A Few Words on Fish

I am staring into the open refrigerator trying to remember what I was looking for. When I left my cutting board, three paces away, I knew for certain what I needed. As I passed the sink, I was reasonably certain. When I opened the door, I hadn’t the foggiest notion.

That’s when Sara came into the kitchen. “What are you looking for?” she asked.

Thinking quickly, I answered, “The car keys.”

In retrospect, this may not have been the best answer. I could see Sara making a mental note to discuss this with the doctor the next time we are in.

“Just kidding,” I say, pulling out a lemon, the one I had just remembered I needed. “Nothing to worry about.”

I am cooking fish for dinner and you always need a lemon when cooking fish.

I walk back to my cutting board and set the lemon beside it.

Sara and I love fish, and we are lucky to live on a slender finger of land that stretches far out into the Atlantic, as far west as you can go in Ireland. And surrounding this spit of land are the most fertile fishing grounds in the world. We are on a mission to try every fish in that ocean.

A friend in town, a local chef, once told me when we were discussing cooking fish: “We have the finest, freshest fish in the world. Treat it as simply as possible and don’t mess with it.” (To be fair to him, since he is Irish, he did not say “mess,” but this is a family friendly blog.)

On the pier, just as you head out of town to the Slea Head Road, is the O’Catháin Iasc Teo fish factory. The factory fillets and freezes tons of fresh fish each day from the trawlers that put into the harbor just down the road, and then ship the fish all over Europe. It’s quite an operation, I’m sure. But I’m not interested in the factory.

I am interested in the small shop that sits in front of the factory. Two or three times a week we stop in to see David, our fishmonger.

David stands behind a counter of ice mounded with fresh white fish from the north Atlantic. There’s hake, pollock, and cod. Lemon sole fillets and black sole on the bone.

Skate and scallops and Dingle Bay prawns. Haddock, plaice, and John Dory. There’s squid, if you like it. And in season there is yellowfin tuna, whole sea bass, and wild salmon.

“The hake is lovely today. It just came in this morning,” David tells me.

“I’ll take half a kilo.” I answer. (That’s about a pound.) He slips it into a compostable bag and I head for home with my seven euros worth of fish.

Here’s how to handle hake:

Place the frying pan on the hob on medium high heat and add a bit of good Irish rapeseed oil. Meanwhile, slice the hake into four pieces and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Now add a knob of butter to the pan and wait for it to melt. When the foaming calms to a slow sizzle, slip the hake into the pan, flesh side down.

When the fish is browned, flip it carefully, turn the heat down a bit, and cook another few minutes until it flakes easily with a fork. Now you can move the gloriously browned hake to a platter and slide it into the warming oven while you make a simple sauce. Working quickly, wipe out the pan and return it to the hob, dropping in another knob of butter. As it melts add a small handful of capers to the butter, maybe a quarter cup or so, and let them mingle and get to know each other for a minute or two. Take the pan off the heat and squeeze in some lemon juice and drizzle the sauce over the hake.

Add some sautéed spinach or rainbow chard and a bit of rice, shout “Voilá,” and you have a meal.

A few days later, David and I consult again.

“How is the cod?” I ask.

“Like it’s still swimming,” he replies.

The cod comes home with me.

I learned to cook cod in the oven when we lived in Singapore. I also learned not to grab the handle of the pan with a bare hand after it comes out of the oven. The downside of that experience was a bad burn on my right hand; the upside was discovering the marvelous efficiency of the Singaporean medical system at ten o’clock on a Saturday evening.

Preheat the oven to 200 C. (about 400 F.) and put your favorite cast iron skillet on high heat on the hob with some oil. When the oil is just smoking, the cod goes in for just a few minutes to brown. Olivier, the charcutier at the farmer’s market, had some good-looking chorizo the morning I bought the cod. An ounce or two of the minced chorizo mixed with some bread crumbs, parsley, and butter is waiting in a bowl. When the fish is browned, flip it and mound some of the chorizo mix on top and carefully set the pan in the oven for ten minutes.

While the fish cooks, boil some pasta – farfalle is perfect for this – and brown some butter with a few sage leaves in a skillet. When the fish is done remove it from the oven and let it sit in the pan. Resist the strong urge to touch the handle. Trust me on that. Drain the farfalle, toss it in the pan with the brown butter, some Parmesan, and a little pasta water. Squeeze some lemon over the cod. Dinner is ready.

When we first moved to Dingle, I found a restaurant supply store in nearby Killarney. Sara will tell you I am not to be trusted in a restaurant supply store. By the time we left the store, I was carrying an industrial size fish steamer for which I had paid dearly. The only way to amortize the cost of the steamer is to frequently steam fish in it.

I’ve steamed whole sea bass in it, with sliced chilis, garlic, ginger, scallions, and coriander. But sea bass has a limited season here, in order to preserve the species. Meanwhile, the steamer sits in the cupboard in the kitchen and mocks me. I was determined to use it more, and then I came across a recipe from a woman named Daisy on the internet.

The next time I went in to see David, he had some fine looking pollock in the case. Pollock is a firm, meaty fish that is perfect for steaming.

“Throw that in a bag, David,” I tell him.

Put your steamer on the hob with an inch or so of water in the bottom. You don’t need my fancy steamer; you can use a basket set over a sauce pan. Turn the heat on just enough to bring the water to a simmer. Pat the fish dry with some paper towels and sprinkle with a little ground ginger, salt, pepper, and cornstarch. Make a bed of the white parts of some scallions in the basket of your steamer and make the fish comfortable on top of them. Toss a bit of minced ginger and some scallions over the fish, pop on the lid, and let your fish enjoy its spa experience for ten to twelve minutes.

While your fish is luxuriating in the steam bath, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a sauce pan. When the oil is nice and hot, toss in some ginger matchsticks and the chopped green parts of the scallions. Stir this around for three minutes and then add a tablespoon each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and water. Let this bubble happily along until the fish is done. Arrange the fish on a platter and spoon the sauce over it, then give a good squeeze of lemon to wake it up. Stir-fried or steamed snow peas might look nice as a side.

I like to garnish the platter with some fresh herbs from the garden, but that’s just me.

Tonight, though, we are just having some simple prawns on the barbeque coated in a paste of garlic, cayenne, paprika, oil, and lemons. Quick and easy.

Now where did I put that lemon.






The Woman Who Cannot Take Yes for an Answer

A Short Sketch

 It’s been over six weeks since my last haircut so I pop into my hairdresser’s to make an appointment.

“I can do ye Wednesday next at half ten,” she tells me.

“Yes, that will be fine,” I reply.

“Or I can do ye on Thursday at eleven,” she offers.

“The Wednesday is grand.”

“And I have Friday at two, though there will be some women here for a touchup before Moira’s wedding at six. Are ye going?”

“No, I don’t know Moira. Wednesday will be lovely. Thanks.”

“I’ll see ye on Wednesday, so.”

“Wednesday it is,” I say and begin to back out of the shop.

“Unless ye’d prefer Tuesday? I could do that.”

I close the door and run down the street.

On Wednesday I settle into the chair as she begins to cut and comb and blow-dry.

“Will I leave it a bit longer on top than last time?” she asks as she snips away.

“Yes, I’d like it a bit longer,” I say. “I don’t want to wait six weeks between haircuts.”

She snips. And snips.

Finally, she holds up a hand mirror so I can see the finished product from all angles.

“How does that look to ye?” she asks.

“Yes. Grand. Perfect,” I say.

“Will I just take a bit more off here?”

“I think it’s just the right leng…”

Snip. Snip. Snip.

“What do ye think?”


Snip. Snip. Snip.

“I think I’ve got it now,” she says, stepping back to survey her work.

“Yes, that’s just the way I like it.”

She steps back in.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

Snippity. Snip.

Finally, I’m freed from the chair.

I give one last look in the mirror.

I think I can easily make it eight weeks before I have to return.


“There must be a million people here, Sara,” I whimper into the cellphone, a slight note of panic in my voice. “And they’re all rushing and shoving and shouting. Shouting, Sara.” It was definitely panic now.

I had just landed in Newark after nearly a year in our quiet little Dingle. Sara had preceded me to the States by ten days.

Sara dropped into her soothing voice, the one she would use if she were perhaps talking to someone standing on the top rung of the guard rail on the George Washington Bridge. “It will be all right, Jimmy. Why don’t you get something to eat and maybe a nice glass of wine before your next flight? I’ll be waiting for you in Cleveland.”

“Okay,” I sniffle, dodging a vehicle carrying perfectly healthy people down the concourse. I skirt around the scrum of travelers lined up at the entrance to the moving walkway. “Does no one walk anymore with the legs the good lord gave them?” I mumble to myself.

One of the things we love about our life in Dingle is the quiet. Not silence, mind you, but quiet. Cows moo. Sheep bleat. Tractors roll down the lane. People speak in a soft, modulated tone. It’s…quiet.

I find a stool at a food stand in the middle of the concourse and order a salad and a glass of red wine. Around me I can clearly hear the voice of every patron. The woman on the stool next to me is having a loud conversation on her cell phone that is so intimate I begin to blush. “Thank God,” I think, “she doesn’t have it on speaker.”

We were back in the states for six weeks to make final decisions on the house we are building in Ohio and to attend a number of social occasions: a first communion, a wedding, visits with friends, and a graduation. It promised to be mad. We’ll mix that in with visits to nieces and nephews and their babies­. I hoped I’d survive.

Sara is waiting for me at the Cleveland airport. “We are a loud people,” I tell her.

“There, there, Jimmy,” she says. I step down from the rung.

The next few weeks are a whirl.

We make decisions on the house, visiting the wood flooring store and the tile store and the carpet store. We go to the kitchen cabinet warehouse for the fourth or fifth time. We agonize over countertops and back splashes, bathroom fixtures and mirrors. We pick out grout colors–until I was well into my forties, I thought the only color of grout was, well, grout. I was wrong. We pick out paint colors at the paint store. The electrician wants to know the location of every outlet, light switch, and canned light. The plumber is concerned about the drains. It is all exhausting.

In between all of these decisions, we celebrate our granddaughter Sara’s First Communion. Sara (senior, not Sara junior, the celebrant) makes the sensible decision to go full Youngstown Italian for the reception so we bring in trays of stuffed chicken, pasta with red sauce, and salad from a local restaurant, rather than cook it ourselves. She is a wise woman. The party is a great success, even though it is raining and we can’t go outside to sit at the table I built between trips to the paint store and the tile store. People admire it through the windows, though, which is gratifying.

Then we drive to Chicago for a dear niece’s wedding, a truly lovely affair that allows us to visit with longtime friends and family whom we haven’t seen in a few years.

The only downside was the traffic in Chicago. We are at an intersection near the airport with six lanes of traffic going in each direction. All twenty-four lanes are backed up 18 to 20 cars deep. I turn to Sara. “Do you realize there are more cars at this intersection than in all of West Kerry?” I ask her, the panic creeping in again. She uses the soothing voice to calm me down.

After visiting with more dear friends, we fly to Portland, Oregon to celebrate the graduation of our daughter Meg from the Oregon Health Sciences University with her Doctorate in Nursing Practice. Yes, we are very proud of her, thank you for asking. And the traffic on I-5 was bearable.

And then it’s a flight back to Chicago and a drive to Ohio where a few more decisions have to be made. Apparently, different tile requires different grout. I am learning so much on this trip.

Then, at last, after six long weeks, we are on a flight back to Dingle. I sink into my seat, exhausted.

The first night back in Dingle I make cacio é pepe, a standby of cheese and pepper and butter that I turn to when jetlag renders thinking through a meal impossible. We think of it as comfort food.

“Would you like lamb or fish tomorrow night,” I ask Sara.

“Oh fish. I’ve been dreaming about pan-fried hake with that caper sauce you make. We’ll stop at David’s fish shop tomorrow.”

“And Jerry’s rack of lamb on Wednesday?”


The next day I ask, “Are you up for the short walk?”

“That’s about all I’m up for.”

We turn left out the gate with Lucy and walk through the abandoned village of Monrea. The roofless stone cabins are surrounded by blooming lilacs. We’re soon back home for a nap, still knackered from the flight.

The short walk is all we can manage the following day as well. We walk slowly, building our strength, and remarking about the red hedge roses that are starting to bloom.

By the third day I ask, “Will we walk down the lane?”

“We will,” Sara answers.

Lucy pulls on her lead as we turn right out the gate and walk down the grass-centered road. The forestry has all leafed out, hiding dark and mysterious paths through the trees. Foxgloves stand guard and fuchsia are just starting to blossom in the ditches. Soon the hedgerows will be walls of red fire beside the lane. Soft clouds of Queen Anne’s Lace float over it all. The palest of pink blossoms on the briars promise a bountiful blackberry harvest this Autumn.

We pass our neighbors’ fairy garden.

Dogs come from behind walls to greet us, asking where we and Lucy have been. Lots of sniffing ensues. Even the mean dog of the old sheep farmer offers a friendly half-hearted snarl and a grudging tail wag. The farmer himself gives us a wave as he sits on a kitchen chair outside his open door, soaking up the sun. We reach the cottage of the old woman at the end of the road. Her curlers are still in her hair. Her hydrangeas are a whirl of red, blue, pink, and white. Lilies and yellow roses line her stone wall.

That night we sit on the couch in our lounge, books in our hands, Lucy stretched between us. Beyond the forestry cows moo and sheep bleat. A tractor rolls down the lane. It’s quiet.

“Will we do the long walk tomorrow?”

“That would be nice,” Sara responds.

We go back to our books with contented sighs. A few moments pass.

“It’s good to be home,” Sara says.

“It is. It is indeed.”

Waking Up the Town

It is five forty-five in the morning. The sun won’t show its face for another hour. A small crowd is starting to form at the top of Goat Street. The wind coming off the harbor brings the cries of the gulls and an occasional spit of rain. And it’s cold. Damn cold. The kind of cold that makes me think, “what the hell am I doing?”

My alarm had gone off at five-fifteen. I could hear the rain pelting off the bedroom window. Sara was off to the states for a short trip and I was left home with Lucy. I rolled out of bed, shivered, and dressed. Lucy opened one eye, growled with irritation, and looked at me like I was an eejit. “Maybe I am,” I tell her, “but I’m going anyway.” She rolled over and went back to sleep.

At five minutes to six the crowd has grown to maybe a hundred people huddled together for warmth between McCarthy’s Pub and Kennedy’s Pub, right by the Holy Rock. Some are tightly holding cups of coffee. I admire their foresight and I envy Lucy safe at home in her warm bed.

And then it happens.

“Boom!” goes the bass drum.

Two, three, four.

“Boom!” the drum again.

Two, three, four.



The trap snare drums snap to life and join in. Then the tenor snares pick up the beat.

“Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat.”

And now it’s the fifes, high pitched and wailing, starting the melody to Amhrán na bhFiann (A Soldier’s Song), the Irish national anthem.

The Dingle Fife and Drum Band moves out smartly in formation led by the flags of Ireland, Kerry, and Dingle, and the crowd follows, our hearts pounding and feet stamping to the martial cadence of the music, as we march down Goat Street to Main Street singing along:

Soldiers are we

Whose lives are pledged to Ireland,

In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal,

‘Mid cannon’s roar and rifles’ peal,

We’ll chant a soldier’s song.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and we are about to wake up the town.


Marching to wake up the town is a Dingle tradition that goes back over one-hundred and forty years. The ruling British, in the days of the Land War in the 1880s, banned all marching between sunrise and sunset. The Irish simply responded by marching in the early morning hours, much to the consternation of the sleep deprived British.

And that’s how I find myself marching down Main Street in a crowd of townspeople, picking up participants as we go. We pass Curran’s and Foxy John’s and Benner’s Hotel and Paul Geaney’s, until we reach the end of Main Street where it meets The Mall. Lights begin to flicker in the rooms above the shops.

The crowd waits in the street while the band dashes into their local pub for a cup of tea, some of it, I’m sure, enhanced with spirits. Marching can make you parched.

After a ten to fifteen-minute break, the band reforms, with somewhat less than military precision, and we prepare to take off again. The rain has stopped and the marching has warmed us.

“Boom!” sounds the drum as we march down The Mall, the band playing Garry Owen. They make a hard right on Bridge Street past the Garda Station, through the Holy Ground, and into the Strand. The fifes play A Sprig of Shamrock.

The crowd has grown to nearly five-hundred by now.

As we march and the band plays, tourists, some the worse for wear from the previous evening’s festivities, lean out of the windows of the hotels and the Airbnbs, wonder what the devil is wrong with these daft Irish making this infernal noise.

After reaching the Pier, right in front of Murphy’s Pub, the Band halts and performs an admirable reversal maneuver–the extra strong tea seems to have worn off a bit–and marches back up the Strand. The crowd, confused, scatters to let them pass, then falls in once again, as people come from every direction to join us.

Back at the Holy Ground, the band turns left and marches up Green Street to the tune of Rory O’Moore.We stop at St. Mary’s Church, where the band moves into concert formation on the street in front of the church for a rousing rendition of A Nation Once Again.

At precisely seven a.m., the church doors open and the flag-bearers dip their banners under the doors and lead the band down the center aisle as it plays Aileen Aroon. The townspeople, enough now to fill every pew, follow.

The floor in front of the altar is covered with pots of shamrocks, and Irish flags and banners of St. Patrick surround the altar. The priest enters and blesses the shamrocks with water from the holy wells that surround the town. Then Mass begins.

 In ainm an Atur, agus as Mhic, agus an Spioraid Naoimh,”we recite.

As Mass ends, the townspeople press forward to pick up the blessed shamrocks and pin them to their lapels for the day ahead. The band forms in the center aisle and breaks into St. Patrick’s Dayas we recess. We sing along:

All praise to St. Patrick, who brought to our island

The gift of God’s faith, the sweet light of his love!

For hundreds of years, in smiles and in tears,

Our saint has been with us, our shield and our stay,

And the best of our glories is bright with us yet,

In the faith and the feast of St. Patrick’s Day!

 In the street in front of the church, there is one more rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann,and then we disperse, as friends and neighbors wish each other a Happy St. Patrick’s Day. The sun above us is bright and the town is properly awake.

I hurry home to wake Lucy, have breakfast, and take a nap.

The second parade of the day starts at half one and Lucy can go with me.

We’ve a grand day ahead of us.


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.