This is the past few weeks' entries --
(This is a trip that Rick Wilber does annually, to Scotland or Ireland, offering a college-credit writing workshop combined with a literary tour. It's co- sponsored, this year, by his University of South Florida and the University of Limerick. If you're interested in attending some year, please contact Rick at RWilber@Tampabay.rr.com)
Gay and I rented a car and took off the morning of 20 July to drive to the Tampa Airport -- cheaper than parking for three weeks -- and the 25 of us gathered there and took off for Newark. There we found that Gay and I had an earlier plane than the others, so we went off to Merrie Olde. Movie on the plane didn't work, but otherwise it was uneventful. Traveled into the premature dawn, getting to Gatwick before 6 a.m. Walked through customs and got on a train to London.
(Cost us a little extra, since the package rate included a bus ride into the city, but it was worth it for the speed and comfort of the train, and not having to wait around Gatwick for a couple of hours.)
I explored the neighborhood around the hotel (in Islington) and Gay rested for awhile, and we met the others when they came in. Went off with Rick to a fish & chips place I'd seen that looked promising. It was fine, plaice for me and shad roe for Gay.
We wandered and rested and went off in the evening to join Judith Clute at a Greek restaurant in Camden Town, Andy's. Superb souvlaki. Judith and I killed a bottle of retsina, which Gay declined. Somehow she thinks it tastes like solvent.
Up early the next morning, when all 25 met with Judith at the Blackfriars tube stop for a tour of Shakespeare's London, insofar as it can be reconstructed. We wound up at the reconstructed Globe about eleven, and took our tired feet into a nice old pub called the Anchor nearby. They didn't have food, but most of us were satisfied with a pint.
We went with Rick and the others on to a boat ride down the Thames to Westminster Abbey, but we'd been there, so Gay and Judith and I headed off for the new Tate Modern gallery, stopping for a sandwich on the way.
The Tate Modern is huge, inside and out. There's a sculpture gallery that holds pieces several stories high, and that was the most interesting part. "Maman" by Louise Bourgeoise is a huge black metal spider with eggs.
The place was really crowded, it being a free museum on a Saturday afternoon. We took a lift up to the fifth floor, thinking to work our way down. As it turned out, we were pretty worn out after the one floor.
The theme was the nude, and it was interesting, if predictably pomo pretentious. In the hundreds of pieces, there was not one spark of female beauty or of plain sensuality or sexuality. It was all about pain and isolation and anger. One large dark room had nothing but a continuous-reel movie of a naked man jumping up and down with no expression on his face. An icon of sexual apathy, I suppose.
Having survived that, we called it a day and crossed the Thames to check out a pub, the Blackfriars, that Judith had shown us in the tour. It was wedge-shaped, reminiscent of the Flatiron Building in New York, built in Victorian times and wonderfully rich and rococo in decoration.
We went back to the Clutes' flat and marveled at their redecoration, and then went out to a nice Portuguese restaurant, the Camacheira, a few blocks away. The traditional vinho verde and a stewed chicken dish. Came back to the Clutes' to download and answer urgent email.
Next installment, off to Ireland.
23 July -- London to Dublin
We piled aboard a tour bus to go across the country, through Wales, to Holyhead, where we would hop aboard a ferry and be in Dublin by mid-afternoon, early enough to do some wandering. But the travel gods did not smile on us.
About 11:30, we stopped at Chester, a picturesque little town with a Roman wall and amphitheater. We'd planned to spend an hour and a half there, but inexplicably were running an hour late. So we took a gander at the wall and amphitheater and got back on the bus at noon. Still plenty of time to get to the ferry by three.
Well, if there hadn't been any road construction or traffic jams, we might have made it. We didn't, so we had to hang around Holyhead until the next ferry, at six. There's not much to it but the ferry; you can see the whole town in fifteen minutes. I bought a copy of _Bizarre_, an eponymous magazine, and read it in a pub.
The ferry was a high-speed catamaran, large enough for a thousand people. Gay and I wandered around before launch and actually found a classy restaurant. We made reservations for six at 6:30 and went out to find four hungry people. We found five, no problem, and enjoyed a decent meal (hot chicken curry for me) with good French wine.
At the port of Don Loaghaire we boarded buses to city centre Dublin. It was pretty late by the time we checked into the hotel, but Gay and I went with Rick and his friend Randy to walk a mile or so down the River Liffey, to cross theHa'penny Bridge ( a pretty Victorian footbridge) and dive into a fine pub for our first pint of Guinness. Second pint, too, for some of us.
The next morning we took a train across Ireland to Limerick. It was a pleasant enough ride, if short on amenities. By the time we were ready to eat the upholstery, a snack cart appeared. No beer or wine, but it did have a chicken and dressing sandwich. I got one just for the novelty of eating a bread sandwich.
When we got to Limerick there were four large taxis waiting to take us to the university. There was the expected screw-up; en route our cab got a radio call saying they needed another cab, but none was available. I think the dispatcher hopped in a cab and went down to the station.
The University of Limerick has a large, modern, sprawling campus. In the normal school year it has ten or twelve thousand students. In the summer it's a motley bunch including us and hundreds of young people from Italy and Spain, here to learn how to speak English with an interesting accent.
We got keys to our dorm rooms, small but quite nice, much better than I ever had in school. Each cluster of four upstairs rooms has a kitchen and living room downstairs, and two bathrooms.
The university served up an elegant banquet lunch -- the mid-day meal is the main one here -- and we wandered around the campus a bit. Huge library with an acre of computer stations. A central student center with bookstore, laundry, bank, fast and slow food joints, and two pubs!
In the evening we went to a reception and the official opening of the workshop, with an interesting rambling talk by novelist Niall Williams, about how he got started and how he conducts his writing life. I enjoyed talking with him, a fascinating guy who is somewhat of a hermit while writing, but is otherwise sociable and travels a lot. He couldn't stick around, though; he had to go home and care for his wife. They'd just come from hiking in Washington state; on the last day she'd fallen and broken her ankle, and so got to fly a third of the way around the planet in severe pain, her leg immobilized.
After the reception we tried out the student pubs and found them satisfactory.
24-28 July -- Limerick
I have to combine a few days here, or I'll never catch up ...
We had a big reading one night, five of us reading fifteen to thirty minutes apiece, and almost everybody in the audience stayed awake, in spite of having been served wine beforehand.
I taught classes on writing short stories and about how books get published, or not. Enjoyed sitting in on a few other classes, like Rick Wilber's discussion of the "publishing pyramid" -- the unwritten but quite real caste system among writers, as seen by publishers. A Joyce Carol Oates can write for F&SF, how amusing ... but a science fiction writer tries to crack the New Yorker? Not funny.
The second evening we went into town to see the play _Pigtown_, a fascinating though oblique history of Limerick in the twentieth century. The accents were not easy to follow, and if you didn't know anything of Irish history you would have been fairly lost. But it was tremendously energetic, with a lot of physical humor, as it moved from the turn of one century to the next.
Our third day was totally free of teaching. Rick borrowed a car and we went out to Foynes to see the Flying Boat Museum. The flying boats were sort of like the Pony Express -- really important for a few years, and then immediately made obsolescent by technology. But they were beautiful big old machines, romantic artifacts of the thirties.
We also went to the little town of Glin, where Rick has set the novel he's working on (which also has the flying boats). He was pleased to find that the real town was pretty close to the one he's been writing about, and got all kinds of local-color details to incorporate.
We spent an interesting, sort of riotous, afternoon and day at Bunratty, a town built around a medieval castle. When the runway at nearby Shannon airport was to be extended, there was a small old village in the way; instead of bulldozing it, they moved the cottages up, brick by brick, to make a Williamsburg-type park around the castle. It's like a village around 1900, with hardware store, pubs, sweet shop, and so forth. Very pleasant, not too hokey. There was a driving rainstorm, but we negotiated our way through it.
The castle was finished in 1425, plundered a few times, and restored in 1954 to "medieval splendor." We spent a couple of hours wandering around its interesting rooms, a sort of museum of everyday life in those times. Then we went to a pseudo-medieval banquet, eat with your fingers and a dagger (indistinguishable from a steak knife) and wash it down with plenty of wine. Good soup and ribs and chicken, fresh bread and decent wine. Serving wenches, scrubbed inauthentically clean, who also provided song. A harpist and a truly fine violinist doing period work.
We had an evening walk around the "Angela's Ashes" part of Limerick, conducted by a contemporary of Frank McCourt's. Almost nothing is left of the slums that McCourt grew up in; Limerick is Ireland's computer center, prosperous and growing fast. The guide's patter summed up the book, and was more entertaining and much _shorter_.
Yesterday I spent the morning painting a ruined tower about a mile from the campus. In the afternoon, we had a pleasant boat ride through the country and a leisurely dinner at a rural pub. I had Irish stew, a delicious mess of lamb and vegetables, with potatoes of course on the side, to cut up and stir into the thick broth.
Five of us spent the evening chatting with P.A., the conference organizer, at her comfortable home out in the country.
We're leaving this morning for Galway. I have a one-hour window to get to the library and claim one of the computers, so I'd better get down there and join the crowd waiting.
29-31 July -- Galway
In Limerick we met Mike O'Connor, a college professor who moonlights in the summer as a tour bus guide, and piled aboard his bus for the long trip to Galway. We made the obligatory stop at the Cliffs of Moher, which are breathtaking -- a 700-foot drop straight into an angry ocean, miles long. Gay and I just missed seeing a huge chunk of cliff fall into the water -- we heard the splash and saw the cloud of mist that was its aftermath. It happens frequently enough to require posted warnings ... dangle your feet over the edge and the rest of your life may be exciting, if short.
We had an excellent fish 'n' chips lunch at Lahinch, a beach town that's also a golfing mecca, and then drove through the Burren, a sterile moonscape about which Cromwell said there wasn't "wood enough to hang a man, nor water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him in."
It was lovely weather in Galway, and Gay and I checked in to an unexpectedly fine hotel room in the Jurys Inn, overlooking the River Corrib with its swans and weirs. We wandered the streets for a couple of hours, touristy but charming. There's a strange indoor mall built around ancient city walls, giving out to a "medieval avenue" that looks exactly like the dealers' room at a fantasy-oriented sf convention.
The weather was so nice we decided to eat outdoors, at Blake's, one of Rick's favorite places, right next door to the hotel. It's a good thing we were close, because right after the drinks came, so did the monsoon.
It was comical. There was an awning protecting the al fresco customers, but it wasn't big enough. The rain came in at near-hurricane force and cascaded down the awning onto the people seated on the outside edge of the table, who were given umbrellas. There were no inside tables to move to, so waitresses scurried outside with umbrellas more or less protecting the food.
I ate standing up, in a narrow lane that didn't have water falling directly on it. The food was delicious. I had a thing of crab and prawns drowning in cheese sauce, accompanied by delicate boiled potatoes, a thousand calories on the hoof, or claw.
We hooked up with a bunch of students and went pub-crawling, the rain having abated to a normal thunderstorm. Spent a couple of hours in a noisy friendly place. I established a sort of dubious credential -- the bartender made a mystery drink for Justin, one of the students, and he asked me to taste it ... I said it was vodka, orange juice, Curacao, and apricot brandy or liqueur, and it turns out I was right. Don't ask me who the eighteenth president was, though, or the atomic number of ruthenium. We all have our areas of expertise.
On 30 July we drove out into the mountains of Connemara, stopping on the way to tour a small marble factory, which was fascinating. They can slice marble thin enough to use as translucent windows. We picked up some gifts.
Passed through a lot of scenery and rain. It cleared long enough for us to spend a half hour exploring a peat bog, which was kind of eldritch, thinking about the Peat Man they found a few years ago. You can take a misstep and slide in over your head, and be preserved for centuries in the anaerobic environment just below the pillowy grass.
We had a good lunch at the Benedictine nuns' chow house at Kylemore Abbey, a place with a complex history involving Nile River fever, the German invasion of Belgium in WWI, buried treasure, and various dukes and earls. Now a school for girls and a huge tourist trap to fill the coffers of the pope. Or at least the order.
A mile from the abbey, there's a walled Victorian garden that's in the process of being restored. Lots of interesting and sometimes bizzare plants, alongside a large vegetable garden that supplies some of the nuns' food.
We came back to Galway through the rain, and although it was clear when we went out to dinner, we'd wised up and ate indoors. Went with Rick and his family back to Blake's -- we might have gone farther, but 9-year-old Samantha was tired and wanted pizza -- and had another excellent meal, this time a spicy seafood curry for me, with a nice half-bottle of Gewurtztraminer.
The next morning we bussed out to the ferry that goes to the Aran Islands, a good swift ride across the open Atlantic for about an hour. We landed at Inishmore, the largest of the islands, and piled onto minibusses for a minitour.
Inishmore is one of the weirdest places I've ever seen. It's only five or six miles long, but claims to have 7000 miles of stone wall, and I believe it. The island started out as plain rock, and the inhabitants have, over the centuries, built up a few inches of topsoil by pulverizing rock and mixing it with chopped seaweed and manure. They cleared the island of loose rocks by building a patchwork quilt of walls enclosing small holdings.
We visited the Seven Churches ruin, which features the ruins of four churches (go figure) and a lot of gravestones so old you can't read the inscriptions. Nine Roman scholars from the 8th century are buried there. A perfect island for aescetics.
The big attraction is the fort, Dun Aengus. They sort of call it a fort by default, as its actual prehistoric function is not clear. It's a huge semicircle of walls 18 feet thick and as much as twelve feet high, enclosing Inishmore's northwest corner, which is a vertical cliff that drops 300 feet to the sea. Visitors are warned not to approach the edge too closely; people have been blown off by the strong winds, and of course none has ever survived. That didn't deter our students, or yours truly, from crawling up to the edge and looking over. Scary.
The size of the enterprise makes you wonder what kind of Bronze Age social organization made it possible to put together the stonemasonry expertise and the hundreds of thousands of man-hours it took to quarry the rocks, transport them up a steep hill, and fit them together so well, without mortar, that they still form a solid structure two thousand years later. A suggestion pieced together out of legend and archeology is that this was the symbolic home or headquarters of a chief who ruled over the three Aran Islands and part of the mainland, and he exacted labor as tribute.
We went back down to the port, where a couple of large shops sell the famous Aran Island wool sweaters. I asked our guide Mike where the wool came from; I'd seen hundreds of cows on the island, but a total of five sheep. He said there were lots of sheep around somewhere, but admitted they were mainly for food; their wool was coarse. Most of the wool for the sweaters was imported, a lot of it not even from Ireland. Gay and I bought a couple of sweaters anyhow; we'd long since worn out the ones we bought back in '79, in our first trip to Ireland.
Back to Galway to struggle with the cybercafe and have a fine meal at a nouvelle cuisine joint, the River God (stir-fried pigeon and duck!), after which we went with a bunch of students to hear traditional music at a large pub across the river, Monroe's. It was a fine little band, a lead flautist backed up by a concertina and a guitar player who was over three hundred pounds of fine Irish tenor. They were joined in two numbers by a visiting step-dance troupe, four girls who looked to be about fourteen -- though dancers do often look younger than they are -- and a boy who looked barely old enough to frequent a pub. They were tremendously energetic and precise, clattering away in time to the fast music.
A good finale to the Galway experience. We'll be back!
1 August -- Killarney
Today was mostly riding the bus through the rain, with one fascinating and relatively dry stop.
We got off to a late start, one of the students trying to stop the account on a lost credit card -- that sort of thing doesn't go swiftly in Ireland -- so we weren't able to make the scheduled stop at Thoor Ballylee, the tower Yeats lived and wrote in.
We did stop at the nearby Coole Park, where Lady Augusta Gregory, the _grande dame_ of Irish letters, once had an elegant estate. The mansion was demolished in the 1922 Civil War, but for more than thirty years it had been a haven for the literary lights of its time. Yeats and Shaw and dozens of lesser- known writers and artists benefited from her hospitality and each other's company in the pastoral setting. Lady Gregory helped organize the Irish Literary Revival, which turned its back on England and tried to de- mythologize Ireland while using Irish myth and folklore as source material. She was a prolific author, writing forty plays and dozens of translations from Irish into English, and was also an assiduous folklorist.
The Visitor's Center there is half about her and half about the local geology and wildlife. Coole Lake grows from a shallow pond in the summer to a large deep lake in the fall, draining into a river that suddenly disappears underground, to reappear in short stretches here and there on its way to the sea. For most of its length it's an underground river composed of interlocking limestone caverns, which dry up during the summer.
We continued on through the rain to Killarney, charming little town nestled in the mountains. The crowd dispersed to three B&B's on the outskirts of town. We're only about ten minutes' brisk walk from the City Centre.
After dropping off our stuff, we walked into town and nosed around the shops a bit, then stopped at a little restaurant Rick recommended. He and I both got Shepherd's Pie, a generous portion for £5.75 , which included four different allotropes of potato! Mashed potato on the pie, chunks of potato in the accompanying vegetable dish, two boiled potatoes apiece on the side, and a glop of potato salad in my "side salad." Still making up for the potato famine, I guess.
We found a cybercafe, slightly expensive at five pounds per hour, but efficient. I couldn't download my email, because Earthlink was upgrading its service; I hope it won't take too long.
We walked a few miles through the woods, looking for deer, but didn't see any. Then went to a pub that advertised traditional music. The music was sort of disappointing -- they used a computerized synthesizer for a bass background, just like their ancestors -- but the Guinness was welcome after the walk.
We started out the day with the bus stopping at a little laundromat, whose owners were nonplussed at having twenty-some people troop in with big bags of laundry. They did promise to have it washed, dried, and folded by six, so we piled back aboard the bus and lurched south to do part of "the Ring of Kerry," a circle of small roads taking in the scenery in the Iveragh Peninsula, which is more Irish than most of Ireland. Picturesque hamlets, greener-than-green meadows, dramatic mountain and shore vistas.
(Most of Ireland identifies with "the Celtic Tiger," the modern country that's joined the EEU and has become so prosperous that it is obliged to help support less fortunate member nations, like Portugal.)
We drove through Glen Fleska, a little town with interesting Victorian shopfronts, to our first stop, the unabashedly touristy Kenmare. We walked through the soft rain enjoying the impromptu market set up along one side of the town square, where merchants hawked souvenirs as well as the usual flea-market fare, like antique kitchen utensils and brand-name clothing that fell off a truck somewhere.
The main tourist attraction is the Stone Circle, which is -- surprise & begorrah! -- a circle of stones, about 55 feet in diameter. The guide book says "it ain't no Stonehenge," which is true, but it's quietly impressive. Nobody knows what its function was, though of course the assumption is that it had some religious or otherwise ceremonial use. The one-paragraph description says that it dates from somewhere between 2200 and 500 B.C., and may be "orientated" on the setting sun. The astronomer in me has to recognize that you could throw a handful of pebbles on the ground anywhere but the north or south pole, and several pairs of them would exactly point to the place where the sun set one day of the year. But in the misting rain, with ghostly mountains in the background, it was a lovely eldritch sight.
That took about ten minutes of our 90-minute stop, so we relaxed a bit in a pub and then hit the shops. I hadn't expected to buy anything but a voltage converter for the computer, but I was seduced by a teapot, a delicate running- glaze thing with a dragon for a handle. Along with one matching mug it came to about eighty bucks, a worthy addition to our collection.
The bus then proceeded up into the mountains, the rain abating to give us a succession of marvelous views. The mountains were Appalachian rather than Rocky, but dramatic nevertheless, covered with green and slashed with glistening waterfalls. We stopped for lunch at Moll's Gap, a tourist cafeteria that began its existence as an illegal pub and brothel for the men who put this road through a hundred or so years ago. There was an impressive angle of the Gap of Dunloe, where we hoped to be bicycling in a couple of days.
In the shop I bought an entertaining litttle book, _Stories from a Kerry Fireside_, by John B. Keane, a locally famous storyteller. Most of the stories are little rambles a few pages long, like transcriptions of tales you'd hear from some old guy in a country pub. Much more entertaining than Frank McCourt, though I doubt that he made millions off them.
We wound our way downhill and stopped at Torc Falls, for a little hike uphill to see a moderately interesting waterfall. Some people went on up the extra half-mile to the top of the falls, but the trail was muddy and I was being eaten alive by midges, so I went back to the bus to read.
The last stop was Muckross House, where a succession of rich people from the 1840's on lived and collected. Lots of impressive furniture and chandeliers and so forth. (The two chandeliers present a story in themselves. The one that originally lit the dining room has glass with so much lead that it appears gray. This was to keep the thing from swinging in the breeze, dumping candle wax on everybody. The modern electric chandelier, purchased in the 1970's, cost 15,000 pounds, which is half what the original owner paid for the whole house, 130 years before.)
For me the most interesting part of the house was an exhibit of the watercolors done by Mary Herbert, who was associated with the house from the Victorian 90's almost to WWII. She painted all over Europe, from childhood to old age, mostly landscapes and architecture. She was pretty good at twelve, and damned good by the time she was thirty, and continued with a high level of skill and sensitivity for the rest of her life. (She took visitors to the house on painting expeditions in the surrounding woods, and at least one complained that she made no consideration for her guests' comfort, plunging through the sward to find some particularly interesting tree or lake.) Mr. Herbert died when she was in her 50's, so she abandoned the big old house and went back to the scenes of her youth, in Italy and France, painting up a storm until she died.
Gay and I went into town later and checked email, and then had a good meal at the Bombay Palace. I had a fiery concoction of lamb and lentil, a welcome respite from the restrained palette of the Irish cook. Then we went out to listen to some music -- we followed the sound of close harmony and wound up sitting on picnic benches in a patio outside a bar, listening to a fine quintet doing a mixture of Irish and folk and pop. It became cold, so I got Gay an Irish coffee, and myself a "hot whiskey," which at home we would call a hot toddy, booze and sugar and hot water, flavored with lemon and clove. From there we dropped in on Buckley's, a pub where musicians get together and play for pints and each other. The music was entirely "trad." There were two old gents who were evidently accustomed to playing together, on fiddle and flute, and a good guitarist/tenor, and a kid who couldn't have been eighteen (he was drinking Seven-up) who quietly backed up everybody with bass lines from a Roland portable electric keyboard.
The day started out with a scene of arresting beauty. We drove through a light mist to the small town of Castlemaine, where a brilliant low rainbow appeared, and it was a storybook one, starting in the fields to the left of the road, and arching over to the right, to fall on a cluster of houses that were bright with sun, with the dark green mountains contrasting behind the rainbow, making it seem even more brilliant -- how often do you see a rainbow in front of a mass of land?
We all got out to take pictures, which of course will be only a ghost of the real thing. As we drove on it became even more bright, and for a few minutes presented a double bow, the outer one with colors reversed. (They asked me, as resident scientist, why that happened. I said "because that's what rainbows do." Rick said that's what [nine-year-old] Samantha would say. But I didn't really want to get into refraction and critical angles. The nice thing about magic is people don't really want it explained.)
We stopped for a half-hour at Inch Strand, the largest sand beach in the area. A little cool for wading, but it was pretty, and there was impressive evidence of how rough the sea had been during the night, windrows of seaweed far up the beach. There was a rustic coffeehouse where you could take a cup out to picnic tables overlooking the sea.
Then about an hour and a half of narrow winding roads, with blessedly clear weather. Lots of picturesque stone huts and sheep, goats, cows, horses all grazing within pens defined by fences of piled stone. We drove by some interesting "beehive" huts made of stone, which served as shelters for monks on pilgrimage a thousand years ago and more.
There was a long stand-off with a British driver of a minivan. He passed a wide spot where he should have pulled over, and slammed on his brakes in time to not collide with our bus. He made vigorous gestures indicating that our bus should back up. Mike indicated that that would be disconcerting to the five or six cars lined up behind us. Seven, eight. Ten. (Maybe this is an Irish kind of thing ... the Ring of Kerry isn't one-way, but people who live in the area know that the only sensible direction to go is clockwise. If everybody goes clockwise, you don't have these jams. They don't tell the tourists, of course.) They gestured back and forth for about fifteen minutes, during which time three vehicles came up behind the minivan, assessed the situation, and backed up to pullover spots. He finally did likewise, and I'm sure spent the rest of the week grumbling about the bloodyminded Irish. The thirty or so cars stranded behind us might have seen his license plate and had some words about the bloodyminded Brits.
We stopped for lunch and some education at Blasket Centre, a modern museum building in the middle of nowhere.
The Blasket Islands comprise a collective ghost town that a hundred years ago was considered the last bastion of pure Irish culture. They were peopled by mainland peasants who were tired of being oppressed by absentee (English, mainly) landlords, and so escaped to try to grind some sort of living out of the barren offshore rocks, sharing and bartering. The biggest island, Great Blasket, is only four miles long and at its peak had only fourteen acres of farmland.
They fished around the islands out of long rowboats, and gathered shellfish. Their only export was a small amount of crab and lobster. Their population declined steadily from 1900 until WWII, children going off the island for education and not returning. There was a sad picture of an old woman, slumped in monochrome, with a quote saying that both her sons and both her daughters had gone to America, and wouId never return. She had grandchildren she knew she would never see.
In 1953, the few dozen old people left were evacuated, since it was obvious that one protracted storm would do them in. Before that, though, they produced a number of books that are greatly valued locally as memoirs of an irretrievable past. They are still required reading for Irish secondary school students. Our guide Mike said that one of them, _Peig_, was almost universally despised by people who went to Gaelic summer school, because they had to read it in Gaelic.
It's an eerie story overall. There's a small enclave of Blasket survivors in Springfield, Massachusetts, who are constantly beleagured by linguists and folklorists. Otherwise nothing remains on the island but the ruins of their huts and a cafe that sometimes opens when the weather is good, for hikers willing to take the motorboat out for a day of loneliness. Or a few weeks, if the weather turns bad.
A few miles down the road we stopped at a remarkable edifice, the Gallarus Oratory. It's a 1300-year-old triangular prism of "dry rubble masonry" -- rocks carefully fitted into a high arch, the whole thing held together purely by gravity. Its dark and foreboding interior is big enough for only twenty or thirty worshipers or tourists. Still waterproof after thirteen centuries of Atlantic storms.
Our last stop of the day was the town of Dingle, a port town whose current claim to fame is that it was the site of _Ryan's Daughter_. I had a pint at Dick Mack's, the pub where Robert Mitchum drank and chainsmoked during the filming, before he succumbed to lung cancer.
We met the crowd for a so-so dinner at a pub adjoining the Holiday Inn, but had some success pub-crawling after doing the email. We heard a guy singing and went into a pub where he was holding forth solo, really good folk guitar and a mix of Irish and folk and humorous songs. Willie Burke -- I had to buy his tape after hearing his song "The Oldest Swinger in Town." Among jokes about balding and false teeth, he had the line "Now it takes all night to do what you used to do all night."
The days and nights have been very full in Ireland, but the writing has been going well. If I can turn in by midnight, I'll be up before five, and can write a few hundred words on the novel, and then a few hundred on this, before Mike comes with the bus at nine.
Marvelous day. We rented bikes in the morning and pedaled a couple of miles to Ross Castle, where we hired a motorboat to take us the fourteen miles to Lord Brandon's Cottage, actually a little snack shop at the base of the southernmost of three interconnecting lakes.
The boat ride was worth it by itself. We hoisted the bikes aboard and putted out into into the choppy lake. I don't think I've ever been in a boat with a bike before, and I _know_ I've never been in a boat with a bike where the boat's pilot was younger than the bike. The guy let his three-year-old son steer the outboard across the open water. When he took over to insert the boat into a narrow passage, the kid threw a tantrum -- mutiny, by God!
The scenery was awesome, mountains surging up on both sides of the narrow lake, the ride totally placid with the wind blocked off. We did have one bit of excitement, when the little motor couldn't make it through the current flowing from Upper Lake to Middle Lake. We all had to get out and walk along a trail, while Rick, obviously the strongest, pushed the boat along with an oar, the little outboard red-lined. Rick said it was a close one; he was just about played out when the motor finally won its tug-of-war.
At Lord Brandon's chow house we met with the rest of the group, who had either hiked up the trail or been carried on horse carts, which we quickly would learn to hate. Only Rick and Gay and I had opted for the bike ride, which was rated "strenuous."
The first part of it would have been easy if it weren't for the damned horsecarts. The road's about as wide as an American car, and the horsecarts -- hundreds of them -- are about three quarters as wide. You keep to the left, of course, unless the cart decides to go on the wrong side. Then you either cut over to the right or plunge off the road. In some places that would have been fatal.
Of course the road is covered with piles of horse hockey, an everpresent navigation hazard.
Nevertheless, it was one of the best bike rides I've ever taken. There's a mile and a half that's a steep zig-zag up the mountain to the Gap of Dunloe. Rick and I would go about a hundred yards and stop, panting, until our heart rates came down. Gay was more sensible and walked her bike up the steepest parts.
Your reward for the effort is a sensational seven-mile downhill glide, dramatic mountainsides, Alpine valleys, cold still lakes, and finally meadows. No horsecarts! Too steep and twisty. We did have to contend with individual horses and riders, which was not so bad, but also a few horses without riders (evidently people who sensibly chickened out before the steep decline), two of which almost did me in when they saw a source of drinking water, and paid no heed to the tiny organism with a bicycle that was in its way.
At the bottom of the trail is a welcome Guinness sign, which I obeyed. Then we pedaled seven miles back into town, unremarkable except for heavy traffic here and there.
In the evening we had a quick dinner and then went to a performance called "To Dance on the Moon," a Riverdance-style production that was perhaps more authentically Irish. (Riverdance, I'm told, is Irish-American dance, subcategory Chicago.) It was well performed, with fourteen dancers, two singers, and a substantial band of authentic Irish intruments -- or at least instruments I couldn't put a name to.
This was a "free day"; students and teachers allowed to do whatever they wanted in Killarney. We three had rented our bikes for two days, hoping for not-too-rainy weather. We lucked out; on both days, we had nothing more than a little refreshing mist.
Rick's aunt Ruth opted to come along with us, and she did fine, often staying .ahead of Gay. She's pushing eighty, but in great shape, bicycling five to ten miles a day in hilly Wisconsin.
It was a twenty-mile loop, all but a mile or so on trails. Substitute your favorite synonym for my overused "beautiful" here (lovely, gorgeous, pretty, exquisite are the ones offered by MS Word) -- rolling hills, dark Robin-Hood woods, shimmering lakes, majestic mountains. I want to come back here for a month and just bicycle and watercolor.
Our first stop was at the Muckross Abbey, an impressive old ruin that the guidebooks and tours seem to have overlooked, perhaps because you can only get there by bike or foot. It was refreshing not to have any Interpretive Center telling you what to think about it. Deserted since Cromwell's time, one supposes, it's a huge old thing hosting a graveyard where they still plant people.
Rick was watching the bikes while we went through it, and he stuck his head through an opening and did an echo-chamber version of a spooky Latin response he remembered from choir-boy days. I answered him with Carpe...De ... um.
I found a catacomb-ish corridor that you had to hunch over to negotiate, and at the end of it was a tight spiral staircase chiseled out of the stone, with only a few photons to guide you up. A little scary, but you could always feel your way back down. The attic of the place was actually pleasant, open to the sky and full of tree limbs angling in. I heard Gay and Ruth and called down to them from my holy height. They asked if there was anything up there, and I said "Nothing but some rusty chains and old skeletons." They didn't come check.
A few miles farther down the trail, we stopped at a lovely sand beach on the lake, and had a picnic of bread, cheese, wine, and fruit. Fish jumped in the water occasionally, but otherwise it was placid and .
The next four or five miles was marvelous fun, rolling hills where you could get up enough speed on the downhill to coast up the uphill. We caught a glimpse of ruin and took the bikes about fifty yards off the trail to an odd old stone place, roughly cylindrical, with several fireplaces and what looked like flues going up at odd angles.
Two miles more and we got to Dinis Cottage, sort of a required stop for anyone hiking or biking this trail. It's been in business since 1842, serving coffee and tea and sandwiches. Soda pop nowadays. In the distorted old glass, people have been using diamonds to carve their names for a long time. One that was dated 1860, with fine Victorian script, said he was from King's Town, which is what people called Dun Laoghaire before they got rid of the English.
I asked what the old ruin we'd seen was, and they young waitstaff didn't know, eyebrow piercing obviously affecting her memory. But an older cook told me he thought it was an ancient copper-smelting kiln. That would explain the things that looked like flues; they were channels for the molten copper to drizzle down.
We had about a mile on a crowded road, but then got back on the trail, to loop back to the B&B. No problem except for a traffic jam of horsedrawn carts on the approach to Muckross House.
We turned in our bikes and I had a weird cybercafe experience. I brought in these notes on a 3.5" floppy, but couldn't find any way to read them. Turns out the place only had one station, out of 14, that had MS Word -- or any word processor, for that matter. That station was being used by an Italian woman who didn't know how to type, hunting and pecking. I went a couple of blocks through the rain to the other cybercafe, but it was full of people and smoke, with three people in line for the next opening. So I went back and watched the Italian gal finish her doctoral dissertation.
Got on the net and off and went across the street to our final dinner in Killarney, at Bricin, famous for their boxties, the Irish potato pancake. I'd been looking forward to this for awhile, primed by having read the recipe. They mix mashed potatoes with a quantity of flour and baking powder, along with chives and such, and fry of course in butter.
The boxties were excellent, though I could have used a more interesting filling. Last year, Rick told me, they had spicy lamb curry. This time we had to make do with a veggie mix or creamed chicken. I had the latter, and it was okay but unexciting.
We closed out the evening with a couple of drinks at an elegant Victorian bar, at the Killarney Park Hotel, where a formally dressed woman improvised discreet piano under our conversation, which was of course witty and refined. Especially the limericks.
7 August --
We had an early train, so went down to breakfast at 6:00. Our hostess cheerfully prepared full breakfasts, even though she hadn't gotten in till 3:00. (Great B&B, if you're ever in Killarney -- the Woodlawn House.)
The bus, driven by Mike's brother since Mike had to take one of our number to the airport, got us to the train station before 7:00. Some of the students looked very much the worse for wear, having partied mightily the night before. Rick gave them a stern warning not to do the same thing the night before we leave Ireland -- hangovers and jetlag don't mix.
The train from Cork came on time, full of Cork hurling fans bound for a big match in Dublin. Some of them were a rowdy lot, already drunk and singing. I found a fairly quiet corner and read sf for my classes.
When we got to Dublin the rooms weren't ready, so we wandered off to find lunch. Some of us wound up at the coffee shop in the Irish Writers Museum. Okay quiche. I didn't need to go to the museum, since we went last time we were over, but I did buy some stuff in the bookstore, including a tape of James Joyce reading selections from his books. Maybe I'll finally understand _Finnegans Wake_.
In the afternoon, Rick led us on a quick literary/historical tour of Dublin, from the bullet holes in the Post Office to the pub where Harold Bloom ate a sandwich. (He noted the irony that Joyce is now Ireland's favorite son, one of Dublin's biggest tourist attractions. They hated him when he was inconveniently alive.)
Dinner at the Judge Roy Bean Saloon, Ireland's only Tex-Mex restaruant. The food was pretty bland, though I gratefully scarfed up a bunch of jalepen~os. We hit the internet cafe briefly and then came back to log in here -- Earthlink has a Dublin access number and the hotel has American-standard modem plug-ins, so I thought I could save some money that way. No way. Local phone calls are 35 pence a minute, so I'd be paying about 21 pounds an hour, instead of the cafe's four or five.
We walked out with Rick in search of a pub associated with the Abbey theater, but couldn't find it, and settled for a good singer and a pint of Guinness.
8 Aug --
Weird day from the beginning. I got up feeling tired and saw by Gay's watch in the bathroom that it was after 6:00! Figured it was the chlortrimeton I'd taken before turning in. Quick shower, tea, start to write -- still dead tired. Short nap, get up to write again -- tired again, nap again, write again. Finally finished 400 words and looked outside, and it was still dark. Impossible. I checked my watch and it was only 4:30! When I'd looked at Gay's tiny watch without my glasses, I'd mistaken 1:30 for 6:05.
Worked out fine, though. I got a couple hours' more sleep and then, at 6:30. took my paints out and did a travel diary painting of the River Liffey -- incorporating genuine Dublin grime. It was kind of windy and cold over the river, but I stuck it out for a couple of hours.
Now off to meet Rick for some more museum- and pub-crawling.
8 August -- Dublin
After going to the internet cafe (the Globe, on O'Connor, far and away the best one in Ireland -- lots of fast new machines, tea and coffee) I caught up with Rick and Gay at the Book of Kells, which I skipped because I'd seen it recently. Rick showed the students where to go shopping, the pedestrian-only Grafton Street, and the three of us took off for the Shelbourne hotel.
The Shelbourne is a central place in Irish history; most of the meetings of revolutionary cabals took place in its Horseshoe Bar, which was unfortunately closed, because of a bank holiday. There's a plaque outside acknowledging that the Irish Constitution was written within.
We did get a pint and a meal at the Shelbourne's large Victorian pub, an impressive high-ceilinged place with two larger-than-life statues of Nubian slave girls on either end of the bar. Lots of framed political cartoons, mostly incomprehensible to us. Rick and I got the daily special, Guinness beef stew with potatoes. We were only able to eat about half, delicious as it was. Neither of us is used to facing more than a pound of beef for lunch.
It was indeed a day of closure -- half the places we wanted to see were closed. We wanted to see the National Library's exhibition, A Thousand Years of Irish Books, but it was closed for the bank holiday. (Nobody could quite explain what a bank holiday was.) We did walk by a plaque identifying the house where Bram Stoker lived, and looked into Neary's Pub, which is featured in _Ulysses_.
We walked a winding way to St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Jonathan Swift was dean in the last years of his life. It's the largest church in Ireland, full of statues and plaques and a few genuine curiosities. They have casts of the skulls of both Swift and his perhaps-mistress, who are buried above the south nave together. When phrenology was going strong, some "scientists" got permission to exhume them and take casts of their skulls. There's a Reconciliation Door, a thick old thing with a hole chopped in the center. Two families were feuding, and one of them took shelter in a house. The rival leader shouted that he was tired of the fighting; they should call it quits. To prove his sincerity, he chopped a hole in the door and stuck his bare arm through.
Then we walked down across the Liffey to St. Michen's to see the mummies that inspired Bram Stoker to write _Dracula_. Closed; evidently mummies don't have to work on bank holidays.
Right down the street was the Jameson Distillery and Whiskey Museum. Interesting tour explaining the complex history of Irish whiskey, and the less complex business of manufacturing it. (The basic difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky, besides the spelling, is that after the grain has been partially sprouted and milled, it's roasted. The Irish use an isolated heating chamber for this, and the Scots use one that allows the smoke to flavor the stuff.) We wound up in the Jameson bar, where we all were given a generous sample, worth the £3.50 it cost to get in. They had more exotic whiskies for sale, though, and I had to try the most expensive, Middleton Very Rare, at £6 the ounce (about $7.25). It was worth it, as complex and light as a good Armagnac.
We came back to the hotel and wound up sitting in the pub with Rick and his family and most of the students, eating pub grub and chatting until a decent hour.
9 Aug. -- Limerick
We went downstairs at 6:30 to see off the students, and then I wrote for awhile more (having been up for a couple of hours) and then took a stroll, looking for a cash machine. Went up O'Connor Avenue and walked around the statue of O'Connor. He's guarded by four impressive bronze angels, one of whom has a bullet hole in her breast, from the 1916 revolution.
We got on the train to Limerick at 10:00, knowing from a couple of weeks ago that the service would be lousy. So we took aboard ample rations and enjoyed a pleasant two-hour ride. We were all bus-ed out, several hours a day for more than a week, so even an ordinary train was a real treat.
We settled into the hotel, then scarfed some pub grub and went to King John's Castle, which is more than King John ever did. (He was granted a charter to Limerick, but never felt compelled to go there.) This is the nasty King John of Robin Hood fame, a wastrel wanker by tradition, though modern historians have redeemed him somewhat. (When he did visit Ireland as a young prince, he yanked on the beards of clan chieftains, an endearing gesture.)
The castle is about 90% tourism and 10% active archeology. There are steel mesh walkways over the areas that are being excavated, with short recorded explanations of what's where. That was the best part, much of it concerning a pre-Norman fort that provided the foundation for the Castle.
There are a couple of multimedia presentations that were not too clear, I guess because they're aimed at Irish schoolchildren, who already know a lot of the backstory.
The castle itself is a pretty well preserved 800-year-old building, without too much to distinguish it from any other medieval castle. In the 1930's a bunch of public housing was built in the courtyard, which is pretty exotic. They were torn down fifty years later, to make way for tourism.
We enjoyed sitting around the peat fires in the new/old courtyard, the smell of the burning turf appropriately ancient. I was interested in the different battle positions for longbowmen and crossbow marksmen. The longbowmen weren't as accurate, but they could shoot downwards, a position that was precarious for the crossbow. So they had slots as tall as a man to shoot through -- down, level, or up. The crossbow windows were small and the proper height for a marksman to crouch and aim slightly down.
There was a recreation of the mint that once was in the castle basement, with an affable gent hammering out souvenir coins of aluminum while answering questions, mostly from fascinated children. Ireland only had its own coinage for a short period back then, I suspect because John wanted his face on a coin. Most of Ireland was rural, without even towns in the usual sense, just clusters of family and extended family. They were self-sufficient and when they "bought" something from outside, they bartered. If you went into an actual town or city, you could buy things with coins from any number of countries; it was the weight of silver or gold in the coin, rather than its provenance, that determined its value.
Leaving the castle, we decided not to further torture our feet with another museum, and followed a 12-year-old's directions to the nearest cybercafe. Their Microsoft 2000 was too modern to read my Word 5.1 disk, or so they said. I suspect there was a work-around that any actual computer jock could do in seconds. But I'm a Mac guy. I don't do windows. So I just answered some email fan mail and kept this for America, or maybe Shannon airport, which might have more tractable machines.
Odd dinner. We chose a restaurant that Rick had seen earlier, which had a variety of simple chow suitable for a nine-year old, but also regular food. We checked the menu in the window and went upstairs -- where the waitress informed us that starting tonight, they were a Thai restaurant! They hadn't had a chance to change the window display.
Everybody was dog-tired, though, and there were a couple of things on the menu that Samantha could tolerate, so we sat down to beta-test this new restaurant. I ordered a fairly good bottle of white wine, and it came out warm, which was a portent. The food took forever to come, but that gave me a chance to have the ice refreshed in the wine server three times, so after a half- hour it was drinkable. The food did turn out to be good, my own madamas curry satisfyingly hot, but it took another half-hour for everything to come out, one plate at a time. Samantha was dozing before the last dinner came. But she suddenly had 220-volt enthusiasm when Gay suggested they go find Double Magnum bars for desert. (That's a rich vanilla ice cream bar that's dipped in chocolate, and then caramel, and then chocolate again.)
Next morning now; only a few more hours in Ireland. Good writing day, 600 words besides half of this account. Off to Shannon.
10 Aug -- Tampa
Nineteen hours from the hotel in Limerick to the one in Tampa. The Newark airport is purgatory, if not hell. CONSUMER ALERT: If you have connections through Newark after Labor Day, change them. That's the day they start renovating the Toonerville Trolley that gets you, sometimes, from one place to another. It's going to be chaos.
The flight over was all right. I read about half of Gardner's "Best of," and there are some really fine stories in there. Greg Egan is, as always, awesome. Silverberg scores high, too, and Eleanor Arneson, James Patrick Kelly, M. John Harrison, Chris Lawson, Fred Pohl.
We saw the heart-tranplant romance, _Return to Me_, sappy but sweet. It would have been more interesting to make a darker story of romantic compulsion, where the woman who receives the heart of the man's wife tracks him down and initiates a love affair fueled by survivor guilt. Instead of a silly chain of impossible coincidences and mysterious heart-cleaving- unto heart bullshit. Wouldn't sell popcorn, I guess.
Driving the two hours home in a little bit. We didn't want to drive last night, after being on the plane all day, so we holed up at old faithful, Hampton Inn.
It's good to be back in the States, but we loved Ireland. The people as much as the land. Gentle, generous, easygoing. One could live there.
Joe McCoy Haldeman