Conversations in Town

“I’ve never really liked the breakfast sausages I’ve had in Ireland,” Sara says to Jerry, our butcher, “but I love yours.”

“I suspect that’s because I put meat in mine,” replies Jerry.  He turns to me, “Will ye be at Trevis’ launch on Sunday? It’s a grand book altogether that he has.”  A butcher who puts meat in his sausages and reads books?  We bond immediately.  “At O’Flaherty’s? We will,” I say.

During my brief trip to our town in January to set up our house, I’d walked into the butcher shop down the lane just off Main Street and announced “I’m looking for the best butcher in Dingle.”

“Well, now, ye’ve found him,” he retorted.  It helps that he has a distinguished last name and that he sources all of his beef and lamb on the Dingle Peninsula and that he supplies most of the good restaurants in town.  But it is the conversation with him while he cuts your order to your specifications that draws us in.  He gets our custom.


John Street becomes Main Street becomes Upper Main becomes Goat Street in Dingle town.  Green Street and Dykegate Lane and The Mall run down the hill to the Strand and the Holy Ground at the foot of the town near the harbor.

In a town with a scant two thousand people there are two bookstores, multiple art galleries, and fine restaurants.  And pubs.  Lots of pubs.  As visitors from the Blasket Islands used to say, “A good night was had for several days.”

There are artists and sculptors, writers and musicians, poets and poseurs.  Shopkeepers and cheese, veg, and fish mongers.  And of course butchers, bakers, and yes, a candle stick maker.  We visit and learn from all of them.  And talk.

Two sweet ladies run a corner shop where we squeeze sideways down the aisles crammed with games and and toys and paper and biros and bubble wrap.  They are holding a lotto for a woman in town who has been struck by “the cancer.”  First prize is a “heifer in calf.”  As I hand her my euro, I worry aloud that I might win.  “Don’t worry, I’m sure someone will relieve ye of the prize at no cost,” she assures me.  She knows we are Yanks and asks us if we’ve read The Hillbilly Elegy, one of the most important books of the past year.  Embarrassed, we tell here we have not.  “Ye should,” she says, “it helps explain how that eejit was elected.”  We pick up a copy at the bookstore down the street.


The corner store

I’m talking to our fruit and veg man about the film festival in March and the Dingle races in August.  As always the talk turns to the weather.  It is a fine day in town and not a cloud in the sky, a true rarity here.  “Do ye have days like this in Santa Fe?” he asks.  “About three hundred and twenty a year,” I answer.  “Well,” he muses, “I reckon we balance that ledger.”

I think every citizen of every town in the world claims that their town has the best ice cream.  I’m sorry to tell all of the Handel’s and Graeter’s fans out there, but Murphy’s in Dingle takes the crown.  We stop in for a cup and get to talking with the manager.  “I suspect you’ll see us often now that we’re living in Mullenaglemig,” we tell her.  “Don’t I live in the first house in front after the turn?” she exclaims.  Just then an older man walks in.  She says, “This is my Da.  He lives in the house behind me.”  I introduce myself by saying, “We’re your new neighbors.  We live in the house in the woods where Grainne used to live.”  He says, “Are ye the Yanks who walk, then?”  We are indeed.

A fews days later, Sara has a minor observation to make to Jerry, our butcher.  “The chops we had this week didn’t taste the same as the chops the week before,” she tells him.

“Different animal,” he patiently explains.


We live closer to things here, whether it’s the meat or the veg or the eggs that are so fresh that you almost know the name of the hen that laid them. And we’re learning to live closer to the people.  There’s an anecdote near the end of the book Jerry and I were talking about.  Trevis is Trevis Gleason, another Yank in town.  His book is called Chef  Interrupted, which I highly recommend. Trevis was an accomplished chef whose career was cut short by multiple sclerosis.  He came to Dingle for three months years ago to sort out his life.  Towards the end of his stay, he laments to the bar man in his local that he has had so many visitors from the States that he hasn’t gotten to know many of the people in town.  “Don’t worry,” the bar man tells him, “they all know you.”

Aren’t we all different animals then, just getting to know each other?  And so it goes with us, one conversation at a time.


There are five raised garden beds surrounding our house.  They’ve been sorely neglected for a good few years, covered with weeds held in place by rotting boards.  I am going to have a garden, so I set to work.

My foot rests on the garden spade and drives it into the soil.  The sound of the spade meeting dirt instantly transports me to a line in the first poem I ever read by Seamus Heaney.  It was called “Digging” and was the opening poem in his first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966.  He was watching his “old man” digging in the garden.  The line reads:

a clean rasping sound,

When the spade sinks into the gravelly ground.

That is a perfect line.  The gravelly ground is what I’m faced with now.  With two days work, the garden is turned and the rotted boards are reinforced.  A further two days and the onions are set and the lettuce sown.  I plant cauliflower and radishes, broccoli and beans.  Herbs are in the bed closest to the kitchen and the back door.  Dahlias, lilies, and anemone will brighten the beds in front near our door.  And now I can only wait.


The Garden Spade

We are settling into domesticity in Mullenaglemig.  The front hall has a new rug and our duvets have new covers.  The kitchen is now nicely equipped with all the tools we need for cooking.  The St. Brigid’s Cross hangs in the lounge.  Our friend, the Young Farmer, has delivered a year’s worth of wood for the stove, hauling it down the lane with his tractor, his young son and retriever sharing the cab with him in hopes of meeting the Yanks.


St. Brigid’s Cross

We’ve met our nearest neighbors and their two and a half year old daughter Ellie, who live in the house about 75 meters across the field. Ellie has fallen in love with Lucy and the feeling is reciprocated.  One early morning, Lucy dashes across the field and through our neighbors’ front door.  Sara takes off after Lucy, still in her pajamas.   The neighbors are having breakfast with their houseguests and they are all in their pajamas as well, so not to worry.  There are introductions all around with everyone pretending this happens all the time.  Lucy is playing with Ellie in the lounge; she has decided to spread her joy over two households.

There is only one thing we lack in this life of domestic bliss.  Although we have a washing machine of the highest caliber with multiple cycles and temperatures and rinse speeds, we do not have a dryer.  This is fairly common in Ireland.  Clothes are dried on a rack in the house and then they are folded and put away twenty-four to forty-eight hours later when they are almost dry.  Or you can dry them on the line outside.  This leaves them smelling what the Irish call “fresh”.

I must be totally honest at this point.  Of all the experiences in my life, the one I never expected to enjoy is the sight of Sara pegging clothes to the line.  This is not as simple a proposition as it seems.  Before taking the clothes outside, the weather forecasts from at least three different web sites as well as RTE and Radio Kerry must be consulted.  These are then coupled with the tide charts and the astrology column in the Irish Times.  If a Druid is close by, it might pay to have him cast some bones, and a quick run down to the church to light a candle is always prudent.  If all is in order, then, and only then, do you peg the clothes to the line.  You can then come inside to enjoy a nice cup of tea after your labors.  And at that exact point, you leap up and run madly out to the line because you realize it has begun to rain.


I walk out to the garden a few times a day, with my morning coffee or with my evening whiskey.  I can hear the cattle in the field beyond the trees and the sheep on the hillside above us.  The herbs are already gracing our meals.  The radishes will soon be ready and the onions are pushing the small stones aside.  Lettuce is tentatively peeking out, looking for the sun.  The flowers will gather strength for a few more days until they make their appearance.  And tonight we’ll sleep on “fresh” sheets.


The herb garden

An Easter Song

In twos and threes they climb the hill,

Some lean on sticks to aid the trek.

The sun has yet to rise above

The bay.  They gather near the stones.


“The largest crowd I’ve ever seen”

The priest and acolytes prepare

The table, roughly made of wood

And placed before St. Manchan’s cross.


More torches bob below us now.

In ainm an Athur” he begins.

The ancient tongue is all they need

Today to praise their risen lord.


A whistle plays a solemn air

And voices rise to greet the sun.

We walk back down the hill to home

Scattering sheep as we go.

The Manchan Mystery

“Come into the yard,” the Young Farmer says, “and I’ll show it to ye.”  We cross the yard and he points to the hill above.

“Just there, between the trees so, above the shed roof.”  He gestures toward the hill.  The Young Farmer is about six feet two inches, and I am not.  I can’t see a thing.  I go up on my toes, straining, and then I see it.  “It’s An Teampall Geal.  On Easter morning, sunrise, we have the Mass up there.”

He gives us directions.  “Go up to the top of the road and turn right at the lane.  You’ll walk a while past the farm house on the left and the yard on the right.  The farmer’s name is Tue but he’ll be busy with the lambing.  He has no English, but he’ll know why you’re there.  Past the yard there’s what we would call a bohereen and at the end a gate.  Close the gate behind ye and ye can walk up.”

From the road below, I had naively assumed the spot on the hill was just a pile of rocks.  Sara and Lucy and I walk up the road and down the lane.  On the right runs a stream teeming with watercress.  Memories.

My father loved watercress.  When I was a young boy, perhaps six or seven, Dad and I would explore the streams in Mill Creek Park, searching for a hidden trove of cress.  It was elusive, and only occasionally did we find it.  But when we did, we had a quiet celebration, Dad would smile, and plan a special salad for that night. I smile my Dad’s smile when we pass this stream.


The Cress Stream

The lane past the yard turns into the bohereen and the bohereen turns into ankle-deep mud.  We have our Wellies but Lucy does not.  The mud reaches her knees.  She steps gingerly, unsure of her footing.  I lift the loop of twine and swing open the three bar gate and then close and secure it behind us as we slog up the track.  The sheep in the fields beside us start to scatter, unsure of these strangers slipping toward them with their little dog that looks nothing like any sheep dog they have ever known.  And the pile of rocks begins to take form.

An Teampall Geal, or the Bright Oratory in English, is a dry-stone structure from around the eighth century.  Dry stone means that no mortar was used in its construction, just perfectly fitted stones piled atop one another, fashioned by craftsmen with no modern tools but a wealth of patience.  The stones were laid so that the interior side of the stone is slightly higher than exterior side and the stones gradually slope upward to meet at a peak.  Imagine an overturned boat.  The stonework allowed the interior to remain dry while the rain runs off in the wet Irish climate.  There are dozens of oratories scattered around the Dingle Peninsula.  Archeologists differ about their use.  Some suggest they are early Christian hermitages or churches while others claim they were meant as guesthouses for pilgrims to Mt. Brandon, just over the hill.  Competing claims are still hotly debated in the pubs at night just for the sport of it.

The Bright Oratory has lost its roof.  Its perfection has fallen victim to the centuries. Just on the other side of the hill above us is the Gallarus Oratory, a perfectly preserved structure, though many dispute its age.  With that perfection you get a three Euro admission fee, a gift shop selling post cards and models of the oratory, and hordes of tourists disgorging from the buses.  Here at An Teampall Geal you get solitude, mystery, and skittish sheep.  And stunning views of Dingle Bay and Skellig Michael many miles to the south.   You can hear the birds sing and the wind rustle through the gorse.  We like it better here, alone on the hillside with our thoughts and our dog, pondering imperfection.

Outside the oratory there is an Ogham stone standing guard over the reputed grave of St. Manchan.  Ogham stones are standing stones that are marked with groups of cut horizontal lines on either side of the sharp vertical edge of the stone, an early form of writing known as ogham.  This stone also has a cross enclosed in a circle marking it as Christian.  Not much is known about St. Manchan, where he came from, or why he chose this hillside above Dingle to live his life. Was he an outcast from a nearby monastery or a hermit seeking his god?  Did he revert to the recent pagan past and worship the sun and the stars and the birds around him?  We’ll never know.  It’s a mystery.

We head back down the track to the bohereen, the slap and squelch of the mud sucking at our boots, and think about what we’ve seen.  Lucy will need a bath and we could use a warm fire.  We’ll ponder the mystery.  And we’ll be back for Easter morning.


The Ogham Stone

“Turn right at the lane near the top of the road,

Passing the house to your left and the yard to your right.

Tue has no English, but he’ll know where ye go.  He won’t mind

That ye pass so, since many have passed before.

Just close the gate behind ye.”


The mud is as slick as an otter’s pelt as we slip

And slide up the track.  And the sheep on the hill turn to trot

Away with a glance as the strangers approach.  It’s there

Across the far field, that the stones come to life and form

The church and standing stone.


Manchan did you lay the stones alone?

Were you exiled from Skellig for your sins?

Did you spend your nights staring across the sound

Praying for forgiveness?

Did you live your life alone and know

The birds before they sang their song?

Did you eat the cress from the stream?


Do the strokes on your stone tell your secret?

Manchan, who were you?  Did you know?


Most days we go for a walk along the lanes near our house.  We pull on our Wellies and at our gate we ask, “Which way?”  Right takes us through Mullenaglemig and then up the hill to Caherboshina and back down the Ventry road to our gate. Left leads us to Burnham and Lord Ventry’s former estate.  Each journey is about four miles.  Today we chose right.

In Santa Fe we could cover four miles in a little over an hour.  Here it takes longer as you stop and chat with the neighbors or see how the spring lambs are getting on or if the bullocks are adding weight or if the horses would like an apple.  All the while you have to check what is blooming in the hedgerows and step lightly around the manure in the road.  Thus the Wellies.


As we pass the wall of the middle bungalow just below us, a head pops up from the other side.  We say the customary “How are ye? Fine day” as we pass.  (Yes, we’ve unconsciously started to say “ye” rather than “you”).  He practically begs us to stop, saying, “Please talk to me.  This hole is almost killing me.”  He’s digging a hole on the other side of the wall so his son can plant a shrub.  We pass the time for a while until he has the strength to go back to work.

Down the lane a bit an old Irish bachelor farmer wearing his Sunday suit, jacket and jumper buttoned up tightly, cap tight on his head, has pulled a kitchen chair out of the house, planted it on the walk just in front of the gate, and is enjoying the rare sun and the nearly sixty degree day.  We exchange “How’r ye” with him but the conversation ends there since he “doesn’t have much English.”  We live in a Gaeltacht area where much of day-to-day life is conducted in Irish.  Forty years ago, when I first came to Ireland, the old farmer would have had an ass and cart for his transportation.  Now he drives a Volkswagen Golf, circa late 1980s, with a trailer hitch on the back so he can get his sheep to market.  I think of the Tomas O’Crohan line from his book The Islandman, “the like of us will never be again.”  The farmer in the cap and suit is the old Ireland and when he is gone we will all feel the loss.

Near the top of the hill, the big farmer stops his tractor to say hello.  He is both big in stature, standing well over six feet, and in cattle, raising nearly forty-eight bullocks in his expansive pastures.  He is also the man who knows a man who can find you a man, if you know what I mean.  Thomas is the future of agriculture in Ireland, well educated and fluent in modern farming methods.  He can raise bullocks or heifers and plants timber to hedge against bad times in the cattle market.  And he’ll monitor all of it with computer programs.  And the old man down the road will still haul his sheep to market in a small trailer behind the Golf.



As we turn left at the top of the hill the road narrows considerably so that Sara and I are almost shoulder to shoulder as we walk between the hedgerows.  Lucy darts from one berm to the other chasing new smells and occasionally being chased herself by the sheepdogs at every farm.  The lambs are about six weeks old now and getting more self confident though they rush back to mom as we approach.  The horses readily accept the apples from Sara and graciously allow us to pet them, though Lucy remains unimpressed.


Gorse shows off yellow blooms that hurt your eyes and thorns that hurt your hands.  Buttercups are seeking the sun and the tiny Easter lilies are preparing to greet the Risen Christ in just over a week.  Holly is turning glossy and the fuchsia is just starting to bud.  By June there will be miles of red and purple blooms lining the lane.

One last turn to the East on the Ventry Road that will lead us home  We walk in the footsteps of Peig and Tomas and the other Blasket Islanders.  This is the road they followed when they ventured into the “English town” of Dingle from their homes some twenty kilometers away.  We’ll soon have a cup of tea and Lucy will take a well deserved nap.

We’ve started a collection of Wellies in a variety of sizes for our visitors this year if they decide to join us on a walk.  The only question is “left or right.”