WAG Travel

May 1999

Table of Contents




Turfcutter and Dog  by Larry Katzman
Turfcutter and Dog
photo by Larry Katzman

Mayor Barry's Ireland

by Arthur Alexander Parker

Roundstone Bog  by Ralph Lavelle

 Roundstone Bog
photo by Ralph Lavelle 

I had stayed up too late in a pub in Galway the night before, and the bus was bouncing so hard that for a moment I imagined that the wheels were churning my sinuses into a monstrous bog, the kind that used to engulf English soldiers when they took off after rebels. It was nine o'clock in the morning, and I was on my way to Sligo on a rare sunny day in Ireland, but I felt sick, sick.

Maybe it was the breakfast of greasy sausage and scrambled eggs I'd had at the $15-per-night bed-and-breakfast back in Galway, or maybe it was the six or seven pints of Guinness I'd had in the pub. It was a snug, smoky place where the locals would sing tunes mournfully in the ancient tongue, and then ask me cheerfully if there was any news from Boston. (I was from the States, so I was expected to know about Boston.)


They are a people of a different stomach, these Celts. The Irish will sing ballads or recite poetry or contend with the midnight stars when they've put away too much stout, but my guts were Anglo-Saxon guts, damn them, and they felt sick. Sick. The bus jostled on the motorway like a horse galloping on the beach at Galway Bay, and all at once I knew I wasn't going to make it to Sligo.

I looked around at my fellow passengers, wondering if this was like a Greyhound bus on Interstate 17, where you could be sick in the aisle all the way from Saluda to Norfolk without anybody disturbing you. But no, these looked to be kindly people--women and girls in shawls and scarves, for the most part, who crossed themselves every time the bus passed through a village. Good Christian souls: just my luck. If I got sick, they'd probably come help me. "Poor lad, can't hold his Guinness, probably doesn't have long to live. Pray for him and hold his head up, Rosie."

Like all people of English descent, I would rather die than make a scene in a public place.

Suddenly, the bus stopped in the square of a town. I saw neat rows of brightly painted shops, a market cross and a hotel.

I turned to the woman in the seat across the aisle. "Pardon me, what town is this?"

Copyright Alan Finan © 1998 The Sligo Web

The crest of Sligo
Copyright Alan Finan
© 1998 The Sligo Web


"Ballyhounis," she said and crossed herself, for we had just passed a church.

I thanked her and got off the bus, dragging my bag of belongings like a convict's ball.


The floor of the hotel lobby creaked but, unlike the bus that had been rattling my insides all morning, it did not pitch and rock beneath me. It was a ramshackle place with green carpets and long benches around the walls that made me feel as if I were standing on an immense and fraying pool table.

"Good morning," came a voice from one of the side pockets, a cubbyhole that looked more like a tobacconist's stand than the front desk.

I returned the greeting, somewhat groggily .

"Ah, an American," said the man in the side pocket. "What part?"

"Richmond, Virginia."

"Virginia," said the man, who was wearing one of the few green eyeshades I have seen a person wear outside the movies. "Do you know Marion Barry?"


"The mayor of Washington," he said patiently, the way a schoolteacher would prompt a pupil behind in his lessons.

"No," I said.

This was several years ago, before the freewheeling mayor-for-life snorted his way into a jail cell after getting set up by a certain rhymes-with-rich in a District of Columbia hotel room.

"Too bad," he said. "Welcome all the same."

I was relieved of my bags and given a room, where I slept till noon.

Ben Bulben by Ken Keane

 Ben Bulben
photo by Ken Keane

To an extent, perhaps, I owed my friendly reception in Ireland to the fact that Mayor Barry had breezed through a few months earlier.

"Do you know Mayor Barry?" was the question I heard most after, "What's the news from Boston?" The Irish like a party animal quite as much as Americans do, and I gathered that the pub-crawling Hizzoner had made friends all across the Emerald Isle with his gregarious conversation and big tips.

Some of the locals' gratitude may have rubbed off on me. But that wasn't the only reason they were so friendly, I'm sure. The Irish and the Americans enjoy an easy affinity in the way that, say, the English and the Americans do not. One need not be of Irish descent to enjoy a courteous reception. Even people of English stock are OK in their book.

Given the history of Anglo-Irish enmity and the abuses that were heaped on a suffering people by pigheaded English masters before the nation (or most of it) won independence, this is a tribute to Irish humanity and simple decency.


It's not that the English are rude, exactly. In London, an American encounters more of a sense of fatigued tolerance. "Oh God, it's another American," is the subtext of many an exchange with a Southampton Row hotelkeeper or Shaftesbury Avenue bartender.

In Ireland, one falls into easy conversation with the locals because they are naturally gregarious and because they like and understand Americans in a way that people of other nationalities do not. People already know what the news is from Boston; they are probably just asking to be polite. They seem to have a more realistic notion of what life is like in the States than do British or German TV viewers, who think life here really looks like Beverly Hills 90210.

In Limerick, for example, I stopped by a tobacconist's shop to buy some film. The owner, ascertaining that I was from Virginia, confessed that he was an American Civil War buff and expressed condolences over the fall of Richmond, which I accepted on behalf of my great-grandfathers. Like a pair of old Southerners, we agreed that Lee should have taken Longstreet's advice to head south instead of giving battle at Gettysburg. And yes, he asked me how his good friend Mayor Barry was doing.

Then there was the waiter in the restaurant of the hotel where I stayed in Limerick. I was on a tight budget, and a glance at the menu told me that I couldn't afford a single entree. I said as much.

"I know how you feel," the waiter said. "There's a place down the street you'll find is very reasonable." He told me to mention his name to the proprietor.

If I had told an English waiter that I couldn't afford what was on the menu, I would have been snubbed so cold I couldn't have thawed myself out with a space heater. But here was a waiter actually going out of his way to see that I did not feel bad about not having enough money. Anglo-Saxon that I was, I had to acknowledge in the Irish a magnanimous temperament rare on the other side of the English Channel.

Getting to know the locals is easy, even when you are traveling alone. The technique is simple. Walk into a pub, order a pint of Guinness, and ask someone a question.

In Limerick, I asked the man standing at the bar next to me if he could tell me where the nearest grocery was. He not only gave me directions, but when we had finished our pints he walked with me to the store and introduced me to the owner. Then we went back to the bar and had a few more pints, during which time he told me his life story, about his daughter who was living in (where else) Boston, his job and a thousand other things.

There is, of course, an irascible side to the Irish temperament. In the same pub, the bartender, who probably had two strikes against him in the eyes of the clientele because he was from London, asked me if I was having a good time (long peals of bell-like laughter may have given him a clue). When I said yes, a lean-faced young man standing behind the bar declared, "PARDON ME THEN, I'M JUST A FUCKING LOCAL!"

Mannions Bar by Larry Katzman
Mannion's Bar
photo by Larry Katzman


Believe me, he was speaking in all caps. The place went silent. My interlocutor cringed. Everyone looked at me, including the man who had made the remark. It was a challenge. If I had been a red-blooded Irishman, of course, the thing to do would be to start a fight. But I did what anybody of English descent would do, something, in fact, my upbringing as a Virginian had trained me to do in situations where, say, the dog breaks wind in the parlor while the preacher is visiting. I pretended that nothing had happened.

"Tell me about your daughter in Boston," I said to my interlocutor and spent the rest of the evening pretending to be slightly hard of hearing.

Leaving aside these occasional bouts of high spirits, it's plain that the friendliness and tact of the people, combined with the beauty of their unpolluted countryside, make Ireland an ideal place to visit.


The Emerald Isle really does sparkle like a jewel, even in the cloudlight under which it passes most of its days. When my plane was coming in at Shannon Airport, I appreciated the truth of the saying that you can count twenty-seven (or is it thirty-seven?) shades of green in its rolling fields.

Shannon is a bit of an oddity. It's in the middle of nowhere on the west coast, a good ways from Dublin, the main center of population. Even though Dublin has an airport, too, Shannon remains the main one. Partly this is a holdover from the days when planes had to stop and refuel there on their way to the rest of Europe. Travelers got just a taste of Ireland in the form of Irish coffee, a high-octane confection of caffeine, whiskey and cream that Shannon bartenders concocted to jolt awake all-night fliers.

Most Continent-bound planes don't need to make stopovers here anymore. But the government is trying to keep Shannon from withering on the vine, maintaining a huge duty-free shop and encouraging the major airlines to stay on.

This is just as well. The west holds in its green fields and ocean-lashed rocky coast the very best that Ireland has to offer.


Don't get me wrong. Dublin is worth a visit. There's Trinity College, where you can visit the library and see the Book of Kells, a medieval manuscript whose illustrations, bedecked with curlicues and spirals, evoke within small circles nothing less than infinity itself, and the eternally restless spirit of an island people. There's the post office, an ordinary building that, as the rebels' headquarters, played an extraordinary role in the Easter 1916 rebellion against English rule. (Independence was eventually won for all but the six counties of Ulster in the northeastern part of the island.)

Nowadays, Dublin is a modern and cosmopolitan city, with graceful spans over the Liffey River and wide avenues that recall its days under British rule as one of the great imperial capitals (although the fact that troublemakers blew up its most famous statue, Lord Nelson, in 1966 proves that "Forget, hell!" is not the motto of certain American Southerners alone).

The capital looks more like continental Europe than insular, incomparable Ireland. Despite what the tourist brochures say, there's little of James Joyce's Dublin here, either. Much of the Dublin that he captured in works such as Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has fallen victim to urban renewal.

You want the real Ireland?Queen Maeve's Burial Mound by the author


Knocknara Mt. by Ken Keane

 Knocknara Mt. and Burial Mound of Queen Maeve
photo above by Ken Keane; upper right by the author

Head west, where you still may get stuck in bogs if you step off the road, where every river seems to have someone's fishing line dangling in it and the locals' idea of heavy industry is a gravel pit. In Galway and Mayo Counties, on the Connemara Peninsula, you can still find people who speak Irish as a first language, though there are only a few thousand.

From Galway city, too, you can take a boat to the Aran Islands, where Irish is spoken from the cradle and where, on Inishmore, you can visit a fort from prehistory perched on cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean--the very edge of the Old World.

Within walking distance of William Butler Yeats' hometown of Sligo is Carrowmore, site of tombs from the Neolithic era (about Grazing Cow by the author2,000 B.C.). These stone circles are incongruously set in fields of grazing cows, who reluctantly give ground as you approach a tomb for a closer look (I was told to watch for bulls, but I didn't see any). Nearby is Knocknarea mountain, which I climbed on a sunny day to see a cairn, about eighty feet high, that legend says is the grave of the queen of Connacht, who lived almost 2,000 years ago.

Much of the countryside is surprisingly empty. Ireland's population was more than eight million in the early 1840s; now the republic has about 3.5 million. In the west, on the Connemara, there is still a kind of vacuum left by the millions who starved during the Potato Famine or migrated to Canada and the United States. Stone houses stand with roofs crumbling, looking a little like eggshells broken on stony ground. Like Atlantic waves pulling back from the shore, chiseling the rocks, the people who went before have left their mark on the empty countryside.


Related Sites



galway guide

Galway Calendar


Link Exchange link ad


 Table of Contents


Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999
riverrun enterprises, inc.