For years we’ve had a plaque that hangs beside our fireplace with an old Irish saying; “Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán fein,” it reads. “There is no fireside like your own fireside.”

Most evenings this past winter, with the wind howling and the rain falling and the sun setting at 4:30, we sat on the couch in front of our little wood stove, curled up and reading our books, passing an occasional comment to one another. Lucy perches atop the cushion midway between us, sound asleep. Every half hour or so, I feed another log into the stove, fine hickory and ash supplied by Thomas the farmer down the road. It’s a quiet winter life that we love.

But even this idyllic life of leisure can grow tiresome. When that happens, we head off to Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara to sit in front of a different fire for a few days. Ballynahinch is an ancient house in the midst of Connemara with a history that goes back to the O’Flahertys in the 14thcentury. It has, thankfully, been updated since.

Our first visit to Ballynahinch is lost in the haze of memory. “Was it ’85 or ’86?” we ask each other on the drive north, not knowing for sure, but we do agree that we’ve been there more than thirty times over the years.

Others may opt for the sandy beaches and tropical breezes of a Caribbean isle, or an all-inclusive resort in Mexico sitting by a pool in the sun, but we long for 700 acres of wooded estate with a fast-flowing river where we can wear wellies and waxed cotton rather than flipflops and swimsuits.

When we arrive after the four hour drive from Dingle, we are greeted with hugs from Freddie and Kathleen at the reception desk. Bríd from the dining room runs out to greet us and ask how we are keeping. Michael the porter is there to help with our bags and we’ll see Pat at breakfast in the morning and James in the walled garden in the afternoon to inspect the flowers and vegetables. Patrick, the manager, comes loping around a corner to bestow more hugs. It’s like coming home to family.

“Your room is waiting for you,” Freddie announces.

We have been staying in the same room, number 38, for over twenty years, and we joke that they are allowed to let the room to others whenever we are not in residence.

Number 38 overlooks the river at the back of the house. A king bed, loveseat, a comfortable chair, and coffee table fill the room. A television is in the corner, but we never turn it on. The only sound you hear in the night is the rush of the water as it flows around the small island in the middle of the river.In the morning we sit on the loveseat with a cup of coffee, watching the trout and salmon rise and, if we’re lucky, a heron wading around the island hunting for its breakfast.

Most nights we eat in the pub at a table near the fire. On the drive from Dingle to Connemara, Sara and I discuss what to have the first night.

“I love the lamb burger,” Sara says.

“Their pork belly with white beans is excellent, too,” I answer. “And I really like the duck with green lentils. I’m not sure what I’ll have tonight.”

A few minutes pass.

“But it has to be the lamb burger,” I say, and we both sigh thinking about it. We always have the lamb the first night.

There are roaring log fires throughout Ballynahinch­–in the reception area, Hunts room, Fisherman’s Pub, dining room, and Ranji room–named after a former owner of the house, Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanager, better known as Ranji, Prince of Cricketers.We have enjoyed all of these fires over the years, but our favorite is in the library, where we find ourselves after dinner on the first night. Bottle-green walls and bookshelves surround us in the small room and, above the mantle, a portrait of Richard Martin stares down at us. Martin was the founder of the SPCA and at one time owned most of the land and, by extension, the tenants of Connemara.  Ballynahinch was his country home. Martin‘s nickname was Humanity Dick, but that applied more to animals than to his tenants.

We sit in the library much as we do in our lounge back in Dingle, with Sara on one end of the couch and myself in a club chair, a drink, tea or wine or a whiskey, on the table in front of us and a book in our hand. Lucy, sadly, is with her dog sitter back in Dingle, frolicking with the Labs and Whippets and occasionally being dragged through a stream or mud puddle in the forestry against her will. Every twenty minutes or so a porter comes by to poke and prod the fire and feed it a log, then moves on to the other fireplaces to perform the same ritual.

A couple comes in to join us, he on the other end of the couch and she in the club chair opposite me. We nod and smile pleasantly and return to our books. They do not have books. Silence settles softly around us.

If there is one thing the Irish cannot abide, it is silence.

“Have you been here before?” the fellow finally asks, unable to contain himself any longer.

We look up from our books. Posh accent, Dublin I’d say.  We lower our books to our laps resignedly.

“We have. Many times,” we reply. “And you?”

“We come up from Dublin once or twice a year.”

And we’re off. Another round of drinks is in order and the books are put aside until later. We have new friends to get to know.

The days are spent exploring Connemara by ca­r, walking on remote beaches, shopping in Clifden, or visiting the smokehouse in Ballyconneely to order smoked salmon to take home to Dingle. If the weather is not too wet, we pull on our wellies and walk the paths around the estate. There are walks along the river and through the woods, following the route of the old narrow-gauge railroad that ran between Galway and Clifden. Our favorite, though, is around Ballynahinch Lake.  On an island in the center of the lake is an ancient fortress that belonged to Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connacht who married into the O’Flaherty clan. The surrounding mountains, the Twelve Bens, are perfectly reflected in the crystal clear water. We stand on a dock watching in awed admiration. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem calledBallynahinch Lakethat runs through my mind:

So we stopped and parked in the spring-cleaning light
Of Connemara on a Sunday morning
As a captivating brightness held and opened
And the utter mountain mirrored in the lake
Entered us like a wedge knocked sweetly home
Into core timber.


When we arrive back at the house we pull off our muddy wellies and settle down in front of the fire in the reception area for a restorative cup of tea.

The next night after dinner­–the duck was lovely, by the way–we find ourselves in the library once again, in the same couch and chair. We chat with the porter as he tends the fire and then dive back into our books. Patrick, the general manager for the past twenty years, appears and takes a seat on the couch, stretching his long legs in front of him towards the flames.

We like to tease Patrick that we were coming to Ballynahinch when he was still a schoolboy in short pants.  We trade stories about his three kids and our children and grandchildren, all of whom he has met over the years. Lulu, a sharp young woman from Brittany who runs the pub now, comes by and Patrick decides a round of drinks is essential to fuel the conversation.

Lulu is a bit nervous to take an order in front of the boss.

Sara orders a Cosmo and Patrick a glass of Guinness.

So far, so good.

“I’ll have a Dingle Gin martini,” I tell her.

“Up or on the rocks?” she asks.

“Up,” I reply.

“Lemon peel or olives?”


“Shaken or stirred?”

“Stirred,” I say. “Anticlockwise, please.”

She goes off to the pub, bemused.

After Lulu delivers the drinks, (the martini was perfectly stirred), Sara, Patrick, and I toast our stay and over the next half hour proceed to solve all the problems of the U.S. and Ireland and, as a bonus, Brexit. If only people would listen to us.

After setting the world right, Patrick has to run off to watch his elder son’s rugby match, so we say our goodbyes.

“We’ll see you in October,” we tell him.

Sara and I settle back into our books, passing the occasional comment and listening to the crackling logs, utterly content.

In the morning we must leave our beloved Ballynahinch and return home to Dingle where we have our own fire to tend and a muddy Lucy to collect.

Until the next time, dear Ballynahinch family.

Keep our room ready. And the fire burning.

Will they come again in the spring?

Two days before the New Year, we saw the blooming lilac bush. We were on our short walk through the townland of Móin an Fhraoigh, next to our own Mullenaglemig. A fellow walking with his Labrador in the opposite direction stopped to gawk at the bush with us.

“It’s lovely to look at but do ye think it will come again in the spring?” he asked.

His Lab, after a quick sniff at Lucy, shoved his muddy nose into us, hoping for a scratch behind the ear. We both obeyed. He did not seem interested in the cycles of nature.

“I’m afraid of what will happen when the frost comes,” I replied.

“Aye,” the fellow said.

We continued on our walk.

The winter has been abnormally mild this year with temperatures consistently in the 50s. Anemones started popping their red, blue, and purple heads up in my garden in early January. Our roses are blooming as well. In the woods nearby daffodils sway in the breeze and, over in the corner near the fence, our landlord’s gran’s lilies are glossy green, getting ready to flower. The fields around us are as green as a day in June.

Good weather for walking

But we all know the frost will come.

The short walk–about two and a half miles–is the walk we take when we’ve had a busy day shopping in town or we’re still sore from our workout at the gym the previous day.

“Will we do the short walk?” Sara will say as we approach our gate.

“I think we should.”

We turn left as we pass through the gate and walk to the bridge that spans the stream that borders our forestry. There is a short hill beyond the bridge, the only strenuous part of the walk, and we lean on our sticks until we reach the crossroad. Móin an Fhraoigh, called Monrea in English,is just past the crossroad.

The road flattens out here, passing by some newer bungalows with a view of the harbor, Dingle Bay, and, on a clear day, Little Skellig and Skellig Michael, some fifty kilometers out in the Atlantic. We stop to admire the bay. Sara calls one house with a particularly fine view our “lottery house.” Around a bend in the lane is the lilac bush that bloomed in December and, a few steps on, there’s an abandoned village

The village fuels my imagination; I populate it in my mind.

There are three or four one-room stone cottages hard by the lane on both sides. The walls, laid stone by stone two hundred years ago, still stand strong, as sturdy as the people who lived within them. The door frames and window sashes are intact. But the hearth has gone cold and the timber and thatch of the roof have long since rotted away.

Scattered around are sheds for their animals – a cow for the milk and butter and hens for eggs. Small plots for growing potatoes, cabbage, and carrots can still be seen, now just furrows covered by grass.

How many generations were fed beside those hearths? How many children slept in the loft beneath the thatch? How many secret plans to leave were shared? Outside in the yard an old swing still hangs from a tree but there are no squeals of laughter. One-by-one the children left. Famine, crushing poverty, wars of independence took their toll. The children scattered to Hartford and Springfield, London and Birmingham, Sydney and Melbourne. Few would ever come back.

The night before a child left the village in Monrea there would be an “American wake,” with the women keening and the men stoically smoking their pipes. In the morning, the son or daughter would walk away to Dingle, not daring to look back until they were around the bend in the lane, so they would not lose their resolve. From Dingle there was a train to Tralee and then another train to the port of Cobh, near Cork, where they would board a ship to a new, unknown life.

Until there was no one left.

A few steps further along the lane on the short walk is a larger house, built perhaps in the early 1900s. It started like the houses beside it, one room with a loft, but over the years, as the owners became more prosperous, new sections were added, along with a solid slate roof. A proper front garden was planted, with a stucco wall around it. A path led from the wrought-iron gate to the front door, and the broad field beside it had room for five or six fine milk cows. By the 1950s and 60s, electricity and telephone services had arrived.

But here too, the children would be forced to leave, seeking better opportunities than tending six milk cows in a field in rural Ireland. Unlike earlier generations, they drove to Shannon and flew into exile knowing they could keep in touch with Mammy by phone, and, if they prospered, come back someday to visit.

Squeezing past the rusting iron gate, most of the spindles rotted away and the yellow paint peeled off, we walk up the path that has sunk beneath the sod, marked only by a line of daffodils on either side. The rhododendrons by the front door are starting to bud much too early

We peer in the deep-set front windows. On one sill is a pencil and note pad and an ancient telephone. On the other there is a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

Feeling like we are prying, we back out of the garden and continue our walk, turning the corner towards the old Ventry road, and remarking on the early primroses hidden in the hedge.

As we walk along, I imagine an old woman, the last occupant of the house, sitting by the fire saying her beads, waiting for the phone to ring and wondering, “Will they come again in the spring?”

It’s a short walk, but a lot to ponder.

Christmas Greetings

A friend came to visit last week. It was, as the Irish would say, a “flying visit”.  He came in on Wednesday and went out on Friday.

I showed him all that Dingle has to offer in the bleak misty mid-winter: a Dingle Distillery tour; a trip around the peninsula admiring the sites and clambering over and around ancient sundials, standing stones, and roofless churches a thousand years old; and, of course, a couple of whiskeys in Dick Mack’s and some Guinness stew in a pub afterward.  Then we returned to our home and sat in front of a warm fire drinking more whiskey and solving all of the world’s problems.

We hadn’t seen each other since we graduated from high school fifty-one years ago, but the conversation continued as if one of us had simply left the room for a few minutes, and then returned.

On Saturday night we went to a friend’s house for her annual Christmas party. Her large square table was groaning from the weight of cheeses, chicken bites, mini-pizzas, and cookies and cakes. The chairs were pushed back against the walls.  Christmas decorations covered every surface. And the kitchen and lounge were crammed with locals and blow-ins from the states and the U.K., all busily chatting away and wishing each other “Happy Christmas”. Some we knew already and were friends with and some, I suspect, will become friends.

On Sunday, we ran into town for the last-minute shopping.  There was a roast to pick up from Jerry, whose counters and coolers were piled high with turkeys and geese and ducks and dry-aged rib roasts.  Then, next door to the green grocers for potatoes and carrots and sprouts on the stalk.  We stopped at Mark’s cheese shop for a nice cheddar and a bottle of wine to accompany the roast, and at Grainne’s for a few more baubles to decorate the house. And, of course, there are always needed essentials from SuperValu, where we try to get in Joan’s checkout line so we can have a chat as she rings up our purchases.  Everywhere there are smiles, handshakes, and cries of “Happy Christmas”.

I thought about this as we sat in front of the fire last night.  We have been blessed with good friends wherever we have lived.  Some friends we see often, some only occasionally, and some after fifty years, but all have enriched our lives.

Thank you to all of our friends, wherever you may be.

Happy Christmas

Nollaig Shona


Jim and Sara

The Baker

 I’m sitting in my chair reading The Irish Times when I come across an article about the National Ploughing Championships held this year in Tullamore, County Offaly, just down the road from the Marian shrine in Screggan.  Sara is working in the office.

The National Ploughing Championship is the biggest yearly event in the Irish farming world.  Almost 300,000 visitors roam through 1,700 exhibits of seeds, feeds, and farming equipment.  The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and other ministers wander about in wellies greeting constituents, and the President, Michael D. Higgins, gives a welcoming speech.  There are sheep dog trials and sheep shearing contests.  A few fellows build a tractor from the ground up and a fun fair keeps the children amused.  Cattle and the milk they give are judged rigorously.  And, to top it all off, farmers compete for the ploughing championships in three categories: under 28 years, over 28 years, and seniors.

I’m about to relate all of this to Sara, but decide she is too busy.

Then a paragraph in the article catches my eye.

“Would you listen to this?” I shout to Sara in the other room.  “There’s a National Brown Bread Baking Championship judged by none other than Mary Berry from the Great British Bake Off show.”

“Hmm,” she said, totally engrossed in her work.

Now it must be said that Sara is renowned for her brown bread on three continents.  It has made regular appearances on our table in the states, in Singapore, and here in Ireland, always to great acclaim.

“A County Meath woman won, while carrying her three-week-old son in a sling as she baked.  Fair play to her.  And there’s a €10,000 prize.  You should enter next year.”

No response.

I continue reading about the brown bread.

“Wait,” I shout again.  “What do you put into your brown bread?”

“Cream flour, coarse wholemeal, soda, salt, and buttermilk.  And maybe a little sugar,” she sighs distractedly.

“This woman puts chia, flax, and poppy seeds in hers. And treacle.  Wait. And eggs!” I shout.  “What manner of brown bread is that?  Chia seeds, for god’s sake.  You should definitely enter.”

No answer.

I go back to my reading.

Sara has been famous for her baking wherever we have lived.  In Santa Fe, she was often asked to supply the desserts for dinner parties.  This was in part because of her science background. Baking at a high altitude – Santa Fe is at 7,000 feet – presents a challenge.  Sara would factor in the altitude, the barometric pressure, the wind direction, the ambient room temperature, and which couch the dog was sleeping on to actually get a cake to rise.

Here, though, altitude is not an issue; we are, after all, at sea level.  In Corca Dhuibhne her challenge is the pride and reputation of the local ladies.  She has to tread carefully.

She started with some rhubarb scones. The way Sara has always made her rhubarb scones is to pat the dough into a small circle and then cut it into triangles, the way you would slice a pizza.  The first time she made them she walked a few next door to our neighbors. Their four-year-old, Ellie, immediately wolfed one down.

After Sara left, Ellie said to her mom, “They tasted lovely, but does she not know how to make a proper scone?”

“What do you mean, Ellie?” her mother asked.

“Proper scones are round,” she answered. “I learned that at my school.”

Point taken. Sara now makes round scones.

Next it was a Guinness cake for a friend’s Sunday lunch of roast venison and veg.  This was met with raves, and leftovers went home with all the guests.

A dinner party of steak and kidney pie with a steak and ale pudding required some thought.

“I’ve got it.  I’ll make a key lime pie.  That will work well after the richness of the beef,” she mused.

A traditional pumpkin pie and apple tart were on the table for our own Thanksgiving dinner with friends.

There were lemon bars for an art gallery opening night for three artist friends.  Visitors gave high marks for the artwork and the lemon bars.

Grand Marnier and apple cakes, tarts and pies, and frosted Christmas cookies for a “drinks” party.  All went out our door.

This was done with just a few assorted mixing bowls and a demon of a handheld mixer that spewed flour all over the kitchen and Sara.

“I hate using this thing,” she said every time she baked.

One day we went into Fitzgerald’s Hardware to pick up some AAA batteries.

“Look at this, Sara,” I said, pointing to a display near the front.  “Kenwood KMX75 stand mixers are on offer for €200.  That’s like the Cadillac of mixers.  State of the art.”

“Put it in the cart.”

“The sky’s the limit now,” I think.

Thoughts about our well-equipped kitchen run through my mind as I finish the article in the Times.

Looking up from my paper, I decide to give it one more try.

“Chia seeds, Sara,” I say.  “I mean, you really should enter the contest to show them how to make a proper brown bread.”

“I’ll enter that contest when you learn to plough a straight line.”

“But it’s €10,000, so,” I mumble.

I get up from my chair and reach for my jacket.

“I’m going for a walk,” I tell her. “I’m wondering if Thomas, the farmer down the lane, could use an apprentice?”

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.


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.”


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?”


“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.


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.