The Ghosts Among Us

We watched him once or twice a week on the hill high above us as we walked by the old woman’s cottage. The man maneuvered the digger up and down the slope, scraping away gorse and brush and weeds to make a new field for his sheep. Slow work on such a steep hill.

And then one day, the digger was parked, still and unmoving.

“He must have other jobs to do on the farm. I’m sure he’ll be back at it in a day or two,” I said to Sara, and thought nothing of it. We turned back down the lane.

But days went by and the digger didn’t move.

Weeks later, there were headlines in the local and national papers:

“Ancient tomb discovered by farmer on Dingle Peninsula,” said The Irish Times.

“Ancient ‘untouched’ tomb discovered on Dingle Peninsula,” chimed in RTE.

“Farmer discovers ancient Bronze-Age tomb in Dingle,” The Kerryman noted.

Even some foreign papers and journals picked up the story, including The New York Times and The Smithsonian Magazine.

The stories were similar: A tomb, possibly dating back to the Bronze Age, between 2,500 and 4,500 years ago, had been uncovered when a farmer doing land reclamation work had pulled up a large stone slab. He immediately stopped work and notified the National Museum of Ireland. Archeologists discovered a multi-chambered structure with ritual carvings and stones and what appeared to be human bone fragments. The tomb was oriented to look directly south to the Skellig islands and directly west to the Blasket islands. All of the stories emphasized that the location was being kept secret to protect the site.

Hmmm, I wonder, I thought.

We live with ghosts in West Kerry. 

They are with us when we go to Easter morning Mass at the oratory on the hill behind Toos’ house. Or when we stop at the holy well to bless ourselves on the walk home. They are beside us when we run our hands over the Druid Stone at the top of Goat Street in town. Or when we walk through an abandoned village that is just a stone’s throw from our house. They stand next to us when we reach out to touch the ancient alphabet on an ogham stone.

Most hilltops have a cairn, most headlands have a promontory fort, and most pathways have been walked for thousands of years.

We are always among ghosts.

When visitors come to see us here, l love to take them on a tour around the peninsula. The scenery is magnificent. Sea views and mountains and green fields enclosed by stone walls. It’s breathtaking. But it’s the hidden corners that I most like to take them to.

Just beyond Ventry, and before we get to Fahan with its ford across a small stream, there is a small promontory fort called Dunbeg on a cliff-edge 100 meters above the Atlantic. It dates from the Iron Age—500 BC to 400 AD—and consists of a series of earthen embankments and a drystone rampart about 3 meters high and up to six meters wide. Inside the rampart are a number of stone dwellings called clochán. People would have sheltered here in difficult times well into the eighth or ninth century. 

A bit further along, a series of clocháns or beehive huts dot the hillside. They are in small groups enclosed by circular stone walls. They are not as ancient as Dunbeg, dating from the early Christian period. The most prominent theory about their purpose was that they served as shelters—early B&Bs of a sort— for the pilgrims making the western maritime pilgrimage from Spain along the coast of France and then to this point on the southwest coast of Ireland. The pilgrims would then cross over the peninsula for a stop at Mount Brandon. From there, they would continue up the coast of Ireland and onto Iona in Scotland.

We stop at Coumeenole Beach, a quiet secluded strand surrounded by cliffs, and I point out the remains of a promontory fort and an ogham stone on Dunmore Head, the westernmost point in Europe.

As we round the tip of the peninsula, near Dunquín, there are overlooks with clear views of the abandoned village on the Great Blasket, a few kilometers across the Blasket Sound. On a clear, calm day, the sound looks almost serene, but on a stormy day it is one of the most treacherous waters in the world. Numerous ships rest on its bottom, including the San Juan de Ragusa and the Santa Maria de la Rose from the Spanish Armada, lost in 1588.

The Great Blasket was inhabited for millennia by people who relied on a sustenance economy. There is a poem called Pity the Islanders by David Quin with the line:

for they dwelt on a rock in the sea and not a shining metropolis

and lived off the pick of the strand, the hunt of the hill, the fish of the sea,

the wool of the sheep, and packets of dollars ….

The dollars were sent from émigrés from the island, most living in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

It was a hard life. The population dwindled, islanders emigrated, life was not sustainable, and the island was abandoned in 1953. 

A few miles further along the road, down a hidden lane, is a monastic settlement called An Riasc or Reask, that was occupied from the fifth to seventh centuries. Parts of it were later used as a cemetery for unbaptized children. There are intertwined clocháin, inscribed pillar stones, a goodly number of ogham stones, and a magnificent carved slab nearly two meters tall decorated with spiral designs and a Greek cross. A jeweler in Dingle town will gladly replicate this stone for you on a gold pendant for a mere 500 Euros.

From Reask it’s a short drive back to town, for a restorative pint and some time to reflect about the people who have lived here for centuries before us.

A few weeks after the articles about the tomb appeared in the papers, we were in a shop in town. If I want to know what is going on in the area, I always ask this shop keeper.

“Do you know where the tomb that farmer discovered is located?” I asked.

“I do, of course. It’s quite near to you, on a hill just down your lane and across the long road,” she answered. “The tomb has been marked and covered over so the poor souls won’t be disturbed.”

So, it was confirmed.

The next time we walked down the lane, the farmer on his digger was back at work, moving up and down the hill clearing the brush. His sheep grazed in a nearby field, eyeing the spot where they would find new grass in the spring. We paused for a few minutes and watched him work, then turned and retraced our steps to home, glancing over our shoulders as we walked. 

The Lost Beanie

A Short Sketch

“Sara,” I shouted into the kitchen, “have you seen my beanie? The beige Woolrich one.”

I was on my knees at the basket in the hall, pawing through scarves and gloves and hats, tossing them onto the floor around me. Scarves to the left, gloves to the right, hats behind me.

Oh, here’s that glove I was looking for last year, I said to myself as I removed another item.

“What?” Sara said as she came to the door of kitchen.

“My beanie,” I said, still sorting through the basket. “My favorite stocking cap. The one I wear on our walks. Do you know where it is?”

“Why would I know where your hat is?” she answered.

Fair question, I thought, but not helpful. 

“Did you look at the drying rack in the office?” she asked.

“I did, but I didn’t see it.”

“I’ll look again.” This time there was a hint of a sigh in her voice.

I have, I must admit, been known to misplace a few things. There was the glove that I discovered after a few days on the side of our lane. And the phone that ended up at the Garda station. But I’ve never lost anything permanently. I like to claim that things aren’t lost, they just haven’t been found.

The beanie wasn’t in the office. Or in the lounge. Or in the kitchen.

“Did you leave it in a shop when you were in town?” she said.

“I don’t wear it into town. I like to look smart when I do the shop.”

“Are you sure?” she prodded.

Another fair question. I retraced my steps over the last few days.

“No, I wore my flat cap with my brown scarf on Thursday when I ran into David’s to get prawns, because it was windy. And I wore my brown Stetson, (or was it the black Stetson? No, definitely the brown) with that scarf from Santa Fe to Jerry’s and O’Connor’s on Friday because the wind had died down. I only wear the stocking caps on our walks because my ears get cold.” 

“You have way too many hats,” she said, looking at the hats on the hooks under the stairs and strewn around me on the floor. Six of them are on the wall, plus assorted others in the basket.

“But I like hats,” I pouted.

“Are you sure you didn’t drop it when we were walking?” An accusatory tone had crept into her voice.

“Impossible. I never take it off my head,” I said, frantically running through our last walk in my head. “I would never lose it on a walk.”

“I’ll just order you another one on Amazon,” she said, giving into the inevitable.

“Not yet,” I answered. “I’m sure it will turn up when we least expect it.” 

And so we left it for a few days, but my beanie never surfaced. I had resigned myself to living the rest of my days without my favorite stocking cap.

More than a week later, we were walking down our lane, chatting away. Lucy raced around us, nose to the ground.

Sara pointed off in the distance to the hill near town.

“Isn’t the color on that house beautiful?” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it before.”

I followed her pointing finger. And there it was, perched atop a fence post. My beanie. Left by some neighbor who probably thought, “That eejit American lost his cap. I’ll set it up here, so, and maybe he’ll see it.”

“Would you look at that, Sara? My beanie!”

Sara smiled at me triumphantly. “And what do you have to say for yourself?” she asked.

“I told you it wasn’t lost. It just hadn’t been found yet.”

She sighed. 

We continued our walk, my beanie in my hand. 

St. Brigid’s Day

The rooks were flying above us—a dozen or more. The first scouts had arrived at the rookery. Each had a twig or a bit of moss in his mouth. The din they made was deafening.

“Quite the caw-cophony,” I said to Sara.

She rolled her eyes; she’s well used to me I suppose.

We were just past the old lady’s cottage at the end of our lane, where the tall trees loom over her stone shed. The trees are topped with twenty or thirty untidy nests. The scouts gather each year in late winter ahead of the fledging season to repair the nests before the rest of the flock arrives. In a few weeks, dozens of pairs will be in the rookery awaiting the new chicks.

The noise of their cawing was unrelenting.

It was St. Brigid’s Day, February 1, traditionally the first day of Spring in Ireland. Clear and cold. We hurried past the rookery, eager to get home to our fire.

“It doesn’t feel like Spring, does it?” I said. “But I suppose the rooks know more than we do. Let’s get home. I have a few chores to do, then we can settle into our own little nest.”

As we walked back down the lane, robins hopped along the pavement in front of us and wrens darted in and out of the hedgerows. But there were no primroses peeking out.

I took advantage of the clear day to screen my compost pile and deposit the dark rich humus in the garden. In a few weeks I will work it into the bed and prepare the soil for planting. I shivered as I worked.

Will Spring really come? I thought as I shoveled.

I carried a few armloads of wood into the house to fill the timber basket in the lounge to feed our stove. We get our timber that keeps us warm all winter —seasoned ash and hickory—from Thomas down the road. It looks like we’ll need one more load this year, I thought as I reached to the bottom of the bag. I’ll text Thomas this week.

My final chore is to straighten up the shed—stacking the boxes of Christmas decorations, splitting some timber for kindling, moving the peat briquettes back into the corner, and sweeping the floor.  As I worked, I watched our resident blackbirds hopping across the fresh humus tugging on worms and scratching for insects. I hoped they would reward us later in the day with a song. 

Back in the house, I lit the fire and settled into my chair.

The next day was colder still, and cloudy. 

The Met Éireann forecast was typical for this time of year:

“Cloudy,” it read, “with high temperatures of 7 °C to 9 °C. There may be periods of heavy rain, hail, and sleet with occasional sunny spells, and fresh to gusty winds with intermittent gales.” That about covers all the bases, I thought.

I decided to take my walk through the “forestry that is no longer a forestry,” as the locals call it. Just past the three bungalows down the lane there is a gate. I let myself through it and closed it carefully behind me. The path follows a rutted bohereen through meadows and paddocks and bits of uncut pine that stretch from our lane almost to the long road that runs between the townlands Gallain and Barra, north of Mullenaglemig. Part of it follows a fast rushing stream with watercress hugging the banks. I pause to listen to the roar of the water and admire the bright green of the cress. There are no houses in sight or animals in the fields. It’s a good walk for thinking.

As I walked, the wind blew and rain began to fall. Then hail pelted me, stinging my face. To the north, the mountains—Cnoc Bhaile Uí Shé and the Brandon Range behind it—were covered in new snow. I zipped my waxed cotton jacket tighter around my throat and said a prayer of thanks that I had pulled on my waterproof trousers before setting out.

Will I ever be warm again? I thought as I trudged along.

But the blackbirds sang last night, I told myself. They know.

A Beatles song ran through my head:

         “Blackbird singing in the dead of night

         Take these broken wings and learn to fly

         All your life

         You were only waiting for this moment to arise”

In the distance, in the trees behind the old lady’s shed, beyond the “forestry that is no longer a forestry,” I heard the rooks cawing as they prepared their nests for the arrival of new chicks. They know.

I walked down the long straight bohereen that leads to the road to Thomas’s farm. Tall pines on either side shelter the bohereen and me. Clumps of daffodils were just starting to poke their heads above the grass.

Be patient, I told myself. Wait for the moment. Spring will come. Spring will come.

I reached the gate, closed it behind me, and turned down the lane for home and a warm fire.

Thoughts on a Scallop

I delicately scrape away the sand from the shell with the tip of my stick, then, leaning down, gently free it from the hold of the shore. Thousands of other shells are scattered around me – clams, cockles, and oysters – but this shell is my prize. I’ve found a perfectly formed scallop.

I often walk down to this small, hidden corner of Dingle harbor, just two kilometers from our home, to spend time wandering around the water. It’s quiet here, and don’t we all need quiet now and again? 

Walking a few paces to the shore I use my stick to keep my balance on the slick seaweed, and crouch to wash the sand from the scallop shell in the lapping water. 

Not many people come here. The access is down an overgrown lane off the main road; if you didn’t know it was there, you would never find it. The lane is used most often, I suppose, to haul seaweed from the shore to fertilize neighboring gardens.

As I wash the shell, I look across at the busy town, still partly hidden by the morning mist. Fishing trawlers and lobster boats make their way to the harbor mouth to begin the day’s work. But there is no sound from the town or boats. The distance is too far. The only sounds I hear are the lapping water, the birds calling overhead, and the insistent tapping of a hammer from the man refurbishing the old forge up on the main road. I am alone.

I lay the shell on a rock to dry in the sun and begin to walk to the tidal pond behind me. 

In past times, the hidden lane was a road leading to a bridge over the harbor that provided access to the Ventry estate. Lord Ventry was the most prominent landlord in the area and his former Great House, now a girls’ boarding school, is just beyond the trees on the far shore. The bridge and road have long collapsed, but enough remains to form a natural barrier across the harbor, and that barrier creates a tidal basin. At high tide, water rushes through the channel where the bridge span used to be and floods the basin. At low tide, water rushes back out, but not all of it. A shallow body of water about ten acres in size remains, perhaps a meter deep. And that water teems with trapped fish and aquatic life.

And where there are fish there are sea birds.

As I amble around the edge of the basin, I spot a grey heron among the reeds on the far side, stalking his breakfast. His movement through the water is imperceptible, barely raising a ripple of the water’s surface. Then he strikes. His head disappears beneath the water and pops back up with a wriggling fish in his beak. He tilts his head back and the fish disappears down his long throat. He resumes his stalking as I move on.

I think about the shell I left drying in the sun. This one has delicate shades of pink, alternating bands of rose and coral and salmon on the outside, and pearl on the inside. Others that I have found are shades of purple with hints of mauve and ruby, or blue and green like the sea they come from. No two are alike. They all go home to rest on our mantle. 

To the heron’s right, at the very back end of the pond, three Little Egrets – pure white with black beaks and yellow, webbed feet –  conduct their own hunt, wading through tall grass. A half-dozen others, finished with their breakfast, roost high up in one of the ancient cedar trees that protect the west side of the basin. The cedar’s trunks are six or eight feet in diameter. I walk further along the path, my mind, like my feet, wandering.

The scallop shell has long been a symbol of the apostle James, the patron saint of Spain. Shells are used as signposts on the Camino de Santiago: the lines on the shell leading to a central point serve as a metaphor for pilgrims on their many paths to Santiago de Compostela. But its symbolism goes back even further. Venus, the Roman goddess of beauty, is often depicted rising from the sea on a scallop shell, symbolizing her birth from sea foam. Ancient cathedrals throughout Europe have baptismal fonts in the shape of scallop shells and the shells themselves are used to pour the water over squawking infants during the ritual.  

My thoughts are interrupted by a different squawking nearby. Gulls of all sorts – Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, and Black Headed Gulls – gather in large groups on the rocky shore, picking at shells or snatching small fish from the shallow pools. Their racket soon subsides and they settle into the sand to rest after their meal. I keep on.

When we were in Lisbon in February, before this year began its slow decline, we spent a morning in the Tile Museum. I was, it must be said, skeptical about going to a tile museum, but it was delightful. As I inch my way along a narrow section of the trail around the basin, I think about the number of times the scallop appeared on tiles in the museum. It is, I realized a perfect form for art and architecture, its symmetry both strong and beautiful.

Another drama on the pond grabs my attention.

Two Cormorants, black, with a green-blue gloss to their plumage, occupy the center of the basin, propelled in lazy circles by their webbed feet. Suddenly, one disappears beneath the surface for three, four, five, six seconds. Where did it go? I wonder. Eight, nine, ten…fourteen, fifteen. Will it ever surface? Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Suddenly, it pops up twenty meters away, its long neck stretches out, and a fish goes down the gullet. 

Relieved, I walk back to the rock and my pink scallop shell. I slip the dried shell into my pocket, pull up the hood on my jacket against a sudden shower, and walk down the hidden lane towards home, my pilgrimage complete.

Take Care

A Short Sketch

I heard the bleating beyond the fuchsia hedge as I walked down the lane. Loud, persistent, mournful.

Reaching the gate to the field, I saw Mary standing surrounded by six-month old lambs, bleating and nudging at her legs.

“How are the lambs doing?” I asked, concerned that there might be something wrong. I leaned on the gate.

“Aw, we’re just after separating them from the ewes. We move the young ones here and the ewes to the high field above so they can’t hear each other. They miss their mothers, so they do,” Mary answered.

“But isn’t it a fine day to be standing in a field surrounded by lambs?” she went on. As always in Ireland, the talk turns to the weather.

“It is indeed,” I reply. “A lovely day for a long walk.” 

“And aren’t you the grand man for the walking?” she compliments me. She sees me often along this stretch of lane.

The talk turns to the other topic nowadays.

“And how are you keeping down below there? With the Covid and all?” she asks, referring to the constant worry about the pandemic.

“We’re doing just fine, Mary, but we only go into town early on Thursday to do our shop at Garvey’s, Jerry’s, and O’Connor’s. How are you and your husband getting on?”

Her husband is “The Old Man Who Suffers from the Terrible Gout.”

“We’ve only been to town once or twice to go to Conor (the local GP) to get the gout medicine for the old man,” she tells me. “I still have Garvey’s deliver our shop to us on the Friday.”

After a few more minutes commiserating with each other about the complications to our lives caused by the virus, she asks me:

“And how is your care?”

Normally I am good with local colloquial phrases, but I was stumped by this one.

Mary recognized the quizzical look on my face. “Your care, your family back in the states,” she explained to me.

“Aah,” I said before telling her how our family back home was getting along and enquiring after her own family here in Ireland.

After a few more minutes of chat, circling back, as always, to the weather, I said goodbye and left Mary to her bleating lambs.

As I walked down the lane to the Old Ventry Road,with the mournful bleating fading away, the lovely phrase she used ran through my mind: “How is your care?”

Early on in the fight against Covid-19, a poem called “Take Care” by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins,was in circulation. It offered comfort in trying times.

The last lines read:

         Hold firm. 

         Take care.

         Come home


Images of our friends and family around the world flew through my mind­. Ohio and Oregon. California and Pennsylvania. New Mexico, Michigan,and Connecticut. India, Singapore, and Ireland. Our care.

Take care, each and every one, I prayed as I walked along the lane. May we come home together.

A Day of Sheep Shearing

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 byIt 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.

Bacon–I’ll Be the Judge

“Would you be interested,” the email from a friend read, “in judging for the Blas na hEireann awards on Saturday afternoon? The category is ‘Bacon and Bubbly.’”

“I’m in,” I emailed back.

Judge bacon, I thought? I’ve been training for that since I first ate solid food at six months old. And bubbly? Who doesn’t love a good Champagne or Prosecco?

Blas nah Eireann, The Irish Food Awards, are the premier competition for Irish food products. Over 2500 entries are judged each year, vying to win the prestigious Gold, Silver, and Bronze awards. Judges, I read on their website, “come from a wide range of food backgrounds; they are chefs, restaurateurs, academics, journalists, authors, caterers…” I started to get nervous at this point “…and enthusiastic home cooks.” There it is, I thought, that’s me! I cook, and I am nothing if not enthusiastic! Still, it felt daunting to be among such experts.

I saw myself sitting around a large table with food experts of every stripe, keeping a low profile, eating bacon and quaffing Champagne–almost a brunch-like atmosphere. Maybe there will be mimosas, I mulled. And the cráic should be massive.

When I first set foot in Ireland in 1972, Irish food was, how can I phrase this…filling. I remember my first dinner at a cousin’s house in Mayo. The usual suspects were arranged in the center of the table: cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and some type of meat boiled until it was beyond recognition. It could have been a bowl of stewed prunes as far as I could tell. This exact dinner was repeated multiple times on that trip. I have a vivid memory of a young cousin coming in from the farm yard, sitting at the table, pulling his penknife from his pocket, wiping it on his pants, spearing a spud from the bowl, cutting it up into pieces that he dipped in salt, and using the knife to pop them into his mouth. Like I said, filling.

But what a revolution there has been since that time. We are surrounded in Dingle by superb beef and lamb, most of our veg comes from just over the Connor Pass, and small craft producers along the West coast make cheese and chutneys and ice cream and sweet and savoury snacks. Irish food producers and chefs are known throughout the world for their quality and innovation and Blas na hEiriann honors them. And I was going to be, in a small way, involved. Plus, it was bacon.

An hour later, an email arrived from Blas na hErieann, with directions to the event, details about the judging procedure, and rules about social distancing and sanitation procedures. So, I realized, no large table with the banter about the entries flying fast and furious among the judges.

And one other thing: the category now read Bacon & Carbonated Drinks. Could that mean choosing either Pepsi or Coke to accompany the bacon, I wondered? I’m more of a ginger ale man, myself.

Saturday afternoon I arrived, early as usual, at the venue on Grey’s Lane and, after washing my hands in the sink near the front door, was shown to my seat at a small table in the corner by a woman wearing a face shield. On the table were hand sanitizer, Dettol wipes, plastic cutlery, a stack of paper towels, and two bottles of water. A plastic lined rubbish bin sat on the floor beneath the table. I removed my mask and waited.

Around the room, separated by at least two meters, were a few other tables equipped like mine. Soon the other judges trickled in and found their tables: a chef, a woman who runs food tours in Dingle, and a professor of food science. I felt a bit intimidated.

A fellow who seemed to be in charge explained the process to us. Individual samples would be brought to our tables, which we would evaluate on attributes such as Appearance, Aroma, Taste, Texture, and Market Appeal. We were to rate them on a scale of 1 to 12 in a program that we accessed on our electronic devices. The evaluation program was developed in conjunction with food scientists from universities in Ireland and has been adopted by other food competitions around the world. I was impressed, though I wondered why the scale went up to twelve rather than ten. It must be like the amp in Spinal Tap, I reasoned. If ten is the best, twelve must be better.

“We’ll start with the carbonated drinks,” the woman in the face shield announced.

The first sample arrived at my table, delivered by a different face-shielded woman.

“This is an apple cider,” she told me.

I lifted the sample to my nose and had a good whiff. I took a sip and rolled a drop around my tongue like I was sampling a fine whiskey. I swallowed, then tilted back in my chair in contemplation before turning to my I-Pad. I was still flummoxed by how I was to rate the texture of a liquid when the face-shielded woman set the second sample in front of me announcing, “This is a raspberry infused tea.” I scrambled to finish rating the first sample before tasting the tea. I gave the tea a better score on texture because it had bits of raspberry pulp floating in it.

I managed to get a bottle of water opened to cleanse my palate before the face shield was back. “This a kombucha tea,” she said. 

I winced.

I can truthfully say that I can think of no earthly reason to drink kombucha tea. I find it vile stuff. But in the interest of science and the promotion of Irish producers, I took a taste. It confirmed my preset opinion. 

We worked our way through nineteen samples–some good, some bad, and some, I must say, quite tasty. There was another cider that caught my fancy and a lemonade that was outstanding. This is the price that must be paid to identify the very best, I reasoned.

But now we were moving on to bacon. I took a sip of water in preparation. I was born to do this.

“This is unsmoked gammon.”

Let’s do this, I thought. 

Wait, gammon? Aren’t we judging bacon? You know, rashers and such. Maybe one or two pieces of streaky bacon for variety.

It turns out that the term bacon in Ireland refers to a large variety of cured pork products. Gammon – like the piece in front of me – ham, back bacon, streaky bacon, bacon chops – all dry cured or wet cured, and smoked and unsmoked.

“Collar bacon, smoked,” the face shield put another plate in front of me. I cut a small slice.

“Ham fillet. Dry-cured.” Another bite. And a sip of water. Enter my ratings.

“Green bacon.” Bite. Sip. Ratings.

“Streaky bacon.” Sip. Open the second water bottle. Sip. Ratings.

“Back bacon.” Sip. Sip. Sip.

And so it went, through twenty-five samples of bacon and two bottles of water. Bacon makes you thirsty.

At last we were finished. We binned our detritus into the receptacle, tied up the bag for disposal, sanitized our table, and put our masks back on before standing up to leave.

“I’ve met my salt quota for the week,” I said to the chef as we made our way to the door.

“I would murder for a pint right now,” he responded, “but the pubs are still closed.”

I left the venue and popped into the cheese shop next door for a tub of Dingle goat cheese. The proprietor is also a chef, teacher, and judge for Blas na hEireann. We talked about the awards and their importance to Irish food producers.

“I worry that I may have been a harsh judge of some of the products,” I confided.

“Don’t you worry, Jim,” he assured me. “The only way to improve your product is to hear what others think of it. The good ones will tweak this and change that and come back next year with something better. They need and want your opinion. There are no overnight successes.”

We also talked about the contrast of tasting bacon and kombucha.

“I mean,” I said, “even bad bacon is still bacon, but kombucha?”

“Tasting for Blas na hEireann is like life, isn’t it?” he answered. “One day you’re tasting steak, and the next vinegar.”

Isn’t that the truth, I thought. I picked up my goat cheese and headed home.

Walking the High Road

It’s a fine day for the silage, I think as I walk up the slight grade near Thomas’s farm. I watch as Thomas guides the mower around the field, saluting him with my stick as he approaches the end of a row. He returns my wave as he turns the tractor and starts back around the field. 

I walk past his farm sheds and turn left onto the high road. It’s one of my favorite walks.

The high road runs from Ballymorereagh on one end, near Thomas’s farm and the oratory on the hill above me, to Carhoonaphuca on the other end, by the big dairy farm, a distance of about one and a half miles. Between these two townlands is Caherboshina or Cathair Both Sínchein Irish. Twenty or so houses–old cottages and newer bungalows–line the road on either side, homes to small farmers. Residents refer to it as a “village” though there is no shop, no post office, and certainly no pub for miles.  An anonymous place really.

The origin of the name Caherboshina is unknown, though it can be translated as a rainbow or semi-circle. Most likely there was a stone enclosure there at one time as protection for the cattle of a woman named Síneach. The name became well known in Munster as an evasive answer to the question “Where are you from?” If a person wanted to protect their privacy from the gardai or the taxman or the land agent or a nosy fellow patron at the pub, they would answer “Caherboshina.”

Just after I make my turn, I pause at the entrance to a sheep farmer’s sheds.  Leaning on his gate, on a clear day like today, all of Dingle town and the harbor are spread before me. I watch the boats taking tourists out to see Fungie and the trawlers coming in with their catch. In the distance, beyond the harbor mouth, I can make out the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain. To my right, high hills separate this part of the peninsula from Corca Dhuibhne, or Back West to the locals. Sheep and cattle pastures climb the hills, divided by stone walls. I count my blessings.

Just beyond the sheds, Joan leans out an upper window of her house. “Isn’t it a lovely day?” she calls to me.

“It is,” I reply. “A good day to walk without a care in the world.”

My pace slows as I walk the high road. I swing my stick at my side­–three steps and a click as it strikes the pavement, three steps and a click. There is no rush. There is time to think. Snippets of poetry­–Yeats, Dunne, Heaney, and my grandmother–flash through my mind. Three steps and a click.

It’s narrower than the other lanes I walk, with grass growing down the middle, and high ditches on either side. I’ve been walking this stretch of road two to three times a week for nearly four years and have a nodding acquaintance with most of the neighbors, but I’m much better known to the dogs. One old fellow, retired from his days as a working dog, is asleep in a sunny patch of road ahead of me. When he hears the click of my stick, he struggles to his feet and, tail wagging, hobbles toward me on his arthritic legs.

“How are you, old boy?” I ask as he nuzzles his nose into my leg. I give him a good scratch behind his ear and look into his sad cataract-clouded eyes.

“Go lay down now,” I tell him, patting his head, “you’ve earned your rest.”

I go on.

As I walk beside a ditch, I hear a man in the field above me bellowing, “C’mon! Git! C’mon, c’mon! Git, git, git! Get back to me! Git, git, git!” Lambs and ewes are bleating madly. As I reach the open gate to the field, two men and three dogs are rounding up a hundred or so newly shorn sheep to move them to another field. I lean on the gate to watch. 

“Git, git, git!” the man yells. The dogs move back and forth in a coordinated dance, crouched low to the ground. I back up to the ditch as the sheep move through the gate to the lane. They all surge past me, the men, the lambs, and the dogs, yelling, bleating, and barking. The men give me a wave and the dogs stop for an ear scratch before going back to work.

“Git, git, git! G’won now, g’won now,” the man shouts as they head down the lane in front of me. The noise fades away.

I continue my walk after they pass, stepping more carefully now.

The hedges and ditches are seldom cut back on the high road. They are lush with wildflowers. I watch a bee disappear inside of a foxglove, reappearing a few moments later covered in pollen, weaving drunkenly as it flies to the next flower. A yellow iris preens nearby. Honeysuckle twists its way through the brambles. I’m tempted to pluck some petals to make honeysuckle syrup, but I don’t have a cloth bag to carry them safely home. Lilacs scent the air. 

The pale pink blossoms on the brambles are beginning to drop and hard green nuggets push out. By the end of August, they will grow into plump blackberries that I can feast on as I walk.

Coming down the lane from the opposite direction I see an ancient Massey Ferguson tractor, it’s motor putt-putting like a two-cycle Lawn Boy. In the cab sits “The Old Man Who Suffers from the Terrible Gout.” His wife Mary rides on the metal platform behind the tractor. Their three dogs dance around them. They are going to the fields where they still raise a couple of dozen sheep each year to keep themselves busy in their retirement.

I’ve chatted with Mary a few times on my walks but I don’t know her husband’s name. She only refers to him as “The Old Man Who Suffers from the Terrible Gout,” so that is what I call him.

As they get near, I gesture, asking if they are going to the field on the left or the right. They point right.  

I walk to the gate and untie the cord and swing the gate open for the tractor to putter past so the old man on the old tractor won’t have to make a painful descent from the cab. It seems the neighborly thing to do. Mary and the old man shout their thanks. I close the gate behind them.

A few steps further on, I stop to visit with two geese who waddle to the wall, curious to see this visitor. And in the field beyond that two donkeys trot to the wall, eager to feast on the carrots they know I am carrying. Then I shout a “Good boy” to Curly, the Jack Russell, as he guards the last house in Caherboshina.

I reach the dairy farm in Carhoonaphuca and turn onto left the old Ventry road for home, happy with the world I live in.

I really should learn that old man’s name, I think as I walk home. 

Three steps and a click.

It Takes a Village

I am sitting in the driver’s seat in the car park, masked up and sanitizer close at hand. I am, I admit, a little nervous. The door to the boot behind me is wide open. I dial my phone.

“I’m in the car park in a white Nissan Qashqai,” I announce to the person who answers the phone.

“We’ll be out staightaway,” they reply.

I lean back in the seat and try to relax.

“Ó Cinnéide, is it?” I hear from the back of the car.

“It is,” I answer, responding to the Irish version of my name.

“I’ll just pop this in the boot so,” the lad says as he places a box of groceries in the car. “God bless ye now and take care,” I hear as the door to the boot slams.

Well, that’s the shop sorted for this week, I think as I throw the car into gear and drive out of the car park. It does take a village.

For ten long weeks, from March 19 through early June, the only time I ventured into town was on Tuesday mornings to pick up our groceries from Garvey’s SuperValu, our local grocer. At first, I was worried about how we would get by while cocooning. And then the phone calls started.

“Jim, it’s Jerry” –our butcher– “how are you getting on? Do you and Sara need anything?”

Derek from the greengrocer checks in, “We can run anything ye want out to the house.”

A text comes in from Mark at the cheese shop, “Can I bring something out to you? Do you need a paper? We go by that way all the time to check on relatives.” 

Kenny, from up the road, is at the house to varnish the windows for our landlord. We chat at a social distance. “Ye’ll want for nothing in this village,” he says of our neighborhood. “There’s always someone who can do a proper job for ye.”

Sara sends Kenny home with cookies for his family. The next day he brings us fresh duck eggs.

And we shop by phone.

On Thursday mornings, I call Jerry or John at the butcher shop. “Could you cut us a few of those T-bones? The thick ones with the big fillet? And three racks of lamb. Oh, and two pounds each of beef and lamb mince. A housekeeper’s roast, if you have one. And next week, I might want a Boston butt. I’m thinking of making pulled pork.”

“I can,” says Jerry. “Do you want me to bring it out to you when I go to the farm later?” 

“Why don’t you drop it down to Derek?” I answer. “I’m about to give him a call with my order.” The greengrocer is two doors down from the butcher.

I put in a call to Derek with my order. Cauliflower and broccoli. Roosters and salad potatoes. Green beans and snap peas. Some of those cherry tomatoes. Ten lemons and ten limes (yes, I know that’s a lot of lemons and limes, but in these desperate times cocktails must be made). Maybe a pineapple. And I don’t forget carrots, onions, and garlic, the purple kind. I’ve a stew to make on Sunday. 

“Mark,” I say when I call the cheese shop, “would you mind dropping off that brie that Sara likes? And some Parmesan, pecorino, and a nice Irish cheddar–the sharp one? Oh, I could use one of those good olive oils you get from Spain. And coffee from Bean. And, what the heck, pick out a nice red wine you think we might like.”

“No trouble at all,” he answers. “Is there anything else you need in town?”

“Well, as long as you’re asking, I have some dried haricot beans and basmati rice ordered at the health food store, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“I’ll walk up and collect it and be by around four, if that’s okay.”

Sara calls Aideen at the bookshop; there’s some reading we’ve been meaning to catch up on. She drops the books by an hour later along with some plants for our garden.

Truth be told, we sometimes order more than we need, but our small businesses in Dingle, like the rest of the world, are struggling. If we order an extra steak or bag of potatoes or a bottle of wine, we can always pass it on to friends, and help Jerry and Derek and Mark and the bookshop to survive.

Deliveries come to our back door and are placed on our patio table. Sara has been baking daily and with every delivery to our door, there is a bag of cookies or scones or a couple slices of cake in a bag on the table to take back to the shop. Each time I talk to a shopkeeper they joke that Sara is going to put a stone on them before this is all over. “She’s nearly put a stone on me as well,” I tell them.

As cases come down and restrictions are relaxed, local restaurants begin to offer takeaways to keep their heads above water until they can open their doors again. Once a week we place an order: tapas from Solás or fish and chips from The Fishbox or pizza from Little Italy. I join a queue of cars in front of the shop, pop the hatch, phone to let them know that I am there, and moments later dinner is placed in the boot. “Enjoy your meal, Mr. Kennedy, and thanks a million,” I hear as the door is closed.

Now the constraints have largely been lifted and we can return to our routine of doing our own shopping, although only one or two customers are allowed in a shop at a time and must mask up and use hand sanitizer before entering. Once again, I can show John how thick I want the chops cut. I can feel the heft of the cauliflower or smell the pineapple. Sara can browse the tables in the bookshop and we can sample the cheese at Mark’s.

I chat with John and Jerry in the butcher shop as they cut my order and sample Sara’s lemon cake.

“It takes a village to get through things like this, doesn’t it?” I offer.

“Sure, where would we be without our friends and neighbors?” John answers.

Where indeed, I think. 

Slán agat,” I say as I leave the shop. “I’ll see you next week.”

Cat Tales

Even after forty-three years of marriage, I am still astounded by Sara’s ability to make herself small when she is startled. She pulls her legs up under her, wraps her arms around them, tucks her head down, and hunches her shoulders. I can almost pick her up, squeeze her into a SuperValu tote, and carry her away. It is quite the talent.

We had just settled into the lounge after a dinner of shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo over white rice. It was lovely, if I do say so myself. Sara was in position at her end of the couch with her needlepoint in hand. Lucy was curled beside her sleeping soundly. I cracked open the window behind the couch – it was a lovely warm evening – sat in my spot on the other end of the couch and picked up my book. Matlockwas on the television. A half hour or so passed. Lucy was chasing birds in her dreams, kicking her hind legs in a running motion. Domestic bliss, really.

That’s when Sara shouted, “Jimmy, there’s something in the house!” and made herself small. “I think it’s a rat!”

I was thinking, this is probably not the time to compliment her on her posture, when Gidget popped her head up over the side of the couch. Gidget is one of the cats from next door. I jumped up and chased her around the room until she leaped through the open window and took off for home. I closed the window.

Lucy never woke up.

To be fair, Gidget has become quite fond of Sara. About once a week, Sara takes baked goods to our neighbors. Elly, their little girl, especially likes Sara’s chocolate buns – cupcakes to those of you in the U.S. To return the favor, this past week Gidget brought Sara a mouse as a thank you.

I checked around the lounge in case Gidget had brought another present. All clear. Sara uncurled herself and we settled back down. Lucy rolled over.

That’s when we heard a thump from upstairs.

“Dammit,” I thought, “it’s Cleo.” Cleo is the other cat from next door.

We both jumped up. Lucy finally stirred.

“Shut all the doors down here,” I said. “I’ll open the front door and chase her down here so she can escape.” I ran up the stairs.

Nothing in the hallway. Nothing in the small bedroom. Nothing in the master. Only the guest room remained.

And there she was, under the bed.

“Scat,” I shouted, because that’s what I supposed you should say to cats who are holed up in your house. “Scat!” I repeated, a little more frantically.

Cleo raced past me, out the door and down the hall.

“Go downstairs,” I yelled. “Good cat.”

Cats do not follow directions well. Cleo sped into the small bedroom that I use as my bath and dressing room, leaped across the dresser and onto the window sill, and turned to face me, the double bed between us. She hissed. And bared her fangs. Rather large incisors for such a small cat, I thought. I flashed back to watching a leopard gnawing on an impala carcass a few years ago in South Africa. I can still hear the bones cracking. Such things are best viewed at a respectful distance and now I was a little too close for comfort. If Cleo can leap through an open window, I thought, she can probably leap across this double bed. I backed off.

I would not be described as a “cat person.” I tolerate them and do not judge people who keep them as pets. (Well I do, but I feel badly about it.) I mean, they are fine in their place, as long as their place is not the windowsill in my dressing room.

“You better go get Emma,” I shout downstairs to Sara. Keeping a close eye on Cleo, I back out of the room and close the door.

A few moments later, I see Emma trotting down the lane that runs between our houses. Through the glass doors to the lounge I can see Lucy perched on the chair furthest from the doors. She looks perplexed.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry, Jim,” she says as she reaches our front door. “Where is she?”

“Upstairs in the small bedroom,” I answer. “Top of the stairs, on the right.” I back away from the door – we are social distancing – and Emma rushes past me.

I hear hissing and snarling from upstairs. Cleo also sounds upset.

A few moments later Emma comes down the stairs, holding a bewildered Cleo at arms-length in front of her. Emma is still apologizing. Cleo doesn’t say a word but gives me the stink eye.

“Think nothing of it,” I say as I close the door behind them and run back upstairs to check for mice.

We finally settle back down in our assigned spots, after I open the window on the other side of the room. The one we can see. Perry Masonis about to start.

“So, what’s for dessert?” I ask.