photo by Larry Katzman
photo by Ralph Lavelle
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
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,
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?"
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.
"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
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
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
"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!"
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.
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.
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
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
| 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 2,000
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
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