A Good Stick

The dog started following us at the first farmhouse past the gate to the Ventry Estate.  He was the usual type of black and white sheepdog that lives on every farm on the peninsula.  We were walking on the Burnham side of the Dingle Harbour enjoying the beauty of the last of the wild garlic and the summer irises and the view of the town on the other side of the water.  The old fella muttered a few perfunctory growls to let us know we were on his turf, but he seemed harmless enough.  I gave him a wave of my stick in return so he’d know who was in charge.  He resorted to making large figure eights around us, swooping in occasionally to give Lucy a good sniff.  Every twenty or thirty meters he raised his leg on the ditch to send her a message.  He ignored us when we told him to go home.

This went on for about a mile.

When we reached the house opposite the trail to Eask Tower, the sheep farmer’s wife was in her garden tending her flowers.

“Is that the dog from down the road?” she asked.

“It is,” we answered

“Give me your stick,” she commanded.

I handed over my stick.

She raised the stick above her head.

“Get home, ye miserable cur!” she cursed in a voice that would terrify a banshee.  “May the devil blind ye if you don’t get back to yer hovel!  May ye be afflicted with a t’ousand ticks!  May there be a pox on ye and yer pups!”

The dog immediately put his tail between his legs and scurried back the way he had come, glancing over his shoulder from time to time to be sure the mad woman was not following.

She handed me my stick.

“Sure, that miserable pup would have the sheep up against the fence.  That old lady down the road has no control over him.”

Then she added, “Isn’t it a fine day altogether?”

And that’s why you need a good stick in Ireland.

The stick I had that day was one Sara had pulled out of the ditch near the Holden Leather Shop on a day last year when another aggressive dog was pestering us.  It was a fine stout stick of just the right height.  I took it home, sanded it smooth, and gave it a good coat of oil. It has served me well ever since.

A stick comes in handy for more than warding off pugnacious pooches though.  There are curious sheep that need to be shooed away when we walk up the hill to the oratory.  A simple wave of a stick will do the trick.

Or, on a long slog up a steep hill trail, a good stick can help you up the track and provide support when you stop to catch your breath.  And on the way back down, the stick can stop you from slipping and sliding on the rocky ground.

There was the time we were walking along the shore to Hussey’s Folly near the opening of the harbour into Dingle Bay.  Lucy can be off her lead on this walk and run to her heart’s content, though she never strays far from us.  The walk leads us to a small beach beyond the folly where Lucy runs in circles and we watch Fungie the dolphin play among the tourist boats.  It also requires us to pass through several fields where cattle are grazing.  They watch us pass with mournful eyes.  This day, though, a bullock became rather territorial, moving in front of us and blocking our path.  Lucy, not always the wisest of dogs, began to bark, pitting her ten pounds against the 1,500-pound bovine.

Sara gathered Lucy, still growling, into her arms and began to move around the bullock.  Sara went left, the bullock blocked her.  Sara went right, the bullock blocked her.  Then the animal began to buck.  It was like a scene out of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  I stepped in waving my stick and tapping the irate beast on the nose as Sara and Lucy managed to get over the stile into the next field.  I quickly followed, waving and tapping my stick the whole time.  The bullock sauntered off, satisfied.

A good stick is a comfort.

As we walk the lanes and fields around the peninsula, I have my eye peeled for worthy walking stick candidates in the ditches and woods.  Maple, ash, and fuchsia limbs are dragged out of their resting places and carried home to age in our shed for six months or longer.

After they’ve had a nice long rest, I peel the bark from them and trim any branches that protrude from their sides, using a sharp knife that was given to me by a dear friend in New Mexico some years ago.  I trim both ends so they are the perfect length and feel balanced in my hand.  They now stand before me in rough nakedness.  I let them rest in the shed for another couple of weeks.

Now it’s time for the sandpaper. I start with an 80 grit to remove the imperfections the knife has missed, then progressively move to 100, 180, and 220 grit, slowly smoothing the wood, working to reveal the pattern and beauty of the wood.  A final caressing with 400 grit and a dusting with a clean cloth finish this stage.  The sticks are exhausted at this point, so I grant them another rest.

A few days later, if the weather forecast looks fine, I give them a good rubdown with wood oil, wait thirty minutes, and wipe the oil off.  The sticks begin to gleam.  This process is repeated for three or four days, oiling and wiping.  The grain of the wood deepens, light and dark spots appear, knots stand out, and the stick gains character.  The fallen limb by the roadside becomes a thing of beauty.

The last step is the easiest.  I bring the sticks into the house to stand in the corner by the front door until we are ready to walk.  Before we step out the door, we choose a stick with the right heft and weight for the job ahead.  We are ready for hills or animals or a quiet country lane.


A good stick is important in Ireland.

Now if I can only learn to curse like a sheep farmer’s wife.

Goodnight, Irene

The incoming tide is lapping gently at the rocks a few meters from where I am sitting, my backpack beside me.  In the fields across Smerwick Harbour cows are lowing, the sound a deep hum carrying across the water.  I try to match my breathing to the ebb and flow of the water as it inches closer to my perch, searching for a meditative state.  Eleven others are scattered around me, sitting in total silence with their eyes closed, exhausted after a long day of foraging. But only one sound inhabits my head:

Irene, goodnight.  Irene, goodnight

Goodnight, Irene.  Goodnight, Irene

I’ll see you in my dreams.

 The Weavers version unfortunately, and not the Clapton.

The twelve of us had met earlier that cold and overcast morning at the pier in Ballydavid for a Seaweed Foraging course sponsored by the Dingle Cookery School.  Our instructor is Darach Ó Murchú, a Dublin born fellow with deep roots in the Dingle Peninsula.

“My mother was born and raised just there,” he says, pointing to the headland opposite the Three Sisters, on the other side of the water.  “I’ve been gathering seaweed with my grandda on this very shore since I was a small boy.”


From where we sit we can see Mt. Eagle, Sybil Head, and the Sleeping Giant.  The placid waters of the harbour stretch before us.

Darach asks us to introduce ourselves and tell each other why we are taking the course.  We go around the circle.

There’s Don and Mary, from San Francisco, who are vacationing and wanted to compare the seaweed they see in California to that of Ireland.

Simon and Catherine and their 14-year-old son are over from the UK on holiday.  Catherine is a toxicologist with a major pharmaceutical firm and studies seaweed for her work.  Simon is a farmer.

Two sisters, Jill and Kelly, originally from Connemara, are interested in the different words for seaweed in the Dingle Irish compared to the Connemara Irish.

I explained that I was from just down the road in Mullenaglemig, but had moved here from New Mexico where the only seafood we ever encountered was at a sushi bar.

Rain begins to fall.

“What made you come to Ireland?” Don asks.

“We moved here for the weather,” I answer.

And then we came to Irene.  Irene was on the far side of seventy-five and came from Wyoming to spend the summer in an intensive Irish language course in nearby Ballyferriter.  She had a walking stick in her hand to help her navigate the rocky shore.

“Just think of the song ‘Goodnight, Irene’ to remember my name,” she said.

“Dammit,” I thought.

After a brief overview of the course, Darach led us from the pier down to the shoreline.  It was rough going.  Rocks, slick with seaweed, jutted at impossible angles from tidal pools. Some of us picked our way carefully, weighing each foot placement.  A few resorted to advancing on hands and knees.  Irene, with her stick, scampered across the rocks like a three-legged mountain goat in the Grand Tetons.

Darach stopped, squatted by a tidal pool, and reached into the water.  In his hands was a deep purple plant.  He explained the parts to us.

“This,” he said, pointing to the bulb where the plant was attached to a rock, “is the ‘holdfast’.”  He advanced up the plant.  “Here is the long stem, which allows the plant to sway in the water to better absorb nutrients.  Then we branch off into the leaves.  And what do you think these wee blisters are?”

“Sacs?” “Pouches?” “Nodules?” guesses come from the group.

“Good guesses all, but they are called ‘air bladders’ or ‘fruiting bodies’. They help the plant to float in the water.  So, what do you think this seaweed would be called?”


“Bladder weed?” someone ventures.

“Partial credit to you.  This is called ‘bladder wrack’.  It can be used in soups, stews, and chowders and is an excellent source of carbs and protein.”

Darach shows us how to harvest the plant, using a scissors to cut small snippets off leaves so that the plant can regenerate.  We spread out among the rocks to add bladder wrack to our canvas foraging bags.

He stops us at another pool. “What is the difference you see in this plant compared to the bladder wrack?” he asks.

“The edges of the bladder wrack leaves are smooth, but these leaves are serrated,” a keen-eyed observer says.

“So, this would be called?”

“Serrated wrack?” I offer.

“High marks to you,” he answers.

Congratulations are offered all around.

And so it goes as we follow the receding tide.  Darach points out Dillisk or Duileascin Dingle Irish or, as Jill points out, Creathnachin in Connemara.  There is Irish Moss or Carraigín, a common ingredient in desserts, especially ice cream.  Kelp, excellent for baths or to fertilize your garden.  Sea Spaghetti which makes a lovely substitute for pasta.  And Sea Lettuce for a nice side salad to go with the Sea Spaghetti.

I’m chewing on a sample of Sea Lettuce that Darach has passed around.

“You wouldn’t want to eat too much of this now or you’ll have an awful stomach ache,” he says.

I stop chewing.

“How much is too much?” I ask.

“A good size bowl, I’d say.”

I go ahead and swallow.

We move among the rocks, foraging and tasting.  Some creep carefully, some are on all fours.  Irene leaps from rock to rock.

After five hours, our bags are full and our legs are sore.  We will soon travel back to the Cookery School to sort our treasure and learn how to use it in a few dishes.  But first Darach gathers us around him once more.

“I like to finish each day at the shore with a short period of meditation to help me appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.  Will you join me for, shall we say, seven minutes?” Darach asks.

We spread out among the rocks and take in the mountains and the sea.  The tide is just turning and the waves are slowly filling the tidal basins.  A gentle breeze is coming off the water.  Gulls screech over our heads.

I clear my mind until only one thought is there.

Goodnight Irene

I’ll see you in my dreams.

 “Dammit,” I think.