I was working in the office when the phone rang. Sara picked it up in the lounge. After she said hello, she listened for a while. I could only hear her side of the conversation.
“I’m sure he would like that,” I heard her say. “Where is it?”
“Uh huh, uh huh.”
“Over the Connor Pass, turn left.”
“Turn left again.”
“Okay. Over the bridge, make a left.”
“And just down the road a little. Got it.”
“Late morning on Saturday. I’ll tell him. He’ll love it. Bye now.”
She hung up.
“Who was that?” I yelled across the hall.
“That was Lynne. There’s a sheep shearing demonstration at Thomas and Charlotte’s farm on Saturday. She thought you might like to go out to see it. The world champion shearer is going to be there.”
“That might be fun,” I called back to her.
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear with just a few white clouds in the sky. I threw my wellies and a collapsible chair into the boot of the car and went into the kitchen to say goodbye to Sara and Lucy.
“Where did you put those directions?” I asked.
“Oh, I didn’t write them down. You just go over the Connor Pass and make a bunch of lefts. Lynne said you can’t miss it,” she answered.
I set out. At the top Connor Pass, I pulled into the car park for a moment to admire the view on what had turned into a stunning day. The car park was mobbed. The Irish government has urged the Irish to take “staycations” because of Covid-19, and it seemed that most of Dublin had decided to staycation in West Kerry. I hopped out of the car to briefly take in the view.
I’ve been to the Connor Pass hundreds of times over the years, but it can still suck the breath right out of me. Directly below the car park, perhaps a thousand feet down, three lakes mirror the mountains surrounding them. In the distance, Tralee Bay glistens.
Nearer to the lakes, I can just make out the remains of some ancient stone structures. I’ve been told they are sheepfolds and shepherd’s huts. I wonder how to get to them.
But I can’t tarry. I need to get down the next couple of kilometers of single lane road that drops precipitously on my left while dodging petrified city-dwelling Dubliners who seldom drive. I hop back into the car.
At the bottom of the pass, I make the first left, trying to remember the directions from the overheard telephone call. Left at the next road, I recall. Then over the bridge and make the first left. I drive over a small bridge, but I don’t see a road on the left. When I pass through the village of Cloghane that I know I have gone too far. I pull over to call Lynne.
“I surrender,” I say when she answers. “I can’t find the left after the bridge.”
“Where are you, darling?” she asks.
“In front of the church.”
“Just go back down the hill to a white farmhouse and turn right. We’re about five miles down that road. If you can’t find it, call me back and I’ll come and get you.”
I realize when I get to the bridge that I’ve missed the road again. Turning around and driving slowly back, I spot it. There, hard against the white house, is a narrow road that looks like a lane to the sheds behind the house. I turn into the lane.
After the first mile or so, I can see that I am driving into a long valley. Hills are on my right and off to my left there are a few small lakes. Two or three times I have to squeeze into small lay byes to let farmers pass with their tractors. Old stone cottages and out buildings are scattered around me. When I reach the four-mile mark, I can see a few buildings, cars, and tractors a mile further on. And then I spy Lynne waving her arms. I had arrived.
“This is gorgeous, Lynne,” I said, after I had squeezed the car into a spot between a tractor and a 4×4 and pulled on my Wellies.
The sheep farm that belongs to her daughter Charlotte and her son-in-law Thomas is at the end of the valley I had just driven through. Mountains with stone outcrops rise a thousand feet on three sides. Two narrow waterfalls cascade down from the top of the mountains, feeding the lakes I had passed. Hundreds of sheep dot the hillsides. There isn’t another house in sight. It could have been the set for Brigadoon and I half expected Gene Kelly to dance by. It is heaven.
Lynne and I squeeze through the gate into the shearing pen, shooing newly shorn sheep who are hoping to make a break for it. Thomas, who travels all over Ireland each year for his shearing business, is showing a local farmer how to wrestle a ewe into position. He picks her up by the horns to get her forelegs off the ground, sitting her on her haunches. The ewe looks startled.
“Get her left foreleg between your legs, up behind you like, and use your left hand to hold her head,” he instructs. “You can use your knees to control her.” This sounds dangerous to me.
He guides the electric shears down the flank of the sheep from her head to her tail. Back to the head for another swipe with the shears, turning the sheep with his knees as he goes. The wool falls off to the side like a thick blanket. In two to three minutes he has the job done and releases the sheep to scamper about the pen. An assistant scoops up the wool and shoves it into a large bag. Thomas grabs another ewe.
“Your turn,” he tells the fellow.
All around us, others are doing the same at their stands, or stations. Three are on the shearing trailer that Thomas built for his business and three more are scattered around the pen. The trailer has a chute along the back side in which the sheep are lined up in single file and three gates that open so the shearers can take one out at a time. Electric shears hang from the roof.
Emma and Dean, a young couple from New Zealand, were travelling around Europe on an extended backpacking trip when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. They found themselves in Ireland as international travel shut down and Thomas hired them to help out on the farm. Dean is shearing ewe after ewe at one end of the trailer, while Emma sweeps up the wool into a bag. Kiwi’s know their way around sheep.
Ivan, the world record holder from County Mayo, is walking around giving tips to the shearers. He shows Thomas and Charlotte’s 14-year-old son Toc, who is already a competent shearer, where to place his knees below the sheep’s shoulders for better control.
“Just lift your knees up and down to control her,” he tells Toc. Ivan is a natural coach and Toc gets the hang of it immediately.
“What is his record?” I ask Lynne.
“Thirty-seven seconds,” she replies.
“Jaysus, I couldn’t even catch a sheep in thirty-seven seconds.”
When Ivan has a moment, I ask him where he is from in Mayo.
“Ballinrobe,” he says. “Do you know it?”
“My grandfather was from Ballyglass,” I answer, and soon we are discussing mutual acquaintances and favorite pubs. Ireland is a small country.
Charlotte jumps up on the trailer to give her son a break, pulls a sheep out of the chute, and goes to work. Usually, when I see Charlotte, she is dressed to the nines with full make-up and perfectly manicured nails. This side of her is a revelation.
While all of this is going on, Charlotte’s eleven-year-old daughter Lily is out in the fields, directing the dogs as they round up more sheep from the hillside. This business is a family affair.
Thomas walks over to Lynne and me. “Would you like to give it a go?” he asks me.
With a panicked look on my face, I stutter “Oh god, no.” I have enough trouble holding Lucy when Sara is giving her a haircut. I wasn’t going to tangle with a hundred and fifty-pound ewe.
After a couple of hours, I walk over to gaze at the sun glinting off the lakes. That’s when I realize that they were the same lakes that I had seen from the car park at the top of Connor Pass. In the distance, I can make out the huts and sheepfolds I had seen. Shorn sheep bleat around me. A dog sleeps in the corner until he is needed again. Hawks wheel overhead. This really is paradise, I think.
I turn to say goodbye to Lynn and to thank Thomas and Charlotte. It’s been a great day, but I still have to cross the Connor Pass, dodging terrified Dubliners as I go.