The Strand



The Three Sisters – Smerwick Harbour

I remove the lead from Lucy’s harness.

She’s startled. Her eyes look at us as if to say, “What the hell is going on?” She takes a few tentative steps away from us and begins to walk in small circles.

The circles get wider and wider and faster and faster. Floppy ears stream behind and her body tilts at a forty-five degree angle, paws kicking up sand. Circles become loops become figure eights. She is like Yeats’ falcon, except with four legs and long ears. Just as it seems she will escape from our gravitational pull she runs full speed toward us and skids to a stop at our feet.

“No really,” her eyes say. “What the hell is going on?”

It has been a bit of an adjustment period for Lucy. The first day, on the drive across country from Dublin, Lucy sat on Sara’s lap and her little nose quivered for five hours, trying to make sense of these new smells. It was slowly dawning on her that she wasn’t in the desert anymore. So many things were unfamiliar. Like rain. Cattle and sheep. And grass. “You want me to go where and do what?”

And now she’s allowed to run free. “This is great!” she says.

But the strand is from another universe. The sand is familiar, but not combined with waves and shells and seaweed. She doesn’t know what to smell first. As always, she adapts. And takes off into orbit again.

We are on the strand between Ballyferriter and An Mhuirioch, a few miles from our home.  Miles long and hundreds of meters wide, it runs along Smerwick Harbour on the north side of the Dingle peninsula. It is the perfect place for a long walk, kicking up sand, examining shells, and laughing at Lucy as she runs. Across the smooth, placid bay, we are protected by a long promontory called the Three Sisters, named for the three peaks that separate us from the winds of the Atlantic. Far to our left, on the west end of the bay, we can just make out the Dun an Oir, or Fort of Gold, an Iron Age promontory fort. The whole vista is stunningly beautiful.

But, sadly, beauty in Ireland is often the handmaiden of tragedy. In 1580, in one of many attempts to free Ireland from British rule, a force of around six hundred Italian and Spanish Papal troops landed in Smerwick Harbour and met up with a small band of Irish revolutionaries. They took up a defensive position in the ancient fort. An English force under the command of Lord Grey marched out from Dingle to meet them and a contingent of the British navy moved in to block the mouth of the harbour. A siege was in place. The navy bombarded the fort, destroying the defenses.

After the three-day siege, the Papal troops negotiated a surrender. The terms of that surrender are still debated to this day, but the Papal troops believed that their lives would be spared. Lord Grey planned otherwise. “I put in certain bands who straight fell to execution. There were 600 slain,” he wrote to Queen Elizabeth. The soldiers were then decapitated and their bodies thrown into the sea. To this day bones wash in on the tide.

But for the few Irish soldiers he had a special punishment. He ordered his smithy to break their arms and legs in three places, and left them in agony overnight. The next morning he hung them.

Good Queen Bess wrote back to him to congratulate him on being an instrument of God’s glory. Thus goes Irish history. As Yeats wrote, it is “a terrible beauty.”


Lucy is still orbiting around us with total abandon until she catches something out of the corner of her eye. She skids to a dead stop, backs up a few paces, and looks over her shoulder at us. Strange four-legged creatures gallop by, each with a human on their back. Lucy edges closer to us.

Now, Lucy is not a total naif. She has seen horses before, but always in an abstract sort of way, like through a car window. This is up close though and, she seems to say to us, “They are really huge. And sort of scary.”

As she stands there, the tide begins to roll closer and closer, but poor Lucy is distracted by new smells and seaweed and horses. A wave just barely touches her right front paw. In a truly Olympian move, she jumps eighteen inches straight up, levitates for a moment,  flies two feet to her left, and sticks the landing. Somewhere in this wide world, Simone Biles feels a pang of jealousy.

Lucy has learned a lot on this walk and so have we. We wipe her feet, kick the sand from our Wellies, and head home.



                     Three sisters watch her wild dance as

                     She runs along the strand, circling

                     And whirling, kicking up the sand,

                     That glitters bright with shell and bone.


                     She stops to watch the creatures prance,

                     And throws a cautious glance to ask

                     If God allows the horse to share

                    With little dogs who run and play?


                    Lord Grey dispatched the foreign race

                    But they remain forever in this place.

                    The tide has yet to wash the blood

                    Away, and diamonds light the surf.


                    God’s plan is seldom clear to men,

                    Or queens. And innocents must die

                    Before the little dogs can run

                    And whirl in diamond crusted sand.


                   So innocence may die in blood

                   But innocence returns to stay

                   Where little dogs kick up the sand

                   And whirl and dance along the strand.

The Painting

We are going into town to pick up a veg for dinner. It is the Thursday before the four-day Feile Na Bealtaine, the town’s arts and culture festival. We had read that a painter whose work we have admired for years would be opening his studio for the festival and Sara suggested we stop by to see if he was around. The studio is dark.

She knocks on the door. “There are no lights on,” I offer.

“I thought I saw someone,” she persists. She knocks again.

“It’s obvious he’s not here. We’ll stop back tomorrow. Let’s just get the veg,” I protest. Of course, she knocks a third time.

The door opens and a tall man with a mischievous glint in his eye invites us in. “I was just putting the kettle on before I hang the pictures,” he says. “I thought it might be Marion, from next door, but you’re welcome to come in.” We walk into the renovated fisherman’s cottage now serving as an artist’s studio, overwhelmed by the smell of oil paint and surrounded by an explosion of color. His paintings are almost three dimensional, textured with a palette knife, drawing you deep into the scene. We succumb.

And that’s how we ended up buying a Liam O’Neill painting, called Lobstermen Cuas, and squandering a chunk of our children’s inheritance.

Suddenly, we are chatting away with a renowned painter who is represented in collections worldwide, as he explains his paintings to us. Soon his lovely wife walks in and the conversation doubles. Liam is a former schoolteacher who taught special needs children in Dublin for thirty years while painting and earning critical acclaim in his free time. After retirement, he returned to the special light of the Dingle Peninsula to paint full time. Our painting is from a place not far from our house, the dark cliffs near Brandon Creek, where Liam used to fish with his cousins. As we look into the center of the painting, almost feeling the tug of the waves, Liam observes, “If I do say so myself, I’m getting better.”


Lobstermen Cuas


Herself and Liam


Amazingly Liam is a self-taught artist. I ask him about that and he tells me a story about his first exhibition in Dublin forty years ago. A famous Professor of Sculpture from a prestigious Irish art school came to the show. Liam nervously asked the Professor, “Do you think I could get into the school?” The esteemed expert said to him, “Don’t you dare. They’ll knock it right out of you.”

“Will you be coming to the Cormac Begley concert on Monday?” he asks. “His father is a childhood chum and I’ll be giving a little speech to kick it off.”

“We’ll be there,” we promise, before strolling off to get the veg.

It was broccoli, as I recall. Broccoli and a painting, not a bad trip to town.


Three days later we crowd into the St. James Church; it’s Irish Protestant, so no genuflection is required. Cormac Begley is the finest concertina player in the world. I can make that claim with some certainty because I know of no other concertina players.

Liam walks to the stage to get the program started. His “speech” is a prose poem that explores the importance of place to Irish music, art, and literature. He almost sings the words, alternating between Irish and English, describing the sound of the wind on the cliffs as the lobstermen pull their pots, or the crash of the surf on the strand as the naomhog (pronounced nay-vogue, a lightweight boat made of skins pulled over a wooden frame) nears the shore, and how those sounds become the music we are about to hear. He quotes The Given Note by Seamus Heaney, a poem about a fiddler who receives a mysterious tune called The Fairies Lament (or Port na bPucai in Irish), from the wind.

                   He got this air out of the night…

                   So whether he calls it spirit music

                  Or not, I don’t care. He took it

                  Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.

And then Cormac Begley walks out. He is a large man in his thirties, with wild red hair and a wilder beard. I must make a small confession here – we are in a church, after all – but I have never been to a concertina concert before. I have heard them as part of an ensemble – a fiddle, guitar, bodhran, or tin whistle, perhaps – but never as a solo instrument. But when Cormac plays it is mesmerizing.

Cormac explains that the concertina is actually a reed instrument similar to the harmonica and accordion. And there is more than one type: There are English and Anglo and German concertinas; baritone and bass and treble and piccolo concertinas. He has them all and in his hands they become magical.



He plays airs and laments, reels and hornpipes, switching instruments between each piece. We can hear the wind on the cliffs and the waves on the shore. His father, Brendan, with long white hair and beard, comes to the stage to sing a Sean-nos ballad with the mournful single-note drone of Cormac’s bass concertina in the background. Uncle Tommy hauls his accordion up to play a duet with Cormac, who jokes, “the accordion is much easier to play.” His mother, he says, “is a wicked bodhran player, but too shy to come up here.”  Oh to be in the Begley kitchen on a cold winter night.

Picking up his piccolo concertina, he explains, “the last two notes are so high they can’t be heard, but I play them anyway.” And he proceeds to play a reel that disappears into the air, the only sound the tapping of his foot keeping time.

We clap and cheer and call for encores. It is fabulous.

We leave St. James, grateful that the choir loft above us had not collapsed from the stomping of feet, and head home to sit in front of Lobstermen Cuas and listen to the wind.

Saturday Morning in Church

I’m standing in the rain on a cold, dreary morning outside of Dick Mack’s, chatting with my queue mates.  There’s nearly a hundred of us now, thirty minutes before the door opens at eleven.  Dick Mack’s is an ancient pub on Green Street know for it’s whiskey selection and an honest pint.  But today, during Feile Na Bealtaine, the town’s music and arts festival, it is the “Church of the Spoken Word.”

The question often posed is:

                    Where is Dick Mack’s?

                    Opposite the church.

                    Where is the church?

                    Opposite Dick Mack’s.


The door swings open and one hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred of us, crowd into the narrow space, jostling for position, leaning against the bar and perching on counters.  This is nearly a tenth of the town’s population.  The lady I’d been passing the time with says to me, “Will ye hold my spot?” and dashes to the bar, returning with a whiskey.  Our host announces that this is the only day of the year that “You can drink before the Angelus Bell.”

                    Cheek by jowl and gill to gill

                    Some have whiskey to fight the chill.

Our host begins by paying tribute to a Monsignor from Galway, a Gaeltacht poet who was always in the front row of this church, but died shortly after the last gathering.  “Not through any fault of our own,” the host explains.  He reads a poem by the priest in Irish, translating parts of it as he goes.  The poem laments the drowning of the poet’s brother, Miheal, in a fishing accident off the coast of Dingle.  The poet hears his niece, Miheal’s daughter speaking at her father’s funeral, and writes one of the most achingly beautiful lines I’ve ever heard:

                    Her Irish is as pure as the longing in my heart for Miheal.

Poets and playwrights, novelist and actors read from their works.  Musicians play interludes.  Irish and English fly around the room.  We laugh and cry by turns.

A novelist reads an excerpt from his children’s novel about monsters that is so frightening that some listeners order more whiskey, fearing for the poor children.  A slam poet chants a rhythmic and passionate poem about finding so much success fighting “the man” that he becomes “the man.”  A short story writer describes her Mayo home village as “a benign speck of a town that will devour your soul.”  Two violinists play Lili Marlene and the crowd sings along.

A playwright, Mick Mulcahy, with the help of our host, reads a scene from his newest play, a raucous, ribald account of a fisherman cursing the Irish government, the European Union, and God himself over the drowning death of his first mate and best friend.  The scene uses every variation and permutation of a favorite Irish word that it  dazzles the audience.  The playwright seems familiar, and then it dawns on me.  Two, perhaps three, years ago, Sara and I had heard him interviewed on Radio Kerry about his play After Sarah Miles.  That play was about the making of the film Ryan’s Daughter many years ago here on the Dingle Peninsula and the effects of the “fancy Hollywood crowd”  on a vulnerable fourteen year old local boy.  Now he reads before me in a crowded bar.

I find myself standing next to Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, a renowned poet whose work I have read for years.  “I’ve had you on my bookshelf for thirty years,” I gush at her.  She looks somewhat frightened.  “Figuratively, I mean.  Your books are on my shelf.”  She smiles.

The morning draws to a close with a “found poem” read in Irish by a local farmer.  He came across it in the rafters of his cottage, author unknown.  Every Irishman is a poet. The farmer removes his cap before he reads.

We file out onto Green Street, each with our own thoughts, smiling.  The sun is shining.