The Festival

“Lads, would ye look at this?”

Jerry came from behind the counter waving a white paper and beaming like he had just won the table quiz at McCarthy’s pub.

“A Silver from Blas na hÉirann for my beef!  Would ye believe it?”

Blas na hÉirann medals are the premier prizes in the Irish food and drink industry, awarded each year at the Dingle Food Festival.  Producers from all over Ireland compete for the honor.

“It’s for my ‘Dry Aged Dingle Distillery Mash Fed Sirloin’ that I seasoned with Trevis’ seasoning blend.” Trevis, a chef friend of ours, makes this seasoning with the aromatics that go into Dingle Gin: juniper and coriander, rosemary and hibiscus, wild fuchsia and bog myrtle.

“Uh, what’s all that mean, Jerry?” I ask.

“I finish the cattle off the last four weeks on the mash from the distillery below.  When it’s their time to go, they’re fairly mellow.  No stress, like.  Sure, it makes for tender beef.”

The Dingle Food Festival is the largest food festival in all of Ireland and the largest event in Dingle by far. It reminds me of the Clancy Brothers song:

“There were half a million people there, of all denominations,

Catholics and Protestants and Jews and Presbyterians.

Yet there was no animosity, no matter the persuasion,

Just craic and hospitality to mark the grand occasion.”

There weren’t really a half a million people in Dingle but there were twenty thousand, and in a town of 2,000 souls, that can feel like half a million.  The madness started right outside of Jerry’s butcher shop on Orchard Lane, which is reserved for Irish artisanal food purveyors.  There are cheese makers and sausage makers.  Craft beer and cider. Mince pies. Pickles.  And Trevis selling his spice mixes.  I stop to have a black pudding roll to fortify me for the day ahead and we set out.

Stalls line the streets and every restaurant and shop has a table in front offering up their specialties.  We march up Main Street, turn left on Green Street and are greeted by a mass of people.

There are people from every part of Ireland and beyond.  We hear strange and exotic languages like French and Californian.  The sheep farmers from out beyond Baile na nGall are wearing heavy boots and three-piece suits with a flat cap.  To be fair, this is what they wear every day while tending their sheep but they’ve slapped the straw from the cap for the occasion.  Town folk are wearing their usual jeans and sweaters.  And then we are stopped cold: a couple appears in front of us.  She is in leather jeggings and a leopard like top, tottering on four-inch-high stiletto boots.  Her platinum blonde hair is teased a foot above her head and her false eyelashes are large enough to sail a small dingy across Dingle Bay.  He is in skinny-legged moleskin trousers with a tweed tight cut jacket and a pink – pink! – shirt.  A long scarf completes the ensemble.

“They’re not from here,” Sara ventures.

“Dublin, I reckon.”

We move on, still staring over our shoulders.

“We need a strategy,” Sara says.

“My strategy is to try it all,” I reply.

The Fish Box, the new chipper in town, offers up a prawn cocktail with spring onion, lettuce and marie rose sauce. Dingle Crystal has a blackberry and apple infused Dingle Gin shot, but I prudently pass, thinking it’s a bit early for the hard stuff.

“Let’s see what Mark has on,” I say.

Mark is the entrepreneurial owner of the Dingle Cookery School and The Little Cheese Shop.  We have braised beef with pickled onions on pita bread from the cookery school and raclette on fresh bread from the cheese shop.

We make a right on Strand Street. Solás, the new tapas bar, has two miniature chorizo sausages on a stick.  Sara tries one and I try the other.

“Jaysus, Sara,” I gasp, “would you take my arm, my knees have gone weak.”

Chorizo juice is dribbling down my chin. The sausages are glorious.

We get back in line for another stick.

When we return to our senses, I say “Let’s go to Liam’s studio.  Some Michelin starred chef from Dublin is making mutton pies.”

“Okay,” she says, “but two things. I do not like mutton and we are definitely not buying another painting.”

“No problem.”

We walk around the corner to The Colony, the little cul-de-sac where Liam has his studio.

A new batch of pies, still steaming, comes out of the oven just as we walk up.

“Just one, please,” I say.  “Here, Sara, just try one taste,” gallantly offering her a fork.  She reluctantly takes it from my hand and takes a bite.

“My god, that is the best thing I have ever eaten,” she says as her eyes glass over.

I look around to find her a chair.

She snatches the pie from my hand and I get back in line.

We pop into the studio to say hello to Liam and there, on the wall to the right, is a large painting of a farmer leading his flock of sheep down the side of Mt. Brandon.

“I want that.”

“But you said…”

“I’m asking Liam how much it is.”

We finally find Liam in the melee.

“It’s sold,” he tells us, sadly.  “I wish I had painted ten of them.  I could have sold them all.”

“Whew!” I think.

Back up Strand Street we go to the Holy Ground, stopping at My Boy Blue for a fish taco.  We squeeze through the crowd around the farmers market when Sara spots a young fella walking by with a fine-looking sausage roll.

“Where did you get that?” she asks him.

“Just there.  At that stand.  It’s vegan.”

Sara turns on her heel and walks in the other direction.

The crowds are shoulder to shoulder.

“Why don’t we sneak up Dykegate Lane,” I suggest.  “There’s no stalls there.  It will take just five minutes to get back to Main Street.”

Forty-five minutes later, we are only halfway up Dykegate.  We meet friends and neighbors and a classmate of mine from college, all with the same idea. We stop to chat and exchange notes with each of them.

“Did you try the Cubano at Uisce Saddlery?”

“The sticky toffee pudding at Random is brilliant.”

“Don’t miss the pizza at The Beast.”

“Be sure to get the Thai fishcakes at Adams Bar.”

Once more around the town – Main Street, Green Street, Strand Street and the Holy Ground – and at last we are sated.

“Shall we head home, my dear?” Sara asks.

“Sure, but could we stop at Jerry’s to pick up a couple of those steaks and some of Trevis’ seasoning.  I’m worried I might feel peckish later.”

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.

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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.”

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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?”

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“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.

 

Radio Kerry

We are listening to Deirdre on the radio interviewing a man, Michael Gallagher, about midges.  He is reciting his poem called Waltzing with Midges.  Michael chants, with great feeling:

Heads they were ascratching, and arms they were ascrapin,

But from the little suckers, there was no escaping;

To every nook and cranny, they most lustily hung on

While waltzing with the midges in Lyreacrompane.

 Michael is explaining, at some length, various methods to prevent the midges from “having a go at you.”

He has our rapt attention since, with the recent run of fine weather, midges have become the scourge of West Kerry.  When we walk down the lane getting our daily exercise, swarms of them rise from the ditches.  So, Sara is taking notes on the back of the store list because the little devils seem to take a particular interest in her.  I’ve come to believe that entire families of midges have decided to holiday in Dingle this year just so they can feast on Sara’s ankles.

Deirdre has an afternoon chat show called Talkabout on Radio Kerry, the Voice of the Kingdom.  (Kerrymen proudly refer to their home as “the Kingdom”). We listen most days as we drive around the peninsula doing our errands.  Sure, you can listen to the national radio channels – TodayFM or the RTE stations – but you won’t get the local knowledge that is essential to understanding the community here.

Birthdays are announced:

“Happy Birthday to Muireann ni Héigeartaigh, 76 years young, from Knockanefune, from her loving daughter Fiona, son-in-law Tómas and grandchildren Aiofe and Eibhlín.”

And First Communions:

“Congratulations to Catherine Curley on her first communion on the Sunday last at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Farranfore.  There will be a celebration this coming Saturday at her home in Seartaglin that will feature a bouncy castle for all the youngsters!”

Sara makes a note.  We may stop by.

Lost and found announcements are common:

“Saoirse O’Callaghan, of Cahersiveen, left her handbag in the ladies’ toilet at The Jarvey’s Pub in Kells on Saturday night.  Contents include her driving permit, a wallet with €45, her favorite foundation powder, and her lucky keychain.  Contact her at her gran’s house in Cahersiveen if found.  Please do not tell her mammy or there will be hell to pay. Also, please do not call her mobile as that was in the handbag so she won’t be able to answer.”

On Tuesdays, the local Gardai reach out to the audience for help solving crimes.

“We have here in the studio Garda Michael Turbridy of the Listowel Garda Station,” the announcer tells us. “You’re very welcome, indeed, Garda Turbridy.”

“Thank you very much, indeed, for having me,” answers Garda Turbridy.

“It’s no trouble at all.  And how may our audience help you today?”

“Sure, we had a very perplexing crime in Ballyduff on the Ballybunion road on Thursday last between the hours of 11 p.m. and the following morning at 9 a.m.  There was vandalism at a milking parlour just down the lane from Joe Pat Duffy’s near Horgan’s Garage.  We ask anyone who was in the vicinity in the early morning hours and may have seen anything at all to call in to the gardai station.”

“You’ve no witnesses at all?”

“Just the milk cows in the field next to the parlour, but they aren’t talking, so.”

But Radio Kerry is not just about chat shows and public service announcements.  There’s music, too!

It took me a good few months, but I finally cracked the playlist code for the Francis Jones Show.  The recording artist must:

  1. Be someone any listener under the age of forty will have never heard of
  2. Have attained the minimum age of seventy
  3. Not had a hit song in over forty years

And, for bonus points,

  1. Be dead

We drive around the Kingdom singing along to Downtown(Petula Clark) and In the Ghetto(Elvis), which we think an odd choice for bucolic Kerry.  There’s I Got You, Babe(Sonny and Cher), which I especially like because Sonny always makes me feel good about my singing voice and we can use hand gestures.  Roy Orbison shows up and the Bee Gees take an occasional turn.  It’s almost like being back in eighth grade at the sock hop.  But then, just to keep the younger listeners tuned in, Francis will play something by John Legend and Ariana Grande.  Truth be told, I think Francis has a thing for Ariana, so he allows her to break all the rules.

But the absolute best part of listening to Radio Kerry is the morning news broadcasts at 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30.  There is little talk of world events and scant attention paid to national events.  The focus is on Kerry County Council business and such things as road closings for essential maintenance, school events, and cattle and sheep prices. They tell us the time of the high tides at Knightstown, Castlemaine, Smerwick, and Fenit.  Most news on national stations is interesting to know but it doesn’t really affect day-to-day life.  Radio Kerry tells you things that are actually useful.

And then we reach the pinnacle of local news.  Faintly, in the background, you hear the sonorous notes of an organ begin to play and a solemn voice, with a slight catch in her voice, intones:

“Radio Kerry has been informed of the following deaths.”

And she begins to read:

“Nora O’Caithin, nee Muirthá, age 88, of Gortgariff and Boston, died unexpectedly at home.  Reposing at O’Meara’s funeral home from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, with removal afterward to Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, Ardgroom. Solemn requiem mass at 10 a.m. Thursday, followed by burial at Knockanevin Burial Ground.”

“Padraig (Jimmy Joe) Sheehan, age 94, of Ballincloher, Glanoe West, died in a tractor accident while haying on Tuesday last.  Reposing at the home he shared with his brother Cathal (Danny Joe) Sheehan in Glanoe West.  Requiem mass at St. Mary, Queen of Weeping Angels, Broughane, at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday followed by burial at the new cemetery on the Reanagowan road.  Instead of flowers, Danny Joe asks for any help on the haying since it looks like rain on Friday.”

And so it goes, until every deceased citizen of Kerry has been given their due.  It’s just lovely.

We finish our errands and pull the car back into our yard just in time to sneak in a walk down the lane before dinner. We need to waltz with the midges and think about our life in West Kerry.

The Test

I was thumbing through the pages of the Road Safety Authority of Ireland magazine as I waited nervously in the tiny waiting room.  Suddenly the door in the wall opposite me opened.

“Enter!” an unseen voice bellowed.

I stood, hesitated, and slowly walked through the door to my fate.  A tiny bead of sweat began to form just below my hairline at the top of my spine.

A few weeks before I had completed my mandatory twelve Essential Driver Training (EDT) lessons with Sean of Sean’s Perfectly Adequate School of Motoring. Each week I would meet Sean in the car park at Manor West and drive around the streets of Tralee for an hour.  The entire time Sean would provide a running commentary on my driving skills or, more often, my abysmal lack of driving skills.

“Jaysus, Jim,” he would shout, “that’s a Class II fault!  Three of those on the test and ye’ll have an Automatic Fail!”

“Wait! What did I do?” I’d ask, my voice just this side of a squeak.

“Sure, didn’t you put on your indicator to pull to the curb before you were halfway past the road on the left?”

Now I must say, in defense of Sean’s teaching skills, he had made me the master of the roundabout.  I glided smoothly through each of the thousands of roundabouts in Tralee, checking my right side, left side, and center mirrors, indicating right or left as needed, and down-shifting and up-shifting to maintain my appropriate speed all while threading the steering wheel through my hands and never, ever, crossing them over.

But there were other maneuvers I could not master.

“Turn left at the junction.”

I immediately flick my left indicator and begin to brake.

“Class I fault,” Sean says.  “Jaysus, Jim, it’s center mirror first, then the indicator, and then the brake. When ye hear my voice look at the mirror.”

“Mirror, indicator, brake,” I mutter.  At the next junction, I do it wrong again.

“Jaysus,” Sean sighs.

“Jaysus,” I berate myself.  “Mirror, indicator, brake.  How hard is it?”

“Would ye pull to the curb here and we’ll just try the three-point turnabout?”

The “three-point turnabout” consists of pulling up to the left-hand curb of a busy road, putting on the right indicator, looking over your shoulders at all of your blind spots and checking each of your mirrors repeatedly, and then steering the car to the right across traffic as far as you can go.  You then reverse across the left lane of traffic, twisting in your seat while checking blind spots, repeating this back and forth across traffic until you are going on the opposite direction. You then put on your left indicator and pull to the curb opposite of where you started.  All the while traffic backs up in both directions as the other drivers laugh at the omadhaun turning around in the middle of the road.

During this entire maneuver, Sean is shouting “Jaysus, don’t bump the curb! Class III fault! Automatic fail!!  Watch the foot path!  Check your blind spots”

“Sean,” I say, when I’m safely parked at the curb, “you know I will never do that in real life.”

“But ye will on the real exam, so.”

So it goes for twelve lessons.  Now at last I have my EDT Certification from Sean and I can schedule my driver examination.

That’s when I learn that the waiting time for the test is about 22 weeks.

“Sure, just keep pestering them every day.  There might be a cancellation,” advises Sean.

And there is.  After hounding the schedulers every day for three weeks they finally give in.  I’m scheduled the following Tuesday.

On one of our long walks the week before the test, I finally bare my soul to Sara.

“I’m a nervous wreck,” I say.  “I’m really worried I might fail the driver exam.”

“Jimmy,” she explains patiently, “I’m sure they won’t fail you.  They don’t want to fail an American.  It wouldn’t look good.  Right, Lucy?”

Lucy barks.

That evening Sara is looking intently at her iPad.

“Jaysus,” she says.  “I’m looking online.  Only 62% pass the driver test the first time!  Maybe you better schedule an extra lesson with Sean.”

I don’t sleep well that night.

The Monday before my exam Sean and I meet one last time.  We traverse roundabouts.  We make left and right turns at junctions.  We back around corners.  And we make the three-point turnabout.

All the while Sean shouts, “Class II fault!  Class III fault!  Jaysus, automatic fail!”

My confidence is not restored.

The exam is scheduled for 9:30 the next morning.  I arrive in Tralee at eight and practice by myself.  I ace the roundabouts.  I back around corners.  I do the turnabout.  Mirror, indicator, brake I tell myself.  And then I drive to the examiner’s office and walk into the waiting room.  The door opens at precisely 9:30.

“Enter!”

I enter.

The examiner sits at his desk.  I haven’t seen a haircut that close to the head since my drill sergeant in basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1971.

“License!” he demands.

I hand over my Learner’s Permit.

“What does this sign mean?  What does this hatched line mean? How close can you park to a crosswalk?”  The questions come fast and furious.  I stutter through the answers. The single bead of sweat on my neck is joined by some friends and begins to gain momentum.

“To the car!” he commands.

We walk out to my car.  A small stream is forming between my shoulder blades.  We get in the car.

“Turn left out of the car park!”

“Turn right at the next junction!”

My back is wet.  Mirror, indicator, brake.  Wait two full seconds at the stop sign.

“Pull to the curb after the next junction!”

I wait until I am just past the middle of the intersecting road and then “Mirror, indicator, brake” and glide to the curb.

“Three-point turnabout!”

Right indicator.  Check all the blind spots. Mirrors. Pull to the opposite curb. Stop. Check mirrors and blind spots.  Reverse. Repeat.  Reverse. Repeat. Left indicator.  Pull to the curb.  Perfect.

“Third exit on the roundabout!”

Mirror. Right indicator. Brake.  Second gear. Right mirror. Just past the second exit switch to left indicator. Left mirror. Exit. Third gear.  Perfect.

This goes on for forty minutes.  The flood on my back starts to recede.  The examiner begins to chat.  We make small talk.

“Just don’t crash,” I think.

I pull back into the office car park.

“Any tips you can give me?” I ask.

“Ah sure, ye’re grand.  Come get your license.”

“Thank you, Jaysus! …And Sean,” I whisper.

The Wall

“Every stone,” the old saying goes, “knows its place.”

The stone I am wrestling with, all twenty-five or thirty pounds of it, definitely knows its place, and it is not the spot I have chosen for it.  I turn it 180 degrees, then 360.  Then back again. I flip it over and try once more, edging it this way and that.  But the stone knows it doesn’t belong, so I toss it aside and look over the thirty or forty stones at my feet for a more willing replacement.

The raised garden beds around our house were edged by old timbers, which after ten years of exposure to the lovely Irish weather, have rotted away.  They no longer hold the soil in place.  Their only purpose now is to provide a home for ants and, I fear, termites.  They have to go.

“I’ll replace them with a stone wall,” I tell Sara.  “How hard can it be?”

Stone walls are everywhere in Ireland.  Every field is surrounded by strong broad walls. They climb the highest mountains, separating the sheep from the cattle in their pastures.  The humblest homes and the most regal estates boast a stone entry way. The major motorways and the narrowest country lanes are lined with stone walls.  Stone is sturdy, substantial and, I’m almost certain, does not rot.

Styles vary throughout Ireland.  The midlands have tailored walls, perfectly fitted, built by skilled stonemasons. The country farms have more rustic walls built by farmers clearing their fields and simply piling stones around the perimeter.  In Clare, the stones are flatter and fit together easily.  In Connemara, the stones are rounder and seem to defy gravity as they balance on top of each other.  Mayo farmers set their stones on edge.  And on the Aran Islands there are gaps between the stone to allow the wild Atlantic winds to pass through.  I decide my style will be “whatever fits”.

“And where are you going to get the stone?” Sara asks.

“I’ll ask the Young Farmer down the road,” I reply.  “He seems to know where to get everything.”

Thomas, the Young Farmer, is delivering a load of firewood for our stove the next day.

“I’d like to build a wall around those beds,” I say to him when he pulls in with his tractor.  “Do you know where I can get some stone?”

“I reckon I’ve as much stone as ye would ever want,” he tells me.  “Do ye know where the gate to the woods is?”

“I do.”

“There is a stone pile just inside the gate.  I’ll drop a box beside it and ye can fill it up with all the stone ye need.  Text me when it’s filled and I’ll bring it down to ye.”

I spend a good two hours at the pile evaluating stones and carrying them to the heavy steel box, about eight feet wide and three feet high, open on one side.  Some I can easily toss into the box.  Some I hug against my body and waddle over to drop them in.  And a few, the anchor stones that weigh nearly one hundred pounds, I roll end over end until I reach the box and tip them in with one last mighty heave.

As a reward, and to loosen my sore muscles, I walk through the woods on the way home, listening to the music of the burbling stream and the wind rustling through the pines. I pick up a few fallen tree limbs that show the potential to become good walking sticks.

A man of his word, Thomas drops off the box with his tractor later in the evening.  Tomorrow I’ll go to work.

That night I finish a wonderful book, In the Wake of St Brendan, From Dingle to Iceland, by Danny Sheehy.  Danny was a local poet, boat builder, and seafarer, who died tragically last year.  One quote stood out: “There is no wise man without fault, except the stonemason who always blames the stone.”

The next morning I’m working in the rain and blaming lots of stones.  I stand with stones scattered around me for fifteen feet on either side, looking from the wall to the stones, evaluating each to see if it can find its place.  Slowly, working from right to left, the wall begins to take shape.  I wrestle with the heavy anchor stones, manhandling them into position.  Next to them I squeeze likely looking suspects, filling in the gaps with small wedge stones.  Always, it seems, the perfect stone is the one furthest to the left of me, unless of course it is the one furthest to the right.  Back and forth I move and the stones begin to resemble a wall.

My shoulders and arms ache; my back is screaming for mercy.  My legs protest that they may never straighten out again.  I work around the corners and down the other side of the bed.  And then, just as the rain is letting up, I fit the last stone in its preferred place. I’ve built a wall.

In a few days, I can work the compost into the soil and get the vegetables in the ground.

I hobble into the house and say to Sara, “Now I know why my grandfather emigrated.”

That evening, the Young Farmer, comes by to pick up the box.  His wide-eyed five-year-old son is in the cab of the tractor with him, excited to ride with Da.

“I promised him a ride into town after this.  Isn’t that the grandest thing in the world to him?”

Thomas climbs down from the cab and eyes the wall for a long moment.

“Fair play to you, Jim,” he says.  “I’d say you have the makings of a stonemason in you.  Sure, that wall will be here after we both are dead and gone.”

And that is the best compliment I could ever hope for.  Grandpa would be proud.

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Easter “Tay”

It’s 5 a.m. and pitch dark outside when the alarm goes off.

“Huh!? What!? Umph,” I mumble as I swing wildly at the bedside table searching for the source of the annoying sound.

“It’s Easter,” Sara tells me calmly.  “We’re going to the Mass at Teampall Geal.”

“That’s right,” I say, “and then we’re stopping at Tus’s house for a cup of Easter tay!”

I leap out of bed.

There is a long tradition in our little townland that all the neighbors gather at Teampall Geal, the ancient oratory dating to 800 AD on the hill above Tus’ cottage, at 6 a.m. for Easter morning mass.  The night before we had laid out our clothes, preparing for near freezing temperatures. Long underwear, heavy socks, shirts and pants, jumpers, knit caps, and waxed cotton coats were ready.  And, of course, our trusty wellies.  In our coat pockets we had our gloves and our torches (flashlights) to light our way.

We park our car near the Young Farmer’s yard and walk the last mile or so up the hill to the oratory.  There is a full moon, though you wouldn’t know it because of the clouds.  The torches guide our way through the first field, past the holy well, and over a fence before we begin the steep climb up the hill.  Other torches bobbed ahead of us and behind us, lighting the way for toddlers and teens, adults and old ones leaning on sticks making the dark ascent.

Above the oratory, behind some stone walls, Tus has lit a giant bonfire to help us find our way.

At the top, torches are turned off as we all gather in front of the stone walls, huddling around the standing stone that marks St. Manchán’s grave.  We pull our caps tighter on our heads.  The wind is fierce.

A table is set in front of the low entry to the oratory, beneath a simple cross on the gable, protected from the wind.  A single candle provides the only light.

In ainm an Athar agus an Mhic agus an Spioraid Naoimh. Amen,” the priest begins.  “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The entire Mass is in Irish and I had just exhausted my entire vocabulary, but it is easy to follow the age-old formula.

He offers us God’s blessing, “Beannacht Dé ort.”   And we all recite The Lord’s Prayer, or at least the first few words that I know, “Á nAthair, atá ar neamh.” “Our Father, who art in heaven….”

The wind has picked up.  I lean over to Sara and say, “I can’t feel my toes.”

“Neither can I,” she replies.

A fiddle and a tin whistle provide mystical musical interludes.  We can feel ourselves transported back in time when all celebrations of faith in Ireland had to be hidden away behind hedgerows or in remote, inaccessible places, free from the British overseers.  But the faith, and the people, prevailed.

The Mass ends.  “Tá an tAifreann thart.  Imigí faoi shíocháin.”  “The mass is ended.  Go in peace.”

A single voice begins to sing a capella in English.

“Christ the Lord is risen today” and the rest of the gathering joins in. “Alleluia!”

All together now, “Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!”  The hymn swells and floats down the hill.

In the east, the sun rises from behind Mt. Brandon.

“Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!” we finish.

The priest has one final announcement.

“Ye are all invited by Tus, a man of legendary hospitality, to his house below for a warming cup of tay.”

The people begin to find their way down the hill, enjoying the warmth of the rising sun.  We pass the holy well, the water source for Tus’ tay, and turn into his yard.

In front of the door, a small table is set up in the yard.  Tus walks out the door carrying a large tray holding perhaps a hundred shot glasses, souvenirs from this simple sheep farmer’s travels. There are glasses from Dublin and Cork, Lisdoonvarna and Mullingar.  Atlantic City and Orlando are represented.  I think I spot one from Tokyo.  Some things are not always what they seem. Tus reaches down and, from beneath the table, produces a bottle of clear liquid and begins to pour.

This is the fabled “tay”, Tus’ poitín, made with the blessed water of the holy well according to a recipe handed down from generation to generation.  He hands me a glass.  It has NYC on one side and a red apple on the other.

“Thank you,” I say. “We’re your neighbors from down the hill, in the second house in the woods.”

“Ye’re very welcome indeed.  Will ye go inside for some cake?”

“We will, thank you.”

We file with the other neighbors into the house, finding a seat on a wooden bench in the sitting room.  In the kitchen, neighbor women are serving soda bread and brown bread and scones and homemade jams.  They even have actual tea.

I take a tiny taste of Tus’ tay.  It is wonderful.  Very smooth and light, with a hint of flowers and fruit about it. More neighbors gather in the small room.

About half way through my cup of tay, I turn to Sara and say, “I’m beginning to feel my toes again.”

“Hand it over,” she demands.

We chat with our neighbors about dogs and kids and the wonderful events of the morning, drinking our tay and enjoying the warmth of the fire.  And the warmth of finding a welcome here in our little community.

Then it’s time to thank our host for his hospitality,  take our leave, and head down the hill for a good long nap.

A Cup of “Tay”

We are coming down the hill from the oratory, moving this way and that to avoid the newborn lambs. Their mothers eye us warily.

The old man watches us from below. His cap is pulled down tight on his head and his blue jumper is zipped up to his chin to ward off the chill.  Moleskin pants, held together as much by soil as by fabric, are stuffed into his wellies.

We slip and slide until we reach the gate.  He leans on his shovel as he waits to greet us, a barrow of stones by his side.

“Fine day,” he says, “though there’s still snow on the mountain.”  He points to Mount Brandon over his shoulder, sporting a crown of white.

“It is indeed,” I say.  “The sun always makes it feel warmer.”

“It does, so.”

“You’ve put in a new gate?” I ask, pointing at the wide, shiny gate at the entrance to the field.

“I have. Wasn’t the old one about to fall down and t’was too narrow as well. I used to walk the fields to mind the sheep, but now I use the machine,” he says, referring to his ATV.  “The legs have gone out from under me.”

We close the new gate and he loops a bit of twine to hold it closed.  “Sure, why would I give the man below €10 for a hasp when the old way works just as well?  The sheep don’t know the difference.”

He hefts the barrow and we start down the bohreen.  I carry the shovel.

“Did I see you at the holy well when we were up above?” I ask him.

He sets the barrow down and pushes the cap back on his head.

“You did,” he says.  “It’s time to start the Easter poitín. A man is down from Mayo to learn the trade from me. Sure, isn’t it dying out all over the country?”

He pulls his cap back down, lifts the barrow and we start again.  He talks as we walk.

“I learned from my father and he learned from his own father before that.  But I’ve no son to teach, so I’ll pass it on to this Mayo man.  I only make the batch at Easter and the one for Christmas.  Just to help celebrate, like.”

The barrow is put down again so the man can rest.  The cap goes back on his head.

“It started in the old days when the Brits would tax the legal stuff to deny a man a drink after a hard day’s work.  The whiskey they forced on them was no good at all.  The people called it ‘Parliament’ after them that made the tax.”

He searched in a pocket for a cigarette and in another pocket for a match. He lit up and leaned against the stones.

“The people started to make their own and good stuff it was too.  The Brits didn’t like that at all because they got no money from the tax, so they said it was a crime to make a batch.  Many a man was ruined and thrown in prison and his family tossed into the road.”

He exhaled a great cloud of smoke.

“All to deny a man a drink.”

His cap is pulled down tight again and we start down the last stretch of the bohreen.

“The people hid the stills away where the Brits couldn’t find them.  And fathers taught their sons.”

“My stuff is made with the water from the holy well, as pure a water as you’ll find in all of Ireland.  Takes near six weeks, so I start it just before the Lent.  People tell me it’s better than that stuff they make down the hill,” he says modestly, referring to the Dingle Distillery in town.  “Sure, don’t I make mine to 60 and they only make theirs to 40?  And they sell it for €70 a bottle!”

I realize he is talking about the percentage of alcohol in his brew.  That would make it 120 proof.  Strong stuff, indeed.

We reach the end of the bohreen and the entrance to his yard.  He puts the barrow down once again and pushes his cap back. I hand him his shovel.

“Will you be at the mass on Easter up above?” he asks.

“We will.”

“You would be very welcome indeed to stop in at the house for a ‘cup of tay.’”

“A ‘cup of tay?’” Then I realize he’s talking about 120 proof tea.

“We will,” I tell him.

“Until Easter then,” he says, pulls his cap back down, picks up his barrow and pushes it into his yard.

“Until Easter.”

And we walk on.

 

Comfort Food

The lamb comes from Seamus O’Ciobhan’s farm at the very end of the Dingle Peninsula, where his pastures face the storms and wind and salt spray of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the westernmost point in Europe. As the locals like to say, “the next parish is America.”

Jerry Kennedy, our butcher, buys his pré salé lamb from Seamus and, to our everlasting good fortune, sells it to us.

At least twice a week we pop into Jerry’s shop on Orchard Lane to see what he has to entice us that day. But before we look over his offerings, we spend five or ten minutes discussing the events of the day: politics, both local and international; solicitors and bankers and their respective failings; and, always, the weather, good or bad. Then we move on to business.

All of Jerry’s wares – his beef, pork, and lamb – come from within thirty kilometers of his shop. He knows each of his farmers and personally selects his animals.

If we want a steak or pork chops, he’ll bring out a slab of meat, slap it on his big maple block, and say, “How thick would ye like it?”

“About this thick,” we say, holding up our thumb and forefinger.

“No trouble,” he says as he begins to slice.

But today, cold and rainy, we want lamb to slow roast for hours in a low oven. Lamb is Jerry’s specialty, his pride and joy. His shop walls are covered with posters announcing his gold medals for lamb sausages, racks and legs of lamb, and lamb shoulder. We select a three-pound lamb shoulder from Seamus’s farm.

“Will I cut the bone for your?” Jerry asks, picking up his hacksaw.

“It’s the only way it will fit in my pot,” I reply.

With the shoulder in our bag, we stop a few doors down at O’Connor’s Fruit & Veg. O’Connor’s potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbages are grown on the Maharees peninsula just on the other side of the mountain from Dingle town. With our produce in the bag, we head home through the rain for a long, slow day.

At home, in a break between rainy spells, I dash out to the garden and cut a good-sized handful of rosemary. When I get back in the kitchen, I crank up the oven to its highest setting, about 230C (550F). Then I pull my cast iron pot out of the drawer and plop the shoulder onto my wooden cutting board.

Half of the rosemary goes into the bottom of the pot with half of the unpeeled cloves from a large bulb of garlic. The shoulder gets a nice massage with some olive oil followed by some pepper and just a little salt. Pré salé lamb is raised in pastures with exposure to the sea, so it is naturally salty. I scatter the other half of the rosemary and the rest of the garlic cloves on top of the lamb, put the lid on, and slide it into the oven. Immediately, I turn the oven down to 160C (about 325F).

 

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Ready for the oven

Now I can read my book for the next three and a half hours. A nap is also possible. The aroma from the lamb fills the house and rouses me.

I put my book down and wander back to the kitchen to peel three or four potatoes and a couple of carrots from O’Connor’s. The potatoes are cut into large chunks and the carrots into smaller pieces and all are thrown into pot of salted water. The pot is put on the hob to come to a boil.

The cabbage is sliced up and placed in a bowl and another pot of water is placed on the hob to simmer.

Now I can take the pot with the lamb shoulder out of the oven. The shoulder goes onto my cutting board and gets covered with some foil and a tea towel to rest for 30 minutes or so. I’ve had my rest and the meat deserves the same. I fish the rosemary and garlic out of the pot and drain the grease off the top, leaving the good brown sauce on the bottom.

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A well-deserved rest

At this point, I must swear you to secrecy. Each time we go into his shop, Jerry gives us a marrow bone for our dog. Some of these bones are as big as little Lucy’s head. Lucy never sees them. I throw them in the freezer and, when I have eight or ten of them, roast them with some carrots, celery, and onions in a hot oven for an hour, then cover them with water, add some herbs, and simmer for four hours to make beef stock. Please don’t tell Jerry. Or Lucy.

The good pot with the brown sauce goes on the hob over medium heat and a little flour gets stirred in, followed by a couple of cups of that secret beef stock. I stir and scrape all the good bits off the bottom and bring it to a low boil to reduce by half.

While the gravy is reducing, I drain the potatoes and carrots and mash them with butter into a chunky consistency. The cabbage is eased into the pot of water for four or five minutes, drained and tossed with a hunk of butter and some good salt.

Once the gravy is reduced, I throw a couple of tablespoons of drained capers into the pot and simmer for two or three minutes. If Sara isn’t looking, I may add a pat of butter for silkiness. Then I remove the pot from the heat, splash in a little red wine vinegar just to perk it up, and pour the gravy into a small pitcher while resisting the temptation to drink it straight.

The foil and tea towel are set aside and the lamb shredded with two forks into large chunks and served with the mash and cabbage and gravy. This, my friends, is Irish comfort food.

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Comfort

After dinner, we stretch out in front of a fire in the lounge, watching the rain fall, reading our books, and thinking kind thoughts of Jerry and Seamus

“How about some nice fish tomorrow?” I say.

The Curse

The first GAA Football match I ever saw was on my first trip to Ireland in 1972.

My sister and I stopped to visit our cousin Mary at her small farmhouse in a crossroads town in County Mayo. While Mary bustled about making tea and ordering her daughters and son Sean to “look after the cousins from America” and put out the “good china” her husband Henry sat in a corner of the kitchen watching a football match featuring the Mayo team on the telly.

It was the smallest television I had ever seen, measuring at most 10 inches diagonally. A wire ran from the set out the window of the kitchen to a metal coat hanger hanging from the sash. The picture, when you could make it out through the static, was in black and white. The commentary was in Irish.

Henry was well into his eighties at the time. As he stared at the TV, he juked this way and that, running and kicking and passing the ball along with the players on the pitch. I couldn’t make a thing out on the screen, but Henry made every play and I followed along by watching him. I fell in love with the game that day. And with the Mayo team.

But Mayo, I came to learn, is cursed.

The last time the Mayo team won an All-Ireland Football Championship was in 1951. As the team processed back to Mayo after the win at Croke Park in Dublin, they came upon a funeral in the town of Foxford. In Ireland, when you come across a funeral procession, you stop walking or driving and pay your respects. A discreet sign of the cross would be in order.

The Mayo team did not do this. Instead, with horns blasting and flags flying, they passed by the funeral procession. The widow was not amused. She set a curse on the team, declaring that Mayo would not win another All-Ireland until every member of that team was dead. There are two men from the team still alive, and Mayo has not won since.

Now, some forty-five years after seeing my first match, I am watching Kerry play Mayo in the semi-finals of the All-Irelands and I am torn. I live in Kerry but my people are from Mayo. I have half-heartedly put a Kerry flag on our gate in a show of neighborly camaraderie.

The commentators on TV are brutal about Mayo, questioning their fitness and dedication:

“This Mayo team was out of puff against Roscommon last month,” they say.

“Mayo’s defense is shambolic,” they add. “The defense has to get their arse in play.”

“Wrap a bandage around his head and get back in there!” they demand when a Mayo back is gashed.

“Mayo’s defense is at sixes and sevens out there!”

The match is tight, with lots of rough play from both sides, which the commentators like. “Sure, they’re only getting to know each other.”

Back and forth the two teams go. Mayo up, then Kerry up, then Mayo, then Kerry!

Mayo kicks back-to-back goals by the same player. “He’s so hot Kerry cannot hose him down,” we’re told.

Up Mayo!” I’m shouting.

But now Kerry comes back, showing “style and panache in their play!”

Kerry ties it up with just seconds to go!

“Up the Kingdom!” I scream.

The final seconds of regulation time tick off and the game is tied.

“Now we go on to overtime,” I think to myself.

Wrong. There is no overtime, no sudden death, no shootout. They play the entire match over again the next Sunday.

Sadly for Kerry, the replay does not have any of the drama of the first meeting. Mayo wins handily, by far the better team. They will go on to meet the Dublin team in the final at Croke Park on the third Sunday of September. The end of the curse is in sight.

Now you would think that the people of Kerry would be somewhat bitter over the loss. But Dublin is the New England Patriots of Irish football. Perennial winners. The hated Dubs.

“Sure, I hope Mayo wins,” Jerry, our butcher tells us. “Don’t they deserve it after all these years?”

Our friend Grainne observes, “If they win, there won’t be a cow milked in Mayo for a week!”

Even the priest, in his sermon at Mass on Saturday evening, says, “I know that 31 of 32 counties will be praying for Mayo.”

The next afternoon, with our nieces Olivia and Abigail in tow, we repair to our local pub to watch the match, fortified by a few pints.

It’s a replay of the Kerry-Mayo match. A tight, back and forth game, with the lead changing hands constantly. Mayo up. Dublin up. Mayo! Dublin! Dublin! Mayo! Then, in the waning minutes, a goal by Dublin! They are up by three points. The air goes out of the room. The last seconds of the game tick away, and then a miracle occurs.

Goal! Goal! Goal! Mayo scores. Tie game! Only seconds remain.

We go into injury time, which is time added at the referee’s discretion at the end of a game for delays in regular time.

And that’s when the penalty is called on Mayo: a free kick for the Dubs from midfield.

The Dub player carefully places the ball and steps back. He eyes the uprights as he takes a few steps forward. His boot makes contact with the ball. Up, up it goes, soaring through the uprights. Time runs out. Dublin wins.

The Curse continues.

“We’ll get them next year, Henry.”  I promise.