The Lesson

“Jaysus, I’m sorry,” Sean says as he jumps into the passenger seat of my car. “I was just out in the bog collecting the turf and forgot our appointment altogether.”

Sean is the proprietor of “Sean’s Perfectly Adequate School of Motoring” in the big town near us. We are beginning the fourth in a series of twelve driving lessons that I must take in order to procure my Irish driving license.

I had decided back in January that it would be advantageous to have an Irish license. We currently rent a car on a month-to-month basis from a rental agency. The rental, as they would say here, is “very dear.” So dear, in fact, that it is nearly as much as we pay in rent.

The obvious solution is to buy a used car. This is where the complications begin. In order to buy a car, I would need insurance. In order to get insurance, I would need to get a drivers license. Now technically, I could purchase insurance on my New Mexico license. But it would be, again as they say here, “very, very dear.”

Now I consider myself quite proficient in Irish driving. After all, I’ve been coming here for over forty years, plus bonus time driving on the left in England, Australia and New Zealand. And most importantly, I have mastered the Irish finger flick. This is not to be confused with the New Jersey finger flick, which I have also mastered. In the Irish version, the first finger of the right hand is raised from the steering wheel each time you encounter another driver on a narrow country lane. It is a neighborly gesture and can be accompanied by a nod.

So in January, I presented myself to the National Driver License Service office (NDLS) in Tralee to fill out the proper forms, perhaps take an eye exam, have my picture taken, and pick up my shiny new license. It didn’t work out that way.

“Do ye have a PPS Number?” the nice lady behind the counter asks.

“What’s a PPS Number?” I answer.

“Your Personal Public Service Number,” she replies, looking at me like I was daft. “I’ll start your license application, but since ye don’t have the number, it will kick ye out,” she said, and handed me a brochure with the process I would have to follow. I thanked her for the information.

“Good luck,” she said. “You’re going to need it.”

And so my journey began. I decided to retreat until we were here permanently in March and I had organizational reinforcement in the form of Sara. She is an excellent navigator of bureaucratic mazes.

In March, we began our assault on the Irish bureaucracy. Sara had to get an extended visa and I needed my PPS Number. Sara’s task was easy.

We presented ourselves to Deirdre, the local Immigration Officer at the Garda Station. After looking at Sara’s US passport and my Irish passport, she said to Sara, “I’ll give you a three year visa since you’re married to an Irishman,” nodding her head in my direction. “It’s good to be married to an Irishman. Sometimes.”

The PPS Number application was almost as easy. Fill out a form, show them my Irish passport and a few Irish utility bills, have my picture taken, and three weeks later receive my PPSN card in the post. Not bad at all except in my picture on the card I bear a strong resemblance to a hardened criminal. But even criminals need a driver’s license, I suppose.

Now back to the NDLS office with my shiny new PPSN card.

“I’ve opened your application,” the kind lady says. “Now ye need to pass your Driver Theory Test. Once ye do that, ye come back here.”

“Wait. My what?”

“Your Driver Theory Test. Ye can buy the study guide in the bookstore, read it over a few times, and schedule your test at a testing center. If ye pass, bring the results back here.”

So I studied for four weeks. Now in all honesty, Driver Theory is pretty straightforward – signs, speed limits, signals, etc. But there are questions not often encountered in the U.S.: What to do when a herd of cattle is on the road? Where must a license plate be displayed on a tractor? That sort of thing. After hard study and practice tests on the internet, I aced the exam. Now back to the NDLS to get my license.

“Very good. All is in order,” my friend behind the counter says. Now just look at the screen there and we’ll get your picture.”

“And then I’ll get my license?” I ask.

“Then you’ll get your learners permit in the post in a few weeks and can begin your twelve on-the-road lessons from an accredited driving instructor. And after six months have passed, ye can take a drivers test with the Garda. Then ye will get your permanent license.”

I try not to cry.

Two weeks later I get my Learners License in the post. To be fair, I only look like a petty thief in this picture.

And that’s how I find myself with Sean, from “Sean’s Perfectly Adequate School of Motoring” sitting in my passenger seat.

Our lessons consist of me driving around the big town for an hour while Sean shouts instructions at me. Most of the time is spent negotiating roundabouts. There are roughly 32,497 roundabouts in the town. Actually, there may be more, but I haven’t seen the whole town.

As we approach a roundabout, Sean shouts, “Indicate for the right lane!”

This varies with each roundabout. Sometimes I must be in the left lane.  I’m hoping by  the sixth lesson or so to break the code.

“Shift into first gear! Check your middle mirror! Right indicator! Second gear! As ye pass the second exit, indicate left for the third exit! Check your left mirror! Turn off the indicator! Third gear!”

All of this occurs within a distance of twenty meters.

“Huh?” I say.

And we do it all over again at the next roundabout. And the next. And the next. And the next.

Only eight more lessons to go. And then my test. I’m beginning to think it may just be easier to rent a car.

The Cousins

We are tired. Knackered, as they might say here. But in a good sort of way.

I’ve prepared a simple meal of hake with a sun-dried tomato salsa, sauteéd spinach, and brown rice with asparagus tips. As I creakily rise following dinner, I triumphantly mumble a line from Yeats:

I will arise, and go now…

…to do the dishes.

For the past twelve days, we have had the cousins, junior and senior, here on a visit. The original plan was for the junior cousins, Jim and Julia, his new fianceé, to arrive first and for the senior cousins, Jim and Joan, to follow four days later so that they all could overlap for a few days, sharing a few pints, some good food, and magnificent scenery. (I should point out that all male members of Sara’s family are required to be named Jim. It can lead to some confusion among non-family.) The younger cousins would then fly out and the seniors would remain for four more days. Fate, by way of the weather gods and Delta, intervened, and Jim and Joan were delayed by two days. There was only time for a quick pint at Durty Nelly’s between the senior’s arrival and the junior’s departure.

Despite the travel woes, we had a wonderful time.

Here is the best thing about having visitors: they grab you by the scruff of the neck and shake the nonchalance out of you. When you live somewhere, day-to-day life overtakes you and you become blasé about your surroundings. Fresh eyes reveal the beauty all over again.

“Are you ready for your first pint?” I ask Jim, the younger. We lead him into Tigh Neachtain, our favorite Galway pub. The pub is ancient, cozy, wood-paneled, and divided into tiny rooms and snugs. We find a hidden corner and sit down on stools worn smooth by innumerable fannies. Two pints of Guiness for the Jims and a glass for Julia arrive, and tea for Sara (someone must keep their wits about them). Tears well in Jim’s eyes. Slainté, we say.

We drive along the coast of Clare through the Burren. A vast desolate area of limestone slabs from the ocean to the mountaintops, the Burren is so barren that one of Cromwell’s generals said of it, “There is no tree to hang a man, nor water to drown a man, nor no soil to bury a man.” (The English have always had a way with words.) We walk hundreds of meters across the slabs and discover a hidden world. Deep in the fissures between the stones – ten, twelve, twenty feet down – live tiny plants and flowers that grow nowhere else in this world. Botanists flock here to discover new plant species. Thanks to Jim and Julia, Sara and I discover it again.

I lead Jim and Julia into Dick Mack’s in Dingle, the best whiskey bar in Ireland. We order small whiskies and a Dingle Gin and tonic for Julia. Jim spies a bottle of tequila behind the bar. Now I must tell you, Jim is an esteemed correspondent for the Tequila Aficionado website. Soon we are deep in a conversation about tequila and margaritas with Dara, the barman, and Finn, who now runs Dick Mack’s. Jim is about to become the senior foreign correspondent (Europe) for the website. He asks if he can return the next day to film a short video for Tequila Aficionado. All heartily agree.

When we walk in the next day Jim is greeted like Norm in Cheers. “Tequila Jim,” they shout. I teach Dara how to make a proper margarita and Jim sits on a stool in front of the taps where Dick Mack’s is engraved on a brass plate, holding the newly minted margarita in one hand. He makes the video in one take. You can check it out in a few weeks on the website. As they say here, “the craic was mighty” after that.

Jim wants to see Án Tempeal Gael, the ancient oratory on the hill above us. We don our wellies and make the climb, closing the gates behind us, and scattering the sheep before us. He touches the 1200 year-old walls of the oratory and studies the strokes on the Ogham stone. He gazes out at the distant Skellig Michael. Then we turn and walk back down the hill in contemplative silence.

Early the next morning I take Jim and Julia up to the airport and we pick up Jim senior and Joan. We mark the occasion with a pint at Durty Nelly’s and then I bring the seniors back to Dingle for a nap. Jim and Julia stay to fly out the next morning.

I should note that Sara has known Jim senior all of her life. Born within a few months of each other, they grew up together in a large, extended Irish-Catholic family. I’ve known Jim for forty-three years and Joan, his wife, for almost thirty-eight years. These are ties that bind, going beyond the familial to true friendship.

After a drive around Slea Head and a tour of the town including some serious shopping, we repair to Dick Mack’s to relieve our parched throats. I introduce them as Tequila Jim’s parents. We settle in a snug near the bar and tell family stories. We tell a lot of stories over the next few day and some of them are even true.

The next day Joan and Sara go off for more shopping and Jim and I visit the local bookshop for an hour or so and then escape to Dick Mack’s for a pint. Early in its’ life, Dick Mack’s, besides being a pub, made shoes and leather goods. That tradition continues and Jim decides to get a handmade belt. Brian, who makes the leather goods, says, “First you have to get waisted,” reaching for his tape measure.

As we wait for him to make the belt, complete with a stamped emblem of the bar, the Irish harp, and Jim’s initials, I notice a venerable old fellow camped in the snug. He is nattily attired in a bright yellow suit, a purple tie, black cashmere overcoat, and spats. Atop his head is an ancient fedora. He holds a pint in his hand. I ask Mary, a local at the end of the bar, who this creature might be. “That’s Oliver,” she says.

He is Oliver James Mary MacDonnell, a local legend. I go over to introduce myself and chat for a few minutes. Oliver is the third of five generations to run Dick Mack’s, born ‘above the shop’ as they say. He has lived above, in the same rooms, for his entire life. I’m no expert, but I would say he is well into his nineties.

Brian finishes the belt, punching a few extra holes fore and aft, “in case you expand or contract.” Jim and I head out the door, leaving a fiver on the bar to buy a pint for our new friend Oliver.

Jim and Joan are both fascinated by the ability of the Irish to use words in an unusual and witty way. They revel in phrases that Sara and I have become used to hearing. “How are you keeping?” people ask. “Mind your head,” they warn. Or, they explain, “I’m just after coming on.” A certain public figure in U.S. politics may be described as a nutter, or eejit, or, my personal favorite, a quimwhiffle. We laugh at these delicious words over dinner each night.

On our last day together, we stop at Yeats’ Tower, Thoor Ballylee, near the town of Gort in County Galway. Jim and I are both literary enthusiasts, what some might call nerds. Thoor Ballylee was Yeats’ summer home and a potent symbol in his poetry, and two volumes of his poetry, The Tower and The Winding Stair, center on this place. I had stopped here four or five times over the years, but it was never open. Today it is.

And so we climbed the winding stair all the way to the battlements at the top, stopping to touch the poet’s writing desk and sit in his chair. His words run through our mind:

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;

                    Set all your mind upon the steep ascent

                    Upon the broken, crumbling battlement…

 We wonder about his words, and how his young family liked living in this stark, cold place, and if his thighs cried out for mercy as much as ours after climbing the stair. A cup of tea and a slice of barmbrack in the nearby thatched cottage restore our senses and our quads.

That night, Jim and Joan’s last in Ireland, we sit at dinner in Durty Nelly’s and begin to recite our party pieces. Words from A.E. Housman and Lewis Carroll and, of course, Yeats, find their way around the table as good friends celebrate their time together.

So yes, we are tired tonight, but in the very best way. We have lit the fire for Ireland in first time visitors and stoked the fire in us. After dinner, we begin to plan the next trip for Jim and Julia and Jim and Joan, our cousins and our friends.