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.