The Man Who Swept the Oscars

“Is this the man who won a Gold and Silver at the Blas na hÉireann Awards?” I ask as I reached my hand across the counter to shake Jerry’s hand.

He smiles proudly as he takes my hand. “And the Rogha na Gaeltachta to top it off,” he beams.

The Blas na hÉireann Awards, given each year at a ceremony during the Dingle Food Festival in early October, celebrate the very best in Irish food and the people who make it. Jerry has won medals in the past for his lamb sausages and for his Dingle Distillery mash-finished ribeye steaks, but never multiple awards in one evening.

Sara and I had missed the food festival this year because we were on a trip back to the states, so this was the first that I had seen Jerry since his big night.

He set the awards on the top of the cold case so that I can admire them. There was a Gold for Herbed Rack of Dingle Peninsula Lamb and a Silver for Lamb Lollypop Chops. To top it off, the Rogha na Gaeltachta recognized Jerry as the best meat provider in Ireland.

“Tell me about the night,” I prod.

“It was like the Oscars, it was. Everyone dressed in their finest, so. We were in the cinema in town. All the big meat producers were there. People from Aldi and Lidl. They spend big money hoping to win awards so they can use them in their adverts, like. They didn’t look too happy when I was called to the stage three times,” he chuckled.

“And then there was an after party,” he continues. “All the bigshots were there. The woman from Aldi was dressed up like she was going down the red carpet. They were all asking me how I won.”

“’I know my farmers and I know my animals,’ I told them. ‘How many animals at a time do you send to the abattoir?’ I said to them.”

“’Five or six hundred, I suppose,’ they said, confused like.’”

“’And do you know when you send those five hundred in the front door that you’re getting the same five hundred out the back door?’”

“’We can’t know that,’ they said.”

“Now I was giving out to them, talking shite like,” Jerry says with a twinkle in his eye.

“I took my phone out of my pocket and set it on the table,” he tells me, setting his phone on the counter between us. “’Can any of ye pick up that phone and call the farmer who raised your lambs or cattle?’ I asked. ‘They all shook their heads. Embarrassed like.’”

“So I picked up the phone and called Seamus,” Jerry says. (This is Seamus Ó Ciobhán, one of Jerry’s best lamb suppliers from out on the end of the peninsula.) “’Seamus! We won!’ I told him.”

“The lads from Aldi and Lidl were speechless, like. ‘You know the farmer who raised that very lamb?’ they asked me.”

“’And the very field he grazed in,’ I say.”

Jerry stops to adjust his hat before going on with his story.

“Just then The Kerryman comes up to the table, wanting to take my picture for the paper.” (The Kerryman is our local paper, a weekly.) ‘You can only take a picture if you come to the shop on Monday so that Seamus and John can be in it. These awards are for all of us.’” (John works in the shop with Jerry.) “And so they did. That’s the picture over there on the wall,” says Jerry, pointing to the wall behind me.

I turn to look at the story from The Kerryman hanging on the wall, with a picture showing Jerry, John, and Seamus in the shop looking proudly at the awards on the table in front of them.

“Jerry,” I said, turning back to him, “I always tell people you are the finest butcher in all of Ireland and now I can prove it.”

“Haven’t I been at since I was this tall?” he says, moving his hand to knee level. “I have an eye,” he said, pointing to his eye, “and a hand,” holding his hand in front of me. “I know the best farmers and I pick their best animals.”

Just then Sara walked in. She had been at the fruit and veg shop next door, so Jerry took the opportunity to tell her the whole story once again.

“I’m on cloud nine, like,” he concluded.

“Jerry,” she said to him, “can we get three of those lollypop racks for Christmas? And maybe two of your t-bones, about two inches thick? Oh, and a nice beef tenderloin? Our granddaughters will be here for Christmas and they’re real carnivores.”

“Of course, you can indeed. Just let me get the book,” he says.

As he walked to the back of the shop to get his holiday special-order book, he was smiling and strolling like he was still on the red carpet.

“The finest butcher in all of Ireland,” I say to Sara. “Aren’t we lucky to have him?”

Wren Day

“Jimmy! A car just pulled into the yard!” Sara was looking out the lounge window. She sounded worried.

I glanced up from my book in time to see a large man jump out of the front passenger seat of a small car. He was wearing a mask.

“This doesn’t look good,” I thought to myself as I got up from the couch.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon on Wren Day, the day after Christmas. It was nearly dark outside and we were already in our pajamas. Meg and her family were upstairs napping. We had planned a quiet evening at home eating leftovers from the Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners – crab cakes, lamb chops, beef tenderloin, and the like – before leaving early the next morning for Connemara and New Year’s Eve in Galway.

No one pulls into our yard by accident. We live in a forestry, down a narrow lane off a slightly wider road. A cattle grate guards our drive. The house can’t be seen from the road. The only people who come to our door are friends coming for dinner, the postman, or delivery men. You don’t just stop by our house to ask directions.

I was a little nervous as I walked to the front door.

Outside there was a large man in a long overcoat and a mask. Around him dance three little people, also wearing masks. Worse, the man’s mask looked like Donald Trump.

Now I was scared.

“What should I do?” I squeaked to Sara.

 

***

 

The day after Christmas is a holiday in Ireland, most of Europe, and the UK. In Europe and most areas of Ireland it is called St. Stephen’s Day. In the UK it is Boxing Day. But here on the Dingle Peninsula, it is called Wren Day, the traditional name. It’s pronounced “wran” hereabouts.

Wren Day, or Lá an Dreoilín in Irish, is an ancient tradition that most likely derives from Celtic mythology that celebratedSamhain,a midwinter celebration. A wren, known for singing all winter, is captured, put in a cage on top of a pole, and paraded around town accompanied by “Wren Boys” dressed up in masks, straw suits, and colorful clothing. Fifes and drums lead the way. They would all be led by a “Captain” with a sword. Strawboys carrying a box ask for donations to “bury the wren.”

In the past, the wren boys would also go from house to house to beg for pennies but, sadly, that tradition has almost disappeared.

There is even a song to mark the occasion:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds

On St. Stephen’s Day got caught in the furze

So it’s up with the kettle and down with the pan

Give us a penny to bury the wren.

Wren Day would have been celebrated all over Ireland until the middle of the last century, but gradually it died out. Here in Dingle, though, the tradition goes on. The old ways are honored. But, fortunately for the wild bird population, the wren is now fake.

We had taken Meg and the girls into town earlier in the day to see the festivities. The parades were supposed to start at one, but it was now nearly two and the town was eerily quiet. We walked up Main Street but no one was about. “Irish time,” I think to myself.

“Let’s walk down the Mall and see if Grainne’s shop is open. She’ll know what is going on,” I suggest.

As we get to the bottom of the Mall, just at Bridge Street, we hear music coming from O’Flaherty’s Pub. When we round the corner, there is a mass of people dressed in green and gold costumes wearing skirts, capes, and helmets, all made from straw. Others were wearing brightly colored wigs and antlers. Santa Claus was wandering through the crowd. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, the legendary eighty-nine-year-old “voice of Gaelic games” on RTE radio and television, dressed in a straw skirt and a flat cap, stands ready to follow the band around the town.

Straw-clad characters roam through the crowd, shaking their boxes and asking for spare change. I hand the girls a pocketful of small coins to contribute.

There are four or five wren groups in town, headquartered in various pubs. Costume making takes place in the pubs in the weeks leading up to the big day. A Captain is selected and is supposed to be the leader but, as a fellow said to me, “We don’t pay him much mind.”

People jam the door O’Flaherty’s. Fife and drum music comes from inside.

“Let’s go in,” Meg says.

“Ah, you’ll never get in there,” I say. “It’s too crowded.”

Meg disappears.

A few minutes later my phone vibrates; a text from Meg.

Inside to the left in the snug. Having a glass. Make yourself small and squeeze in.”

Sara and the girls decline.

I squeeze through the door, muttering “Sorry, sorry.” The band is playing a tune, arrayed around an upside-down Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling in the central room. I find Meg in the snug and join her in a glass.

The band starts another tune and marches out the door to form up in the street. The crowd gathers behind the band, led by Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. The Captain raises his sword. The street goes silent. The sword comes down and the band erupts. Around the corner and up the Mall they go.

We turn and walk up Green Street to meet the parade at Main Street. As we reach the top, the band from Stráid Eoin, another wren group, turns the corner arrayed in Blue and White. The Green and Gold follows them down Green Street as the bands play competing tunes. As the day goes on, there will be more parades and more pints taken, long into the night.

We head back to our car in hopes of a quiet evening around the fire, in our pajamas, eating leftovers.

 

***

 

“Jimmy! Open the door! It’s Thomas and the kids from down the road. They’re here on a Wren Day visit!”

I open the door, warily eyeing the man in the mask.

Thomas and his kids enter the house, jumping around and causing a commotion. The two girls, nine and eleven, are dressed in princess gowns and wear lace masks. The six-year-old boy shakes the box for coins. He is Thomas’ constant companion in the cab of their tractor and even wears an identical hi-vis suit when he’s with his Da. Tonight he has a long coat and a Donald Trump mask. I slip five quid into his box.

The eleven-year-old plays a tin whistle while her sister dances a jig. Thomas grabs Sara and whirls her around the foyer in a wild dance. Meg and the girls peek over the banister, not sure what is happening.

And then they are out the door and into the car as we shout “Happy Wren Day!”

Thank you, Thomas. The tradition continues.

The Lucky Man

A Short Sketch

“What’s the other fellow look like?” I say to the man behind the shop counter. He’s sporting a mighty gash in his lip, just below the nose.

“It was entirely my own fault,” he answers. “I should have had more patience.”

“My god,” I think to myself. “Somebody really did punch him.”

“What happened?” I gasp.

“I was down at the farm on Sunday evening,” he says, “and I was in a horrible hurry to get home to watch the big match. I had the horse on a lead trying to force him into the stable. He didn’t care about the match and didn’t want to go into the stable. Wasn’t he as stubborn as me? He was planted on one end and I was pulling away on the other. Swearing at him, like.”

“Did he kick you?”

“No, thanks be to god, or I might not be here to tell you the story. There’s a safety catch on the lead that I was too impatient to close. The lead came off the halter and came back as fast as you please. Split my lip, so. Jaysus, there was gobs of blood everywhere. I grabbed a rag and had it up against the lip. I couldn’t see where the blood was coming from.”

“What did you do?”

“The daughter was there and she took hold of the halter and didn’t he follow her into the stable, prancing and showing off like a pretty boy. Then she drove me into town to the clinic. I thought for sure that there would be no one there on a Sunday and I’d have to go to Tralee and spend half the night in A&E. But a GP from SouthDoc was manning the fort and he went to work on me. Ten stitches it took before it was sorted. By the time I got home, though, the match was over.”

“You’re a lucky man it didn’t hit you in the eye,” I commiserate.

“Ah, sure, if I were lucky, it would have missed me altogether and I’d have seen the match.”

Winter is Coming

We were in a friend’s kitchen having Sunday lunch when the first storm of winter hit.

There were ten of us around the large white pine table made from salvaged boards many years ago. The planks were worn smooth from years of elbows and forearms and sliding plates. Gravy and wine stains stirred memories of past meals. Five Brits, two Irish, three Americans, none born on this little sliver of land, but all here by choice. Eight of us had a clear view of the fields beyond the house through the large window over the sink.

We lunched on roasted pheasant with bacon; carrots, parsnips, and potatoes in duck fat; steamed leeks and cabbage. Lemon cake came from the group baker. There were gin and tonics, a favorite of the Brits, and plentiful red wine to wash it all down. Conversation flowed, flitting from topic to topic, for three hours: the state of the world, Brexit, and local politics were all covered.

We were passing the cheese board when the woman to my left glanced out the window and said, “Oh my, would you look at that?”

The trees in the hedgerow were bent almost to the ground by the wind. Then the rain started. Hard. Darkness fell.

Storm Atiyah had formed near Iceland a few days before, gathered strength over the North Atlantic, and was now a Code Red storm descending on the Dingle Peninsula with sustained winds of 60 miles per hour and gusts of over one hundred.

There was a flurry of hurried goodbyes as we rushed to gather our coats and get to our own homes while it was still safe.

The first fellow out the door wrestled to open his car door against the wind before his wife ran out. All we could hear over the wind was a cry of “Bloody hell” as he struggled in the darkness.

Sara and I made it home, creeping along familiar roads to the other side of the hill, avoiding fallen branches, and straining to see more than a few feet ahead. At last we were safe in our home, leaning on the door to shut it behind us. I lit the fire in the lounge and we settled in to wait out the storm.

That’s when we heard a thumping upstairs.

I rushed up to find a window in the small bedroom swinging wildly in the wind. I grabbed the handle and pulled it shut. A good hard pull. The handle came off in my hand. “This might not be good,” I thought. The screws in the window hinges were partially pulled from the frame.

“Bring a screwdriver!” I yelled downstairs, trying to hold onto the window. Sara ran up with the toolbox.

I sat on the window sill holding the sash up with my left hand while using the screwdriver in my right hand to reset the hinges. The wind was blowing fiercely. The Storm Force 10 gale pulled the window out, threatening to deposit me in the drive below. Then it blew the window in, threatening to crush my left hand. Then out again. The drive loomed beneath me. Then in. Out and in. Out and in. I turned the screws frantically.

Here is how you occupy your mind while leaning out a window during 100 miles per hour winds: “I could be blown out this window and fall to a horrible death,” I reflected as I turned the screwdriver, “although it would be a legendary death. Maybe someone will write a ballad about it.”

At last, the screws were set and the window was pulled shut. I retired to the lounge and my fire, this time with a strong whiskey in hand, thinking it’s better to be alive than to have a song called The Man Who Blew Out the Window sung in pubs.

Outside, the winds wailed.

Winter is Coming

 Winter is coming.

The sun rides lower in the sky.

 

Cold wind blows across the mountain from the sea,

And trees raise bare white arms to seek the sun.

Frost descends.

 

Winter is coming.

Hard rain pelts the window panes.

 

Boats are in their cradles, pots are in the yard.

 

Winter is coming.

Hedgerow flowers fade away.

 

Our blackened fingers pick the last sweet bramble fruit

And leave the rest for birds and fox to have a feast

On Stephen’s day.

 

Winter is coming.

Hay is gathered in the barn.

 

The sheep move to the lower fields and cattle to

The shed. The dogs fluff up a bed of straw and wait

To run again.

 

Winter is coming,

But we’re well prepared

 

With spuds and onions from our patch

And carrots from the Maharees.

We’ve Jerrry’s lamb to feed our souls,

And hickory and ash to feed our stove.

 

Strong walls surround us.

 

We’ll burrow in and wait for spring.

A Few Words on Fish

I am staring into the open refrigerator trying to remember what I was looking for. When I left my cutting board, three paces away, I knew for certain what I needed. As I passed the sink, I was reasonably certain. When I opened the door, I hadn’t the foggiest notion.

That’s when Sara came into the kitchen. “What are you looking for?” she asked.

Thinking quickly, I answered, “The car keys.”

In retrospect, this may not have been the best answer. I could see Sara making a mental note to discuss this with the doctor the next time we are in.

“Just kidding,” I say, pulling out a lemon, the one I had just remembered I needed. “Nothing to worry about.”

I am cooking fish for dinner and you always need a lemon when cooking fish.

I walk back to my cutting board and set the lemon beside it.

Sara and I love fish, and we are lucky to live on a slender finger of land that stretches far out into the Atlantic, as far west as you can go in Ireland. And surrounding this spit of land are the most fertile fishing grounds in the world. We are on a mission to try every fish in that ocean.

A friend in town, a local chef, once told me when we were discussing cooking fish: “We have the finest, freshest fish in the world. Treat it as simply as possible and don’t mess with it.” (To be fair to him, since he is Irish, he did not say “mess,” but this is a family friendly blog.)

On the pier, just as you head out of town to the Slea Head Road, is the O’Catháin Iasc Teo fish factory. The factory fillets and freezes tons of fresh fish each day from the trawlers that put into the harbor just down the road, and then ship the fish all over Europe. It’s quite an operation, I’m sure. But I’m not interested in the factory.

I am interested in the small shop that sits in front of the factory. Two or three times a week we stop in to see David, our fishmonger.

David stands behind a counter of ice mounded with fresh white fish from the north Atlantic. There’s hake, pollock, and cod. Lemon sole fillets and black sole on the bone.

Skate and scallops and Dingle Bay prawns. Haddock, plaice, and John Dory. There’s squid, if you like it. And in season there is yellowfin tuna, whole sea bass, and wild salmon.

“The hake is lovely today. It just came in this morning,” David tells me.

“I’ll take half a kilo.” I answer. (That’s about a pound.) He slips it into a compostable bag and I head for home with my seven euros worth of fish.

Here’s how to handle hake:

Place the frying pan on the hob on medium high heat and add a bit of good Irish rapeseed oil. Meanwhile, slice the hake into four pieces and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Now add a knob of butter to the pan and wait for it to melt. When the foaming calms to a slow sizzle, slip the hake into the pan, flesh side down.

When the fish is browned, flip it carefully, turn the heat down a bit, and cook another few minutes until it flakes easily with a fork. Now you can move the gloriously browned hake to a platter and slide it into the warming oven while you make a simple sauce. Working quickly, wipe out the pan and return it to the hob, dropping in another knob of butter. As it melts add a small handful of capers to the butter, maybe a quarter cup or so, and let them mingle and get to know each other for a minute or two. Take the pan off the heat and squeeze in some lemon juice and drizzle the sauce over the hake.

Add some sautéed spinach or rainbow chard and a bit of rice, shout “Voilá,” and you have a meal.

A few days later, David and I consult again.

“How is the cod?” I ask.

“Like it’s still swimming,” he replies.

The cod comes home with me.

I learned to cook cod in the oven when we lived in Singapore. I also learned not to grab the handle of the pan with a bare hand after it comes out of the oven. The downside of that experience was a bad burn on my right hand; the upside was discovering the marvelous efficiency of the Singaporean medical system at ten o’clock on a Saturday evening.

Preheat the oven to 200 C. (about 400 F.) and put your favorite cast iron skillet on high heat on the hob with some oil. When the oil is just smoking, the cod goes in for just a few minutes to brown. Olivier, the charcutier at the farmer’s market, had some good-looking chorizo the morning I bought the cod. An ounce or two of the minced chorizo mixed with some bread crumbs, parsley, and butter is waiting in a bowl. When the fish is browned, flip it and mound some of the chorizo mix on top and carefully set the pan in the oven for ten minutes.

While the fish cooks, boil some pasta – farfalle is perfect for this – and brown some butter with a few sage leaves in a skillet. When the fish is done remove it from the oven and let it sit in the pan. Resist the strong urge to touch the handle. Trust me on that. Drain the farfalle, toss it in the pan with the brown butter, some Parmesan, and a little pasta water. Squeeze some lemon over the cod. Dinner is ready.

When we first moved to Dingle, I found a restaurant supply store in nearby Killarney. Sara will tell you I am not to be trusted in a restaurant supply store. By the time we left the store, I was carrying an industrial size fish steamer for which I had paid dearly. The only way to amortize the cost of the steamer is to frequently steam fish in it.

I’ve steamed whole sea bass in it, with sliced chilis, garlic, ginger, scallions, and coriander. But sea bass has a limited season here, in order to preserve the species. Meanwhile, the steamer sits in the cupboard in the kitchen and mocks me. I was determined to use it more, and then I came across a recipe from a woman named Daisy on the internet.

The next time I went in to see David, he had some fine looking pollock in the case. Pollock is a firm, meaty fish that is perfect for steaming.

“Throw that in a bag, David,” I tell him.

Put your steamer on the hob with an inch or so of water in the bottom. You don’t need my fancy steamer; you can use a basket set over a sauce pan. Turn the heat on just enough to bring the water to a simmer. Pat the fish dry with some paper towels and sprinkle with a little ground ginger, salt, pepper, and cornstarch. Make a bed of the white parts of some scallions in the basket of your steamer and make the fish comfortable on top of them. Toss a bit of minced ginger and some scallions over the fish, pop on the lid, and let your fish enjoy its spa experience for ten to twelve minutes.

While your fish is luxuriating in the steam bath, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a sauce pan. When the oil is nice and hot, toss in some ginger matchsticks and the chopped green parts of the scallions. Stir this around for three minutes and then add a tablespoon each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and water. Let this bubble happily along until the fish is done. Arrange the fish on a platter and spoon the sauce over it, then give a good squeeze of lemon to wake it up. Stir-fried or steamed snow peas might look nice as a side.

I like to garnish the platter with some fresh herbs from the garden, but that’s just me.

Tonight, though, we are just having some simple prawns on the barbeque coated in a paste of garlic, cayenne, paprika, oil, and lemons. Quick and easy.

Now where did I put that lemon.

 

 

 

 

 

The Woman Who Cannot Take Yes for an Answer

A Short Sketch

 It’s been over six weeks since my last haircut so I pop into my hairdresser’s to make an appointment.

“I can do ye Wednesday next at half ten,” she tells me.

“Yes, that will be fine,” I reply.

“Or I can do ye on Thursday at eleven,” she offers.

“The Wednesday is grand.”

“And I have Friday at two, though there will be some women here for a touchup before Moira’s wedding at six. Are ye going?”

“No, I don’t know Moira. Wednesday will be lovely. Thanks.”

“I’ll see ye on Wednesday, so.”

“Wednesday it is,” I say and begin to back out of the shop.

“Unless ye’d prefer Tuesday? I could do that.”

I close the door and run down the street.

On Wednesday I settle into the chair as she begins to cut and comb and blow-dry.

“Will I leave it a bit longer on top than last time?” she asks as she snips away.

“Yes, I’d like it a bit longer,” I say. “I don’t want to wait six weeks between haircuts.”

She snips. And snips.

Finally, she holds up a hand mirror so I can see the finished product from all angles.

“How does that look to ye?” she asks.

“Yes. Grand. Perfect,” I say.

“Will I just take a bit more off here?”

“I think it’s just the right leng…”

Snip. Snip. Snip.

“What do ye think?”

“Perf…”

Snip. Snip. Snip.

“I think I’ve got it now,” she says, stepping back to survey her work.

“Yes, that’s just the way I like it.”

She steps back in.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

Snippity. Snip.

Finally, I’m freed from the chair.

I give one last look in the mirror.

I think I can easily make it eight weeks before I have to return.

Home

“There must be a million people here, Sara,” I whimper into the cellphone, a slight note of panic in my voice. “And they’re all rushing and shoving and shouting. Shouting, Sara.” It was definitely panic now.

I had just landed in Newark after nearly a year in our quiet little Dingle. Sara had preceded me to the States by ten days.

Sara dropped into her soothing voice, the one she would use if she were perhaps talking to someone standing on the top rung of the guard rail on the George Washington Bridge. “It will be all right, Jimmy. Why don’t you get something to eat and maybe a nice glass of wine before your next flight? I’ll be waiting for you in Cleveland.”

“Okay,” I sniffle, dodging a vehicle carrying perfectly healthy people down the concourse. I skirt around the scrum of travelers lined up at the entrance to the moving walkway. “Does no one walk anymore with the legs the good lord gave them?” I mumble to myself.

One of the things we love about our life in Dingle is the quiet. Not silence, mind you, but quiet. Cows moo. Sheep bleat. Tractors roll down the lane. People speak in a soft, modulated tone. It’s…quiet.

I find a stool at a food stand in the middle of the concourse and order a salad and a glass of red wine. Around me I can clearly hear the voice of every patron. The woman on the stool next to me is having a loud conversation on her cell phone that is so intimate I begin to blush. “Thank God,” I think, “she doesn’t have it on speaker.”

We were back in the states for six weeks to make final decisions on the house we are building in Ohio and to attend a number of social occasions: a first communion, a wedding, visits with friends, and a graduation. It promised to be mad. We’ll mix that in with visits to nieces and nephews and their babies­. I hoped I’d survive.

Sara is waiting for me at the Cleveland airport. “We are a loud people,” I tell her.

“There, there, Jimmy,” she says. I step down from the rung.

The next few weeks are a whirl.

We make decisions on the house, visiting the wood flooring store and the tile store and the carpet store. We go to the kitchen cabinet warehouse for the fourth or fifth time. We agonize over countertops and back splashes, bathroom fixtures and mirrors. We pick out grout colors–until I was well into my forties, I thought the only color of grout was, well, grout. I was wrong. We pick out paint colors at the paint store. The electrician wants to know the location of every outlet, light switch, and canned light. The plumber is concerned about the drains. It is all exhausting.

In between all of these decisions, we celebrate our granddaughter Sara’s First Communion. Sara (senior, not Sara junior, the celebrant) makes the sensible decision to go full Youngstown Italian for the reception so we bring in trays of stuffed chicken, pasta with red sauce, and salad from a local restaurant, rather than cook it ourselves. She is a wise woman. The party is a great success, even though it is raining and we can’t go outside to sit at the table I built between trips to the paint store and the tile store. People admire it through the windows, though, which is gratifying.

Then we drive to Chicago for a dear niece’s wedding, a truly lovely affair that allows us to visit with longtime friends and family whom we haven’t seen in a few years.

The only downside was the traffic in Chicago. We are at an intersection near the airport with six lanes of traffic going in each direction. All twenty-four lanes are backed up 18 to 20 cars deep. I turn to Sara. “Do you realize there are more cars at this intersection than in all of West Kerry?” I ask her, the panic creeping in again. She uses the soothing voice to calm me down.

After visiting with more dear friends, we fly to Portland, Oregon to celebrate the graduation of our daughter Meg from the Oregon Health Sciences University with her Doctorate in Nursing Practice. Yes, we are very proud of her, thank you for asking. And the traffic on I-5 was bearable.

And then it’s a flight back to Chicago and a drive to Ohio where a few more decisions have to be made. Apparently, different tile requires different grout. I am learning so much on this trip.

Then, at last, after six long weeks, we are on a flight back to Dingle. I sink into my seat, exhausted.

The first night back in Dingle I make cacio é pepe, a standby of cheese and pepper and butter that I turn to when jetlag renders thinking through a meal impossible. We think of it as comfort food.

“Would you like lamb or fish tomorrow night,” I ask Sara.

“Oh fish. I’ve been dreaming about pan-fried hake with that caper sauce you make. We’ll stop at David’s fish shop tomorrow.”

“And Jerry’s rack of lamb on Wednesday?”

“Lovely.”

The next day I ask, “Are you up for the short walk?”

“That’s about all I’m up for.”

We turn left out the gate with Lucy and walk through the abandoned village of Monrea. The roofless stone cabins are surrounded by blooming lilacs. We’re soon back home for a nap, still knackered from the flight.

The short walk is all we can manage the following day as well. We walk slowly, building our strength, and remarking about the red hedge roses that are starting to bloom.

By the third day I ask, “Will we walk down the lane?”

“We will,” Sara answers.

Lucy pulls on her lead as we turn right out the gate and walk down the grass-centered road. The forestry has all leafed out, hiding dark and mysterious paths through the trees. Foxgloves stand guard and fuchsia are just starting to blossom in the ditches. Soon the hedgerows will be walls of red fire beside the lane. Soft clouds of Queen Anne’s Lace float over it all. The palest of pink blossoms on the briars promise a bountiful blackberry harvest this Autumn.

We pass our neighbors’ fairy garden.

Dogs come from behind walls to greet us, asking where we and Lucy have been. Lots of sniffing ensues. Even the mean dog of the old sheep farmer offers a friendly half-hearted snarl and a grudging tail wag. The farmer himself gives us a wave as he sits on a kitchen chair outside his open door, soaking up the sun. We reach the cottage of the old woman at the end of the road. Her curlers are still in her hair. Her hydrangeas are a whirl of red, blue, pink, and white. Lilies and yellow roses line her stone wall.

That night we sit on the couch in our lounge, books in our hands, Lucy stretched between us. Beyond the forestry cows moo and sheep bleat. A tractor rolls down the lane. It’s quiet.

“Will we do the long walk tomorrow?”

“That would be nice,” Sara responds.

We go back to our books with contented sighs. A few moments pass.

“It’s good to be home,” Sara says.

“It is. It is indeed.”

Waking Up the Town

It is five forty-five in the morning. The sun won’t show its face for another hour. A small crowd is starting to form at the top of Goat Street. The wind coming off the harbor brings the cries of the gulls and an occasional spit of rain. And it’s cold. Damn cold. The kind of cold that makes me think, “what the hell am I doing?”

My alarm had gone off at five-fifteen. I could hear the rain pelting off the bedroom window. Sara was off to the states for a short trip and I was left home with Lucy. I rolled out of bed, shivered, and dressed. Lucy opened one eye, growled with irritation, and looked at me like I was an eejit. “Maybe I am,” I tell her, “but I’m going anyway.” She rolled over and went back to sleep.

At five minutes to six the crowd has grown to maybe a hundred people huddled together for warmth between McCarthy’s Pub and Kennedy’s Pub, right by the Holy Rock. Some are tightly holding cups of coffee. I admire their foresight and I envy Lucy safe at home in her warm bed.

And then it happens.

“Boom!” goes the bass drum.

Two, three, four.

“Boom!” the drum again.

Two, three, four.

“Boom-da-boom!”

“Boom-da-boom!”

The trap snare drums snap to life and join in. Then the tenor snares pick up the beat.

“Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat.”

And now it’s the fifes, high pitched and wailing, starting the melody to Amhrán na bhFiann (A Soldier’s Song), the Irish national anthem.

The Dingle Fife and Drum Band moves out smartly in formation led by the flags of Ireland, Kerry, and Dingle, and the crowd follows, our hearts pounding and feet stamping to the martial cadence of the music, as we march down Goat Street to Main Street singing along:

Soldiers are we

Whose lives are pledged to Ireland,

In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal,

‘Mid cannon’s roar and rifles’ peal,

We’ll chant a soldier’s song.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and we are about to wake up the town.

 

Marching to wake up the town is a Dingle tradition that goes back over one-hundred and forty years. The ruling British, in the days of the Land War in the 1880s, banned all marching between sunrise and sunset. The Irish simply responded by marching in the early morning hours, much to the consternation of the sleep deprived British.

And that’s how I find myself marching down Main Street in a crowd of townspeople, picking up participants as we go. We pass Curran’s and Foxy John’s and Benner’s Hotel and Paul Geaney’s, until we reach the end of Main Street where it meets The Mall. Lights begin to flicker in the rooms above the shops.

The crowd waits in the street while the band dashes into their local pub for a cup of tea, some of it, I’m sure, enhanced with spirits. Marching can make you parched.

After a ten to fifteen-minute break, the band reforms, with somewhat less than military precision, and we prepare to take off again. The rain has stopped and the marching has warmed us.

“Boom!” sounds the drum as we march down The Mall, the band playing Garry Owen. They make a hard right on Bridge Street past the Garda Station, through the Holy Ground, and into the Strand. The fifes play A Sprig of Shamrock.

The crowd has grown to nearly five-hundred by now.

As we march and the band plays, tourists, some the worse for wear from the previous evening’s festivities, lean out of the windows of the hotels and the Airbnbs, wonder what the devil is wrong with these daft Irish making this infernal noise.

After reaching the Pier, right in front of Murphy’s Pub, the Band halts and performs an admirable reversal maneuver–the extra strong tea seems to have worn off a bit–and marches back up the Strand. The crowd, confused, scatters to let them pass, then falls in once again, as people come from every direction to join us.

Back at the Holy Ground, the band turns left and marches up Green Street to the tune of Rory O’Moore.We stop at St. Mary’s Church, where the band moves into concert formation on the street in front of the church for a rousing rendition of A Nation Once Again.

At precisely seven a.m., the church doors open and the flag-bearers dip their banners under the doors and lead the band down the center aisle as it plays Aileen Aroon. The townspeople, enough now to fill every pew, follow.

The floor in front of the altar is covered with pots of shamrocks, and Irish flags and banners of St. Patrick surround the altar. The priest enters and blesses the shamrocks with water from the holy wells that surround the town. Then Mass begins.

 In ainm an Atur, agus as Mhic, agus an Spioraid Naoimh,”we recite.

As Mass ends, the townspeople press forward to pick up the blessed shamrocks and pin them to their lapels for the day ahead. The band forms in the center aisle and breaks into St. Patrick’s Dayas we recess. We sing along:

All praise to St. Patrick, who brought to our island

The gift of God’s faith, the sweet light of his love!

For hundreds of years, in smiles and in tears,

Our saint has been with us, our shield and our stay,

And the best of our glories is bright with us yet,

In the faith and the feast of St. Patrick’s Day!

 In the street in front of the church, there is one more rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann,and then we disperse, as friends and neighbors wish each other a Happy St. Patrick’s Day. The sun above us is bright and the town is properly awake.

I hurry home to wake Lucy, have breakfast, and take a nap.

The second parade of the day starts at half one and Lucy can go with me.

We’ve a grand day ahead of us.

Ballynahinch

For years we’ve had a plaque that hangs beside our fireplace with an old Irish saying; “Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán fein,” it reads. “There is no fireside like your own fireside.”

Most evenings this past winter, with the wind howling and the rain falling and the sun setting at 4:30, we sat on the couch in front of our little wood stove, curled up and reading our books, passing an occasional comment to one another. Lucy perches atop the cushion midway between us, sound asleep. Every half hour or so, I feed another log into the stove, fine hickory and ash supplied by Thomas the farmer down the road. It’s a quiet winter life that we love.

But even this idyllic life of leisure can grow tiresome. When that happens, we head off to Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara to sit in front of a different fire for a few days. Ballynahinch is an ancient house in the midst of Connemara with a history that goes back to the O’Flahertys in the 14thcentury. It has, thankfully, been updated since.

Our first visit to Ballynahinch is lost in the haze of memory. “Was it ’85 or ’86?” we ask each other on the drive north, not knowing for sure, but we do agree that we’ve been there more than thirty times over the years.

Others may opt for the sandy beaches and tropical breezes of a Caribbean isle, or an all-inclusive resort in Mexico sitting by a pool in the sun, but we long for 700 acres of wooded estate with a fast-flowing river where we can wear wellies and waxed cotton rather than flipflops and swimsuits.

When we arrive after the four hour drive from Dingle, we are greeted with hugs from Freddie and Kathleen at the reception desk. Bríd from the dining room runs out to greet us and ask how we are keeping. Michael the porter is there to help with our bags and we’ll see Pat at breakfast in the morning and James in the walled garden in the afternoon to inspect the flowers and vegetables. Patrick, the manager, comes loping around a corner to bestow more hugs. It’s like coming home to family.

“Your room is waiting for you,” Freddie announces.

We have been staying in the same room, number 38, for over twenty years, and we joke that they are allowed to let the room to others whenever we are not in residence.

Number 38 overlooks the river at the back of the house. A king bed, loveseat, a comfortable chair, and coffee table fill the room. A television is in the corner, but we never turn it on. The only sound you hear in the night is the rush of the water as it flows around the small island in the middle of the river.In the morning we sit on the loveseat with a cup of coffee, watching the trout and salmon rise and, if we’re lucky, a heron wading around the island hunting for its breakfast.

Most nights we eat in the pub at a table near the fire. On the drive from Dingle to Connemara, Sara and I discuss what to have the first night.

“I love the lamb burger,” Sara says.

“Their pork belly with white beans is excellent, too,” I answer. “And I really like the duck with green lentils. I’m not sure what I’ll have tonight.”

A few minutes pass.

“But it has to be the lamb burger,” I say, and we both sigh thinking about it. We always have the lamb the first night.

There are roaring log fires throughout Ballynahinch­–in the reception area, Hunts room, Fisherman’s Pub, dining room, and Ranji room–named after a former owner of the house, Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanager, better known as Ranji, Prince of Cricketers.We have enjoyed all of these fires over the years, but our favorite is in the library, where we find ourselves after dinner on the first night. Bottle-green walls and bookshelves surround us in the small room and, above the mantle, a portrait of Richard Martin stares down at us. Martin was the founder of the SPCA and at one time owned most of the land and, by extension, the tenants of Connemara.  Ballynahinch was his country home. Martin‘s nickname was Humanity Dick, but that applied more to animals than to his tenants.

We sit in the library much as we do in our lounge back in Dingle, with Sara on one end of the couch and myself in a club chair, a drink, tea or wine or a whiskey, on the table in front of us and a book in our hand. Lucy, sadly, is with her dog sitter back in Dingle, frolicking with the Labs and Whippets and occasionally being dragged through a stream or mud puddle in the forestry against her will. Every twenty minutes or so a porter comes by to poke and prod the fire and feed it a log, then moves on to the other fireplaces to perform the same ritual.

A couple comes in to join us, he on the other end of the couch and she in the club chair opposite me. We nod and smile pleasantly and return to our books. They do not have books. Silence settles softly around us.

If there is one thing the Irish cannot abide, it is silence.

“Have you been here before?” the fellow finally asks, unable to contain himself any longer.

We look up from our books. Posh accent, Dublin I’d say.  We lower our books to our laps resignedly.

“We have. Many times,” we reply. “And you?”

“We come up from Dublin once or twice a year.”

And we’re off. Another round of drinks is in order and the books are put aside until later. We have new friends to get to know.

The days are spent exploring Connemara by ca­r, walking on remote beaches, shopping in Clifden, or visiting the smokehouse in Ballyconneely to order smoked salmon to take home to Dingle. If the weather is not too wet, we pull on our wellies and walk the paths around the estate. There are walks along the river and through the woods, following the route of the old narrow-gauge railroad that ran between Galway and Clifden. Our favorite, though, is around Ballynahinch Lake.  On an island in the center of the lake is an ancient fortress that belonged to Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connacht who married into the O’Flaherty clan. The surrounding mountains, the Twelve Bens, are perfectly reflected in the crystal clear water. We stand on a dock watching in awed admiration. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem calledBallynahinch Lakethat runs through my mind:

So we stopped and parked in the spring-cleaning light
Of Connemara on a Sunday morning
As a captivating brightness held and opened
And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake
Entered us like a wedge knocked sweetly home
Into core timber.

 

When we arrive back at the house we pull off our muddy wellies and settle down in front of the fire in the reception area for a restorative cup of tea.

The next night after dinner­–the duck was lovely, by the way–we find ourselves in the library once again, in the same couch and chair. We chat with the porter as he tends the fire and then dive back into our books. Patrick, the general manager for the past twenty years, appears and takes a seat on the couch, stretching his long legs in front of him towards the flames.

We like to tease Patrick that we were coming to Ballynahinch when he was still a schoolboy in short pants.  We trade stories about his three kids and our children and grandchildren, all of whom he has met over the years. Lulu, a sharp young woman from Brittany who runs the pub now, comes by and Patrick decides a round of drinks is essential to fuel the conversation.

Lulu is a bit nervous to take an order in front of the boss.

Sara orders a Cosmo and Patrick a glass of Guinness.

So far, so good.

“I’ll have a Dingle Gin martini,” I tell her.

“Up or on the rocks?” she asks.

“Up,” I reply.

“Lemon peel or olives?”

“Lemon.”

“Shaken or stirred?”

“Stirred,” I say. “Anticlockwise, please.”

She goes off to the pub, bemused.

After Lulu delivers the drinks, (the martini was perfectly stirred), Sara, Patrick, and I toast our stay and over the next half hour proceed to solve all the problems of the U.S. and Ireland and, as a bonus, Brexit. If only people would listen to us.

After setting the world right, Patrick has to run off to watch his elder son’s rugby match, so we say our goodbyes.

“We’ll see you in October,” we tell him.

Sara and I settle back into our books, passing the occasional comment and listening to the crackling logs, utterly content.

In the morning we must leave our beloved Ballynahinch and return home to Dingle where we have our own fire to tend and a muddy Lucy to collect.

Until the next time, dear Ballynahinch family.

Keep our room ready. And the fire burning.

Will they come again in the spring?

Two days before the New Year, we saw the blooming lilac bush. We were on our short walk through the townland of Móin an Fhraoigh, next to our own Mullenaglemig. A fellow walking with his Labrador in the opposite direction stopped to gawk at the bush with us.

“It’s lovely to look at but do ye think it will come again in the spring?” he asked.

His Lab, after a quick sniff at Lucy, shoved his muddy nose into us, hoping for a scratch behind the ear. We both obeyed. He did not seem interested in the cycles of nature.

“I’m afraid of what will happen when the frost comes,” I replied.

“Aye,” the fellow said.

We continued on our walk.

The winter has been abnormally mild this year with temperatures consistently in the 50s. Anemones started popping their red, blue, and purple heads up in my garden in early January. Our roses are blooming as well. In the woods nearby daffodils sway in the breeze and, over in the corner near the fence, our landlord’s gran’s lilies are glossy green, getting ready to flower. The fields around us are as green as a day in June.

Good weather for walking

But we all know the frost will come.

The short walk–about two and a half miles–is the walk we take when we’ve had a busy day shopping in town or we’re still sore from our workout at the gym the previous day.

“Will we do the short walk?” Sara will say as we approach our gate.

“I think we should.”

We turn left as we pass through the gate and walk to the bridge that spans the stream that borders our forestry. There is a short hill beyond the bridge, the only strenuous part of the walk, and we lean on our sticks until we reach the crossroad. Móin an Fhraoigh, called Monrea in English,is just past the crossroad.

The road flattens out here, passing by some newer bungalows with a view of the harbor, Dingle Bay, and, on a clear day, Little Skellig and Skellig Michael, some fifty kilometers out in the Atlantic. We stop to admire the bay. Sara calls one house with a particularly fine view our “lottery house.” Around a bend in the lane is the lilac bush that bloomed in December and, a few steps on, there’s an abandoned village

The village fuels my imagination; I populate it in my mind.

There are three or four one-room stone cottages hard by the lane on both sides. The walls, laid stone by stone two hundred years ago, still stand strong, as sturdy as the people who lived within them. The door frames and window sashes are intact. But the hearth has gone cold and the timber and thatch of the roof have long since rotted away.

Scattered around are sheds for their animals – a cow for the milk and butter and hens for eggs. Small plots for growing potatoes, cabbage, and carrots can still be seen, now just furrows covered by grass.

How many generations were fed beside those hearths? How many children slept in the loft beneath the thatch? How many secret plans to leave were shared? Outside in the yard an old swing still hangs from a tree but there are no squeals of laughter. One-by-one the children left. Famine, crushing poverty, wars of independence took their toll. The children scattered to Hartford and Springfield, London and Birmingham, Sydney and Melbourne. Few would ever come back.

The night before a child left the village in Monrea there would be an “American wake,” with the women keening and the men stoically smoking their pipes. In the morning, the son or daughter would walk away to Dingle, not daring to look back until they were around the bend in the lane, so they would not lose their resolve. From Dingle there was a train to Tralee and then another train to the port of Cobh, near Cork, where they would board a ship to a new, unknown life.

Until there was no one left.

A few steps further along the lane on the short walk is a larger house, built perhaps in the early 1900s. It started like the houses beside it, one room with a loft, but over the years, as the owners became more prosperous, new sections were added, along with a solid slate roof. A proper front garden was planted, with a stucco wall around it. A path led from the wrought-iron gate to the front door, and the broad field beside it had room for five or six fine milk cows. By the 1950s and 60s, electricity and telephone services had arrived.

But here too, the children would be forced to leave, seeking better opportunities than tending six milk cows in a field in rural Ireland. Unlike earlier generations, they drove to Shannon and flew into exile knowing they could keep in touch with Mammy by phone, and, if they prospered, come back someday to visit.

Squeezing past the rusting iron gate, most of the spindles rotted away and the yellow paint peeled off, we walk up the path that has sunk beneath the sod, marked only by a line of daffodils on either side. The rhododendrons by the front door are starting to bud much too early

We peer in the deep-set front windows. On one sill is a pencil and note pad and an ancient telephone. On the other there is a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

Feeling like we are prying, we back out of the garden and continue our walk, turning the corner towards the old Ventry road, and remarking on the early primroses hidden in the hedge.

As we walk along, I imagine an old woman, the last occupant of the house, sitting by the fire saying her beads, waiting for the phone to ring and wondering, “Will they come again in the spring?”

It’s a short walk, but a lot to ponder.