Bacon–I’ll Be the Judge

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


“I’m in,” I emailed back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I winced.

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

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

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

“This is unsmoked gammon.”

Let’s do this, I thought. 

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

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

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

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

“Green bacon.” Bite. Sip. Ratings.

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

“Back bacon.” Sip. Sip. Sip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking the High Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I go on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three steps and a click.

It Takes a Village

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

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

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

I lean back in the seat and try to relax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we shop by phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where indeed, I think. 

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

Cat Tales

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

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

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

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

Lucy never woke up.

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

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

That’s when we heard a thump from upstairs.

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

We both jumped up. Lucy finally stirred.

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

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

And there she was, under the bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what’s for dessert?” I ask.

Lucy’s Cove

Lucy started to squeal just as we passed the town burial ground on the Slea Head road. She stopped briefly to do a few crazy circles in the back seat as we went by the petrol station and shop. By the time we got to the distillery, just at the Milltown roundabout, she had her paws up on the window, squealing again with delight. She knew where we were going.

It took all the willpower we had not to squeal along with her.

For the past eight weeks we had been restricted to a radius of two kilometers from our home. Now that restriction was increased to five kilometers. The possibilities were endless. We could go to Smerwick Harbour. Ventry beach. The Burnham road. The Pilgrim’s Way on the other side of the hill. It was like we had been serving five to ten years at hard labor and were suddenly granted parole.

Where to go first?

“Let’s do the harbour walk,” I proffer. “We’ll walk out to the mouth, to Lucy’s cove, and let her run free.”

“Lucy’s cove” is what we call the small, narrow beach that overlooks the mouth of the harbour. Lucy runs giant figure eights on the beach at low tide, ears streaming behind her, kicking up sand. And we watch her and look out at the water trying to spot Fungie, Dingle’s resident dolphin.

“Let’s go,” agreed Sara. We were both a little giddy.

The harbour is like a giant bowl–the town sits at one end and at the other is a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. High hills on either side hem it in, like warm embracing arms to welcome sailors home from a long voyage. We start walking at the car park in town and follow the curve of the harbour all the way to Hussey’s Folly, a stone tower near the passage to the bay. Lucy’s cove is just beyond the folly. Cow and sheep pastures roll down from the main road on our left to the water’s edge on our right. Once we are past the hotel on the edge of town and squeeze through the stile to the first field, I let Lucy off her lead and she runs free, dashing through the tall grass in the pastures and then putting her front paws on the sea wall to watch the birds on the shore.

During our unfortunate incarceration, I had been researching wild edible plants that grow in the Dingle area. I had already made a pesto of Three-Cornered Leeks that grow on the verges of the lanes from mid-March to May: a good handful of leeks, a bit of parsley to temper the leeks, some toasted pine nuts, a splash of sherry vinegar, and decent olive oil. Sara loved it drizzled over Jerry’s rack of lamb and the roasted vegetables that we had for dinner on Easter. I even used the edible blossoms as a garnish on the serving platter.

As we walked along, I point out to Sara some of the edible plants in the pastures and on the sea walls.

“Oh, look at these stinging nettles,” I say. “Folklore says if you eat nettles four times in the month of May, it’s good for the blood. I could make a soup with these.”

“Uh huh,” she mumbles.

“And these are wild parsnips,” pulling a few out of the ground for her to see.

“O’Connor’s in town has very nice parsnips. All cleaned up, with no dirt on them.”

“And this is scurvy grass,” pointing to the white flowers growing on the sea wall.

“Why would I eat something called scurvy grass?” she asks. There is a hint of exasperation in her voice.

“Well, it doesn’t cause scurvy, it’s to prevent it, like,” I respond. “The blossoms would make a nice garnish, don’t you think?”

“Jimmy. I am not eating anything that grows in a cow pasture.”

When Sara says Jimmylike that, I know that there will be no scurvy blossoms scattered over my next rack of lamb.

There are more stiles in the walls that divide the fields. As we squeeze through, I ask, “Do these stiles seem narrower than the last time we were here?”

“That could have something to do with the meals we’ve been eating,” Sara answers.

Lucy runs ahead of us, head to the ground and nose quivering. She’s renewing her acquaintance with the trail.

The tide is low, so the sea-bed is exposed for forty or fifty meters from the sea wall to the water. Two or three figures wander about in wellies, carrying buckets, and collecting shellfish and seaweed.

Just past Hussey’s Folly–a crenellated tower built by a land agent around 1845 to help the unemployed during the Famine–we follow a narrow trail along the cliff’s edge between towering gorse bushes. The trail takes us down to the beach. Lucy knows the way and runs along the path ahead of us down the cliff face.

“Hmm,” I think to myself as we weave through the gorse, “I could make that gorse cordial our friend was telling us about.” I don’t share my thoughts with Sara.

Lucy is trotting along the seawall below us, leaping from stone slab to stone slab, making her way to the sand. She reaches the beach and looks back impatiently, waiting for us to finish our slow descent. At last we join her and she turns and runs down to the water’s edge and then back around us in a wide circle. Over and over she runs. Five times. Ten times. She finally pauses to catch her breath and to smell the bladder wrack and kelp, then takes off again until exhaustion kicks in and she collapses on the sand.

We stand on the shore with the sun on our shoulders and listen to the water lapping at the beach.  Gulls float above us. The wind whistles as it passes through the sea arch across from us. The boats that would normally pass in and out of the harbour, taking tourists to see Fungie or bringing fresh fish back to town, are gone for now. The sun on the water makes it look like there are diamonds dancing on the sea. There are only the soothing sounds of nature.

A few lines from Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” run through my head:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

After a long while, we turn and climb back towards the Folly and those narrow stiles, leaning on our sticks and each other. Lucy follows behind us, a tired puppy. It’s been a good walk.

The Isolating Man

A Short Sketch

 

 We saw the old man, leaning on a vintage T1 Raleigh bicycle for support, as he came out of the track to the right just as we were nearing the end of our walk. A green milk crate was secured by bungee cords just below the handlebars. He weaved along the side of the road like a bee returning to the hive after gorging on nectar in a field of clover. It was just before noon.

“Let’s hang back,” Sara says. We are practicing our social distancing.

Then he weaved left near the entrance to our house and disappeared.

“Where’d he go?” I ask. “Do you think he’s fallen into the drain?”

As we reached our drive, there he was, backed against our entry wall, holding his bike between us. He was a handsome man with a neatly trimmed white beard, wearing an ancient tweed jacket over a green argyle jumper and sporting a flat cap on his head. His clothes were clean and he seemed fit enough, but his blue eyes looked a bit unfocused.

“I’m against the wall here because I’m isolating, like, so ye can pass by,” he calls to us.

“That’s grand,” I say, “but we’re going in here, so you’re just fine to go ahead with your walk.”

“Do ye live here?” he enquires, astonished.

“We do,” I answer.

“Have I met ye before?” he asks, perplexed now.

“Oh yes, we’ve met several times before.”

“We have?” he exclaims, eyes round with surprise. “Ye see, I’ve a drink taken. I’m isolating, like, so I take a drink and read and watch the telly. Cocooning, so.”

“That’s all right,” I assure him. “I imagine we’ve all had a drink taken in these times.”

“Do ye live here? In Mullenaglemig?”

“Four years now,” I tell him patiently.

I pick up Lucy to carry her across the cattle guard at the end of our drive, keeping a proper distance from him.

“Do ye know how to walk across the cattle…” he pauses for a long second, thinking, “…cattle guard!” he finishes triumphantly.

“I’ve been doing it for four years now so I’m getting handy at it.”

“Four years!” He looks incredulous. “I’ve been here eighty years. In Mullenaglemig, like. Back down the lane there. Have I met ye before? Ye see, I’ve had a drink taken.”

Sara and Lucy are slowly backing down our drive, socially distancing themselves. Lucy looks a bit nervous.

“That’s okay,” I say as I ease towards them. “I’m sure many people are taking a drink.”

“I’m isolating like, so I take a drink and read and watch the telly,” he repeated.

He slowly heaved himself off the wall, grasped the handlebars like a drowning man who has been tossed a life preserver, and started pushing the bike along the lane, wandering from side to side.

“Poor old guy,” I say to Sara when I catch up to her. “I think I’ll call the Gardai and Sean the postman and ask them to keep an eye on him. He has nothing to do but take a drink, read, and watch the telly.”

“Doesn’t that describe us perfectly?” she answers.

A Walk Down the Lane

 The days have been brilliant here in Mullenaglemig. Blue skies. Plump white clouds. Gentle breezes and temperatures in the low sixties. Sara has the sheets out on the line and the windows are open to freshen the house. Fine weather makes our cocooning more tolerable. And we’ve been able to take our long walks, weaving up and down our country lanes, staying within our 2 km isolation zone.

The greening hedgerows hide tiny spring flowers in Easter pastel shades. Hawthorns are blossoming, dropping white petals on our path. Fuchsia is starting to leaf out; in a few months they’ll turn the sides of the lanes crimson. Entry gates sport a line of bluebells. And the gorse blossoms are like brilliant sunshine, so bright you almost need to squint when you look at them. But behind those blossoms are deadly thorns.

We stop and watch the newborn lambs find their legs in the fields as they learn to run. Each day they grow bigger. Their mothers keep a careful eye on them. We watch the heifers as they move to their pasture after a long winter in the sheds. There is no joy like the joy of cattle as they are let out to the fields. They arch their backs like the happy cows they are and buck and jump and roll in new spring grass.

But, still, there is a pall over it all.

When we pass neighbors on our walks, we hug the sides of the lane, murmuring a furtive “fine day” as we keep walking. In other times we would stop and chat, asking “how are ye keeping” and exchanging local news. There are few cars for us to salute as they pass us by; there is, sadly, nowhere to go. Farmers still ride their tractors down the lanes but don’t stop and open the cab doors to say hello; they just nod as they putter past. We acknowledge them with a raised stick. Joan in Baile Riabhach waves to us from her front window.

We look up to the ancient oratory where we should have joined our neighbors for Easter morning mass. It has only sheep and lambs for company.

Other days are better. We chat with Mary, down the lane, who has the fairy garden near the wall in front of her house. We are two meters away on one side of the wall and she is two meters away on the other. She is a bit younger than us and can get out to the shops. She insists that we take her phone number and call her if we need anything.

“I go to the shop in Ventry every morning and can drop anything into ye. Call me if ye need something. Sure, there’s only two answers I can give ye,” she says, “yes or no.”

And Thomas, the young farmer up the hill, speaks to us from his yard. We pass news of relatives that have been affected and discuss the effect of the virus on cattle prices. He suggests we walk to the top of the hill behind his farm to see the sea on all sides.

“Just go through the first gate on the left at the top there and follow the track. It’s where I go to clear my head,” he sighs. “When this thing is over, we’ll have a pint together,” he adds. “Maybe two.”

We stroll on, heartened.

A line from Seamus Heaney–from an interview in 1972–has become the guiding light of this crisis here in Ireland:

“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.”

Yes, we can.

I suppose it’s the way of the world, isn’t it? There are good days and bad days, but together we will muddle through.

 

Bad Days

A Walk Down the Lane

 

Rhythms are awry,

The world is out of kilter.

 

The man across the road,

Who should be playing in the pub at night,

Bows a mournful air

With a birdsong counterpoint.

 

Two lonely bachelor farmers,

Who should be leaning on a gate mulling cattle prices,

Pass in the lane, hugging ditches.

“Strange times,” says one. “Tá,” sighs the other.

 

The dead are denied

Their wake and their families the comfort of

Shouldering them to the grave.

Their plots go unattended.

 

The oratory on the hill above,

Where the village should gather on Easter morn,

Is surrounded only by Toose’s sheep and

There is no one to drink his tay.

 

Rhythms are awry,

The world is out of kilter.

 

 

Good Days

A Walk Down the Lane

 

The hill above us

Is not afraid.

The oratory is undaunted.

 

The hedgerows green

And hidden flowers bloom.

The brambles protect them.

 

Lambs leap and play

On the new grass

With the courage of youth.

 

The little girl next door sings and

Dances in her fairy garden,

Wearing her princess dress.

 

The water flows from the holy well and then

joins the stream by the lambing shed and then

passes the field where the heifers graze and then

into the forestry of pine and ash and then

beside the triplet bungalows and then,

and then, alongside the distillery to the sea.

Gathering strength all along the way.

Nothing can stop it.

 

The butterfly emerges

From her cocoon,

And flits from flower to flower

Without fear.

 

At one point on our long walk, just where we turn from the high road onto the old Ventry road at Ceathrú an Phúca, I can make out the shape of ancient potato drills on the side of a hill. In the next field the walls of a famine cottage still stand. The broken-down drills have not been used since that famine 175 years ago. As we pass, I think, “People have been through worse, haven’t they?”

We turn and walk home to our cocoon.

May our good days outnumber our bad days as we walk down our lanes.

Love in the Time of Corona

I was maneuvering the people mover down the lane, searching for the oyster farm. The lane kept narrowing and brambles on either side started to brush the sides of the vehicle. Grass was growing down the center. I could hear muffled gasps from the rows of seats behind me.

Four friends from Santa Fe had arrived on Wednesday, three days earlier, for a long-planned visit. I rented a nine passenger van about the size of a small Greyhound bus, called a “people mover” by the good folks at Dan Dooley Car Hire, to ferry the six of us around. We stayed the first night in Galway and were now tucked into Ballynahinch Castle in Galway. The visit to the oyster farm was a planned day excursion.

“Do you think they actually plant oyster seeds?” Tom, seated to my left, asked me.

“I didn’t even know oysters were farmed,” I replied. “I thought you just went out to the beach and raked them up.”

“I think that might be clams,” he answered.

“Aren’t they basically the same?” My knowledge of mollusks is limited. I just know I like to eat them.

Behind me, I could hear Sara, Margie, Ron and Michael chatting away.

Finally, we emerged from the hedgerows and could see the oyster farm in front of us, across a narrow bridge with water on either side. And no guardrails. I drove across. The gasps grew louder.

David, the owner of the farm, wearing a watch cap and waterproofs, was waiting for us. After introductions all around, he gave us a brief tour and told us the history of the farm, which was founded over 150 years ago, but had fallen on hard times during the 2008 downturn. In the past, the farm was a major supplier of oysters to Great Britain. David bought it four years ago.

With his posh Dublin accent, I knew David wasn’t a native Connemara man.

“What made you buy an oyster farm?” I asked.

“I was an accountant with an international practice. I sold my business about twelve years ago but found out I wasn’t suited to retirement. So I bought this place after looking at it for a couple of years. My wife just recently started speaking to me again,” he laughed.

In the first year in there was a red tide that destroyed the stock and he had to start over. Now he is shipping to Great Britain, South Korea, and Singapore.

He showed us a series of screened cages in graduated sizes that are hung from racks in Ballinakill Bay just behind us. The oysters feed on phytoplankton in the bay.

“In this first one we put seed oysters,” he says.

Tom nodded sagely.

David then moved us into the building where a woman was shucking about twenty oysters. We handed over the chilled bottle of Prosecco we had brought from the Castle and David poured six glasses. Margie gamely tried one oyster, fair play to her. Tom had three. Ron and Sara demurred. Michael and I dove in, demolishing the rest. Everyone partook of the Prosecco.

After a tour of the farm down by the bay, we were helping each other into the bus when David asked about our next stop.

“We are going to stop at the nuns’ shop at Kylemore Abbey,” I said.

“Not today, you aren’t. They are closed because of this corona thing.”

The only time the nuns ever close up shop is on Christmas Day.

That’s when we knew things were getting serious.

We drove back to the Castle and made plans to meet in the library for cocktails and some craíc at six o’clock, and to plan the route we would take to Dingle the next day.

Just as I was nodding off for my afternoon nap, the phone rang. Sara answered. I could hear Michael’s voice, “They’re canceling all flights from the UK and Ireland. We have to be home by midnight on Monday. A friend has already booked us on already.”

We dashed to their room where they all sat, stunned. Sara went into organizing mode, calling hotels near the Dublin airport. The Hilton wasn’t answering.

“Try the Maldron,” I said.

They answered on the first ring and we had two rooms sorted. It was a little past five o’clock.

“Maybe we should start our cocktail hour early,” I offered.

“Just let me go change my shoes,” Michael said.

“Wait, you have special cocktail shoes?” I asked.

It broke the mood.

We convened in the library a few minutes later. Paudie, the porter, took our drinks order. Four Dingle Gin martinis, a Cosmo, and a Dingle G&T.

When Paudie brought the cocktails, Margie said to him, “Please come back in about ten minutes. We’re going to need another round.”   Ron, before Paudie could leave, said, ”Maybe just wait outside the door.”

“Cheers,” we all said, raising our glasses, “and next year in Dingle to finish what we started.”

At dinner, Michael and I split another six oysters.

The next day, Sunday, I drove the people mover four hours across the country to the Maldron. There were no gasps, just a few sighs; we were all lost in our own thoughts. Then Sara and I, despite the virus, hugged everyone goodbye and drove back across the country to drop off the people mover and get back to Dingle.

We traded texts with all of them until they were safe in their own homes.

 

A few days later we heard from some dear friends who live near us on the peninsula but spend the winter in Spain. Their car ferry from Spain to Ireland had canceled, but they thought they could wait things out in the little village where they stay since it was isolated and seemed safe. A week later the situation in Spain became clearer. Everything changed. They decided to make a dash for it through France, the UK, and then by car ferry to Ireland.

We texted back and forth as they flee; their stress is palpable.

They are delayed a further day because they had to wait for a vet to certify their dogs.

Then they text: “We are all packed and leaving tomorrow morning. The dogs are cleared. We have to be out of Spain by Tuesday at the latest.” (This is on Friday.) “Our ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven is 5 p.m. Sunday for a four-hour crossing. We will stay in Newhaven on Sunday night, then drive to Pembroke (Wales) on Monday for the night crossing to Rosslare. We should be home by Tuesday lunchtime.”

We track their progress on the map and through constant texts: “We are south of Limoges in France. Roads almost deserted. Very eerie. Stopped twice by police but waved through. Am disinfecting everything and wearing gloves.”

They drive straight through from southern Spain to Dieppe and are in the queue for the ferry. We look at the map again.

I text: “We haven’t been locked down yet and I can get to the store in the early morning before the Irish are stirring. What can I get you? I’ll put it on your doorstep when you get home.” They will be in self-quarantine when they arrive and will not be allowed to leave their house.

They send me a shopping list for Jerry’s, the greengrocer, and the super market. I am in the super market at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Jerry’s at 8:30, and the greengrocer at 9:00. There is only one hiccup. “They don’t have Oatabix Flakes,” I text. “Is there a substitute?”

“Corn flakes or all bran flakes please.”

Done.

The next text: They are in Rosslare! Back in Ireland! Just a five-hour drive to Ballyferriter and home. We wait to hear.

The hours drag by. We pace around the kitchen.

They’re home!

I run the groceries over and put them on their doorstep, along with a bottle of Dingle Gin and Fever Tree tonic. And a cake from Sara. We mime a hug from a safe distance and promise to have a massive party when we come out on the other side.

The order to “cocoon” in our home came three days later.

We are still allowed to walk down our lanes if we stay within 2kms of the house.

The sun has been shining. Mary Murphy has her laundry on the line. New lambs are finding their legs in the spring grass. The cattle are out of their sheds and in the pastures. Dogs come up to greet Lucy.

We walk and think of our friends, safe in their homes, both here and there. We have a party to plan for when we are all together once again, with plenty of craíc and cocktails. And oysters.

The Healing Well of Poetry

I find myself, in these days when the world is all topsy-turvy, turning to poetry, both reading and writing.

Words from Yeats’ poem The White Birds have been running through my mind:

I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a

       Danaan shore,

Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow

       Come near us no more.

 

And when hope is most needed, Seamus Heaney’s poem The Cure at Troy is always there:

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a farther shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles

And cures and healing wells.

 

On the hill above our house there is a healing well. Perhaps we’ll take a walk up there.

Here is what I’ve been writing:

Three Poems

Two Days Past St. Brigid’s Day

 I back against the ditch seeking

Shelter from the sudden squall.

Hail whitens my shoulders

Like an old woman’s shawl.

 

 A primrose hides in the brambles

Beside me, searching for the sun.

Together we watch the snow fall 

On Brandon Mountain across the way.

 

Micheál, who lives on the hill above us,

Says Brigid’s day marks the start of spring.

“But the primrose truly knows.

When she appears, the weather turns.”

 

The squall passes. I nod goodbye 

To my flowered friend

And walk down the lane 

To the shore and the sun.

 

The primrose knows.

 

Three Donkeys

 Three donkeys live down the lane

In the field beyond the trees.

They gather at the gate 

To pass their life of ease.

 

No trap to pull nor creel to carry,

Their working lives are done.

They nibble at the grass

And catch the warming sun.

 

We stop and nod and have a word

And share philosophies,

Then wander down the lane

Leading our life of ease.

 

On Buying a Portrait of Beckett

He glares at me across the room

Straining against the hard black frame.

The sacramental scent of artists’ oil surrounds him.

 

Cheeks and brow, nose and jutting jaw

And hair as wild as his thoughts

Are sculpted with a palette knife

In tones of black and grey.

 

Cold, calculating, captured.

Staring.

 

He knows he is the genius.

His glare says all of that.

Ideas, in fuchsia and iris, explode around his head

Seeking an escape. 

Captured.

 

He stares at me and I return his gaze.

 In silence we wait for the messenger.

 

 

May we all let our minds wander and find our healing wells.

The Big Election of 2020

I was just about to toast the mustard and cumin seeds for my toor dal when the car covered with placards pulled into our yard near the kitchen door and two fellows hopped out. I knew what they were here about.

When our daughter arrived for Christmas bearing quality Indian spices for me, I was eager to try them. Tonight, I was making butter chicken using turmeric, garam masala, and ground cumin, along with the toor dal, some naan, and rice. Reluctantly, I put the fry pan to the side of the hob and went to the door to greet the men.

“We’re canvassing for Brendan Griffin,” the first man says to me.

“Would ye consider giving him a number one?” the second follows-up.

Brendan is one of the five TDs (Teachta Dála, a member of the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish Parliament) for Kerry, where we live. He is a member of Fine Gael, currently the plurality party in the government, and a Minister of State for Tourism and Sport. He seems a likable enough young fellow and is very good at standing beside road signs to announce new road works funded by the government.

I’ve been expecting these visits from canvassers for the candidates, so I’ve been doing my homework.

“I have a few questions for ye about Brendan,” I say.

 

They blanch, not quite prepared for questions.

After they leave, I go back to my spices.

Leo Varadkar, the current Taoiseach (akin to Prime Minister), announced the dissolution of the Dáil on January 14 and scheduled an election for a new Dáil for Saturday, February 8, in just over three weeks. Candidates are chosen, posters go up on roadsides and intersections across the country, canvassers go from door to door, the leaders of the major parties have a few televised debates, and then, in short order, we vote.

This, I must say, is quite refreshing for someone from the states who is used to a never-ending campaign starting the day after the previous election.

A few days after the first canvassers were here, I had a Guinness lamb stew simmering on the cooker, when a pickup truck rolled in covered with decals and blasting traditional music. This, I thought, has to be for Michael Healey-Rae. Michael, and his brother Danny, are Independent members of the Dáil from Kerry and members of the dominant family in local politics. Their father, Jackie, was a legend in Kerry. Other members of the family are on the County Council, and fortuitously, one serves as the director of elections.

Michael, the younger brother, a slim man in his early fifties, always dressed in his trademark black flat cap, is renowned in the area for his service to his constituents. Stories abound of his personal and timely assistance in dealing with the bureaucracy of government. Sadly, less savory stories also abound.

Danny, the older brother by 13 years, is rumored to be in some electoral difficulty this time around. He is well known for his opposition to drink driving laws, claiming “Sure, shouldn’t a man be allowed to have a few pints and drive back to his home?” He does, it should be noted, own a pub. He also is opposed to climate change, saying recently, “To hell with the planet and the fellas that say we must save the planet and forget about the people.” The next day, fair play to him, he apologized to the planet. His position on the influence of fairies on road construction has also been criticized. He is, shall we say, a character.

The brothers are best known for sitting together on the back benches of the Dáil and giving out to the others in the assembly, feeding off each other like an Irish version of Diamond & Silk, but with thick Kerry accents.

I go to the door. A man and woman approach.

“Ah sure, that stew smells lovely,” they begin. “Will ye be voting in the election?”

“I will,” I say.

“And would you give Michael Healey-Rae a Number One? He is very good for the people.”

“Well, let’s say, I’ve heard both good and bad about Michael.”

They shake their heads, sighing deeply.

“And what’s the bad ye’ve heard?” the man reluctantly asks.

“To be honest with ye,” I say, “I’ve heard that Michael isn’t afraid of the occasional brown envelope.”

“Well now, I couldn’t be denying that,” the man answers.

“And the good?” the woman jumps in, trying to turn the conversation.

“That if you have a problem, Michael will take care of you,” I offer.

“So, you’ll vote him Number One, then?” she replies brightly. “And Danny Number Two?”

All politics, as they say, is local.

Later that week, two fellows from Ballyferriter stop by after our stir-fry dinner. I was already in my pajamas. They were canvassing for Pa Daley, the Sinn Fein candidate. Sinn Fein has been a minor party in Ireland, but recent polls show them gaining strength across the country. I pepper them with questions about immigration and direct provision centers, housing and health care, and other hot topics of the election. They have ready answers and are easily the most prepared of the canvassers that have shown up to our kitchen door.

Candidates for other parties miss us. I see no one from Fianna Fáil or Labour or the Greens.

There is also a smattering of small fringe candidates in the race. One, in particular, intrigues me. He is an emigrant from California who is running on an anti-immigration platform demanding to “Keep Ireland for the Irish.” I wonder if he forgot to pack his sense of irony when he moved here.

Saturday, February 8th, is a bitter, stormy day. There are concerns that the high winds and rain will suppress turnout. There is also a major rugby match between Ireland and Wales in Dublin that afternoon that may keep people glued to the telly. Pundits warn people to get out early to avoid the worst of the storm.

I drive into town around 8:30, holding onto my hat and leaning into the wind as I walk down Goat Street to my polling place in the old convent. The nice ladies behind the table check me in and hand me my ballot. Here in Ireland, we have a form of ranked choice voting. I place a number one beside my first choice, a two beside my second choice, and so on. I vote for five total candidates out of the twelve on the ballot, fold the ballot in two, drop it in the box, thank the kind ladies, and head back into the storm.

That afternoon Sara and I turn on the news to catch up on the turnout. Despite the storm and the big match, turnout seems to be quite strong. There was some concern early on in Malin Head, the northernmost constituency in Ireland. The RTE correspondent there reported that the morning turnout was abnormally light, but local people blamed that on a dinner dance on Friday night. Turnout picked up in the afternoon when voters had sufficiently recovered. There was also a problem in Connemara where one of the polling places lost power, so they had to move to a private home. Fortunately, tea and cakes were offered by the homeowner. As it happens, voter turn-out is 63 per cent nationally and a robust 69 per cent in Kerry.

The first round of votes is counted on Sunday. Explaining how votes are counted, though, is like explaining the rules of cricket.

Here’s how it works. Say a constituency like Kerry has five seats to fill and there are 64,000 votes cast, then a candidate would need 12,500 votes, or one fifth of the total, to be elected. Michael Healy-Rae and Pa Daly exceed that threshold on Sunday and are declared elected. Their excess votes above 12,500 (each had between 1,000 to 2,000 extra votes) are then distributed among the remaining candidates in a second round based on ballot preferences. Candidates with low vote totals are removed, which happened to the confused fellow from California. And so it goes, round after round, with low-vote candidates removed and their votes redistributed, until all five seats are filled. This process stretches the vote counting into Tuesday.

Danny Healy-Rae and Brendan Griffin are elected in Round 6 and Norma Foley, a Fianna Fáil candidate in Round 8.

Now you would think that would be the end of it and all the TDs would assemble in Dublin and get on with governing the country.

Alas, no.

Sinn Fein, in a major upset, received the most votes, and 37 seats. Fianna Fáil had the second most votes but won 38 seats. Fine Gael, the party that currently leads the government, came in third with 35 seats. The rest of the 160 seats were won by a smattering of other parties and independents, including the Healy-Raes. To form a government, someone must cobble together a coalition of eighty TDs.

And here we stand, three weeks out from the election, and no government has been formed. Negotiations continue.

Stay tuned.

While we wait, I’ll be cooking. Uninterrupted.