Monday, September 12, 2016

The Final Letter

Here's to you, Erin Gra Mo Chroi
Dearest Ireland,

When I first made plans to meet you last year,  I perused a variety of travel brochures, each promising a spectacular vacation discovering the "hidden" Ireland,  your "secret" self.  That seems to be what people are searching for.....a connection that is thicker than the walls of castles and cathedrals and stronger than a tall pint of Guinness.  Even as they board the commercial tour buses, they're hoping for more than a spectator's comfortable seat. They want to be called into the game.

I've spoken to a few people who have taken whirlwind bus tours and, while they have only positive things to say about Ireland, they came back to America tired and disappointed.  Like a quick and cagey leprechaun, the hidden magic they were hoping to find remained just beyond their grasp, inviting but elusive.  Maybe that's why it's called "hidden" after all.

You don't have to be a wizard to figure this out. The real heart of any culture is in the people themselves, not their artifacts and relics,  no matter how attractive and amazing those artifacts and relics might be.  Your stone speaks to me but it's always a one-way conversation. It never listens when I tell it my troubles. And your music comforts and inspires me, but it doesn't need me like I need it.  It gives, but has no capacity to take what I might offer.

You can't buy a ticket into someone's heart, no matter how extravagant your travel budget. The price of a relationship is time.... time to develop empathy and understanding that goes both ways...... not me trying to dissect you, but you deciding to be vulnerable..... not you just smiling and trying to sell me souvenirs, but you genuinely reaching out to me with warmth and kindness and accepting the same in return. That connection is what I found in Ireland this year..... and it was definitely magic to me.   

Like so many other Irish descendants born and raised in the USA, I have felt an affinity with Ireland from a young age and yearned to discover what it was all about. For some reason, dear Ireland, you chose me to glimpse inside your treasure chest.  And when the sparkling jewels took my breath away,  you wrapped them round my neck, pressed them on my fingers and toes and led me to a mirror.  I saw myself as Irish and it made me feel very proud and humble at the same time. Even though I'm home now, I will always know I'm Irish

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Twelfth Letter

At the Cliffs of Moher on the Wild Atlantic Way
Dearest Ireland,

Do you remember Star Trek from the '60's? You're thousands of years old so the 1960's must seem like yesterday.  There was one episode featuring a scruffy looking guy named Lazarus.  He lived in two parallel universes as his good self and evil self. It sounds goofy, but his good self was always fighting with his evil parallel self in a "dimensional corridor",  trying to keep him from crossing over. If the two Lazaruses came together in either universe, both universes would be annihilated. I don't know why, but that was the story. As a twelve year old thinker I, like Mr. Spock,  found this "fascinating."

I still do. I thought about the implications just last week.  When my daughter and her husband came to spend a week with Doc and me, my American self was confronted with my Irish self. I wondered if both of my universes would survive and, if not, which one would implode?  I know what you're thinking.....this is heavy stuff!

I've been back and forth four times in the last year. When I'm home in Florida, I home. Everything seems natural and normal.......buttermilk biscuits,  driving on the "right" side, ugly billboards and heat waves. When I'm in Ireland, I've grown to also feel comfortable and at home....  mountains and green rolling pastures, three raincoats (light, medium, and downpour),  creamy 99's, and holding up queues everywhere, counting out my euro coins.

It was so fun introducing Ted and Leah to Ireland.  We packed a lot in one short week. You heard about Skellig Michael in my last letter, but that was only half of one day. We left  Shannon airport Saturday morning and went directly to the Cliffs of Moher.  Doc and I weren't concerned that this was at 5 AM Ted and Leah time. We  poured coffee down their throats and made them smile for pictures. We made sure they didn't get too near the edge of the cliffs and drift over when the caffeine wore off. They loved it.
The iconic Father Ted house
Ballinahow Castle

From the cliffs, we went to the Burren since it was right next door.  I remembered walking this vast gray moonscape last year, admiring the tiny wildflowers that frolic like fairies among the boulders. We drove past the Father Ted house and I was glad I had already corrupted Ted and Leah's minds with a few episodes before they left Florida. They were able to appreciate seeing it in person.
From there we drove south and, after crossing the Shannon estuary on the Killimor-Tarbert ferry, found our B&B in Castlegregory, on a hillside overlooking eight miles of sandy beach. We were on the go almost every day,  sight-seeing and exploring old ruins. The fifth member of our party was always Ted's binoculars. Being the obsessive bird watcher that he is, he was thrilled to identify dozens of new species to add to his "life list".  I think he saw 18 on the very first day.

"I know that's a 4000 year old wedge tomb behind me, but I think I see a Willy Wagtail."
 My birthday was Thursday.  In the Monk's pub I turned a year older with the three F's,......Friends, Family and Fiddle. Couldn't have asked for more. While I joined in a few tunes with the musicians, Ted and Leah sat with Doc, his parents and the gang and got a taste of Irish pub life (and the best Guinness around).  They didn't even seem sleepy though it was way past their bedtimes.
Ted and Leah with Mom and Pop at the Monk's

 Ireland has a way of unwinding time, liberating it from the tyranny of gears and pendulums........letting it glide gently alongside us instead of dragging us from somewhere up ahead. Star Trek would say it creates "temporal anomalies" in the space/time continuum. But just creates good craic.

Thursday night found us in Dublin having dinner at the exquisite Fire Restaurant in the Mansion House, where the Lord Mayor resides. I hoped he'd come out and wish me a happy birthday but I guess he got preoccupied with something less important. The meal was was the musical, "Once" that we saw afterwards.
"Oh Glen...Can we take you home???"

While wandering around waiting for the doors to open, Doc pointed and waved for our attention. He had spotted Glen Hansard, who won an Oscar for the movie, on a secluded side street near Dublin Castle. We most humbly and reverentially approached him and he was as nice as can be. He said he was going to the musical also.  I hoped he'd make a stage appearance but he didn't.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin
We slept in Friday and spent the afternoon in St. Patrick's Cathedral and the National Museum.  So much more of you to see, dear Ireland, but no more time. We drove back to Thurles in the evening, then Saturday morning said our goodbyes at Shannon.  A "temporal anomaly" for seemed like they had just arrived. But both universes seem to be still intact, so apparently my good and evil selves can safely exist in both.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Eleventh Letter

Dearest Ireland,

Several months ago I remember sitting in Ted and Leah's living room in Port Orange, FL and talking about my summer plans to be in Ireland.  I mentioned that I was trying to get in shape so I could climb the 612 steep, winding steps of Skellig Michael, a rocky outcrop off the Kerry coast with 1500 year old monastic ruins at the top. Ted, knowing his mother-in-law is no exercise fanatic, rolled his eyes cynically and asked if I realized how many stories high 612 steps would be.  I think I snarled at him.

So knowing that Ted and Leah would be visiting Ireland in August, Doc and I decided to include them in our adventure.  We reserved four spots on the tour boat that takes brave, acrophobia-defying souls across the seven miles of Atlantic Ocean to "Scary Michael".  It was good we booked in advance because the excursion has become very popular this summer due to the latest Star Wars filming there.  Each boat is limited to twelve passengers and we had to call several captains before we found four seats with Captain Dan.

He told us the Celtic Victor would only set out weather permitting.  I wondered what kind of weather would be considered "permitting".  It rains and blows almost every day along the southwest coast.  Dan sounded skeptical on the phone so I thought we shouldn't get our hopes up.

But of course we all did.  We were giddy with anticipation the night before the trip.  We stayed right in Portmagee near the docks so we could get a reasonably good night's sleep and be on time for our 9:00 launch.  Leah had not been feeling well (maybe a little food poisoning, she thought) but was not deterred at all.  I prayed hard for all of us to be well and for a warm, sunshiny morning.

And my prayer could not have been more beautifully answered. When we woke, the air was sparkling and we passed around the sunscreen as we excitedly piled in the car.

When we reached the pier, Doc walked straight up to the first man he saw and engaged in conversation.  I wondered if it was someone he had recognized from Thurles.  When I joined him, I discovered it was Captain Dan he was talking to.  I still don't know how Doc knew who he was right away.  An Irish man thing, I guess.

Captain Dan had a grave, foreboding look on his face.  He said the weather out at sea was very bad.  Really? How could that be when it was perfect at the dock? Obviously, I am not a sea person.

The plan was to give it a try, but we were told over and over that if we could not disembark safely at the island, we would turn back. Safety was the top priority.  I was good with that......sort of. I might have been willing to risk a small fracture or two, but definitely not drowning.  So when all twelve of us were aboard, precariously seated six on a side like eggs, Captain Dan revved the engine.

As soon as we cleared the harbor, we understood with the clarity of Yoda.  The waves were not choppy.....they were huge, rolling fields of spray that took us by surprise. We were already getting soaked when the first mate started passing out rain suits and tying up barriers behind our backs.  We were on a seafaring ferris wheel, rising and falling and churning miserably and yet, laughing and joking like carnival clowns.

It's been a long time since I had motion sickness.  Still I took precautions and tried to stare at the horizon, which was difficult because it kept disappearing under the boat. Smiling, innocent faces among the passengers  turned 40 shades of green to match the Irish pastures we were leaving behind.  Eyes closed two by two, as we tried to anchor ourselves with our feet so as not to go bounding across the deck.  It was an hour long episode of Deadliest Catch and as Skellig Michael grew closer,  I was praying we could get off the boat there, even if we had to be air lifted.

When the motor finally stopped, we had to wait for another boat to clear the landing ramp (it's probably not called landing ramp) in the little cove for our turn to step off. We held on tight to whatever was available and, each time the boat rose on a crest, the first mate hoisted one of us off as if we were sacks of flour at a loading zone (well, we were still partially standing, I think).  By this time I had almost forgotten about the challenge of climbing to the monastery.  I felt victorious having survived  the Celtic Victor.

It took very little time to lose our sea legs and feel steady again. We gathered with the passengers from a couple of other boats to hear a guide give us warnings of all the dangers about.  I wondered if he knew what we had just come from.  He encouraged us to "turn back" if we felt exhausted as we climbed to the summit.  But he also said anyone who was "moderately fit" shouldn't have a problem. And, by the way, the boat leaves to go back in less than two hours.

This made me nervous. What if I were the only one who couldn't make it? I looked around....lots of young, backpack toting millennials with ponytails and water bottles.  I remembered how long it took me to reach the top of the Devil's Bit last summer, though everyone said it was more of a walk than a hike.  I'd had to take a long rest halfway up.

There was nothing for it now but to start stepping.  The steps, made by the monks so long ago, were irregular and uneven...some made of one large stone and some made of smaller flat stones jammed together. The landscape was stunning and we four walked together slowly, stopping often, not from fatigue, but to take it all in.

We were disappointed that the seasonal puffins had already flown away, but everything else was dazzling.  There was an other-worldly feel about the place that was both eerie and calming.... gray and haunting.  I imagined the strong wind at my back was the ghosts of those early monks nudging me along, and I was shocked when we reached the top so quickly.  I must actually be "moderately fit" after all.

Another guide was waiting for us to explain about the monastery: the beehive huts where the monks slept, the church, stone crosses and modest graveyard. We wandered around taking pictures, peeping into nooks, ducking into the beehives, admiring the architecture almost in disbelief. Then it was time to start our descent.

Now the wind was in our faces and we estimated it was truly hurricane strength (and we Floridians know what that feels like).  We could hardly stand against it as we eased ourselves back down the slope.  It wasn't hard to imagine how every year there are serious accidents here and sometimes even fatalities. I was relieved when we hit sea level once again.

Getting on the boat was easier than getting off but, as we cleared the cove, the waves seemed even bigger than before.  There was a serious silence on the way back.  I'd like to think we were all meditating on the splendor and majesty of Skellig Michael, but I know in my heart we were just mostly tired and/or sick. I felt both.  I am not embarrassed to say that I was the only one courageous enough to swallow her pride and upchuck her breakfast over the side.  I hoped the couple down wind from me didn't notice.  I felt much better afterwards.

Thank you, dear Ireland, for another story, another treasured memory and interested readers to share it with.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Tenth Letter

Dearest Ireland,

I'm spending my summer in Thurles which is pronounced "turless" because your people don't use the "th" sound in pronunciation. I understand that's because there is no "th" sound in the Irish language, and spoken English in Ireland still reflects that influence. It makes for some good-natured teasing, though, when someone is talking about a "third" of something. Use your imagination.....i.e. "I'm dividing this pizza into "tirds".

To quote a guide book, "the origins of Thurles go back to the latter part of the first millennium, when it was the Durlas or strong fort of the O'Fogartys, the dominant clan in the region at that period." It is surrounded by the Silvermine Mountains to the NW and the Slieveardagh Hills to the SE. The River Suir , pronounced "sure",  runs through it. Don't those sound like names from Middle Earth? 

Thurles is a town of about 5-7 thousand residents, depending on what you read. It has a main street and a town square, called Liberty Square, much like any small American town. Of course the traffic speeds around the square in a clockwise motion, which still confuses me. I don't know when I'll ever learn to drive here.

Thurles is in County Tipperary, right in your heart.  One can see from the map, that it's a great location, being just a half day's drive or less from anywhere. I really didn't realize until I got here that you, dear Ireland, are only about the size of Indiana.  If I climb a tall tree, I can see from coast to coast.

I'm devoting this post to photos I've taken around Thurles. It may seem boring to my Irish readers, but I think it will give my American friends a better feel for a typical Irish town.  I am so "tankful" to be here.

Here's Thurles

Liberty Square, the middle of town

Which way to Florida?
O'Gorman's Pub. aka The spot is just inside the door to the right.
The medieval Bridge Castle...I wish St. Pete had a bridge castle.
Old Liberty Square
De Burca's Pub, the coziest place in town.
Ireland has the BEST ice cream!
St. Mary's Church of Ireland (Protestant)
Want to learn to sing or play?
St. Patrick's Teacher's College used to be a monastery
The mall has a butcher shop. Buy a wool sweater and a lamb chop.
Cathedral of the Assumption (Catholic)
Let's go!
Hurley maker mural
The River Suir has great trout fishing
Friends share a story on the street
Pheasant Island. They raise them here.

I love the doors in Ireland
Country Fun
Busking on the foot path
The Queen's logo on this mail drop, remnant of the occupation.
Cute Irish cottage on the edge of town
Hurling Match .....Up Tipp!

I am so full of potatoes.

Skehan's Pub

Train station....Call me when you get here.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Ninth Letter

Dearest Ireland,

I awoke Thursday morning feeling a little downhearted.  A few weeks earlier, Paul, the weekly trad session leader, had introduced me to a beautifully melodic hornpipe, which is a particular type of dance tune. He had played it slowly as I recorded him, then he gave me the sheet music and also a CD of the tune. It's been really challenging to learn and every week Paul asks how it's coming along.

I practiced it hard and heavy, playing along with the CD, and finally, at the Wednesday session,  I told Paul I had it down. His accordion sounded the first few notes, and then I joined in with the fiddle. I didn't realize until a few lines in, that apparently no one else knew the tune, and I found myself in the throes of an ill-fated duet. I hope it wasn't too obvious that I got hopelessly lost in the tempo and was scrambling, like a frenzied firewalker, for some stable, solid ground.  I've never been so glad for a tune to end, and I'm so thankful Paul's accordion was LOUD.

So with my pride still smouldering the next morning, I was happy that I had made plans for the day. I was going for lunch with Theresa and her mother, Marie. Theresa hosts the Fiddler's Retreat which I attended last summer (and which I highly recommend) and has become my friend and private teacher. After lunch we were going to poke around the ruins of 12th century Kilcooley Abbey and also investigate the 18th century Georgian mansion on the same 1200 acre tract. I had read that it was once called "as fine and elegant a private gentleman's seat as any in Europe."  Theresa knew the "big house"  to be vacant and up for sale, and we figured we could peep in the windows and dream.

We could see it from the abbey but getting there was another matter. There was neither road nor path from where we were. So we tromped through the high grasses and wildflowers (and thistles) of the intervening fields and slowly made our way to the rear of the manor.

It had been badly neglected and was all but as ruined as the abbey itself. It's on the market for 8 million euros but will require millions more to restore to its former grandeur. We hope someone will come to its rescue before it's past the point of no return. In the meantime, we walked around the grounds and admired the stunning views from the front. We noticed a lake in the distance and, barely perceptible, a tiny stone chapel near the far bank.

I think Theresa, Marie and I thought it at the same time. We wanted to see that church....up close. We could see the lake was practically surrounded by woodlands, but we could also see a road (and a stone bridge) heading in that direction. So, like three little hobbits marching toward Rivendell to see the elves, off we naively set.
Our first attempt was logically over the bridge and around the lake to the right. We had just reached the lake's edge when we noticed something white flickering just inside the brush. Before we could be startled, it gracefully emerged onto the lake as a beautiful white swan followed by six gray cygnets, another adult (the daddy?) and a final cygnet (the runt?) pulling up the rear. The family sailed boldly straight in front and then away from us in a perfect line, and we held our breath in awe. We don't see swans much in Florida and I got the impression from Theresa and Marie that, even if they're a common sight, they never lose their magic. We watched until they disappeared from view.

Our road quickly narrowed into a dubious trail that seemed to be taking us nowhere. It was raining off and on as we lost sight of the lake, and I could feel the dampness squishing my sneakers (why didn't I wear my boots?) and sogging up my socks. We were getting tired and should have been discouraged and frustrated, but all we could talk about was the freshness of the forest air and the peaceful sense of  being in harmony with our surroundings.

Suddenly out of nowhere (except a Bronte novel perhaps) appeared a horse and rider, trotting toward us, hopping a hurdle and bounding away as quickly as they came.  There was hardly a nod of
acknowledgement before they were out of sight (but I did snap a quick photo) and no time to think to ask how to get to the church. So we continued on a little farther and then decided to turn around.

We traced our steps back to the lakeside but weren't ready to give up our quest. We decided to trudge around the front of the lake, admiring the flowers and the tease of intermittent sunshine, and see if we could locate our church from the left. This path became as hopeless and more treacherous than the last.

                                                                                                                                                                            We wandered again through dripping fronds and face-smacking branches, getting soaked and scratched forging a path, but still full of anticipation. We teetered across a little creek on a 2x6 Olympic balance beam that a kind predecessor had laid for us, hoping the "thrill of victory" would be just ahead. Sitting on a moss-velvet log to reconsider, we all admitted there would be no shame in giving up. Theresa said it would give us a reason to return another day.  But still we persevered a little farther.

                                     And then we spied it in all its glory......framed in mist and afternoon shadows.....its stone arched doorway inviting exhausted, weary pilgrims to enter and rest.........a BOATHOUSE! Really? No columns... no vaulted ceilings...  no ornately carved anythings... A NEO-GOTHIC BOATHOUSE!

But how could we be disappointed?  Swimming nobly in and around the stone shelter was our proud family of swans, who seemed to have been waiting patiently for us to find our way. I was watching them with quiet reverence from my concrete pew inside, when Theresa leaned over my shoulder and whispered in my ear. I felt a delicious tingle go all the way to my toes.  Until that moment I hadn't thought of it. The name of my hornpipe was, "The Swan on the Lake." I know God was winking.

(Doc says in the early 1800's a family of seven children and their two parents drowned in the lake when their little boat sank.........but I'm not buyin').