Comfort Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Ready for the oven

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

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

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

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


A well-deserved rest

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

The Curse

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

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

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

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

But Mayo, I came to learn, is cursed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up Mayo!” I’m shouting.

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

Kerry ties it up with just seconds to go!

“Up the Kingdom!” I scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curse continues.

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

Dingle’s Garden

There’s an old woman who lives in a small cottage at the end of our lane.

When we first met her she was wearing heavy wool stockings and a mid-length wool skirt. Over that she wore an old-fashioned housedress and a thick cardigan to ward off the chill. On her head was a round cloth cap and beneath the cap three or four sponge rollers adorned her hair, hanging disconsolately as she walked. She wore sensible, black old-lady shoes. In her hand she carried vintage pruning shears that seemed at least as old as her.

At first I thought that she resembled a character out of Dickens, but Sara pointed out that she was dressed exactly like my cousin Mary, who we used to visit in Mayo years ago. And so she was, but Mary would never have left the house with curlers in her hair.

The woman’s flower garden is remarkable, occupying the territory between a rock wall and a perfectly preserved stone outbuilding next to her cottage. Earlier in the year, lilies lined the wall. They’ve faded now, but yellow roses and magenta morning glories have replaced them. In baskets in front of the three bright red doors of the outbuilding oxeye daisies and asters preen. The crowning glory, though, are the hydrangeas. Massive banks of pink and blue and white flowers tower over the garden. They must be thirty or more years old and every day the old woman lovingly tends them, her trusty shears in hand.

Each time we see the old lady in her garden we stop to pass the time. Conversations in this part of the world often revolve around stories, so we tell her about our life down the lane and she tells us about hers. She talks about her son who moved away and her daughter who teaches over the hill in Tralee and how hard it is for them to get back to visit. And she talks about her garden.

All of Dingle is a garden right now. As we drive along the roads, the tall hedgerows are ablaze with fuchsia and montbretia, mile after mile. They follow the rock walls up the hills and the mountains, red and orange slashes dividing the green fields. It is magnificent.

But, like most things in life, it’s only when you slow down and look closely that you can discover the full glory of the display. So we walk down the lane toward the old woman’s cottage.

Fuchsia is the queen of the hedgerows around us, blooming from June into early November. The flowers mimic delicate ballerinas dressed in crimson tutus and purple petticoats, with long, slender legs dangling below. Even a slight breeze sends them floating through the air, dancing to the music of the wind.

Montbretia closely resembles a daylily, with spikes of reddish-orange flowers the color of a Buddhist monk’s robes. They stand against a backdrop of delicate green fronds. Their time with us is briefer than the fuchsia, blooming only in July and August, but what they lack in time they make up for in glory.

The Fuchsia and Montbretia are the royalty of the hedgerows, certainly, but when you look closer you find the court.

Tucked here and there in the Montbretia are tall spikes of Purple Loosestrife, nodding like sage advisors. Wild Parsnip and Ragwort add a dash of yellow to the mix. Primroses peek out from their hiding places. A few hardy Foxglove flowers hang on in the protected nooks of the hedges, their glory rapidly fading. Lovage, Cow Parsley and Queen Anne’s Lace float like cumulus clouds above it all. In among the Fuchsia, ancient cottage roses still thrive, with red and yellow blossoms. Overhead an occasional apple tree is starting to bear fruit.

And where there are no flowers, wild blackberries grow. Their pale pink petals turn into hard red buds before the sun ripens them into luscious berries. The plump blackberries stain our fingers as we gather them for our after dinner bowl of fruit. We eat as many as we collect.

Bees and butterflies fly drunkenly from flower to flower and birds flit from branch to branch, sharing the berries with us. Rabbits hide in the under growth, dashing out when they think we aren’t looking.

We slow our walk to take it all in, knowing the glory is fleeting.

Soon the days will grow shorter, the winds will pick up, and the temperatures will drop. Fall will be upon us and the flowers will fade and fall. Our thoughts will turn to simmering stews on the hob and roasting lamb in the oven and whether we should light the fire in the lounge to take the chill off the room.

But we’ll still walk down the lane to talk to the old woman and tell our stories. And talk about the flowers we’ll plant next spring.

The Rain

It rains in Ireland. It rains a lot. You may have heard this somewhere along the way. I can tell you it’s true.

The Irish are resigned to this state of affairs. “Sure, isn’t it the only weather we have?” they’ll say. Resignation in the face of Mother Nature seems the only possible course.

I remember years ago during our early trips to Ireland watching the weather forecast on RTE, the national television service, which was still broadcasting in black and white. At that time, the forecaster was a short, balding, middle-aged man wearing an ill-fitting suit and rimless eyeglasses. He sighed a lot.

“There’s a new front moving in from the west on Monday next,” he’d begin, using a map of Ireland and a wooden pointer to indicate the west coast, “bringing periods of rain,” (sigh) “followed by lashing rain,” (heavy sigh) “before a soft rain on Tuesday” (hopeful sigh).

“There might be a few sunny spells on Wednesday,” he’d say, perking up a little and attempting a weak smile, “before another rain front moves in on the Thursday” (anguished sigh).

At that point, his shoulders would start to shake and I worried that he might break into inconsolable sobs.

The forecasters are more professional now: younger, better dressed, with interactive maps, green screens, and all the bells and whistles of modern meteorology. They even sound chipper.

It still rains.

But it is part of the charm of living here. It will rain most days, but not all day. It may rain for a few minutes and then miraculously turn into brilliant sunshine. The other day we were walking down our lane and I was squinting against the bright sun, wishing I had my sunglasses, and all the while a light rain was falling.

Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I was walking from our garden to the house – a distance of perhaps twenty meters – and it was raining on my left arm but not my right.

Last week we were chatting over the wall with the old fellow who lives on the farm near the end of the lane. “Sure, it’s a fine day,” he said, “if you don’t mind the weather.”

So we adapt and learn the various types of rain we might encounter.

Like the Inuit and snow, the Irish have many ways to describe the rain. Here are a few:


“Grand Soft Day” – This is usually followed by the phrase “Thanks be to God.” It’s humid and a bit grey and could potentially rain. In other words, it’s a normal day.

“Soft Rain” – This is a light mist, approaching a drizzle. Pay it no mind.

“Sun Shower” – See the description of our walk above and be prepared for a rainbow. Not to be confused with “Sunny Spells.”

“Could Rain” – It’s cloudy and the clouds look like they might have some rain in them.

“Spitting” – A light rain that shouldn’t stop you from normal activities – shopping, walking, going to the beach, for example.

“Pissing” – Definitely coming down now. You might need the wipers on the windscreen.

“Buckets” – A heavy sudden storm of short duration. It may be prudent to nip into the pub until it passes.

“Pelting” – A heavy rain that is sustained. You might want to use an umbrella, but you never carry one. Put the hood up on the jacket instead.

“Lashing” – Bouncing off the ground, soaking you to the knees. That umbrella you don’t carry would be destroyed for sure.

“Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph” – Bolt the front door. Consider starting a fire. Brew the tea. Maybe have a small whiskey.


All of these types of rain can happen in a single day or even a single hour.

And then, when you think you may never leave the house again, the glorious Irish sun comes out, glinting off the wet fields and the sea, and you say to everyone you meet:

“Isn’t it a fine day altogether?”

Sea Blue

“Make hay while the sun shines” the old saying advises.

The sun has been shining off and on for a few days now and the farmers up and down our lane are mowing their fields. All day, from eight in the morning until nine in the evening, mighty John Deere tractors with rear tires that are a good foot taller than me and broad enough to brush the hedgerows on both sides of the road rumble back and forth. They pull wagonloads of hay to a processing site and then return to the fields, hungry for more.

It is satisfying to be in tune with the seasons of rural Ireland. But it interferes with our walks.

Most days we walk the lanes in our neighborhood. We’ll look out the window in the morning, judging the weather. If it’s fine we might say, “How about the Long Walk?” up past the Young Farmer through Cathair Bó Sine and back down the Ventry Road. Or, “Let’s go over to Burnham” and walk around the old Ventry estate and down along the harbour’s stony shore.

If the weather looks threatening, one of us might suggest, “Just down to the end of the lane?” although this walk does require carrying Lucy while we pass the farmer’s house where the mean sheepdog lives. Once bitten, twice shy.

But during haying season these walks can be hazardous. We have to throw ourselves, and Lucy, against the ditch every few minutes as the tractors roll by. I should explain that a “ditch” in Ireland is not the same as a “ditch” in the states. Here a ditch is an earthen or stone embankment often covered by vegetation that lines the roads and divides the fields. What we would call a “ditch” in the U.S. is called a “drain” here. Hugging a ditch muttering frantic Hail Marys while a beast of a machine rattles by at 40 kph is not relaxing.

“We have to run out to the pottery today so maybe we can walk around there,” Sara suggests. So off we go to the Louis Mulcahy Pottery out on the far end of the peninsula.

We need a special gift for a happy occasion back in Ohio, and the Mulcahy Pottery never disappoints. His pieces perfectly reflect the Dingle landscape. The colors, shades of brown and green and blue, come from the fields and the sea that surround the pottery. The decorations, birds and fish and flowers, are the fruit of the land and sea. We find the perfect blue bowl for our gift and send it off.

As we leave the pottery I say, “Let’s turn down this road. I think the Dingle Way might go through here.” The Dingle Way is a hiking route that goes all around the circumference of the peninsula. Part of it passes within 100 meters of our house.

We have been driving around the Dingle Peninsula for over thirty years following the same route: through Ventry, fording the stream at Gleann Fan, around Slea Head to gaze at the Blasket Islands, then weaving through Dunquin and stopping at Ceann Stratha to stretch our legs and admire the view. And every time we do this I say, “Look at that beautiful little beach down there. I wonder how you get to it?” And then we drive on, sad creatures of habit.

The road I have turned down today answers my question.

Clogher Strand is magnificent. Small, perhaps 250 meters across, but perfectly formed. Crescent shaped with arms on either side that reach out to enclose the crashing waves. We let Lucy off her lead to run free.

She runs in wide circles in the sand, stopping occasionally to see if the people resting on blankets enjoying the sun and the surf might have a spare treat or pausing to drink from the stream that runs down from the hill behind the beach. I look up at the headland above us and spot a few tiny people peering down at the beautiful beach. They then get back in their car to continue their tour because they have somewhere to be. It took us thirty years to find what they are missing.

Just above the strand there is a small marker for the Dingle Way. We squeeze through the stile with Lucy and follow the trail that climbs the hill and hugs the cliffs of An Drom. The Atlantic crashes on the rocks below us, sending sea spray high into the air. Recently shorn sheep eye us warily.

I remember what Jerry, our butcher, had told me one day. “West Kerry lamb doesn’t need to be salted,” he said, “since they eat the salt from the sea with the grass.”

We reach the top of the headland. To the north, Ceann Sibéal, Sybil Head, an immense promontory with towering cliffs, fights its eternal battle with the Atlantic. To the south, Inis Tuaisceart, The Sleeping Giant, the most northern of the Blasket islands, rests peacefully on the horizon, the surrounding ocean the color of the blue Mulcahy bowl we have just purchased. The only sounds are the cries of gulls riding drafts of air and sheep tearing the salty grass. After a few quiet moments, we all turn and walk down the hill to our car.


Ceann Sibeal and the Deep Blue Sea

Back home we sit in our lounge and listen to the tractors thunder up and down the lane, thinking it’s good to take a new road and to send a bit of the sea back to Ohio.

The Show

Lucy has had a busy few weeks. She had to take care of visitors and then spend five days with Andy and her buddies at the Dog Camp just over the mountain. Since she’s been home and our visitors are gone she’s been exhausted and curled up on the couch, occasionally raising her head to bark half-heartedly at a bird outside the window.

Brigid and baby Sara were here at the house for ten days and Lucy’s duties had doubled. Not only did she have to keep tabs on Mom and Dad, she had to know what the visitors were doing at all times. Oftentimes, she missed her morning, afternoon, and evening naps. The responsibility was enormous. She just wanted some “me” time.

Sadly, it was not to be. Our friend Lynne, who sometimes minds Lucy, called.

“Why don’t you bring Lucy to the dog event at the West Kerry Agricultural Show on Sunday? I’ll be judging. It will be a gas.”

Now Lynne is a serious dog person. She has two black labs and two whippets. In fact one of the whippets, Treacle, had just won Best in Show at the Whippet Club of Ireland Championship in Dublin. She is also a groomer and dog minder.

“Sure,” we said. “Why not?”

“Maybe she can win Best of Breed,” I thought, since I’m reasonably sure she is the only Havanese in Ireland, and certainly the only one in West Kerry.

So we dragged Lucy off her couch and set out for The Mart Grounds just outside of the town centre. The 52nd Annual West Kerry Agricultural Show is like a county fair in Ohio compressed into one acre. There are competitions for Arts and Crafts, Cookery, Jams, and Flowers. Vendors are selling work boots and wellies, and fertilizers and soil modifiers. Schoolchildren have their finest artwork on display. And there are cattle and ponies and horses and sheep. Lots of sheep.


Best eggs

We asked where the dog show might be.

“Just above, in the sheep barn,” we are told. That’s where we headed with Lucy reluctantly following.

We see a lot of sheep on our walks near our home in Mullenaglemig. In most of the fields on the hill above us, they graze in well-tended pastures. On the mountain beyond the hill, they are left to free range. As we walk among them, we always notice a certain earthy smell that is understandable for an animal left outside in all types of weather. But the fresh air and light breeze help to temper the impact. It’s almost pleasant.

In a sheep barn, it is not pleasant. Sara almost gags.


“You’ll get used to it,” I tell her. “As my grandmother used to say, ‘you can get used to hanging if you do it long enough.'”

Sara is not impressed.

We find the pen where the dog show is taking place. Lynne and her fellow judge are wearing long white official-looking coats. There are categories for puppies and rescue dogs. Large dogs and gun dogs. Terriers and sheep dogs. And the final category: Small Breed.


Large dogs, small kids

“Sorry, Lucy. No Havanese category,” I tell her.

She looks relieved. “Can we go home now?”

“Let’s put her in the Small Breed,” Sara says. “It will be fun.”

Lucy looks stunned. She climbs into Sara’s arms.

Finally, after all the other categories are finished, Lynne raises her megaphone and call for the Small Breeds. About thirty dogs and owners enter the pen. Sara and Lucy join them. Lucy is trembling. The judges begin to walk among the entrants.

Meanwhile, in the pen next to the dog show, two men in identical long white coats are judging two-year-old rams. The owner of each ram holds the sheep by their horns.

Lucy is watching, sitting at Sara’s feet. She looks at Sara. “You aren’t grabbing me by the ears, are you?”

The white coats next door look at the rams’ teeth.


Nice teeth

Lucy panics. “My teeth are crooked. I told you I needed orthodontia!” She jumps onto Sara’s lap.

Lynne and her cohort continue to circle. The sheep judges look in the rams’ ears.

“Wait. When was the last time you cleaned my ears? You know I can’t hold a Q-tip! I don’t have thumbs!” She crawls to Sara’s shoulder.

Lynne begins to divide the dogs into groups, directing them to various sides of the pen. “Thank you for coming” ribbons are handed to the owners of most of the dogs and they leave the pen. Seven dogs remain. Six perfectly groomed dogs and Lucy.

“We might have a shot at this!” I think. I haven’t been this nervous since the Chicago Oireachtas in 1983 when Meg placed second.

“Will each of you walk your dog in a circle?” Lynne says.

“Uh oh,” I think.

A pure white, elaborately coiffed, toy foo-foo dog walks in a perfect circle. Two other prissy dogs do the same. Three make a half-hearted attempt. Sara has to drag Lucy around. The judges confer.

Of course, the foo-foo dog takes the blue ribbon. The prissy little things take second and third. Then Lynne approaches Sara.

“Fourth place goes to the Havanese,” she says as she hands over a cup and a green ribbon with the official logo of the West Kerry Agricultural Show on it. Sara and I trade high fives and walk though the crowd humbly accepting congratulations.

When we get home, I say to Lucy, “If we teach you to walk in a circle and give you a bath, you could win this thing next year.”

“Yeah, whatever,” thinks Lucy as she curls up on the couch next to her ribbon.



The Lesson

“Jaysus, I’m sorry,” Sean says as he jumps into the passenger seat of my car. “I was just out in the bog collecting the turf and forgot our appointment altogether.”

Sean is the proprietor of “Sean’s Perfectly Adequate School of Motoring” in the big town near us. We are beginning the fourth in a series of twelve driving lessons that I must take in order to procure my Irish driving license.

I had decided back in January that it would be advantageous to have an Irish license. We currently rent a car on a month-to-month basis from a rental agency. The rental, as they would say here, is “very dear.” So dear, in fact, that it is nearly as much as we pay in rent.

The obvious solution is to buy a used car. This is where the complications begin. In order to buy a car, I would need insurance. In order to get insurance, I would need to get a drivers license. Now technically, I could purchase insurance on my New Mexico license. But it would be, again as they say here, “very, very dear.”

Now I consider myself quite proficient in Irish driving. After all, I’ve been coming here for over forty years, plus bonus time driving on the left in England, Australia and New Zealand. And most importantly, I have mastered the Irish finger flick. This is not to be confused with the New Jersey finger flick, which I have also mastered. In the Irish version, the first finger of the right hand is raised from the steering wheel each time you encounter another driver on a narrow country lane. It is a neighborly gesture and can be accompanied by a nod.

So in January, I presented myself to the National Driver License Service office (NDLS) in Tralee to fill out the proper forms, perhaps take an eye exam, have my picture taken, and pick up my shiny new license. It didn’t work out that way.

“Do ye have a PPS Number?” the nice lady behind the counter asks.

“What’s a PPS Number?” I answer.

“Your Personal Public Service Number,” she replies, looking at me like I was daft. “I’ll start your license application, but since ye don’t have the number, it will kick ye out,” she said, and handed me a brochure with the process I would have to follow. I thanked her for the information.

“Good luck,” she said. “You’re going to need it.”

And so my journey began. I decided to retreat until we were here permanently in March and I had organizational reinforcement in the form of Sara. She is an excellent navigator of bureaucratic mazes.

In March, we began our assault on the Irish bureaucracy. Sara had to get an extended visa and I needed my PPS Number. Sara’s task was easy.

We presented ourselves to Deirdre, the local Immigration Officer at the Garda Station. After looking at Sara’s US passport and my Irish passport, she said to Sara, “I’ll give you a three year visa since you’re married to an Irishman,” nodding her head in my direction. “It’s good to be married to an Irishman. Sometimes.”

The PPS Number application was almost as easy. Fill out a form, show them my Irish passport and a few Irish utility bills, have my picture taken, and three weeks later receive my PPSN card in the post. Not bad at all except in my picture on the card I bear a strong resemblance to a hardened criminal. But even criminals need a driver’s license, I suppose.

Now back to the NDLS office with my shiny new PPSN card.

“I’ve opened your application,” the kind lady says. “Now ye need to pass your Driver Theory Test. Once ye do that, ye come back here.”

“Wait. My what?”

“Your Driver Theory Test. Ye can buy the study guide in the bookstore, read it over a few times, and schedule your test at a testing center. If ye pass, bring the results back here.”

So I studied for four weeks. Now in all honesty, Driver Theory is pretty straightforward – signs, speed limits, signals, etc. But there are questions not often encountered in the U.S.: What to do when a herd of cattle is on the road? Where must a license plate be displayed on a tractor? That sort of thing. After hard study and practice tests on the internet, I aced the exam. Now back to the NDLS to get my license.

“Very good. All is in order,” my friend behind the counter says. Now just look at the screen there and we’ll get your picture.”

“And then I’ll get my license?” I ask.

“Then you’ll get your learners permit in the post in a few weeks and can begin your twelve on-the-road lessons from an accredited driving instructor. And after six months have passed, ye can take a drivers test with the Garda. Then ye will get your permanent license.”

I try not to cry.

Two weeks later I get my Learners License in the post. To be fair, I only look like a petty thief in this picture.

And that’s how I find myself with Sean, from “Sean’s Perfectly Adequate School of Motoring” sitting in my passenger seat.

Our lessons consist of me driving around the big town for an hour while Sean shouts instructions at me. Most of the time is spent negotiating roundabouts. There are roughly 32,497 roundabouts in the town. Actually, there may be more, but I haven’t seen the whole town.

As we approach a roundabout, Sean shouts, “Indicate for the right lane!”

This varies with each roundabout. Sometimes I must be in the left lane.  I’m hoping by  the sixth lesson or so to break the code.

“Shift into first gear! Check your middle mirror! Right indicator! Second gear! As ye pass the second exit, indicate left for the third exit! Check your left mirror! Turn off the indicator! Third gear!”

All of this occurs within a distance of twenty meters.

“Huh?” I say.

And we do it all over again at the next roundabout. And the next. And the next. And the next.

Only eight more lessons to go. And then my test. I’m beginning to think it may just be easier to rent a car.

The Cousins

We are tired. Knackered, as they might say here. But in a good sort of way.

I’ve prepared a simple meal of hake with a sun-dried tomato salsa, sauteéd spinach, and brown rice with asparagus tips. As I creakily rise following dinner, I triumphantly mumble a line from Yeats:

I will arise, and go now…

…to do the dishes.

For the past twelve days, we have had the cousins, junior and senior, here on a visit. The original plan was for the junior cousins, Jim and Julia, his new fianceé, to arrive first and for the senior cousins, Jim and Joan, to follow four days later so that they all could overlap for a few days, sharing a few pints, some good food, and magnificent scenery. (I should point out that all male members of Sara’s family are required to be named Jim. It can lead to some confusion among non-family.) The younger cousins would then fly out and the seniors would remain for four more days. Fate, by way of the weather gods and Delta, intervened, and Jim and Joan were delayed by two days. There was only time for a quick pint at Durty Nelly’s between the senior’s arrival and the junior’s departure.

Despite the travel woes, we had a wonderful time.

Here is the best thing about having visitors: they grab you by the scruff of the neck and shake the nonchalance out of you. When you live somewhere, day-to-day life overtakes you and you become blasé about your surroundings. Fresh eyes reveal the beauty all over again.

“Are you ready for your first pint?” I ask Jim, the younger. We lead him into Tigh Neachtain, our favorite Galway pub. The pub is ancient, cozy, wood-paneled, and divided into tiny rooms and snugs. We find a hidden corner and sit down on stools worn smooth by innumerable fannies. Two pints of Guiness for the Jims and a glass for Julia arrive, and tea for Sara (someone must keep their wits about them). Tears well in Jim’s eyes. Slainté, we say.

We drive along the coast of Clare through the Burren. A vast desolate area of limestone slabs from the ocean to the mountaintops, the Burren is so barren that one of Cromwell’s generals said of it, “There is no tree to hang a man, nor water to drown a man, nor no soil to bury a man.” (The English have always had a way with words.) We walk hundreds of meters across the slabs and discover a hidden world. Deep in the fissures between the stones – ten, twelve, twenty feet down – live tiny plants and flowers that grow nowhere else in this world. Botanists flock here to discover new plant species. Thanks to Jim and Julia, Sara and I discover it again.

I lead Jim and Julia into Dick Mack’s in Dingle, the best whiskey bar in Ireland. We order small whiskies and a Dingle Gin and tonic for Julia. Jim spies a bottle of tequila behind the bar. Now I must tell you, Jim is an esteemed correspondent for the Tequila Aficionado website. Soon we are deep in a conversation about tequila and margaritas with Dara, the barman, and Finn, who now runs Dick Mack’s. Jim is about to become the senior foreign correspondent (Europe) for the website. He asks if he can return the next day to film a short video for Tequila Aficionado. All heartily agree.

When we walk in the next day Jim is greeted like Norm in Cheers. “Tequila Jim,” they shout. I teach Dara how to make a proper margarita and Jim sits on a stool in front of the taps where Dick Mack’s is engraved on a brass plate, holding the newly minted margarita in one hand. He makes the video in one take. You can check it out in a few weeks on the website. As they say here, “the craic was mighty” after that.

Jim wants to see Án Tempeal Gael, the ancient oratory on the hill above us. We don our wellies and make the climb, closing the gates behind us, and scattering the sheep before us. He touches the 1200 year-old walls of the oratory and studies the strokes on the Ogham stone. He gazes out at the distant Skellig Michael. Then we turn and walk back down the hill in contemplative silence.

Early the next morning I take Jim and Julia up to the airport and we pick up Jim senior and Joan. We mark the occasion with a pint at Durty Nelly’s and then I bring the seniors back to Dingle for a nap. Jim and Julia stay to fly out the next morning.

I should note that Sara has known Jim senior all of her life. Born within a few months of each other, they grew up together in a large, extended Irish-Catholic family. I’ve known Jim for forty-three years and Joan, his wife, for almost thirty-eight years. These are ties that bind, going beyond the familial to true friendship.

After a drive around Slea Head and a tour of the town including some serious shopping, we repair to Dick Mack’s to relieve our parched throats. I introduce them as Tequila Jim’s parents. We settle in a snug near the bar and tell family stories. We tell a lot of stories over the next few day and some of them are even true.

The next day Joan and Sara go off for more shopping and Jim and I visit the local bookshop for an hour or so and then escape to Dick Mack’s for a pint. Early in its’ life, Dick Mack’s, besides being a pub, made shoes and leather goods. That tradition continues and Jim decides to get a handmade belt. Brian, who makes the leather goods, says, “First you have to get waisted,” reaching for his tape measure.

As we wait for him to make the belt, complete with a stamped emblem of the bar, the Irish harp, and Jim’s initials, I notice a venerable old fellow camped in the snug. He is nattily attired in a bright yellow suit, a purple tie, black cashmere overcoat, and spats. Atop his head is an ancient fedora. He holds a pint in his hand. I ask Mary, a local at the end of the bar, who this creature might be. “That’s Oliver,” she says.

He is Oliver James Mary MacDonnell, a local legend. I go over to introduce myself and chat for a few minutes. Oliver is the third of five generations to run Dick Mack’s, born ‘above the shop’ as they say. He has lived above, in the same rooms, for his entire life. I’m no expert, but I would say he is well into his nineties.

Brian finishes the belt, punching a few extra holes fore and aft, “in case you expand or contract.” Jim and I head out the door, leaving a fiver on the bar to buy a pint for our new friend Oliver.

Jim and Joan are both fascinated by the ability of the Irish to use words in an unusual and witty way. They revel in phrases that Sara and I have become used to hearing. “How are you keeping?” people ask. “Mind your head,” they warn. Or, they explain, “I’m just after coming on.” A certain public figure in U.S. politics may be described as a nutter, or eejit, or, my personal favorite, a quimwhiffle. We laugh at these delicious words over dinner each night.

On our last day together, we stop at Yeats’ Tower, Thoor Ballylee, near the town of Gort in County Galway. Jim and I are both literary enthusiasts, what some might call nerds. Thoor Ballylee was Yeats’ summer home and a potent symbol in his poetry, and two volumes of his poetry, The Tower and The Winding Stair, center on this place. I had stopped here four or five times over the years, but it was never open. Today it is.

And so we climbed the winding stair all the way to the battlements at the top, stopping to touch the poet’s writing desk and sit in his chair. His words run through our mind:

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;

                    Set all your mind upon the steep ascent

                    Upon the broken, crumbling battlement…

 We wonder about his words, and how his young family liked living in this stark, cold place, and if his thighs cried out for mercy as much as ours after climbing the stair. A cup of tea and a slice of barmbrack in the nearby thatched cottage restore our senses and our quads.

That night, Jim and Joan’s last in Ireland, we sit at dinner in Durty Nelly’s and begin to recite our party pieces. Words from A.E. Housman and Lewis Carroll and, of course, Yeats, find their way around the table as good friends celebrate their time together.

So yes, we are tired tonight, but in the very best way. We have lit the fire for Ireland in first time visitors and stoked the fire in us. After dinner, we begin to plan the next trip for Jim and Julia and Jim and Joan, our cousins and our friends.

The Strand



The Three Sisters – Smerwick Harbour

I remove the lead from Lucy’s harness.

She’s startled. Her eyes look at us as if to say, “What the hell is going on?” She takes a few tentative steps away from us and begins to walk in small circles.

The circles get wider and wider and faster and faster. Floppy ears stream behind and her body tilts at a forty-five degree angle, paws kicking up sand. Circles become loops become figure eights. She is like Yeats’ falcon, except with four legs and long ears. Just as it seems she will escape from our gravitational pull she runs full speed toward us and skids to a stop at our feet.

“No really,” her eyes say. “What the hell is going on?”

It has been a bit of an adjustment period for Lucy. The first day, on the drive across country from Dublin, Lucy sat on Sara’s lap and her little nose quivered for five hours, trying to make sense of these new smells. It was slowly dawning on her that she wasn’t in the desert anymore. So many things were unfamiliar. Like rain. Cattle and sheep. And grass. “You want me to go where and do what?”

And now she’s allowed to run free. “This is great!” she says.

But the strand is from another universe. The sand is familiar, but not combined with waves and shells and seaweed. She doesn’t know what to smell first. As always, she adapts. And takes off into orbit again.

We are on the strand between Ballyferriter and An Mhuirioch, a few miles from our home.  Miles long and hundreds of meters wide, it runs along Smerwick Harbour on the north side of the Dingle peninsula. It is the perfect place for a long walk, kicking up sand, examining shells, and laughing at Lucy as she runs. Across the smooth, placid bay, we are protected by a long promontory called the Three Sisters, named for the three peaks that separate us from the winds of the Atlantic. Far to our left, on the west end of the bay, we can just make out the Dun an Oir, or Fort of Gold, an Iron Age promontory fort. The whole vista is stunningly beautiful.

But, sadly, beauty in Ireland is often the handmaiden of tragedy. In 1580, in one of many attempts to free Ireland from British rule, a force of around six hundred Italian and Spanish Papal troops landed in Smerwick Harbour and met up with a small band of Irish revolutionaries. They took up a defensive position in the ancient fort. An English force under the command of Lord Grey marched out from Dingle to meet them and a contingent of the British navy moved in to block the mouth of the harbour. A siege was in place. The navy bombarded the fort, destroying the defenses.

After the three-day siege, the Papal troops negotiated a surrender. The terms of that surrender are still debated to this day, but the Papal troops believed that their lives would be spared. Lord Grey planned otherwise. “I put in certain bands who straight fell to execution. There were 600 slain,” he wrote to Queen Elizabeth. The soldiers were then decapitated and their bodies thrown into the sea. To this day bones wash in on the tide.

But for the few Irish soldiers he had a special punishment. He ordered his smithy to break their arms and legs in three places, and left them in agony overnight. The next morning he hung them.

Good Queen Bess wrote back to him to congratulate him on being an instrument of God’s glory. Thus goes Irish history. As Yeats wrote, it is “a terrible beauty.”


Lucy is still orbiting around us with total abandon until she catches something out of the corner of her eye. She skids to a dead stop, backs up a few paces, and looks over her shoulder at us. Strange four-legged creatures gallop by, each with a human on their back. Lucy edges closer to us.

Now, Lucy is not a total naif. She has seen horses before, but always in an abstract sort of way, like through a car window. This is up close though and, she seems to say to us, “They are really huge. And sort of scary.”

As she stands there, the tide begins to roll closer and closer, but poor Lucy is distracted by new smells and seaweed and horses. A wave just barely touches her right front paw. In a truly Olympian move, she jumps eighteen inches straight up, levitates for a moment,  flies two feet to her left, and sticks the landing. Somewhere in this wide world, Simone Biles feels a pang of jealousy.

Lucy has learned a lot on this walk and so have we. We wipe her feet, kick the sand from our Wellies, and head home.



                     Three sisters watch her wild dance as

                     She runs along the strand, circling

                     And whirling, kicking up the sand,

                     That glitters bright with shell and bone.


                     She stops to watch the creatures prance,

                     And throws a cautious glance to ask

                     If God allows the horse to share

                    With little dogs who run and play?


                    Lord Grey dispatched the foreign race

                    But they remain forever in this place.

                    The tide has yet to wash the blood

                    Away, and diamonds light the surf.


                    God’s plan is seldom clear to men,

                    Or queens. And innocents must die

                    Before the little dogs can run

                    And whirl in diamond crusted sand.


                   So innocence may die in blood

                   But innocence returns to stay

                   Where little dogs kick up the sand

                   And whirl and dance along the strand.