2017 Ireland Trip

by Richard Grossinger on June 23, 2017

July 2-3, 2017

We set out from Portland, Maine, with a taxi from our house to the Concord Coach airport shuttle to Logan Airport in Boston. That took from 10:45 AM cab pick-up to 1:30 PM arrival, well before Aer Lingus even opened—a lot of waiting around Terminal 2 for a 5:50 flight.

I am a fearful flier. For that reason, much of what happened for me on this trip till we landed in Dublin was colored by a mood that began over a month ago when I knew we were going to fly overseas. It waxed to an overwhelming sense of gloom by the last days before. It seems that, every time right before I go on a plane trip, I run into random people who refuse to fly at all. When they elaborate their reasons, I wonder why I’m not with them. I guess it’s because I don’t want to be more limited than I already am.

From the long lines at our boarding gate it seemed that there were far more people about to board than the plane could possibly hold. I worried about how heavy we would be. In fact, once we were on board and in our seats, I was stunned to see that the plane was relatively empty with as many empty as full seats. More than one optical illusion was operating here.

I didn’t remember choosing it when I made the reservation, but our row, 8, had a huge amount of open space in front of us because of the exit hatch, which made the time aboard considerably more comfortable and also engaged us with the intimate actions and repartee of the flight crew. They became the cast of a play, which was reassuring.

Each side of the plane had two adjoining seats with more of the seating in the much longer center aisle, leaving us without a seatmate—usually it is three against the window. It also gave me a direct view of a giant Google Earth map on the wall, which alternated changing lists and charts: time at point of origin, time at destination, plane speed, altitude, temperature outdoors (brrr!, well below zero F. or C.), distance to site of arrival, time of arrival, time till arrival (that one varied within about eight minutes over the length of the flight), distance covered, distance left to arrival, etc., all in metric and miles, degrees, etc. The overall distance was almost 3000 miles, the equivalent of NYC to SF, presumed at about five and a half hours with a tailwind.

A plane trip always starts out with a discouraging number of miles under our belt as we ascend, most of it still to go, about to be aloft for some five-plus hours. There is a gut disbelief that so much distance can be covered in a bearable time frame or that my downbeat mood will change. Of course, it does, very gradually, as one inhabits the seconds and space between the seconds with perception—basic phenomenology. In my case, the flight is a stringently enforced “Be Here Now” regime, trying to make the present real and essential, not to keep counting and playing with the numbers: yay!—1000 miles under our belt, at last the halfway point, etc. Yet it’s unavoidable, plus the numbers turn over, and they are the most defining aspect of the context. We are not in the plane for its own sake but because it’s the only way to explore a space-time continuum in a four-dimensional matrix.

I found the waiting in the terminal harder in some ways than the flight itself because in the plane at least we were moving through the murk of oppression. Lindy sat by the window this time, so I didn’t have the below view to distract me. But the general situation had its pluses: big heavy Airbus, meaning relatively little turbulence though not none; several-minutes-long distractions of friendly interactions with the flight crew and passengers (mostly kids our grandchildren’s ages waiting on line for the toilet in front of us), the dynamic map, food (which was edible this time because of another lapse I had while buying the ticket, as I selected gourmet meals unintentionally), my own melee of thoughts, my earnest but futile attempts to sleep.

Whenever I start to doze on a plane, I feel myself plunging through space, and awake with a start. I experimented with this sensation as a hypnagogic meditation for a while. When not trying to sleep, I did Zen meditation, guided visualization, conscious breathing, and a psychological exploration of traumas under the immediate stress exacerbating them, hence making them briefly more accessible. Difficulty is opportunity.

I was pleased that we spent our initial hour and forty-five minutes over land, North America, our trajectory going from Boston across Maine to New Brunswick, ultimately to Newfoundland and Labrador where we began what the pilot picturesquely called “the ocean crossing.”

Hundreds of planes a day make ocean crossings without incident—three-quarters of the planet is water—and I hardly think about it. Nonetheless I was in the capsule this time, and it seemed, if not dangerous as such, an undertaking without fallbacks. The engines functioning is essential. The positioning of Greenland and, later, Iceland on the Google map were marginally reassuring, but we weren’t really that close to them—the projection onto two dimensions exaggerated both their size and proximity—nor were they that useful in the event of mechanical problems. The ocean is the ocean, and the crossing is the crossing, no amelioration: Christopher Columbus, the Vikings, etc. We were tacking east along the westward route of Brendan and the early Irish New World explorers. In Brendan’s world, huge metal “birds” bearing people and their luggage across the sky routinely everyday would have been like the manifestation of an archetype or myth to them, which is precisely what it is.

When you go from the North American East Coast toward Europe at 600 miles per hour and 39,000+ feet, the sun sets but the same sun rises soon after, another anchoring detail in a sea of uncertainty. It’s the pure Euclidean geometry of gravitationally bound spherical objects.

I won’t trouble you any longer with the tedium of the flight. At dawn we came down through the clouds onto Eire, circling modern Dublin, then arcing over the North Sea in approach, landing at 4:30 AM.

I tend to forget how jet lag and shift of context disorient the body and mind and impose instant trance amnesia. In the space of a half hour we almost lost one suitcase, both cell phones, and my passport. Some of this was caused by a distraction, as we had a difficult time switching to roaming on the cell phones, a feature which we needed at once to text our home-exchange partner in Glasthule, suburban Dublin, who had to be alerted when the bus passed through Blackrock. When dialing produced nothing, I had to call AT&T’s foreign assistance number and talk while we were getting our bags and finding the commuter coach stop. All this added to jet-lagged absent-mindedness, things like not zipping backpack pockets, etc. We did not escape unscathed, but I’ll get to that.

 

Light rain fell of the sort that is common in Ireland and quite magical, emerald in its effect, as if gentle droplets materialize from pure air.

Bus driver on the right of the bus, bus on the left of the road, everything moving fast in a surreal landscape-reversing prism goggles, to the not unpleasant musack of a light rock station on the driver’s radio—we were seated up front behind him. He was pleasant and diffident; I’d cast a young Irish Clint Eastwood.

Longest tunnel I have ever been in. No idea where we were or headed. Early early morning. Coastline with beaches, container cargo, seawalls, people jogging. Sleepy but finding the relocation delightful. Ireland’s oldness and European-ness stood out, a difference that was exhilarating. This was not Trump Mall America.

No divider separated July 2nd and July 3rd. We left on the 2nd, arrived on the 3rd, but it was still the same day. Forty-minute ride to our stop. Susan, our exchange partner—she will be coming to Maine another year—picked us up from an old-fashioned bench by the stop where we were watching birds I will tell you about, and drove us around her neighborhood for a dizzying tour of shops, restaurants, train terminal, much of it slanted to her tastes so not necessarily applicable—we won’t go to the pubs or fish & chips—and too fast to absorb more than disconnected details and how hard it will be once we try to navigate it on our own.

 

“The birds of Ireland” sounds like an Innocence Mission album. Those good-sized noisy blackish turkey-headed doves with white neck rings—I guess they are a species of pigeon—are fun to watch, not all that graceful and making a racket as they move from perch to perch, amusing how and where they sit. I’ll have to find out what they are. Our host says they are pigeons and a nuisance, but they don’t look like any pigeons I have ever seen. They are too big and out of flock, more like land-based puffins.

 

Wild flowers in the pavement and empty lots and along walls. Rich pinks and yellows. Traces of emerald green.

 

The sound of Irish-accented English—the brogue in all its variations, pitches, lilts, and rasps from people of all ages and shapes—almost worth the trip. All road signs in Irish (Gaelic) and English both, which gives a Mesolithic or Middle Earth ring to things.  Overt friendliness and extension of personal boundary is the most striking difference. These people have not been completely recruited into modernity. Just about everyone whom we asked for directions took the opportunity for anything from small discourse to a minor Homeric tale. They inquired about us, where we were from, how long in Ireland, where we were going to go. We heard about trips to America, relatives in New York and Florida, parts of Ireland we shouldn’t miss. It was convivial and theatrical both, certainly entertaining and happy in global dark-times. Ireland is rumored to be getting pulled into the worst of modernity by its youth, but it is still the old country.

 

First major problem was discovering the iPod missing. I assumed it was lost on the flight because other things fell out of my carry-on pack (not my actual backpack) in the bin and had to be regathered from a zipper left open. In a very sleepy state and on either side of a brief nap, I spent an ungodly amount of time on the house landline trying to call Aer Lingus. It was impossible. Every number, including the Aer Lingus help desk and Aer Lingus/Dublin lost & found, had a voicemail loop. First, it sent you to automated information, none of which was useful—the most relevant was: “if you left something on the plane, use the courtesy telephone in the terminal.” We were no longer in the terminal. Asking for an operator by pressing O or 00 or OOOO led to the same scratchy upbeat melody interrupted every twenty seconds by a pleasant voice apologizing for the delay and saying to remain on the line and my call would be answered shortly. Nada. I gradually came to regard it a ruse because every number led to same tape and no one ever answered my call, shortly or otherwise. Using the landline in the house, I stayed on one recording loop for almost an hour with no success.

All told, while half asleep, I spent almost two hours never speaking to a person at Aer Lingus. Searching the internet for any way in, I learned that they were not the most admirable company, beset by scandals in Dublin. So much for idealizing those shamrock planes.

All of this activity was mixed with naps and snacks from bread and clementines Susan nicely provided. I lost any sense of time or pattern of meals or the day itself merging into another day.

There were plenty of other dilemmas once Lindy and I were left in the house alone. We had to find our U.S.-to-Ireland voltage conversion plugs and places to plug them in. The two we bought in the States were not enough to handle all we needed to recharge. Then a toilet wouldn’t flush; this turned out— but only after susan’s hasty return—not to be a plumbing problem but a knob that needed to be worked with the finicky cadence of a musical instrument to gain traction and pump. The front lock was also challenging, requiring a slight pressure of the key simultaneous with a violent yank of a lever-knob, and the key, it turned out, had to go slightly to the right before a productive turn to the left.

There was limited food available in the house, but we had limited mobility without a car. Our rental doesn’t begin till Friday because we don’t really need a car in Dublin and, more to the point, because we cannot exceed a rental period of four weeks, after which our contract would turn into a lease at three times the price, so we had to begin it on July 7.

The hardest thing, though, was getting the phone to work as a phone rather than just a texting device. And that included twenty minutes back at the airport getting the roaming started and learning how to avoid needless roaming charges.

Local calling is something you don’t think about in advance.When  I had to try to call Aer Lingus, I initially attempted it on my phone. The texting from the bus had worked fine. But no combination of adding and eliminating country code, area code, US exit code, 0’s and 1’s and 01’s worked. Each led to three discouraging beeps and silence. Then I ended up in a forty-minute discussion with a smart and committed customer-service guy in the Philippines. He reasoned the matter through until it was fixed, which was quite a process since he didn’t know anything, before I called, about US cell phones in Ireland. It turned out that we needed to dial 01, then the local area code and number—no exit code, no country code. It was counter-intuitive, and our guy found it by painstaking trial and error. He had me change settings while also making adjustments on his end, and each of his had to be accompanied by half a dozen different dialing options on my end until we got it right and applied it to both phones. Consider this a traveller’s tip.

I won’t belabor the iPod/Aer Lingus situation. Classic iPods are not made any more (Pandora, streaming, and the like having sadly replaced music libraries), so I was furious at myself for losing mine and trying to figure out the next step. At a certain point I was planning how and when to go back to the airport because Aer Lingus just wouldn’t answer any line.

 

By the time Lindy and I took a walk to get groceries and another adapter, we were totally discouraged and wished we had never come. What misguided fantasy led us to leave the relative comfort of our lives for this tangle of dilemmas, the inability to do the merest things? The nearby convenience store and somewhat more distant supermarket offered the crappiest of cellophane-enclosed industrial food and corporate packaging, though with a few edible and organic items. Reason was, we were only technically in Dublin, more in remote suburbs with a kind of newish overlay from the requisite world of conveniences, not worth travelling to per se.

I took a walk on my own to find where the train station was, getting that out of the way for later reference. After a number of longish false trails, each time getting redirections from workmen or kids, I found the station, gained an understanding the ticket machine, and walked back, slowly memorizing the way. Without false trails it was only fifteen minutes through interesting neighborhoods, including a lovely Anglican Church of Ireland.

In the evening, Lindy and I set out to take the train to Blackrock, a few stops back toward Dublin. That adventure marked a complete change in each of our moods and an abrupt upswing in the tenor of the trip.

As soon as we stepped out the door, a woman from TSA phoned on my cell, solving the iPod dilemma and ending the Aer Lingus boggle. Ten minutes earlier I had thought of TSA in Boston, the chaos created there by my opting out of what is rumored to be a DNA-uncoiling machine. Since my iPod was considered an electronic device, it was put in a bin. Between Lindy and me managing the traffic of carry-on packs through the radar and me being patted down while she got my stuff, we might have missed it.

In just ten minutes and with the help of a college friend in Boston, I learned that TSA had found my iPod, and would turn it over to him if I filled and signed out an authorization they would email at once. So much for looking down on the Transportation and Safety Agency. They were quick, present, polite, and responsive.

From that stroke of luck we fell in with interesting people at the station, on the train, and in Blackrock, and had the sorts of incidental conversations that make travelling abroad worth it. They each have a quirky quality of their own. There is a tendency to forget we are social creatures like dogs and other fellow primates, that the interaction of foreign bands has been part of our identity and context since before the Stone Ages. It’s not any one thing that people say—it’s the pack, and the unexpected use of a word here and there or an unlikely view of reality.

 

This is meant to be a shorter travel journal, but if I make it too sparse, I end up saying nothing of interest or use to you or me. My own aesthetic! I could write poems, or a more disjunctive series of observations, but that’s not what I am drawn to.

 

What stands out to me are the small things like those conversations, many of them soon forgotten. Travel is not an idyllic, romantic transposition to a cheerful, far-off reality. It is the act of discerning little by little a world, though human, of small discrepancies of speech, rhythm, styling, landscaping, cultural integrity, bodily and mental use of time and space. It is not only observing but flowing into it and encountering its imbroglios.

If you travel as part of a group tour—a more common method for people our age and something Lindy has suggested at times—you are still partly in America, buffered. She notes this now, how our difficulties got in the way of her image seeking an idyllic trip, but now they seem part of the interest. She forgot the game and was super unhappy, wishing we had never come, expecting to be entertained and made comfortable.

Travel isn’t about entertainment and happiness in that sense. It’s about trying to be elsewhere as yourself, experiencing who you are in a different placement. It is pleasurable but in subtler ways, and only once you slow down, occupy those seconds (plus the space between them), and try to reset your metabolism and lifestyle to a slightly altered version of planetary habitation.

Ireland’s not a big difference like the outback or jungle; it’s slight and tied to similar social and cultural habits and loyalties.

You realize too how dependent you are on mechanical things working: locks turning without force that could break your only key, toilets flushing when asked on first use, edible foods being where you can get at them, phones tamely cooing and delivering parties summoned, from wherever. But these are all miracles we take for granted. When they don’t happen, there is a tendency to get flustered, frustrated, angry, and want out. I can remember on other trips hitting this point and it turned out to be the real beginning of the trip.

 

Teen boys on the train and walking along the street engage in wild rough-housing “like Roddy Doyle characters,” Lindy says, “or maybe Roddy Doyle just got it right.” On the DART train from Glennageary to Blackrock, they wrestled from their seats onto the floor and rolled around, making a terrific and intimidating racket. Again on the street—other rambunctious boys.

 

Droplets of dew crystallizing out of the air but not fog—rain. The lightest and least intrusive of rains. The antics of those white neck-ringed birds again, on poles and phone lines.

 

The sweetness and friendliness of strangers persisted in Blackrock. A young woman named Orla was the only authority in the Organic Supermarket that led us to pick this town as our first destination (as recommended by the checkout clerk at the supermarket when we presented our sparse cullings of organic food to his station—“if you want a place where it’s all organic….”).

Orla looked like a combination gentle punk and street ragamuffin with a heavier brogue than anyone encountered thus far, but she was kind and empathic, handwriting us lists of places to go that were not urban around Dublin, enthusing with passion and heart about them, such that they overrode any cynicism of her colored hair, combat clothing, and toughish attitude. She had a kind of innate enthusiasm for the beauty of her Ireland—that is, once Dublin stopped, and it did on a dime, she explained. It was akin to patriotism of a lost era in the States.

When I returned for some drinks to go with dinner, she expressed a desire to be a performance artist, so I told her about our daughter Miranda.

After exploring Prague-like lanes that kept winding deeper into stranger, more colorful and idiosyncratic-looking shops, art projects more than shops, but not finding the fancy restaurant Orla extolled, we settled on her second choice, a Vietnamese place called Diep with stools, no tables, young guys in charge up front, a whole bunch of cooks plus at least one older Vietnamese man visible in the back—fairly good pad thai and spring rolls, and lots of intentionally goofy attention from the guys in front.

 

Train ride back. Late darkness this far north, thank goodness for the Gulf current plus apprehension for its future with Greenland and the Arctic melting. A bit of glow in the sky still at eleven.

 

July 4, 2017

I will not write much into today, as I would like to send my first posting. Our four full days in the Dublin area—three after a jet-lagged trance day—started with a commercial walking tour on O’Connell Street. When I purchased a slot online from the U.S., I discovered that, as writers (something I incidentally mentioned in an email exchange with the company), we were comped—we got to go for free. Only in Butler Yeats and James Joyce’s Ireland!

Getting to the tour was its own adventure because it started with a long walk to our host’s office where there was a working scanner and printer. That allowed me to get the authorization form for my friend to pick up my iPod to TSA. Getting to the office, about twenty blocks straight downhill toward the sea followed by a jog left, involved the sort of initial misapprehension one has when drawing wrong geographical conclusions about an unknown place. We actually tried the direct opposite direction first from strong conviction, then a road 90 degrees counterclockwise to it, then one 180 degrees from the initial impulse in order finally to be on the correct track. I had mapquested it, but it made no difference because my internal map was inverted. Stopping to ask people on each occasion got us redirected, with two men’s rather colorful description and repartee about Dunleary (Dun Laoghaire), the village to which we were headed. The previous day “Dunleary” was mentioned often, but we didn’t know where or what it was, especially since there was no Dunleary on the map or in our literature, hence both assumed we misheard the name and confused it with the direction in which we were headed when we went to the supermarket (though it was opposite). We would say, “Are there more shops or restaurants here?” People would respond, “Not here. You have to go to Dunleary.” In truth, we were in the suburbs of already-suburban Dun Laoghaire but didn’t understand. The walk took us to downtown.

Going to a normal office in an old building was the sort of gentle tourism I like—we got to see how things are arranged: street numbers, apartments converted to offices, local computer set-ups, all slightly different from the U.S. After Suan’s employees helped us, we set out in another wrong trajectory before getting redirected to the Sandycove DART station (we had used Glenageary the night before). It put us one station closer to Dublin but still twelve stations away. Great viewing the entry to Dublin, to any new city—harbor, quays, warehouses, bridges, stonework, canals, density; the best graffito: No Fracking Ireland.

We thought we left more than enough time for the walking tour, but that wasn’t the case. The so-called short trek from the Connelly Station to 59 O’Connell Street—we had been told was a few blocks—was half a mile. We arrived at the station with only ten-minutes margin and, after discovering the distance before us, had to hail a cab immediately. The beer-hall-looking driver promised to get us there in time. “Five minutes early!” he declared. He almost did. He needed to zoom up a long one-way street and down another, during which he got acquainted, leaning over the seat, and all but sang the Americans Happy Fourth of July and then went into rapture upon learning it was Lindy’s birthday. He wanted to know at once what I had bought her. “Nothing,” she said. “This trip,” I said. “Ireland,” he said, “beautiful Ireland, the best present of all.” An older man, central-casting rotund, like an unshaven character out of a Sean O’Casey story, he kept up the boozy soliloquy, barely interrupted by us, and sang us there.

 

After today’s two-hour exhaustive tour of tourist Dublin, I have been thinking about texts and subtexts of tours. Aine—put an Irish twang accent over the “A”—was a bright seasoned, older guide-woman with experience at the National Museum, and she piloted an engaging tour. Yet the flood of historical facts and pure information was overwhelming and ultimately brain-shorting, especially regarding sites and events of the 1916 uprising against England, culminating with all of the leaders being shot by a British firing squad. Streets and buildings were named after them and statues throughout the streets and in front of buildings commemorated sites of their failed campaign. That covered a lot of the tour’s destinations.

The “monument” aspect of the “city tour” is inescapable. What else are you going to point out and where else are you going to pause while leading a gaggle of strangers and hitting the must-see buildings, districts, bridges, telling pat if provocative stories (for instance, regarding the exclusion of women from venues in earlier historical times, etc.)? It’s what the customers are paying for: tourist currency, assuring that you want to Dublin and experienced it, proof on your cell phone’s photo archive.

Yet it is impossible to take it all in or anchor it. The litany becomes repetitious tedious. I envied the youngest member of our group who, at about six, decided that large collections of pigeons were more interesting. She followed the birds and also teasingly danced across floors on which we were being shown mosaics, petulantly blocking our view.

Yet certain things stood out which, if Aine hadn’t called attention to them, would have been lost on me: the exquisite greens and pinks of the marble on the floor of—I can’t remember if it was the Parliament Building or City Hall or the Lord Mayor’s castle—the gradually smaller windows on upper stories at Trinity College, indicating Georgian architecture; the figure of justice with her scales balanced on a roof-top (a spare and sharp statue with holes in the scales to keep the rain from unbalancing them as it used to do): the gilded symbol of Yahweh on the ceiling of the church turned into a pub (organ still above the whiskey collection); a giant replica version of the Da Vinci Last Supper with local people of varying ethnicity, gender, and age substituted for the apostles; and so on.

I will get back to this journal tomorrow.

 

In retrospect, I’m not sure how much of real Dublin I saw. I saw a dozen or so historical buildings and monuments, heard their vital statistics, and walked in continual crowds of varying density because there were so many simultaneous walking tours and groups tourists covering the same general territory. They were speaking various, mostly Indo-European languages. I tried to consciously broaden my perspective and relocate myself in Dublin, the unknown parish. That meant breaking my attentiveness to the tour and Aine’s voice and looking around at what else was present: single distinctive shops (locksmiths, bookstores, watch emporiums, jewelers, gold merchants, wool from the islands, knobs and knockers, designer furniture, souvenirs and curios). I prioritized throwback lettering and medallions on buildings (Gaelic and Latin regarding healing above updated pharmacies, a shelter for the indigent above a hotel, copious angels). I smelled incense, restaurant cooking, street urine, serious liquors, and a rich fifties aroma exuding from newspaper and candy stores. I occasionally dropped into the John Cage musicality of the din. I don’t pretend that it was workaday Dublin, but at least it wasn’t the canned tour narrative.

The formal foci of our walkabout included historical, political, commercial, and pop sites; for instance, Aine pointing to where we might run into Bono, Bob Geldof, or Van Morrison, where one or another of them they owned property along the River Liffey, and where they were lionized on walls of Dane Street. Another hip star, premier Justin Trudeau of Canada, happened to be in town, visiting his Irish counterparts, so we were told, tongue-in-cheek, where we might spot him.

Historic taverns, bars, and pubs were emphasized, as we passed through an Italian quarter, the renowned Temple Bar now a pricey tourist trap-zone, then continued along Dane Street. We briefly learned the dates and careers of moguls who once owned each district and how their names and businesses were represented in reincarnations since. We were told that much of Dublin was long-ago landfill.

A few peripheral events that stood out for me were vibrant, hard-playing buskers mainly with electric guitars, along Henry Street—and later Grafton once Lindy and I set off on our own); the O’Connell shaking bridge over the Liffey with a view down-river in either directionl; the interior quality of the Dublin Castle courtyard (now apartments), and the bright and unexpected colors everywhere: the flaming towers and background indigo-blue in the Dublin city seal painted and embossed on lamp-posts, stone steps, concrete, etc.; the bright flashing light bulbs of a modern ice-cream parlor with an admirable range of colors represented to make a virtual rainbow; the afore-mentioned polished hues of marbles; the Irish flag—I didn’t know till Aine gave it a caption that the central white of reconciliation joins Catholic green and Protestant orange— a rainbow plethora of balloons, yarns, and costumes with occasional passes of locals or tourists dressed as leprechauns or Vikings, the latter in a shipmobile howling and shouting obscenities and battle cries.

I assimilated this distinctive tempo and yaw mostly subliminally. The sheer fact and experience of being in Dublin overrode every overt specification, every explicit detail. In that regard, the fact that people back in the States were still asleep or awaking in present time while we were deep into the day and the tour added a frame of space-time relativity.

It was not a matter of over-intellectually “thinking” Dublin as opposed to “looking at” Dublin or “being in” Dublin. It was more an ongoing unconscious read of the Dublin vibration, a psychic attunement to one’s own interior changes in a different environment, hence a legitimate mindshift. It imbued all the senses and the psyche with a reality that could neither be pre-imagined nor categorized, so I can’t get at it in this journal, my report is drab by comparison. My sleep and dreams and sense of my existence changed in just a couple of days, and that spoke more integrally to the travel ceremony.

There is a deeper sense of history in Europe, which creates, at least for me, a feeling of timelessness in time—a kinship with earlier (and perhaps future) inhabitants of these sites. I don’t know whether the flow is psychic and transmigratory, or our DNA genome from a single source, or the collective clan memory of haplogroups fissioning out of Africa and breeding with Neanderthals in the north. It is near impossible to differentiate imagination incited by novels, movies, history classes, and archaeological reconstructions from actual Akashic deposits in one’s own aura or the terrestrial noosphere. Whatever the source, I felt personally connected to the past in Dublin, not in the sense that I might have been a person here in another lifetime in another identity but in the sense that it didn’t matter karmically whether I was or wasn’t. I couldn’t be separated from the greater human cultural and biological spore that has spread across the Earth.

The tour ended at Trinity College from where Aine directed Lindy and me, upon request, to the nearby Cornucopia Restaurant. The route was College Street to the huge, crowded thoroughfare of Grafton to sidestreet Wicklow. I would like to pass on the recommendation. Folks lined up inside Cornucopia in an automat-like cafeteria setting to be fed large portions of vegetarian food from steaming rectangular metal receptacles. I selected aubergine in tahini sauce over bulgar. Two salads—everyone chose, fruit or vegetable—came with each main dish. Down the row on the opposite wall was a large assortment of organic drinks. Beyond the salads were plenty of healthy desserts with an emphasis on chocolate, banana, and coconut, each with added ice cream or yogurt. Though Cornucopia was packed, the line moved fast and we got a table. Euros or dollars on the credit card? I learned that euros, the counterintuitive choice, gave you the best deal.

After lunch we hiked in the throngs down Grafton Street to St. Stephens Green, a small park founded (as per the signage) in 1663, sort of like leftover Sherwood Forest. After walking partway in, we vegged on a bench before a large pond, seated next to a wasted older woman vaping with the devotion of someone in an opium den. There we watched a continual commotion involving pigeons, gulls, ducks, dogs, little children, teenagers, and mixy hoi polloi. Every time someone fed the birds, fowl chaos resulted, as the gulls turned into their vicious, take-no-prisoners Tinberger selves, attacking each other, screeching as if heaven were falling, and stealing from each other’s mouths. Meanwhile kids and teens continually tried to push each other into the water. I fantasized the view of the few tiny sparrows—even the pigeons must have looked gigantic to them, and where did all those wolves and clad apes, not native to these parts, come from?

I led a reluctant Lindy back to Henry Street, an utterly uninspiring mercantile thoroughfare and shopping mall, because I wanted to hear the musicians playing there. During our pass, they were magnetic enough for me to stop and take in their sound orbits, as we were rushed along toward the bar that was once a church. Compelling sounds ranged from hard rock to traditional Celtic, and they occasionally overlapped in sound gusts. These weren’t mediocre panhandlers with instruments; they played concert-level sets, verging on legitimate admission fees. For whatever reason, on our return they were all gone.

We stopped at a Catholic Church—St. Teresa?—I can’t remember. We simply sat in a pew and absorbed the space and relative silence in the midst of pandemonium outside. The stained glass, the candles, the vortex between worlds….that’s what sacred buildings are. It finally comes down to material reality not being as vast as true reality, so you stop to acknowledge that. I have always felt comfortable in vestal space and silence, more so in churches than synagogues because I have no ethnic baggage to throw  off—and also, after all, Christ was Jewish, a fact so obvious that overlooking or subverting it is a key to Christian dogma. Lindy does churches well because they are in her Episcopalian background—her faith begins there—and she has no negative feelings about Christian politicization and indoctrination, as I do about Judaism.

From Henry, we undertook the long hike back to Connelly Station and the DART. En route, Lindy stopped to buy an Irish Times at a newsstand and ended up in an extended exchange of blarney, a chorus of chant and repeat with the proprietor and another customer. She learned her straight-guy part and enjoyed playing along. It ended by the proprietor saying he would teach her one word of Irish. He said, “Slán agat,” spelled it, and asked her to repeat it.  After she did, he told her, “It means goodbye.” He spoke it again and waved.

On the train we wound through the city, along the coast, back to Glenageary, stop by stop. The view was mesmerizing.

From the station we tried to return to the house by a creative route but encountered multiple cul-de-sacs, making the journey three times its intended length, a setback for tired tourists already gone eight hours. Bad idea, but it’s what one does in strange places—take spontaneous breaks from habitual action.

 

July 5, 2017

Lindy wanted to write in the morning, so I set out on my own to deconstruct some of the nearby words on Orla’s scrawled list: Killiney Hill, Dalkey, Sandycove, the James Joyce tower, and Greystones. According to our host Susan’s house notes, these were all (except for Greystones, at DART distance) in walking distance of her house.

I forgot to mention that we are on the side of Glenageary Road that has house names rather than numbers, a local phenomenon that baffled me from afar, as I tried unsuccessfully to get Susan’s exact address from her. Our side of the street is house names like Radharc na Mara, Gort na Mona, Rowan Rock, and Tinoran.  We derive our in-lieu number from across the street; our address is literally Facing Glenageary Road Upper.

Once again, I made a wrong assumption about direction and was walking the opposite way from Killiney. I was using the cell phone’s map guidance for the first time and visibly departing from its blue path. I turned around. After initially having crossed the nearby rotary at the juncture of Upper and Lower Glenageary Roads where we enacted our Dun Laoghaire muddle the day before, and then having to come back across, each way a street (or pie slice) at a time, I encountered the pedestrian danger of drivers operating on the left side of the road and the right side of their cars. When they come around a corner from your left, they are in your blind spot and you instinctively don’t cover it because you are not used to vehicles there. But you have to. People drive very fast and some are on cell phones or texting.

Finally I got going the right way. It was about two miles to Kiliney Park. Initially I intended only to scout the beginning of the route and give Lindy time before we tried it together. After a bit more than a half mile, I reached the end of Glenageary at Killiney Road. I turned right, up it another half mile to the next right, Killiney Park Road. I decided then, why not go all the way. I could be there in ten minutes, a half hour total? I walked up the road, past the giant Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, which has the major online presence if you try to check out Killiney Hill. Where the road diverged into a path up to the left or a continued street downhill, I queried the driver of a stopped bus, the first I saw—along the walk I was considering a ride if one passed. I learned that he was the only driver on the route, circled once an hour, and you needed a prepaid card or exact change to board. He got off his cell phone to answer my questions, calling me “mate” every phrase or so. He confirmed the path up Killiney Hill, “That way, mate.”

It wasn’t steep by Acadia Park standards, and I got to a quick view over the sea. For the last sector I chatted with a woman named Susan who was walking a dog. She declared herself a retired occupational therapist, an oil painter, and poet, and she gave me enough information on the places on my list to allow me to improvise an itinerary for the rest of our stay here. She had stories about other American tourists, one trying to photograph the mist from Killiney top just to put something on her cell and a guy who told her he had read Ulysses twice in preparation for visiting Dublin. She asked how long he was staying, and he said, “One day.”

The summit was marked by a centuries-old obelisk. When we reached the its spire, Susan explained that the white density, currrently reducing any view to nil, was morning sea mists and would soon be gone. “With luck,” she added, “you can see the mountains of Wales, as I did yesterday.”

Within minutes of my sitting on a rock as she proceeded toward the next summit, Dalkey Hill, the mists cleared, not all the way to Wales but enough to reveal the village below and towns along the coast toward and away from Dublin. DART trains winding on their tracks at Lionel scale gave off a bell, then a sound like crashing surf. They looked vulnerable and cute, a different ambiance from their hefty, wheezing presentation up close.

The hilltop was crowded with dogwalkers, joggers, etc., but no apparent other tourists that early in the day. I perched on the rock for about twenty minutes watching the mist continue to dissolve, until the sea and surf appeared, and Dalkey Island and more towns were revealed. The clearing had a fairy skrying-pool quality common to Iceland also, so I sat in its spell.

I started to head back to Killiney Hill Road to report on my adventure to Lindy, but there were several paths from the top, and I had been talking to Susan, so had not noted the way I came, a typical blunder for me. I tried a trail which soon proved alien, much too wooded. I came back and asked a middle-aged male dogwalker the way back to Killiney Hill Road. Unfortunately I slipped unawares into a Clancy Brothers lyric, calling it Kilkenny Hill Road. He gave me a deadpan sare and said, “There’s no way from here to Kilkenny Hill Road. Sorry.”

Silence and a questioning look from me.

I was starting to say something when he added, “I can direct you to Killiney Hill Road.”

I smiled sheephishly.

He also had a better route than the one I had come on, for I had gone the long way based on my cell phone presuming I was a car. The better path was straight down toward Dalkey Village.

I emerged from the woods at a playground with old-fashioned wooden climbing objects—a whirling knight, a horse-drawn wagon, a plank-like seesaw—plus giant wide flat baskets for swings, capable of holding four and five children at a time, and dangling platforms on which kids floated suspended by wires from a line like a mode of levitation.

En route back to Martinez on street, near everyone I passed greeted me, and I said hello back. When I spoke first, I got back, “Lovely day,” said so fast and in different melodies so that the person was usually past me before I grokked his or words.

 

After lunch Lindy and I set out together. We re-traced my last route, turning toward Dalkey Road rather than up Killiney Hill Road, and hanging out in the playground where we watched children on the wonderful artifacts. Lindy remarked that America has become so liability-conscious it can’t permit a creative playground with lots of wood and rough edges.

Ireland is a land of red-haired cherubs and banshees of all ages, doll faces and pixie energy in children and teens. Here we watched Gaelic children tearing about. On the DART at other times we saw gaggles of teen girls, whispering and giggling in Gaelic, a required school language here, apparently so that fellow riders like us wouldn’t eavesdrop. Some of them looked as though they had strode out of fairy tales her history with their long manes of different shades of red and near-orange. The boys tussled elsewhere in the car.

There was thick sea mist at 2:30 PM, much more than in the morning, and I lamented aloud that Lindy could see little. Even as I spoke, the alembic cleared, magically bit by bit; we could see surf, then islands, then towns. They came into view imperceptibly, were suddenly there, until we could view the outskirts of Dublin.

Younger children chased on the rocks. Older kids stood rapped at the sea from a high rocky peak, a loudspeaker brought to accompany their lyrics.

We circled the obelisk and met its keeper, an old man with an accent so thick we could barely understand him. He confirmed that the mysterious birds were a breed of dove or pigeon. The black-and-white ones ubiquitous on the hill, he said, were magpies, “no different than crows,” he said. “They act the same way and are just as aggressive.” There were plenty of crows too, mingling with the magpies, and he was right about their behavior, though the black-and-white plumage made them special.

 

At the end of the playground Lindy and I debated whether the James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandycove was within walking distance and, if so, by which of three directions and streets available. We decided to ask a passer-by. Like others he engaged in a conversation about his years in the States, as a businessman. He told us that the tower was in Sandycove past Dun Laoghaire, probably too far for walking. He put real thought into our options, then advised continuing down the hill to Dalkey Village and taking the DART back three stops to Dun Laoghaire—we had journeyed that far—and walking from there to the tower. We took him up on it.

We exited the DART not far from where we had gone to Susan’s office the day before and asked an old Joycean-looking guy with a cane where the Joyce tower was. We knew it was down the coast, but which way and how far? After pointing, he startled us with “a mile or two.” We had expected a few blocks. “If you get lost” he added, “ask for forty-four.”

I didn’t understand, so said what I heard.

He shook his head and we repeated the exchange, something lost in translation.

Finally he pointed to his foot: “Forty-foot.”

We didn’t know what he meant, but there was no choice: either look for a cab or walk. We had already done a lot of walking, but we never saw a cab.

The jaunt was basically pleasant, and we took numerous breaks. There was a lot to look at and sniff: heavy seaweed brine, industrial smoke, kids on rocks, dogs chasing in wild circles, poetry written on quays and seawalls, European Union projects elucidated by signs, a gigantic metal statue of a sea-urchin shell that gave off a percussion sound, teen-age boys teasing each other about girls as they romped, raced, and pushed on rocks around us and bumping into us, groups of corresponding animated girls with the complement of Irish types, probably not that different from before the English came. It took the better part of an hour to arrive the round stone building near 4:30; by then we were concerned it might be closed or closing.

We walked through the door into a crowded anteroom. Admission was free and other visitors were signing a guestbook. No worry about closing. Suddenly a vaguely familiar figure popped out and said directly to me, “Is this the second time I encounter you today? I believe I saw you atop Killiney Hill, looking for a way down with an impression you were on Kilkenny.” It was the same guy, and he was wearing a placard declaring that James was the director and docent of this little museum.

“I stumbled into a Clancy Brothers lyric,” I told him, “but how unlikely we meet again so soon.”

“A synchronicity that would have pleased James Joyce,” he declared. “Would you like a tour? Say no if you don’t want. I won’t be offended.”

Of course, we wanted a tour. So did a cinematic young couple that entered behind us. We four were the initial complement, a quickly-captive audience to whom he began a most prolix and theatrical introduction to the museum, mixed with questions, jokes, and riddles directed at us. It was a segue into a sort of Joycean diction and a parody of someone lapsing unintentionally into a spoof of Ulysses. In the process, he determined that the other couple was a guy from Belgium and a woman from Venezuela; they looked and were dressed like fashion models.

First, our self-appointed guide, posed unanswerable questions about Joyce and the tower, declaring that we were representing our respective nations in a game of intelligence. He declared that his own name “James” put him halfway to genius.

No one guessed anything correctly.

The entire performance lasted an hour, as James loved an audience. The role in which he had cast himself was sort of like a pirate in costume on a pirate ship, only the ship was Ulysses. He stayed in character through three floors of the winding tower, and we learned a great deal, though relatively little about Joyce.

The majority of the narrative involved the construction of Martello towers like this in the early 1800s along the Irish coast, meant to deter or fend off Napoleon, who sought a confrontation with the British and saw Dublin as the ideal back door, given that the Irish were also disaffected with foreign rule. The British fortified the coast with Martellos, based on and named after the original, ironically on Corsica, Napoleon’s birthplace, where they found the round fort ingeniously difficult to attack.

We learned details of canon-preparation, firing of cannon balls, defenses against an assault (rifles and scalding oil through gaps and down chutes), the ways the soldiers lived in the building, etc. All of these facts were repeated in variations as we ascended the coil and more people joined our informal tour until we had about a dozen.

The Joycean elements were, of course, the more interesting. The second floor was a reconstruction of Joyce’s last of six nights there after he was invited to stay indefinitely by local poet and wit Oliver St John Gogarty, who had become the tenant of the tower after it was decommissioned. Gogarty already had another guest there, an English lover of things Irish named Samuel Chenevix Trench. Trench elected to speak in Gaelic and could not be understood by his Irish friends, for the language was not yet a required school subject. Joyce was twenty-two, recently back from medical studies on the Continent, beginning his career as a writer. He had just published a broadside poem entitled “The Holy Office,” mocking Gogarty and other Irish writers as ignorant snobs—so there was tension from the get-go. On the fateful sixth night, a story our James told as he turned out the lights and stood in the center of the display, a sleeping Trench woke from a nightmare, thought he saw a black panther emerging from the fireplace, grabbed his gun, and shot at the beast. Then Gogarty took the pistol from him and, calling out, “Leave him to me!” shot and brought down saucepans from their shelf about Joyce’s bed. Joyce took it as disguised reprisal for the broadside and left in the morning, never to return.

It was all reconstructed there: the pans, Gogarty’s cot, the table with its bottles and glasses from an evening of talk, the panther too, plus accoutrements of 1904, the year of these events.

Joyce did not begin writing Ulysses for another decade, and he was in Paris at the time, but its opening scene was set in the tower and loosely replicated his sojourn there at a fictional breakfast.

Guide James knew parts of the chapter by heart, as he recited whole sentences from memory. “Stately plump Buck Mulligan” was Gogarty. Haines was Trench. Joyce was Stephen Dedalus. The point of the tower as a museum was not Joyce at large but Ulysses and its opening chapter where it met the tower. I doubt that our James could have quoted Ulysses beyond it.

He proceeded to tell many more stories, some about Joyce; for instance, the early publication of Ulysses in France and the U.S. (the latter delayed by censorship); the arrogance of Joyce to think that the city of Dublin, if destroyed, could be reconstructed from his text; the role of Samuel Beckett as his secretarial aid for the writing of Finnegan’s Wake and as a prospective spouse for one of Joyce’s daughters, an apparent bluff on Beckett’s part to get to be around master. More of James’ stories were about the history of the swimming spot below (Forty-Foot Beach—aha!), how his own feminist older sister with a group of her friends liberated it from exclusively naked male bathing, the architecture of the adjacent building mirroring and honoring the tower, and another Martello visible down the coast.

James clearly adored Joyce and, even more, the sense of language, local geography, and Irishness that he embodied in his work. After we descended the tower, I asked him about his own career; he was mainly a business executive for American pharmaceutical companies in Holland. Retired, he had returned to his native village and embraced its Martello.

I had given him my card at the outset, so he asked me about my work. I joked that I was anti-Joycean but that that made Joyce relevant to me because you can’t be “anti”-something without being engaged in it. He asked how so. I tried, “What’s interior in Joyce is exterior for me, and what’s exterior for Joyce is interior for me. But we’re both experimentalists, if you will allow.” I briefly tried to explain William Carlos William, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, and Black Mountain.

“I think of Hemingway as the anti-Joyce,” he countered, ignoring much of what I had said. “If twenty words will do, Joyce wrote a hundred and Hemingway three.”

“That’s along a different parameter, and I’m more with Joyce there.”

“How about Beckett?” he declared. “Wasn’t he an anti-Joyce too? I feel that he was reacting against Joyce,”

“I think that he and Joyce had a similar reference point and ground, but they went different places with it.”

“What did you mean?” Lindy asked as I recounted the conversation during the long walk back to the station.

“Nihilistic surrealism, I guess.”

My closing words to James were: “Till our third time.”

“Till the third, good sir.”

Following Lindy’s and my exit at Glenageary station, we made a point of no detours this time. Lindy had walked eight miles by then, me twelve. Great what not having a car does!

 

July 6, 2017

I am aware that I have gotten into a level of detail that I promised myself I wouldn’t. Even so, I am omitting a lot. We’ll see how it goes….

The most powerful effect, the biggest impact of Ireland remains unconscious: deep sleep and dreams every night without waking for eight, nine hours—much deeper sleep than I have had for years—and a whole different range of dreams. There is a shift in waking consciousness too, having nothing explicitly to do with extant Ireland, more a fresh tier of tracking, a change in phenomenology, an upsurge of deep images, a reduction in malaises, both physical and emotional. But it’s not purely upbeat and benign because, in an inescapable yin-yang cycle, the next thresholds and challenges replace the resolutions of those they morph out of. I am not meaning to valorize or inflate Ireland, more speak to a shift in vibration corresponding to my own changing frequency.

 

This morning I decided to check out the vocal artist with the most CDs in the house, half Susan’s collection: Cliff Richard. I loved his stuff. Like Reggae John Holt (another favorite of mine), he has been a pop superstar in England, pretty much unknown in the U.S.—and still going strong. Richard is post-Elvis, pre-Beatles with the sound of both—John Lennon said that early Cliff Richard and the Shadows was the only interesting thing in English music when he began. Richard is like rediscovering an alternative fifties and early sixties with songs that were never released. I don’t have an iPod now, as you know, but I put pretty much three out of every four Cliff Richard bands in my iTunes file. It was like finding a Rodriguez who was never really lost.

Late partial retraction: this only applies to the Elvis and Beatles years. Once you hit the disco era, Richard is still singing, but it’s Saturday Night Fever shlock and totally uninteresting. After I put 75% of the early stuff on my computer (especially from Forty Golden Greats), I put a perfect zero from the later CDs. They were a disastrous shift from effortless rock greatness to overproduced efforted rock mediocrity. Tom Petty, I think, would agree.

 

Today we took the DART into central Dublin in order to visit the National  Archaeology Museum of Ireland. We picked out this one venue as our single-day limit. There is a temptation to try to pack in tourist sites as collectors of experience, but that soon becomes a hollow exercise, a mere affect of accumulation in a capitalism-defined meaning set. I say this not to be holier-than-thou but to confess my own tendency to think that if we are not logging the key venues during our stay, we are squandering the trip and the effort and expense that went into it. Another “Be Here Now” warning sign that should be posted on the DART and along tourist trajectories.

The museums in Ireland are free. The best part of that State generosity is that it allows you to be there on the terms of the event, relieving any sense that you have to overstay your visit to get your money’s worth. You have no fiscal investment. Even if you did, it shouldn’t impose maxing out venues—after all, museum entree is a minor expense—but it plays at some level, at least for me. “Free” allows freedom, an open-ended context/mood while viewing.

On the other hand, “free” means a mob scene: teen tours from Italy, Spain, and Portugal (my guess of nationalities from the chatter of the kids) abducting the space. It wouldn’t have been so oppressive if they had at least been involved in the exhibits. Almost to a one, they weren’t. They weren’t even paying lip service looking as they walked in queues. They were engaged with each other, involved in raucous dramas, pranks, routines: boy-boy, girl-girl, boy-girl theatrics. You got the feeling that if a quasi-educational pretext hadn’t justified this expensive excursion, they could have carried out everything of importance to them in a schoolyard back home. They were unpleasantly shrill and rambunctious. Collectively they flipped the museum into camp with themselves as the most dominant exhibit. How could hand axes, gold bracelets, gold dress clamps, and old textiles, even carefully produced gold leaf, in their glassed silence, compete or break through the commotion?

The DART ride there and walk through the streets was a significant part of the event. One is trying to see and track the mundane reality around which the tourist hoopla is wrapped. I found myself looking for where actual people lived and moved—as basic as that. The scan changed what I observed through the five or six stops leading across the canal and boat basin into central Dublin.

The most compelling exhibit was that of intact bodies discovered in peat bogs, pulled up by cranes during drainage-ditch expansion. Initially thought to be recent murder victims, perhaps targets of Catholic or Protestant paramilitaries who had been known to dump victims in bogs, they shifted status from criminology to archaeology. Not only had the statute of limitations run out but their entire culture with its rules no longer existed.

The Clonycavan Man had been murdered and disemboweled, his skull split, his chest smacked repeatedly with a blunt object, sometime during the Fourth Century B.C. The body in its case was haunting. There were still eyes and a facial expression, though probably not his. He still had his hair, and it was done in a Mohawk style with pine resins, gels, and oils. His fingernails were manicured, so he was probably nobility, killed for some reason we have no business knowing. Otherwise he was like a flattened piece of gold-gilded leather, a fossil of what was once a man and a soul. The fossil’s power was only partly its transmission of a human reality that was no longer present, it was that its physical reality was from the Bronze Age, a confirmation of our source and existence then.

One thinks: “Why him?” Why anyone? Why me?” Of his contemporaries, he alone got excavated, his body recovered by a machinery and purpose beyond his capacity to imagine.

Other bog men under glass has their own looks, more skeletal and eroded—masks and costumes made of bodies. After these, everything else in the museum was a bit stale, though depictions of Irish battles with invading Vikings around 1000 AD had the resonance of what it would have been like to experience ships full of warriors descending on one’s village. We are very far from that and not so far at all. Technology disguises ongoing Earth’s ongoing imperial entitlements.

Down the street was the National Library of Ireland. We had noted when passing it en route to the museum that it had a current William Butler Yeats exhibit, so we stopped after the National Museum and got sucked in for more than an hour. The curation was complex and operating on many levels with videos, artifacts, hand-written texts, recorded voices from the past, libraries, posters, and the like. One could sit in one enclosed area and listen to Yeats’ poems being read aloud, some by the author himself, while images were projected on the walls. Separate exhibits featured Yeats’ politics and relationship to the 1916 revolt, his liaisons with women (most notably the unrequited one with his muse Maud Gonne), and in two different areas his occult studies, including his initiation into the Golden Dawn.

Yeats initially decried and then celebrated the Easter 1916 rising in one of his major poems: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” Once the uprising transcended personal connections and became ceremonial, Yeats could speak for the country as a poet. It no longer mattered that he thought the leader, Patrick Pearse, a suicidal fool.

Maud Gonne bewitched Yeats (the word “besotted” was used more than once in the exhibits)—she was six-feet-tall in an era when tall women were around five foot five. Some of the depth of passion in his work was traced to his attempts to reach her with the magic of language.

More significantly, Yeats trained in the occult, drew Cabalistic talismans, painted the Tree of Life, studied rituals meant to break through the barrier between worlds, read tarot cards, engaged with his wife in automatic writing, and made the mystery of the universe his life’s study. Yet it rarely breaks through in the poems. “The Second Coming,” however, is a clear-cut revelation, like nothing else of Yeats’ or of its time. To me it is equally a piece of interdimensional transmission or automatic writing and confirmation of the esoteric level the poet reached. He expressed his reckoning not in occult terminology but the musical roar of the secular world. Very little else in Yeats’ written expression confirms the fruition of his practice. It was somewhat unrequited. But this poem is absolute proof he had done some magic.

The exhibit was a chance to be in an hour-long Yeats spell. Lindy and I each identify with him and his work more than with Joyce. I could see myself in the man—my own psychic studies, my tarot deck and time of reading fortunes and skrying with the cards, my ambivalent flirtations and engagements with mystical and nether worlds, my own Maud Gonnes, my political ambivalences culminating in mythological transformations of civic events.

Yeats as a young man looks like young men I hung out with at the same age. His creation of the twelve-line “Lake Isle of Innisfree” from viewing a fountain in a store window is something I would have done: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” What did he hear: the bee-loud glade, the evening of linnet’s wings, the lake water lapping. By comparison, Joyce seems a bit of a wise guy: frat bully and jock.

“Yeats” is the name we associate with the poet’s work, but it is possible that the more “rabbinical” lineage was that of the poet’s mother, Susan Pollexfen. The Yeats opus took on a different flavor when I viewed them as Pollexfen; the same texts changed.

I will end this day’s segment with “The Second Coming.” Most of you likely know it, but you can’t hear it too often these days. It is one of those texts made more of energy than words, so its meaning continues to change occultly in quantum-uncertainty states as it meets changing times.

 

We stayed on the DART past Glenageary to get a look at the rest of the line, all the way to termination at Greystones. That meant five more stops including Dalkey, and the last two, Bray and Greystones, were far apart, as the DART ran precariously along cliffs over the sea. Down below in coves and cliffs and jagged rocks were huge numbers of sea birds, the grey and black stone coated with white dung.

Greystones turned out to be a wealthy town, likely a popular upscale destination from Dublin. It felt a bit like Martha’s Vineyard, as we walked the swish main drag. We went in part to visit a restaurant called The Happy Pear. It wasn’t nearly as yummy or legitimately alternative as Cornucopia, where we had lunch both days in Dublin, but it was a creative vegetarian dining spot.

We had intended to get down to the beach, but it was late in the afternoon and we were tired. It had taken well over an hour to get from Pearse Station in Dublin to Greystones, so instead of attempting to find the beach with Happy Pear take-out food, we sat in a park and watched a group of teens conduct a football (soccer) practice. What struck me was how much it was like a baseball fungo or football or basketball scrimmage in the U.S. in style, tone, and repartee. The rhythm, skills, and terminology were all different, and these were entangled with each other. The phrase that stood out for me was, “You menace!” It had to do with an inaccurate but forceful kick or boot straight up in the air. The guys, of mixed ethnicity, were acrobats with the ball, and it was pure anthropology to gauge how football skills here would be football or basketball one in the U.S. We are all from the bog, and we have our moment.

Now Yeats—tarot cards shuffling, Hanged Man and Tower—admit Donald Trump, Tayyip Erdogan, and Kim Jong-un to the apocalypse as they once admitted Stalin, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein. I am not being intentionally political here. You can throw in JFK and the Clintons too:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

That says it all!

 

July 4-7, 2017

Some reader comments:

“A cautious traveller appears and disappears, is attracted to and departs from the illusion of its own evolution, eternally nurturing the present with uncertainty.” Ed Lueddeke, Carmel, California

 

“Good to keep as brief as possible, ha ha.” Susie Doyle, Lindy’s sister in Tacoma, Washington

 

“Great that you’re taking the local trains.” Marilyn Handel, Somesville, Maine

 

“Yeats, along with perhaps Blake, are the dual foundations upon which my own poetics is built. Your suggestion that the ‘Second Coming’ is an occult or inter-dimensional transmission is really interesting. To be honest, I’d also think of Joyce’s Wake as a text along those lines: polyglot polyphony, the weaving of the voices.” James Cook, Rochester, New York

 

July 7, 2017

We are now in Galway and once again facing the reality of the trip, of being tourists in the middle of a nowhere that is somewhere. Maybe not strangers in a strange land but certainly away from home base in a land where our habits, reassurances, and daily patterns don’t apply. The poet Robert Kelly used to have a poster in his living room: “Tomorrow possible because it is.” The notion also applies to place: Here possible because it is.

There is a feeling of: why are we in this odd town and not safe and happy at home? Does the trip make sense, to have spent so much money to be somewhere uncomfortable where it is unclear even what to do or what we want to do?

What specifically is difficult?

Crammed into a tiny room in a commercial bed and breakfast after having a whole house for the first five days.… Now we’re part of the tourist industry, commodities to the weary lady who processes check-ins, check-outs, runs the vacuum cleaner, makes the bed, and produces the junk-food breakfast that is sure to appear tomorrow (I see her boxes of powdered milk and sugar). The place is high end for Galway accommodations (at least according to Rick Steves’ guide), but the tiny inn has no common area, just bedrooms and a dining zone.

We repeated our geographical dyslexia this afternoon around 3:00 (15:00) when, after arriving and resting briefly, we set out with curiosity and apprehension in the direction of Galway Center and Eyre Square, said to be ten minutes walking distance, in hopes of at least a passably charming small city. We found ourselves walking alongside fast-moving traffic for twenty minutes, past shopping centers that could have been anywhere on the planet. The only distinctive item was a greyhound-racing stadium (close enough to our B & B that I can hear the roar of the crowd as I type). Hard to believe that people are cheering for running dogs, but people are actually cheering for their money. I’d rather cheer for laundry (as cynics of pro sports say we do when a favorite player is traded and becomes a foe).

We had gone in the wrong direction and eventually got to iconic Eyre Square the very long way around—forty-five minutes instead of ten. It was a perfect Zocalo but occupied by such a dense, kinetic tourist mob that it was hard not to feel alienated as if from a mass hoax or scam—the industry itself with its tour buses surrounding all four quarters and the streets leading to them. I recalled the bargains on websites behind all this activity. Happily, the greenbelt of the square was large enough to accommodate everyone, so we found a spot and enjoyed dueling guitars, general din, and graceful, small, gull-like birds that danced over us. It was a matter again of settling into reality—We Are Here Now. It was never tourism as pleasure but as puzzle and challenge.

We got up and walked the various streets around Eyre Square. I began to worry (unnecessarily as it turned out) about where the f— are we going to eat? Our walk was a scouting mission, as we peeked into what there was—only bars and pubs in an initial reconnoiter along one quadrant—as I tried to make my peace with a combination of traditional Irish stew and Irish music and hope I could handle the ambiance, claustrophobia, and heavy whiskey stench. I have never been an avid consumer of alcohol. Now I am nauseated by the very smell.

We might attempt a pub another night, but it’s not where things led today. We turned down a side street to a spot that was almost an alley or cul de sac but along which bottlenecked traffic was backed up leaving town. We stared at the menu of a French place behind a locked gate; it was called Le Petit Pois and pricey compared to pubs but listed free-range chicken and attractive vegetarian items—and not super-pricey. Le Petit Pois was where we came back for dinner at 6:15 after dismissing other decent possibilities for various reasons. We needed a break from any further difficulty. Dinner ended up costing $85 US with the tip, and that included an exotic apricot crumble dessert with almond mascarpone and home-made apricot ice cream. Yes, it was a French restaurant in an Irish town, but it was frequented by Irish locals, and the food was worth it, especially a thick kohlrabi soup along the lines of potato soup.

After our first glance at Le Petit Pois, Lindy interviewed a well-dressed young man sitting at an outdoor cocktail table by a hotel in solitary contemplation. He directed us to Shop Street, a couple of blocks past Eyre Square in an untried direction, as the place for better restaurants and quirkier shops. We cut across to it and walked its three-block length. Ranging from antiques to novelties and featuring painted signs rather than industrial Palatino, it was a relief from the tourist civilization in the square.

 

I have been thinking all day about the decline of civilization. It sounds kitsch and banal, but I have had a particular angle into it that began with our cab ride from Martinez to the Hertz Rental office on South Circular Drive around Dublin. The driver—I wish I had taken down his name—was a man born the same year as us (1944) and a real Irishman in the central-casting and human sense—educated, philosophical, working-class, elegant, kind, funny, a tad gruff, intimate without being intrusive. He was a rare local we met who hadn’t even been to the States. The farthest he had gone was the Canary Islands. He had no wish to see America, except he promised his grandson that they would drive Route 66 together—“No women allowed!”—when he was 75. The boy said, “If you can still drive then, Grand-dad!”

After pulling in to the address across the street (142 Glenageary) where I ran to intercept him, he joked that I should I hop in and have the benefit of the ride, about four seconds long. I almost got in the driver’s side. Then after we loaded the suitcases, I moved toward the correct left of the driver, and Lindy laughed and said, “You’re not driving, Rich,” and then she remembered.

The cabbie had worked accounting and bursar sorts of jobs for the government during a long career, retired, and was bored with after two years, and decided to drive a cab. He knew literature, politics, and sociology, though that was implicit over a wide range rather than any particular pearl of wisdom. The discussion I most remembered was after he queried me about the topics of my writing, he announced I was just the man for a bunch of questions he had. It started with why humans had never returned to the Moon, given that once we got there many times, the goal should have been to put down a dome and build a city. I suggested that a huge jump in economics and technology was required, and we agreed that the world had become too corporate since, not interested in long-term planning, just short-term profit and political expediency.

That led to discussing Mars and whether it was habitable. I said that there was no air to breath—zero—every breath had to be artificial. He said that people going there would probably learn to live with that reality: spacesuits. They wouldn’t expect to come back; they were going to colonize.

From there it got more interesting because he grounded it back down on the present Earth and wondered how fast we were moving now, other than the cab’s motion, which was trivial, given that we were at rest at a light. You had to add the speed of the Earth on its axis and in orbit around the Sun, the speed of the Sun pulling its retinue of planets, asteroids, centaurs, meteors, and other jink through the Milky Way, the speed of the Milky Way in its supergalactic cluster, and the speed of the supergalaxy in this sector of the universe.

He didn’t know this precise hierarchy in detail, but he had the basic idea down. “All this motion,” he said, “and we can feel none of it. Does that make sense? Does it seem right?” He shook his head as we negotiated traffic through parts of residential Dublin I had wanted to see all along. He concluded it was crazy, but here we were. When asked to put a number on it, I couldn’t remember cumulatively, but I guessed it was something like 450,000 miles per hour. He shook his head in wonder.

The convergence of that discussion with the one about the habitability of the Moon and Mars led to our shared speculation about other life in the universe. That gave me an opportunity to discourse on curvature as a basic feature of our plane of reality, more so than matter or energy. “That’s why everything is circling and in orbit. It’s expressing an original state of curvature.” I made an amateur attempt to tie that to string theory as part of a discussion of the alien life in the universe being located on other planes connected by tiny, tiny fibers.

Another discussion involved aging. He thought Lindy and I looked young for our years and surmised, among other options, that the fact we didn’t drink played a role. He thought you could see the alcohol consumed in a person like tree rings.

As we continued the assessment, I teased that he was older than us because he was born in March as compared to Lindy three days ago and me in November.

He coached us on left-side driving and promised we would get the knack. On departure, I gave him my card and he said he would look up my journal and critique it. If I hear from him, I’ll let you know.

I have nothing against cabbies from Pakistan or Bangladesh, nor for that matter slick neophytes cruising for Uber. But this guy was literature, civilization, native wisdom, and culture, and it’s dying. When ISIS blows up Assyrian statues and smashes artifacts, it is not just speaking for its caliphate, it is speaking for modernity, for Amazon.com too—the replacement of history and meaning with The Idea, the Algorithm. For ISIS it is sharia. For Amazon it is an expanding statistics-based empire. Neither side realizes that they are allies in collusion in an unacknowledged attempt to obliterate Yeats, Joyce, literature itself, and this journal from the face of the Earth and insert their own sterile regimes. Donald Trump, in conversation with wily Vladimir Putin this very day, does not recognize his own collaboration with Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism (as he wants to call it) in the attempt to create an all-purpose fascist state. They want Allah; for him Allah is the sum of all currencies and bank accounts. They want Mecca; for him Mecca is Mar-A-Largo and Trump Tower—Babel either way. Today’s militias in Alabama and Idaho are tomorrow’s jihadists. They all want their own caliphate.

I read yesterday that Mills College fired tenured professors of philosophy, history, and physics, ethnic studies, and their poet Steven Ratcliffe, etc., as moves toward what they called financial stability; i.e., in order to fund more MBA-type courses and hire more coaches. This is not an incidental matter. The distance from Mills College or al-Raqqa to the streets of Dublin is imponderable, but one of Tim Morton’s hyperobjects is falling like unseen rain on all of us. The same implacable civilizational dissolution that brings us Trump and Brexit, suicide bombings and Tea Party anti-intellectualism, means to make that cab driver as extinct as the Bog Man. It will ignore tenure and erase not just our works but those of Melville, Blake, Bob Dylan, and Shakespeare.

It’s a sad time—so when I stare at mobs of teen tours and wandering upscale international tourists (ourselves included) in a world of this ilk, I am brought back to something my friend Ellias Lonsdale, psychic and astrologer, said to me on the phone the day before we left: “At some in the history of existence, we will fathom what’s going on now; it makes no sense. Some bizarre twist has been put on things—and who can track it, who can make it congruent again?”

Once deposited at Hertz on South Circular Drive, we had to deal with the driving issue head-on. I was the guinea pig. We did left side of the road almost twenty years ago in England and Scotland, but it seemed totally novel all over again. Plus, this was a shift car, a white Ford Focus, diesel fuel required (and emphasized emphatically by an employee, with only 60 miles on it (we were its first renters). Automatics cost twice as much because that’s what tourists want, and they can get away with this price differential: many of them can’t drive a shift or don’t want to.

In the parking lot, with little maneuvering room I confronted four things simultaneously: shift, shift lever to the left of me, driver on the right side of the car, traffic on the left side of the road—and a fifth issue: mounting and setting the GPS, and then reading it while driving. The lot attendant, a young man from the Middle East, gave me a cue: forget everything else; just remember this: you yourself are in the center of the road. That tip came in handy at critical moments for the whole of our stay in Ireland.

Then he had to help me find reverse. It was operated by a separate ring under the gear handle, I guess to prevent it being accidentally engaged while in forward motion.

The initial turn left into traffic was a bit surreal and light-headed-inducing, and then I had to stay in my lane as the GPS called for continuous turns en route to the highway to Galway. The hardest were the ones to the right because there was a strong tug to go into the opposing right lane.

The other difficult thing was locating the right and left sides of the car. That was where I courted the most danger, both en route to the highway and on it. I tended to think I was over the dotted white line and about to engage traffic to my right, so I put the bulk of the car out of its lane to the left where it risked encountering parked cars, side-view mirrors, bicyclists, and entering and exiting traffic on the highway. Lindy told me fifty or more times to get over before we made it to our bed & breakfast three hours later. I finally had to override the optical illusion that I was too far to the right and bring my imaginary vehicle back toward the road’s center.

I enjoyed the challenge, though Lindy was a wreck. Between worrying that I would hit someone or something, that I wasn’t in the right gear, and that I didn’t have my foot on the right pedal to stop, she wanted and dreaded her turn, which will be another day.

The two and a half hours on the highway were relatively easy, with passing trucks the main challenge. I didn’t want to risk being out of my lane at high speed and other massive objects around (curvature aside). Entering the vicinity of Galway imposed a host of new challenges simultaneously. We missed a turn because the GPS’ sorry attempt at Gaelic was different from the road signage. We were in two traffic jams where our car killed out and I provoked horn-honking and road rage when I was unable to get it going at a just-turned green light. I also came precariously close to the sidewalk and barely caught myself on a right turn from going into oncoming traffic. This was not leisurely, think-your-own thoughts driving. This was highway zen.

The sun sets late here in the north. It is still daylight nearing 10:30.

 

July 8, 2017

We spent the day around Galway, drifting and improvising. Our bed & breakfast is a fifteen-minute walk into town (as long as we walk in the right direction). After breakfast, we stopped at the Irish Tourist Center, waited our turn. Apatient, knowledgeable young man provided a string of explanations, clarifications, tips about not only Galway but potential destinations for an undecided part of our itinerary, plus a marked map. We may only follow up a small few of his ideas, but it is useful to have a frame of reference. What to do after Galway, Ennis, and Dingle—our itinerary of confirmed reservations—as well as what to do in Galway itself, were the main issues. After Dingle, we were going to spend a day or two in the west, a precise location to be determined, then go to County Meath for four nights. But Susan, our exchange partner in Dublin who offered her house in Crossakiel for that period, expressed late concerns and reservations: she just bought the place in January and now had become worried that it was too isolated and unequipped, and had no sources of help anywhere nearby since she hadn’t met the not-so-close neighbors yet. She asked us to have a “think” about whether we really wanted to go there.

Our best option seemed a combination of spending more days in Western Ireland and then taking our time getting to Portstewart in the North where we had set up a simultaneous home exchange for two weeks—Roisin McCaughan  is coming to Portland. At the Tourist Center, we not only got a list of possible alternatives countrywide but directions locally to the Farmers’ Market and a list of local training sessions of Irish music this weekend.

Lindy was carrying her backpack with her computer because she wanted to work in an Internet café and have me explore on my own. En route there, we crossed Eyre Square, a block after the Tourist Office, and were drawn to the busker with guitar singing at the Square microphone. There is usually someone performing at it but on the level (for our taste anyway) of—stop for fifteen seconds, get enough, move on. This guy drew our interest magnetically the way song and voice can haunt. We sat and then moved closer.

He was covering American songs, all of which were familiar but not all of which I can name. He had sophisticated voicing and phrasing, the vibe of someone with soul who also knew what he was doing. He did a spectacular job with “The Gambler” (made famous by Kenny Rogers), better by my standards than the hit version—You’ve gotta know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run….” I liked his “Poncho and Lefty,” the Townes Van Zandt song covered by Willie Nelson but less well.

Lindy thought he might be American and looked familiar. He did seem like dozens of guys in our life all the way back to 1966 Ann Arbor days: medium tall, thin, dark very curly black hair, middle-aged, eyes close together, furrowed brow, sharp features, a slightly worried, uncertain look. During a break between songs we went up to talk and he proved as Irish as his heavy brogue, not always easy to understand. His answers were warm but terse and with unfamiliar phrasing as well as pronunciation. His name is Michael O’Connor. We quickly bought one of his two CDs, the new one called “Market Plaice” (sic), not of covers of others’ songs but his own. I found this later online in a local paper:

“The new album’s title track Market Plaice is based on how a fish feels, breathing its last breath in a market stall and relates to animal cruelty. Another song is Sanctimonious-ness, for which he won the John Arden award at NUIG when he wrote it as a poem. It’s based on religion—Mike goes to Mass chiefly for the music but has ‘good time for God.’ Pet Named Lyrics asserts that the music business is more cut-throat than butchering.”

Being a butcher was Michael’s career for more than twenty years before he took up music full-time fifteen years ago. He told us he drew his own work from a mixture of Irish ballads, John Prine, Johnny Cash, and other American pop. Later I played part of the CD and like it a lot: original pop and folk in a traditional Irish context lyricized in brogue with an off-melodic sound that is almost like a character playing himself in street opera. It sounds like nothing else I know, ranging from haunting to mundane, for instance, “Marrying…we made the mystery, / because there’s something / about mar-ry-ing. / Marrying is / cause to marry, /constant worry, / but I wouldn’t be / mar-rying / in a hur-ry . / ’cause marrying, you see, could leave you in / mis-ery, / ’cause there’s something about / mar-rry-iiinng / mar-rry-ing.”

That kind of dialectic banter punctuated our conversation which had a curious drift to it in which he seemed to answer one way and then another. For instance, he said he has a brother in the States, in San Francisco, “ocean side,” and wondered what we thought of the area. We commented and asked if he thought of going. “Oh, I’ve been. Four times.” The play was either his natural dialogue or an indication of lightly playing with us.

He said he’d be singing till one, an hour and a half off, so I told him I might be back. After we walked off, Lindy described him as “wistful.” Best single word for his presence and music. More wistful than sad. Serious, dense, and with soul.

 

After rejecting three establishments as too noisy or claustrophobic, Lindy chose a place called Café Temple, a ways down St. Augustine Street from Eyre Square. It was as much a social-justice, eco-gathering spot as a café, but quite spacious and compatible, as it spread into the indoor part of a mall.

Leaving her there, I went off on my own, looking for the Farmers’ Market, and quickly found that Galway Town down to the River Corrib was far vaster than in the direction of our B&B or than yesterday cued us. I went down Quay Street to the Wolfe Tone Bridge, walked along the water, passed a small waterfall, gardens, parks, saw long eels as well as good-sized fish among the underwater plants in the shallow waterway that ran on the other side of my path. It was pleasant, sustained by the riversides’s feng shui. My only problem was that my now map showed I was headed away from the Farmers’ Market, and I did want to find it. When I tried to circle back by a different route, I thought I was still six or eight blocks away was even trying anymore, when I found myself right in the middle of it. That’s so typical of how things go when you’re a tourist: you look painstakingly and unsuccessfully. You give up and there you are!

At first it seemed like commercial crafts, no food, but it kept winding and expanding around a church with a “mediaeval cities” feel to include a large display of local fish on ice with a rich salt smell, vegetable and fruit stands, two bakeries (from the most notable of which I bought an organic spelt-rye loaf and a blueberry muffin), wools, Irish linens, clothing, Claddagh rings.

As I headed back toward Café Temple, or at least where I thought it was, I saw lots of busking: child musicians playing traditional Irish tunes, women clogging and step-dancing to spontaneous crowds, and many other performers, male and female, traditional and punk, including a girl with painted hair dressed like David Bowie and singing his songs. Hordes of tourists included groups of teens dressed in the same blue or yellow shirts. I was continuously immersed in a visually and auditorily alive landscape.

I eventually made my way back to Eyre Park, Michael O’Conner still going at 1:10. After he finished a song, I walked up to chat some more. He said it was his last number, but then it wasn’t because he offered to play me one of his own. I sat in the grass, an audience of one, and listened. It was about celiacs needing a special sort of dough. After he finished, I remarked that a butcher with celiac was almost an oxymoron. “But it’s a metaphor,” he said, “double meaning. Dough is ‘money’ dough.”

“Oh! But do you have celiac?”

“Thought I did. Don’t.”

I asked him for some ideas about places to hear music and, as the conversation segued in and out of his suggestions, he reminded me of my half-brother Jon, dead at his own hands in 2005. Lindy confirmed later that he looked like Jon, same cameo somehow. But it was more than resemblance. He carried a similar edge to my brother but a more functional version: Irish, lower-class, not an intellectual, knew enough to have a hard calling and keep himself alive. Being around him brought back Jon’s presence and I had a feeling that something psychic and beyond me was in visitation—the energy that was Jon had found a way to check in and say a proxy hello.

 

After I reconnected with her at Café Temple, Lindy and I went back to the Farmers’ Market, lingered at artisan stalls, tried the cake and bread samples at the bakery I had patronized—pear breads, pineapple coconut cakes, various spelt blends, and delicious chocolates and lemons. We walked along the river at greater length than I had, sat beside it for a while watching pedestrians. The astonishingly diverse lot included toddlers with ice cream cones pressed in bliss-trance all over their mouths and faces, dancing female tots in costumes, red-headed brothers holding hands, and then their doppelgangers next, pummelling each other. There was a full range of languages, dress styles, tattoos, lettering on shirts, and backpacks.

It took a lot of energy to get back to Eyre Square, trading off on Lindy’s backpack and there we plopped down, in a different sector, because six young men with instruments had set them in the grass and were getting ready to play. They were apparently known because a small following had gathered on stone steps and under trees. These guys were fabulous, so we stayed a half hour in the grass, then watched from the steps. I imagined them as university students from the local university, though I don’t know that. One was a central-casting hipster with requisite look: beard, cap, jiving and bouncing in place, soking weed. Each of the six seemed from a different band and nationality; they were a motley bunch, but bands are until they play. Their instruments were base, drum, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and what might have been an oboe, and they produced what I, as a non-expert, would call a combination of New Orleans gospel, high jazz, and Matthias Duplessy “Crazy Horse,” converting their instruments to unconventional percussions and unlikely interactions at times. If any of my videos come across, know that they were shot from the steps with most of the audience behind me. I may also have to send them separately.

In many ways, it was a perfect moment—where we wanted to be, i.e., nowhere—relaxed, engaged, in Galway, Oreland. Children played in the fountain beside us, taking great pleasure in crawling over spouts and finding ways to wrap themselves around them. It was a fountain made more for kid-play than civic landscaping. “I could watch children playing in a fountain all day,” Lindy said.

 

Our slow adjusting to the time-zone shift plus the delayed sunset make for late evenings. After dinner on Shop Street at ten, we had the weary gumption to find our way to an Irish Cultural Center called Aras na nGael on Dominick Street. I say “gumption” because we had to walk eight or ten blocks in twilight, some of them semi-deserted, cross a bridge over the river, and make our way through raucous carousing crowds, mostly male, to a dark alley where we found only locked doors. On advice of a female pedestrian who looked carefully at our list of training sessions from the tourist office, she sent us walking into a courtyard where, in a pub-like setting, we entered a small jam session of twelve musicians, seven men, five women. The audience was about eight, including us.

The players ignored us, working on different melodies and themes among themselves with the leader indicating who started each time, a different person in rotation. Some of the women played long thin flutes (which I later discovered are called simply whistles); other musicians had violins or fiddles; there was a banjo and other wind instruments. The music was low-key, repetitive, and unfinished, but it was an actual sound without dramatic amping or instrumentation, the commercialized that was coming out of pubs: like butterflies and crickets instead of a proverbial wall of sound. Sound boomed out of countless bars advertising traditional Irish music, as we returned in the long route to our bed & breakfast at the opposite edge of town, nothing like light, mysterious, primeval themes in a quiet space. The twelve said, in effect, this is what it is, and it is okay, all by itself.

It always has been, and the times haven’t changed. We were lucky. Afterwards I thought of traditional Irish music like reggae, the same theme with infinite possibilities, states of uncertainty, and variations.

 

July 9, 2017

Chilly day, light rain, after bright sunshine yesterday. The weather changed our plans. No Michael O’Connor on Eyre Square, though we had arranged to meet him there and hear some of his own songs.

We didn’t set out until early afternoon with a goal of maybe exploring the other side of the river. We never got that far. The hike down to the bridge in the drizzle led, unexpectedly, to Galway City Museum on the river, and we decided to check it out. At first glance on entering, it looked as though it might provide a quaint exhibit of local history and artifacts, fifteen minutes worth at most, but it opened out into a significant cavern of curation. We did not plan on three interesting floors, each of them very different. We spent almost two hours.

The main item of interest on the ground floor was a touch screen on which one could press icons on a map of modern Galway and see that zone of Mediaeval Galway—not only see it but be taken through a detailed 3-D reconstruction of it, street by street, through gates, over walls, and around the shore in a super-realistic videogame-like reality. The river had water moving in it and Viking-like ships of the era rocking, even a “live” mouse on one of the barrels on the dock. Smoke poured from stone chimneys. The main sense the exhibit left me with was how Galway was a classic Mediaeval walled city in which “inside the wall” was a difference universe from “outside the wall.” But a living cell, Galway not only had an exterior wall but rings of continuous and discontinuous interior walls, all represented in minute detail in the moving display. There was so much stone also because centuries-ago fires had led them to stop building with wood.

Contemporary Galway arose from an English-Norman fortification after 1000 AD in territory of competitive Irish kings. Basically, the museum’s first floor established Galway as a Gaelic homeland to which the British came and imposed their own authority, taxation, protection, and commerce, accelerating Western Ireland’s transition out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. The second floor skipped ahead to the role of Galway in the 1916 uprising and World War II (with a side tribute to Galway’s championship football teams). The third floor was a modern museum of the sea with maps and interactive exhibits, including a microscope that projected samples you put under it onto a screen. The museum emphasized oceanography, underwater geography, Ireland’s territorial limits, species interactions, fisheries, shipwrecks, and litter (with an indication of how long it would take it to be absorbed, from a couple of weeks for an apple core to 600 years for some fishing twine on a reel—450 for a disposable diaper).

 

The aspect of travel that struck me today was the music of voices, the sound of brogues mixed with foreign dialects, a local father with two little boys who walked with us for a way as we chatted, his heart-felt “welcome to Ireland,” the songlike quality of directions given when strangers were queried, almost always in bardic excess.

I have tried to be upbeat, but Lindy and I are also critiquing ourselves on the trip itself. After the museum, we were too tired to do anything more, yet depressed by having to return to the room. This bed & breakfast is claustrophobic, the lack of space oppressive. We are crowded into a tiny room, and there is no place else to go in the building itself. It turns out to be quite expensive by Galway standards. From faraway we overpaid for a place that is basically churning guests through—not much nuance or texture.  Also, it is a hefty walk to the outskirts of the real town, meaning you can’t get breathing room easily by going out and strolling idly. Where we are it’s all residential or institutional with cul de sacs, and a dog-racing track.

The overall scene in the town is too touristy. You feel part of an event like a continuous parade because there are massive crowds everywhere. Crowds mean Amsterdam-like street hustles, faux events, hyped extravaganzas. I haven’t begun to cite all the “shows” we passed or the times we were blocked in streets by ordinary pedestrian traffic as if in a crowd-jam leaving a theater or stadium. We have seen leprechaun-imitating clowns, makeshift street musicians, kids dressed up like Irish Disney characters, contests on the street, for instance people paying money to chin themselves up on a bar for a certain length of time for a prize while a crowd cheers. Crowds also gather around blokes doing tricks with a soccer ball like seals.

Add to that a feeling of why Ireland? Abstractly I love Ireland and the Irish, always have. I feel an affinity with them on many levels, but this is July and every day but one has been chilly and overcast. It’s still interesting, and the landscape and culture are what have arisen in the indigenous climate, but we also would like a break—a different pace and mood. Beneath Galway’s surface of festivity and fun and optimism is a severity, both that this isn’t the “real” world (though of course it is because how could anything not be real?) and that it hides its own deficits and the deficits of more troubled places in a capitalist façade.

It is an ongoing question: How do you do your life? Where do you choose to be and why? Choices so often involve breaking the surface of an image so that you get to see where you really are. That’s what choice are: endless lessons in the uses of spiritual freedom and the search for meaning. Until we travelled, until we made a choice of Ireland and broke the abstraction, the choices we now face us didn’t fully take form.

It is not a complaint as much as a recognition. It is uncomfortable in the sense that we could be anywhere, or anywhere else, or home and not spending the money. But we couldn’t be anywhere because now we are here. Le Petite Pois and Michael O’Connor, six wild musicians on Eyre Square and an interactive Mediaeval Galway screen are exceptions that prove the rule.

Tomorrow we move on to Ennis and then Dingle—and try to decide what to do after that before we head to Northern Ireland on July 20th.

 

July 10, 2017

We are in Ennis in a happily large room in a big hotel with a lobby. It feels like a castle after the cramped time in the bed and breakfast in Galway. We are only here for one night, though, because we viewed Ennis only as a break in the drive to Dingle. We now realize that it would have been better to schedule two nights, but it is hard to foresee what things will actually be like. Ennis is no mere village; it is a small city, uncrowded and intricate so that viewing its urban idiosyncrasies would take longer than we have.

For me last night in Galway was hard. I had a terrible headache and no aspirin, so I didn’t sleep much and had to attempt other methods than a pill—breathing, herbs, self-craniosacral massage—to try to settle myself. The fractured night made the hours ahead, a driving and transition day, look like a monumental task with an uncertain outcome. Long sleepless nights are a test of one’s own limits, especially while travelling. When you are young, you challenge these limits without thinking. When you are older, you worry whether you are capable of what you planned. It is a realization that creeps up on you. After all, in Dublin I was running full-speed (at least by my standards these days) for stretches on the streets leading to and from Killiney Hill. Now I am dragging myself around.

On the way into town to get aspirin and cash at the automatic teller, I passed another of the posters I had been seeing for an event we wished we had gone to. I took a picture. Among its sessions: “Decolonizing Feminism,” “Reclaim the Night,” and “The Witches That Could Not Be Burned,” the latter a punk musical comedy. As everywhere, the Gaelic appears under the English.

 

I had been trying to contact Frank Fahey for months from the States unsuccessfully. We met him on a train in Colorado in 2016 when we took Amtrak from Boston to Berkeley. There was no wifi west of Chicago, so on his request—he was seated across the aisle at lunch—we provided a hotspot for him off our cell. In thanks, he offered us a free tour with his sightseeing company if we ever came to Ireland. That was nowhere in the wind at the time, so I filed it in my mind and soon forgot it. It popped back, as the neurons of our planned trip and the Amtrak exchange found each other one morning in February.

When I originally wrote Frank, three consecutive-day emails each bounced back, so I gave up. I reconsidered him only on the day before we flew to Dublin. It was because I looked at his card in my Ireland file at the last minute and saw that he was based in Galway, not Dublin as I surmised, which meant possibility because it was a smaller place we were also visiting.

I sent off another email. He answered this one, writing back saying he’d love to see us. However, he was in China and would not be back in Galway till our last evening there. Our intermittent exchange finally came round, once he had gotten back, to his suggesting we meet at a restaurant near our B&B at 11 AM, just down the road on our way out of town in the greyhound-track direction.

By the time we connected in person, we were avid if not desperate for triage. Yet we didn’t know what to expect: a gratis tour, some novel ideas, a parley. He exceeded all expectations.

We recognized Frank immediately, as he stood to greet us. He was a different man from the one on Amtrak but still iconic: now an Irishman in Ireland rather than an Irishman on an American train. He seemed to know half the people in the restaurant, as he hugged and shook hands and told many an acquaintance about his just being in China. It felt like a wedding and a wake. It was about ten minutes after he greeted us and pointed to a table before he joined us there.

I had forgotten what Frank told us about himself on the train; he was a politician, a member of Parliament, before he went into the tour business, so he was well-known about—a local celebrity and major networker. Now his travel business was tied in with Irish education and a partial extension of his political career.

Frank quickly took charge of our itinerary, though it required multiple passes for his boundless enthusiasm and our limited stamina and different expectations to synchronize. In his haste and zeal to convey information and bring his expertise and experience and love of Ireland to bear, he was frustrated by the specificity of our designs, including what was set in stone (by confirmed reservations) and what was still up for grabs. He finally got clear on where we were going and what time period we needed to fill. Right away he said he wanted us to come back to Galway after Ennis and Dingle and have us take two tours with his company, one of which would be free. He also wanted to help find us better lodging, in Galway and after.

He had a surprising but sensible idea, that we not return to Meath in the east (as planned before heading north to Portstewart in Northern Ireland) but go directly north from the west into County Donegal before cutting east in Ulster. That way we would see new things and get more direct experience of best part of the country: rural West Ireland.

We spent over an hour in the Hunstman Restaurant with Frank going over and continuously revising itineraries, as Lindy and I did not have quite the same priorities as each other. Then he offered to call around and get us good lodging and rates after Galway too, in Westport and Donegal.

Next Frank surprisingly wanted to take charge of our hop to Ennis, which was only about an hour away. We had thought of it as something to get done quickly, but the Ireland enthusiast would have none of that. The road passed through his native village of Gort and he felt that stopping there was non-negotiable, especially for writers, since it was the home of Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats’ patron and theatrical collaborator, hence the site of Thoor Ballylee, the remodeled Mediaeval tower she helped procure for WBY and in which and his family summered as he wrote some of his key poems. Ballylee was his favorite place on Earth, a sacred site closer to the higher planes.

It was difficult to picture what Frank was proposing we do and setting up for us on his cell because he spoke so fast about so many stops on a map he hastily drew in Lindy’s notebook, as he also made several phone calls, as busy on his cell as on the train two years earlier. He was trying to hire us a guide in Gort, “all costs covered by me,” he said, because he thought it would be difficult for us to find the tower ourselves. Then he arranged for a private tour of the Kiltartan Gregory Museum.

I was concerned to get to Ennis early in the day because I wanted to sleep and wondered, gently, why the museum was that important. I merely triggered Frank to burst into lavish celebration. “Important?!” Why if I cared about Yeats, I should care about Lady Gregory, and this was a museum set up by her husband to represent her life and works. No lover of Yeats would miss such a place. Furthermore, it was designed concomitant with a school that Lady Gregory was sponsoring Ceylon, but the plans got switched, so it was a Ceylonese building in Ireland—a total “can’t miss.”

Though it was hard for him to procure a guide at the last minute, Frank succeeded and then sent us on our way with oft-repeated directions involving not missing two key railroad crossings in Gort. I hoped we would catch them. “Oh, you absolutely can’t miss them, but if you do and find yourself through Gort, call me, and I’ll guide you back.”
When I said Frank was different in one of his regular hangouts in Galway than on a train in the Rockies, I am reaching for something hard to put my finger on. He was of the same vintage as the other older middle-aged Irishmen in the Hunstman; his high spirits, heraldry, incessant praising, and greeting matched the chummy, charged vibration of the place. Happy Ireland and Sad Ireland were the same energy run at different pitches.

On the train tamed by his wife, Frank seemed a tad ornate and hyperbolic. Not here. He was part of the noosphere.

And there was his outright generosity. More than that—I felt that any of the men he greeted (or didn’t) might have been as generous if we had met under similarly random and unlikely circumstances in the States (or Ireland) and then crossed tracks again. The natural ardency and generosity of the Irish is partly what drew us here in the first—that and the indefinable combination of bottomless sorrow and equally bottomless joy in the literature and music and films. Of course, everything has a shadow side. We do too. The goal is not to elaborate or overdo weakness but to praise and offer as we can—and Frank did that, many times over. We are now in his care. We are in the care of Ireland and the Parliament. And that feels different.

 

Lindy began her first driving stint out of the Huntsman. It was into a rush of traffic on Dublin Road, and there was a lot to master: lane, gears, car position on the road. She wavered but managed. I was as much a side-seat disaster as she was when I was driving, shouting that she was drifting to the left, that she wasn’t in her lane, that she was in the wrong gear. We killed out twice in traffic.

It was baptism by fire, made more of a gauntlet by the fact that she was faced a roundabout every two or three kilometers out of Galway, maybe eight in all, some of them serious puzzles. Roundabouts are the hardest for right-side-of-the-road drivers because you enter them clockwise, then have to stay in your lane and depart to the left at the appropriate exit. She wasn’t always in a lane or quick enough to make the exit, but the GPS corrected and we returned three times successfully to the road to Limerick and Ennis. After a while she got the hang of it, picked up speed, and stopped killing out, though we got some honks and one finger from an orange Northern Irish plate.

Gort came up, as promised, forty-five minutes out of Galway. We overshot the sudden turn off to the Kiltartin Museum and had to turn around on a narrow side road. Lindy was intimidated by having to reverse in a small space and cross fast-moving traffic from there. She suggested parking in a nearby school and walking along the road. That was pure panic and riskier than driving it. So, we switched drivers. In a stretch of a few hundred yards I managed to skirt the side of the road, kill out once, and go up the wrong driveway where an amused or not-so-amused farmer and his arriving pre-teen daughter watched me take a global route to get the car turned around. Maybe he was smiling.

The museum had no obvious lot, so we parked on the road.

Frank was right. Walking into Kiltartin was an act of time travel. The museum was a reconstruction of an actual schoolhouse, the space filled with artifacts (furniture, crockery, theater programs, notebooks, etc.) from Lady Gregory’s life in one room and the reconstructed schoolroom in the other complete with a manikin of the teacher elucidating a lesson on the board.

No one thing in the museum was spectacular; it was the overall integrity of another place, another time. The little poetry and theatrical magazines, stapled hand-decorated pamphlets in which Lady Gregory published her work, looked very much like the Yugens and Poems from the Floating World that Lindy and I looked up to when we discovered the avant-garde poetry world during our college years.

Our host was Theresa Nolan, and she was elegant, charming, and erudite, a real old-school grand-dame. It was her with whom Frank conducted his conversation about us, describing us as very important old friends of his from America. She received us gently and without fuss, allowing us to enter the room at the exact pace the space dictated. She matched the aesthetics, which made sense because she had gone to grade school herself in this building. I assured her that we weren’t nearly as important as Frank said

We spent about a half hour in the museum, taking in the ambiance, though I talked a blue streak with Theresa about my affinity with the occult part of Yeats, describing my early days at Berkeley Psychic Institute, learning the ground cord, and then my more recent experience with Sali Crow, a half-Irish, half-Blackfoot psychic medium, in Vermont a year prior.

I was trying to explain to an aficionado of Yeats how his interest in the occult wasn’t a literary affectation; it was dead-on, an intuition of a hidden reality all about us, also that WBY would have had much greater access today to the esoterica and secrets he sought through the Golden Dawn or his experiments with tarot and Rosicrucian astrology. She was a very gracious or very receptive audience. She said I was a brave man—she would not toy with the spirits.

I am embarrassed to say that I don’t know the name of Theresa’s colleague, who dashed her planned day in Galway while on the road at Frank’s summons, to turn around her car, return, and give us a tour of the tower. Also an alumna of the Kiltartin Kindergarten, she joined us, as we were hanging out with Theresa. Then we followed her car in ours, back a mile or so toward Galway, turning into the countryside at the sign for the tower. We passed thatched cottages, meadows, and stone walls along the one-lane road. The tower stood tall above the countryside, a 14th-century fortification remodeled by Lady Gregory to the Yeats’ specifications for the poet’s use.

Once inside, she took us on a tour of five levels, concluding on the turret’s circular walkway. Each tier contained a large room, sometimes a smaller room as well. A couple of them were refinished to the standards of the early nineteenth century, Yeats’ time, and the rest were what you’d expect for unfinished cubicles in a stone castle. The inside of one of them was painted a deep indigo-like blue that (she explained) Yeats thought might attract spirits. It was sixth-chakra blue, third-eye attuned, and I felt the most energy there, though I was not nearly subtle enough to pick up anything concrete.

The focus was elsewhere. Our guide, eloquent with information about Yeats’ life, was garrulous and anxious not to drop a detail.

We were joined on our informal tour by a pleasant young couple from Houston. They looked and sounded American—though she had a tinge of the Sali Crow necromancer look. The two did not seem anomalous Texas extras. I could have imagined them, with a costume change, characters in world of Yeats and his colleague Helena Blavatsky. Maybe they were spirits posing as Texans.

In the room where Yeats wrote during many of his summers, he had the tiny window of the fortification widened by Lady Gregory so that he could look out on the stream. I saw not only Yeats poetry flowing but that of England’s Lake Poets, a stream that travelled mirror-like, then a sector of picturesque ripples, then smoothly again. The overall presentation was a postcard, but it held an unwritten or ceaselessly written poem.

The tower was a classic round stone fort, of the sort that dot the countryside from days of English-Irish strife, many of them now renovated like Ballylee as dwelling-places. Strange that we should have visited both James Joyce and William Butler Yeats in towers that were not their actual full-time residences.

We saw the room where Yeats wrote his poem about his daughter being born that very night, a bedroom with a modern-seeming double-bed where Yeats and his wife George slept. As our host narrated, I realized how much of solitaire man he was, in his commitment to language and rhythm and in his innocence and provinciality regarding the world around him.

She told us how her father, in his early twenties, would hear Yeats walking by his farm, trying out lines aloud, reciting and singing as he walked, during the day and under the stars. He could hear the words—a magical leprechaun-like thing, but he never dared disturb Mr. Yeats, and Mr. Yeats made no contact with farmers and local laborers during his sojourns. He got his information about them for his poems (in which they seem most intimate) from Lady Gregory, who was his interlocutor as well as his apologist.

Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, twenty-seven years his junior, at age fifty-two in 1917 after Maud Gonne turned him down for the fourth time during a visit to Paris (an online narrative says that he proposed to her daughter Iseult too after numerous rejections). In any case, Maud told Yeats that she preferred being the inspiration for magnificent poems to being a partner in a boring marriage.

Informed by spirits that it was now or never to raise a family, Yeats went straight from rejection to England where, with Lady Gregory’s encouragement, he romanced Georgie, proposing to her a mere three months later. She proved a worthy mate if not a muse, as she evinced a skill in automatic writing soon after the marriage. Through her, the spirits told Yeats, apropos his speculation, “No, we have come to give you metaphors for your poetry.” They also told him that it was more important to have a happy sexual life than an unrequited one with a muse.

The view from the top of the tower was pure vertigo, the brook reduced to an aerial view. Fields stretching to all horizons spoke to vastness and possibility, then and now. I couldn’t find the vibe, meaning Yeats’ spirit or ghost, but I had barely begun the practice that connects the living and the dead. I would not continue it in in Thoor Ballylee.

 

We drove the remaining twenty-plus kilometers to Ennis and found the Old Ground Hotel, a sprawling complex in the town center next to a monumental building, the Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

In the evening before picking a place for dinner, we engaged in one of those quiet ravels for which travelling is made: we walked the streets and alleys of a twenty-first-century Mediaeval city, in and out of courtyards, past churches, old and new statues, on cobblestone and pavement, looking at curios, store windows, other people out walking, listening to the traditional Irish music coming from bars. To do this you need to go there. It’s perhaps not the greatest pleasure in the world, but it has a quiet depth and security, like falling into history while strolling through an evening. Yes, you have to get yourself there to do it.

We walked a different labyrinth at twilight after dinner till we sighted the church spire above the landscape and used it to guide us back to our hotel.

Downstairs in the hotel bar called The Poet’s Corner we could hear the melody and beat of traditional Irish reels. “If you’re not allowed as hotel guests,” responded the lady at the check-in counter, “well I don’t know who is,” We had wondered if we could just go listen without ordering.

There were four players, two men and two women, and, like any other drinkers or diners, they were seated at one of the customer tables that surrounded the bar, itself (by the way) attended only by three young Irish women. Above the performers’ table was the iconic picture of Yeats as a bespectacled youth, looking like any graduate student. That image, it seemed, was everywhere.

The playing was enough like the session in Galway to make one think that Irish music is best played jam sessions like jazz. The musicians sit around, chat among themselves, talk politics, weather, the way the piece goes; then eventually one of them starts, a second one recognizes his or her part and joins in; then they all begin playing. The piece ends. They drink or order beers, they pick up the conversation; eventually one of them starts again.

I could overhear how much the conversation was directly about the music they were about to play and about anything but the music. It was as if it all the talking goes into a build-up of the eventual spirit and vibe of the song, like feeding it various street foods so that it hops to life with some body.

One man had an accordion, one man and one woman had those sideways whistles that are played piccolo-like. The other heavier, darker woman had no instrument. After a few numbers—we came in during the latter part of the concert—the man with the accordion (who looked like former pitcher Don Sutton) clinked his glass many times with a spoon until the rowdy bar was relatively quiet. Then he announced that the woman without an instrument would sing.

She started out softly, so softly that I could barely hear her even though we were seated five feet away, a mournful melody typical of Ireland and the Troubles. It built and built, and the second woman joined her; then the flutes found their places in the melody, and drinkers and audience members joined until there was a full chorus:

‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh, hard times come again no more.

 

It was worth going to Ireland for.

 

July 11, 2017

Our day was spent mostly in getting ourselves from Ennis to Dingle on the left side of roads. That was a three-to-four hour southwest drive that started out with countless roundabouts out of Ennis, then onto successive highways and two-lane roads with plenty of additional roundabouts, and ended up on narrow coastal roads such that the matter of locating the car in the center became more critical, as tourist buses and RVs headed the other way left no room at all and there was nothing to the left but the cliffs over the ocean. Although the focus was necessarily on the road—and it took two people, one to drive and the other to function like a driving instructor—the sense of magic that people attribute to the rural West of Ireland was palpable in a landscape of green fields and sea with dark mountains, much like the world of Tolkien. I started the drive, Lindy drove the large middle section, and I got the long curvy road through the mountains onto the Dingle Peninsula.

My pitfall remained avoiding the onrushing traffic in the center, hence risking the shoulder. Lindy’s was finding first and second gear (ending up in third and fourth) on stops and roundabouts, and also keeping her position and place in the order in the roundabouts. We both had moderate close calls, nothing too serious, but certainly worth the other’s exclamation.

We made one significant stop along the way: Bunratty Castle between Shannon and Limerick, about a half hour outside Ennis.

What can one say about a theme park centered around a giant castle? You can supply the memes and clichés; I’d feel foolish replicating them here. It is because of their tyranny and the potential remorse of missing out that one submits to “castle” at all. Bunratty had been talked up as a “must” from Rick Steves’ Ireland guide to the Galway tourist information office to idle chatter of fellow travellers. At the tourist office, we were told that if you were going to see one castle in Ireland, it would be Bunratty because it offered an entire reconstructed village around the behemoth. I pictured a Renaissance Fair, though happily that was not the case. There were very few actors, and those that there were—a baker, a blacksmith, three young female musicians, and many goats and chickens—were less thespian than utilitarian.

Bunratty was negligibly off the road, though we still had to stop and ask directions because, for a Disneyland-like attraction, there was virtually no road signage. Hard to believe—we took the right exit and saw only danger signs warning us of being about to enter a quarry. A workman unloading a vehicle reassured us with good humor and irony that we were headed correctly, though I can’t remember his precise phrasing. Lindy was driving and had difficulty making out the Gaelic names of things he ticked off, so she spoke back some irrelevant Anglicizations, to which he responded, “It’s just words, a manner of speaking.”

Americans we have talked to along the way remark affectionately on the friendliness of the people as they remain reason they are here, which sounds like a gratuity, but they are referring to something real and substantial. In the course of many interactions, some of which might have led to irritation, grumbling, or light “road rage” in the States, I have been struck by the politeness, elegance, and kindness of folks’ comments. In the Old Ground Hotel lobby in Ennis, tight packed quarters with movements on conflicting trajectories, on crowd-filled streets in Galway, in Dublin trains and stations, accidental bumps and aborted head-on pedestrian collisions are marked by excessively humble apologies that would not be bothered to be spoken by most Americans. Some barely intrusive passings in tight space are accompanied by “Pardon me” or “Never mind, you’re okay.”

You can tell the ubiquitous Yanquis by their voices and their preference to establishing right of way and pecking order over little dances of deference and ritual humility. As these are carried out in a musical brogue and with earnest language, they create countless extremely short plays that are finally more memorable than castles or narrow roads. The same occurred in Dingle when we were lost because our GPS would not recognize Goat Street (as it had not recognized the main street O’Connell in Ennis). As we stopped along the shoreside, a random male pedestrian who did not look at all like the type to expound, expounded in afore-mentioned bardic style to sing an alternate route since we were just past where we should have turned, concluding, “And that’ll get ye there just as well.”

I don’t think I am inherently brusque, impatient, or irritable, but by comparison to Irish folk, I am all of these. I am rude.

 

Admission to Dunratty Castle was set up confusingly because, in fact, there was no path to the tickets except through the souvenir shop, assuring them a shot at everyone for commerce. With a substantial senior discount, it was only ten euros each. I have not mentioned that the euro is a bit stronger than the dollar, so we lose on every purchase—plus merchants differ on whether we are better doing credit-card transactions in euros or dollars, but I figure there is no way to win between the bankers and exchange rate, so we’ll surely see the “damage” on the other end.

The various small huts and houses around the castle were confusing as to what era they were meant to represent. They unabashedly covered a sweep from sometime around the fourteenth century to the nineteenth and early twentieth, which was probably not inaccurate to the situation on the ground. For people in the Irish countryside, not a lot changed over five hundred years. The Middle Ages turned into the Renaissance and then the industrial era; the feudal barony became a farm, the lord a capitalist—but the harvest was still the harvest, the home and hearth were still the home and hearth, and labor was still labor.

Buildings ran a range from those of poor farmhands and fishermen to those of wealthy land-owners. What struck me, regardless of the relative degree of wealth, possessions, and luxury, was the sense of a habitable world before modernity. It didn’t matter if it was 1350 or 1910; life was quiet, sheltered, and profound, deep in the material earth in a way that this era of robotic convenience, virtual realities, and automation cannot enhance or even replicate, though the oligarchy makes every attempt to establish its historical superiority and our privilege to be with it in this time.

In fact, the old phenomenology then was deeper. One can smell the slowness of life in the exquisitely nuanced and flavored musty air inside these buildings, the long-standing aromatic herbal plantings and vines close round them, the smell that apples being cut for pie (a baker producing thin slices with quick adroitness of her hand in a hut). One can hear it in the random sounds of metal and wood as people pass through, the playing of harp and flutes by young girls in an ancient entry room, the calling of baby pygmy goats. One can see it in the pragmatically fractal uses of space, the deep thatching of roofs such that thunderstorms and weeks of snow cannot soak through dense layers of interwoven mud and stems, the coziness of cubbies and tucked-away sanctuary spaces, the way giant canisters, basins, and barrels were stored in niches near the ceiling, the way beds were like lairs that small creatures tuck themselves into. You could feel the sheer sensuality of incarnation in a way that has been intentionally stolen from us as if a burden and lesser state of beingness.

The bed of a poor laborer in the fields was little more than sacks tossed on the ground until they grew into a de facto sleeping pallet. His one-room cottage had virtually no possessions beyond an urn or utensil, a net and old-twine lobster trap in the hut of a fisherman, while the beds of nobles and property owners were ornate and canopied, their rooms flush with textiles, glazed decorated pottery, much food and drink and haberdashery. Yet one thing about them felt the same: no video games, no reality TV, no diminishment of bodily habitation or the profound, incremental flow of time. They lived in acts of caring for their creature selves and took the dense aromas of those acts for granted. They had bodies that lived and died the way bodies of animals do.

Yes, there was unspeakable disease, violence, and cruelty, a fact disclosed only almost cartoon-like (though deadly real) in the castle dungeon at Bunratty, but these too were part of the phenomenology in which folks were entangled, and they did not see beyond or care to see. We who see everything, including ostensibly them and their planetary epoch and private lives, see virtually nothing, as we ourselves claim diminished artificial and synthetic lives by comparison. We time-travel to perform our wake over their centuries, as we revive them for bargain entertainment.

The castle itself was difficult to encompass and assimilate, as one moved through it in mobs, and the winding passages through levels were blocked by people going both up and down, causing tight squeezes into corners. It was a castle, a very large castle, and, in that sense, a city crowded into a single building. Because the city was almost entirely indoors and accessible to adornment and the perfection of space (and the spaces were on a very large scale), the epic of life in this building came across in its sheer scale, though the packaged tourist event attempted to compartmentalize and attenuate as best it could. The ceiling of the library looked like an upside-down church with spires projecting deep into the room. The robing room and meeting room were on theatrical and parliamentary scale.

The dungeon was as raw and inhuman as countless Hollywood reconstructions of its essence: an inescapable, unadorned hole in the ground for housing captives. Our species has, no surprise, been most inventive in its projection of the enemy from an elusive shadow within onto a vivid other, so that the depth and power of the psychic terror with appear in the immediate world in a semblance of confronting and defeating its external reflection.

 

We spent the morning in Ennis, which included an unsuccessful search for an audiologist to repair one of Lindy’s broken hearing aids and a visit to the health-food store and chat with the proprietess about the local state of things. She told me about the craniosacral therapy office directly above. I might schedule a session later in the week, as we discovered that our booked time in Dingle was two, not three, nights, and we were luckily able to get a room on the 13th back at the Old Ground Hotel (the 14th, which we initially tried for before the discovery about Dingle, was sold out).

We got to our bed and breakfast at 5:00 (17:00) on the nose, as I had been predicting all the way from Bunratty when the GPS set our arrival at 4:25. The biggest losses of time were a traffic jam through a small town, a temporary red light for construction (which detoured us onto the normally familiar side of the highway but not before a digital clock ticked off 400 interminable seconds one by one—no, it did not go from 300 to 259, it went to 299), a stop to view the ocean and mountains where we killed out anyway while trying to avoid three oversized tour buses turning onto the road, as oblivious to cars as to flies), and our initial missing of the turn to Goat Road.

Dingle is another postcard that is hard to send you so that you would see it. Buildings are connected in aesthetically pleasing rows with startlingly bright blues, yellows, reds, indigos, purples, magentas, teals, violets, and powder blues for doors and façades. We walked the town from five-fifty to six-thirty when we finally picked a place to eat.

We looked at various shops, about three-quarters of the names written in Gaelic with the accompanying silent music that the spelling makes on the streets. Two huge renditions of the crucifixion stopped us for meditation on the immanence of the sacred on secular street. These were comprised of human-scale, realistic pale statues of the participants set in stark relief against a dark background. They reminded me of the power of a single event to change the vibration of the aura of the planet, also of the fact that we are deep in Irish Catholic Ireland now, removed from the Anglican regency.

We chose Fenton’s Restaurant, an impulsive, intuitive stab off the beaten track (as did actor Bill Murray once, from his signed photo on the wall). We had planned to return to one of two we had selected before the detour there. The women running the place were as sweet and caring as welcoming family.

The food the last three days, without the benefit of natural, organic, vegetarian, or ethnic restaurants, has been unexpectedly good, including organic lamb from local Irish farms on even the most provincial menus, plenty of local fishes simply cooked (turbot, monkfish, salmon, cod), and scallops. Though we tend toward being vegetarians, we are not. I will not eat industrial meat for reasons of the treatment of the animals, including the chemicals and vibrations of suffering passed through them to us. Yet we had decent meals in Galway, Ennis, and Dingle because there wasn’t a huge distinction between the organic and the ordinary here.

These journals are keeping me up late at night (now 11:30) and, though I am not sure I am finished with today, I do need the sleep, so I may continue tomorrow or, more likely, move on to the next day.

 

July 12, 2017

In the morning made separate journeys from our new home, Bolands Bed & Breakfast, into the town of Dingle. Actually we are in the town, but it is a walk of a few blocks equivalence on a downslope: residences, a few medical and legal offices and a kid-filled green of cricket and soccer playing sadly about to be made into a housing development (according to a giant self-congratulatory sign), before one encounters shops. I headed down to the waterfront to find the tourist information center and get information for our planned afternoon circle-route around the edge of the Dingle Peninsula.

My passing along the piers brought plenty of flashback to my days studying fishermen in Maine (1969-1970). It’s a feeling that only comes from working piers with their boats and pro trawlers and the like.  I saw a curious street performance. A large leprechaun-dressed man stood over a collection of six hobbit-size wooden dolls (like puppets but battery driven) in motion and playing a mournful Irish tune. A small barrel was set alongside for donations.

At the office I received a map, some coaching, and a printed list describing sites along the way.

Back up on Goat Street, the main drag, I made two significant connections. First I visited the health-food store. In these travelling circumstances, I expect to re-stock on snacks and, in the process, perhaps let the principals know about the North Atlantic Books list. What I was not prepared for was the clerk, Irene Ni Fhlannura (Flannery) to declare herself as a writer with a couple of interesting health books in progress. I joked later by email to our staff that she was the Irish Paul Pitchford lite, as she was familiar with the work of our most important long-term author, styling her own book a bit after his, though she was not attempting anything so encyclopedic. We talked about her project and arranged to meet again after 5:00 at the holistic-health center—of which she was director—a few doors up Goat Street for me to look at her manuscript.

On the other side of the street I poked into the herbalist’s quarters to find a wise female elder and her young pupil or helper working busily on formulas, unconcerned about commerce. As the only visitor in a space that was half shop, half laboratory, I opened a discussion and learned that the mentor, Deirdre, had recently attended a lecture in Cork by a new North Atlantic author of herbal compendia, Thomas Easley. She and I proceeded to have a discussion of the various approaches to herbal healing, ranging from homeopathic microdoses and tinctures and essences to what she prefers: “I’m an earthy type. I like to get my hands wet and dirty.”

I remarked that I respected that too and figured each person found their own natural frequency by which to practice and heal. “That’s what it is,” she said.

I discussed some herbal interests and needs, and Deirdre offered to prepare formulas for Lindy and me overnight to pick up “half ten” in the morning. I wondered if that meant half before or half after. It was the lazier half-after.

In the enthusiasm of the interactions I ran back up Goat Street and realized I was back in the mood and well-being of our days on Glenageary.

 

Slea Head Drive (Slí Cheann Sléibhe) is a coastal drive clockwise at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. It begins in the town of Dingle (Daingean Uí Chúis), goes to the end of the peninsula at Slea Head, continues north to Blasket Sound, site of the mostly abandoned Blasket Islands and prime fishing territory for Dingle. North of there, the shorter version of loop hones a bit inland, continues north along the coast, covering the opposite shoreline to Dingle, and then winds more sharply inland eventually over a large grassy hill back to Dingle. The longer route was supposed to be fifty kilometers (about thirty miles), but we cut the greater loop off of that. It was still hours long because of the caution with which one had to proceed.

The driving part of this experience was so exorbitant and dramatic that it was difficult not to let it dominate the day. The road was narrow at best. In its ampler stretches it provided enough space for two cars going in opposite directions to pass each other harmlessly and without freakout at about twenty-five miles per hour, as long as each one stayed on a track as confined as that of a train. In its less ample stretches, there was still enough room, but both cars (or at least one car, ours) had to slow to squeeze by. At its worst, cars in one direction had to edge onto the shoulder to make space for those passing in the other. In one instance, there was so little room that some drivers got out of their cars and instructed those going in the other direction how to inch by. It came down to a few inches clearance, movement by a couple of inches at a time with lots of shouting and repositioning to avoid vehicle contact. Clearance at one point was less than an inch for two cars ahead of us. Luckily the road widened where we were.

Other perils included portions of the left side (ours) facing a bare or minimally protected ledge with a long, steep drop to ocean level; giant tour buses, farm equipment, SUVs, and confident, fast-moving drivers (no doubt locals) either straying over the center line or bullying over it from sheer girth; the disappearance of all lines from the road for long stretches concomitant with narrowing, leaving no marks for gauging location; dramas with steam shovels and tractors stopping all traffic as they attempted to clear roadside and relocate giant boulders; and impatient or passing drivers—passing was Russian roulette, but people risked it and somehow lived.

At the tourist office, the woman advised committing to the loop because most traffic flowed clockwise. If we bailed and tried to return, we would encounter a steady stream in the other direction. I couldn’t picture that situation until we got onto the first of the narrower sections and found that we had to drive pretty much down the center of the road—it was a blessing that there was virtually no traffic in the counterclockwise direction. When there was, I had to downshift to first gear and either stop or almost stop until we squeezed past. There was probably one car going counterclockwise for every fifty going clockwise.

I never went above third gear except by mistake. I drove most the way in second gear, a convenient instantaneous brake for the stops I had to make. The problem was that one was driving between a proverbial rock and a hard place. To the left was the shoulder and, for stretches, a cliff. To the right was other cars or the potential of other cars. When I got too close to the left shoulder, I was just as terrified as my passenger. Lindy said her fingers tingled. When I got too close to the centerline on the right, I held my breath every time a vehicle passed while going in the opposite direction.

Sad to say, Lindy didn’t drive much. During her one brief stint she got too close to the shoulder where the cliff was and I reacted big. She veered back to the center too sharply and had to correct toward the cliff. That was all I could take. She is as skilled a driver as me, in fact more so, but she gets phobic in situations like this, plus she worries too much about courtesy to the other drivers. This is a matter of courtesy be damned, let’s try surviving. She pulled over at the next opportunity, a parking area for a view, and told me I was driving henceforth.

We stopped later at a spectacular overlook where we chatted with a middle-aged British woman selling amulets with Celtic letters and runes and we bought vegan cookie squares (one currant, one apricot) from a younger American woman in an adjacent van. I admitted aloud to spending a fair amount of time driving down the center. The Celtic-amulet lady told me that that was way too dangerous because of farm equipment, curves, and locals used to going eighty kilometers a mile on a road not made for it. Still smarting from her misadventure, Lindy declared, “See, I told you. You aren’t the perfect bigshot driver.” Her implication was that I had cheated, though I protested that I only drove down the center when I could see ahead that no one was coming. I was still chastised by two women in sudden solidarity, though the rune-maker said she wanted no part of a marital dispute. The hippie cookie-maker reclining in her van and listening to Enya could have cared less.

Back on the road, Lindy insisted I adhere to the rules, so I moved closer to the left edge and bore down in rapt attention. That terrorized her, as she shouted for me to move to the center. I was laughing, which was kind of mean, but it was because she had just lambasted me for driving down the center. When I moved to the center, I pointed out that I was back where I had been driving all along. But then a car came and she said, “See, you were warned about this.” I moved closer to the edge—well, you get the picture. There simply wasn’t enough room for anything but an expedient gesture at every opportunity, and that’s the way it was for the duration.

 

No one made clear when we started out that the numerous stops along the way, probably around fifteen, were not free. It was anywhere from two to five Euros per person to look at pretty much anything: Celtic remains, Druid remains, beehive houses, old forts, Celtic shrines, tiny museums, large museums. We could have spent $100 if we stopped at everything.

Initially we made two stops, but after a while we just drove, which had plenty of entertainment for one day, looking at views, the mountains of the Ring of Kerry (a three-and-a-half-times-as-long tourist loop to the south), providing an awe-inspiring, Mordor-like backdrop across the sea. I loved what we saw and what we did did, but truer pleasure consisted of getting back to Dingle and no longer having to drive on that road, so the excursion was a mixed blessing.

As noted, we did not initially realize that there would be so many invitations to stop or that every one of them would come with a fee, so we stopped at the second offered and were glad we did. It had an irresistible summons: Faery Circle and Sheep Petting. This combination was the consequence of a faery fort or circle on a sheep farm, and an enterprising farmer. The freckled blonde girl employed to collect money, possibly not even American driving age, told us, when we questioned her as we were leaving, that it was her grandfather’s farm and one of her two summer jobs. She had done it for many summers: sit in a tiny hut, collect three euros per person, and hand out small, round plastic containers of sheep and goat food, which made friendly animals even friendlier.

The sheep and goats, many babies, certainly knew the routine. Those inside the pen were clamoring with noses stuck between wires. Those outside the pen romped right up to us and nosed at our legs. One black goat was so aggressive that I could barely feed the sheep without its mouth shoving in the way. It could not be oriented into a different agenda or otherwise deterred, and it almost knocked me over a few times. There were mainly sheep, and they were very tame. Initially I was squeamish about holding out my hand with food, so dropped it on the ground, which was useless because they didn’t see it. After that, I followed Lindy’s example. My whole hand got licked many times by giant tongues and lips, but I never got bitten.

It was quite a challenge getting grub pellets to the less aggressive ones: I held out a laden hand and the alpha sheep and goats were right there, knocking pellets loose.

A few had wandered into the faery circle, and in one instance, I petted, then hugged one very affectionate sheep, my head on it, after watching children do it. If it was a cat, it would have purred. It was a very solid animal under the cuddly wool, but quite receptive to attention. I remember artist Andy Goldsworthy saying that the sheep who shared his farm may have looked playful and fluffy, but that was misleading; they were incredibly strong, willful creatures.

For all the literature that the gate-girl provided, I couldn’t tell you who built the faery circle or even whom archaeologists thought built it. The literature said, “Folklore asserts that ringforts like this one were ‘fairy forts’ imbued with ‘Druids magic’ (sic) and believers in fairies did not alter them. “Druids” is a catchall for shamans of unidentifiable epochs, so to call it “maybe Druid,” as other tourist literature did, and to question whether it is natural or artificial (or even maybe later Celtic) begs a question already begged. It was clear that neither the caretakers of the site nor the American tourists viewing it with us believed that it was anything more than a primitive version of a Halloween haunted house: “Cutting brush especially the whitethorn (also known as a fairy tree) om fairy forts was reputed to be the death of those who performed the act.” They treated it as lore, manga. A terrifically overweight American family of about seven—all of them huge—were loud, made stupid jokes, pretended to haunt each other, and posed for every kitsch arrangement available while discussing computer terminology of an obscure sort having to do with their picture-taking.

The sheet of paper also said not to be in the circle between 1 and 5 AM or your death would soon follow. That made for much ribaldry among the Americans.

The circle, known as a “fios” in Gaelic (e.g., a space enclosed by a bank or rampart, a fairy mound or halo) consisted of a raised round hillock-like mound in a deep narrow round pit of necessarily slightly greater circumference. The whole complex was approximately the size of baseball infield. According to the literature, “The bank rises at least 4.2 meters above the base of the fosse and up to 2.5m above the interior. The causewayed entrance faces due east and is 3m wide.” (everything on the sheet also sic).

The prospect presented a challenge to me. I had come to Ireland partly for fairy landscapes—fairy houses and fairy passageways—and this was the first clear opportunity, but was it an active circle or the fossil of one and, if only a fossil, what energies did it still conduct?

I tried not to be superior or silently boastful, to stay ordinary while shifting unobtrusively to the astral plane. That was a complete debacle. I wasn’t listening; I was showing off to myself and, by implication, to the supposed corpulent blasphemers of the ring. Who was I to judge? They were happy, imbibing the high energy in their way. All I did was make myself a bit dizzy. I needed to get humbler

I walked in the outer pit and then began the high mound. I deepened my view, accepted the tourists as who they were, widened to listening.

Immediately I felt an impulse to sink, to go down into my feet and then below the earth. I sensed that that was where the operating energy was. It had a density and murk to it and pulled. It was very, very subtle, but it was real.

As I tried to enter the transdimensional field, I felt blocked at every portal. More than that, I felt intrusive, unprepared, uneducated, a bit of a dunce. I was an interloper at a graduate course in higher physics. I hadn’t learned charms or runes or their means of induction. I also seemed to be a conversation in a language that not only was I untrained for but that had nothing to do with me or my life, even its mythic and esoteric elements.

Later, before leaving, Lindy and I both sat in the circle quietly, the Americans having soldiered out. I closed my eyes and “looked.” There was motion and an occasional clearing. I felt seen and taken care of now. I sensed that I was being told I was acting respectfully and would be gifted with what was in their power to gift. It wasn’t that that was little instead of much; it was that it was unknown and was left up to me to discern it and how to use it. It could be very much. It depended on how much I deciphered, probably unconsciously, and transferred into my own operating system from there. I knew that it spoke directly to my sister’s December suicide from an eleventh-story window, a falling girl received into a cosmos ultimately more Druid than New York for its dominion and size.

On our way out, the girl gave us a bottle of disinfectant to wipe our hands with. “The sheep slobber,” she said, “and it’s best to clean up after feeding them.”

 

Next came the beehives. I knew I wanted to see those from the literature and, after the faery circle, I suspected up ahead that it came with a fee. Lindy thought not, but the set-up by then was clear. Everyone in the Dingle loop collected a toll. At the beehives, an older man in a booth was collecting three euros each, but when I gave him a ten, he gave me back a five with a smile and said (because he had overheard Lindy’s and discussion), “That’ll do for seniors.”

The beehive huts (clochans) are tiny buildings constructed of layered large flat stones, much like stone walls except with the individual components stacked such that the overall outcome is circular, though occasionally a cupola on a square base.

Tight stone walls are works of art in themselves, but to round them means piling stones in gradated fashion, using space fractally in three dimensions in a way that turns a line into a circle and then a circle into a sphere. These types of dwellings are found almost exclusively in southwest Ireland. They are vintage and traditional—even new street garbage cans in Dingle are tiny clochans, though this represents tourist branding and civic aesthetics as much as a continuity of tradition.

In truth, the source of clochans is nearly as mysterious as of faery circles, though more substantial and almost certainly Celtic rather than of unknown Stone Age (Mesolithic or Neolithic) vintage. According to literature from the tourist office, the tradition of stone corbelling stretches from the oldest huts dated at 3100 BC to the most recent, built in the 1950s.

To reach the ones in the town on the loop, Fahan, from the parking area, we climbed the hillside with other tourists and then were able to go into clochans and walk along walls of collapsed and dispersed ones. Apparently, there was once a whole city, more than 400, here. If you looked up along the hillside, the remnant appearance was more like dotted lines or roches moutonnés bar-code in the distance: stones rather than live sheep. The well-preserved beehives in the fenced-off tourist site had connecting tunnels, suggesting a stone fort-complex, perhaps as protection and/or a retreat site against invading Normans around the twelfth century (tourist literature). Tunnels both human- and animal-size connected the various small rooms.

The closure and darkness within conveyed a sense of sanctuary and protection in a Gaston Bachelard sort of phenomenology as well as a slight claustrophobia. To stare from within at the individually stacked stones at close range was to look at time on a planetary scale, at least as far in Pleistocene and Holocene context (lots of Earth time prior to primate ascension, though). The clochans may not have been as skilled or labor-intensive as the pyramids, nor obviously at their monumental size, but they spoke to a brilliant technology of the same epoch and carried the vibe of similar sparse Irish stone ruins in North America as well those astronomically positioned stone circles across the sea like Castlerig and Stonehenge.

We stopped twice again on our circle, once for the overlook where we visited with the two women and their van-borne markets, and then at the Blasket Islands visitor center, a large modern museum with a cafeteria at the site of boat trips to the Blasket Islands. Most other spots with great views or Celtic and Christian artifacts were too packed with cars even to venture parking.

The rich fishing territory of the relatively large Blasket Islands made them a distinct and isolated fishing culture with its own folkways and Gaelic dialect. They were, for all intents and purposes, depopulated in 1953 when the Irish government oversaw a resettlement in Dingle. The population has declined by then, and the remaining folks were having trouble coping with the stringent conditions. A large contingent of them moved together to Springfield, Mass.

The lady at the tourist office had recommended hiking out from the museum if we wanted a mild stroll on the loop, but we never found a real, manageable trail. The available one across the road went up over a steep hill and was more than we wanted or had made time for. I searched the adjoining fields for a trailhead while Lindy got a bite in the cafeteria. A number of individual families was also wandering there. The land had a pleasant, sweet sensuousness to it, brightly colored wildflowers, a mild, salty breeze off the sea, but there was no access to a trail, as the only one lay on the other side of a barbed-wire-topped fence. Heading back to the museum, I stepped on ground that looked solid but was so imperceptibly boggy that my lead foot descended into pure liquid. I was wearing five-fingered shoes without socks, and luckily the dipped one dried off quickly.

After her lunch, Lindy and I walked along a path that turned into a dirt road parallel to the shore. We spent about a half hour on a mini-hike. The wildflowers, possibly parts of abandoned gardens, were in such rich, luminous patches of blue and yellow in spots that my gazing into them engendered trance-inducing moirés. I am a bright-color devotee, so the flowers alone rewarded a hike otherwise quite reduced from what we had hoped for. The patchwork of farmed hillsides in the distance, sea breeze, and subtle West Ireland vortex also added to a calm delight. Not all journeys are epic; the wisest vibrations are subtle.

The fact that we were on a live road was demonstrated by the Irish Post vehicle that forced us to climb onto tight embankments, a friendly wave delivered by the postman (and returned) on both his directions.

You already know about the main road, so I won’t belabor the rest of Slea Head Drive. We stopped for instructions for the shortcut back at an inn/pub. I considered the quirky male deliverer entertaining and droll; Lindy thought him nasty and rude—a matter of reading style: sweet and funny or passive-aggressive.

 

Soon after returning, I walked down Goat Street to the Holistic Health Center for a book session with Irene Flannery. While waiting, I sorted her specialties advertised in the window, from those of fellow practitioners. She tended toward avenues of nutritional diagnosis and therapy, while her sisters, who also practiced there, did angelwork, bodywork, and aromatherapy.

She and I sat and talked for about an hour, going between the manuscript on her computer screen and tales from each of our lives. The tragedy of the loss of her older sister Ursula to cancer had led her to alternative medicine several years ago, as she returned to school to study nutrition. She had run a local restaurant prior to that. Our son Robin’s age, she had both young children (six and nine) and a twenty-six-year-old.

In spending time with her, I gradually appreciate her presence and nature, like watching and hearing a person on stage in a play come to life as a character. Of course, this is generally true of meetings in person. I guess it stands out because it happened imperceptibly around a discussion of her book on nutrition, herbs, and cancer (prevention and treatment). I gradually realized that editing tone was an issue insofar as the indigenous Irish personality, a blend of mournful determination, community, family closeness, and high humor, was different from, say, Paul Pitchford’s light, dry Healing with Whole Foods. We talked about possible tonal shifts she might take in her next pass.

Lindy and I had quite an evening walkabout before settling on a place for dinner, partly as a way to see more of Dingle in its night bustle. We discarded two restaurants as too pricey, meaning 40 to 60 Euros for a main dish, or as more bar than restaurant with a rowdy drinking-and-smoking gauntlet to pass through to enter. I meant to take the Rick Steves guide with us but forgot, and so the fact I remembered the name of the highly recommended Out of the Blue restaurant and others surrounding it became an imperfect compass, I was missing the address and directions. Safari searches on the phone were of little help because the direction apps on my cell phone refused to recognize Waterside Street, sending me alternately to Scotland, Massachusetts, and Denmark. Waterside turned out, not surprisingly, to be by the marina. The Steves guide had said that Out of the Blue was developed and run by fishermen and featured a bare-bones fish menu, nothing fancy but always fresh, the day’s catch.

It turned out to be a reclaimed, brightly colored blue-and-yellow shack with a decorated and packed interior, a wait unfortunately of at least an hour. However, with the sudden departure of a group of customers, there was the option of eating outside at the picnic tables, and we and a number of other tourists grabbed it despite the breeze and coolness. It would be daylight till after ten—another two hours—though the last patch of sun was disappearing, as the waitress cleaning the tables pointed out, behind a blue stone building across the street. The wind blew down menu signs she tried to stand up for customers to look. Yet it was a quite serviceable solution at a very busy hour—we were lucky to get the seats at all.

The whiteboard menu was like a great glossary of local fish. One could mix and match sauces, so I got almond-lemon hake and Lindy got red-brandy-flambéd scallops.

The sustained care, dignity, and lightness of our waitress, an older woman, was more the norm in Ireland than the exception, but it particularly still stood out here. Though kept fully running around among her tables inside, she attended to the outdoor folks with diligence, inquiring about us with a sustained empathy that made her unintrusive, in fact delightful. Autopilot “how are things?” waiters or waitresses can all but ruin a meal, as they continually disrupt the chi of eating and digesting.

After dinner, we hiked back through town and up the hill to Fenton’s, the site of our meal the night before, for a repeat of dessert and more staff camaraderie. I wanted another gooseberry and elderberry crumble with light whipped cream—how often do you get either fat sour gooseberries or sweet winey elderberries baked into an ample dessert, let alone both at once? Lindy decided on the night’s strawberry-rhubarb crumble. We sat at the bar and exchanged thoughts with Maev, our hostess yesterday and today. She made it much like a friendly conversation at a party, though preparing drinks, running credit cards, and providing glasses and silverware to the restaurant’s owner on call. I don’t mean to inflate unnecessarily, but the staff we encountered changed the evening into a cordial social event beyond mere food.

We had planned on Irish music at a pub, but this was a case of discretion being the better part of tourism valor. We didn’t need to pack in the points. We were far too tired for anything more on the day.

 

July 13, 2017

Sad to be leaving Dingle. Each of these Irish stops is like a lifetime in a day or two, a world found and then lost, new friends and routes and sites that become familiar, as we learn how to navigate where we are. Strange how place these come and then fade—Dublin, Galway, Ennis, and now Dingle already behind us, deep into our Ireland journey.

Our B&B host Rita is an original, full of emotion and rapport. She has a gesture, a touch of her hand to your arm with a bashful or diffident toss of the head to indicate abrupt topic change, that she had gone down a perhaps-tedious path. Rita explained that the “Stunning New Residential Development” was what we already saw, the houses across the green. The green itself was not in danger. The damage was done.

She said that she saw online that Rick Steves himself was in town this week but he never visited her. We offered to put in a good word if we could figure out how. We also commiserated together on how booking.com hijacked reservations and took an unnecessary middleman cut from both parties and how hard it is to prevent that. Watch the tricks the next time you try to book online. They have obviously paid to get precedent over even places’ own websites. My mistake was that, after getting on B&B or hotel websites, I clicked on, “free cancellation.” That took me to the booking.com website without my realizing it. Basically booking.com tries to make you feel they are both benign and essential. They are neither. They pretend to be an honest, client-sensitive business when they are little more than upscale phishers.

Before heading back to Ennis, we stopped in town for Lindy to meet Irene at the health-food store. As we told her about our evening, we learned, to our astonishment, that she was the founder of Out of the Blue, beginning with an abandoned shed and a couple of tables. She sold it to the husband of her niece after three years when she broke her ankle and couldn’t do the heavy lifting the place required. We learned too that her childhood was spent four houses up Goat Street from Bolands B&B.

After visiting her, we crossed the street and saw wortwoman Deidre, who had made a slippery-elm-and-thuja combination for removing tiny growths from skin for me and a lip balm of chamomile and beeswax for Lindy.

 

On the roads from Dingle to Tralee to Limerick to Ennis (3+ hours), I realized that the soft rectilinear contours of the fields came from the fact that rows of trees or hedges separated them, so they were clearly divided but not sharply. As they roll along on hills, they have a slightly Escher look. Small Irish towns are really compact, cubbies within a green. Each has a shape and a boundary. When it ends, it ends, virtually no mini-suburbs—like a page in a children’s picture book

On the radio, Lindy found the Gaelic music station. It reminded me of how, over fifty years ago, I turned on the Navaho station while crossing the reservation in Arizona. You want to hear the spoken word, especially of a language that is rarely eavesdropped on. Navaho and Gaelic speak to mystery worlds: shamans and druids. Unless you are more of a linguist than me, the phonemes are not a clue to anything objective, yet languages, like cultures, have a character. An hour of Gaelic sounds very different from overheard street talk in Dingle or an occasional phrase for effect. I felt as though I could hear its Central European Bronze Age origin, a dense Germanic ring separating it from more familiar Romance languages, even from the light English brogues of Irish people. I heard a Bronze fallback or echo and fancifully perhaps, a tad of the nasal, glottal-stop quality of some Amerindian tongues, an occasional slide across a Chinese palate, and a bit of Hebrew cantorial chant. This is hardly Morris Swadesh-level glottochronology, but it’s in the spirit of his global vowel and consonant shifts—the inexplicable unconscious transformation across cultures that creates dialects and new languages. Who is switching sounds? No thinks he or she is. Members of the separating culture continue to hear their own speech as normal, members of the source culture likewise, as both are drifting apart from each other like galaxies of relationship between sound and meaning.

The music on the radio was varied. Though there was plenty of what I think of as almost dirge-like Irish music, a lot of what was played had a different sound, more like bossa-nova or musicalized bird calls in Gaelic.

 

We arrived in Ennis to Ireland’s alchemical rain materializing in fine droplets out of a gray sky—none of the mood of rain, more the aura of an invisible rainbow.

It was nice, for the first time, to return to a known town and walk streets with which we were familiar.

I had written the craniosacral therapist above the health-food store, Patricia McMahon, from Dingle. She didn’t get the email but on a second try scheduled a short-notice appointment at 5:30 while we were en route. We got in at 3:45, ample leeway.

Every practitioner is different. There wouldn’t be much to say if Patricia was a standard bodyworker with conventional techniques—I mean she was, but that wasn’t the interest. As Upledger-Institute-trained therapists go, she was light on the more complicated techniques and had not taken the visceral-manipulation classes, so was purely cranial. She stuck to basics—release of sacrum, pelvis, throat, neck, cranial vault, cranial rhythms of liver and intestines, etc.—but she did those with commitment and patience. She spent ninety minutes on the treatment and hung out for long spells in place, deepening, letting points go through full releases and therapeutic pulses and even the occasional reverberation of subtle energy through v-spread technique, one hand on belly, one on back. This attention, more than the advanced rigmarole, is the true art of the healer and the system. Patricia had mastered CST 1 and 2, and that was sufficient for a treatment. You can always do more and better, more and more sophisticated and eclectic, but the client’s mind-body-spirit system won’t receive it usefully. Overload, augmentation, and core resistance replace tissue intelligence and what John Upledger called “your inner physician,” who does the real work.

Some of you may not know CST, and this is not the place to elaborate. I will say only that it is an idiosyncratic blend of cranial osteopathy, polarity, Chinese medicine, and practitioner-refined modes of manual medicine that were popular and respected before the AMA established its private guild and determined which brands of therapy were legitimate.

Patricia’s strength was in being a healer. She worked from her core, had warm, charged hands in a faith-healing tradition, no surprise since was a practitioner of Reiki and reflexology before she took up craniosacral. She said she did because wanted something “a bit more backed by evidence.”

My sense was that she transmitted a singular energy through the different matrices she trained, CST being the current one. Slight in build, with reddish hair and complexion, indefinably in her fifties or sixties, brief and succinct with words, superficially shy but definite of action, she was always interesting and curiosity-inducing in her hands-on work.

Where this vignette meets the travel journal is that during the ninety minutes of the treatment, my whole trip through Ireland played out at a deeper level. I travelled back through it under the surfaces. I realized that there is such a thing as Irish energy healing different from American energy healing, and it is transmitted by a person of Irish roots and sensibility. The landscape, the tenor and character of the native people, the traditional music, the sound of Gaelic lyrics reprised themselves as something else in the course of the session, so it was more than craniosacral, it was psychic transmission. That “something else” was in no way a picture postcard or folklore; it was prelinguistic, pastoral, and played through the chakras at one station below where she worked, so that I experienced a vibrating interior orange-red glow at the belly, a green glow at the throat. This had a Vulcan mind-meld quality, except for there being no attempt to “communicate” in semantic units. It was Upledger’s cell talk.

Patricia transmitted Ireland while doing regular cranial work and, since it was me receiving it, I experienced emotional and esoteric aspects of my sister’s suicide seven months ago. What the treatment felt like was regular releases and trance states incorporated within a telepathic conveyance of ambiance, making me briefly Irish. Since my sister was raised by an Irish nurse (who was closer to her emotionally than her mother and also a major figure for my brother and me in our childhood), the Irish theme fused the two together, and the trip to Ireland became a processing of the recent tragedy.

Patricia didn’t have to be consciously aware of any of this. She just had to do her practice. The practice was the transmission—even as in zazen, the posture is the message. It is not a way to the meaning; it creates the meaning.

Now that Ireland was dreamed on a different tier I walked back to the Old Ground Hotel, seven PM. A half hour later Lindy and I went to a restaurant that Patricia recommended, The Dining Room. Afterwards we tried the Irish music in the hotel bar, but it was standard jigs in a very crowded space, and once again we were tired.

We are headed tomorrow to a hotel Frank found for us outside Galway in Athenry. It’s a bit pricey, but we have entered the open period of trip. Having eliminated Meath, we need to come up with alternative agendas until we are due in Portstewart on July 20.

 

July 14, 2017

We walked around Ennis, each on our own this morning, no agenda or touted sight, just small details encountered: faces of adults and children (many of them so Irish it seems cinematic), sounds of conversation (their pitch and brogue), posters, graffiti, clothing styles, tiny modern statues of animals, a large modern statue of Market Day on Market Street, street musicians, churches, lamp posts, cats and dogs in windows, flower arrangements, mail boxes, bright painted doorways, devout Catholic prayers on walls. They’re each indigenous to the moment and place.

There are probably only about five or six streets in the center of Ennis, though they are entangled in such a way that it is easy to get lost. The grid is inherited from the Mediaeval city. If you walk long enough and keep circling, eventually something familiar reappears. I visited the computer store for dialogue about a few issues I had (very full explanations from the tech), then had a small adventure getting a stamp to mail a document that had to be printed and signed, and enjoyed getting lost and seeing different shops and street incidents.

Last night while heading back from the craniosacral session, I saw something I don’t think I have ever seen before: two young men fist-fighting for real on the street, one trying to bash the other’s head into the pavement. It was either serious or a well-done performance. I think the former, but I have seen such fights so often in movies that it is hard not to think of it as fake. Spectators tried to pull them apart with no more success than if they were pit bulls. The guys reengaged as agilely as acrobats in a modern dance, shouting in rage, each as determined as the other to tear his adversary apart. As I continued down the street, I saw a yellow-coated policeman running that way. Probably real….

Interesting reading the Irish Independent at breakfast. The new IRA seems to be a rising danger in this age of creative terrorism. An Iraqi doctor claimed that she didn’t stab her baby to death; her hand did, controlled by an invisible power. A dangerous mafia hitman was released from jail and was sure to murder again—no explanation of why he was released. The equivalent of Social Security was to be raised to age 70. A woman was grieving her husband, killed by a gunman dressed as a woman—apparently a mistaken victim, no back story.

The sporting event that on the TV bar (silently) while musicians played in The Poet’s Corner the previous evening was covered on the back page. I cannot tell what sport it is: men with paddles aim at goals and tackle each other; it seems a combination of field hockey, lacrosse, European football, cricket, and rugby, in about that order.

We drove to the hotel Frank found for us, in Athenry, a rural suburb of Galway. Driving in Ireland is always worth a story or two. In this case, drama happened early.

The most common instruction on the GPS is: “In X kilometers (or meters) at the roundabout take the first (or second or third or fourth, etc.) exit for wherever”: it is a street or road or highway like M386. Roundabouts are as common as traffic lights.

As noted, the signage on the road doesn’t always correspond to the names spoken by the GPS. When dissonance occurs, it usually isn’t a problem, but if you are supposed to take the third or fourth exit and there is a lot of traffic in the roundabout, and the name suddenly doesn’t correspond, it is easy to pick the wrong exit. That is what happened to us not far from Ennis, and it was very difficult for Lindy to pick up a recalculated sidestreet because the GPS was continually slow to alert us to each one when it was already passed. We finally ended up on a rural lane that seemed unlikely to get us back and which had no GPS correlate except “road.” We were arguing about whether to turn around or continue to follow the instructions when an older man on a motorcycle pulled up and signaled for us to roll down our window. After a discussion with him established our situation, he said he would lead us to the right road to Athenry, N85 I believe. We each made U-turns, and he got in front, becoming a combination pulling guard and good Samaritan. It was a goodly distance, about ten kilometers to a spot where we were clearly on the highway and separated from Limerick traffic. I have no idea if the cyclist went out of his way to do that, but it was mega-generous of him. Lindy joked that she hoped he’d lead us all the way to our hotel.

The last fifteen or so kilometers, after we veered out of Galway traffic to the voice of the machine, was very tight roads, a stone wall usually on the left, and many roundabouts and turns. The scenery featured old stone cottages, stone walls both on the roadside and in the far distance up and down rolling landscapes like an exhibit of relics, sheep, hills, trees elegantly cut to allow telephone lines to pass through them without harm to either—vintage Ireland.

We finally reached our destination: Raheen Woods, a modern hotel facility in the countryside, more like a golf resort than the sorts of places we were accustomed to.

Later in the afternoon we made a test run to the Athenry train station. The woman at the front desk said it was five-minute walk. Lindy questioned her on that that, as distances had been regularly underestimated. “It has to be,” she affirmed. “Why the town’s only ten minutes.” Despite a brisk pace, it took us twenty-five minutes to get to the train tracks and another five to the station.

We checked out the set-up. Nothing was obvious. What we thought was the station beside a parking lot for the trains was a tiny private hut with dinner on the table (as spied through the window). We finally found the station itself down a lane with ticket machine and had a droll dialogue with an older woman and some teens waiting on a long bench for the next train to Galway, as we tried to ascertain the ground rules. The woman was pedagogical, for instance insisting we use the parking lot or we’d get a ticket (although there seemed ample spaces on the street): “It’s only three euros,” she said. She also warned us to be on our toes, “You only have a few seconds. The doors open and close. They don’t dawdle here.” We got told the side of the tracks for Galway and learned that we needed euro coins to park (no credit cards). On the way back, we stopped to watch the Irish Rail from Galway pass like a soft, sleek caterpillar in the distance.

 

July 15, 2017

This was one of the hardest days ever. Not on psychological and psychic levels but in terms of physical crisis and degree of social challenge. I have been preaching all along in this journal that travelling has to do with learning about yourself but, like most tourists, I have tried to accrue positive experiences and events and friendly, neutral interactions. I have been an innate capitalist: acquirer and spinner of what I acquire. This is also who I endemically am for being raised in the post-war US. Something happens to knock that away to expose a deeper reality. The the rules change. The score changes—the pinballs stop, and all prior points are wiped from the console. The game is a different game. It is not an unfamiliar or unworthy one, but it ends tourist acquisition and amelioration. Things get real, unbearably and irrevocably real.

The issue here is motion sickness. I am not only prone to motion sickness, I am far out in the tenth-of-percentage-point percentile of people in terms of susceptibility. Yet I have managed to navigate circumstance so successfully that I have only maybe a dozen to twenty episodes of acute motion sickness in my life. For instance, though I wrote my PhD anthropology thesis on fishermen, I only went out in a fishing boat once, with my main “informant,” Wendell Seavey. That turned into one of the more severe of the acute instances.

A boat at sea affords no escape routes, which is probably why the most storied accounts of motion sickness have been about sea sickness. I don’t generally go to sea in small boats, so I have usually been able to extricate myself before the condition got acute. Those instances have been predominantly with Lindy present, and driving, or able to drive, and us able to stop and take a break, or not far from home. Only once that I can remember did I get carsick while driving, about twenty years ago after taking a homeopathic remedy for motion sickness. It was while driving back to Berkeley from the physician in Mill Valley. That was perhaps homeopathic aggravation.

I have never found a successful remedy, homeopathic or other, though I do have an effective general nausea remedy that our daughter Miranda got me for Christmas a few years ago from a local company, Herb Lore, while we were in Nevada City, and I carry it around as a cure-all for a wide range of conditions: headaches, digestive difficulty, motion sickness, migraine auras, etc. It is a blend of chamomile, dandelion root, fennel, peppermint, red raspberry, wild yam root, and ginger root. I have had success with electrical bracelets that send shocks into acupuncture points on meridians passing through the wrists, but the last one I owned broke and I haven’t found a replacement.

Motion sickness is like nothing else. As a friend once put it—and she probably got it from a classic maxim—“First you think you’re going to die. Then you’re afraid you’re not.” I read an article a few years ago about a NASA study of motion sickness—it was a deterrent in the manned space program. From the article, I learned that a disease of the brain when certain centers malfunction in terms of orientation—cognitive direction and perception of motion in relation to action direction and motion. It isn’t just a matter of a brief misread that self-corrects. It recurs continually and spreads like a computer virus, a global error, locking in and distributing itself throughout the nervous system and viscera. Basic somatic and psychosomatic networks cease functioning in a normal fashion—computer crash. From inside, it feels like hell: nausea, dizziness, upset stomach, hot and cold chills, sweating, spasmodic shaking, restlessness, a heightened sensitivity to sound and light, an inability to organize neural input properly (adding to the dizziness), a Tourettes-like loss of control of voice, and basic core weakness. It is illegal form of torture, banned by the Geneva conventions, except it is unprosecutable, coming from within. The brain not working and not being able to be summoned for help is a major impediment to antidote or alleviation.

Before today I never had acute motion sickness in a public situation or in a situation that I couldn’t, to some degree, control. I could always escape the motion in a reasonable period of time and get a respite to recover. If I can get out of a moving vehicle quickly, or stop my own motion (for instance, in certain partially upside-down yoga postures), I can reverse the symptoms before they become irreversible and acute. Once motion sickness crosses an imperceptible line, it is like a ball rolling downhill; the hill controls the ball, and there is nothing to do but wait for bottom. It is terrible when there is no foreseeable bottom or end to the vortex.

Oliver Sacks treated motion sickness as a migraine and epilepsy equivalent, a similar brain disorder to those seizures, but with nausea and dizziness rather than pounding pain or fainting spasms and spells.

No one with susceptibility to acute motion sickness should have gotten on a bus about to travel the Connemara loop. It was a reckless and foolhardy feat to attempt, but when you aren’t motion sick, you feel immune to it despite your past encounters. Motion sickness is totally persuasive; it makes you not want to do anything with even the slightest chance of bringing it on. Yet, oddly, no matter how bad it is, in between episodes one feels cured and immune.

Everything was heedlessly leading me onto the roller-coaster called the Connemara loop: Frank’s promise of a comped excursion, our desire to see Connemara all the way back to plans made in Maine, our Ireland gumption. I was also blinded by a wish to be normal, a touch of bravado, and a supplanting of my own reality by the descriptions of must-see places in the tourist literature. We were offered this trip as a gift, so I took it. I should have looked more closely at what I was accepting and what the real risk-reward ratio was.

 

The day started off innocently enough—an early rise to a rainy Saturday, proper preparation with boots and raincoats and a short drive from Athenry to Galway—under the duress of time we elected not to risk the train. It was about twenty-five minutes to where Frank said to park on Dock Street across from the orange and yellow Don Aongus apartment complexes facing the marina—and we found it with extra intrigue, not all the case with a site not able to be put into the GPS. Lindy drove in, as we found ourselves in familiar surroundings: Eyre Square, past Le Petite Pois, streets we had walked a few days ago. Frank had asked for our license plate, saying parking was free, but we weren’t expecting parking machines and warnings of a clamp for illegal parkers. I texted Frank about that. He quickly back, “No money required. You are a guest of the mayor!”

We began the seven-minute walk to the pickup spot, a hostel just off Eyre Square, luckily falling in with a couple from Littleton, Colorado, heading for a different tour that met at the same spot. That was just as we were beginning to doubt the GPS on my cell, or more accurately, as it began to reverse its own direction. We hung out in a mob of different tours, then found our Wild Atlantic Connemara bus, one of the smaller ones, and boarded.

The day that stretched before us was long: eight and a half hours to do the loop— leave at 9:00, return at 17:30.

The bus rolled through Galway suburbs as our driver, Seamus, a big gentle-giant, older middle-aged man spoke through an attached microphone, highlighting a variety of expendable but entertaining facts, from the changing history of the suburbs to the recent record in the qualifiers of the Galway Football Club called the Tribesmen, then why they were called the Tribesmen (from the original tribes that founded the city). It was a partly-dedicated, partly-free-associative loop that was intrusive in its insistence like a radio left on, though mostly affable company. Greenery and stone architecture dominated, the ocean to our left shrouded in fog, beach and surf visible, stone houses of all sorts on both sides of the road, many of them newly constructed in the traditional fashion.

The stone walls were particularly notable, a continual indication of where we were: Gaelic countryside. Along the road, their ubiquity and seamless designs despite the irregular mosaics making them up spoke to a history of artisanry, likewise the thatched roofs, a craft which, Seamus said, insurance companies sadly had sent into decline. They put an exorbitant surtax on their use.  A bit down the road he pointed to two new cinderblock-type homes with different weaves of thatch as examples of defiance, wealth, and expressions of luxury and good taste.

The walls in the fields were so varied and various in their distribution that they made me think of membranes inside cells, the distribution of Golgi bodies and mitochondria. Many of them were abandoned and discontinuous in their current form but left alone as remnants, like respect for the ancestors. There were plenty of abandoned stone houses—like corpses of stone—usually roofless and often missing part of a wall.

As we turned inland, the landscape changed abruptly: wide-open fields with stone outcroppings and boulders, habitations fewer and farther between. We eventually stopped in the parking lot of the visitors’ center for the summer home of patriot rebel Patrick Pearse, the eloquent spokesman of the 1916 uprising. In lead-up to that, Seamus reprised a series of rebellions capped by the War for Irish Independence, that latter I believe from 1919-1921. He said that the execution of Pearse and his colleagues had ignited the Irish people to fight for their freedom from British rule, hence the example had backfired. He went on to talk about the remaining six counties in the North in which the majority Protestants had chosen to remain part of Britain. He tiptoed around the politics, assuring us that everyone wanted peace, orange and green alike, while not neglecting to add that the Republicans were still active, perhaps not entirely satisfied with the current situation.

We were let off to walk about for twenty minutes. Pearse’s tiny cottage was far enough up the hill that one could barely get there and back in that time, so the short frame plus information, announced at least five times, that it would cost you four euros to enter the cottage but that you could go anywhere else, furnished little incentive to enter—pay four euros for what, a minute or two? Lindy went into the visitors’ center, while I chose to walk up the hill in a group headed toward the cottage. I lagged behind because I was more interested in the fields: rocky outcrops of great size and in more abundance that I had seen anywhere else, erratic boulders strewn, a soft peat underfooting in most places with water running out from under it such that I knew I was in a bog which, though it was solid and dry on the crust, held the ongoing danger of stepping onto a spot that descended into water. I had done so in the Dingle peninsula when I didn’t have boots, but here I did, so was fearless.

The botany was boglike: pitcher plants, moor grass, rose, heather, and patches of tiny flowers among leaves looking like garden herbs such as rosemary, chamomile, and thyme but were wilder and less known vintages. It was a place I felt akin to, where I could spend happily spend time. I liked the sparseness, primordial stoniness, and herbal-apothecary smell. It was a living medicine wheel.

A landscape that was part peat bog and part solid proceeded for many subsequent bus miles through fields, leading to Seamus’ prolix discourse about the use of peat as fuel. Bodies of water sat in the fields like small lakes and ponds, but they had so many islands in them, ranging from ones that were soccer-ball-size to somewhat larger ones that were home to a single tree plus a few that could support a hobbit cottage, that they were more like bogs that had taken on too much water than honest lakes. Ground foliage wrapped around these small islands right down into the water the way it does in ponds and streams within a sphagnum bog in Maine. Seamus stopped the bus at one spot to allow claiming of a chunk of peat to be passed around the tour members. He said it wasn’t a very good specimen for burning—those were deeper in—but it had a crusty dung texture. We later passed wagons loaded with broad, folded strips of similar peat.

My concern about motion sickness had diminished to the point of inward exaltation. I was handling the road well. It was winding, with constant stops and restarts because it was so narrow, and it was becoming narrower as we progressed, for we had to permit the passage of bicyclists, walkers, and vehicles from the other direction while avoiding percussion. I put faith in my text exchange with Frank about my concerns at the start. While he acknowledged them, he replied that it wasn’t ever a problem on these tours and to have a good time. Now I believed that.

Everything changed suddenly and unexpectedly. I was dozing for a few seconds because of the soporific motion of the vehicle. I awoke from my catnap with a start, and felt, without explanation, the first unmistakable signs of motion sickness: clammy hands, a light cold sweat on my forehead, a beginning dizziness, a sense of being unable to find ground in my body. I shot a dropper full of herb in my mouth, still confident. I had been at this juncture before and had motion sickness dissipate and retreat. But the movement and path of the bus were an unassailable counterforce. We were now on a single lane road, winding continuously, stopping and starting every minute or so. I was in over my head.

We reached our first town stop on the loop, Roundstone. I got up shakily and headed for the exit in the traffic of bodies, desperate for air and to be off a moving object. It was in Roundstone that I made a series of crucial mistakes and passed key failsafe points. I was aware that the ball had begun rolling downhill and, if I thought this motion sickness was still going to diminish, I was deluding myself. But then I had never been in such a stringent situation. We still had seven hours to go and were far from Galway—over seventy kilometers—with no obvious way back. I said to Lindy, “I think I’m too motion sick to continue this tour.” I spoke this sentence, though, as words that were unreal even to me, more like a musing than a commitment.

She said, “You have to get through it. We’re on the tour for the whole day, and the bus is the only way back.”

I texted Frank. He texted back, “Go to Clifden. Speak to Seamus. There’s a bus back to Galway from there.”

I went to see Seamus who was standing beside his bus up the street, immediately complaining about not getting his usual parking spot. I heard him out, then confided my situation and what Frank had texted. He expressed sincere sympathy, no annoyance at all, and said, “We’ll seat you upfront with me. I’m sure the lady there won’t mind switching with you. Maybe you’ll be fine then.”

I should have been definitive—that, no I wouldn’t really be fine. I shouldn’t have tried to make it to Clifden, an hour away. Instead, while the others grabbed a coffee, tea, or a snack down the street, I stood in a stone area next to a playground and did chi-gung-like and stretching exercises, exacerbating the motion sickness, something I had never tried. I was feeling desperate, and necessity is, of course the mother of invention. Plus, a good rule when unwinding a condition is to work counter to habit and impulse.

The exercises were helpful. I felt very nauseous while doing them but better afterward. I slid into the front seat with hope. I remembered something Wendell had said, “It took courage for you to get on a boat, knowing how sick you were likely to be.” This was that moment all over again, and I wanted to regain the courage he had given me.

Everything looked different coming at me in the big front window, less dizzying despite our continuous turns. It was fascinating to see us almost dangle over the left edge as we wended along through fields. I wasn’t feeling any better, but I wasn’t getting worse, which is what I told Seamus when he inquired. I was looking at some rocks in the fields as maybe faery homes, for they seemed to shimmer and shape-change in my altered sight. Synchronously just as I recognized that, Seamus began talking about faery forts reported in these parts and how, if one was in a farmer’s field, the owner didn’t disturb it. I was heartened by my subtle sight.

We stopped at the sea. As I tried to stand up, I realized how much dizzier I was than I had thought. I waited for everyone else to debark first before I attempted it again. I could barely get upright. I limped down to the beach and strode in my boots through the edge of the water. The sea was a luminous shade of shifting green and blue-green like malachite jellies. Realizing how wild and primitive my state was, I edged into the water, even past the capacity of the boots to keep out moisture, and cupped seawater and poured it on my head.

Tasting salt and wiping sand off my face and out of my ears, I re-boarded, a near crazy person now. Plus, I had to walk through a gauntlet of passengers getting their last drag of cigarettes outside, an immediate amper of nausea. Very soon after the ocean we left the road to go up and down a small hill to see a monument to the first plane crossing the Atlantic from America. The pilots were aiming for England but settled on a more immediate option that presented itself. “Nineteen hours, could you blame them?” Seamus said repeatedly. The monument wasn’t where they landed; it was a recognition of the event, some distance from the site. I didn’t go to the monument. I sat, breathed, meditated, and then resumed my seat upfront. The short bumpy serpentine route up and down the hill had removed my last coat of protection and illusion. The rock of motion sickness was in freefall down the slippery slope.

I can no longer report on the tour after that. My state was still Ireland, just not on the docket. I got sicker and sicker until I was no longer human—well, I was human but no longer fit for civilized society as it is presently construed.

I am reminded of a science-fiction novel, an exchange between a regular Earth-dweller and a figure who changed dimensions between identities, not at his will. The Earth-dweller asked him, “Are you human?”

The guy replied, “I don’t…think so.”

I know I’m not normal. Suicides by my mother, brother, and sister tell me irrefutably where I come from. I am passable, but my system is extreme and also hyper-sensitive. That’s why I’m way out on the bell curve on neurological matters. It is not a surprise that I have such acute motion-sickness because my general mind-body realm is acute. Its restiveness cues my writing and psychospiritual practices. I get to hermetic and strange places easily, yet never take entheogens. I tend to ground psychic and emotional states in physical counterparts. And there my mind floats, a spirit tied like a balloon to the microcosm.

The sheer wave and wall of reality is my Rubicon; it is sometimes overwhelming. Most of the time, as I said, I handle it, but there is always that part of me not handling it, and it has a systemic correlate in states like panic and motion sickness.

Fellow passengers, from several countries, were becoming aware of my crisis, and some offered me gum or mints, which I put in the pouch of my raincoat and tried at desperate moment. When we boarded after the monument a nurse handed me a pill she had, telling me she could never be on the bus without it. She said it was much stronger than Dramamine and without the drowsiness. I knew better than to take pills from strangers, especially those in the pharmaceutical establishment. But I drank it down with my bottle of water. It didn’t make things any better and probably made them worse because either it was psychoactive or I imagined it so. I became roller-coaster-like dizzy and quite light-headed. (I learned about a month later back in the States from an osteopath who treated me that the connection between the sphenoid bone behind my eyes and my vestibular system leaves me very little margin to adjust and reorient. Too much unprocessable information comes in and the system loses its balance and orientation and shuts down.)

The road became windier with more stops and starts. Rain and fog had clouded my side of the windshield, which was untouched by the wiper, so I couldn’t look out that way without seeing kaleidoscopic distortions.

I was gone. Only motion sickness remained. It cried and moaned and chanted its own voice. I knew that I had become a spectacle. One can’t moan and cry in public without becoming a spectacle. When Seamus, in great tenderness and mercy, spoke to Richard, my name itself was unfamiliar. I had left that person and gone elsewhere. I barely heard his pep talks and encouragements, but I did hear, “We try our best, but what can we do, Richard?” It was not a minor statement. It was a real man, an Irishman, apart from the scripted drivel he was supposed to say. That statement contained an entire philosophy of life and penetrated me like a syringe: “We try our best, but what can we do?” This was all Ireland, all enchantment, all faery; isle of hope, isle of tears. I just wasn’t ready for it or prepared for this deeper frequency and I didn’t know how to process it. Or I did, and was doing it. Motion sickness performs its own dance and speaks with its own voice.

I wasn’t moaning and crying, Richard was. The moaning felt more like chanting, long repeated Oms, and I tried to make it into those. The cries were the only things keeping me out of the vortex. I twisted myself about from position to position, each providing brief relief, feet occasionally up on the dashboard for which I asked permission. For some reason, each new posture gave brief grounding and a snippet of relief. I was pulling at my hair, clawing at my body—no way around it, it was horrible, a grim, piper’s jig. “This was major,” Lindy said later.

Major it was, and public.

Seamus periodically warned, “Sorry, Richard, but there’s a bad stretch up ahead.” But every second was bad, and the worse parts made me think about prisoners at Guantanamo. I don’t want to inflate my circumstance, just account my imaging.

This purgatory went on for an interminable spell. We drove right through Clifden. I had no volition and didn’t ask to stop there—I guess because the next break was for a full two hours, and I figured we might as well get there. I was in no shape to take a bus from Clifden anyhow. I felt that it was endgame; I had no good options.
A powerful insight came to me during this time. It served as a rationale and defense. North Atlantic author Stephen Jenkinson, a hospice director for a long spell in Canada, wrote a book called Die Wise. Soon after we published it, he astonishingly lectured at the Unitarian Church down the road from us in Portland to a packed room. One of the things he said that night surprised changed me. It was important new information. He said that most deaths he had observed were bad deaths—the person tried to leave the social world before departing the physical realm and go into themselves so they could perish in isolation. Our institutions also encourage that. But in so doing what the dying person thinks is appropriate, he or she removes himself (herself) from society and connection, from the people he most needs and who most need him, to be present for them and to teach them about dying. Jenkinson asserted that the system was set up to deny death and defend us against its intrusion, and the dying man or woman bought in, accepting, requesting painkillers and other drugs, and turning inward. To die a good death, he said you had to be willing to reveal and share yourself and what you were going through

I wasn’t dying, though it felt like I was. I was in a different torment, and I had no out, no prerogative but to display it. I hoped that people on the bus understood. It was a gift, a terrible gift, but the only one I could give, and had to give, and it broke all rules of conduct and propriety. I made my motion sickness public in all its ugly glory and thus provided the somatic equivalent of a performance or reading from my core work, my baseline voice. I wasn’t trying to do what Jenkinson suggested. I was there without choosing it—an unwanted expiation and song.

I was teaching too. Motion sickness is one of those diseases that, though not uncommon, is not fully acknowledged, understood, respected, or served. You are alone—absolutely alone.

I thought about my daughter Miranda whose performances crash through taboos and usual audience-performer boundaries, to present difficult topics. Sometimes she even sang, though not much of a singer in a conventional sense, when words were the expected currency, as, for instance, when on a panel.

I wasn’t much of a singer either. Sometimes the performance and reality are not discrete or distinct. I certainly tried to maintain a smidgen of art, finding an Om in my groans and keeping good and dry humor to answer Seamus’ encouragements and warnings of rough road ahead.

Lindy said later, “All the people on the bus were rooting for you.” But I felt like a guy who kept popping up or striking out with the game on the line. And her comment turned out not to be entirely true.

We finally had a choice of the Connemara National Park or Kylemore Abbey finally. I picked the Park. It come sooner and it sounded like the kind space where I needed to be. I need to be let loose onto the land never to return to the bus.

I am vague on what happened on arrival. Two men helped me off. I couldn’t stand up. I lay down on the grass in the rain and took in the non-moving sensation like an oasis, though I was still spinning inside. I had been in agony for more than an hour and, once it gets to the core, it doesn’t just dissipate. They got me up and helped me to the visitor’s center. They had no facility for this situation. Calling an ambulance or summoning a doctor were discussed but rejected as impractical since I was apparently only motion sick.

It is hard to believe I could be in this state, unable to stand without help, and a few hours later be as if it had never happened. That’s how acute yet transient motion sickness is. A few events down the road, literal and figurative, when Lindy couldn’t back the car and the GPS had lost its bearings outside Athenry, I backed it up, then took over the driving.

Motion sickness is throes of torture, a voodoo-like possession, but once the ball stops rolling downhill, the malaise is gone, leaving only a mild hangover. It that sense it is a fit, an epileptic-like fit. Of course, NASA put its astronauts in anti-gravity to elicit it. I was more prone than they, so I experienced anti-gravity on mundane Earth.

At the Nature Center I was too dizzy, weak, and disoriented to walk, no axis of up and down or left and right. The folks there decided to open a nature study room below the building, stuffed animals all around, mostly foxsize, like a natural-history museum. It was musty and acerbic, but that wasn’t a drawback at all; it was medicinal too. They said they had no cots. I flopped on a table. That was heaven, no motion, pure ground, hard, something to anchor me, as the movement of the road continued behind my eyes. I heard a discussion with Lindy about blankets and a pillow, and I communicated I needed nothing. Still the folks in charge were kind and creative. They got a backpack for a pillow and a foil blanket, then tossed sweatshirts from the gift shop atop those. I slept.

Forty-five minutes later, I woke and tried to walk. It was difficult. A few steps at a time were what I could manage. Then I had to bend over, hands on knees. I had never gone so far into motion sickness before, so I didn’t know how long it would take to crawl out of it. As least I was learning crucial stuff about myself. This is how it happens: yes, crisis is opportunity

Over the next hour, I walked around the grounds, to the start of trails, saw water running, smelled moss and dank woods. I mostly sat on a bench watching tiny red birds (wrens?) dart on adjacent benches and around me, unperturbed by my existence. They pecked imperceptible iotas right up to my feet. My vision was crystal sharp, discrete, and undistractable. Everywhere I looked I was drawn into imagery. If motion sickness had been a shamanic induction, it was working its web of transformation, but there was no open territory in which to let it play out.

Getting back was the next dilemma facing us. When Seamus returned, I told him couldn’t board. I knew I couldn’t return to the swerves and being a spectacle, so, with reticence and tokens of hesitation, he finally left me there. The captain of the ship does not easily abandon his passengers.

There was no place nearby to stay overnight, and we had an expense room in Athenry. The best choice was a taxi back to Galway, about eighty kilometers. In a cab at least I wouldn’t be in public and we could stop if need be. It was expensive, about $150, but Miranda had also advised us, when travelling, to the money we had to for our comfort. That provided reassurance, but I would have done it anyway. This was a desperate moment, and there wasn’t another option. I didn’t want to be in a car, but it was better than a meandering bus—three hours better.

The driver, Chris O’Neill, arrived at 5:15 from Clifden. By then I had had three-plus hours to recover and, though still in a whirlpool of nausea, I put my will and courage into it, strode with purpose, and plopped in the front seat, apologizing in advance to Chris for any sounds I made. He said he would drive as carefully as he could, and much of the way he went about twenty kilometers below the limit.

I remained in a steady state. At times, it got worse and I chanted. Most of the time I drifted through layer of nausea and craved to be anywhere that wasn’t moving—why can’t we just stop moving? It felt like a drive of many hours. It also seemed condensed into a moment, for nothing changed or broke the excruciating state of being. It took about two hours of real time.

Chris said he had once been seasick, so knew what I was going through. It was still hard for him to have an unhappy passenger. At one point, I apologized for a brief Om. Lindy said, “Chris O’Neill doesn’t mind your sounds.”

About thirty kilometers from Galway the road improved and I remembered my herb. I used up the bottle and I suddenly felt better. I began talking. I had a core and ground again. Even with traffic in Galway causing a long stop-and-start entry to the town, even a last-minute crisis caused by Chris not taking credit cards and us not having enough cash so having to go back into town and search numerous street for an automatic teller, then return to the marina, I got better, even in all that erratic motion. The ball had stopped.

Everyone along the way was thoughtful, empathic, and involved, from Seamus to the folks at the Nature Center to Chris. They were not just normal-nice; they were involved, interested. At the Nature Center, they got Lindy food. Someone continually checked on me and then, unknown to me, tracked my motions when I got up and walked. They found us a cab. When we left, people commented on how much better I looked, how green I was when we arrived.

As I noted earlier, people say that the reason they come to Ireland is the people. I agree. It is not a rote cheerfulness and affability; that would be a gratuitous, fast-tiring act. The sense of humanity, camaraderie, and something else—a mythic apprehension of the human dilemma as apotheosized in Yeats and Beckett—is communicated continually and internally. There is a faery presence even without faeries—a cosmic leprechaun pervading the mundane.

 

I was lying in our room beginning to fall asleep when our phone rang—a startle, for that hadn’t happened since we had been staying at hotels and b&b’s. Lindy answered. It was the operator. She said that Frank was in the lobby.

I expected anything but what happened—maybe sympathy or concern. As Lindy put it, he dressed me down. He said that passengers had complained. I had embarrassed him. His boss had reprimanded him—all along I thought he was the boss of the company. He repeated one litany over and over, “You were out of line, way out of line. Your behavior was unacceptable.”

It was fruitless to debate. I knew that at once. Frank was a wonderful, generous guy, but he had his limits and he was also overextended, too many competing constituents and perks and games in play at the same time. There was a bargain in each of them, and he didn’t have the bandwidth to micromanage paradoxes. I had broken my part of the bargain. It didn’t matter that I was sick, that I hadn’t done it on purpose, which is what Lindy kept protesting to him.

“Then you should have got off in Clifden like I told you.”

We ran through this circle three times. The fact that I was back to normal and not seeming sick was more vivid to Frank than my tale of having been in agony. I finally said, “Frank, look at me.” He did. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I’m really sorry. I feel terrible. You were nothing but gracious and I failed you. I should have stayed off the bus in Roundstone. I had no business getting back on.”

“You didn’t, did you?”

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t take the time to think it through. I thought I had no other option. I made a bad decision in the moment. But after that, I had no control over my behavior.”

“I would have sent a taxi for you. I would have gotten you back.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“You made a bad choice. Seamus and the passengers said you were disruptive. You were misbehaving.”

“I wasn’t disruptive. I was sick.”

“Well, I’m not blaming you. I’m just telling you how it was, man to man. You wouldn’t want any different, would you?”

“No, I appreciate that. I want to know. I have to know the consequences.”

“Then no hard feelings then? We’ll let it go at that. You can write a good review online, say it was a wonderful trip; that’ll do it for me.”

We said we would.

He got up, hugged Lindy, shook my hand, and left. It wasn’t okay. Even with Jenkinson’s riff, I knew that. You can’t suffer in public.

Frank was nice, very nice, given how much I had pushed him to outside his comfort zone. But this is a conservative Catholic country, a country that has warred hard and suffered much, and still fights for its life, behind the façade.

 

July 16, 2017

We rested all morning. I felt fine, so we drove into Galway mid-day and parked in the same row by the Marina as the day before, this time not a guest of the mayor, more like a legendary nemesis by now, putting three Euros, the only eligible coins we had, into the meter when the machine wouldn’t accept my credit card. That gave us two hours. It was a short walk to Eyre Square Mall, a modern American-style shopping hive that we had missed on prior peregrinations. We found the audiologist in the mass of teenyboppers and thumping music, but Lindy’s hearing aid could not be repaired.

Up on Abbeygate Street we chose the first passable restaurant, Cooke’s, for a late lunch: Irish stew, our first. Busker Michael O’Connor joined us there once I texted to say where we had landed. That began an afternoon of informal hanging out together. At lunch, we began by talking about the traditional Irish folksingers playing on the speaker there, then about other musicians.

He had just watched The Motorcycle Diaries about Che Guevara and confessed that he never heard of the guy before the film but now thought he was pretty important. “Did you watch it on Netflix?” Lindy asked, forgetting where we were.

“Bought it for twenty cents at the charity shop,” he grinned.

After lunch, we hiked to the Farmers’ Market to try to buy a cake from the same baker I had patronized a week earlier, Michael’s weekly “sweets” hit it turned out (“Shouldn’t eat sweets, but I do, so it’s better if it’s healthy. Well, life is short.”). The baker wasn’t there—“sold out or never came,” Michael presumed.

We headed back to the marina to find our car, a serious meander as our local led us through back alleys to avoid the crowds of tourists. More than a half hour late for the meter, we were happily unticketed. Michael got in the front seat, Lindy the back. We thought we were headed to his house, but he directed us to a bakery where he popped out to buy a carrot cake while we hovered double-parked. He got back in the car and we wound precariously through Galway to his instructions for both route and style—when not to be bullied by pedestrians, when a blinker was unnecessary, how to ease into the correct lane—finally to his house in a residential part of town well beyond anywhere we had walked in the grid, teens hanging out on a wall adding a Ken Loach flavor to streets that turned out to face the back of the greyhound racing park. At one point, Lindy mentioned “driving on the wrong side of the road,” and Michael took out a scrap of paper and wrote it down for a possible lyric.

Aside from our host divvying the carrot cake and making tea, we sat around the kitchen table exchanging stories for a couple of hours. It turned out that Michael was our daughter’s age, no older, and had lived in the house for twenty-two years. He bought it at twenty-one, though he insisted, when we complimented him, that the bank owned it “until the mortgage is paid because they could take it at any time.” To keep up his payments, he had not only been a butcher (ten of the years in Galway) and busker but a gardener, house painter, and currently a mover of props and furniture for a theater company, recently for a play set around a gas pump and concerning a woman who pumped gas (“That’s all I can tell you about it from what I know.”).

We heard about his studies in philosophy at the local college—Parmenides, Kant, English literature, and mainly theater, performing there and since in fourteen plays. He showed us how he composed lyrics—sheets of lists of words he was developing, a list for every letter of the alphabet, most of them quite long but only xanthine for “X”). She asked how Lindy and I begin writing in the day. He described his natal family of nine (six boys), his place in the birth order (pretty far down), his parents now both dead. We moved on to his thoughts about women (also documented throughout his songs), his four trips to San Francisco to see his brother (strange he that he didn’t pick up that Americans drove on the right side till we were together in our rental car and Lindy mentioned it), busking a bit in the Bay Area and breaking his guitar by closing the case on it with the money in it, abandoning it in California. I joked that it was available for busking on his next visit, but he said offhandedly that his brother gave it away. Being hustled by prostitutes in Thailand segued into a discursion about his poems he wrote about it. It told him Swedish film-maker Luke Moodysson’s Mammoth (for prostitutes in Asia), then Lilya 4-Ever and We Are the Best for their reference to punk teenage bands in Sweden. After that, we covered Ireland in the general scheme of the universe, Irish poets, Irish lives, life itself—all under Michael’s gentle energy and with a sweetness that, in my sense of how friendships are mysteriously made, provided our fabric. He is a light, funny guy, but a serious, earnest seeker, a man of few words but great open-ness and curiosity.

Connecting was hard and easy both. We were keeping the ball in the air without a clear sense of how the game was played, only a feeling of rapport, a hunger for contact, each for our own reasons, plus a kind of indefinable mutual empathy, transcending age, money, nation, or daily pursuits. The goal anyway was to transcend the things that separated us, in a manner that primates from different bands have long met on the plains to greet each other—strangers. We were far along into Homo sapiens and urban culture, but it didn’t change the basic play.

It was difficult too because Michael was equal parts literal and playful, understated while enjoying an occasional pun or a rhyme, noticing simple details we missed, as when showing us how his stove worked or directing us through the flow of traffic with attention to lanes, quirks of traffic lights, appropriate response to pedestrians, right of way.

After the carrot cake was gone, he explained the arrangement of papers on his cleared table, confiding how he tricked together the lists of words into lyrics by running A, B, C, D, etc., or F, G, H, and Y words together in Joycean lipograms.

We hashed over my experience on the bus and talked about dozens of other random things before exhausting each—those random items that hold the beads of life on its string. It was easy-going interaction with a deeply situated local resident that we sought all along on this trip, making friends with someone for no particular reason, community not monuments or sites and vistas. From that more than the Connemara loop came a sense of the existential depth of the place, of being there, of living a full unique existence there, of figuring out what to do with a life. Frank himself was the real experience, not the Connemara tour he provided. Gort and the Yeats tower were his real gifts.

Of the pop-culture items we told Michael about he seemed most interested in looking up our daughter on youtube and watching Searching for Sugarman and learning about Rodriguez story, which, like Che Guevara, he didn’t know.

You can get a glimpse of the performer in Mr. O’Connor on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmDgtMJeKek. It’s a taste of Galway, Ireland too. Some of his wordplay is revealed in a simple video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUOoTwKuo5s. The video at

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inj02h4UdQQ has the wistful quality and Irish brogue that Michael brings with the sound of his voice and his melodies, like the arrangement of artifacts in a house in Galway which the bank owns but on which he has been paying off a mortgage for twenty-two years. As we left, he pulled out and showed us a newly bought banjo that he was teaching himself how to play, demonstrating its tone in a few notes.

Heading off Michael’s street out of town, we came upon a spectacular cemetery like ones we saw in Prague and Berlin—lots of closely crowded marble crosses and many statues of Mary, Jesus, and various saints.

 

The fact that I have not seen a single so-called chemtrail in Ireland speaks to their likely reality in the U.S. Ireland is not dumping heavy metals in the sky—it’s all nice thin dissolving lines.

 

You need your room key to keep the lights on and plugs charging in hotels. Once you remove your remove key from the slot, all the power goes off, a way of saving electricity while you away. Either leave a key in the slot or charge while you are there.

 

Tipping in Ireland. I was giving 15-20% for a while until the waitress at Out of the Blue said, “You’re all too generous.” Afterwards I checked online and also asked our desk clerk at the Raheen Woods and found out that Ireland does not have a tipping culture like that in the U.S. Tips are not expected and usually not given; the service fee is included in the price on the menu and servers are paid appropriately. Two euros as a compliment is fine.

The first night at the Raheen Woods Hotel in Athenry I apologized to the waiter in the dining room for no tip, saying I was switching off the American system after mistakenly overtipping for days. The soft-spoken, formally-attired young man assured me that he understood—anything we left, he said, was fine. The previous night, he had apologized for slow service by giving us desserts and tea on the house.

Tonight, we lost power after removing sockets with voltage convertors and plugging back in the lamps, part of our cycle of charging phones and computers. Since it was Sunday night, we thought it would be near impossible to get any attention on the problem, but the woman at the desk sent for the hotel manager and he appeared at once. It turned out to be our waiter Mícheál [pronounced mee-hawl]. “Do a bit of everything around here,” he explained, as he reset the circuit breaker and fixed the lamp sockets and plugs, apologizing for the inconvenience, though we had caused the electrical disruption.

 

Athenry regrets: the dining part of the town closed by nine, and we dawdled too long in the room to get dinner at one of the restaurants there. We drove through anyway at ten, just to see it and get out. The eateries may be been closed, but the pubs were alive with music and drinkers, pouring out onto the streets—more vocal and carousing females than males.

The Mediaeval template remained: narrow winding streets, a giant arch leading out of town, the sense of a city built on an older city, itself built on an older city, and so on. Modernity was evident but did not transcend the megaliths, especially at the bewitching hour after dusk.

The vast fields beyond the wall across the street from Raheen Woods had a powerful sense of faery country. “Unlikely we’ll ever be here again,” I said. “Good to take it in and appreciate it.” Small moments the building blocks of psyche. The large things often lay flat or overwhelm.

Lindy thought so too, as we stood in the cool night air. Each moment is eternal, whether standing in the last blue embers of sun before fields that dwarfed us or sitting around Michael O’Connor’s table in Galway or walking among heather and moor grass on Peat in the Connemara Loop. We had done this trip. We were in Ireland.

 

Reader comment from Mary Stark in Montreal: “Sounds grim. But you got through it.

“Frank was actually out of line, IMHO. I doubt he would have scolded you like that if you had been a paying customer. Unthinkable. The “freebie” aspect was always in the back of his mind, and it shouldn’t have been. That said, he was right about the fact you should not have pressed on. But that was hindsight for everyone.

“I genuinely appreciate how you can always find a way to think about and elevate even the most mundane experiences, and I guess wanting to barf on a bus would qualify.”

 

Reader comment from Meryl Nass in Ellsworth, Maine: “I am glad you are better now.  You wrote this beautifully. I think I leave me body when it gets really bad, zone out.

“My first year in med school, I had to take histology, which required me to lok at slides under a microscope. However, this gives me motion sickness, and if I persist, I am ruined for the entire day.

“Well I was forced to do it, sent to the doctor (no known treatment then) and had to take the final, look at 50 slides in an hour. I did not quite make it to the end.  I vomited all over the floor of the exam room.  I think I missed the microscope.  Then they told me I would have to take the exam over.  Then a couple days later they said I had gotten enough of the slides right to get an A, and I would not have to do it again.  The professor concluded that I should not go into pathology.”

 

July 17, 2017

In the morning, I set out to walk into town while Lindy worked. Right away I changed my plans. I realized that there was a tiny road through the field across the street from the hotel—that was an invitation I couldn’t refuse, though I entered it hesitantly because of a sign marked “Agricultural and Food Development Authority”—“This is Not a Playground, No Unauthorized Entry.”

As I walked hesitantly, stopping occasionally to allow eviction if anyone was tracking my progress, the Raheen Woods became small in the background. I was in open country, a huge farm with sheep bounding across, among Golgi-body walls and wildflowers. I could see the Irish Rail between Dublin and Galway wending its way with the silence of an earthworm in the distance. Cars on the faraway N6 gave off an even fainter murmur.

I approached a modern barn-like building where sheep were enclosed. I could see people working. I was concerned about being dubbed a trespasser.

I needn’t have worried. A man in an official suit crossing the road with sheep, on my query encouraged me to continue, pointing out that at the far loop just before the overpass crossing N-6 was a trail to the left that returned in a circle to the lane on which I had entered.

After he left on his errand, I watched the sheep in their enclosure, how they moved in waves like a single organism.

As I continued beyond the building into open space, I shifted into a euphoric pastoral mood, part of the post-motion-sickness joy but also the fact that I had been deepened and brought to this new land by it. My mind went back to childhood and a song about “things in Glocca Morra”—Broadway’s make-believe Ireland. It was as if I were walking through the opening scene of the first musical I ever saw, Finian’s Rainbow, age nine—a father and his adult daughter recalling Ireland from America. One of my favorite passages from New Moon, my nonfiction novel about childhood, touched on a feeling like the one I had in the Athenry field:

“Jonny and I would run along the Nevele solarium, building little piles of snow on the railings in an effort to thaw some of the winter away in March while Debby splattered in her red rubber boots among puddles at our feet. Mommy sat on a lawn chair, her eyes closed, a silver reflector about her neck capturing the nearest star. Clump after clump of puffy cold was placed on rusty ledges as Jon and I called to each other to check the progress of the melting at either end. This industriousness would arouse a sense of the profoundest well-being in me. I’d be thinking about where I was in my latest science-fiction book and how later I’d lie toasty by the radiator and read it—then we’d eat dinner; afterwards, we’d have a plate of chocolate horseshoe cookies … and suddenly the song would seep through my existence: “Follow it over the hi-ill and stream.… ” I twisted the vowels in “follow” and “hill” and “stream” until they were barely English in the back of my mouth. There was a tenuous point, before they became garble, at which they held the whole mystery, the fairy tale, Bridey’s Ireland.”

 

Bridget McCann was my sister’s Nanny. I realized that the esoteric part of this journey was my pilgrimage to bring a few of my sister’s ashes to her nurse’s grave. I imagined myself there in Belfast, “Poor girl, I am bringing your ashes home.” As in a mythical journey I had passed through signs: my brother Jon’s chimera in a busker, the death and rebirth of motion sickness.

I saw clumps of a favorite flower, purple clover, so large and deep-hued. Flowers in Ireland do seem brighter and more colorful, hydrangeas in gardens almost neon blue; these clovers, so much red in their purple…. I smelled Queen Anne’s Lace in the fields, sweet like honey here as in Nova Scotia. I thought of Finian’s Rainbow, “Follow it over the hi-ill and stream….”

            The sheep in the fields moved in tandem as I approached.

 

I never should have gone on that bus. I never would have gone on that bus if it hadn’t been a gift. Beware the Irish bearing gifts, Troy!

I had a ridiculous fantasy, crazy fantasy, but I want to tell it: Christ was Jewish, I am Jewish. This is a Catholic country. Christ on the Cross cried out, “Father, Father…., ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ …why have you forsaken me?.” Frank Fahey stood before the Cross saying, “You’re out of order, you’re misbehaving, son.”

It was only a fantasy, marginally blasphemous but also with an element of veracity: suffering comes in all forms, you can’t use liturgy and biblical passages to pick and choose your spots to be holy and a good Christian. You have to live it all the time.

My Cross was the Cross of Industrial Tourism and I have placed myself on it by my greed for a freebie. I never wanted to be there. I wanted to be with Finian and Bridey in this field.

 

Before leaving an hour later, Lindy and I set out down the same road. Almost immediately we encountered, over the stonewall to the left, one Jarlet Cochrane, as we were to learn. A pleasantly unshaven middle-aged man appearing from behind a pile of wood, announced himself by, “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” That began a twenty-minute conversation, mostly between him and Lindy, inaugurated by her asking him about the huge field I had walked earlier and toward which we were headed. “It’s what you might call an agricultural college,” he said. “All this land used to be estates, and then it got broken up into farms. This is a bigger plot than most, four hundred acres.”

“Do you own it?” Lindy asked.

I do,” he laughed. “No, no. Not personally. The people of Ireland do. I just own my acre and a half here.”

“How long ago did you buy it?”

“1996. You can see, it’s grown up since. It used to look like that across the way, all grass. First thing I did was plant trees.”

“Amazing,” she said, “how much they’ve grown in a short time.” It looked like a tiny forest over there, greenhouse and firewood in the foreground, the sound of his chickens in among those. On one side of the lane was vastness, on the other, entanglement, intricacy, a garden

“What happens over there?” she asked, pointing to the acreage.

“What the agricultural college does is they have all different kinds of grass, then they bring in different breeds of sheep. They mix the sheep with grasses and find out what kind of wool they get from each combination, sheep and grass. They try them all out. Then they provide that information to the farmers.”

“Is the grass here [pointing] part of the experiment?” She asked because it was the only sheepless part.

“Yes, it is, but don’t ask me what kind. It all looks green to me. I think this here field presently is being used for sillage. They don’t feed livestock in Ireland the way they do in the US. They cut the grass and store it in those big black bundles you see down the way. Then they age it and it ferments. They feed it to the sheep all winter.”

“And it stays good?”
“The fermenting keeps it; it makes it sweet and tasty. And it’s healthy grass, none of the chemicals in it.”

“The land isn’t owned by companies like Monsanto here?”

“No, no. They haven’t come here yet. But they will…and they will.” His iteration had a musicality hard to reproduce. “But they will” was said the way you would expect it to be said, emphasis on “will.” “And they will” was said very quickly with an emphasis on “And,” making almost a diphthong with “they.” The phrase sounded like the finish to the chorus of a song. “But they will…and they will. No way to stop them. A farmer finds a cheaper way to do the same thing, that’s the way of things; what can we do?”

“There’s no law against it?”

“No law, but if the butcher knows it’s eaten pesticided grass or that genetic modifying or has had hormones fed to it, he won’t buy it. So that’s, I suppose, the effect of law.”

We heard about Jarlet’s trips to the US, driving Death Valley, then going from San Francisco to the San Juan Islands, details ranging from how little it cost to stay places (compared to Ireland) and the couple who died just ahead of them in their car in Death Valley because they ran the air conditioner in the part where they were supposed to turn it off. He also discussed his own use of wood instead of dried peat to burn, “usual in the States but unusual for Ireland,” and queried us about where we had been in Ireland and where we were headed, then had comments about each of the places.

I finally got up gumption to ask if there were any faery sites around here. “Why one just right here,” he said, “no more than ten meters up this road. There’s a fios they call it, a mound. No one can explain how it got there or what it is. If you’re close to the land, you can feel its faery energy.”

I was impressed—how immediate “faery” was throughout Ireland.

“This is more what my brother Midie is involved in. Twenty-five, thirty years ago he was off to California. Totally changed by it, way before anyone else in these parts. He came back drinking that green stuff, swore it would make you healthy. What’s the name for that?” He tried to think.

“Spirulina?”

“Yes, that spirulina drink. He studied with native Americans, sorcerers and the like. He went to India, I can’t count how many times. You should look him up. He’s on the road to Westport where you’re going.”

We decided that he would pass my phone number and email address on to Midie and maybe he’d get in touch while we were in Westport.

“You know, Jarlet,” I said, “as we stand here, I’m sad to be missing a gathering in Maine. It’s native Americans, Maoris from New Zealand, Africans, all sorts of indigenous people from around the planet meeting to open a portal [I gestured with a sweep of my right hand] into a different tier of consciousness, to try to bring that and more peace onto the Earth.”

Jarlet looked impressed to the point of beatific.

“We’d love to be there,” Lindy added, “but we made our plans to come to Ireland before we knew about it. You can’t be two places at once.”

“No. That’s not something we can’t do, even on a lovely morning.”

We took leave and continued a bit farther down the road. We saw the faery mound, something you would have missed if you weren’t told about it—I didn’t come close to seeing it on my own hike. It was much smaller and less adorned than the faery ring on the Dingle Peninsula, but it had the same premonition of an earth-energy formation, like a crop circle, with a vortex underlying it. A bulldozer could have done almost the same thing with the same effect, but the mound had a natural roundedness and concavity that made it an artifact of its own category. Jarlet had confirmed something: much is said about faery rings and forts, and they are all over, but no one knows who or what actually made them—but they are respected.

A bit further down the road we passed the giant bales of sillage wrapped in black plastic, stacked like peat or sod. I remembered the rich aromatic smell passing them on my recent solo hike. I thought of it then as fertilizer. Now I realized it wasn’t that at all. The fermented grass smelled like dark, rich beer.

 

We set out on the road to Westport, choosing highway N17 over the more direct but windy M84, not only because of my recent bout of motion sickness but at the recommendation of the desk clerk at Raheen Woods. According to her, we were going to zoom to Westport in an hour and ten minutes. Lindy did the driving, and it took us three and a half hours from Athenry to the Ardmore House in Westport. About ten of the extra minutes was for following N17 signs out of a roundabout in Tuam only to find ourselves at a dead end on the highway facing big concrete barriers like something out of The Truman Show or The Prisoner. We had gone 250 meters onto an unfinished portion of highway. It was completely unmarked and we were the only car that went down it. How did everyone else know?

We turned around and did the terrifying thing of driving the wrong way on a highway, but no one had copied our mistake. At a carpet store at the farther exit after we reentered the roundabout, a young man said simply, “This is N17 you’re on right here.”

“What’s what we went down?” Lindy asked.

“That’s N17 too, but it’s a section that’s not been finished.” He told us to continue the way we were going.

The second delay was soon after that and for about forty minutes a few kilometers before the town Ballindine. Most of the time we weren’t moving at all. Sometimes just one lane went. We finally crept to a sign: “Major construction, Expect Long Delays.” Just past it we entered the chokepoint. The crew worked as if there were no cars on the road. No wonder the long delay.

The other hour and a half of extra time was, astonishingly, after reaching Westport, a beach town, somewhat reminiscent of Camden or Belfast, Maine, but much larger.

The first problem was that we didn’t have an address for the Ardmore. The second was that the town was packed with traffic moving at a snail’s pace so, whenever we took a wrong turn, figuring out how and where to reverse it and then reversing it were major events, taking as much as ten minutes in themselves.

Searching on the Internet for an address didn’t help, even on the hotel’s own website, though eventually I found something online: The Quay (pronounced Key, spelled Ché in Gaelic). Ireland is not big on house numbers, often not on street names either. Most sites online listed the B&B’s address as simply Westport, County Mayo.

We asked directions nine times in all in Westport and, to a degree, went in circles, but eventually wound back through the town and down to The Quay.

Finding Quay Street was just the beginning. There was Quay Street, The Quay, Upper Quay, and Lower Quay. Then we didn’t go down the correct road because a sign for three establishments, one of them ours, had “Ardmore House” pointed forty-five degrees away from the others, back in the direction from which we had come. I finally phoned, still challenging because it still takes many combinations in codes and prefixes to get it right, and it varies by where one is in Ireland. I got a ring and answer on my third combination. I was told that the road with the sign was, in fact, correct. When we got there, the young female hostess said that it must have been disturbed earlier in the day by someone working on the other two who hadn’t put it back right, or maybe vandals twisted it.

It was past 16:00 and we hadn’t had lunch. We were too far out of town to just walk back up the road, and we didn’t want to drive back into the traffic. The hostess encouraged us to walk the Greenway into town. She said that it was much more direct than the road, only three kilometers, and very pretty. She said we could try to get food at a nearby pub called The Quay but we decided that was drab after a whole day of driving and elected to find the Greenway.

We got lost on foot again. We didn’t get lost in any major way but walked down three long driveways to dead ends before getting directed by pedestrians to a much more distinct paved pathway that took off from beside the Quay School.

Three kilometers isn’t a short walk, but it was delightful, the sort of leisurely stroll real tourism is made for. We were among groups of local people, many walking their dogs (their droppings placed in what were called “depoos), others riding bikes, pushing baby carriages and overseeing children on scooters and trikes. We chatted with a few of them for stretches. At other stretches, we were alone in the country. A brook ran alongside periodically, deep in the underbrush, adding its trickling to the feng shui. Sheep grazed on the hillsides with their usual irregular symphony of baaas. We passed old walls, through a couple of tunnels, alongside castle-like structures, under the outer swing of a giant derrick crane hoisting a few kilograms of concrete over the city, and finally emerged, like magic, above the center of town on a residential road. If we had followed the car-way on foot, we wouldn’t have been halfway there.

We plunged down the first available street and looked for a viable eatery. Since we knew by now that pretty much all meat and vegetables in Ireland were, if not officially organic, at least unpesticided and GMO-ed, I had become less picky. By Westport we were eating regularly at places serving Irish food and advertising local vegetables and Irish lamb or beef.

We passed some possible candidates, but it was 4:40, and none of those was open. The first feasible option was a wood-fired pizza place—that was its name: Wood Fire. An enthusiastic young man, dark-haired, intelligent-looking, a visor-like hair-do, charmed us inside with the announcement that they had just opened and we were the first customers of the evening. It was like a congratulation. He soon admitted we were among the first customers all told—the restaurant hadn’t been here that long and the staff was still figuring things out.

He was a college student, third-year, at a summer job. He directed us to a booth with the phrase, “Down to you just now.” (I decided to collect distinctive Irish English phrases when I could by typing them verbatim on my cell phone.) We were surprised to learn ten minutes later that the pizza still hadn’t made its way into an oven—they were busy setting up—so I went for a walk through town, while Lindy stayed and did stuff on her cell phone. Lots of shops, lots of street traffic, I was lucky to find my way back. The location seemed obvious on leaving, but when so many different streets lead into the same circles, you can get turned around and not know where to pin the tail on the donkey.

After finishing a smallish vegetarian pizza, which was improved by uncooked salad greens atop the melted cheese, Lindy and I engaged in separate conversations with young people either running the place or hanging out with the people running the place. I talked to guy who walked us in. His name was Josh, and his field in Dublin was theoretical physics. That led to a convivial conversation about quantum entanglement, his likely topic for a thesis, then the relation between physics and metaphysics. Josh had admirable skepticism for a student of fundamentalist materialism, remarking, “How can we deny spirit or God when our universe came out of a Big Bang?

“…that occurred in the middle of nowhere for no reason, was smaller than a dime, and now is this gigantic continuum. That’s metaphysical materialism,” I added.

Josh’s other possible thesis topic, as a surfer, was waves: all kinds, water and light and other, particularly tsunamis. We discussed surfing for a while—Ireland was a friendly, intimate place to surf, he said, no hankering for Northshore Hawaii here. Josh even knew of the author of one of our long-ago out-of-print surfing books. He mentioned that his mother would likely be interested in the topics of our books and my writing. He took my card to pass on. He would also try reading the current piece I am posting on my website: Bottoming Out the Universe: Karma, Reincarnation, and Personal Identity and would email me thoughts.

            A guy who started out as the pied piper of pizza—and the modest unabashed amateur at the wood-fired oven—became a fellow seeker in a strange universe.

From other young folks at the Wood Fire we collected a passel of ideas about where to explore tomorrow.

 

By the time we left the restaurant we realized it wasn’t feasible to walk back and forth into town for each meal. We decided to hang around till something like dinner time. Lindy got an ice cream. Then we tried out a store marked Health Food; it was basically a pharmacy with some dried fruit, natural sodas, and Irish cookies. I got the local brand of pear-lemon kombucha I had been buying. We returned to a street scene we had passed earlier: three young children playing traditional Irish music on the sidewalk—Lindy wanted to film them on her cell, so I filmed her filming them. The girl in the trio with a whistle was so dominant that the boy with the fiddle stopped playing and stared at her, while the drummer followed her called instructions. It was pretty cute.

Looking for a place to sit, we circled the tall octagon; monument in the center of town, which had four benches around it, and landed on one where a young man was eating lunch—the rest were full or in direct sun—and about a foot from the flow of traffic, alternately jammed up and speeding—not pleasant company. I say “young man.” I thought he was a teenager and might be irritated by our crowding his bench, but once Lindy started up a conversation, he turned out to be an MD named Richard Michael Brown (“It couldn’t be more English,” he sighed), a GP from Nottingham, trained in London. He had come to Ireland to practice for need of doctors. “Most of my fellow students went to Australia and New Zealand,” he informed us. “That’s what’s popular now.” He had just moved from Galway and was carrying two rubber door stoppers for his new dwelling.

We had a pleasant conversation that touched on lyme disease (now in Western Ireland too), motion), medicine in general, and Ireland, Maine, and California. He very much wanted to travel in Maine and was grateful to have a contact. He set off, waving the door stops as an indication of his next task.

By now the town adventure, from the Greenway to the Wood Fire to the Octagon, felt right.

We tried the park by the Westport House on Richard Brown’s recommendation. The site had closed at six, but we walked a little way in, as the gates were still open, then left from concern we might get locked in.

We lay in the just-mown grass on a hill overlooking a playground. At 7:10 it seemed late enough to try to eat again. We found a slow-food restaurant nearby with many organic and range-fed listings and discarded thoughts of the two others we had passed earlier. We hardly knew where to search for them. We decided to split one entrée, mixed fishes of the day, because we were only minimally hungry. Breaded and surrounded by clams and home-made shoestring potatoes, they made a decent meal of sufficient size.

We hiked out of town up a steep hill and, after getting directions—“Carry on down,” said an old man with a cane, as he pointed farther across the street we had climbed)—found the path to the greenway. and joined other evening strollers.

Now I sit on the patio of the Ardmore, looking across the water at the sun setting behind the mountains in the far distance, almost 10 PM. To my right is Croagh Patrick, the pyramidal mountain of St. Patrick’s pilgrimage. It feels like hobbit-land again.

 

July 18, 2017

By late morning (11:00) Lindy concluded that she’d rather hang around the hotel and write and I should go off on my own if I wanted to explore. I was apprehensive about driving without a co-pilot to warn: too far to the left, too far to the right, or making a throwback turn onto the right at risk of oncoming traffic.

Initially it felt like my first day driving but, within a few kilometers, my sense normalized. I had thought to look for a forest trail described in a pamphlet of Westport walks that the manager found for me—most guests were looking for something more ambitious than local trails, so the literature wasn’t immediately at hand. My second choice was the beaches, to scout them for Lindy and me later. But I had the wrong road for the former and a misjudgment as to the distance of the latter. I expected to hit the beaches in ten minutes, but the driving time was more like a half hour.

What I did come to within ten minutes was totally unexpected, a parking lot for hikes up the sacred pyramid mountain, Croagh Patrick. I initially shot past it; then when things looked dubious down the road, I figured that I might as well go for a bird in hand. I made a difficult turn across traffic, drove back across traffic again into the lot, stuck a 2-euro coin in the parking machine, and had a dashboard slip give me until 13:29, two hours.

The mountain looked imposing. Though a modest 2600 feet, it had the mien of Meru, a passage from a lower summit to a higher more alien and sparse peak, a sharp-edged tetrahedron. The literature in the visitors’ center described annual pilgrimages up the mountain, penitents making the climb barefoot. Croagh Patrick had an Ash Wednesday type of processional history, and even today in secular circumstances a mixed row of mostly tourists and a few Christian suppliants were making their way up, the latter with beads or stopping to say prayers.

I walked up Croagh Patrick for an hour. It was strenuous initially, and I took frequent breaks, but I gained breath and stamina and ascended fairly quickly to a panoramic view of Clew Bay with its many islands long ago deposited by glaciers. Wildflowers and a gurgling brook were good company, and the large numbers of people were entertaining in their various styles and conversations, many in Gaelic  or in brogue. With hordes climbing, the scene had a music its own.

A gate at a few hundred feet marked a transition from a simple climb up a small mountain, much like ones that the Footloose Friends group on Mount Desert conducts every Tuesday—and this was a Tuesday, so they would be starting in four hours. On the other side of the gate, the pilgrimage became more strenuous. The trail narrowed, and one could observe how it grew even narrower in the distance where shadows of faraway hikers filed between peaks. The gate indicated passage onto private land. A sign on it stated that we were welcome guests of a working sheep farm but needed to behave. No litter, no leaving the trail to go among sheep, and no dogs. About that matter, the placard said simply that dogs would be shot on sight and urged climbers to inform anyone they saw walking with a dog. Dogs and sheep don’t mix, unless they are sheep-dogs specific to the flock.

While ascending, I noticed that many of the people going the other way were walking on the grass along the trail’s sides. This was because the stones on the trails rolled precariously under the weight of hominids striding down. I resolved to keep “tai chi” mind on the descent: sensation under my feet, attention below the earth, conscious weight shifts. It was a good practice. I skidded only once.

The hike up gave me a chance to meditate on many things in my life, and I ran the gamut, from my writing to my bus episode to my sister’s suicide to various core dilemmas that reasserted themselves. Croagh Patrick had an innate devotional quality. St. Patrick only Christianized a millennia-long holy site. Druids and no doubt Stone Age tribes walked it to their own shrines. The mountain, by any name, had energy and intelligence. I didn’t try to contact it. I simply let my thoughts wander, and they deepened and taught me new things— “psychoanalytic transference by mountain.” At 12:15, I figured it was time to descend so that Lindy and I could plan the afternoon. It was almost 13:00 when I made it back to the car.

 

We set out on a joint exploration without lunch at 1:30. We had instructions from Susan, the day manager and daughter of the woman who ran the hotel, for how to get to (either, one) a loop around a graveyard (or, two) the wooded area I was looking for earlier, and then, (three) the beaches.

We visited a crowded Catholic cemetery and walked down a country lane. We never found the loop or the forest walk. Instead, we got ourselves turned around on a one-lane road and extricated.

These were a short way down a left turn on the T off Quay Road. The right turn took us toward Croagh Patrick, as we replicated my drive of the morning. We expected to come upon the beaches fairly soon after passing the base of the mountain, for we had been told it was not much past them. A half hour on a winding road with little margin between yellow and white lines—the sparse foliage-covered shoulder of the road on one side and oncoming traffic, some of it trucks, farm equipment, and tour buses, on the other—feels interminable, especially if you are unsure you are even on the right road.

Our doubts increased after we passed through the town of Louisberg because that’s where the beaches were supposed to be, just on its far side. Instead we had to make a choice at a fork, picked the straight line and the road tightened even more afterward, not a good omen. We got a few kilometers further before we stopped at a large mower along the roadside and asked directions from the man in the cab. We were looking for Carrowniskey Beach, recommended by the young folks in the Wood Fire, seconded by Susan. He reassured us that we were on the correct road (whew!) and it was not the first but the second right a couple of kilometers in the direction we were going. We should taken him literally, and almost did, but the second right led down a one-way lane marked by signs like “Extremely Dangerous Curves.” We presumed that that couldn’t be it (no signage to a beach either). We turned around at the first opportunity, an abandoned stone structure, and continued another three kilometers down the highway to where we pulled alongside an occupied car in a church lot. A sweet older man who could have been played by an Irish Morgan Freeman directed us back to what was now the left after the bridge, which we had tried as the second right from the mower. When we got there, the tight lane wound through fields, eventually past substantial houses to a parking lot and a populated beach. Twice cars came from the other direction, but they maneuvered up onto the bank enough to let us through. There were wider spots at regular intervals, and the locals apparently knew them and signalled for us to halt while they pulled over to make way.

When we left the beach later with Lindy driving, we twice had to forge such spots on our own, and a third time a car coming our way had to back ten meters and pull in by the abandoned stone house.

We spent an hour on the beach. The water was the coldest I have ever put my feet in, true glacier-melt. I had worn a bathing suit under my pants, so I waded in little by little, bones adjusting to the cold, finally up to my hips. The sensation was emotionally and psychically transformative; everything in my mind changed at once.

Our fellow beach-goers were a mixture of kids, many of whom ran right in and dove, and teen surfers and kayakers in black wet suits. It didn’t have the feel of any American beach. It wasn’t like Long Island, the Maine Coast, the Bay Area, L.A., Hawaii. The sand was tight quarters, rocky, a thin strand; the mood was laissez faire. What typified the scene most was a young woman on a horse, impeccably dressed in jodhpurs, English saddle, and female jockey’s riding helmet out of which a long braid hung down. I never saw her face, but her presence was charismatic, so she was by her own meme beautiful. She led her horse right down to the water, into the surf among kids bathing, then clopped away into the far distance through the shallows, identifiable only as a tiny shape rising and falling seemingly in place at the end of the focal plane. A few minutes later she came tearing back through the water in a trot that, in front of us, became a majestic gallop, water flying up from the hoofs. She repeated this routine four or five times and was still at it when we left. She wasn’t Lady Godiva, but she was.

My own highlight was my second (and last) wade. I cupped water in my palms and poured it onto my face and head. To my surprise, every splash ignited a brilliant inner indigo in my forehead between my eyes. I repeated the dose more than a dozen times to see if it had objective reality. It did. Since the third-eye chakra vibrates at that shade of blue, I was delighted. I took it as a real opening, perhaps sparked by the motion sickness, perhaps by the Ireland grid.

As so often happens when going to an unknown place, the return trip to the Ardmore seemed much shorter.

 

We set out at 19:00 on the three-kilometer walk along the greenway to town center (marked Lar an Bhaile in Gaelic, a sign we have seen often on this trip). We argued briefly over where to eat, Lindy preferring to search for a new place, me wanting to return to the tried and true. A brief search around the Octagon yielded nothing but pubs and lesser establishments. Our previous night’s restaurant, The Pantry and Corkscrew, emphasized not only organic but local-farms and slow-food and marginally gourmet. It was off the Octagon and at the bottom of the nearest entry spoke from the greenway, the one by which we had left the previous night. We ended up at same table, same waitress and, after we got our food, neither of us regretted the choice.

Toward the end of the meal I overheard a debate about science, humanism, and God at the next table, three women and a man, about our age and in brogue. One of the women’s voices was much louder and more insistent than the others. She was declaring her position passionately: she didn’t believe in God, she didn’t believe in science; she was a humanist. I could only hear her statements, but they so perfectly matched the doubts that I addressed in Bottoming Out the Universe that, on our way out, I handed her my card with a reference to the piece.

“Thought you would come to my defense, did you?” she said.

“Yes, but I could only hear your portion of the discussion.”

“That’s because I’m so vehement!”

At the start of the greenway we stopped briefly to view a teen football (soccer) game, like US Arena Football for being contained in a fenced area so that there were no out-of-bounds and the energy was condensed and fierce. The fact that the players were shouting in Gaelic made it operatic, so we watched for a while.

From there it was a twenty-five-minute stroll into the setting sun, intricate layers of late cumulus portending the morrow’s rain, jets straight as the dissolving lines behind them.

 

July 19, 2017

We set out from Westport toward Donegal in the rain, a drive of 164 kilometers estimated at anywhere from two to three hours (for Irish drivers on a dry day). The day alternated among light drizzle, heavy drizzle, and blinding downpours, plus a few rainless spells. We took a variety of highways, some very narrow, some spacious and divided. From Westport we went east to Castlebar, then turned south in blinding rain, east again via a thin lane through fields with a designation something like N1102, a GPS choice that we questioned at once but took for lack of an alternative except staying on the highway toward Dublin. It passed through Charlestown, a modernized Mediaeval village with the requisite monarchal church. After eight kilometers, to our relief it led to the main road north to Sligo. In Ireland, the most isolated road can suddenly intersect a superhighway, which is the nature of the country too: high tech and modernity coexisting with faery forts and abandoned stone houses for other centuries.

It was all the N’s from there, with reassuringly low numbers like 15, 5, 17, though some of them were narrower than the cut-through, At Sligo, Lindy took over the driving for the remaining sixty-five kilometers to Donegal. The route went smoothly, especially given the weather and quantity of big rigs on the roads—no bad moments. We saw vintage Irish scenery: more huge churches and Mediaeval towns, castles, countless stone walls, vast meadows, tunnels formed by trees over the highway. Very narrow roads were again followed by wider ones, and occasionally a superhighway suddenly manifested deep in countryside and vanished as suddenly into almost single lanes, coming out of small cities like Sligo.

Once again, the lack of an address meant no more GPS when we reached Donegal center. The streets were crowded, and traffic was stop-and-go around the center. The Central Hotel did have sort of an address, which the GPS rejected: The Diamond. The Diamond turned out to be a rotary of shops with a central monument in which the other streets fed. The rotary was vaguely angular, hence diamond-shaped. We went past the hotel. After the town began to diffuse, we stopped to ask directions at a modern hotel just over a small bridge.

I took over driving from there, as we returned through town. The Central Hotel could not have been more central in the Diamond. There was not even a hint of parking possibility. It was almost gridlock everywhere up to the sidewalks. Lindy had to run out into the hotel to ask where there parking was, as I conveniently paused behind a waiting cab blocking a lane.

The lot for the hotel was two blocks away at the town entrance by the scenic water, which was the River Eske flowing dramatically into Donegal Bay. Lindy held a slip to put on the dashboard. We managed to cart our things up the road and into the hotel in between downbursts.

We spent the next couple of hours in the town, eating at the one quasi-health-food restaurant and store together, then exploring separately. For my outing a bit later than Lindy’s, it had stopped raining, so I decided to skip an umbrella. A downburst follow. I had a raincoat and boats on, but my pants got soaked, and the raincoat was so wet that my shirt got wet too. Over the Eske, the rain was travelling in horizontal trails.

I was bringing our two sacks of food and water back from our car, and the paper got got wet and broke, so I had to collect packages of brazil nuts, currants, and crackers from the sidewalk and get it all into the other large plastic one we had carried since Dublin. I didn’t realize till later that our best map had washed out the bottom of the paper bag before the heavier stuff fell. When I did discover it missing, I went back to the site to see if I could retrieve it. The rain had stopped but already done its damage, gluing it into three unequal sections on the sidewalk. Across the water in the trees was a swarming of more crows than I had ever seen at one time. Their collective cawing was magical. I abandoned the map and stood to watch.

 

My only sense of Donegal before we arrived was a favorite song of mine from early childhood. Performed by Bing Crosby, a superstar crooner of the fifties most of whose records our family had, it went: “Three years ago this very day / I left the port of Cork / And on a ship from old Erin’s isle / I landed in New York. / Without a friend to meet me there / and a stranger on the shore, / but I wore an honest Irish heart, / and fortune came galore.”

            As the lyrics continue, Bing’s character has returned to Erin’s isle and is met on the quay by friends, relatives, and neighbors, some of whom he has forgotten. His mother introduces him: “Shake hands with your Uncle Mike, my boy, / Shake hands with your sister Kate, / And this is the girl you used to swing / down on the garden gate.” At the end of the chorus he is told, “You are as welcome as the flowers in May / in dear old Donegal.”

            There is a party, an Irish reel is played to greet the Yankee boy, and the time frame has changed. He is looking back to his arrival and about to wed his colleen, sweet Biddy McGee, for she was true and faithful during his years overseas (“I’ll hug and I’ll squeeze / as much as I please / the girl on the garden gate.”) A long rhyming demographic genealogy of Irish surnames attending the wedding follows: “Branigan, Flannigan, Milligan, Gilligan…Fogarty, Hogarty, etc. a. The song concludes, “I’ll live content / and pay no rent / in dear old Don-e-gal.”

            In reality, Donegal was far from a pastoral paradise. Its crowded streets features large numbers old folks moving slowly (though they were young folks when Bing sang), hordes of tourists (too many for the spacing), and disaffected youth. Rap and hip-hop blasted from open windows, and a Goth shop, Zombie Dollz Tattoo Parlour, dominated the hub of the Diamond. Cars tore through the central rotary, making crossing any of its streets a hazard. That problem had been recognized, for wording on the sidewalk said to look right or look left depending on where you were situated in the diamond.

The Central Hotel had a 1940s-50s feel like something in New York’s Times Square: ancient carpets and furniture, musty smells, clanky elevator which never landed level or closed without a late burst of acceleration and thud, dim-lit hallways—tiny room facing dark courtyard. It wasn’t unpleasant; it had a cozy nostalgic feeling, reminding me of how the fifties were cozy and protective compared to now.

Because we ate lunch again late, we didn’t make it downstairs for dinner till 20:45 and chose the lower lounge because the seating was more informal. It also happened to be where Irish Night took place every Wednesday: basically a group singalong of Irish ballads, many of them from a songbook on each table in lieu of menus, and beginning at nine. As we were seated, we were asked if we were there for Irish Night. We were the only ones who weren’t. We wanted dinner and were satisfied to watch as spectators. “You better be prepared to sing too,” the hostess said.

As our order was taken, I realized how we had switched movies. We were no longer in a Merchant-Ivory or Ken Loach landscape. Finian’s Rainbow was gone too. The forties bar was out of Casablanca and innumerable other World War II movies, notably British ones. When the singing began, I thought of the theater scene early in Random Harvest, a 1942 movie based on a James Hilton novel of the same title. Elsewhere I wrote: “Charles Ranier (played by Ronald Colman) is an amnesiac who loses his prior history after becoming shell-shocked in a foxhole during World War I. In a brilliantly entangled plot, he recovers his previous life after being bumped by a car but, at the same moment, surrenders his three years of ‘amnesiac life’ following rescue from the foxhole (which he remembered in normal fashion as its events elapsed, giving him a three-year-long adult life without a childhood or pre-shellshock past, including a marriage to a woman played by Greer Garson).

‘Returning in confusion to his original residence after the street accident (because he knows where to go and doesn’t recall his second identity or his address or wife any longer), he eventually ends up married twice to the same woman under two different identities, neither of which remembers the other until the final scene. In the double-amnesiac’s second marriage, neither husband nor wife can fully commit to each other because they are each in love with another person, who happens to be their partner!”

That all got untangled in a romantic, tear-jerking ending with an Alfred Hitchcock ambience of spookiness.

 

I could feel a switch to Northern Ireland and the UK even though we were still in the Republic. The waitress greeted every choice we made with “brilliant.” The clerks’ and shopkeepers’ accents were slightly more English. Two retired ladies (nurse and kindergarten teacher) in their sixties, were sitting so close to us that we were effectively at the same table. They were on vacation together from Northern Ireland. Their cadences, language, and tone and style were poignantly familiar to me: it was Bridget McCann! Our family knew only Bridey and as one of us, but she represented a whole culture.

As we chatted with our table-mates, we were flooded with tips about what to do in our upcoming time in Portstewart and the greater North. Then the music began.

The master of ceremonies, the sing-master, turned out to be Eamonn Gillespie, who disclosed himself at once as the hotel manager. Like Frank Sinatra, he was doubling as house singer. He was accompanied by an enormous woman, back to us, on a piano bench. S/he was genderless for most of the night.

Eamonn wasn’t a hotel manager doubling as a singer. He was a singer with a day job as a hotel manager. When he got to crooning, he was pure showman—all arms, knee bends, head thrown back, mike held like a tiny dance partner. With a voice and delivery Crosby him would have approved of, he loved to slow ballads down and milk it, to stop in the middle of a song and whisper or speak a few words without melody for drama. He crossed into the audience and held the mike to individual people’s mouths, stopped singing, and let them take his place, calling repeatedly for applause, then more applause. He also periodically stopped mid-verse, held out his hand, and let “us” carry the lyrics while he struck a dramatic pose. He continually asked for applause from the audience, for the audience. He was Buddy Greco, Al Jolson, Eddie Fisher, and Dean Martin, but he looked like a more compact Alec Baldwin. Most of all he was Richie O’Shea, the late great New York club singer—because he was Irish and sentimental through and through.

We sang—actually, Lindy did, using the songbook, I didn’t—“Rose of Tralee,” “Sweet Molly Malone,” “Galway Bay,” “Fields of Athenry” (twice), “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Story of County Down,” “Blooming Heather,” “Hills of Donegal,” and “Isle of Inisfree” (twice). That’s only a partial list. Many of these were not in the songbook, including Eamonn’s unlikely version of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” in which he intended to suck more out of the song than Elvis did with a super-slowed-down milking of it.

There were about twenty-five attendees, some of them Wednesday regulars. You could see how transported they were by Eammon’s nostalgic journey and the crooning of ballads. Most knew the words. What a great hotel manager, to so touch his customers’ souls. They threw themselves into each one and the individual memories and feelings it evoked. The vibe was somewhat “old folks’ home,” but also somewhat cabaret and karaoke. Either way, it was full of heart.

A lady was invited up because of her lovely voice when Eammon held the microphone to it. She led us in three songs, including a stirring “Danny Boy.”

In the middle of the event, three fancily-dressed kids—two girls and a boy—came up and did a mixture of clogging and tap-dancing, two sets for each alone and then a stirring, rhythmic set all together. The audience clapped in time.

The kids looked polite and earnest, though the boy’s modified Mohawk reminded me of a book we never published (because it was never written): Bob Callahan’s Punks in Kilts.

Eammonn said six or seven times at least, “And only nine years old, folks! From right here, born and raised in Donegal town. Give them a hand! You can do better than that. Give them a hand!”

He closed with a Phil Coulter song about “The Troubles” and the present hope for peace. He said that he had the honor of singing it once with Phil Coulter in the audience. Its composer came up afterwards to thank him, and also to say that he didn’t recognize his own song. “I put my heart into it,” Eammon confessed, “and I suppose that was my right because I lost friends there too. I made it mine.”

I could only guess what the original might have sounded like. Eammon’s version was “Danny Boy” with different words and tune.

We were one step from Northern Ireland.

 

July 20, 2017

Bright sunshine. Folks gather in the semi-circular Diamond mall by the four-sided obelisk called “Four Masters” in English, an old Celtic Cross marking its high continuum. The monument dates only from 1938 and commemorates four seventeenth-century Franciscan monks, one monk per quadrant, authors of an annals of Irish history from the Flood to 1632.

Skulls gleam in the window of Zombie Dollz. Sun flows through the stained glass inside Church of Ireland, Donegal branch. Across the street from it, the fifteenth-century Donegal Castle, an heirloom dragon, rests. Its builder was Red Hugh O’Donnell, chief of the O’Donnell clan. Donegal itself is an Anglicization of the Gaelic Dún na nGall, “Fort of the Foreigner,” after a Viking structure destroyed without a trace in 1159. The city was built over it.

Yesterday’s swift-flowing Eske has been reduced to mud by the tide, but it is beginning to flow back from its bay in rivulets. Seagulls populate the grass-covered mudpies, which have come up from their dunking. A nearby speaker on a riverboat launch, preparing for tourists, blares “Okie from Muskogee,” loud enough to be heard town-wide, as it blends with heavy metal from open windows. The vessel is grounded, akimbo on an islet of mud. Floating advertising buoys for litter the delta. I prefer the sea-and-mud aroma.

The streets of Ireland are filled with characters from Thomas Hardy novels as well as young women from mythic times, as if the Fair Folk or Fairy Folk, blonde and red-haired, descendants of Damona and Sirona, are returning or, more to the point, being cloned anew from those nomadic Mesolithic genes. Now they carry the mark of Zombie Dollz too.

I spot Eammon at his day job behind the front desk. I tell him that I have a description of his performance in my journal and how to find it online. “I hope it’s all positive,” he said.

“It is, but I captured your showmanship, so you might take issue.”

He beams. I try to explain about my family’s defunct hotel in the Catskills; it draws quizzical looks the ladies at the desk as well as the manager.

The tide has filled the river now. And it wasn’t grass on those mudpies, after all. I see that it’s a form of seaweed flourishing along the banks. The riverboat is afloat, and a queue tourists is already lined up.

 

My agenda for the morning was spending our remaining euros on groceries for Northern Ireland, the only obvious use before they got discounted across the border. I did so at Simple Simon, the health-food store, getting vegetables, cookies, organic olive oil, apple sauce, and bee pollen. I still had two euros and three cents. It was compulsive, but I spend them at a gas station outside of town (we had filled up en route to Donegal so didn’t need much petrol). It turned out to be the right choice because we were on a backroad to Derry courtesy of the sat-nav (as they prefer to call it here), and it would have added minutes and curves to our trip. The attendant who set us on the right course said, yes, I could buy two euros three of gas, and he came out to pump it himself. I complimented him on landing precisely on the number. “Years of practice,” he said.

We set out from Donegal just past noon in sunshine, but we were in a downpour as we left the gas station to engage the first of many roundabouts on the day, most of them in series two or three kilometers apart. The weather alternated sun and rain all the way.

It is about 130 kilometers from Donegal in the Republic to Portstewart in Northern Ireland, and we were told to expect something over two hours. It took more than three at our speed.

Our last two-plus weeks in Ireland will be in the North and as part of a home exchange with Roisin McCaughan, who will go with three women friends to our house in Portland on Saturday. She initiated the swap on homexchange.com, fortuitously at the moment we decided to go to Ireland, which allowed us from the get-go to plan to split our time between the Republic and the North. Tonight she will stay with a friend, allowing us to have her house a day early—that way we get to meet and talk in person about both sides of the exchange. No more hotels unless we go on longer than a day trip, until our last night at Dublin Airport.

Roisin recommended stopping in Limavady en route, a village halfway between Derry and Portstewart, to buy fruits and vegetables, so that was the plan (Derry is 54 kilometers from Portstewart).

I had been told that the border was nonexistent and will remain so, at least until any enforcement of Brexit. A spot at which police once checked under cars from the Republic with mirrors now didn’t even require a passport. The Republic and Northern Ireland were both European Union. I was prepared for no checkpoint or passport. What I wasn’t prepared for was no border indication at all. I can’t say when we passed into Northern Ireland. Only when I saw Union Jacks along the roadside did I realize we must be in the UK.

Derry was complicated passing through, our biggest city encountered since Dublin. Roundabouts through town were fast-moving with confident, aggressive drivers. While you give right of way to those entering from your right and take it from those who wait to enter from the left, not everyone observed the rules or the lanes, leading to close calls.

Something to note for both the Republic and the North: people everywhere wear bright orange vests as they walk and bike. There is a lot of that sort of old-fashioned transit, including between towns, and most roads are either narrow or very narrow. Anything but a bright vest would be suicidal.

We initially parked a town early of our mark, presuming we were in Limavady from a few ambiguous markers, though Roisin had said it was not on the highway and required a wee detour. From where we landed, it was quite a job getting across the highway to ask at Hunter’s Bakery, mentioned as a Limavady shop by Roisin. We were at its Ballykelly branch. When we re-entered the car, Lindy took over the driving.

Limavady was only another three kilometers, which entailed leaving the main highway from the roundabout by going one further exit clockwise. The town came up within minutes We pulled into a parking space at the first opportunity, facing a Turkish barber shop, at least that was its name. A man conversing with a barber outside turned out to be much friendlier than he appeared, a feature common to Irish men here. Lindy asked him for Marshall and House, but she had both misremembered and mispronounced Roisin’s actual name for the fruit-and-vegetable market, so he said, “I live here and don’t know the shop.” After pondering the matter for a few seconds, he solved the riddle, “Marshall Howe. Of course.” He pointed and proceeded to walk us most of the way there since it was en route to his next conversation at the pub. No, he said before we set out, we shouldn’t have to move the car. It was only a block and a half and around the corner to the pedestrian mall. Along the way, he offered parking tips (“after an hour they give a ticket”) and a lesson in traffic lights, as we crossed incorrectly at the green, leading him to laugh and hesitantly follow, “That green was for cars, not people.”

We ate at a self-serve cafeteria in Hunter’s Bakery, after which Lindy stayed behind and texted on her phone while I returned to the vicinity of the car and the Bank of Ulster to get Irish pounds. The ease with which people accepted the bluish-tinted bills reminded me how much money is a both fiction and pact. Everyone agrees to accept the local currency, in fact honors it as a central reality of their life. That alone allows the fiction to work. To me Irish pounds after euros felt like play money.

The friend of the “Turkish barber” had been correct about the parking. I now realizing that an elderly policeman’s job was circling the cars on just one block, apparently (from the length of each of his pauses) writing down their license numbers and the time of contact—a painstaking process. We had plenty of leeway, though, as he was recording ours ostensibly for the first time.

Marshall Howe had nothing organic, but it was interesting to see origins of its produce. The fruit was mostly from Spain (including flat peaches I had never seen—very flat indeed, as if distorted in a funhouse mirror). The citrus was from South Africa; many of the vegetables from Holland and France as well as both Irelands. Other than the lack of organic (or any designation), it was a good selection, giant peas and favas, four peaches or nectarines (or a mix of the two) for a pound thirty-nine pence, fat local carrots, and containers of local Antrim Coast strawberries.

Stopping in Limavady put us on the road to Portstewart by way of Coleraine, causing a few anxious moments vis a vis the sat-nav. Navigating through Coleraine was a maze, but it came out happily on Portstewart Road. We found Roisin standing in her driveway, greeting us with a comment on how brave we were to have driven plus a promise of relief and rest from our long journey. She is ten years our junior and living in a town where she worked and not far from where she was born and raised.

I won’t attempt to portray Roisin’s two-hour tour and demonstration of the house. It would be an entire one-act play, plus she is a reader of this blog, so I would have to be careful. A retired high-school English teacher, she is used to narration and lessons. She performed the tour with such precise, high language and droll asides that it was entertaining and transfixing. While demonstrating sheets, pillows, stove, oven, toaster (pulled from cabinet storage and not working on first attempt), washer, clothesline (no drier), doors, locks. We were instructed to lock the sliding glass door (“by all means, keep it open for fresh air when you are in the room, or even nearby but close it when you’re away because of the occasional wee creature that might get in.”

In Northern Ireland, you need to turn on the plug switch each time you use it as well as what is plugged into it. For the stove, not only did the socket need to be turned on, but the stove needed to be unlocked by holding down an icon; then the temperature had to be unlocked too.

We got a quick peak at the census consigned to our use (as we wanted) inside the refrigerator (the cats had their own smaller one alongside, as they adore scraps of ham and the like, but sadly they had been consigned to boarding for Roisin’s peace of mind, though we had petitioned for them). When I wondered from Donegal if we would get to see the cats, Roisin had emailed, “I’m afraid the cats have to be at the cattery by 11 a m. They are watching me write this and the have seen my suitcase and the cat carrier….not good omens!!”

In the living room were shown how to work the TV and get BBC 1, 2, and 3), her Seamus Heaney collection (with an insistence that we could not leave the country without going to his new archival museum an hour’s drive away, then marking it for us on a map),

Last, we got a mea culpa introduction to a messy overstuffed garage,

During the presentation, I felt as though the narrator were a combination of a Dickens character and Winnie the Pooh (with his royal we).

After the tour, Roisin drove us to dinner in town at an Italian restaurant where we were joined by Linda, one of the women about to travel with her to our house in Portland, plus another local friend. After we entered the restaurant in a downpour, deposited by Roisin as she drove around to park in the lot, a double rainbow soon appeared out the window in sunlight—a storm god common to Ireland with all the varieties of intervening rain and sun. Sunset over the ocean was blinding in the restaurant. County Donegal from where we had come was shadowed at the horizon.

After dinner, Roisin took us on tour of the surrounding area. We saw neighboring Portrush, a town marked by a Santa-Cruz-like amusement park and at least two huge halls of old and new game machines, the orange, yellow, and red flashing pinballs casting an atavistic flavor. We saw the Catholic school where she taught till 2002, atop a hill like a castle. She pointed out her Church—most Irish churches share a genre with castles and make American counterparts look like Rotary Halls. She gave her succinct opinion of the roundabouts, “They won’t look out for us, so we have to look out for them.”

As she pointed out flags on the way, she described the proxy political wars waged by them. We were not long past July 12, the date when Protestant loyalists, the Orange, march throughout the country, celebrating the British victory over Ireland centuries ago and re-declaring their loyalty to the Crown.

Their fervor meant proud arrays of not only Union Jacks and Ulster flags but U.S. and Confederate one, the battle having turned global between internationalists and nationalists, the descendants of indigenes and the descendants of plantation imperialists, usually Catholics and Protestants, respectively. Trump, Brexit, and Le Pen are symptoms of a planetary plague, a misdirect and distraction in the face of a crisis of much greater proportion: an armada of approaching hyperobjects too large and terrifying for these recidivists to look at. Roisin suggested that the song Eammon Gillespie sang at the Central Hotel, Phil Coulter’s “The Town I Loved So Well,” was the true anthem of not only Northern Ireland but our time:

In my memory, I will always see
The town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball by the gas yard wall
And they laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain, running up the dark lane
Past the jail, and down behind the Fountain
Those were happy days in so many, many ways
In the town I loved so well
In the early morning the shirt factory horn
Called women from Creggan, the moor, and the bog
While the men on the dole played a mother’s role
Fed the children and then walked the dog
And when times got tough there was just about enough
And they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside was a burning pride
In the town I loved so well
There was music there in the Derry air
Like a language that we all could understand
I remember the day that I earned my first pay
When I played in a small pick-up band
There I spent my youth, and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me
For I learned about life, and I found a wife
In the town I loved so well
But when I returned, how my eyes have burned
To see how a town could be brought to it’s knees
By the armoured cars and the bombed-out bars
And the gas that hangs on to every breeze
Now the army’s installed by that old gas yard wall
And the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and their guns, oh my god, what have they done
To the town I loved so well
Now the music’s gone but they carry on
For their spirits been bruised, never broken
They will not forget but their hearts are set
On tomorrow and peace once again
For what’s done is done and what’s won is won
And what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray for a bright, brand new day
In the town I love so well.

 

July 21-22, 2017

Getting into a real house for the first time since leaving Dublin two weeks ago meant spaciousness, convenience, cooking our own meals, and staying put the next morning—a respite after thirteen straight nights of bed & breakfasts or hotels, none of them for more than three nights: Galway (3), Ennis (1), Dingle (2), Ennis (1), Athenry (3), Westport (2), Donegal (1). We did have four straight nights in a house in Dublin upon arriving in the Republic, but they were different. We were hardly into the trip then and going everyday on the DART rail.

We were also in a different different country, the UK not the Republic of Ireland, though it was much more a continuity Ireland than a border hop into England. And there was no border

I have fallen into this journal from habit and my inveterate compulsions: conversion of insights to language, desire to be part of a virtual community, the creation of a kind of sub-Akashic record. It now seems a bit forced and retro, especially since we are living in a house in town. The only thing that distinguishes the journal now from a conventional daily diary is the fact that Lindy and I have spent very little time in our lives abroad, so the trip still has a wonder and newness.

It is pleasurable being outside the U.S., especially now. We are still Americans, and we don’t get to go outside Trumpism in our plight as citizens of a disintegrating polis or of the troubled world at large, but there is a, slight lifting of the burden in sharing space with ordinary folks going about their lives in a country where citizens vibrate at a deeper level, are not mesmerized by their own myth of entitlement, and didn’t elect a moron. No one on Earth is invulnerable to local shifts anywhere, as globalism and its hyperobjects impose themselves, but there is a fragile bubble of safety in being outside the Republican Party’s sphere of influence and disingenuousness.

 

For the first two days, we got ourselves located. We walked into Portstewart, a beach town with the familiar seaside promenade of souvenir shops and amusements. It is also an upscale town, with a golf club at which the Irish Open was just held, and an outer suburb of Belfast and Derry.

As we engaged with people in shops and on the street, just about everyone continued to be friendly, a conviviality that is difficult to convey because strangers are also friendly in their way in the States. In Ireland, it is friendliness plus a curiosity about other human beings, a feeling of responsibility for travellers’ well-being, and a love of idle gab when the opportunity presents itself. There are so many Irish people in the States that just about everyone here has relatives there—and most want to tell you where they are and what they are doing. The majority of people seem to have been to America—Florida, Boston, San Francisco, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the main destinations— and want to recount aspects of their visits.

These conversations take place spontaneously when asking directions, conducting commerce, or sometimes just lingering in contiguous territory . We learned about neighbor’s upcoming holiday in Spain. Her husband drives for a distillery and rides across the Republic and Ulster, but he won’t drive in Spain—says the highways are like race tracks. She and the young teen daughter laugh about the battles of their dog with Roisin’s absent cats. Then while walking on the promenade by the beach, we heard about the butcher’s regrets that he only went to Florida in America (“Made the wrong choice,” he laughed, “but I was young”), plus how livestock are raised in Ireland as opposed to the U.S.—a subtle prompt not raise the “range-fed” / “organic” issue.

If you ask directions on the street—as we often do—a random person chosen will invariably (A) go into some detail, (B) walk with you a significant distance in order to make sure you get it right, usually keeping up small talk along the way, (C) go into a shop or ask another passer-by for help if he or she doesn’t know or isn’t sure where you trying to get to, insisting you wait while they check, or (D, twice) come running after you with a map they have hastily drawn on a scrap of paper.

If you can’t find an item in a grocery market, no amount of reassurance will convince a clerk not to walk you to the exact spot or commandeer another employee to do so.

This behavior may be rote and culturally initiataed and reinforced, but that too speaks to a deeper sense of community and civilization. I will repeat my somewhat uncomfortable observation that people who, at a distance, look foreboding, stupid (sorry!), off-putting, or likely to be irritable or rude, almost always diverge from first impression, which would be accurate more often than not in in the States. America seems to find the lowest common denominator, while Ireland seems to cultivate a baseline savvy and wit (as if a requirement of Gaelic). Young males clerking at convenience stores or even smoking in groups on streets are courteous (whatever that word construes), non-judgmental (at least to appearances), and respectful (whatever that word construes).

I am stretching this uncertain insight perhaps too far

 

We drove into nearby Coleraine, a city of about 25,000 contiguous with Portstewart—one transitions into it without much in between. We were looking for The Real Health Store on Stone Row, there being nothing resembling natural food in Portstewart. I had found the establishment online and phoned, and they assured me they had groceries as well as supplements. I put their address—12 Stone Row—into the sat-nav, but it objected—informing us it was unreachable by car, offering an alternate nearby site. That turned out to be because it was on a pedestrian mall.

Everything about this outing was a challenge. Just getting used to the driving gauntlet and its rules again after a few days off involved shaky adjustment to not going down the right side of the road, especially when turning into a new street—it’s left, left, left. We had to navigate one roundabout after another. No sooner than we spun off at the prompted exit, avoiding swift traffic merging from aggressively the right and patiently from the left, the sat-nav announced, “At the roundabout….” as if we hadn’t just been in one.

These moving dramas brought hits of adrenaline plus loud remonstrations and directives from the one of us not driving—Lindy attributed her admonitions of “Rich!” “second fear” and “Jesus Christ!” to “pure fear.”

There is a lot to do in a roundabout. You have to pick the best entering lane, keep an integrity of lanes when the correct exit choice demands your switching them, yield right-of-way from your right to those already in the circle or entering it, and time those to customary closing speeds that distinguish local perception of “right of way” from “yield.” Errors are corrected by outraged horns.

You also have to confirm the exit. The sat-nav can’t be trusted, sometimes saying the first exit when it is the second or vice versa—but one can’t shouldn’t expect a female zombie to see everything perfectly in every country from her Google heaven.

You also have to shift gears properly. Although you stop briefly, you can’t effectively employ first gear (too heavy a pause) unless there is a red light or the roundabout is full of traffic. Second gear is best, but then you need third gear in rhythm to get going again at the speed of exiting traffic. A common mistake both of us make, partly from the unfamiliarity of the gear lever in the left hand, is choosing fourth gear by mistake instead of second or first instead of third, the former causing the car to slow and rattle, the latter causing whiplash as well as immediate disapproval from other drivers.

Then it was hard finding parking, judging what spots were legal in areas that seemed to have lots of open slots (but also garages with a changing display above them indicating few spaces remaining). The mall lot itself was full of cars, with other drivers hovering as they waited for shoppers to return to their cars. We didn’t want to hover, but in looking for the most incontrovertibly legal space, we got several blocks and turns away lost track of where we were, then walked zigzag from there to get back to the mall (asking directions from pedestrians), then worried about finding our way back to the car (since kept no thread).

The suspense of getting further and further and having been absent-minded enough not to note the street name where we had parked it cast an increasingly large cloud over our expedition, as each new redirection and turn twisted the labyrinth we were in. You think you remember where you parked, at least more or less, but you get turned around too many times. Opposite directions become confused with each other, as similar landscapes get misidentified as identical. In Coleraine, Lindy and I each thought our car was located in an opposite direction.

The Real Health Store was basically a holistic pharmacy, and their non-supplements section shook down to a few brief shelves. This was typical for both the Republic and the North—no Whole Foods, Royal River, or Berkeley Natural Grocery. There is also little product consistency from store to store, even with purchases from Biota, the most popular brand. One store may have its cereals, another its cookies, another its juices—rarely is their expansiveness. You can’t count on seeing the same items even within groups from store to store, the exception being health-store staples like dried dates and dried mango. Big Oz organic buckwheat puffs—I know, not the healthiest breakfast cereal despite the buckwheat—purchased in Galway and running out has never shown up again

At The Real Health Store after we finished buying our items, the clerk directed us to a nearby supermarket with organic sections for vegetables and bread, neither of which he carried. He stepped out of the shop and walked partway down the mall to point it out at the near horizon. That meant leaving the mall and crossing a busy street.

Crossing the traffic to get to the Tesco wasn’t too traumatic—during a break in flow we ran alongside a woman with a baby carriage.

Coming back with our loaf bread and vegetables was another matter. The tipping point to rush hour had begun, and traffic was unbroken, some of it peeling off to the far right while other vehicles whipped around the corner, ignoring what seemed a pedestrian crosswalk. It wasn’t, despite the baby-carriage land. We did not see a light a block away, closer to the regular entrance to the Tesco.

Courtesy does not extend to driving here. Everything is moving fast and, despite the consciousness level demonstrated by orange vests worn by walkers on rural and suburban roads, there is strong vehicular entitlement in cities.

We spent about eight minutes trying to gauge or encourage a gap at two different point with no success, though a few other, much younger pedestrians timed a crossing and ran for it. Lindy, usually the more cautious of us, suddenly thought she saw an opening and made an unannounced run, but she had misjudged. The farthest lane, which was usually peeling off, did not this, leaving her directly exposed to traffic. Happily, everyone stopped, but it was one of those terrifying moments that resonates long after. I found myself using Peter Levine’s deer-shivering technique that night to get the after-shock of the moment out of my system. She had run directly into highway traffic!

After I followed her across the street, finding our car seemed a minor crisis. A customer back in the health-food shop (where we had left our bag of purchases for the excursion to Tesco) was able to name the precise spot from the few cues we delivered: “Somewhere around Circular Drive, parked in front of a car dealership.”

 

The next afternoon I made a solo journey on foot to the beach; it meant taking a different path from the closest roundabout, not toward City Center. I had guessed that the walk would be a half hour, but it was only eighteen minutes, a euphoric stroll, free associating and looking about at—well, Ireland.

People had talked about paid parking on the beach, but I couldn’t picture what that meant until I got within sight. A beautiful stretch of sandy beach was almost entirely occupied by vehicles: cars, RVs, trucks—as if everything but wet sand at the tidal edge was a parking lot. People lay on blankets and set up barbecues between vehicles, and kids played from there to the waves. It looked like a campgrounds or trailer park.

I chose a winding staircase down to the beach. The dirt footpath, which I tried first, led only to a rock-climbing means of entrée, also an invisible streamlike ooze over the cliff, which soaked through sneakers to socks. I followed the steps, took off my shoes at the bottom, and walked in the cold surf, not nearly as cold as at Louisberg. Despite the cars, the scene had a pleasant vibe, the town perched in rising layers of cottages, row houses, and small mansions beyond. I tried to get back by walking along a series of paved paths toward the town center, but got lost and had to be redirected. I passed a modern house built into the ruins of a fort or former stone hut. Its roof was a grassy knoll, but large crisp windows, new white appliances, and a sleek bricolage architecture stared out from old stones.

At eight in the evening, I was headed home, but it was nowhere near sunset.

 

The weather here is comprised of what the locals call “three seasons in a day.” Rarely is a given day not blustery, overcast, or foggy at some point, but most days also have bursts of summer sun. They say in Maine that if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes. That is true to an absurd degree here. Drizzle turns into sunshine, then is overcast again. You take off your jacket and sweater when it is hot, and then it is drizzling, then all at once pouring. The temperature lurches by five or ten degrees within an hour. The clouds are remarkable, suggesting faery lands among their banks and layers. Clouds are generally remarkable, projecting a phenomenology beyond their mundane isobars of temperature and moisture. Here they take meteorological art to a museum level.

Every sunset, a noisy, fairy-tale-like conclave of crows tours the nearby rooftops and trees. They are magical, suggesting a realm of intelligence and discourse beyond us. Magpies and gulls are their ubiquitous familiars.

I have remarked about the bright hues of flowers. Perhaps it is the constant gentle watering by clouds. In Portstewart to a greater degree than elsewhere in what we have seen, people have hydrangea plantings from pinks and reds to soft and bright blues. They form almost competitive palettes within yards.

 

Roisin left us with some interesting language, most of which I have forgotten. I do like the “varmints” that she warned might come through the shrubbery. She added that the Flowerfield Arts Centre was on the other side of the shrubbery but “you can’t go through the shrubs, you have to walk around them.” “The bollards” is her name for two short, stubby round cement objects at the base of a footpath leading to the main avenue, Coleraine Road. These are key landmarks for any walk we take, and we have to remember the correct sequences of lefts and a right to find them.

We are wound into a bit of a labyrinth at our house, involving streets and avenues with names like Cappagh, Woodvale, Fairfield, Agherton, etc. The sat-nav oddly chooses one of two different sequences each time for our return, seemingly at random. It made gibberish out of Gaelic names in the Republic, and it can no more handle Cappagh and Agherton, making vowel-less wrecks of consonants.

I started this entry in a day-long overcast with occasional downpours. Now the sun is shining, and there are only a few wisps of clouds in the sky.

 

July 23, 2017

When we set out on this trip to Ireland, it had one secondary objective: to bring a small packet of my sister’s ashes to the grave of her Nanny, Bridget McCann. It was a ritual I didn’t have to fully believe in or understand to commit to.

Bridey returned to Belfast for good in 1996 after more than forty years in the U.S.; she died there in 1999. Months after her return she became an unlikely icon while participating in a Peace March, her fierce image conveyed throughout the world, even sharing an Irish national magazine cover with Bill Clinton. Her look and presence were indomitable, almost savage, revealing a side of her I never knew, a side that, back in Belfast, reflected centuries of defiance, dashed hopes and new hopes. She clutched a paper dove. For my sister, the image was transcendent, as it raised the central figure of her life, the woman she called her “Irish angel,” to brief public stardom. It was also ironical. Bridey had just returned to Ireland, and she was not so much political as devout and dogged in her sense of justice and expression of Joan of Arc passion.

The ashes stayed far in the background of my concerns and attentions, as we travelled through the Republic as tourists. I occasionally made sure I still had the tiny packet, but I didn’t otherwise dwell on it. Now it was time to fulfill the mission.

Most of my sister’s ashes were scattered at two sites on Mount Desert Island in Eastern Maine: by Woofie’s Rock in Otter Creek and at Lopaus Point in Bernard (some on land there, some set in the sea). I had exempted a final portion for Ireland, no more than a thimbleful. A part of me doubted I’d get there; it seemed so remote and unimaginable then. I figured that if I never made it, I could always leave them in the garden or the ocean near Portland. But we got on the plane.

Since I believed that Debby’s spirit had departed this zone, the status of the ashes was ambiguous. They at least had liturgical and metonymical significance, plus there was always the magic wild card. Wendell Seavey who, in his fishing days, took folks out to sea to scatter ashes, reported instances of what I would called “psychic quantum entanglement”: the sun coming out from behind clouds or a wind picking up at the moment of letting the ashes go into the water. Wendell took those as the spirit saying “thank you” for the final release from earth at a good spot.

Roisin had graciously done advance legwork for me, locating Bridget’s youngest, and last surviving sibling from a family of nine, her sister Olive. Her married name was McAlea. According to a friend of Roisin’s cousin in Belfast, Olive remembered our family, though thought that the surname was Turner (not Towers), also that my name was Robert. She added that Olive might not be in good enough health for a visit, though she had conveyed a willingness for us to come see her. I wanted to meet Olive as kin to Bridget, and she was also my lone guide to the grave site.

On our second day in Portstewart, I dialed Olive’s number with trepidation, fearing dementia, but her voice immediately dispelled any such concerns. She was clear, astute, and welcoming. She did have my first name confused, but she correctly remembered Towers not Turner. That was a mistake in transferring information. She closed our conversation by saying, “My door is always open to you, darling.” A common Irish blessing, but a showstopper nonetheless.

I spent a good deal of the prior two days fussing over maps of Belfast, both online and in our travel literature, trying to match a transit map to a street map. Olive’s address on Cedar Avenue, which was next door to where Bridey lived with other McCann siblings on her return to the city where she was born and raised, was not in downtown Belfast but toward the outskirts to the north.

Urban maps generate random imaginings of neighborhoods from grids and names, projections from what one knows of districts in other cities. I tend to worry about both safety of neighborhoods and transportation logistics. I have wandered into dangerous neighborhoods in San Francisco, Munich, Chicago, and New York and understand that without native cues, you are blind to telltale warning signs.

Knowing nothing of Belfast, I could only surmise where Olive was and what lay between her and the downtown train station. Our planned itinerary—bus from Portstewart to Coleraine, train from Coleraine to Belfast, train, bus, or taxi from the central station in Belfast to Cedar Avenue—looked long, complicated, and dicey. I couldn’t figure out which train or bus went there from which downtown station, and no nearby train stop was marked on any map, meaning a walk through unclassified neighborhoods. The general district, between Antrim Road and Cavehill, was central to the Troubles though presently at peace. Still I felt an edge of concern—strange city, uncertain transit. I finally concluded, since Cedar Avenue was on a direct line from Portstewart into Belfast and short of the city, that driving the car in, against Roisin’s best advice—she said to avoid urban traffic and expensive parking—was my preference. Then I decided to do it one day earlier than originally planned, a Sunday because there would be less traffic. Also, we wouldn’t necessarily have to park in a garage where Olive was; we could park on the street. A real-estate image of a property for sale further down the block showed ample spaces in front of row houses. Public transportation looked like minimum two and a half hours with plenty of gray areas, while mapquest put car time at 53 minutes, door to door.

Olive was open to a change from our original date, though she wanted us to come on the early side because there was an evening mass for her son Jim. He had sadly died of illness only four weeks earlier—a mere week before we left Maine—shockingly recent, making her hospitality all the more meaningful.

 

Driving into Belfast had a mythic halo that no prior excursion on this trip had had. Bridget arrived at our household in 1954, my tenth year, and she brought with her a link to her hometown that remained a big part of our childhood mythology, regularly reinforced by her stories about her family. These had the veritas of a Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy novel. She read aloud portions of aerograms she received as folded thin blue sheets, sealed into an envelope and transported by exotic stamps we removed by soaking in water, and pasted in books. We followed the lives of her nephews and nieces like serial dramas.

Belfast later represented the heart of IRA resistance to England, giving rise to terrorism, guerilla warfare, devastated neighborhoods, widespread internment, and hunger strikes by prisoners, including Bobby Sands’ self-imposed starvation to death commemorated in Steve McQueen’s sacred movie Hunger, Michael Fassbender as Sands.

My two Belfast narratives were interlinked. Though Bridey came to the U.S. well before the Troubles, the social and economic conditions that gave rise to them led to her leaving home and family as a young woman, to seek a more promising life and career in New York.

 

I drove. I wanted to be the driver entering Belfast at last. It took the usual gauntlet of roundabouts to get launched from Coleraine onto highways, which had their own occasional roundabouts. Most of the run was on a fast-moving “double carriage” road with each roundabout having a Belfast lane clearly marked on the pavement as well as in diagrams of the upcoming circle with exits designated by locale on signs. My mapquest instructions, copied from online, diverged from the sat-nav as we got close, the latter wanting to take us deeper into Belfast. I had spent so much time tracing the route on maps that I felt comfortable with mapquest’s preference of M2 Exit 4 to Antrim Road over the sat-nav’s sticking to M2. On Antrim Road passed the zoo and Belfast Castle, happily confirming the crests on the maps I had all but memorized. We were quickly at Cedar Avenue. We turned onto the McCann-McAlea block, and there we were in a flash—my arrival made epic by its long prodrome. Sixty-three years past, Bridget McCann arrived at 1235 Park Avenue. It was my microcosmic version of Kubrick’s 2001 space odyssey.

Cedar was an avenue of tall, narrow, pastel-painted stucco row houses, some with tiny slits between them. Olive was outside in her front yard, in fact waiting to meet us—we were a tad late—the drive took seventy minutes. A small gnome-like woman with glasses and a sweet smile, she radiated innate warmth. After shaking hands and making a complimentary fuss, she led us inside where family members were gathered: her daughter Bridget, another daughter Elizabeth, and Bridget’s two young nieces, approximately three and seven, playing with a cellphone and a device that they called a “HiPad.”

We sat in the living room, then moved to tea and small cakes in the dining room, though Bridget left not long after our arrival to take the children to a trampoline birthday party. We visited for, I think, two hours, though I lost track of the actual time and don’t pay much attention to it in a country with sunsets not much short of midnight. Our talk was filled with family information on both sides. I felt, right off, that I had to sort the tragic Towers family chronicles for them, and they were interested in getting clarity because it illuminated hidden details of Bridey’s life in America—after all, she had been a member of a calamitous family for decades. They knew about my mother’s 1975 suicide. In fact, Olive went upstairs to search and returned with a folded and crumpled letter written by my stepfather Bob Towers to Bridget just afterwards, thanking her for her service to our family over the years and telling her what a remarkable human being she was. Over our protests, she insisted we keep it.

We then had a debate about whether Mr. Towers, being an advertising man naturally glib with words, had merely delivered an eloquent testimonial or spoke from the heart. Olive and I felt strongly that, whatever else was involved, the letter was written with authenticity and love. Lindy and Liz were slightly more skeptical but conceded the benefit of the doubt.

The McAleas were vague to blank on my brother Jon’s suicide in 2005; in fact, his whole life as an itinerant was a surprise to them. They knew him only as Bridey’s high-achieving charge, a boy she was proud of and whose feats she acclaimed in letters.

They had only just heard about my sister’s suicide from Roisin’s cousin’s friend. That was particularly upsetting to them because of the link between Debby and Bridget and also because the cumulative suicides in the family she served spoke to the mystery of her service. They assumed she had been a godsend because that was her nature—to care and do service—but it hadn’t stopped her “children” and their mother from killing themselves, the women by jumping out the same window forty-two years apart and my brother by stabbing himself repeatedly in the neck and abdomen with a knife.

I described the therapeutic role Bridey played in an impossible situation. I explained how, on arriving in our apartment, she gradually adapted to the intricacies of the psychological affliction into which she had stumbled. It was initially outside her frame of reference, but rather than flee, she took responsibility for bringing sunlight into a dark place. She was our anchor and compass of sanity and normality. The women were not surprised because, as the fourth-born of the nine with aging parents, she had been a mother to her younger siblings during her own early teenage years. I added that she was effectively Debby’s true mother in the absence of our mother’s capacity to nurture.

“Bridget loved the wee girl,” Olive confirmed. “Such a blessing she didn’t live to have to suffer this.”

Elizabeth remarked that Bridget secretly substituted candy when my mother gave Debby her Demerol pills for anxiety. “She thought it was inappropriate for a child to be taking adult medicine.

A dynamic single career woman, at fifty-two she ran programs as an exeutive in three Belfast hospitals. She explained that when she was growing up, we were part of her family. “On Bridget’s visits back to Belfast, I heard many stories about Richard, Jonny, and Debby.” Our vicarious relationship was reciprocal.

 

Bridget and her younger sister Margaret came to the U.S. as young women and stayed there for the greater parts of their adult lives. Bridey turned into a proxy American, while Margaret was homesick for Ireland, longed to return, and came back sooner. Neither married. They sent a portion of the salary they earned back to help with the younger children, Olive among them. “It was always ‘ask Bridget,’” she said. “If I needed a dress for a dance, she sent money. She put us first, ahead of herself.”

During the Troubles, Bridget and Margaret paid for Olive’s then-teen son Jimmy to come to New York, stay with them, and go to Catholic high school (1976-1977). While visiting Bridget there in 1977, Elizabeth and Olive met Debby. They fondly remembered attending a Broadway show with her.

“When Jimmy got back from New York,” Olive continued, “All his pals were interred, so he went to Cork, stayed for seven years, and then he lived in England for the next twenty years, painting and decorating. He was a good man.” Much talk followed concerning the Troubles and how the McCanns were not involved in the violence but attended peace marches.

“I was with Bridey that day,” Olive said, as she brought the Clinton/McCann cover from upstairs to show, “but they didn’t want my picture. The photographer fixed right on her. He didn’t know she was just back from America. Maybe he liked the way she was clutching that wee paper dove.”

It took a while for Olive and Elizabeth to absorb Lindy and me. We were not Debby, their main link, though we brought first-hand, if grim, news of her. Though they had my name wrong (and Olive had to be reminded during the visit I was not “Robert”), they had gotten an earlier version of my memoir novel New Moon, and Elizabeth said it had been passed around the family. Yet they did not initially connect the book to me, the person there.

Gradually we formed our own relationship with them, as if coming around full circle back to the front door and re-entering. Olive accepted us with tender, familial inclusivity, on our own terms as people in her living room, not as second-hand representatives of Debby or Bridget. Both women made it clear that we were part of their family as of the moment, and would always be welcome. Elizabeth reiterated, “You have always been part of my family.” Then Olive went upstairs and found a commemoration card for Bridey from the year of her death. She gave the small murti-like Catholic ikon and to us.

Later in the day her parting comment was that, unless we made it to her house again during our stay, she would see us next “at home,” meaning (Lindy remarked to me in the car) in the next world.

 

The visit was steeped in such intimacy and magic that it became an informal initiation into an Irish family, a family I was already part of because Bridey was my older sister or surrogate Mom from age ten to seventeen. She was the stability and hub around which our household orbited. Her singing of Irish ballads and show tunes (notaably from Finian’s Rainbow) was the soundtrack of my childhood—a transplanting of an Irish soul to our domain, a visitation that portended greater depth. Jon and I talked about it and its relation to Bridey through our thirties and forties. In Out of Babylon I included a section of a letter my brother, in miasma and chaos, wrote to her from college in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1967. It held the innocence and hope that Bridey had signified for us:

“The house at the beach sounds fine. Hearthfire and the sea is better than buses and elevators, especially for you, I guess, who has lived all her life near the sea. Bridey, this wish for you—may you ever be what is best of Ireland. May you always carry its myth and mystery in your spirit and its love that is an elf’s love riding the wind through old castles, lighting night’s land into twilight and when settling on the child’s face whispering of the dream and its brightness. It is by this I will always feel you best.”

 

Throughout the visit, I felt a gravitas and significance, an almost Dantean pull, as though everything was doubly and triply folded over and filled with otherworldly nostalgia and deep Mediaeval imagery. The house on Cedar Avenue, its living room and parlor, held the timeless hearth from which Bridey came, and to which we now came as in a dream or a pilgrimage. I felt the power of it resonating through my body, and building. Beyond the mundane events and conversations, there was a ceremony being conducted, an affiliation not so much being established, since that took place long ago, as ratified. Though couched in an understated event, it was consecrated, a form in alliance with Navaho sandpaintings, Aboriginal Dreamtime, and Druid ruins for its Pleistocene roots.

For our years together and because she had met Bridey and understood her role in our family, Lindy felt it too. She commented quietly at one juncture, “This is pretty powerful.” Nothing about it was specifically earth-shattering or enchanted, but it was enchanted.

“You picked a fine wife,” Olive complimented as soon as Lindy was in the bathroom. “She got you out of the family troubles and supported you. She’s a good woman.”

“We were just working-class folks,” she said at one point. “My father and my brothers Eddie, Jimmy, and David were dockers; they worked at the docks. But we had our family and we had the neighborhood. We knew how to take care of each other. Bridget was always caring of others. That’s how we are.”

I had told them about the ashes, and Elizabeth offered to drive us to the cemetery, but it kept getting postponed by conversation and tea refills. Finally we sprang from latency into action. Carnmoney Cemetery was about fifteen minutes away in the direction from which we had driven. Liz whipped through town in her spacious but cluttered Renault, and we emerged from residential neighborhoods uphill in sunlight.

On the hillside, a stunning landscape of tombstones faced Belfast Bay and, in the other direction, rising Cavehill. Pointing to it, Elizabeth remarked that Bridget always put up a picture of the jagged promontory in her places in New York, to remind her where she came from. I had never noticed that and, even if I had, the ancient Irish hillside would have meant nothing to me—not until I stood before it in present time.

Unlike many cemeteries we had seen in Ireland, which had nineteenth-century (and earlier) white, often-eroding stones with pre-industrial calligraphy, this one had predominantly shiny black modern centopahs, incisively engraved with identifying information, dates, and epitaphs, many members of a family to a plot. We reached another McCann family first, but Liz called us on past it. Bridget’s stone was a bit farther down the central avenue, the first one in to the left. It named Our Beloved sister Bridget Patricia first, January 9, 1999; Precious Brother David, October of the same year; Gentle Sisters Margaret and Winnie in 2004 and 2005. The sun was brilliant and warm. Belfast City and harbor lay in the distance. In the other direction was the small valley on which Cedar Avenue made its incision—in Belfast’s early days, during the Troubles, and now. Beyond it, the Palaeocene basalt sphinx of Cavehill on which Neolithic Celtic farmers grazed cattle, where they dug caves to mine iron. In Victorian times, more ancient limestone was quarried.

Big moments are hard to fit into time’s swift-flowing, diffuse continuum. My endlessly self-referential monkey mind kept trying to land on the right somber and focused note, to evoke the shamanic potential in the occasion. To myself I felt a miserable failure. First, it was difficult to get open my minute, carefully sealed and taped envelope—it had been crucial that the ashes not spill en route, that would have been a mess in the suitcase and a loss of the ceremony. Once I tugged off a corner, I kneeled before the stone and sprinkled the white-gray ash on the green grass and clover, as close to the stone I could get.

As I tried to “see,” I was internally redirected from sky to earth, which allowed a quiet portal that was already there to open. I had to try not to push and invent, just to receive. What I “saw” was part my imagination, part autonomous transmission: a very young Bridget, the age she was when she came to us, a twenty-four-year-old colleen not yet the white-haired fáidh in the photograph. In the scene, Debby was an old woman, showing the devastation she had recently undergone, but fear and despair were spooling off her like a façade of makeup, and she seemed at peace, even in reverie, reaching out to put her arm around a young Bridey, the Nanny who had come to the crib of her as baby girl. This reversal of time felt not only right to the situation but the only way to explain it and the only path to its redemption.

As I said, the picture partly resonated my desire reaching out and partly the picture that it contacted, attuned, and translated into a deceptively conventional pastoral image. The scene was not diminished by the vibration’s being saccharine or kitsch. It was what it was, as all things are. At its level I was enlightened as to the meaning of my own pilgrimage. Debby didn’t need me to ferry her ashes to Belfast, certainly not for her to find Bridget or be found; but my bringing them to the grave itself completed a circle and released a few lingering ghosts.

As I set down the ashes and looked into the portal, I realized that my pilgrimage was telling Debby’s spirit that she could have come here, to Cavehill; she could have come to Belfast itself instead of jumping out the window, but she never left New York; Not just New York—she confined herself to a quadrant bounded by Sixth Avenue, 12th Street, Second Avenue, and 98th Street. Just about all of her time was spent inside an even smaller matrix: Fifth Avenue, 14th Street, Third Avenue, and Lexington at 86th. She almost never ventured outside it. Only twice after age thirty did she leave New York City.

She thought that there was nowhere else to go, but her original, unconsummated family, the McCanns, lived on Cedar Street. She had the means to get herself there and a reason.

By taking the sci-fi journey in a spaceship of my own imagination; by breaking major Towers family taboos with Lindy’s help (as always); by bringing a small part of Debby’s last molecular form, I was taking the unmade journey for her, albeit too late, for both of us so that she could make it herself on another level, to complete her journey to the maternal source and, at the same time, authenticate my own reception. In that sense, it wasn’t too late. “Now Bridget can care for her,” Olive said later, as if that required the ashes. We both knew that the “ashes” part wasn’t literally true, but it was the only way to express some other thing that was.

Finally, I can’t say what the ceremony was, just that it felt right—and enough. I didn’t need a breeze to kick up or a poltergeist to appear. It wasn’t that kind of thing.

 

After the visit to Carnmoney and en route back to Cedar, Elizabeth drove Lindy and me up Cavehill to Belfast Castle, a generous gift. The castle wasn’t a Mediaeval relic but paid nineteenth-century atavistic homage. Lindy and I found the brief scoot relaxing, to be shepherded this time to a requisite tourist site and not having to find or belabor it.

It was a stock castle, the gardens colorful and meticulous, throwback Mediaeval imagery compelling against modern Belfast and its Lough, its inlet harbor, in the distance, mysterious and beckoning as ever.

We returned to Cedar Avenue and bid Olive and Elizabeth goodbye. Olive’s grandson David Farley, Bridget’s son, was there with two of his children, his young son and daughter. They were too shy to shake hands, when requested, by Lindy.

She asked their father if they did that, shake hands, and he responded by holding up and jabbing a fist. “Oh, they do that,” Lindy said. “I can fist-bump.” She offered but they were too shy for that too.

“The loveliest thing,” said Olive, “is that your half-sister’s ashes are buried with my family, where they belong. I pray a lot and now I will say a rosary for her every day.” She paused. “I wish Debby had come to us. We would have cared for her. She will always be part of our family, and now we will include her in our prayers with Bridget and my sisters and Jimmy and David. We will visit her by Bridget’s headstone.”

 

 

July 24, 2017

Going to Derry on Monday was a last-minute decision that we made Sunday night. We had thought to return to Belfast the very next morning, to see the city on a walking tour, but the guide we chose was available only on Wednesday and Thursday—and for private not public tours.

So, I called the two walking tours listed in the Rick Steves guide for Derry and spoke to the person in charge of each. The Bogside tour was specifically devoted to the Troubles and led by people who had lost family on Bloody Sunday— 30 January 1972. The other was a more conventional historic stroll through the city. The leader of the latter declined to comment on the Bogside one (“in person, but not on the phone”). I tried asking whether doing both would be repetitive. He said that he felt his tour covered everything we needed to see, a Protestant tipoff.

We thought we’d take the historic walk in the morning and try the Bogside one in the afternoon, but as chance would have it, we arrived in Derry with a forty-five-minute wait for the next Bogside tour and an extra hour on top of that for the historic one, so we reversed the order and, as the day took its own course, went only to the Bogside. After its intense, exhausting introduction to the town, we wanted to see the rest of Derry on our own at a more leisurely pace; we didn’t care if we missed a site or two. There would be no exam.

Passing through Derry en route to Portstewart from Donegal a few days earlier, we had noted the old walls and modern bridge, the urban complicatedness at short distance. In fact, we skimmed Derry’s outskirts in street-feeding roundabouts, many marked “center city.” We wanted to spend time in those interstices, but not on a travel day.

We knew that Derry was a major battleground during the Troubles. In the youtube video of Phil Coulter singing his Derry anthem, the sign “Entering Free Derry” makes that point unambiguously.

If our time in the Republic was dominated by a desire to encounter faery energy, the North was dominated by a commitment to experiencing the political reality more deeply. Ireland’s long Gaelic guerrilla war with England is inescapable in both sectors of the divided country. It dominates town squares and roadsides, covering Mediaeval settlements and wars and early urban rebellions, leading up the 1916 uprising, the executions, and the subsequent war for independence and formation of the Irish Free State by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. The story was imbedded in museums we visited and at the Joyce and Yeats castles. Roisin’s house was filled with its artifacts, from the poems of Seamus Heaney to replica newspapers from 1916 through 1923 in which we read about historic events in their own present time.

England conquered Ireland because the larger island was fundamentally imperial. The initial inroads were a natural extension of feudalism in the tenth and eleventh centuries—lords winning their territories in battle. Thereafter the English government assumed jurisdiction over Ireland, in part because the nearby mega-island provided a base for potential enemies—Spain and, centuries later, Germany. It was an ideal launch point to attack the homeland. They settled the hinterland by encouraging Scottish and rural British folks to emigrate there.  Stewardship was rationalized in protectorate terms: England became military guarantor of Ireland’s security as well as its benefactor, in markets, technology, and investment. It regarded itself as a civilizing overseer. During the ninetenth and early twentieth centuries Ireland was still viewed as a backwater of yokels, drunks, and savages, primitive and provincial. Roisin’s old papers were filled with unexamined sentiments along these lines. No less a learned chap than George Bernard Shaw mocked the Irish desire for independence by referring to the land as little more than “a field of cabbages.”

Taking the Bogside tour was instant immersion in this history, a living context for “Entering Free Derry.”

By the way, the British settled the town as Londonderry, the guilds officially naming it in 1662, which always seemed odd to me because it might legitimately have been New London, but why run opposing geographies (London and “Daire” together?

 

We decided to drive to Derry rather than take the train, though the Irish Rail journey was said to have spectacular views. Getting to the train and from the station to the tours (and back) would add two to three hours to the commute, and we figured we figured we’d rather spend that time in Derry itself.

I am not going to try to recapitulate the history of the Troubles and Bloody Sunday when thirteen unarmed civilians were murdered in the street. There are plenty of accounts online. Instead I will offer impressions formed during the tour, as narrated by Paul, our guide, acknowledging that there may be plentiful errors and gaps in my account.

Paul’s tour was not so much a tour as an ablution. It didn’t cover more than a few blocks, yet it lasted almost two hours. Paul gauged it at the beginning as taking from an hour to an hour-twenty-minutes, so he overshot his slot by a good margin. We walked for maybe fifteen minutes of those two hours all told. The rest of the time we stood in lace and listened to Paul stand witness to horrors he had witnessed and call out the deeds from memory like a sacred bard.

There would have been no way for a gaggle of tourists to assimilate the true depth of “Entering Free Derry” or Bloody Sunday. A witness like Paul was our only hope of a distant glimpse. His father was murdered on Bloody Sunday while wearing the armband of a weaponless civilian march-leader. He was shot by a British soldier, as his seventeen-year-old son stood on the street. Paul’s investment in that chrysalis was intense and intimate, its flame unextinguishable. He was on a life mission handed on site, on spot, to a teenager. He =founded the tour company with the intent of getting the truth out to as many people as he could.

Our tour was another of countless daily occasions for Paul to give testimony. The problem was: that’s pretty much what he did—and he had done it so many times—hundreds, thousands, that he had lost the passion, beginner’s mind or presence. He was flat, not really there, simply narrating as if reciting a memorized spiel.

Bound by duty to present the facts, he spoke them; his words were packed with fury, outrage, and revelation, but his emotional body didn’t match them. He was disjunctive and repetitious. Who could blame him? How many times can you mourn and weep? How often can you perform a public catharsis? The facts alone are so horrific that they don’t hold up in a single telling, so repetition is not a defect. It is the litany that remains when the tears have all been cried out. That’s not quite right. The embers were still hot enough. But can’t repeat a catharsis again and again unless you are an actor—and thank goodness Paul wasn’t—but it wore because the fire doesn’t always light and, as horrible and close to oneself as the acts are, they also wane with life itself. Paul’s heart was clearly in it, but he couldn’t lay it bare one more time.

I will give my jumbled version of his broken transmission.

The British attacked unarmed civilians in the Bogside on direct orders from Downing Street, the top. It wasn’t an accident; they meant to shoot and kill. The army knowingly brought in untrained, undisciplined thugs and psychopaths, Belfast townies and bored Antrim farmers who joined up for the license to shoot, torture, and humiliate innocent people—pure recreation. They shot into fleeing crowds and stepped forward to execute people for whom ambulances had been summoned. They shot young boys and, while they were still alive, carted them off in army vehicles under the ruse of taking them to the hospital, then dumped them in a hospital parking lot where they tortured them until they were dead.

The higher-ups in London had created cover stories for the massacre from even before it happened. As they planned the slaughter, a version of shock and awe, they arranged a legitimizing narrative—that they had only shot at armed terrorists and civilians in self-protection—a “get off the hook” card that is used as arrantly today by armies and police officers. But images smuggled out by photographers who had to hide and then escape disprove those shameless lies. Paul’s point was that they had intended to kill unarmed civilians and call them armed terrorists before the event took place.

He went on and on with this testimony, losing track of time, losing touch with his audience, forgetting his locale or what he had already said. The narrative was powerful and ghastly in its routine disclosures but with minimal continuity or consistency. Every so often we stopped at what was an ordinary street corner or parking lot, and it proved to be another site where the army fired and civilians were killed. There Paul’s soliloquy took flight. He named each murder victim, where the bullet entered and exited, what solider F or solder G later testified at two inquests (usually that the victim was armed or “they had a convenient loss of memory”), which soldiers or witnesses died before or after giving accounts (most of them from cancer, probably, Paul said, because of the chemicals used in dispersing the crowd). Then we walked further. Then we stopped. Paul gave more testimony.

At one point, we stood in a parking lot by a set of apartments, an obviously poor neighborhood, residents exiting and entering, casting an occasional approving glance, as Paul described people shot while they fled down the common alley before us, meticulous detail as to the nature of each execution and death, victim by victim. All that time we gathered alongside a dead pigeon on the sidewalk, never acknowledging it. The bird added a raw symbolism and macabre corroboration. How could you say anything about a mere present-day dove when a massacre of monumental scope was resonating on the same spot?

Along our walk, we passed dozens of murals, wall paintings, graffiti, and posters, so diverse and so artistically executed that it was a street gallery. That was the highlight of the tour, Paul our docent=. It was hard to tell the difference between their representation of active, living rage and their role as historic canonization and iconography. The line between myth and reality wavered, though the images were stunning, especially in the context of streets and inhabited buildings rather than halls. I don’t doubt that the accounts and conditions were real and that many of the same grievances, contentions, and abuses are alive and well today, disguised beneath a new prosperity and the veneer of the supposedly irrefrangible April 1998 agreement between London and Dublin, London and Belfast. In that sense, the street gallery is a church, a reminder of one’s ongoing sacred responsibility to the martyrs who made the present possible—their membrance, a holocaust museum where it belongs, among the projects in the Bog where the shit went down.

What did I see? Realistic color paintings of street battles with blood on the pavement, armed soldiers, people fleeing tear gas billowing behind them, people fallen. Key figures like Bernadette Devlin and various victims and priests whose names I forget, also Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch on a bright red wall around a small window, Cuban and Irish flags forming a V for his head, the extra surname highlighting Che’s part-Irish ancestry, along two Gaelic epigraphs and an English quote: “In my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish Rebels.”

I saw black, white, and gray paintings of  gas-mask-donning soldiers, automatic-bullet clips over their shoulders, other soldiers pointing rifles at hooded revolutionaries; carefully printed words like “Victory to the Republican Prisoners,” “End Isolation of Republicans,”  “End Forced Strip Searching,” “We Salute Those Who Gave Their Lives for Irish Freedom,” “IRA,” “Unfinished Revolution,” “End British Internment,” “You Are Now Entering FREE DERRY” (a yellow section of wall preserved, moved to a grassy mall, and given the status of a monument),”Free the Hunger Strikers,” “Solidarity with Palestine.” This is a sample, not the whole list by any means.

The Bogside is covered with this art, organized and willy-nilly, aesthetic and scrawled, amid the activity of what is still, in areas, an impoverished ghetto. The passers-by were alternately oblivious, busy with their own lives; they were women with baby carriages, kids playing, teens and young adults hanging out, old-timers around bars and shops, elderly and physically impaired and/or traumatized men and women walking with crutches or standing stoned, and then the fashionably attired and superior young-people headed to and from careers or pleasure. Occasional passers-by Paul’s age—sixtyish—interacted, these encounters initiated by either him or them.

Him: “You want to borrow money in Derry? He’s your man. Pure loan shark.” “You need a funeral at half-price? Try this guy. But he’ll only bury you three feet deep. He buries Protestants nine feet deep.”

Them: “Listen to this man. He’s the living walking truth.” “You tell’em, Paul. Tell’em what they done.” “Never forget, brother!”

These exchanges were conducted with old-time camaraderie and solidarity and were punctuated with hugs and fist bumps. Paul occasionally forgot the tour and fell into private conversation.

At the same time, two others Derries coexisted with Bogside 1972 and visible in the distances and as they intersected us—an older walled city preserved in relics and flooded with tourists, and a modern city of shopping malls, hip young girls bopping through them, dressed to the nines with Goth eye shadow, to the blasting of Britney-Spears-like pop. They had forgotten. But they never knew.

Paul’s sermon was real and cogent and immediate, but he was also bottoming a dying reverence, a cult dependent on a memory that was fading into the passage of time. This is true many other places too: Germany, Vietnam, Rwanda, Russia, Cuba. The young don’t know and don’t actually care.

Failed catharsis turns drab and propagandistic even if it isn’t propaganda but essential testimony of an eye witness. “Tour guide” is finally a thankless hell of an occupation for a survivor of attrocities.

 

Let me back up one more time. Arriving in Derry in the morning, we parked in front of a bakery near a shopping center to which we had been directed to by Paul on the phone—it was a landmark for parking close to the hike. The abundance of spaces on the street was deceptive. Double lines meant delivery trucks or taxis; yet I painstakingly backed into one with a large staring audience of folks seated at the bakery tables. Luckily a woman came out from the establishment, explained, and redirected us around the corner to a car lot. I put in most of my hard-to-read coins and saw three hours go up behind the glass. Then we proceeded to the three-tiered shopping center for a bottle of spring water and the bathrooms. The trip involved escalators and a tour of transnational mall culture: spiffy, corporate, digital, post-post-modern, entrepreneurial to its gills.

From there we hurried back to Guild Hall where Paul and his colleague were assembling a group: a German couple, two Spanish women, two American couples, a woman from County Down. To us Americans, Paul said simply, “I would have voted for Donald Duck before Donald Trump.”

The start of the tour was briefly delayed by a woman in the park across the street bringing her daily sacks of bird food for the pigeons. Not only did Paul’s colleague recognize her at once on her route, but birds from all over Derry did before a seed was dropped. They swarmed into a single, winged creature around her, a maelstrom of frenzied feeding to which birds were still arriving long after the last crumbs had been gobbled.

Paul presented the basic situation in Northern Ireland as equivalent to the Civil Rights movement of the sixties in the U.S., which it followed (it also closely followed the 1968 Paris Revolution and other uprisings on the Continent). He also compared it to the current situation in America in which the Protestant Unionists were like the American Tea Party: racist, ignorant, anti-foreigner, against their own economic self interests in the service of clannism and revenge. The Irish Republicans were for equal education, health-care, land ownership, voting rights, etc. It was a relevant comparison as far as it went.

Paul was quite convincing when he said that the Unionists were in opposition to the Gaelic language, which made sense, like Tea Party rejection of Spanish in American schools, but he threw in LGBT too often and gratuitously for my taste. It was legitimate, but it felt like an add-on, to garner as widespread support for his outraged position as possible and to further tarnish and isolate the Unionists ideologically. Catholics and LGBT don’t usually go together, and I’m not sure of any real conviction holding up this link. But I am presenting Paul’s view of matters, and it overlaps in most places with my own beliefs and loyalties.

Northern Ireland in the seventies was more Protestant than Catholic—the British settled so many plantations (as they were called) over the centuries. Yet Derry was two-thirds Catholic. Despite this, the Derry City Council was gerrymandered so as to isolate and marginalize Catholic voters. Also voting rights were based on property rights, meaning a plan to keep Catholics from owning property.

These are contradictory strategies, so I don’t know how each was applied. It was also unclear what triggered the uprisings and marches, culminating with the street slaughters of 1972. On the one hand, it seemed to be indiscriminate, trial-less internment of Irish youth by the British. On the other in Paul’s account, the fuse was lit by selective granting of property rights to Protestants, in particular an unmarried seventeen-year-old girl given a property from which a large Catholic family had to be evicted. Plus, Catholics were denied education, a fact confirmed at once by the woman in our group from County Down. She said that she and her peers were unable to attend college. Paul then described how a new university was built in Protestant Coleraine rather than much larger Catholic Derry.

In any case, when Catholics began marching peaceably for better conditions, loyalist Apprentice Boys of Derry were encouraged to march alongside and taunt and harass them.

It took about fifteen minutes for Paul to deliver the background lecture; then we began to walk.

He closed the tour half a block from the Museum of Free Derry, around the dead pigeon, at the alley in which people were killed. There he spent another fifteen minutes going through falsified testimony, especially that of British General Michael Jackson, commander in 1972, later deployed to Iraq during the W.-Bush/Tony Blair debacle and recalled specially for the inquiry.

Paul finally hailed this tour (and his Bogside company) as part of a mission to tell the world what happened in Derry despite two subsequent rigged inquiries. Though Prime Minister David Cameron had recently apologized for the actions of soldiers decades earlier, Paul brushed it off as too little too late. He emphasized that Cameron only admitted that discipline broke down among the troops—for which a rote apology was issued—not that the orders to shoot came from high up or that the battalions of imported soldiers were instructed to ignore cease-fires from local officers and continue their shooting into crowds.

We had planned to visit the museum after the tour, but we were exhausted and subsumed already, so we headed downtown.

 

Lunch was a challenge. There were no appealing places in the area we canvassed, mainly by straight going up a steep hill that seemed to be headed centrally after we wended our way back to Guild Hall. Lindy was willing to partake of the offerings of a franchise called Peri-Peri featuring chicken from South Africa. It was edible, but I balked and returned half a block to a health clinic on the other side of the street. A woman was making infusions there in a room as dark as an opium den, and I was second in line. It took about ten minutes for her to prepare my drink of lime, apple, carrot, and beetroot (as I now know beets are called here). That intense potion was my lunch. I returned to the carpark and put in for three more hours.

A manager at Peri-Peri directed us to a nearby entrance to the town wall, saving us the guidebook’s longer detour. The wall turned out to be much like the Highline in New York City, but with the energetic vibe and vintage of the wall around Lucca which we had ridden on bikes in 2006. The Derry wall had numerous gates for entry and exit. After we climbed the proximal one’s stone stairs, we got a panoramic aerial view of the city. It changed gradually as we proceeded along the wall among historic exhibits and placards as well as a branch of the Church of Ireland with gardens and tombstones. The original Mediaeval walled city was protected by cannons, some of which had been left in place at their crenels.

We went quite a distance along the walkway, peering out through crenels and from platforms. At one spot, we saw the morning’s murals at a far distance. The fact that Bogside was literally a reclaimed low-lying boggy area was explicit with geographical context. Seeing it with perspective also gave a feeling of completion to the day. How do you encompass a whole metropolis, even a small one, in a matter of hours? You don’t, but nonetheless you labor to make your experience whole.

A stanza of Phil Coulter’s “Town I Loved So Well” shared a placard with other lyrical quotes, including Seamus Heaney’s, “And in the dirt lay justice like an acorn in the winter / Till its oak would sprout in Derry where thirteen men lay dead.” Another sign told us that Derry was derived from Gaelic “Daire” for Oak— the Anglicization of Gaelic words onomatopoetic in ways that tend to lessen the dignity and chant of the original. This whole place was once a giant oak grove by a river. We took a photo of the sign and emailed it to our son Robin who is an environmental biologist and historical geographer involved in re-oaking as a part of landscape restoration and bio-resilience in Northern California under assault of climate change. Thus Derry = Oakland.

At one point, we realized we were on the wall above the poor Unionist section of town, lots of Union Jacks and Ulster flags (which are two orange-red lines crossing in the center of a white background where a white star at their juncture shows a red hand representing the British lords and their plantations). Paul’s lament during the lead-up to the tour, applicable to America too, was that the poor of opposite persuasions allow themselves to be polarized and divided over religious, cultural, and ethnic misdirects by their exploiters and are thereby politically manipulated. He added that one good thing that might come from Brexit was both sides realizing that a united Ireland in the European Union was more in their interests than being part of an increasingly isolated UK. Nonetheless, one large sign meant to be visible from the wall announced: “Londonderry West Bank Loyalists, Still Under Siege, No Surrender.” When in Loyalist territory, the name of the town is Londonderry. The county is Londonderry, and the rain schedule calls it Derry/Londonderry.

Another informed us that 85.4% of the Protestant population had been forced out of Cityside to Waterside by Republican violence.

We gave some coins to a distinguished-looking busker who could have been played by Michael Fassbender with facial scars. His classical melodies turned his guitar into a lute and harp.

From there we descended through a gate into the city and found ourselves back on the street with Peri-Peri and the health clinic. We had walked a long distance, but it had curved back to where we began.

 

We had ninety minutes left on our meter but were exhausted. We thought to go to the carpark but, in our return, we ended up using most of the ninety minutes on spontaneous forays.

The carpark was by the River Foyle, which cuts through the town. A modern bridge spans it near Guild Hall, so we tried to figure out how to cross the busy riverside highway and walk the span in the flow of people, many of them tour groups. We were directed by a pedestrian to a nearby traffic light. We crossed and walked to the bridge. We read the placard. The Peace Bridge, for bicycles and foot traffic only, was opened in June 2011, funded with help from the European Union. Bygone times! It joined Catholic Derry and Bogside to Protestant Londonderry and Waterside.

A river always looks different from a bridge, and the Foyle was quite dramatic, scissoring the city into its two subcities and framing their Mediaeval vista with a modern architecture rising out of it. Cyclists tore at reckless speed, mothers walked carriages, toddlers ran toward the wires at the edge, which effectively blocked them from falling, though frantic parents grabbed them back.

The aesthetically designed bridge—its architects were also responsible for a span over the Yangtze in China—curved in s’s as it crossed the Foyle. Toward Cityside, clusters of ribbons were tied to the railing. We ignored the tags attached to them while crossing but read them on the way back. They were addressed to those who might want to jump. One tag urged the reader to think about his or her life and what was meaningful in it. Another mourned that, if you die here, you take part of the soul of the city with you. You are worthwhile, irreplaceable human being. Another offered solace and hope and said that there was no problem that couldn’t be surmounted.

 

Then we might have gone straight from the Bridge to the carpark, but we decided to see if there were bathrooms in Guild Hall, that giant church-like building at the meetingplace of our tour where—pointing to it as he accused—Paul said that a gerrymandered city council met to take away Catholic voting and property rights.

What was inside—as well as free lavatories—was a large historical exhibit on the plantations of Ulster, which went back to the Middle Ages and worked its way to modern Ulster. British resettlement of what was considered savage country was similar to later behavior of the English in North America regarding Native Americans, where they did a more thorough job. The exhibit covered the various conflicts and clashes that arose from British settlement; it offered old maps, legal documents, and interactive exhibits. Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, a Gaelic lord who helped repulse the English after Tudor conquest during the Nine Years’ War of the sixteenth century, a temporary victory that deteriorated into his flight, looked nothing like today’s Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, a bearded gentleman, who could have been hippie or Shakespearean actor or businessman and spoke hopefully of a new future for united Ulster.

On our way out of Guild Hall, Lindy asked an older female guide about a photographic exhibit described on numerous signs. It turned out to be in a nearby separate building. By then we were totally fried, unable to take on another hike, no matter how short. So, the guide persuaded us that at least we not leave Guild Hall without climbing the stairs to its second floor—“It will take two minutes.”

We did, and found ourselves alone in a gigantic hall with a pipe organ; luminous stained-glass panels filled on two walls up to the ceiling and they were mesmerizing. Put in at different times, they told various historical narratives.

Something about the way the light hit them made them seem like living tarot trumps, though they were secular in imagery and content. That hardly mattered from a tarot perspective—a magic emanated from them. In the depth of their stillness and color they had a quality, a phenomenology that movies, for all their flowing sparkle and virtual reality, cannot supplant. The frames deepened in place rather than by continua of near-replicas and thus told a flowing story too—of settlement, royalty, battles—of treaties and voyages, cabbages and kings.

Leaving the carpark, I rolled down my window and handed the slip with my remaining hour, window to window because we were both on the right, to a young guy awaiting our place. “Thank you, good man,” he said.

I drove roundabout after roundabout, sometimes running the gears smoothly, sometimes not so, negotiating the rush-hour traffic of late afternoon. We saw once-and-future Derry in long post-card view and panorama briefly. Then we entered sunny hills and valleys that had been covered in fog and drizzle six hours earlier. We weren’t quite the same people; Derry was inside us now.

 

At night, meaning late daylight, we went down into Portstewart to look at the Red Sails Festival. Roisin had said the music wasn’t her style and it really wasn’t ours either. A very young band from Coleraine called Cellar Door (was that because the phrase is a famously beautiful name disguising a totally nondescript object qua celladore?) blasted away AC/DC from the pavilion. The crowd was lively, with three girls under five years doing dances and improvs, but there was too much cigarette smoke, and the scene was more interesting than the music.

Further down the Promenade we found Busker Dave and a helper, as listed in the schedule, performing to all of two people upstairs in a cappuccino-and-smoothy bar. Even the locals didn’t know where the Love and Joy Café was because it had just been renamed for the festival. It was soothing enough, with the sun on the sea out the window and a mellow sound, but it had been a long day and we gave it up after twenty minutes, leaving Busker Dave, who had just come out of retirement (the schedule said) for the event, with his audience of two.

 

July 25, 2017

This was a rest day, almost not worth reporting. Lindy went out for the morning with a friend of Roisin’s. I caught up on the journal, in the process phoning Olive McAlea twice for details. Each of the calls turned into a long conversation about matters present and past. In the late afternoon, Lindy and I took a walk, down Burnside Road to the beach. We lay in the sand for an hour, among cars and kites and tiny kids in universal forms of ocean play. We watched the antics of two different families, a free-form theater.

A very large, childlike, cherubic mother who, for a moment I thought of as having Downs syndrome, was sitting by her little girl shovelling in a pool of water with sand barriers far from the surf. We smiled at each other. She said, “She doesn’t get the concept: the deeper you dig, the more water comes up. But it’s okay too if it’s magical.”

We each took a turn wading. Then we climbed the stairs over the rocks and walked the Strand along the sea back toward the town, passing countless small dramas of people and dogs, children dare-deviling on the rocks, runners of all ages and personae—a cast of humanity. An older couple sat aslant in lawn chairs amid the rocks and tidepools, reading their books as the sun sank.

It was a long walk to Promenade. There we visited the butcher shop, today presided over by the establishment’s owner, Peter Osborne, who could have been played by a combination of Keith Olberman and Phil Silvers. We stood a long time in that shop, exchanging tales, of life, children, travels, cars, retirement.

 

I am eager to get home, back to calm, uncluttered days in Maine, but a part of me doesn’t want to leave Ireland, ever. It is all special—life. A part of me will remain here.

 

July 26, 2017

Our day on the Antrim Coast did not play out the way we planned. It was constructed from the guidebook and tourist literature, but the reality was what it always is: its own thing.

Our central goal was the Giant’s Causeway, one of those must-see tourist sights hard to dismiss, especially since it was close to where we were staying. We were forewarned by numerous folks, including Roisin, that you do not have to pay for the visitors’ center (an exorbitant $17.50 U.S. per person) in order to see the Causeway. The Causeway is free, but you have to run a gauntlet and a number of intentional mirages to get to it. We were instructed to park in the town of Bushmills and take the tourist bus to the site.

There are many compelling sites along the Antrim Coast, and we meant also to try for the fisherman’s footbridge, a castle, and a walk in the glen by Carncastle and Ballygalley where old stone artifacts remained (according to a local hardcover about North Antrim), but the Giant’s Causeway turned out to be all we could handle on the outing.

The first surprise was that, before we realized that this was not a lead-up to A2, the sat-nav sent us all the way by back roads, which were no doubt more direct but took almost twice the time. The trip was in the range of 15-20 miles, and we would have been better off timewise on A2 along the coast. The countryside out of Portstewart was well worth the divergence—vast fields, stone ruins, hallowed tree tunnels. Lindy drove, but I was beginning to feel carsick on the winding roads—what Lindy said she now recognized as a slippery slope—that plus her having trouble with the narrowness and traffic from the other direction led to our switching drivers after ten minutes.

We arrived at the town of Bushmills about forty minutes after leaving Portstewart. Rain had turned to bright sunshine—they would switch places twice again in the day. I inadvertently went past the turnoff for the bus and, in using a gas station to turn around, decided to fill the tank too. Diesel goes a long way—we were only down to half after using up those last 2.03 euros at the pump in Donegal. The attendant got interested in our situation, our destination typical for a tiny town with a big attraction, and recommended that we go straight to the site and park there, as we were already most of the way, and taking the bus would cost about the same. We did, but the bus was recommended for a reason.

As we approached the site, maybe a mile or two toward the coast from the pimp, everything changed. Relatively deserted, open countryside turned into rows of tourist buses in near gridlock—and I mean rows, eight, ten of supersize sightseeing behemoths unloading Japanese, Chinese, Spanish-speaking, Anglo, etc. droves of vintage tourists: cameras, disoriented bustle, swarms in their bubbles, etc. There were so many pedestrians it was hard to progress in the car. It was interesting that an event 60 million years ago could have such a draw on creatures not invented for epochs.

According to the literature, the Giant’s Causeway is a zone of about 40,000 interlocking basalt pillars, a consequence of the same Palaeocene geology that made Cavehill and other lava structures in the area, which formed and cooled in those pre-primate times. Most of the columns are hexagonal, but some are four-, six-, seven- and eight-sided. The bottoms of them disappear into the sea, while their gradated tops function as human stepping stones. The name of the site derives from Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (anglicized as Finn McCool) who, in the applicable myth, built the causeway either—in one version—to fight, in another to flee a Scottish giant, Benandonner.

The road led directly to a parking lot. At its entrance, a yellow-vested youth—red stripes across rain-gear-like attire—asked peremptorily if we were members of the National Trust. Of course, we weren’t. He announced that tickets would have to be purchased inside the Visitors’ Center (10 pounds each) and he directed us to park. We were in the hologram now.

I broke in and asked where the other lot was. As if at keystroke, he politely but firmly spieled out directions down a road to the right and ordered us to circle the lot and exit where he pointed. Then he moved onto the next driver, though I managed to get us an encore.

I worked my way through gridlock and, not far from the lot, found a short road down a hill to a smaller, unpaved lot at which informed folks were parking before taking the minimal walk back. A line of eleven tourist buses, each too massive for the narrow lane, was waiting its turn at the top to unload its passengers. Beyond, the boy managing the informal lot, like any loosely fenced field beside a sporting event, was younger, friendlier, and not dressed in a yellow raincoat. In fact, I had a playful conversation with him about tourism and the States as Lindy went back to the car to get her scarf—it was unexpectedly windy—and put our parking slip on the dashboard. Parking cost six pounds.

We hiked back up the hill and then searched for the not-obvious entrance to the Causeway itself. The massive Visitors’ Center dominated the spot, and nowhere were there signs to anything but. The hill itself, the road, and the parking lot were saturated with new tourist buses, lined up like planes on a runway, waiting to deposit their loads. Pretty much everyone from the buses was mesmerized directly into the Center. Those yellow-vested young people, representatives of the National Trust, were all about, checking for tickets, sending people its way, treating human traffic like border guards. The scene reminded me of the Book of Mormon musical—it was a pandemic outbreak of capitalism.

Lindy wanted to use the bathroom, but that cost ten pounds. In fact, everything required a ticket except the Giant’s Causeway itself and its shop; certainly, parking and any “facilities” did. Signs explained, as they had to, that the Causeway was free, but you needed a ticket otherwise. The actual site, The Giant’s Causeway, the basalt from 60 million years ago, was free, but it was surrounded by a metastasis of business in such a way as to persuade you away from the Object and toward commerce.

Roisin had told us that there were lavatories for the public—they were required, so to ask for them. Asking yellowcoats for them did not lead to enthusiastic or informative responses. The public bathrooms turned out to be in the Visitors’ Center toward its entrance, but the men’s, women’s, and handicapped each had a single toilet, so lines were long.

Lindy waited in the women’s one. In principle, you didn’t want to pay $17.50 to pee. Her turn came in fifteen minutes; by then there was no one behind her, so it must have been a momentary rush from a long-distance bus. Soon after, another bus, of all young Irish women, sent a bunch to the toilets. There was no remaining line at the men’s or handicapped either, so one of the women announced, “Fuck the Trust. We’re liberating these two—they’re unisex now.”

The path to the Causeway was through a short tunnel. Another surprise awaited at its end. The pillars weren’t right there. There was a significant, though mostly downhill hike. I’m not good at judging distances, but I would say that it wasn’t quite a mile but almost. A stiff, cold wind blew off the ocean against cliffs towering above us, a giant wall of them not part of Finn McCool’s activity. The crowd reminded me of the masses hiking up Croagh Patrick, only more children, and yes, dogs (they wouldn’t be shot here).

Arrival at the seashore pillars was both culmination and anticlimax. The anticlimactic part was that there were so many people crawling, climbing, and standing on the pillars that they couldn’t immediately be seen for what they were: dark crystals. Forty thousand is a lot, and they congregated in clusters, some directly in the sea, others in a ridge perpendicular to the shore, others in the distance forming different cliffs. That was the culmination, and the longer you stood and took them in, the more their power registered.

Initially I felt the tendency to say to myself: I looked, I saw, no big deal, let’s go to the next attraction. But it was a big deal, that many basalt columns perfectly shaped, just there. But the mix of folks, cigarette smoke, mothers yelling at children to be careful not to fall, aggressive men and women shoving to get closer and take photo, made the scene oppressive rather than magnificent. Yet we had come there, so I decided to give it my best shot.

I crossed the near plateau and climbed along the least populated set of pillars. There I perched and squeezed myself into a little cubby, which was formed by adjacent crystals. Lindy preferred not to troop across slippery, irregular rocks, so she watched. After a while, I turned my head inward in my cubby and rested my forehead on a crystal. Something autonomous happened, as at the beach a few days earlier. There was no blue glow, but in the same third-eye spot, I saw a throbbing black scotoma-like blob, irregularly shaped, resembling a hole left in paper where a match had caught but the fire gone out before the sheet burned. It differed from a hole in being solid black. As I looked into it, I saw roiling rock shapes of deep, thick texture, much thicker and more textured than I was capable of imagining or imposing on my own. They were forming by themselves, either a \macule and optical illusion or a third-eye lucid dream. This was new territory for me. I literally watched the crystals being formed by lava, and I was “told” silently that I was in the center of a giant meta-crystal. Every time I put my forehead back on the rock the movie resumed, not from the start but from where it had left off. Though the action was condensed, I intuited that it would take hours to watch the whole film.

Lindy by then had navigated the rocks and was coming to see if I was okay. Then she was worried about how my position might look, especially after the bus incident. I was sensitive to that but wanted to see my movie, so I compromised and watched only a bit more.

After the vision the hordes of people looked even more cosmetic and absurd. What were they here for? To say they had been to Giant’s Causeway? To climb rocks? To pose for cameras? I don’t mean to be superior, but it might have made more sense to submit to the crystal and ask it what it had to say—in whatever way you were able, at least to make the gesture, a Christian prayer or bow. And then I realized yet again how arrogant and futile my attitude was. The people were there in their way to bow and pray, and this was how they did it, clambering over the sacred object in devotion and worship.

I had another impression as I sat there in between viewings, nestled in my cubby. The stone was conducting a very intelligent conversation that had nothing to do with me, that I couldn’t intercept or penetrate at my level of evolution. It no more noticed the people on it than a hillock might note crawling ants.

Lindy pointed to another event. An oafish, bald paparazzo-style photographer in a black coat was posing a young woman on the rocks. At first I thought it was a father and daughter, or a boyfriend and girlfriend, so many of those combinations and others like them were there all over the rocks. However, it soon became clear that he was clicking too many times and she was posing too erotically—this was a professional event of some sort, perhaps an advertisement, perhaps for a portfolio. The pair moved from rock to rock, section to section of the Causeway, taking different photographs in all sorts of positions and at various angles—probably over a hundred while I perched beside Lindy, watching. Once I understood the situation, the girl became prettier, endowed by attention and her own insouciant poses. She was striking, but not overly so without the context. With it she was Ingrid Bergman or Katherine Heigl. She had long soft hair, blowing in the breeze. Her clothes weren’t designer or fancy, which added to the urbane, look just a gray sweatshirt and jeans with cut-off knee sections—only her knees were exposed, which had its own erotic tease, more so in a way than tight shorts or a midriff belly button or décolletage. She had lots of attitude, as she savored her moment and her various miens, rising above the crowd as if she were the only one on the rocks.

As the photographer clicked away, members of a teen team, likely football, with identical green diagonally-lettered Eira T-shirts, took stock of the event and slowly gathered and stared. These were not ordinary Irish boys, although they probably were too. They looked Dravidian or New Guinean, with an Australian Aborigine touch. They behaved like any other teenagers, laughing, smirking, whispering, staring. Then two of them marched boldly over to the woman, stood on either side of her, put their arms up as if around her shoulders but without touching. Others snapped their picture. The model, probably in her late twenties or early thirties, thus an older woman to them, neither acknowledged their presence nor resisted it. She continued posing. Her photographer kept shooting, with the boys on either side of her.

I decided to try the section of pillars near the water with tidepools, which though like Icelandic skrying mirrors, made the passage slippery. I squeezed myself into another cubby and immediately experienced a different sensation: I was in a giant orgone box, and the crystals were enhancing the flow of cosmic energy. I hung there, feeling the charge. It wasn’t a hot charge, though it had a radiation-like penetration. It wasn’t a sharp laser or acupuncture needle either. It was a vast dull gravity that permeated everything, me included, so I breathed into it and dispatched it to parts of my body.

Lindy had discovered that for one pound you could ride a bus back up the hill. I agreed and got in line. The photographer and his lady had moved closer to the ocean and for all I knew he was up in the hundreds of photos. I rushed over and took a picture at some distance, not wanting to disappoint readers who had not gotten to see, beyond my words, the horseback femme on the Carrowniskey Beach.

Most riders had Trust tickets, but we had to pay. I had a one pound coin and lots of change to which Lindy contributed hers. I held out a hand with all the coins. The driver laughed as she said, “Let me clear some of that shrapnel for you.” Instead of picking the larger coins, she made an assortment of pence, reducing our stock by eighty percent as got a second pound out of it.

 

We debated continuing along the Antrim Coast, but the high winds and winding roads were a disincentive, plus it was two in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten lunch.

We took the right fork back into Bushmills. Along the way, only a mile from the Visitors’ Center, we saw “Freshly Dug Potatoes” along the roadside, one of many such signs we had seen throughout Ireland, and I always wanted to stop but didn’t. We had passed this one too on the way out, and my initial impression ofs indication turned out to be erroneous. I had pictured a road leading to a farm or farmstand, but it was a tiny shed. We pulled somewhat precariously against the opposite roadside wall, leaving enough room for traffic, as the shed was intentionally placed at a brief widening of the road. Two boys, one about ten, the other about fourteen, stood behind a counter of full sacks of potatoes: Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. I explained that I only wanted a very few potatoes, three or four, wondering if a sack could be broken. In fact, behind them was a giant bin of loose potatoes that they were sacking. The older one turned and made a quick collection, trying to interest me in eight.

They were really nice-looking potatoes, a yellowish color with a scraggly coat that made them seem heirlooms. I had no idea if they were even tacitly organic but considered the topic taboo and esoteric under the circumstances. “But I can’t take them on the plane,” I protested, eliciting wan smiles. They conferred and made a bag of five. I thanked them and took out my money. The younger boy suggested I have them for free, but I preferred to pay, so they selected fifty pence out of remaining shrapnel from y hand.

I asked them about hikes in town and they mentioned “The Tramway,” saying it was “really nice.”

In town, we parked alongside the Bushmills Inn, suggested by sat-nav prompt when Bushmills was entered and also a good option for lunch—clearly not the cheapest, but we didn’t need to repeat Peri-Peri.

It turned out to be perfect, a talisman for the remainder of the outing. We entered a combination restaurant-hotel through the tavern where a bartender led us to the back and a female maître d’ seated us. It was reminiscent of Wiggins Tavern in Northampton, Mass., where Lindy and I went in 1963 on our first date, a fact not lost on us. It was pricey, though not exceeding what we had saved by forgoing the Visitors’ Center. I ordered Scottish skink, haddock cooked in a creamy sauce with tiny potatoes under a poached “hen’s egg” that I pushed aside on the dish’s arrival.

While we waited for the food, I went back to the tavern part and asked the bartender if the spot we were parked was okay. Entering the town and only seeing parking across the road on the Inn side, I had continued 100 meters to a roundabout and come back, but the visible gaps were illusory—they were all tiny driveways through arches. I passed them and came to a line of parked cars, wheels up on the sidewalk. It took several tries to get ours there in a way that wasn’t occupying too much of sidewalk in front of funky row apartments.

The bartender thought that the spot was risky—you were allowed an hour there and couldn’t return for another two—and the ticketers were not always scrupulous about leaving you a full hour, though they circled scrupulously, 50-pound tickets in hand. He suggested that I bring the car into the archway for the Inn and use their lot. He added that I could turn at the gas station—“they don’t mind.”

He acknowledged the tramway when I mentioned it and tried to explain how to walk to its entrance from the Inn’s lot while leaving the car parked there.

As we paid for our meal later at the front desk, the woman, on request, started to explain how to approach the walk—a mix of rights and lefts—when suddenly the bartender, likely overhearing from the next room, appeared with a hand-drawn map, which he presented to us.

The live fire in the lobby beside the front desk turned out to be peat, which gave off a rich archaic aroma. At the clerk’s encouragement, we felt the irregular black pellets. They were hard as iron and burned like coal. We lingered in the glow and scent.

Despite the map, we still had to ask advice in town twice, the second time awkwardly in a fish-and-chips shop. We left the town center. We crossed a river on a highway bridge, a single angler casting. The entrance to tramway was a distance of about a mile in suburbs. It wasn’t what I expected—I hoped for a pleasant country trail on a defunct railroad bed. What we got was a path alongside an active tourist tram to the Causeway along which a tortoise-moving trolley ferried passengers to and fro. The highway ran immediately parallel.

Nonetheless we walked it for a half hour, waving to kids on the trolley, repeating “Good day” or the like to mostly dog walkers. It was good feng-shui, hills and fields with a river, but I didn’t feel as though we got anywhere special like the glens in the book, though we had a walk.

On the way to and from the site I realized how British and Unionist Bushmills was—dozens of Union Jacks and white-and-red Ulster flags on lamp-posts, shops, and in front of homes, even along the highway. We past homages and commemorations to Queen Elizabeth and the Crown, wishes for her health and well-being, and assorted expressions of patriotism on the level of football partisanship, but how different is America? The thing was, the people in town were just as Irish and affable as those in the Republic or Derry. So, as Rodney King put it, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I know that is a common, slightly gentrified paraphrase of his actual words.

We overrode the sat-nav and took A2 all the way back through Portrush and its amusement parks, entering Portstewart by the slow-moving promenade, filled with delivery trucks and their alternate use of the one remaining lane. Meanwhile a sunny day had turned into windshield wipers at full throttle and carlights.

 

July 27, 2017

This was the day we set up to get into central Belfast—the mystery city. From Rick Steves’ guide I had called a tour company he recommended, only to discover (as noted) that the “company” was a single man, a personal guide. Dennis arranged tours as they came up. We needed to choose a mutually satisfactory date and time. If he could enlist more people for then or persuade to change to a time that other people wanted, it would be more of a retinue. Otherwise, it was just us—and that was fine with him. He did single tour all the time.

He was out of town till Wednesday and had slots then and Thursday. We settled on Thursday. This time we followed through on taking the train, partly out of curiosity, partly because trains provide their own engaging landscape, and partly because we were intimidated by driving and parking in central Belfast.

On Thursday morning I called Dennis, and we settled on 1:30 PM (13:30), a mid-day hour that gave us ample margin for making it into the city and getting to the meeting site, City Hall, Back Gate—at least that’s what I heard. The “back” part was, I guess, a mondegreen—you invent “lyrics” out of misheard sounds, much the way Gaelic makes nonsense word combinations in English, creating towns like Ballymoney and Dingle. Whatever word Dennis put before “gate,” it wasn’t “back.” In any case, he said it was a ten-minute walk from the station. Another flaw: we didn’t ask which station.

The sat-nav accepted the Coleraine train station only after many varied attempts to specify the destination. We headed there from Portstewart around 10:30 for an 11:16 train, ostensibly ample time for a ten-minute drive.

Lindy likes to say, “Leave extra time for unexpected delays.” Usually they don’t happen, and we end up waiting at the other end. This time unexpected delays removed much of our margin. First, Lindy had to go back in the house for her passport. We had been told that seniors ride for free in Northern Ireland, and we figured we might as well ask and show proof in case it applied to non-citizens.

By the time she found it, it was 10:37. Arriving at the Coleraine train-and-bus depot at 10:48, I pulled into a lot marked Park-and-Ride only to find myself boxed into a line of cars trying to back out because the lot was full. That was 10:50.

I had to carefully back onto the street, waiting for the car behind me to make each move first. At 10:58 I began driving away from the station with no idea where to park. I was griping that we were going to miss the train and would have to drive into Belfast—a mixture of frustration and petulance. But by following the car that had backed out behind me, I found another car park just around the corner. What I missed entirely—which you would have had to be an insider to catch—was that the first park-and-ride was free. The larger carpark was metered, issuing timed slips from a central “Pay Here” machine. People tried the free lot and, if it was full, proceeded to the carpark.

The paid lot was cheap, but it didn’t take credit cards or notes, only coins. Two pounds got you six hours. I pulled out what I had and, to my relief, found a pound, put it in, and then began feeding my change willy-nilly because, again, Irish pound coins are difficult to read and their size is not consistent with their value. After I sent a few into the slot, it began refusing them. I had a moment’s concern, but then a notice on the screen informed me that I had exceeded maximum stay. I had purchased twenty-four hours with my shrapnel!

 

The start to the morning was sluggish for me. I didn’t feel awake or balanced. Acute motion sickness dissipates startlingly fast, but, at least for me, it increases susceptibility for a month or so afterwards, hence the problem en route to Giant’s Causeway. Trains are not usually problem.

Free transportation turned out to be limited to citizens, so we paid the equivalent of almost $25.00 for two round-trip, one-day-use tickets to Belfast, then proceeded to have a lengthy chat with the man in charge of opening the gate—you weren’t allowed in until two minutes before the train’s arrival—and, while we waited on the platform, another chat with a couple close to our age from another part of Northern Ireland. The train was ten minutes late.

I didn’t get fully motion-sick, but I did have a light nausea and dizziness. It was partly because, without thinking, we sat backs to the direction of the train: things going away rather than toward us. That’s more motion-sickness-inducing. It was also because we were seated across the aisle from a hyperactive boy and girl around ten and thirteen, respectively, who got astonishing mileage out of rolling, fighting over, and using as a drumstick an unopened plastic bottle of Fanta Orange, while shouting, taunting each other with maddening nonsense syllables, and exhibiting ants-in-the-pants restlessness. We sat in compartments formed by seats facing each other over a table like in a restaurant. It took most of the journey to figure out that the kids’ parents were the hooting, back-slapping adults in the next booth seats. They totally ignored their children for forty-five minutes, until the mother decided she wanted to drink the soda and rapped on the back of the boy. I was amused when she opened the bottle and the Fanta shot out all over.

Otherwise, the ride was a rolling panoptic of legendary shamrock countryside, sheep in the meadows in abundance in various configurations, from diffuse and scattered groups to dense enough distant clusters to look hieroglyphs from a sheep alphabet. Crows travelled in black regiments and lit onto fields like gulls on fishing wharves. The rural progression of stops, each anywhere from six minutes to thirty-five minutes apart, were Coleraine, Ballymoney, Cullybackey, Ballymena, Antrim, and Mossley West—some Mediaeval or Renaissance mondegreen creativity there—at which point the landscape started to get suburban, then urban. The country section took a bit over an hour, the rest about forty minutes. Lindy had the window seat, and I watched from the aisle in my spacy trance, trying to keep motion sickness at bay, especially as the train filled. One of the characteristics of motion sickness at all phases is low-threshold sensitivity to overload. A lot of action about is vertigo- and weakness-inducing.

Nevertheless, I found the entry to Belfast—the right word is “thrilling.” Any unknown city is full of surprises, wonders, and an individuality promulgated by billions of separate minute decisions putting their spin on grand plans over centuries until there it sits on the land, with its own diacritic signature. Outer Belfast was characteritized rivers, inlets, quays, housing developments of lookalike little cottages, political graffiti, weary-looking slums, etc., all of it was delightful and entertaining. It was hard to grasp the phenomenology fast enough even to know how to portray it apart from any other city. I intuited kinship with Copenhagen, a city I have never been to, as the words of a Danny Kaye song flitted across my mind: “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, / Salty old queen of the sea.” I saw huge cranes, signs to docks, docks in the distance (with thoughts of the McCanns). The stops went: Yorkgate, Belfast Central (where we might have gotten off by mistake if the couple at the Coleraine train station hadn’t advised us that our stop was the last: Great Victoria), Botanic, City Hospital, Great Victoria Street.

When we exited the train, we crossed the downtown station through the sort of busy underground city that grows in any grand central. This one was old and Dickens-like. It resonated with New York City of the 1950s. New York didn’t look like this anymore, but the old-fashioned shops, worn and grungy and packed with motley merchandise as if they had been there since the Middle Ages, hangers-out around them resembling the street—bums, drunks, old laborers in Charity Shop garb-like costumes—was somehow familiar. It was a set for a movie—a crime or mistaken-identity plot—beginning around 1951 off Times Square.

Not wanting to try to capture a diversity and energy that could never be coralled by any number shots on a cell phone, I chose one picture for the entire day, the first shop that got my attention, because it was fifties qua eternity: Mr Pompadour above a giant L’il Abner-like cartoon across which a banner: Paul Magill, Rock’n Roll Barber, black on gold. Beneath the image was the word BELFAST, white on blue. That was the opening shot: Entry to the City.

Up on the streets, fifties New York prevailed again. Dublin didn’t feel like New York, but Belfast elicited childhood nostalgia for me. It was as if I were home, in an alternate reality—no skyscrapers but block after block that could have been on New York’s Second or Third Avenue, or Columbus and Amsterdam. Other buildings were more ancient and ornate, out of Edith Wharton’s aristocratic town, with a few show-stopping ornate Georgian and Victorian behemoths, somewhat modernized: an Opera House, a church, a converted office building, a meeting hall, a pub celebrating 300 years. The vista was transporting. It felt like a time travel. It woke me up and captured my imagination.

It was two blocks, a right, and then another two blocks to City Hall, a giant stone edifice occupying a square block, with a lawn, civic monuments, and approaches like the United Nations with yellow-jacketed guards, one of whom confirmed that this was indeed the back gate. Though (he said) most tours met at front gate, we could certainly wait there if we wanted. In fact, he invited us through the gate, and we perched on the stone encirclement of a fountain until wind blew water out of it onto our backs. We had arrived at 13:14, and the wind gusted at 13:25, so we went back to waiting outside.

At 14:45 I decided to check the front of the building. The guard told me to go straight on through. Leaving Lindy at the back gate, I walked in the building. I had expected Parliament in session or a court. Instead, I walked into a ballroom, a wedding party being photographed with flowers. On the other side was a small plaza with monuments. There among the throngs I saw a concerned man about our age pacing and scanning, holding an armful of papers in need of a briefcase. That had to be Dennis—and it was. We trooped back through City Hall, fetched Lindy, and returned to the front.

Our tour began there at close 2:00 PM and was gauged by Dennis as likely to go an hour and forty-five minutes, maybe two hours. It ended at 5:00, but there were intervening factors, the most prominent being stormy weather and the fact that we hadn’t eaten lunch, a detail I overlooked when setting a time.

Though the day was sunny early, we were interrupted on three occasions by storms intense enough to be dubbed microbursts. They lasted anywhere from five to ten minutes, and transited to full sunshine. While they were in session, you would have thought that it had been raining all day. Afterwards, it was pure summer sun. Then a few droplets would hit you, and you’d look to the sky and see layers of cumulus and altocumulus against blue heavens in the approaching foreground and cumulonimbi and low dark stratus moving and churning rapidly in the distance. A sprinkle quickly turned into a bathing, and we had to take shelter.

I say “we.” but Dennis was ready to proceen in the rain. He didn’t carry an umbrella and, by his own admission, his raincoat was not waterproof. That didn’t deter him. He emphasized that Belfasters were used to such weather and knew that it would change momentarily.

Lindy had forgotten her umbrella and didn’t have a raincoat. I gave her my umbrella. My raincoat got so soaked that it was dripping wet, but it dried off just as quickly when the sun returned. Dennis persevered. We had to force three unwilling retreats on him, pure indignities. Four years younger than us, he looked like the city itself: old, stooped and red-faced, bearing post-traumatic scars from the Troubles. He walked with rapid bird-like steps, as if blown through the city or a battery-operated automaton.

He travelled in front of us by a good pace the entire time, increasing his gait to maintain the distance if we hastened or whenever we got close. Sometimes we could barely see him up ahead in the crowd. It was as though he imagined himself at the helm of a large tour group, us taking up the rear.

It was a tedious expedition. Like Paul in Derry, Dennis had performed it too many times—I can’t guess how many, but it was probably thousands rather than hundreds. To say he was scripted was an understatement. He stopped at numrous statues and recited their history in meticulous, canned detail; likewise buildings, streets, and districts, emphasizing change in ownership from one wealthy family to another or one use to another—bank to restaurant to office building, dance hall to theater to shops—sometimes pulling out a picture, after much shuffling of dog-eared papers, to show our current view at another time.

Much of our tour was a block-by-block telling of the history of each street and its buildings, followed by a predetermined turn and then the history of another block and buildings, with stops at statues for full pedigrees. Yet we did see Belfast in the process.

He dwelled on kings, queens, princes, moguls and, of course, battles, soldiers, and executions. Though Dennis was not overly political or ideological, his perspective betrayed his belief system, which was political at core. He bore an unstated Unionist perspective, presenting Belfast as a paragon of British wealth and investment, a cow-town pulled out of mediocrity by English ingenuity, made into a thriving metropolis and center of global trade, the shipbuilding capital of the world and the virtual hub of sea-going in the nineteenth century. At the same time, the rest of Ireland, including Dublin, remained a rural backwater, barely out of the Middle Ages.

He insisted numerous times that Irish independence, when it was originally floated by London, was rejected summarily by most Irish folks. They did not want to lose British sponsorship and affiliation. Enthusiasm for independence was limited to a few pockets of malcontents. He produced pictures of the crowds gathered in the early twentieth century at City Hall, packing the square we occupied, to protest the proposed separation of Ireland from England. (These were followed, somewhat irrelevantly, by pictures of an Irish female Olympic medalist and a champion boxer being honored in the same square.

 

Belfast may be intensely urban but only in a concentrated central area, as if a cutout of twenty-blocks-square section of Manhattan, but with the people inside the cutout occupying, in their imagination, a port city of infinite size. The urban core faded quickly into suburbs, like Queens or Brooklyn. The inner city was also punctuated with super-modern pedestrian and shopping malls like ones in Coleraine and Derry, but much bigger. The largest, perhaps seven stories, included a glass-enclosed glass elevator that shot up to an acrophobic’s dreaded destination: a suspended viewing platform.

Dennis was like a child with OCD. If anything got out of order, for instance, during rain delays or our lunch break, we had to walk back to the precise last spot and continue from there in his preconceived order, even though we were often much closer to, something in near sight of, other sites we were about to see anyway. He couldn’t bear to rearrange his order to make expedient use of relocations.

The scriptedness went well beyond that. His spiel was like a subway car with a tape triggered by imminent arrivals at stations. He had set stories and jokes for discrete spots. He would stop on the street at a predetermined locale and tell a discursive joke, like about the two kids who were arrested for stealing a calendar and got six months each. Ha ha. The story, with its build-up, took five interminable minutes. There were many of these discursions as well as drop-in moments from history portrayed in grade-school story-telling fashion. At specific landmarks. Dennis stopped on a dime, like at a preselected corner or mailbox, and there launched into a ten-or-so-minute account, usually addressing a minor scrap between the British and Irish. These ran from, at best, a fabricated connection of one sort or another to where we stood. Or sometimes the stories were lead-ins to places we were about to go, and Dennis’ histories were intended to pedantically connect the two sites.

After rain interludes and trooping through the city, we were wet and tired, weary of the routine. I could see that Lindy was at the end of her rope, so I asked Dennis to condense and finish his current story, which seemed to have no end in sight, and it was beginning to rain again. We were standing in droplets, while he was talking about Presbyterians in the 1600s, trying to recall an exact order of events as if our lives depended on it. I said I’d prefer to get in the remainder of the sites before another downpour. He seemed not to understand even my words, having me repeat them three times. After each repetition, he shook his head as though still not clear. Then he turned around charged on ahead until we were separated by a full block and, when we caught up, his only acknowledgement of discord was to announce, petulantly, that the tour would end in ten minutes, which it didn’t by any stretch of the imagination.

As he shot ahead again, Lindy said, “He’s pissed we didn’t let him finish the story.” No kidding! Far from understanding the reason for my wish to shorten the tale, he was offended that we weren’t in thrall, or maybe his obsessive-compulsive mania was jangled by any sort of jumble of the exact routine. At the next opportunity while viewing an unrelated site, he insisted on taking another two minutes (he said) to finish the Presbyterian story. It was more like six, but at least the sun was shining.

 

Even with those drawbacks, it was a gratifying tour, and we were glad that we did it. If we had arrived at Great Victoria station and walked blankly into Belfast, we would not have known where to go or what to prioritize. We would have wandered, belabored, queried, debated and second-guessed ourselves. Though much of what Dennis showed us was expendable, we at least had a trajectory, and we were in someone’s care and oversight. We were able to look about freely without filling our minds with obsessive compulsions and constant need to know what to do and where to go next. That was handled.

The best part of the tour was unrehearsed and spontaneous. Looking at Belfast on my own occupied probably 80 percent of my attention, the sights about 20 percent. They were the excuse to be wherever we were. The real tour was the background activity rather than Dennis’ foreground foci: faces, rhythms, shouts, laughter, a teen saying “fuck, fuck, fuck,” variations of brogue and English accents, pretty women and carrot-topped girls, testosteroned teens (many looking like ruffians from Mike Leigh and Ken Loach films), excessively fat pigeons, loon-like birds in the river, crowded squares, re-tooled buildings—a constant variety of Celtic (and a few African and European) types out of the human genome. We recognized everyone but knew no one. Belfast was Belfast. We were incognito and assimilated it all day.

The tour had some notable highlights and lowlights. Lunch was a lowlight. Five minutes into our departure from City Hall and its statues, the raindrops began. Dennis indicated that it was fine by him to continue regardless, but while he could, we couldn’t. It was soon coming down cats-and-dogs. Since we hadn’t had lunch, it was a “two birds with one stone” moment. Dennis said several times, “Pub grub here is great.” I didn’t think so, causing him to grumble as if to say ‘Damn Yankee snobs.’ He led us into the mall with the glass elevator, a thankful respite from the rain. The restaurants there, which he thought were what we wanted, though I had specified ethnic or natural foods, were variations of McDonalds and KFC (including McDonalds itself), so I pointed to a bar at street level, and pub grub it was. We asked Dennis to join us as our guest, but he said no, he’d be back in a half hour. He left us there before you could say Jack Sprat.

We passed from the bar to a table the good-spirited hubbub. I could find nothing on the menu I wanted to eat except salmon, a dish that took an extra twenty minutes according to the waitress. My choice of it regardless aggravated Lindy, as it accentuated a long-time difference between us. I don’t comply and she tends to, especially when under pressure. I fight normalization, and Lindy is reassured by them. I figured it would work out, and she was worried we would just be beginning to eat when Dennis returned. I suspected that Dennis would not be prompt. I imagined that he was headed to another pub for a glass or two.

The disagreement about ordering—about my pickiness regarding what I would and wouldn’t eat and my seeming to flaunt the courtesy of getting done before Dennis returned— led to a spat between us amped by the strain of travel and weather and the fact we had been together continuously. As it turned out, the salmon arrived first, and her Irish stew was almost all potatoes plus a few uncategorizables, and she ate little of it, opting for a replacement ice-cream sundae at Spoon Street. Dennis didn’t return until we were standing in the sun, waiting for him.

Now some highlights:

I was fascinated by the contrast between what happened on a certain spot, say a hundred or four hundred years ago, and what was occcuring there now; for instance, where an entire castle burned to oblivion in the seventeenth century on a street corner that was now a fancy shop, or where the gallows was set (1798) and Henry Joy McCracken, age thirty, was hanged before a sporting crowd, court-martialed for leading an unsuccessful rebellion against the British. He had escaped after his defeat and was travelling in disguise among friends when recognized during a chance encounter with troops. After a military trial, he was taken for his sentence to what was then Corn Market. A wealthy industrialist, a Republican, and an aficionado of Irish folklore and myths, he died on land his family had donated to the city. “I guess it wasn’t much of a disguise,” Dennis smirked.

The precise spot of the gallows was now the sliding-glass door of a department building. Such transitions are anything but ordinary, though they are as ordinary as ducks on the water.

My favorite parts of the actual tour were Belfast’s rivers: the central River Lagan, which flows through the city into Belfast Lough and the Irish Sea. It is not huge like the Hudson, more the size of the Presumpscott in Portland, Maine, but, like all rivers, making magic everywhere by its simple flow: boats, sea birds, riverfront commerce, an abandoned barge turned into a restaurant, etc.

The River Farset, a tributary of the Lagan, was presented to us as a brilliantly conceived set of holes in the sidewalk that shot spouts of water into the air at irregular intervals. It was a flute giving off a visual pattern as musical as an endless symphony midway between Johann Sebastian Bach and John Cage. River water suctioned directly into the art piece, indicating that the Farset ran freely under the concrete. The cascades did have a distinct clay river smell, and there was a bit of sound, a soft moiré wave of splashes. This free-form sculpture honored the river and, in a way, apologized for covering it.

Dennis told us that the name Belfast derived from Béal Farset, or Béal Feirste, rivermouth of the sandbacks.

Two other moments stand out:

We were entering a modern plaza, a smaller version of Lincoln Center with a rounded auditorium, as Dennis launched into a description of a bloody IRA terror attack that killed eleven on the spot. He took out an artist’s rendition of flames springing from the bomb’s crater and people fleeing. Then he showed us the town’s indoor weekend market mall, which was used as a temporary morgue. Back at the site, he proceeded to talk about the day in 1972 when the IRA planted bombs all over the city and you didn’t know where or when one was going to go off. “They exploded at all different times. It was terrible.”

As he was saying this, we were standing near a construction zone, and a very loud clang sounded directly behind us. Dennis instinctively ducked while yelling, “Bastard!”, a startling change of character. A young tattooed workman in a metal cage had slung metal against metal, a mallet against the cage wall, about six inches from our heads.

About ten minutes later we were diverging from the River Lagan when the rain started up again. Dennis was taking us to a large ceramic sculpture of a fish that he said had such a startling name he was withholding it till we got there. The name turned out to be Big Fish. After he had his laugh, we stood in the increasing torrent while he told us what each mosaic of the fish, one by one, represented in the history of Belfast. Lindy lost patience, insisting we get out from the rain, and she pointed to a fancy hotel, the only obvious shelter nearby. Dennis’ response was an unspoken “fuck that,” and he led us to a clump of trees which we stood under. Lindy and I pressed up against an electric box where the leaves were thickest. We were rather remarkably kept dry despite the deluge around us. The vision of rain all around us and the sound of water against leaves was pleasing.

After a short silence, I used the occasion to rush in where fools fear to tread. I asked Dennis about where he was during the Troubles and how he responded to the events. For the only time on the tour he shifted from paid guide to human being and addressed us person to person. He said that it was difficult to live a normal life, hearing gunfire at night, not knowing when you were going to be killed while shopping. You had to be frisked everytime to enter the center of the city. He said, “The Government, what they call ‘the fools on the hill’ [he pointed toward the river at a raised angle]—want to pay reparations to those who lost relatives and friends during the Troubles, victims of trauma they call them. But we’re all traumatized. We’re all victims. No one who lived here went unscarred. You look around today at the busy city and everyone shopping, as if people didn’t have a care. But those who are old enough are scarred underneath. There’s no excuse for what happened. It makes no sense. Even the IRA, I’m sure if you asked them, would admit that they were acting with no understanding of what they were doing.”

“Do you think that that noise when we were standing over there in the square was a reaction to your slant on the bomb, an expression of disagreement?”
Dennis looked startled, then defensive. “No, no!”

“They why did you say ‘Bastard!”

“Well, that was—“  He broke off and said no more.

As we began walking in sunshine, I felt elated. The alternation of weather was a kind of meteorological manic-depression, no stigma on either phase. It had a cleansing emotional quality that matched my own mood swings. I thought of my favorite Aesop’s fable, the dispute of the sun and wind as to which was superior, culminating with a contest to see who could remove the coat from a man walking down below. The wind went first. The man only gripped tighter. Then the sun came out. The moral: “Persuasion is stronger than force.”

We soon passed a court-house with a high, thick wall, “triply reinforced,” said Dennis, to protect against car bombs following a few catastrophic incidents with the IRA.

I asked Dennis which event came first in 1972: Derry’s bloody Sunday or Belfast’s bloody Friday. “I believe Derry came first,” he said, “but they had nothing to do with each other. That garrison had been stationed in Derry since 1968. It wasn’t intentional. It was a breakdown of discipline among the officers.”

The tour ended with inexplicable abruptness in the middle of a block as if the timer had run out. I paid Dennis. He accepted thirteen instead of the agreed-upon fourteen pounds, perhaps from a recognition that the tour didn’t go as we expected and he wanted a good review from us on tripadvisor (or at least not a bad one), but also because when I held out my coins, and there were an easy two-pound and one-pound coin among the shrapnel.

We had an hour to wander around. Lindy got her “works” sundae, of a vintage she said she hadn’t had since Denver childhood. We found a health-food store in the pedestrian mall and, mirabile dictu, they carried only one cereal: Big Oz Buckwheat Puffs.

We found our way to Victoria Street station, where we got information from a ticket-checker who asked up about our stay in Ireland, wished us well in our remaining time, and facilitated an early board, which allowed us to get seats facing the direction of the train, fortunate because it was only two cars long.

I was fully awake now, my senses attuned, and I enjoyed the slow roll-out of the city: buildings, docks, rivers, and lough presenting themselves in stately succession. Ah, Belfast, I wish I knew ye better. But it was a day in a life—not even a day.

 

July 28, 2017

Friday was to be a low-activity interlude after consecutive adventures. In the morning, I walked between the bollards, up to Coleraine Road, and to the Meadowland housing development in a drizzle. A friend of Roisin’s had told me that I would find a faery fort or tumulus there, “not 700 meters from your house.” At the entrance to Meadowland I recognized a nineteenth-century graveyard we had passed on an earlier walk to the farmers’ market; in its center were stone ruins of what might have been a church or a gravedigger’s or sexton’s hut, only partial walls and arches still standing, mainly the rear one, and those were overgrown with a century-plus worth of exuberant foliage. It and the tombstones had been left undisturbed at the entrance to a modern housing project, like a vellum papyrus set before a computer, a typical Irish juxtaposition.

I didn’t have to walk far to see the tumulus. It was a mound like a big boil in the earth between backyards and overlooking a downhill sweep to the Bann, the largest river in Northern Ireland about to exit to the sea. Overgrown with grass and gorse, the mound had been left like the hut, though not with the same piety, more like a general respect for ancestral habitation of unknown means and tradition.

I tried to “read” the tumulus psychically from different distances, but all I got was an overload of sensation, no Astral or Etheric lift, then a broken message: “Consider what a mouthful I am. I’m more than you want to handle. I’m indigestible and shape-changing.” It was sort of like—you better think twice before you take ayahuasca or DMT, or go for a close encounter of the third or fourth kind. It sounds good in the abstract, but you have to have the bandwidth and stamina to absorb and the sanity to survive.

As I left, the mound’s afterimage was more legible and forgiving. What echoed in my mind was “reincarnation of Bridey Murphy” and an obscure song lyric, perhaps Joan Baez, “…another place, another time….”

 

Lindy and I went out later to visit the tumulus together and met a neighbor with a giant Newfoundland lying in the driveway. The bear-like dog was a conversation starter, and the exchange lasted about twenty minutes, mostly about the features of the dog. Now retired and having just moved to Portstewart in downsizing after the kids grew up, George Adams had been a policeman in Derry at the time of the Troubles. “I saw it all. I was there. I saw it and I survived.” George also concluded that he liked weird things in genral: an Easter Island head in the driveway, the only Newfoundland in the neighborhood, a blind dog before that, a shirt with the emblem “Weird Fish.”

Lindy spent the afternoon with another friend of Roisin’s, and I drove to Coleraine on my own, parked in the Tesco’s, got some organic fruit and vegetables, and then walked to the traffic light where I carefully crossed the road to the pedestrian mall and revisited the health-food store for one last shopping in Ireland.

Later I took a walk into Portstewart and visited with butcher Peter Osborne who told me he is a great reader and will look up this journal. He said that he even finished books he didn’t like because he didn’t want to chance missing something. Then he described a book about all the cities in the States named Dublin, none of them having anything to do with the one in Ireland. Another conversation piece concerned the comparative sizes of the U.S. and Ireland and the different perceptions of distance that that caused. He mentioned a friend who talked of driving from Portstewart to Cork in a day “as if were nothing. No one who lives here would think that way. It’s, my gosh, maybe seven hours. To him it was normal because he was used to those kinds of distances in the States.”

I have a regular conversation with Olive, exchanging recent events. As long as we’re here…. I plan to call her, too, from the States. She is saying her rosary for Debby every day.

 

July 29, 2017

Our trip to Giant’s Causeway three days ago was runic but also abortive. The real plan for July 26th was to explore the Antrim Coast from the Causeway out, a goal we had held from the time we established our two-week exchange with Roisin McCaughan and then read the guidebooks for Northern Ireland. We set out that morning intending to get as far as Glenarm but only made it to Bushmills, a shortfall of less than fifty miles but fifty miles of fractal coastline packed with major sites, hikes, views, and destinations. Giant’s Causeway was the highlight but only the first of many attractions.

I have not wanted to slouch into tourist acquisitiveness—trying to log the signature items that everyone else is collecting—but there is a middle ground between quantifying your experience and not making any effort to see the keynotes. That was where we stood on July 28 when we got intimidated by the thought of going further along the coast on a windy day.

Roisin’s friend Mary tried to give me advice by phone, but she is a naturally fast talker and a professional tour guide and had trouble slowing down enough to answer my questions to my satisfaction. Her husband Seamus was already talking in the background, so she handed the phone over to him. He explained that going only as far as Bushmills missed the vintage Antrim coast because you never turned the corner to the North Channel and Irish Sea, you missed all nine glens. The turn over the island’s hump south came a bit after Ballycastle, which was about twelve miles beyond than Giant’s Causeway. The couple generously offered to take us down the coast on Sunday after they returned from church, but we had already committed that day to the McCann/McAlea family in Belfast. We had only Saturday and the weekdays free, but that didn’t work for them.

Instead, Seamus spent twenty minutes, coaching me and giving me a pep talk. He assured me that the trip wasn’t challenging and we could do it on our own, going only as far as we were comfortable with. After listening to him and getting full answers to my logistic and geographical questions, I suggested to Lindy that we get up early and commit the unscheduled day to going down the Antrim Coast.

We had to overcome early-morning resistance. After all, we have been travelling for almost four weeks and were tried of having to generate fresh energy and initiative almost every day. We craved more down time. Yet a week from now the Antrim Coast would be across an ocean. We had a perfect set-up: a wide-open Saturday, nothing to do but go for a drive and see Ireland. It would be happier after a few more days of rest, but we don’t have that luxury.

We got out the door at 9:30. Seamus’ plan of our using Ring Road to get to Coleraine got botched almost at once, rendering the launch of his suggested route defunct, but it didn’t matter because we still eventually found the inland road to Ballycastle, skipping Portrush, Bushmills, and the like. Maybe we lost ten minutes, but time was not our obstacle, and it was beautiful, sunny countryside of a type already described: meadows, sheep, goats, pasture, stone houses, stone walls, rolling hills, subtle shades of green, dark tree tunnels, spectacular cumulus displays.

From Ballycastle we applied the strategy of cutting off the corner of the coast where it rounds south, going straight inland to Cushendall, a town well down along the Irish Sea. That meant skipping not only the hump facing the North Channel itself but the immediately prior town, Cushendun. We got from Portstewart to Cushendall in not much more than an hour, arriving in a sudden cloudburst. That limited our walk through the town, so we didn’t get much of a look: classic old buildings and shops but not a provincial place by any means. Heading south toward Belfast along the coast, we were in prime vacation, second-home territory. I believe that it was in Cushendall that, as we entered town, we saw, on the hill overlooking the village, a replica of the Los Angeles “Hollywood” sign, only it said Ballywood.

I was the driver, and Lindy was gradually sorting through maps and other literature to come up with a plan. Not far south of Cushendall, she saw a turnoff to Glenariff Forest Park, which had hiking trails. We decided to shoot for that.

When you don’t know where you’re going, everything is suspenseful, so it was a joy that this itinerary fell into place. The road forked as it was supposed at Glenariff. We left A2 and the coastline. The scenery became dramatic, steep wooded canyons and dark forests suggestive of fairy tales and hobbits.

Another nine kilometers down the right fork was a left turn for Glenariff Forest Park. A narrow one-way road of about a kilometer led to parking lots, one for caravans, one for cars. Both were relatively empty.

Orientation required some time and walking. Payment was by parking machine, but the ancient dispenser not only took only coins—no credit cards or bills—but only “old pound coins.” An attached note said that café provided these, which meant walking about 300 meters. The woman there took our five-pound note and, instead of defunct coins, gave us a slip to put on the dashboard.

We peeked into the adjacent visitors’ center, which was both charming and disappointing. The display of stuffed animals, a bit ghoulish, was riveting in its variety of forest-floor creatures, plus the largest rabbit I have ever seen, dwarfing the fox and outsizing most of its other predators. The display had the texture and care of a 1950s museum exhibit. However, none of its noise machines worked, which meant we didn’t get to hear the sounds of an insect chewing a leaf or being trapped in a spider’s web or the calls of the forest’s different birds.

We returned to the car and considered which trail to take. Surrounding hills of walls and sheep and farmhouses, dark green rows of trees and hedges, made soft light green rectangles of grazing meadows for which Lindy tried to figure out which sheep went with which house.

Three trails were presented on the board, all loops, named Viewpoint, Waterfall, and Scenic, respectively. The first was 1 kilometer, the second 3, and the third 8.9. We figured that the first was so easily doable we went right to it, though we were disappointed to skip the waterfall. Viewpoint did give a brief look at a thin strand of falling water in the distance as well as the sea, but one kilometer was over and done at once. We decided to chance the Waterfall Trail.

I know that three kilometers doesn’t seem like much, but it also isn’t nothing. The weather was now overcast and Lindy had neglected to bring her boots. We did have our umbrellas and raincoats. You suspected it was going to pour eventually. Plus, the Waterfall Trail plummeted straight down in the opposite direction from the Viewpoint, so you figured on some muddy ground and you also knew it had to come back up and you were committing to climbing it.

The word “awesome” has changed meaning—the Waterfall Trail was awesome in the old sense: spectacular, amazing, startling, beyond anything described in the literature and on the signs, which were way understated.

The first kilometer or so was forest, North American Eastern-Woodlands-like with plentiful ferns, mosses, liverworts, and wildflowers, including one ubiquitous blossom that could have been Queen Anne’s Lace or a close cousin, but, in any case, it had the same deep, subtle scent. Those old Irish sailors to Newfoundland and Maine must have felt that they were home.

It rained a little bit, making for sweet sylvan aromas but not enough to require umbrellas. The Waterfall Trail finally veered left onto wooden steps that led down to a series of bridges. The next kilometer squeezed in three major waterfalls and countless lesser ones. The latter ranged from braids cascading down a rock face to fast-moving trickles, into which I put my hand into in order to feel the cold and pulse, to mere dripping oozes. The entire landscape comprised water falling.

The first major fall was the Ess-na-Larach, formed by the swiftly moving Glenariff River we had been parallelling in the canyon alongside us. The river dropped over the rock edge and gathered in high turbulence at the bottom. What made the fall so impressive was the volume of water in a condensed space, the power of the drop, the two roughly equal phases of its descent, and the shifting brown-yellow colors of the water over the rocks—Ess-na-Larach was an engine of transformation. The Park provided hikers multiple close views, from alongside and looking back from nearby downstream.

The second major waterfall came about half a kilometer later after a sharp turn to the right, which took us to the apotheosis of a different river, the Inver. The Ess-na-Crub was a different genre or style of falling water—an artist as different as Monet from Miro. Four capacious streams fell in one section and a couple more in another. These collectively formed a curtain behind which three other sizable streams seemed to manifest like geysers from lower rocks. The entire fall made a faint rainbow and gave off a mist of droplets.

To see Ess-na-Crub required a short detour off the main trail. Lindy didn’t know what was down it, so I went to check and was transfixed by the sight. After a few moments, I tried taking Ess-na-Crub up to Astral, Causal, Buddhic, Atmic, and Monadic planes, a fast elevator for thirty seconds. It worked to the degree that such a superficial rise can mean anything. I glimpsed the possibilities of the water vortex stretched across planes: a tiny dose of faery at the Astral, the gaze of the Soul into our realm at the Causal, a communal, synchronicity-rich Earth at the Buddhic, the source of the forces creating gravity and shear at the Atmic, and the waterfall’s transdimensional galactic locale at the Monadic such that it became a sheath of starry fire—all briefly and insubstantially but a taste.

Lindy had not gone down the detour, figuring it wasn’t anything special. She waited for me and then thought, she said, “that you had gone further than I anticipated or fallen in.” She had not considered that I was riveted. In fact, she had to come looking for me. I met her halfway and convinced her that the side trip was worth it. On looking at Ess-na-Crub, she said, “You couldn’t have designed anything more aesthetic if you tried. This is like what you might see in the Amazon.”

A later view from above showed how differential erosion of the rocky stream-bed just at the point of the drop had hit perfect feng shui in the way it often does. What appears to be aimless is actually more impeccable, in deeper equilibrium than the fountains of Paris or recycling waters in a Mexico City hotel lobby, more accurate than a subatomic clock. Such perfection is hard to achieve because it can’t be indexed or calibrated into existence, in fact can’t not happen, though it takes eternity and infinite space to craft each one on a planet.

A stability that can’t be measured or planned, also can’t be imitated. It has infinite vectors by which to diverge or become something else but doesn’t because it is as it is: simplicity and harmony, the ultimate beauty beyond art.

After we completed the trek back up hill in what had become a very hot, sunny day, we drove back the side road and turned through the town of Glenariff toward Glenarm. By then the roadway was squeezed between, to the right, cliffs towering above us and, to the left, a low but solid continuous stone wall between us and the ocean—oncoming traffic on one side and an equally unforgiving barrier in lieu of a shoulder, a tight passage. The Irish Sea was a beautiful teal-black and rolled like a carpet in textured layers.

We were captivated a town short of our destination at Carnlough by local action. The seaside village was having a carnival day, meaning a fair, concert, and boat extravaganza. The sight of kids playing on colorful inflated trampoline-like objects, racing kayaks, plus the thump of music and ancient bridges and stone walls over the water induced us to pull in along the seaside. Parking on the left was as tight as the stone wall, and it took me eight minutes and four separate tries (leaving, observing the result with Lindy as a critic, and getting back in the car and trying again) to get it somewhat decent. It was dubiously a legal spot. Yet all the spaces near the fair were taken, so we simply joined the line of cars on the road leading out of town, which is why we had to get close enough to the curb to avoid risking getting clipped. Cars already had to stop in and pull into nooks to let those going in the other direction pass.

We followed the sidewalk along the sea, diverging to climb the steps up an old wall to a park on top of it. From there we watched the boats entering and leaving and getting worked on in the area and the kayak races in the distance. Apparently. we missed a race of dolls on pigs, not something that would fall under the ethical treatment of animals anyway.

A very sad band that would have fit perfectly into David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was playing in an empty lot on a portable stage to about six people who may have been listening. The music was bland, loud, approaching electrified noise: four spooky middle-aged guys. They reminded me of the joke, “Lordy me. You know what ‘lordy’ means? ‘Let old rockers die.’” These guys looked as though they been playing together since they were teens, but they were no longer ‘forever young.’ But they were Irish dudes, slightly thuggish, through and through.

We had planned to eat in Glenarm, but Carnlough looked promising and the further town was unknown. We crossed the road to investigate the Londonderry Hotel. By the menu on the door, it was decent, even offering some organic dishes and listing local farm-to-table suppliers, a tipoff that the rest of the fare was conscious. It was also 2:30 PM (14:30).

The petite, young waitress with enough eyeliner to turn her Irish look Egyptian, typified the prominence of the word “wee” in the North. Like “brilliant,” it has multiple meanings and doesn’t always indicate “small.” She told us to “take a wee seat there.” Then she brought the “wee menu,” and told us to have a “wee look.” She wondered if we wanted “wee drinks,” and came back to take our “wee order.” I think of “wee” as a particle, similar to those in classical Greek; it fills a rhythmic more than a semantic need. In the evening when I called Olive to tell her about our day and check on our plans for the morrow, I said that we went to Glenariff Forest. A friend of hers had a place there. “You didn’t happen to see a wee red-and-white house on the way there?”

“Probably, but I wasn’t looking,” I teased. “If I had known beforehand, I might have noticed.”

“I didn’t know you were going. If I had, I would have told you.”

“Neither did we till the last minute.”

“Well now, you have yourselves a wee rest, and tell that lovely wife of yours we’ll see her tomorrow, darling.”

 

It was sunny when we entered the Londonderry Hotel. An hour later as we exited after eating, it was overcast. The sad band suddenly wasn’t quite so sad. They had a crowd of more like ten, half of them toddlers, but were doing a perfect David Bowie medley. I had to stop because if I closed my eyes, I could have been listening to the Spiders from Mars—it was that adroit a match, the voices and warbling melodic background mix of “Starman”—dun-doo doo-da-da-duh dun-do-duh-da-duh. By the time we crossed the road to take a wee listen it was drizzling, so we and the others stood under a gigantic horse chestnut which did an adequate job of keeping us dry.

The clouds took it up a notch, then another notch, then another. The horse chestnut, thick as it was, was no longer an umbrella; it was dropping water balloons, and people scurried for shelter under the overhang of a nearby building, the band still playing. They went into what was either an IRA or a Loyalist song. Either way it was stirring, with deep minor chords and great bridges. Probably Republican. Most of the towns we passed on the Antrim Coast found it necessary to display their allegiance to the Queen with British and Ulster Flags every five yards or so on lamp-posts and storefronts. But Carnlough had flags of the Irish Republic, though the restaurant was called Londonderry.

I had my raincoat on. For the sunny walk back to the center of town, Lindy left hers in the car. Neither of us took umbrellas. She went under the overhang. I stayed and stood and listened and got wet. Then I decided to make a run for the car and fetch our umbrellas and put on my boots. I figured I could wash off the mud they had collected the hike. By the time I got halfway back from our parking spot, the sun was shining and Lindy was meeting me en route. So much for my rescue mission.

Lindy took over driving for the five kilometers to Glenarm. We had numerous plans, but we were tired and the day was getting old, plus it was raining again. We decided to dispense with another hike and go for the Glenarm Castle and Walled Garden. We had to ask directions and wind back to find it. It was 16:10 by the time we got there. Six pounds each to walk in a garden seemed hefty—you have to almost double it for dollars)—especially since part of the admission fee, the castle and castle trail, were closed because the royal family was weekending and access ended at 5:00 anyway. Still, we went for it.

A large vegetable garden—from Brussel sprouts and artichokes to kale, stringbeans, and onions was planted just outside the walls—nothing special by Maine and Vermont standard. There were four acres of flowers inside the wall. Their beds followed the wall and went about four feet in. The rest of the enclosed was immaculate lawns, small tame groves, and long, narrow, very tall trimmed hedges separating the sections of garden. The sheer volume of flowers and their colors were enough to hold my interest. I tend to smell them, but most here were aroma-less. There were, however, some large dark pinkish fluffs verging on purple that had the quiet deep scent of the Queen Anne’s Lace but sweeter and differently evocative.

Overall it was a well-trimmed Alice in Wonderland landscape, suitable for croquet by playing cards. I found myself wondering about the lord and his family, their politics, their patronage. Just a garden? The arts? Were they carpetbaggers? Were they anywhere near as enlightened as hermetic humanitarian Prince Charles?

At the far left corner toward the castle grounds, the walled garden sported a perfectly designed fake tumulus with a winding path up to its top. It was of moderate size. I lay on the crest in the sun for more than half of our alotted minutes. I even took a brief catnap and had a weird, groggy lucid dream that evaporated on the spot with something like “it’s double, you did it, and both are wrong.”

It began to rain in earnest with about ten minutes left in the fifty-minute hour. Lindy headed for the accompanying teahouse, but we had umbrellas so I stayed out and watched batches flowers transform in flavor and mien with rain. They seemed to awaken and drink it in. I even licked a few Bach Flower Remedies off the pink fluffs and blue bells. Acquisitive I guess—getting my pounds-sterling worth. I walked toward the upper right quadrant of the wall. Beyond it were ancient trees forming a forest as dark as any. This was Ent territory, though for all I knew it was a small preserved stand that ended just beyond those I could see.

I am drawn to Gaston Bachelard phenomenologies, so I stared into the forest to see what it evoked—nothing psychic, just a sense of time, mystery, and my own uncertain being.

The road past the castle was already B97, ten more kilometers of which fed into A42 to Ballymena and Coleraine. We were taking the whiz route back. It had its hazards: slowing-moving farm equipment and hairpin turns, but we ran a perils-of-Pauline gauntlet and eventually reached M2, a four-lane superhighway, though the sat-nav ran us ragged around the outskirts of Ballymena, as it lost its reference points and sent us into two dead-end lanes before we unwound our trail to M2, headed both Belfast and Coleraine ways.

 

Fireworks were scheduled for 22:30 in Portstewart. It had to be late to have any facsimile of darkness. We got out the door at 22:33 and caught a glimpse over the roofs of the neighborhood. The show ended with a burst of exploding globes and stars at 22:38, though we continued to the main road just in case. All the traffic was leaving.

What stood out on the walk back was the dark blue-green of the late-twilight sky, an exquisite shade I have never seen. It wasn’t just one blue-green; it was like a shimmering emerald stone.

 

Further reader response from Meryl Nass regarding motion sickness: “You reminded me that in Spain the trains were great, but in Portugal I think the tracks were not kept up or the system was old… in any event there was a rocking that made me very sick one day, and slightly sick another day, on a different route.  When I repeated the first journey, I did it by bus.I had forgotten all this till reading your blog.  Yes, it is horrible to be on a boat or a train that you cannot get off and be really ill from it.  I had an awful time going out to see puffins one day. $100 trip out of Cutler.  I was so sick I could not get off the boat when we got to the puffin island, though it would have helped a lot to get rid of the nausea, vomiting and misery.  But when you are in it, you can’t think clearly enough about what you need to do to get over it.”

 

Reader response from David Ulansey in Berkeley: “Thanks so much for all of this Richard!  I love the fact that the first time you mention Bridey and the ‘esoteric part’ of the trip is more than halfway through the journal.  Amazing that a thimblefull of ashes (and the infinite number of equivalent ‘strange attractors’ in life) can, if they wish, whirl us completely around the planet— and bring us safely home again.”

 

Reader response from Roisin McCaughan in our Portland house: “I’m really enjoying reading about your adventures In N. Ireland. What fun you have had with Dennis and all the people you have met! Of course, best of all, has been your reconnection with Bridget through Olive who sounds so lovely. I’ m glad your family had the gift of the McCanns throughout the decades.

“We continue to enjoy your beautiful home. Yesterday we went to Freeport where  made a few nice purchases.

“Today, I meant to visit the Art Museum and the Jewish Museum near the Catholic Cathedral but in the morning I just conked out with tiredness. I stand in awe of your stamina! We ate breakfast in the garden and we all relaxed around the place until 2 30 .  Mary and Linda walked to Shaw’s for provisions and Mary has prepared dinner for us. It’s very handy to have a cookery teacher on board!

“The others took an Uber into Portland and I remained at home soaking up the space and the rest and watching an unsuspecting squirrel and a little striped animal. A chipmunk maybe? I was just enjoying the moment. I have just read your blog and am awaiting the return of the others. I really needed today off and it has been one of my best days yet!

“Keep writing!”

 

 

July 30, 2017

A week after meeting the McAlea branch of the McCanns, Lindy and I drove into Belfast for a second Sunday visit. Enough time has passed in Ireland—not quite a month, though it feels like a year—that we have subtly shifted to being here for real with an increasing context of everyday life. Yesterday when we drove south down the Antrim Coast, we got almost to Larne and the Belfast Lough. Today, on a parallel inland route, the first exits offered off the highway on roads to the left are mostly familiar: Bushmills, Ballycastle, Ballymena, Cushendall, Glenariff, Carnlough, and Glenarm, then Larne and others we didn’t get to. We know where we are. By Larne, we were almost to Belfast. “Far” has become “near.”

The voice on the sat-nav is familiar, like an idiomatic music of names and epic mispronunciations: “Take the first left on Cappack (Cappaugh) Road.” “Bally” is always punctuated more firmly and quickly than what follows, with an accent on the first syllable, as “Bal-lymoney.”

Olive and Elizabeth were at Cedar Avenue for our arrival, as a week ago, but the feeling was entirely different because we were no longer strangers. More than even being known quantities, we had been formally initiated into the family, so we were clan—honorary family—arriving for an ordinary Sunday together.

Olive feeds the neighbor’s black cat when it is neglected during its owner’s absences. It enters the house with us and winds itself around her legs.  But now the neighbor is clearly there, so she says, “Go home to your Mommy.”

Olive is so deeply imbued in her faith, her sense of goodness, and her compassion and love for all creatures that she casts a spiritual atmosphere around her. The little living room turns into a consecrated space like a church. She attends mass for others’ passing, even though people she doesn’t know, out solidarity, “respect,” she says.

Yet she is secular, simple, and urbane when it comes to memes from outside the Catholic framework. She brushes off “faery” talk as myths, what people in the countryside believe. “That’s nor real,” she fervidly insists.

Elizabeth, by contrast, is a modern woman, running the medical specialty services of three hospitals and engaged in the digital and social worlds of a woman of her generation. Yet she is totally fascinated by ghosts, crop circles, and aliens. She is as ritually Catholic as Olive, discussing her baptism, where she will be buried, and the church they attend together, but she still radiates the secular condition. Her religion and faith are not extant but internalized and subconscious. She is kind, generous, and warm too, but she does not project the Mother Teresa archetype like Olive—or what the Mater proposes even if Mother Teresa might be an imposter under the rubric.

We talked about numerous topics for two hours, ranging from Debby and the Towers family and Bridget’s time in America to Northern Irish politics. No account would do the conversation justice, but a couple of things stick.

 

I continually feel the challenge of trying to present the damage and dysfunction in our household to Olive and Elizabeth (Olive especially, for I am talking about her revered older sister) in the context of Bridey’s challenge to handle it positively from her own perspective and upbringing. Bridey had to deal with psychopathology and madness without conventional tools and then to play a role in stabilizing something she didn’t fully understand and couldn’t integrate without engendering contradictions of thought and action. I don’t want to diminish the fact that our Irish Nanny was an integral part of our family landscape, an inalienable member of our guild, but at the same time I want to communicate that she suffered and also became a part of the wound. Olive forgave my prolixity and bumbles, with remarkable perspicacity, “You brought us our Bridget back with your tales, and I am grateful that you tried so hard to make her alive again.”

I needed to confess that I was different from the family. As a child, I argued with Bridget’s parochialism and defense of our parents’—for lack of a better word—abuse. In that I was alone in the household. Yet I also bonded with her spirituality and faith and melded to mystery of her singing. In that I was also alone in the household. Bridget and I had our sacred connection. She could not allow the way I saw the world from psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreams, a project I began at eight years old, two years before she arrived. But as I grew into a teenager, I learned to translate Freudian symbolism and spiritual ideas into Catholic terms and to recreate the basis of therapeutic transference through prayer and communion.

This is hard to communicate in a way that would make sense to them, but I gave it my best shot.

I was not Bridey’s favorite. I had another family that was disrespected and openly mocked in the Towers realm under their ideology and belief system. The Grossingers were regarded as renegades, crooks, and silver-spoon aristocrats. I also opposed unearned authority and unexamined precedent in all forms and Bridget was a traditionalist, so she and I were at odds on that. She rejected the tarot when I joined my school friends at Horace Mann in studying the cards and read fortunes in the apartment. To her it was the work of the devil—the deck even had a Devil in it which should have been warning enough. But she and I were the only priests in hell, in a Dostoevsky novel, so we had an understanding and acknowledged it. In addition, Jonny and I loved folklore and fairy tales, so together we embraced Bridey’s Irish roots.

Olive wisely said, “She loved you. She didn’t exclude you when telling of America and her family there. It was always Richard, Jonny, and Debby. She loved the wee lot of you.” She paused and then added, “She was a very strong person, and she was strict, like our mother. She could handle all that. She took care of our father to his death, so she could manage your family too.”

Elizabeth laughed. “She was strict with us, what we call a real matron.”

Later in the day, at dinner, wee Bridey, as Olive’s daughter was dubbed to distinguish her though she was hardly “wee,” picked up the thread, “Big Bridey was loyal and principled. She never once let on that there was a problem. That was her loyalty to your family. She wouldn’t have betrayed your parents, even to us.”

 

Olive and Elizabeth explained why police officers could not live in the towns where they worked. It was dangerous—they were too easily accessible. The two young sons of Olive’s youngest daughter, Kathleen (Elizabeth’s nephews) were training as police, the older one already partially deployed, and that meant that Olive could not have pictures of them in her living room or anywhere downstairs: “…because you never knew who might be coming through.” She had to set those upstairs and also be very careful who she talked to about them. “I wouldn’t be talking freely the way I am to you now. There is still a lot of feeling that our folks shouldn’t be joining the police; they’re seen as the enemy.”

Despite the truce and treaty and the easing of the acute phase of the Troubles, the essentials simmered beneath the surface, readily re-instigated.

The Troubles were a core cultural and ethnic clash of identities and philosophies of governance more than a religious quarrel; as such, they an inseparable part of daily life. The rivalry of flags everywhere showed that.
A bit later than planned, Elizabeth took us on her promised tour of Belfast. It was a whirlwind, the antipode of our snail’s walking tour with Dennis. She whipped around in her Renault, making sudden U-turns and darts on to and off thoroughfares and the highway on a dime.

We started the excursion with a plunge into West Belfast to see the Catholic and Protestant murals and also to get a feel for the neighborhoods. At first, I thought we were driving past the core, but the initial paintings increased to the point where every wall was covered and we were in a gallery like Derry’s Bogside, only larger and more elaborate.

Catholic murals ran up to a gate separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. They expressed not only the immediate objective of getting the British to leave and unifying Ireland under the Republic but general socialist ideals, a strong critique of capitalism, the perseverance of the oppressed everywhere on the planet (including a Mandela mural), climate change’s remedies placing an unequal burden on developing and undeveloped nations: “Climate change affects everyone but not equally” (Statue of Liberty underwater, polar bear on a tiny piece of ice, factories spewing black soot). “Free Tony Taylor, End Internment.” “Freedom for Ocalan: Peace is more difficult than War. We were not scared as we resisted. We will not be scared when we make peace.” “History is ours, and history is made by the ….  Inevitable….. – Tiocfaidh Ar La (Our day will come).” “290 Years of Resistance.” “In Memory of The Belfast Men Who Fought Against Fascism.” “It is not those who can inflict the most but those who can endure the most who will conquer.”

At the gate, affiliation abruptly changed (“it’s still often shut at night,” Elizabeth told us). The sentiments expressed where the street continued on the other side were mostly military virtues and reverence: honoring British soldiers and police killed in battle in recent wars and revolts (the World Wars, the Boer War, the Troubles), solidarity with Israel and Netanyahu (including a painting of a female Israeli soldier exuding miltaristic charisma): “In Glorious Memory Lest We Forget—Ulster Division, 1916.” “Never in the Field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few—Winston Churchill, 21st August, 1940.” “Band of Brothers, The Legend of 303 Polish Squadron: The Polish Nation, Part of Us Then, Part of Us Now.” “In all of Jewish history we have never had a Christian friend as understanding and devoted.” Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu on Irish Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson.

The two galleries ran contiguous to each other, a collaboration of contention and concession to the truce, yet a loyal patriotism and stubborn intention on either side that (everyone knew) transcended treaties, though no one wanted to go back to war in the streets. The gate still had to be closed to prevent incidents in the dark.

In the middle, across the road beside a display of Crosses representing the still relatively newpeace and reconciliation, a spiritualist church was in session, raucous singing like pop music exuding from it, one guy taking his kid outside to vape while we stood watching.

As we walked away, I realized how intrinsically polarized the positions were. We had just looked at one discontinuous gallery of luminously realistic and political art flowing, one panel into another without boundaries except at the gate, that either side agreed to let stand in the other’s territory without mutilating or overwriting the epitome of something they despised. One side was labor history, SDS, Rainbow Party, Black Panthers, refugees, liberation—Christianity synonymous with justice. The other side was a military cemetery: Purple Hearts, Trumpism as an extension of Churchillism, the British Empire, high holy sheriff and generals in charge—Christianity as a crusading army against heathen and orcs.

On the way out of the neighborhood we passed an unimposing brick building that Elizabeth pointed out as Sinn Fein headquarters. Painted on the side was an image of a long-haired youthful Bobby Sands with a big smile, painted in a yellow-outlined pentagonal box with his words to either side: “Everyone Republican or Otherwise Has Their Particular Role to Play. Our Revenge Will Be the Laughter of Our Children.”— Bobby Sands, MP, Poet, Gaelgor, Revolutionary, IRA Volunteer.

Elizabeth drove us next to the docks where her grandfather and uncles worked. We couldn’t go all way in—no public entry—but we saw huge containers, ships, and cranes from a distance, much like at Port of Oakland, California. The brief dip in and out reinforced a message that was gestating throughout our visit: Olive dropped out of school at fourteen on a Friday, was at work in a book-binding plant the following Monday. “My father and uncles found work maybe two, three days a week,” Elizabeth said. “The other times they were sent home.” The girls had to go to work to support the family.

We continued from the docks into the neighborhood where Bridget, Olive, and the others had grown up. It was walking distance: the men got up early each morning, walked down to see if they needed dockers—stevedores or other laborers, and often just headed back to their homes. This story was inextricable from the murals or a Ken Loach BBC documentary on miners’ strikes, for it represented a inequality of class and power, as it shadowed the original settling of Ireland as a British plantation. It was a plantation for most of the twentieth century and, in the lives of many, still is.

Our next stop was the Church of St. Patrick, the hearth where Olive and Bridget, Elizabeth and wee Bridey were baptized. We pulled up in front of a magnificent Romanesque edifice of sandstone, apparently risking a loading-zone ticket. Inside, the scope and ambiance were like Notre Dame and temples beyond, even if it wasn’t at that grandiose scale—“austere by comparison with Italy,” a reader of this blog later wrote in response to my photos. It had a small stadium full of pews and a dome reaching into the higher dimensions with its architectural expanse of sacred geometry.

St. Patricks radiated Ireland, not France, which cultivates its own vibration of Christ.

The huge altar dominated the end of the nave like something on another planet or maybe a UFO in descent: a dozen or so marble figures, some free-standing in pedestals, some carved into hollows and intentional negative space, some friezelike, some ascending atop pillars toward the dome in a secondary altar with an iconographic crucifixion at its crown.

A more realistic crucifixion occupied the church’s right corner, complete with life-sized statues: a drooping almost-naked body on the Cross, lamenting figures on either side of him.

Stained glass showed a light blue that enhanced crown-chakra mystical visualization, the darker blue of prophecy above. Rows of familiar candles lit by parishioners and visitors stood before the windows and statues of the crucifixion.

A church feels like a holy place for a reason. The hidden universe had been molded within it, signified and consecrated there. A church is a refuge, a sanctuary, an echo chamber, a mandala, a telepathic portal of attunement for communication with the Divine. Materialists may ignore these aspects, a few attending services out of cultural habit, ethnic fidelity, or obligation, but even they must suspect at some level they are inside of a mystery and the presence of something both intimate and unknown.

An elderly sexton, the manager of the church, met us at once; he recognized Elizabeth and took us around. He wasn’t called a sexton; the Irish name is sacricristan. A thin, bespectacled stalk, he lectured rapidly with a sharp accent, so I missed a chunk, but I did get the basics of his elucidation. We lingered at a triptych in the entryway entitled “Madonna of the Lakes,” getting the history and genealogy of the Mary figures in drone as fast-moving and almost as intelligibly inaudible as a buzzing of bees. I understood that it was painted by artist and church-goer John Lavery, and his modes were his second wife and daughter, maybe his first wife too.

We were led into an inner sanctum where cremated remains occupied slots on the wall like small safety deposit boxes in a bank. Over a hundred St. Patrick’s parishioners died during the Troubles.

A relic of St. Patrick’s arm resided in a silver reliquary from the Middle Ages.

Putting money in a box, Elizabeth purchased a booklet about John Lavery and handed it Lindy, staunchly refusing reimbursement.

 

St. Patty’s sat at the center of the McAlea/McCann family’s life—their social and cultural identity, their spiritual faith, their initiation, individuation, and personal growth. It grounded their indivisibility as a unit—their loyalty, compassion, inner strength, their politics and support system. This hearth was what Bridey brought to a family on Park Avenue and 96th Street, though we could hardly know its source and consequence.

The visit was a quiet baptism of Lindy and me, a phase of our acceptance into the family.

 

We went from St. Patrick’s past Elizabeth’s hospitals to Mater Infirmorum, her first posting as a nurse and part of the complex she now managed. We parked by there. Our goal wasn’t the hospital, though. The building across a very narrow alleyway was the Crumlin Road Gaol, put out of service as outmoded, cruel, and essentially mediaeval in 1996 (that recently!). Elizabeth said that she could hear shouts and conversation of prisoners as she tended patients.

The jail looked more like a museum or fort, a style of ornate pillar heralding the entry and incorporated into the overall structure. Round Roman columns were interrupted regularly by square blocks imbedded in them, suggesting an armored Triassic dinosaur of sandstone. It looked too adorned and baroque to be a jail, at least in modern Pelican Bay terms.

The old courthouse facing the gaol across Crumlin Road was a mere shell. A magnificent yellowish building occupying a whole block, it had trees growing out of it, and its windows were broken, though the ornate façade was intact. A hotel that was supposed to be built inside the façade, but it was eleven years aborning with no progress.

I did not understand what was happening, what we were doing. Elizabeth had figured out in advance that a perfect way to spend our next ninety minutes was a guided tour of the jail, a standard item on a Belfast tourist’s bucket list. She had paid for all three of us before we realized it and again refused reimbursement. We suddenly stood in a small group gathered for a tour.

The expedition was hammed up and theatrical from the get-go. Our young guide Pearse (or maybe Pierce, for that was how he pronounced it), projected his voice as if he were on stage in a large theater, adding a “Twilight Zone” quaver to many nuances, implying that peril and general spookiness awaited us. The tour of the gaol was apparently a highlight of popular “weird Belfast” that we had seen advertised on posters: tours of murders, hangings, famous crimes, acts of cannibalism, and hauntings. Seventeen were executed at the ancient gaol, and their wandering ghosts were a key facet of the Weird Tour’s venue. In fact, once we got started, we learned that, years ago, Elizabeth had been on what was called a “paranormal tour” of the jail, which took place at night and was effectively a walking séance.

Our group was about a dozen, equally men and women, mostly young, including one German child with his mother (that is, they spoke to each other in German) We stood initially in a room where prisoners stripped, gave over their belongings and haberdashery from under a closed door, left to be showered in cold water, and returned to be handed prison garb under the space door.

We walked halfway through a tunnel where prisoners were marched under the street to the courthouse across the road and back. During the Crumlin Gaol’s operation through the Troubles, some days of the week, I think Tuesday and Thursday Pearse said, hundreds at a time passed through the tunnel to be processed in the court and returned.

The prison also heated the courthouse, so a huge complex of thick, ancient rusty piping ran in a cage alongside us. Pearse said that the heat plus the moisture made the place a sauna back in the day, so prisoners had to walked through this heated purgatory. The floor was uneven and of mediaeval vintage; the walls were crumbling stones with brave millimeter-size sprouts of plants barely rooting in spots—further along, the masonry was reinforced under Crumlin Road once the passage of objects heavier than horses and wagons passed above.

Pearse indicated that the tunnel was where a child during a tour of his—“cross my heart [and he did]—turned white as a ghost.” Though not permitted to proceed all the way to the end of the tunnel because of safety regulations, he had raised his hand twice to plead for an exception. The third time he asked, “Then who, or what, is that?” The entire tour fled back down the hall in a stampede.

At the end a long-dead prisoner stood in confusion.

We visited the central control axis for the guards’ opticon of wings: A, B, C, and D. Pearse explained their different uses: IRA and Protestants in two of the wings (A and D I think), ordinary common criminals and murderers (OCCM as Pearse put it) in B; anyone there for more than two years up to lifers in C.

Into the twentieth century women and children were incarcerated with men in Crumlin Road Gaol, the latter for crimes like stealing a piece of fruit or borrowing a ladder without permission. In general, it was to scare them straight. Pearse described one child’s suicide in the jail after taunting and a regular punishment for all prisoners accorded that same child the night of his death, to take apart rough old rope strand by strand for restringing, chafing the hands.

 

The gaol was “peopled” with life-size realistic manikins representing both officials and prisoners—they did up this aspect with clothing of the day and artifacts like books and fountain pens. The little boy addressed many of the figures in German, adding a macabre overtone.

Crumlin Road Gaol had been built to handle something like 350 but housed four times that many during the Troubles. Overcrowding was a major factor in its decommissioning. Also, things got very dicey: IRA prisoners planted a bomb in an area where alternated use with Loyalist prisoners (to keep them separate), and killed two of them. Unionists responded by launching a missile at the building. It did not do the damage intended, killing no Republicans.

We saw cells designed for one occupant that had been used for as many as four. Such a decorated cubicle had two IRA manikins, one reading a book on a cot, the other studying the daily newspaper at a desk. In another cell, designated as mid-nineteenth century, we saw a woman manikin sewing. The solitary-confinement cell had a hard platform bed. The punishment room displayed racks for whipping. Rudimentary bathrooms had basic plumbing and fixtures only, but they were not routinely accessible and not at all at night, so chamber pots were the going lavatory. The dingy kitchen (like something in a tenement building) gave off a particularly melancholy air because it represented the feeding of life in a place of death and despair.

 

Pearse kept up his character, accentuating punishments, acts of violence, and retribution within the jail with dramatic beats and pauses between items on a list, as if ringing a chime or striking a drum for each. “They were permitted four items: food…water…something to sleep on….” I can’t remember the fourth or maybe one was a mattress for the night, to be returned during the daytime.

The execution—hanging—section was particularly gruesome. Pearse recommended that those faint of heart sit on a bench in the cell block where they would be rejoined by the tour after our ten minutes there (in reality, twenty). No one abdicated, and the boy, to whom particular deference was shown during this section of the tour, evidenced no reticence, wanting to be right up front by the gallows and not miss an iota.

As the group stood in the room where the prisoner spent his last days after being read his sentence of condemnation, Pearse went into meticulous detail about the rituals, giving blow-by-blow accounts of individual parties executed. Their names and dates were beamed on the wall in a kind of hologram. Our guide said that two men accompanied the condemned man at all times so that he did not take his life and deprive the State of its pleasure—he let the irony hang. The condemned man was offered a last breakfast but usually refused it in order to spend more time with the priest and learn of his next existence—Pearse’s continuing to narrate. At a certain point, he said, some officials entered with two strangers, presumably witnesses. Here Pearse’s delivery reached its high point. He slid away an empty bookcase with a startling thud as he announced in a louder voice, “The two strangers were the hangman and his assistant, and the gallows, which the condemned soul thought were across the yard and that he still had the leisure of being marched there before his life was taken, were only six feet away!

We proceeded behind the moved bookcase to the gallows, their lay and procedure unchanged from Mediaeval times. Here Pearse lavished loving detail—the height of his ghoulish Halloween tone for the “weird” tour. We heard how, weak of limbs, the prisoner nearly fainted, having to be held up. He detoured back to stories about individual prisoners and their hangings. Without warning, he threw the lever. The platform itself didn’t open for safety reasons—it was covered with Plexiglas, but there was a realistic crash, as Pearse said, “His neck was snapped instantly.” Of course, except when something went wrong; then he was asphyxiated on the ground.

We proceeded into the prison yard where sky was turning as ominously cinematic as our setting—big rain was about to fall. We learned that a smaller section was the exercise yard per se; the larger space contained, among other terms and artifacts, unmarked burial grounds. Pearse then explained how the bodies of hanged men were buried anonymously on the grounds, a complicated narrative with many twists. For instance, if someone disclosed the location of a body, he risked jail himself, for part of the punishment (and horror) was to be rendered a non-person, in death as in life.

Complicated legal proceedings in the twentieth century not only raised the age for incarceration so that children could not be imprisoned, but reduced the unmarked-grave sentences posthumously. All the bodies were eligible to be emancipated by kin if they could find them, though only two had been to date.

The rain began in earnest, and we had to run for the tour’s starting point, not fast enough to avoid getting drenched yet again.

It had been sunny when we entered and, though we had brought umbrellas and raincoats, we had foolishly left the raincoats in the car, fooled again by Ireland’s weather.

A tiny museum, no more than an anteroom, exhibited various locks, switches (for whipping), weapons used by guards in different centuries, a book left by Loyalist stalwart Iain Paisley (he and Bobby Sands were imprisoned at Crumlin at different times, Sands before he was taken to the Maze), and most poignantly, a poem written by a prisoner who had received 36 lashes. His verse described his pain and pleading for mercy when there was none as if that of a third person the poet was observing, then the transformation wrought by the punishment, ostensibly making him a better man. It was a chilling artifact, not for its literary style but raw transmission through the very glass. Even though most of it rhymed, singsong did not diminish the abomination.

Elizabeth went to get the car in the rain, leaving us to wait her return, which took a chunk of time because she had to go around blocks in order to pull up in front and collect us. Once in the car, we discussed the cheerfulness of the Irish in the face of such changing, unpredictable weather. People walked through rain as though it wasn’t raining.

Back at Cedar Avenue, the paranormal came up, with Olive abjuring faeries and me trying to explain different dimensions and manifestations of entities at encrypted vibrations. She finally said, “You sound like that guy,” and by the time we and Elizabeth figured out who “that guy” was, it turned out to be Stephen Hawking. After the three of us protested that I had the exact opposite message and why and explained why, Olive said, “But you sound just like him. You’re over my head.”

Elizabeth took a different tack, offering, “But, mother, you believe in angels, and you even talk about feeling the presence of the dead.”

Olive conceded that spirits were okay within Catholic doctrine.

 

We went to dinner in South Belfast, new territory with a tinge of the feeling of the New York’s West Village or Berkeley. Elizabeth drove Lindy and me. Bridget came a bit later to fetch Olive. When I saw them arrive after us, I jumped to my feet and ran to get the door. The matriarch was entering. Though once the youngest of nine, she had ascended to the responsibility of the clan. Olive’s other daughter Kathleen showed up a tad later with her husband, Steve, an MD in family practice. We were a table of seven, eagerly seated by an unctuous but pleasant chubby, maître d’.

In a noisy group with multiple crisscrossing conversation, I sat next to the soft-spoken Steve and talked mainly to him. His two sons, now police officers, played ice hockey as kids—he produced pictures on his cell. He and his four partners in practiced served 10,000 patients—yes, that was the math. Still, he felt that after twenty years he knew a surprisingly high percentage of them well. We discussed homeopathy, osteopathy, acupuncture, the philosophical state of medicine, Obamacare, single payer, etc., in a detail not relevant here, and he provided a new perspective on Lindy’s restless-legs-syndrome, discussing her medications across the table with a clarity that led her to opine he was better than either of her physicians back in the States and we should import him “but, no,” she added, “why would you want to go to the States? You want to stay here in Ireland.” Steve also got involved in a brief friendly group debate about whether the name of the town was Derry or Londonderry. When pressed, he confessed that it was Londonderry to him despite having married into a Catholic family. He shook his head in playful chagrin, “That’s what it’s called. That’s what they named it.

With his cell, he posed a group photo outside, Lindy and Richard inside the McAlea family.

While walking to the car, I told Olive that I did this whole thing for myself as well as for Debby, “but I did it for her too. I had to do it.”

“I know that, darling,” she said, “and you did her proud.”

I still struggled to explain. “It is so meaningful to me for you to take us into your family like this. But Debby is my passage in. Now I want to be here on our own terms.”

“Don’t you think I knew that all along too,” she said. “You are! You are part of our family.”

“I’m going to call you twice a month from the States.”

“That will please me very much. And don’t you worry about your sister. She’s with back Bridget and taken care off.”

At Cedar Avenue she told us to be sure to get ourselves safely back to where we were staying and call her as soon as we got there.

 

It was a smooth drive back, though the roundabouts from Ballymena on threw a few curves at Lindy in the way of resistant gear shifts, rain, and fast-entering traffic on the right, leading her finally to say, “They don’t let up on those roundabouts. It’s like, you didn’t get that one right, so here’s another. It feels like an exam.”

It was an eighty-minute drive, as we were delivered out of the snail coils of Cedar Avenue, Antrim Road, and Shore Road onto M2 and then a succession of A roads with roundabouts.

I quietly played the alphabet game for the first time in years. I was so weary I just wanted to distract my mind. Difficult letters kept popping up too soon, as though the prompts were faster than me. “F” stalled out for a long time until I looked at signs on the other side of the road, pointing to where we were coming from. After many early “Q’s,” the needed “Q” after “MNOP” took a long time, especially on roads without many signs, but I finally found caught an “equipment” sign. I saw plenty of “X’s” on license plates before I needed need one, but didn’t find one after “RSTUVW” whipped by on a few road signs until a few blocks from our house at Flowerfield where a car finally delivered one, then came a road sign for somewhere like Kilkenny. No trouble with “Z”—every other Northern Irish license plate seemed to end in “Z.”

In the door, Lindy phoned Olive first off.

 

July 31, 2017

Seamus Heaney has presided contingently over our visit since we arrived in Northern Ireland eleven days ago. It’s not that he didn’t exist for us before that. Lindy and I both knew of him as a poet but didn’t have a clear sense of his work. In fact, I couldn’t remember a single poem that I read before July 20, though I know I checked out his work. I had a sense of him as a poet of the land, of customs and folklore—the old ways—also a fairly tight formal poet. He was in a philosophical camp with Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, though Snyder is a less formal, more open-field poet.

In the 1980s when North Atlantic Books was a small, back-burner press in our living room, Lindy and I published two books by Phillip Mahony, a New York City police officer, later to become a lieutenant and detective. Phil had been unable to get his writings out in book form and did not so much select NAB as find us by going through the alphabet, press by literary press, until he reached “N” and his manuscript showed up in our mailbox. We were blown away—the urban realism, compassion and perception show by an officer, real literary subtlety and song. Though there seemed little chance Phil would sell many books, we ended up publishing two collections by him in the next few: Catching Bodies and Supreme, the latter more truly a single long poem.

Before writing this entry, I checked Amazon for the pub dates of Catching Bodies and Supreme and was startled to see them set at eight years later than my memory. However, Amazon is wrong, as this article from the New York Times confirms: http://www.nytimes.com/1985/08/26/nyregion/as-a-police-officer-patrolling-brooklyn-s-streets-a-poet-finds-his-muse.html. Maybe Amazon approximates dates from before they were founded as a corporation, in the good old days of many bookstores per towns (as there still are in Ennis and Belfast) and unabashed literary publishing.

I believe that Phil was my introduction to Seamus Heaney. Though a New Yorker through and through, he, like so many NYC cops, has Irish roots and an Irish voice, both spoken and written. What I remember is a brief correspondence with Heaney, a strong supporter of Phil was appreciative that someone was finally recognizing him with a book.

Back then in the eighties, I learned that Heaney had passed through many of the same Berkeley poetry circles Lindy and I had before we arrived in town. He was on the UC/Berkeley English faculty in 1970-1971. We came soon after. We read from our work in Berkeley in 1972, visited for the summer of 1975, and returned for nine months in 1976 before moving there for thirty-seven years in June 1977. Heaney interacted with many writers we knew then and later, among them Snyder, Robert Duncan, and Bob Hass.

Heaney is as celebrated in Northern Ireland as Joyce and Yeats are in the Republic. He is also admired in the Republic because is a strongly local writer, with native Irish themes throughout his poems. In the North, he is a legend, though one of more recent vintage than Joyce or Yeats, still a living historical figure (he died only three years ago)—a colleague with Bono, Mary Robinson, and Bill Clinton. Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. I can’t say whether I knew that before July 20th. If asked, I would have guessed so, but I didn’t absolutely know.

Once we arrived at Roisin McCaughan’s house—within twenty minutes I’d estimate, as part of our opening acquaintance tour—we entered Seamus Heaney Land. As a former high-school English teacher and a woman of literary bent, Roisin turned out to be a huge Seamus Heaney fan, a real devotee. His books were not only on the shelves but out on the living-room table, plus she had a CD of him reading his work.

Roisin insisted that there was no way, as writers, we could stay on Flowerfield and not go to the museum, “It’s so close, hardly a drive at all.” Luckily, we arrived at the same conclusion (thanks to her library) in time to carry out the mission.

Lindy got into Heaney’s books right away, and I started about a week behind her. As of July 30th we had both read and listened to many of his poems and had each dipped into Stepping Stones, a collection of Heaney interviews functioning as an informal autobiography.

Three things stood out most to me from the interviews. One, his time in Berkeley closely mapped ours in wonderment, literary company, personal transformation by way of the counterculture, and hidden danger. He went through more culture shock coming from Ireland and encountering the hippie scene: sprouts and tahini and radical American politics, also arriving closer to the peak of Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love when the Vietnam War was still being waged. Unlike us, he stayed in a literary context and did not dive into psychospiritual Buddhist/gestalt-therapy Berkeley with its gurus and practices.

He encountered a more significant serious shadow than we did. His wife Marie was mugged, knocked unconscious, and almost kidnapped into a van off Telegraph Avenue—she barely escaped. We only lived with the knowledge that the Bay Area surface was deceptively calm and bucolic, while its underbelly held plenty of incipient violence, as typified by the “Patty Hearst kidnapping,” “Fruitvale Station,” and the fact the three friends of mine, unconnected to one another, experienced the tragedy of their young sons being shot and killed at random, targets of possible gang initiations.

The second thing in the interviews was Heaney’s candid evaluation of my own literary tradition. He felt an affinity to Snyder as a fellow poet of Gaia and of global conscience, though a foreign-ness in his geography and more Whitmanesque poetic line. He tried to understand Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, committing himself to immersion in their poems, essays, and ideas and, in Duncan’s case, the live person, but he came away feeling that they were inflated and overly conceptual. He called it poetics in lieu of poetry. He did not share their cosmological vision or interest in big ideas.

Olson and Duncan were much closer to me and more of an influence on my work than Gary Snyder, but all three of them served for me as not only poets but philosophers, historians, biologists, physicists, and shaman-priests. They assuaged my hunger for ideas and occult initiation while satisfying my literary sensibility. They were like Yeats and Melville than Heaney. In that sense, Heaney and I absolutely diverge. He is closer to Robert Hass, whom I knew best as our son Robin’s Little League coach on a Berkeley team that didn’t win a single game.

The third thing in the interviews was Heaney’s struggle to make a place as a Gaelic Republican poet in an academic world dominated by Irish-English poets. None of them were explicitly Royalist, but they took their intellectual cues solely from their British literary identity and by affiliation with themes from English rather than Irish tradition. They had virtually no Gaelic in their roots or lines.

 

In the morning, we visited Peter Osborne for some fresh-caught cod—apologies to my vegan and vegetarian friends. You can’t visit the butcher on the Portstewart Promenade without an investment of at least five minutes of conversation, closer to ten. Peter’s partner and the boy, if there, convene as well. Today Peter is interested in the fact that he and Lindy both drove back from Belfast yesterday in the evening. He came earlier with his young adult daughter, and they encountered such torrential rain that he could barely see the road. “But everyone kept driving as though nothing was happening,” he declared, “though she doesn’t take to that well and her knuckles were white as a ghost on the dashboard.”

Lindy and I had no rain on the day to report but discussed roundabouts and our continuing difficulty with them. I wondered whether back in the States I’d be hesitant about which side of the road I belonged on. Peter thought it would come back as quickly as he snapped his fingers to demonstrate. Then he said that you had to give a lot of room to those Republic license plates (I assumed the white ones, like on our rental Ford) when in a circle “because they drive like Ben Hur. They must have different rules down there.”

The Northern Ireland plates are yellow. I’d say that you see about one white per four yellow in the North, a sizable percentage. (After writing this, I learned that the North also has white plates, its newer ones, and Peter read “Republic” not from the white but its numeric coding of years of issue and county.)

 

We left for Bellaghy, the site of the Seamus Heaney Museum and art center, callled The Home Place, at around 12:45. The sat-nav pegged the drive at fifty-three minutes, though Irish country drives are longer than their predicted times. From Coleraine, we headed south, away from the coast into the countryside, on a coordinate about midway between Derry and Belfast. Deep farmland became more rural with every sat-nav turn onto a lesser road. We encountered more farm equipment in our line, requiring passing, and more trucks and other vehicles hurtling at high speeds from the other direction. And these were narrow two-lane roads.

As we got close, official road signs proclaimed “Seamus Heaney Birthplace” at the degree of stature of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Emily Dickinson in the States. In the last few kilometers, signs became frequent and included a detour to Heaney’s gravesite. We didn’t go to that; 34e kept toward the museum. Then we found it unexpectedly difficult to identify where the sat-nav stopped us. In fact, we continued past it, as the road turned rural again into farm country.

It had to be—and was—the modern building on the corner, but we didn’t confirm that until we parked farther from it than we would have and walked to the front.

Opened only in October, The Home Place is a remarkable museum conceived at the pinnacle of modern technology. It is not anything like the Emily Dickinson museum, more like the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.

You might wonder how much of a museum people can make out of one poet’s life and work, but The Home Place proved that a single writer can be turned into multiple exhibits with the capacity to absorb and enchant.

 

Each visitor was presented with a small (or “wee”) phone-like device like a portable land line on which three sequential buttons could be pressed (122 or 203) to hear Heaney read any poem of his in a display, as identified by that number. Exhibits included a photographic tour of Heaney’s life, from childhood to just before death, always accompanying poems. This retrospective offered descriptions, poetry, and tales about his ancestors, parents, uncles, aunts, brothers, wife, wife’s family, children, grandchildren, and dog. The exhibit took a huge swath around the walls of several open rooms in accomplishing a full orbit.

In the center room was an architect’s display and site map of the local village, which was Heaney’s home town, and assorted artifacts. Along one wall was a digital display with three identical panels and sets of earphones joined to a touch-screen on which one finger on a picture of an individual would bring up that person in the large, then (at your choice) him or her talking about Heaney or, in some cases, reading one of his poems. You had to touch the picture to know who the figure was; the roster included younger poets, older poets, relatives, neighbors, teachers of literature, students of literature, artists, and musicians (like Bono of U2).

Other sections of the downstairs exhibits, though to a greater degree upstairs, offered lessons in poetic devices (meter, end rhyme, internal rhyme, onomatopoeia, etc.) with examples from Heaney poems; playful conceptual art of key Heaney words, which hung on cards by long strings from the ceiling; interactive exhibits to make Heaney memes on your own; a children’s room for introduction to poetic imagery; and a board for visitor post-it comments. The upstairs also had two libraries displaying volumes from Heaney’s own collection, one containing his rarer books and locked behind glass; a café; auditoriums and classrooms for events; and a continuously running half-hour video of events around Heaney’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the plot line centered around the fact that Heaney and his wife were travelling in Greece at the time, didn’t know of the award, and his family members were unable to contact. When he finally called in, his son Christopher told him the news and he initially thought it was a joke.

The Home Place’s wandering docent was a friendly local man, of devotion to Heaney but also beginner’s-mind curiosity about literature. He was simple in his manner and approach, with a difficult-to-understand accent, a large being, physically in the sense of a farmer seeming constrained and out-of-place in the indoor setting and casual attire suitable for his job. He and I spent about fifteen minutes together after he approached me, asking if I was “a big fan of Heaney’s.” He reached out in similarly to most of the visitors.

Not really a big fan—I explained my position. He and I spent ensuing time in both libraries to see if either of Phil Mahony’s books was there. They didn’t seem to be, though it was hard to get a clear view of the higher-up shelves behind the glass. The docent explained why: some books in there were worth 40,000 pounds. Mostly he and I had a rambling discussion in which I tried to nuance for him, in response to his posing of a series of questions and curiosities, issues around being a serious writer, gauntlets of book publishing, and the genre of Heaney’s work vis a vis other poets, inclusive my own aesthetic. I tried to reduce elusive concepts to easier-to-understand homilies.

After he moved on to talking to Lindy, I continued walking around, looking and listening. I gradually realized that I was participating on three levels: as a student of literature taking in a careful, consummate writer, both appreciatively and critically; as a tourist in Ireland trying to partake of Irish culture and art; and as a writer myself, vicariously participating in and mentally and emotionally matching and reflecting Heaney’s life course. He and I shared literary worlds, spouses, children, interests, politics, arriving as a neophyte in seventies Berkeley, and an approximate timeline (he was four years older). But he had a sure and vast readership, a museum to organize and commemorate his work, and I had an uncertain, very small readership, a melee of writings difficult to sort, and no terms for a museum except insofar imagining how my own biography and career might be similarly curated. (Lindy later remarked that she didn’t parallel me in this piece but would have if the poet in the museum had been a woman.) I will now go through each of the three in more detail.

First, I like Heaney’s poems. I like appreciate their tightness, fresh language, common and uncommon images honed together; their Gaelicness, earthiness, farm and wild animals, and farm tools; their inherent politics, ecology, and statements of conscience—in general, their translation of ordinary things of the land—of field and stream, forest and farm—into musical and rhythmic semes. As one of the touch-panel artists remarked, There is a mystery to Heaney’s work that is never quite solved by the poem itself, so that the books’ mistaken placement among detective stories by one Donegal bookseller in early Heaney days was not altogether wrong. Heaney gives as much as he can or will but also withholds something, a thing that must be withheld to form a poem of his style. He never breaks out, breaks rank with his farm-laboring and earth-affiliated heritage, never slips off to peak into eternity the way Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley routinely do, and from poems with similar starts. Heaney’s yellow bitterns and otters never become Keats’ nightingale whose “voice…was heard / In ancient days by emperor and clown.”

His poems are generally much shorter and turn on terse, sequential idioms and pirouettes. It is not as though Heaney doesn’t address spirit, mortality, and cosmos. He certainly does, in his homage to a roadkill bittern (a loose translation from old Gaelic), his elegy to his mother, the “sight” of a blind neighbor woman, and his bittersweet hymn to a kite (which Bono cites as prophecy and reads aloud).

My favorite poems in the exhibits involve football, which struck a direct, very palpable parallel to my own childhood baseball experiences. Each nostalgia and nuance Heaney captures in his stanza about playing ball in a country field resonates with something for me from games baseball in Central Park in New York City and on Camp Chipinaw fields in rural New York State. I have played past exhaustion into the same imponderable, inextricable darkness. Heaney writes:

We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts,
That was all. The corners and the squares
Were there like longitude and latitude
Under the bumpy thistly ground, to be
Agreed about or disagreed about
When the time came. And then we picked the teams
And crossed the line our called names drew between us.

Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world . . .
It was quick and constant, a game that never need
Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.

There is a lot too that I seek and miss in Heaney’s work, precisely the sorts of things he dismisses in Duncan and Olson. But poetry isn’t and shouldn’t be a rivalry. It is each minstrel singing his or her own songs, the songs they are bidden by muses, angels, and fellow mortals.

Yet I can’t help but wonder about the Nobel Prize. I may be missing something and am boorishly obtuse to subtleties in Heaney’s work, but his oeuvre seems no more notable or prize-worthy than that of Mary Oliver, and less so than that of Duncan, Olson, Snyder, or Robert Creeley, who had much bigger oeuvres, even than the collected poetics of Denise Levertov. However, prizes are relative, for who can really give a prize to literature? What can that even mean? Literature is not a competition or football to be settled by free kicks if it the game ends in a draw; it is a choir of different voices, and all are needed to create civilization and meaning.

I rationalize that the Nobel Prize is more an award to cultures, nations, and political entities—a statement of encouragement issued on a global scale. I consider Heaney’s prize an award to Ireland, and I see no injustice or deception in that. Yet the same body of work would not seem, to me, to merit a global prize if it were by an Irish American poet born in Boston. Of course, the poems Heaney wrote came out of the Ireland he embodied, and the two are inseparable. So, it seems fine to give the award to Ireland and to secondarily acknowledge the importance of land, ecology, the old ways, as well as the wish for peace and shared conscience among the Republicans and Unionists—in fact, between all warring factions on Earth. Heaney’s poetry and aesthetics typify that goal and, along with it, they elucidate and enlighten. In that sense, they well merit the award.

The second piece: I walked the exhibit as the next phase of my immersion in Ireland. Heaney’s poems and story were totally fulfilling in giving voice, melody, and literary depth to a portion of what I have seen and felt in the last month. It wasn’t Heaney as pure bard or reflecting literary values but Heaney as ethnographer, farmer, voice of the ancestors and minstrel of the people. Heaney’s poems provide profound, meticulous glimpses into some of the mysteries of the Ireland I had been exploring.

The third piece is most difficult, and a bit of a wrangle. It goes something like this: I am also a poet—a literary writer—of scope, ambition, and attention to music and sacred voices. I have been at it since I was sixteen. I write my poetry in prose, probably 40,000 pages of it by now (this is the first time I ever tried to gauge), and though it is not poetry, I answer and respond to the same muses, strictures, and devices—meter, internal rhyme, metaphor, semantic nuance. I am playing on Heaney’s field, and he on mine, though he is older, so takes precedent. He also has the virtue of the truer nation, class, and roots (by present judgment anyway). I am a rootless New Yorker from a damaged family and a corrupt imperial nation. We both, though, had to go against call and expectation by accepting the call of angels and muses.

We both have spouses who also write literature, poetry included.

We both have talented children, Heaney two sons and then a daughter, me a son (who is a landscape-resilience-oriented ecologist and historical geographer) and a daughter (who has become a writer, director, performance artist, conceptual designer, and app developer, and who recently won a prestigious Irish literary prize, the Frank Conroy award for short stories).

What I miss, and yearn for, as I walk The Home Place, is a home place: a natal family of honor and support that makes sense to its own children and doesn’t break them; roots in the land (rather than the streets of New York); the courage that goes with nature; a community of writers, intellectuals, and global citizens of conscience in which I can participate; a readership sufficient to support my work (economically as well as aesthetically); students to whom to pass on the constellation that I have garnered and been entrusted with—a time and a place, here and now. I covet Heaney’s rightness as a man, a colleague, and a poet within a sane and measured equation.

Instead, I feel isolated and alone, unread at the level of what I have been gandering and producing, those stellar objects and embryos and calling gulls and lucid dreams and jellyfish and remote thoughtforms. I am not all that different from the man on the tour bus, inarticulate despite long articulation, chanting unintelligibly from the demons of the dark as well as the seizure of a bottomless fall into nausea. I am just as alone and nauseous in the world at large as I was on the bus, just as unable to make the right choice; to wake up, to go beyond a meager, pathetic plaint and congregation; to be heard, to get myself out of the shit.

My lot is to struggle, to open dialogue, parley, and make truce with spirits that killed my mother, brother, and sister; even more terrible, that led them to kill themselves. I harbor the same spirits, and I have lived my life with the belief that they are good and want to help us but bring a gift too heavy to tote onto the present Earth. I have spent my time trying to help them move the stone, attempting establish honest dialogue with them, trying to open channels, to parley and reconcile, to let them speak through me.

Yet I exist mostly in quarantine, in a state of incomplete training and art as dangerous as the prodromes that undid my mother and siblings. I petition triage and communion from compatible, like-minded souls on the planet. I want community, solidarity, symposium. I want exposure, to be exposed somewhere more suitable to my chant than a tour bus. I feel so afraid, for myself, for us all, so  afraid and hopeful, and I want to talk about it, to friends, before audiences, in forums of precisely this grade of knowledge and prescience.

I want someone to talk to, folks who get it and know some of what I know, and more—more. Not just intellectuals or writers, kindred souls. comrades, sidekicks, allies, healers.

I respond to the murals of West Belfast, to Seamus Heaney’s turnips and otters, to the crows at twilight, to the McCanns of Cavehill and St. Patrick’s, and to Michael O’Connor, Galway busker, with such empathy that this moment brings tears to my eyes, as I type.

I don’t need Bono or Bob Dylan to recognize my work. I just need someone with a decent song of their own and a bent for harmonizing. I don’t need a museum, but I need something, an anchor in the void to which to attach my words and calls.

At the touch screen, an aged Helen Vendler appears in the large, more like a great-aunt now than the woman I knew once as Lindy’s English teacher at Smith for whom she baby-sat, and one of her first poetic influences who taught her how to read the many levels of a poem, who led her on with sweet talk and then, once teacher evaluations could be unsealed, turned out to have called her “an untalented girl who deludes herself that she is a poet,” a reference that went to all the graduate schools to which she applied. No wonder she ended up at Eastern Michigan rather than U. of M. (I remember this harsher language. Lindy recalls her saying something more like, “She thinks she is a poet but isn’t.”)

Lindy is a poet and is far from untalented. She may not be widely published, and much of her work still in notebooks, dozens of them, but that is because she is deeply grounded in her human aspect, a special person who as our daughter once said, doesn’t need to explain or expound nearly as much as does, just needs to “be” because she is so amazing at that. In giving to others, in nurturing and appreciating them with her heart, including two children she raised into creative adults, she has created a work beyond Ms. Vendler’s imagination.

I am the “untalented boy,” though I never looked at my references and doubt that I provoked the kind of vitriol Ms. Vendler provided for Lindy. I could have from Leo Marx, my Amherst freshman English teacher who thought enough of me to get me Saul Bellow and Flannery O’Connor’s editor at Viking Press, and then decided I was a fraud and a bum because I preferred Charles Olson and Robert Kelly. But I knew by then better than to ask him to weigh in. On the touch screen, Helen Vendler praises Seamus Heaney, syllable by weighted syllable, to the skies, as if he literally spins gold out of straw, and then she sounds his elegy to his mother as though Jerry Falwell reading from the Gospel to a full church.

That is what I mean about rivalry, the desire for peace, the longing for a new hope—for my own troubled heart and soul, for the Earth’s. I left The Home Place, wanting that, but glad that Seamus Heaney inspired and earned a museum for us, poets all.

 

On the drive back to Portstewart, I encountered much of what Peter Osborne did the day before, and at roughly the same hour: torrential blinding rain. It was, as per usual, punctuated by rain-banishing spells of bright sunshine. We passed through two major storms between Bellaghy and Coleraine. Even when the sun was shining, the road was so puddle-ful that cars on both sides risked deviating or hydroplaning.

Coleraine at 16:30 rush hour demonstrated why roundabouts don’t always work. A near-broken flow of traffic from the right made a backup for a kilometer, as it received, at best, a car or two a minute.

 

August 1-2, 2017

On our last full day in Northern Ireland, Roisin’s friend Mary offered to drive us to Coleraine, take us on a hike in an ancient forest outside town. Mountsandel Forest and Fort straddle a hillside leading down to the east bank of the River Bann. The trailhead was in a residential neighborhood about a mile outside of town. The fort is a remnant from the Middle Ages, refortified and re-used by the Normans, now a caved-in artificial hill of some size. We climbed and trooped along it like a wall.

The outing was mainly a walk in old woods in the inviting darkness of very tall trees. The Bann was of some size and force here, rushing past its dam, on a route from County Derry to discharge at Portstewart. We never found the Mesolithic site, almost completely vanished remains of a village from nine thousand years ago.

As a professional tour guide, Mary was a fount of miscellaneous information. The most notable thing she told us was that the McCann men, as Catholics with origins in the south, would have been at the back of the line for day labor, maybe not overt prejudice but a distinct pecking order. That gave fresh clarity to the privations that Bridey and Olive and their sisters underwent and why they left school and went right to work. Everyone had to contribute for the family to pay rent and have food. She sent a portion of her paycheck home. It took me more than sixty years to not only understand but internalize what was happening and why she was with us. You had to see her people on the other side.

On a more trivial note, Mary told us that her reason hydrangeas and other flowers are such a rich blue: the plentiful iron in the soil. Not sure if that’s a myth, a co-factor, or the explanation.

She and Seamus invited Lindy and me for dinner in Portstewart. She made an Irish stew, and we had a few hours of the kind of free-associative conversation people our age and generation enact, from the doings of our children to politics, travel, movie, music, past careers. I learned that there are no real old edifices like churches in Ireland as in Italy or Spain. They all date from the sixteenth century or later. This was a remote province, beyond Britannia, in the time of Rome. But the Irish knew North America; they faced outward from the Middle Ages, and still do.

 

August 2nd meant getting up and driving south. Dublin is about three and a half hours from Portstewart with a national border in between. We had made a reservation at the Dublin Airport Maldron Hotel, first time opting for an airport hotel, but the other options were problematic: getting up at five in the morning and driving straight to the airport, hoping for no traffic problem, or staying at a hotel farther from the airport that wasn’t a whole lot cheaper.

I came up with an interesting interlude: stopping in Belfast to eat lunch and use up our pounds sterling and pence before crossing into euro territory. Ordinarily driving through downtown Belfast would have been a deterrent, but by now we felt like pros, and these days, you can use the sat-nav/GPS to hit any address. I suspected that the restaurant, one of only two vegan places listed online for Belfast, was the one on Lisburn Road across the street from where we had dinner with the McAleas on Sunday, and that turned out to be true.

Lindy drove and it went smoothly through rain showers, until we hit Belfast. We had become fond of the city in little more than a week, but that didn’t help with driving once we were in its fast-moving, lane-changing traffic and roundabouts. The speed at which Lindy had become accustomed to operating was no longer acceptable. She didn’t leave her lane or make an incorrect turn. She just took time to think, and that drew repeated horns.

We missed one sat-nav exit on a roundabout and had to regain our route via its recalculation. That took us through a poor neighborhood filled with Union Jacks and Ulster flags. A billboard showed two hooded men with rifles shooting, but we went by too fast for me to see if the intent was to vilify Republican terrorists or valorize Royalist ones.

We found a space that someone was pulling out of a block past the restaurant, though it was on the side of the street with reverse-moving traffic. No problem: in Ireland and Northern Ireland, parked cars face both ways.

The Honest Vegan was a great adventure with a pleasant atmosphere, and they gave us free chocolate-cake samples before lunch, but the food was terrible; neither of us finished our dish. My Buddha Bowl, so named, was cold—not raw: the stale cold of cooking. Pretty much everything except the lettuce in the dish was broiled. I hate cold cooked sweet potato, which made up most of the poorly named dish. Lindy had some sort of all-day breakfast special which looked like chili leftovers.

I drove the two-plus hours from Belfast to Dublin Airport. It was mostly superhighway, M1, and went quickly. The passage from Ulster to Ireland was marked by a Union Jack followed, a few yards later, by the Irish flag.  At the toll near Dublin I got in the wrong lane for credit cards (we had no euros) and caused a major backup, as my card had to be phoned in. Strange way to handle it.

It turned sunny and much warmer as we approached Dublin.

The Maldron is the hotel of future: elevators too tiny to fit two people with two suitcases, compact rooms, the smell of money and the transnational corporate trough: a mixture of medley, antiseptics, industrial freshening lotions, and product neologisms. The minute elevator wasn’t dingy; it was a robot and talked to us.

We are still in Ireland, but not really.

I left Lindy in the room to fill the rental car with gas as per the agreement and return it. That turned into a labyrinth because the entrance to Topaz, the only nearby gas station, was just beyond access from the Maldron, which meant a complete circuit of the airport and its terminals back almost to where I started. Then most of the pumps were out of order, and there were a lot of people filling rental cars—major lines. I had the misfortune of picking one at the head of which a guy who had already filled his car refused to move into a parking spot while his wife was in the bathroom, so he held up the entire line for nearly ten minutes as he awaited her return. With the young African woman in line ahead of me I discussed whether to ask him to move. She didn’t want to do it but, with a sly grin, hoped I would. I did. That’s how I know he refused. As I said, we were no longer in Ireland.

In our time, we drove 1680 kilometers and had the sat-nav on for 37 hours of it, as I never re-set its clock. I was the only person returning a car to the Hertz lot who took the bus to the Maldron. Everyone else departed at Terminals 1 or 2. I had to step out of the bus to let them off, so I saw the parade—families, children, business men, people barely able to manage their suitcases, young people on cell phones in big hurries, a family who created walking gridlock: parents, two kids, and a person-size stuffed animal.

 

At the last minute back in Maine, I resisted coming. I didn’t want a break in my routines. I didn’t want the hassle. I wondered why we thought it was worthwhile or important to do this trip. The first day in suburban Dublin left both of us feeling as though we had deluded ourselves into an unnecessary odyssey, and there was still a month to go.

Now I don’t want to return. I like the far shore. I cherish the break in habits. I adore the spirit and vibe and landscapes of Ireland and don’t want to have to be back in the U.S. again so soon. If there were flexibility, I’d stay another month or two, a year, especially now that I have the map and a bit of the territory.

But plans made months ago face us, even as Ireland once did, and we couldn’t decide just to stay longer without logistical crises and a lot of expense. That sort of improvisational freedom I didn’t choose when I was young enough to do so.

We live many lives in one and are citizens of many places. New York City while I was growing up there was a lifetime. Each summer at Camp Chipinaw in Swan Lake was a lifetime. Amherst was my home for the four years I went to college. I still consider Ann Arbor home because the first three years that Lindy and I were married were lived there, and they are eternal. Our five years in Plainfield, Vermont, where we started North Atlantic Books and Miranda was born, always seemed an alternative life we continue to live even after we left it in 1977. And now I feel as if a part of me is a resident of Ireland and will continue to dwell there regardless. It is no flub that Lindy lapses into calling the McAlea/McCanns as “your family,” as in “Get their full addresses and phone numbers. I want to stay in touch with your family.”

 

August 3, 2017

When I really dig down, as the day imposes itself, I realize that fear of flying is a cover for many other things. I am no more afraid of the plane than anyone else is. A healthy respect for the situation—a metal tube shot to 39,000 feet at 600 miles per hour—is normal. But it brings up corollary anxieties: being trapped, loss of control, mortality, conscription into modernity. As I said on July 2, difficulty is opportunity. I pull up a persona I have been avoiding. Although I am not entirely comfortable with it, it is right for the day and occasion. I am confident, thinking ahead, prepared for any exigencies. And I feel like an imposter, not to anyone but myself. It doesn’t matter, it’s better than the alternatives. And it’s the role Lindy wants me in. She certainly doesn’t want me talking about how any day you don’t have to fly is a good day.

Much stamina and patience is required. We waited for the Maldron shuttle with a bunch of other participants-to-be in tubes flying through the atmosphere, most of them German families headed to the Continent, a bustle of children delaying the by bus ten minutes. We still got to Terminal 2 and Aer Lingus two hours ahead of our Dublin-to-Boston flight, and it almost wasn’t enough.

First there were the out-of-order boarding-pass machines, throwing most passengers into the lines queueing in slow coils.

Then there was an elevator to airport security on the third floor here, and a repeat of the winding queues, carry-on, shoes, and belt through the machines, then self. I made the day a bit more complicated by wearing my boots rather than trying to fit them back in my suitcases, explaining, to those who asked, that they were for trooping through bogs, which we did some of, notably in Glenariff. They didn’t use the DNA-unravelling machine, so I went through it silently.

Then came United States preclearance, an incredibly complicated procedure that I can’t recount in full. It began on the third floor where, after a long walk that separated those us with U.S. passports incrementally from others, mainly those going to the U.S. but not citizens, we had to scan our passports in a machine, answer questions on a screen, then photograph ourselves looking at the screen with the passport on the scanner (for matching purposes), and carry both to the next phases. Then an elevator took us back to the ground floor where the entire security procedure was repeated with lines and machines for x-raying our carry-on. The difference was that only selected people, those of whom they were suspicious and others random selected, had to go through the DNA-unravelling machine. (I call it that because that’s the online rumor, but a few years ago at the Denver Airport a woman who also opted for manual pat-down told me she was from the company that manufactured them and would never go through one herself. She wore a business suit and was convincing.)

The labyrinth continued with winding around the ground floor to U.S. customs where we were queried about what we were bringing back. The only item either of us had bought was a woolen cap (by me) on Shop Street in Galway. I got a last chance to deposit my VAT refund for it in the mailbox past the querier. The severity of tone was interesting. I moved forward when the last person was done at one of the three stations—our flight was already boarding and I was getting nervous—but I was sternly ordered back, “You come only when called.” Then an extra minute passed, it seemed punitive. The brogues of the Irish security people were, by comparison, gentle. They were capable of joking and saying things like, “How’s your day?” despite a non-stop queue.

The overall landscape of snaking lines and checkpoints is a reminder that we are at war, and it is a World War. That it is asymmetrical in pretty much every parameter makes it no less of a war.

On the one hand, all the security is reassuring. Whatever one’s ideological persuasion, few elect to be blown up in a plane to make a political point. As the years have passed, I have found it more and more disturbing that Lindy and I flew from Boston to Oakland three days before 9-11. At the time, I didn’t regard it as a near intersection with legend. But time has compressed the angle of our margin of error to almost nil. 9-11 is a black hole in history itself, and its gravity increases with each anniversary.

There have been no encores, and the few attempts at suicidally crashing planes, like that of shoe bomber Richard Reid, have led officials to eliminate the loopholes exploited. But I feel that the various clearances are obtuse and that jihadists, who are anything but obtuse, are probing them all the time, trying to find the soft spots and gaps. I believe that they know where the system is lax and where their best chances lie, but I also think that the security officials are playing the same game, so it is only a matter of whether the so-called “bad guys” use their knowledge to strike before the holes are discovered and sealed.

This cat-and-mouse is what is really going on while we dutifully slither around posts and comply with procedures meant to separate “us” from “them” by treating us as if we were them. In a sense, we have to play being hypothetical terrorists and imagine what would be in our baggage if we were probing for vulnerabilities and, at the same time, watch how perspicacious they are about what is in our baggage that might be dangerous. It is in some ways a futile ritual meant to mask the actual vulnerability and create a simulation of discernment and protection so that business can go on. It is a cover story for the fact that asymmetrical warfare is civilian warfare.

 

 

As it turned out, the flight itself was held for an hour for people trapped in the lines or making connections from other planes. They straggled in during the hour. Lindy and I got to see them all first-hand, as we once again had the seats right by the big exit/entrance door. The pilot made all that up because, as he said, it was a good flying day, very little headwind.

It was a good day. I had the window seat this time and got to see the rise out of Dublin and the immediate rural divided fields below, the many shades of green. Then cloud cover took away the view.

It is always interesting, if edgy, how one rises into clouds, then travels inside them while continuing to rise and bump a bit, then sees them from above. Out of Dublin the cloud cover was broken, then unbroken, so I decided to work on Bottoming Out the Universe: Karma, Reincarnation, and Personal Identity. That held my interest enough that, by the time I looked at the map on the big screen in front of me, we were already about an eighth of the way into the Atlantic crossing. Since there was little turbulence, only occasional mild rattling, I was able to concentrate on writing for much of the crossing, taking breaks to ponder things and look down. There wasn’t much to see, mostly cloud cover, and it was very bright and since many people were watching a movie, I didn’t leave blind open.

 

The transition from imagination of a place to the experience of it is a gradual saturation. Every city or town was different from what I imagined when putting it on our itinerary and setting up a home exchange or making a reservation at a bed & breakfast or hotel. That was partly because my imagination was generally a very tiny cameo or vignette of a much greater reality.

Dublin was more spacious and ceremonial in its center and less conventionally urban than I imagined, more like Amsterdam than a James Joyce or Roddy Doyle landscape. Susan’s house was farther from city center and in a more modern suburbs than I pictured. Galway was not a city like Portland, Maine, but an extended village around a Prague- or Oaxaca-like square. Ennis was not a hotel in a village but an ancient maze. Dingle was not a Maine fishing village or Tolkein shire but an idiosyncratic crossroads more resembling a moist Tattoine. Athenry, booked later, wasn’t a suburban hotel but a Mediaeval village with its own anthem (“The Fields of…”). Westport and Connemara was more like Maine than I had foreseen—tourist beach town and forest. Donegal was less the rural village of the song and more a frontier burg in a Wyoming that never existed. Portstewart wasn’t the tiny, obscure hamlet of my initial presumptions but a large, wealthy resort area. Giant’s Causeway wasn’t a remote, untenanted geological feature but a whole stretch of coastline swarming with tourists and tourist buses. Belfast wasn’t the dense, dirty war-zone of old newsreels and childhood images. It was far less metropolitan and full of fresh energy and breath. These are all approximations of places going from two to three and four dimensions.

As we got two-thirds of the way across, the cloud cover partially broke and I saw waves, mere texture from that high, but they had a peaceful look. Not that that means anything practically, but visualization is its own therapy.

We had one extended stretch of mild turbulence approaching Labrador—complete cloud cover almost up to the plane. I didn’t like it, but it never approached medium turbulence. The seat-belt light never went on.

The sky partially cleared over Labrador. I observed the many lakes and coastline, a Holocene geography with minimal habitation. Then we were over water again, the St. Lawrence seaway. My literary executor Mary Stark lives in Montreal and did anthropology fieldwork in the Maritimes, so I wondered that night if she saw our plane from afar.

“Oh, so that was you! I saw a plane with a word trail behind it and wondered.”

The St. Lawrence took a while, the better part of an hour, but after it New Brunswick and Maine went quickly. We flew over Mount Desert Island on a trajectory visible from our Southwest Harbor house, but there was complete cloud cover. After that, the entry to Boston was a swath over the ocean. When you come from the West Coast to Boston, as we usually do, you have to swing out over the ocean. In this case, we merely had to accentuate where we already were.

 

Getting from Boston to Portland and then to our house wrought its own narrative and challenges. First of all, we scheduled ourselves on the Concord Coachways bus, this time from Logan to Portland. But the boarding pass wouldn’t print in Ireland. Even with the help of an IT-savvy clerk at the Maldron, we couldn’t get anything except error message 404. Yet a boarding pass was required, in. I called Concord Bus Lines and the procedure was explained. Your give them your purchase-order number, and they take your driver’s license; then you get the boarding pass printed when you arrive in Portland.
The 2:30 bus didn’t appear until 2:45. By then we had seen probably sixty other buses, most of them airport buses but also transports to various points around New England, each shouted out in a Boston accent: Hyannis Port, Portsmouth, Newburyport, New Bedford by way of Taunton, Northampton, Manchester. The C & J bus that we once took to our friend’s house in Newburyport stopped and left, as did the Peter Pan bus, which Lindy used to take at Smith College. The parade had the flavor of what we had done by moving from Berkeley to Maine. This Boston hub had been in our cores as deep as Berkeley, in some ways deeper, so I enjoyed the music of names.

 

The Concord bus driver, Larry, was a comedian from the get-go. He was a bit more than a comedian—he was a passive-aggressive middle-aged guy bored with his job. He arrived with a bellow and proceeded to orchestrate the loading of suitcases like a Tennessee Ernie Ford song. I thought he needed my ticket reference number, so I paid no attention to getting on the bus, focusing on loading our suitcases in the underbelly and showing him the number. He said, “Get on. I’ll deal with ticketing matters all at one time.” We got on, and there were no seats. In Ireland ten people would have gotten up to offer Lindy a seat, as we were the oldest people on board. No one moved—no young people, no children, no brawny males.

The driver got on, surveyed the situation, shook his head, then cleared his own stuff of two seats in the first row. “Right here, folks. Come right up front.” It turned out that there was one available seat in the second row, the window next to a guy. So, Larry stepped outside and pretended to auction it off, “Going once…going twice….” He emphasized that it was only for one person.

As we began moving, he announced, “This bus is going to Portland, Maine. If you’re not going to Portland, Maine, you better get off right now.

Once he had collected drivers’ licenses and passports and was in traffic leaving Boston, he made the speech again, “If you’re not going to Portland, Maine—well, you’re in for a long day.”

Another line of his, toward the end, was, “If you find later that you left anything on the bus, go to this website: ebay.com.”

It took a long time to get out of Boston, stop-and-go through rotataries (American roundabouts), and turning counterclockwise, which was a momentary brain lock. I experienced the same confusion when I got home and needed to go out for groceries. I stopped at the first street and couldn’t figure out which lane to enter until I saw the movement of traffic. It wasn’t so much that I forgot, but I had grown cautious at intersections not to make a wrong move. I was like a centipede who tried to figure out how he walked and forgot.

Up front we watched Larry in action first-hand. He was a performer, expressing exasperation at people cutting in front of him by throwing up his arms. At other traffic events, he sighed, shook his head, laughed sarcastically.

Once we got onto I95, it went pretty fast, through northern Massachusetts, across New Hampshire, and into Maine. Larry had a gesture that it took us well over an hour to figure out. At odd moments, he raised his right hand and made a sweeping gesture with it, as if wiping off the entire inside front window. He did it maybe thirty times. I thought: an arm ache, rotator-cuff pain, Tourette’s? I didn’t get it until we were in Maine and the road was clearer. He was waving grandiosely to every bus driver coming in the opposite direction, Concord or other.

Larry also did a hair-raising thing. He drove right up behind slow-moving cars, as if to bump them off the road, then hit the air brakes at the last moment. It was a kind of brinkmanship only a bored bus driver would engage in.

He made an impulsive decision to get out of heavy traffic in Portland by taking a back route to the station. As soon as we got going and far enough for him to see a wide panorama, we were in another jam, and he got on the loudspeaker and said, “Would you believe it? The traffic on the bridge is flowing freely now. If we had stayed there, it would still be stopped.” He critiqued his bad choice many times, as passengers reassured him that he had been a great driver. Then he told the ebay joke and added, “If you liked the ride, remember when you fill out the form from my employer, my name is Larry. If you didn’t like it, it’s John.”

Our taxi driver was a 68-year-old Sudanese man with five sons and a daughter. He had been in Portland for nineteen years. For much of that time he either farmed vegetables or worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq. He spoke six languages, was shot at by, knew David Petraeus personally, and had a lot to say about Donald Trump, “The worst president ever, the absolute worst. This country is going downhill, just like Sudan.”

Now we are out of Ireland, so the journey (and journal) ends.

 

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