny. The result was varying degrees of success.
Three meats are usually on the same plate with an egg and include white and black pudding, bacon and sausage. All of these are available in the deli section of the grocery with the bacon known as Streaky Rashers. Pork liver paté and rolls of white and black pudding, a pleasant euphemism for blood sausage, come tightly sealed, ready for travel.
Cheese is allowed into our country by the Department of Agriculture, but bacon, sausage and pudding are not. I searched their website to no avail, then called the local USDA office and was told to call the Alameda office where someone said call Washington for a list of what foods are or are not allowed into our country. Rather than waste another phone call, next time I’ll just stick with cheese.
Brown sauce is composed of apple pulp, malt vinegar, cane molasses, tomato paste and sugar. It is served as a condiment with lunch and dinner, but not breakfast. It comes in packets like ketchup. I brought a few home without asking USDA. It was a thick syrup that spread easily on bread.
Why didn’t they just call it apple sauce? Apple butter would have worked. But “brown” sauce?
“Bin Your Gum When You’re Done”
Last to board the airport shuttle to the car rental, I said, “Last on.”
The driver quickly and brightly, “The last of the Mohicans.”
My immediate memory response, “His name was Chingachgook.”
“I thought it was Daniel Day-Lewis.”
I didn’t correct him. Day-Lewis actually played Natty Bumppo, which is Long Rifle’s real name, not his buddy the eponymous Native American.
One night rates for hotels and B n Bs where we stayed were not unreasonable. The Charles Stewart in Dublin was $90, The Ashbrook Arms in Durrow $115, $79 at the Oakley House in Ennis, but they were cash only. The Dun Ri Guesthouse in Galway was $90 a night and the Louis Fitzgerald in Dublin near the airport was $79 but did not include breakfast.
Of the five places, the most modern structure was The Louis Fitzgerald. Its new construction means it has all the creature comforts including spacious rooms with contemporary bathrooms and twin beds. The Ashbrook Arms in Durrow, by contrast, was the most modernized old structure with up to date amenities, but its history is considerably different than any other we discovered.
Durrow is a 300 year old town that was a stage stop along the route to Dublin through Kilkenny or Kildare. The village was bypassed by the motorway, but still enjoys tourism as a picturesque city with its own castle that has itself become a B n B. We did not stay in the Castle Durrow because it is rather more expensive.
The Ashbrook Arms is across the street from the castle and is named for the Lords Ashbrook under whose aegis the town of Durrow prospered until they vacated in 1922. Under a property tax exemption peculiar to Ireland, the previous owners of the Arms removed the roof from the structure in order to avoid paying property taxes. The current owners had an empty shell to work with and produced an up to date interior with a pleasantly baffling hallway and room layout. Stairs connecting the rooms go down, plateau and then go up or lead to a single room all by itself in what feels like being inside an M. C. Escher drawing.
Below: A Durrow fire hydrant has a brass faucet which just makes a lot of sense if you ask me.
The Oakley House in Ennis has its own peculiarity with respect to communication. Pat, the man who keeps the place, explained that my cell phone reception was poor in one section of the house because the wi-fi in the bedroom area was from EDIMAX, but by the time you reached the dining and living rooms, it was Vodaphone. Go figure.
And now you may be wondering about that cell phone. Investigating my AT & T carrier policy on use in Ireland, the U. S. phone is perfectly good the minute you touch down. But you will incur roaming charges of up to $1.50 for that minute and stories are told of huge phone bills arriving in the mail after return to the U. S.
Equally valid is the suggestion that an Irish SIM card may be inserted into a phone that is “unlocked” from its U. S. network, also known as “jailbreaking.” Unlocking was not an option when compared to simply buying an Irish phone.
Mick, my Irish pool playing friend from Cork, told me about cheap “burner” cell phones which may be purchased from Tesco, an Irish supermarket chain. True, twenty dollar phones are advertized on the Tesco website. However, as we found in practice when we walked into the Tesco in the Temple Bar district, these cheap devices are always sold out and the only ones available are at starting prices of more than twice that.
Fortunately there is a booming business in cell phones and Carphone Warehouse is where we picked up a Nokia 130 for $29.99 that included a SIM card with an Irish phone number. Another $10 bought time on the Meteor network. However, using the phone to dial a number requires the user know if it is a land line or another cell phone they are calling. A zero or a zero one are necessary to connect and, no, I never did clearly understand which was which nor how one knows cell from land line.
Bob’s Bar is across the street from The Ashbrook in Durrow. Bob’s is in a quaint old building that serves drinks on its back porch within feet of the river Erkina. There is a rear room known as “The Museum” and upstairs Bob has a collection of bicycles called High Nellys. Bob’s Bar hosts an annual High Nelly race.
There is nothing special about these bicycles. They are just bicycles.
The gathering was informal and no food was served. Musicians in the family took up guitars, a bodhrán was brought down from its place high up on the wall and everyone sang well known Irish and contemporary pop songs.
The river and the Guinness flowed and at some point in the evening I watched as Ciaran placed two full glasses on a table and walked away sipping from one. After a couple hours and nearing closing, with the crowd considerably thinned and no Ciaran in sight, I took the untouched glass and tasted and was about to consume more when Ciaran came around. I told him I’d taken his drink and expected him to say nothing or perhaps ask for it back, perhaps suggest I buy him another, when he reached out and with both hands grasped the glass firmly, began peeling my fingers away singly, prying first the pinkie, then the ring finger.
I gave the glass up without further resistance as he said, “That doesn’t happen in my world.”
* * *
“The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz purports to be a book of Toltec wisdom.
My second cousin Chris sat next to me at the reunion dinner at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. She explained she discovered Ruiz’ book before Oprah and described the author’s rules which are roughly: Your word is your honor, don’t take things personally, assume nothing and strive to do your best. Yah. Right. The Toltecs had a head start on modern cognitive-behavioral therapy, the guided revision of one’s thoughts. While I have my doubts about the putative origin, there is nothing incorrect about utilizing these as a life philosophy. It’s just that I’ve been following them, especially number three, most of my life without early Mesoamerican interference or input.
A tee shirt for sale on a rack in the gift shop of Celtic Crystal in Connemara displayed the marquees and names of a dozen Irish bars: The Brazen Head, The Turk’s Head, Quay’s Pub, Dirty Nellie’s. What? Everyone knows that’s not how you spell the name. It’s “Durty” and it’s in Bunratty right next to the castle.
I pointed this out to one of the employees who said she had not noticed. She said she would ask the salesman next time she saw him. Another employee suggested this may be due to copyright protection. Spelled wrong, there is no law that can be brought to bear. Good point.
McGann’s Cheap and Cheerful pub grub in Doonaha. We did not eat there. I simply liked the promo line.
The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions visited by nearly a million people annually. There are no barriers separating anyone from the highest point above the Atlantic which is 702 feet or 214 meters.
A small sign is affixed to a slate stone wall as you begin walking toward Moher Tower which asks: Need to talk? It was installed by the Samaritans with the Irish equivalent of an 800 number.
Leaving the Cliffs of Moher parking lot heading away from our inbound route, vehicles were slowed by pedestrians and people asking for rides. One young couple held a paper plate with their desired destination written on it.
I turned to Sarah, “Don’t you pick up hitchhikers?”
“No. Not as a rule.”
We were stopped in traffic and at precisely that moment a man tapped on our window.
“Can you take us to Doolin?”
Remarkably, Sarah said, “Sure, hop in.”
I recognized them from the visitor center, a tall older man with gray hair and a younger Asian woman. Dr. Lutz-W. Wolff of Berlin got in the back seat with his traveling companion whom he called Dacha. As they settled in, Lutz picked up my copy of “The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald” so he would not sit on it. This was my reading material during our trip.
“I translated these,” Lutz said with surprise in his voice at having found this serendipitous commonality. “Sold 20,000 copies.” I looked Wolff up after our return and found he also has “The Great Gatsby” to his German translating credit.
* * *
I got one new joke in Ireland: Paddy saw his neighbor Lenihan post a sign saying Garage Sale — Boat For Sale.
“But Lenihan, you haven’t but a lawnmower and a hoe between you.”
“Ai. And they’re boat for sale.”
I told this to Chuck at the Kilowatt and he said, “I don’t get it.”
“It’s in the pronunciation,” I explained. “The Irish say ‘boat’ for ‘both’.”
“But what’s the boat got to do with it?”
“The joke is in the way he says it.”
”But what’s with a boat and a lawnmower? I don’t get it.”
* * *
In order to carry all her goods home, Sarah went looking for a duffle bag. We had several hours before we needed to be at the airport, so it seemed reasonable we could find something soft, not a hard frame suitcase.
The first problem was the word “duffle.” No one in Ireland seemed to know what a duffle bag was. Sarah described various soft carrying devices that had no wheels and could be checked at the airport. One helpful fellow said we should try the shopping center down the road a piece called “pavey-lons.” I wanted him to spell that, but Sarah just repeated the word. We drove. I searched highway signs for something that started with a P. At a stoplight where I had time to take in our surroundings, I said that’s gotta be it and pointed out “Pavilions” shopping center.
Yes, we found what Sarah wanted at pavey-lons only they called them gym bags.
All Americans find driving in Ireland a challenge not just because the steering wheel is on the right, the gear shift is on the left and they drive on the wrong side of the road, but also because if they travel with another person in the car, that person immediately becomes a very loud back seat driver.
Especially problematic is the American driver’s tendency to come from the left land and turn into the right lane at a corner. But, when starting that turn from the left lane of the road you are exiting, that would cause a head on collision with an Irish driver.
“Left! Left! Left!” was my frequent shout as Sara approached an intersection from the left, but aimed for the right side of the road we were about to take. By the second day she was mindful, but it did not always look that way to me.
Brian is married to my cousin Bernadine and avidly joins the family at all gatherings including this one in Ireland. He rides a Triumph motorcycle in Illinois, so here he rented a Royal Enfield Bullet 500 and rode from Ennis to Galway.
Fortunately for him Ireland’s notoriously bad weather was not a problem in July. However, he did lose body temperature and did run into several rainstorms.
Above: Brian Kowalski and the Royal Enfield 500 he rode across Ireland.
We were following behind him when he went around a curve and into the next lane barely missing hitting an oncoming car. Months later he phoned and asked if I remembered his near death experience.
Not really. He had to describe the incident because I certainly did not think of it in that light. Yes, I remember his close call.
“Well, I was just checking to see if I survived,” he explained. “Because I thought maybe I was really dead. I came so close to that car I thought maybe I’d died and this was all a dream and I’m in a hospital somewhere or I’m living an after life memory of the accident.”
* * *
Sarah was an open book with everyone who casually asked, “How are you?” This is not necessarily a good thing especially when the person opposite is just waiting for you to say something incriminating
I stood a good distance behind her waiting my turn at the US customs counter. The woman asked something and Sarah began here exposition. At some point she must have said something suspicious or answered a question wrong, because she was suddenly escorted away behind closed doors and I did not see her again until I was in my seat on the plane.
She told me what happened: On her customs form she checked off yes to bringing back food items. When asked, she itemized the cheeses and then said she had some liver paté. That was cause for not only confiscation of the product, but an examination of every article in her carry-on including the opening of every container of makeup and mascara.
Unaware of this when I got to the counter, but completely conscious of the eruptive force I faced, when she asked, “How are you today?” I said, “Fine,” and remained smiling but silent.
Sarah and I have different last names, so the agent did not put us together. I could tell she expected me to go into my travels place by place and appeared disappointed that I did not take the bait. She asked if I had any food items, and told her I had cheese. She asked what types and I told her sheep’s milk, a blue from France, camembert. Then she informed me the woman before had pork. Cheese is okay, pork is not.
I smiled silently at this statement. I volunteered nothing. Finally, the agent said I could go.
Above: the Hurling Field in Durrow. Below, a blue haired spectator.
Beef cattle on the Jones Farm in O’Callaghan’s Mills.