I was maneuvering the people mover down the lane, searching for the oyster farm. The lane kept narrowing and brambles on either side started to brush the sides of the vehicle. Grass was growing down the center. I could hear muffled gasps from the rows of seats behind me.
Four friends from Santa Fe had arrived on Wednesday, three days earlier, for a long-planned visit. I rented a nine passenger van about the size of a small Greyhound bus, called a “people mover” by the good folks at Dan Dooley Car Hire, to ferry the six of us around. We stayed the first night in Galway and were now tucked into Ballynahinch Castle in Galway. The visit to the oyster farm was a planned day excursion.
“Do you think they actually plant oyster seeds?” Tom, seated to my left, asked me.
“I didn’t even know oysters were farmed,” I replied. “I thought you just went out to the beach and raked them up.”
“I think that might be clams,” he answered.
“Aren’t they basically the same?” My knowledge of mollusks is limited. I just know I like to eat them.
Behind me, I could hear Sara, Margie, Ron and Michael chatting away.
Finally, we emerged from the hedgerows and could see the oyster farm in front of us, across a narrow bridge with water on either side. And no guardrails. I drove across. The gasps grew louder.
David, the owner of the farm, wearing a watch cap and waterproofs, was waiting for us. After introductions all around, he gave us a brief tour and told us the history of the farm, which was founded over 150 years ago, but had fallen on hard times during the 2008 downturn. In the past, the farm was a major supplier of oysters to Great Britain. David bought it four years ago.
With his posh Dublin accent, I knew David wasn’t a native Connemara man.
“What made you buy an oyster farm?” I asked.
“I was an accountant with an international practice. I sold my business about twelve years ago but found out I wasn’t suited to retirement. So I bought this place after looking at it for a couple of years. My wife just recently started speaking to me again,” he laughed.
In the first year in there was a red tide that destroyed the stock and he had to start over. Now he is shipping to Great Britain, South Korea, and Singapore.
He showed us a series of screened cages in graduated sizes that are hung from racks in Ballinakill Bay just behind us. The oysters feed on phytoplankton in the bay.
“In this first one we put seed oysters,” he says.
Tom nodded sagely.
David then moved us into the building where a woman was shucking about twenty oysters. We handed over the chilled bottle of Prosecco we had brought from the Castle and David poured six glasses. Margie gamely tried one oyster, fair play to her. Tom had three. Ron and Sara demurred. Michael and I dove in, demolishing the rest. Everyone partook of the Prosecco.
After a tour of the farm down by the bay, we were helping each other into the bus when David asked about our next stop.
“We are going to stop at the nuns’ shop at Kylemore Abbey,” I said.
“Not today, you aren’t. They are closed because of this corona thing.”
The only time the nuns ever close up shop is on Christmas Day.
That’s when we knew things were getting serious.
We drove back to the Castle and made plans to meet in the library for cocktails and some craíc at six o’clock, and to plan the route we would take to Dingle the next day.
Just as I was nodding off for my afternoon nap, the phone rang. Sara answered. I could hear Michael’s voice, “They’re canceling all flights from the UK and Ireland. We have to be home by midnight on Monday. A friend has already booked us on already.”
We dashed to their room where they all sat, stunned. Sara went into organizing mode, calling hotels near the Dublin airport. The Hilton wasn’t answering.
“Try the Maldron,” I said.
They answered on the first ring and we had two rooms sorted. It was a little past five o’clock.
“Maybe we should start our cocktail hour early,” I offered.
“Just let me go change my shoes,” Michael said.
“Wait, you have special cocktail shoes?” I asked.
It broke the mood.
We convened in the library a few minutes later. Paudie, the porter, took our drinks order. Four Dingle Gin martinis, a Cosmo, and a Dingle G&T.
When Paudie brought the cocktails, Margie said to him, “Please come back in about ten minutes. We’re going to need another round.” Ron, before Paudie could leave, said, ”Maybe just wait outside the door.”
“Cheers,” we all said, raising our glasses, “and next year in Dingle to finish what we started.”
At dinner, Michael and I split another six oysters.
The next day, Sunday, I drove the people mover four hours across the country to the Maldron. There were no gasps, just a few sighs; we were all lost in our own thoughts. Then Sara and I, despite the virus, hugged everyone goodbye and drove back across the country to drop off the people mover and get back to Dingle.
We traded texts with all of them until they were safe in their own homes.
A few days later we heard from some dear friends who live near us on the peninsula but spend the winter in Spain. Their car ferry from Spain to Ireland had canceled, but they thought they could wait things out in the little village where they stay since it was isolated and seemed safe. A week later the situation in Spain became clearer. Everything changed. They decided to make a dash for it through France, the UK, and then by car ferry to Ireland.
We texted back and forth as they flee; their stress is palpable.
They are delayed a further day because they had to wait for a vet to certify their dogs.
Then they text: “We are all packed and leaving tomorrow morning. The dogs are cleared. We have to be out of Spain by Tuesday at the latest.” (This is on Friday.) “Our ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven is 5 p.m. Sunday for a four-hour crossing. We will stay in Newhaven on Sunday night, then drive to Pembroke (Wales) on Monday for the night crossing to Rosslare. We should be home by Tuesday lunchtime.”
We track their progress on the map and through constant texts: “We are south of Limoges in France. Roads almost deserted. Very eerie. Stopped twice by police but waved through. Am disinfecting everything and wearing gloves.”
They drive straight through from southern Spain to Dieppe and are in the queue for the ferry. We look at the map again.
I text: “We haven’t been locked down yet and I can get to the store in the early morning before the Irish are stirring. What can I get you? I’ll put it on your doorstep when you get home.” They will be in self-quarantine when they arrive and will not be allowed to leave their house.
They send me a shopping list for Jerry’s, the greengrocer, and the super market. I am in the super market at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Jerry’s at 8:30, and the greengrocer at 9:00. There is only one hiccup. “They don’t have Oatabix Flakes,” I text. “Is there a substitute?”
“Corn flakes or all bran flakes please.”
The next text: They are in Rosslare! Back in Ireland! Just a five-hour drive to Ballyferriter and home. We wait to hear.
The hours drag by. We pace around the kitchen.
I run the groceries over and put them on their doorstep, along with a bottle of Dingle Gin and Fever Tree tonic. And a cake from Sara. We mime a hug from a safe distance and promise to have a massive party when we come out on the other side.
The order to “cocoon” in our home came three days later.
We are still allowed to walk down our lanes if we stay within 2kms of the house.
The sun has been shining. Mary Murphy has her laundry on the line. New lambs are finding their legs in the spring grass. The cattle are out of their sheds and in the pastures. Dogs come up to greet Lucy.
We walk and think of our friends, safe in their homes, both here and there. We have a party to plan for when we are all together once again, with plenty of craíc and cocktails. And oysters.