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“Goodness! Look who it is. Come in. Come in.” Denis O’Callaghan stretches out his rough hand, “Welcome back.”
The burly man behind the bar, in his late 60’s with perpetually unkempt hair, still looks more like the farmer he was 20 years earlier than the hotel proprietor he became when he took over the family business. O’Callaghan’s parents bought what is now Ballinalacken Castle Country House, in the heart of County Clare, Ireland, from Lord O’Brien in 1938, and it’s been a family-run hotel ever since. O’Callaghan has always greeted me with a look that seems to suggest, “I know where you’ve been, and I know what you’ve been doing.” I’m never certain he entirely approves. Once a frequent visitor, I’m returning to Ireland for the first time in five years. Since my last visit, the Celtic Tiger has roared. “Ireland is a teenager coming of age,” a local friend says. “It’s growing fast. Undoubtedly it’s for the better, but I hope we manage to keep our identity and character and not become another piece of a Euro pudding.” I have returned not to Dublin, which I know has become one of Europe’s leading cities, but to my Ireland—to the tiny villages and environs of County Clare. I want to see if, as I hope, the place where I had once felt so mysteriously at home in myself (maybe for the first time) years before can still be found.
Often overlooked, even among the Irish, County Clare lies in the fabled west of Ireland between its more illustrious neighbors, Galway to the north and Kerry to the south. “I just don’t seem to ever get there,” says one Dublin friend. “I’m either passing through on my way to Dingle or heading straight to Galway. It’s a pity really. Clare’s a grand spot.” And it is. Bound on the east by rolling hills and Lough Derg, on the west by sheer Atlantic-facing cliffs, the River Shan-non to the south, and, in the north, by the rocky wilds of the Burren, County Clare occupies a unique spot in Ireland.
“There is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang him, nor earth enough to bury him,” wrote Lt. Gen. Edmund Ludlow of the Burren in 1651. Meaning “a place of stone” in ancient Irish, this inhospitable tract indeed seems lifeless. In fact, the stark, roughly 100-square-mile limestone barrens, exposed by the last ice age, have been home to man for more than 3,000 years. And home, now, to nearly a hundred species of birds, 28 varieties of butterflies, and a rare combination of alpine, arctic, and Mediterranean plants that power a springtime eruption of violet and yellow through the stark reaches of the Burren.
I’m halfway up the western flank of Black Head Mountain, deep in the Burren with Shane Connolly, a local farmer. I come to think of him, based on our conversation, as a self-taught geologist, botanist, historian, and folklorist. “That one there, devil’s-bit scabious, relieves plague, fever, and snakebite,” says Connolly, a tall, reedy man, as he points with his walking stick at what to me looks like a weed. “That one’s scarlet pimpernel. Relieves madness. And that yellow one is lady’s bed straw. Put that between the sheets on honeymoon night and you’ll get along fine.” The Burren also hosts at least 22 varieties of orchid. “They’re an aphrodisiac,” Connolly tells me.
“Do they work?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t know,” he says. “Clare men don’t need them.”
One of the many kinds of Irish rain begins to fall and the wind picks up as we move farther up the mountain.
Connolly, a cattle and sheep farmer, was born, raised, and works the same land his father did on Corkscrew Hill near Ballyvaughan, a small seaside village on the northern edge of County Clare. “Used to know everyone in the village, ”he says. “Now I’d say I know about half. Folks from Dublin with their holiday homes...”He lets the thought go unfinished. “But you can’t complain about this society anymore.” He looks up. “Mind you, a bit of a roof over it wouldn’t hurt.”
We take temporary refuge in the lee of an ancient circular stone wall. “It’s blowin’ asunder up here now,” he yells.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“This would be an ancient ring fort,” he shouts through the gale. “It’s generally believed to have been built between 400 and 1200 A.D. There are hundreds of them scattered throughout the Burren. The leprechauns live here now. Nothing should be disturbed unless you want a curse on your family.”
He looks at the stone I’m fiddling with.
“Do you believe in leprechauns, Shane?” I ask incredulously.
“I’m not saying they’re little men with beards and green suits,” he protests. “But who am I to say what exists and what doesn’t?”
“Have you ever seen them?” I consider the stone, unsure if this seemingly practical farmer is pulling my leg.
“No, but folks believe in all sorts of things. Heaven and hell. Parallel worlds and the like. Who am I to say?”
The question hangs. The wind howls.
“I know two fellas who have seen them,” he confides.
I put down the stone.
At Ballinalacken I ask Marian O’Callaghan, Denis’s daughter, her feelings on the matter. A thin, practical woman with a mischievous twinkle, she has a ready opinion on anything.
“Ah sure, that’s plain foolishness,” she says.
“So it’s okay to take a souvenir stone?”
“Not on your life!” she replies. “Don’t be mad.”
From my room at Ballinalacken I have a view across the sea to the Aran Islands beyond. That is to say, I would have had the view if the Irish weather hadn’t been living up to legend, making the existence of the sea something I had to take on faith. I am becoming accustomed to damp clothes every morning, and the ceaseless slap of windshield wipers, when suddenly the weather breaks. The sun emerges as if there had never been thought of a cloud and there never will be. I hurry down to the ferry in nearby Doolin intent on visiting Inisheer, the smallest and closest of the three Aran Islands. At the dock I am told, by a very local Mary Fitzgerald, that the ferries have stopped for the season, three weeks early. “We got the remains of your hurricanes, thank you very much. We already took the boats out of the water.”
The only other option is the year-round ferry from Rossaveel, beyond Galway, on the road to Clifden, more than two hours away. I have island fever and head north.
The Aran Islands lie just off the west coast, in Galway Bay. Carved from the same barren limestone as the Burren, they are removed from time. Gaelic speaking, isolated, insular.
There isn’t a ferry running to Inisheer until the following day, so I hop the next boat leaving port instead, to Inishmore, the largest and most populous of the Aran Islands.
I find Inishmore in mourning. Just days before my arrival, four local fishermen had died in an offshore boating accident, and one body is still missing. The tragedy is the sole topic of conversation here, and no one remains untouched by the sadness. In my two days on Aran, as the locals call it, everyone I meet is either related to, or knew, at least one of the lost. “Friends and colleagues,” says Rory Conneely, a prawn fisherman in the winter months, of two of the four. “A big blow for the island that.”
Creig’s, one of the island’s six pubs, is closed in mourning, a family member lost.
“It’s been a hard week,” says Treasa Joyce, my host at Kilmurvey House, a 150-year-old building that once welcomed Leon Uris as he was writing Trinity. Joyce speaks with the speed of a hummingbird in a fine soft brogue, has a love of the theater, and a fatalistic nature. “Anyway, sure, that’s life on the island.”
Kilmurvey House occupies the most enviable or most cursed place on Inishmore, depending on your point of view. It is at the foot of Dun Aengus, a large, semicircular fort that recent evidence suggests dates to the Bronze Age. All who come to Inishmore inevitably find their way here. Some arrive by rented bicycle. Others are dropped off by one of the countless vans lying in wait for the ferry riders, who are also hustled through a three-hour tour of the island before being deposited back on the boat in time for dinner. The magic of Dun Aengus, and of the island, reveals itself only after the tourist press subsides for the day, when the silence and wind take hold again. Dun Aengus sits high atop a sheer cliff dropping about 300 feet to the sea. It is a singular, stark, solitary spot. Late in the day, I find a smooth boulder and settle in. Sunset, with only wind, rock, and sea for company, becomes a haunting experience.
As much as the island remains a place apart, things are changing. The Pier House restaurant, one of only a handful on the island, now serves roast quail with foie gras, and mango coulis. Television was introduced into Creig’s a few years ago. “There used to be great chats,” Joyce tells me over breakfast. “It’s destroyed the art of conversation.” The population is shrinking, down to around 800 from a thousand just ten years ago as the young people continue to leave. Some, like Conneely, return to raise a family, but many never do.
A 40-minute ferry ride puts me on the road back to County Clare, which wraps south around Galway Bay, home to the notable Galway oyster. So renowned is it for its sweet taste that people routinely drive all the way from Dublin for a dozen. Misreading an exit sign, I make a right down a winding single track. With nowhere to turn, I’m compelled to continue for what seems like miles. Eventually, a weir appears on my left, the road widens, and I arrive, as if preordained, in front of Moran’s Oyster Cottage. I pass the boisterous crowd drawn by the annual Oyster Festival, overflowing onto picnic tables outside, and enter for a closer look. I grab the last stool at the bar, order a half dozen, grilled, and notice a handwritten poem tacked high on the wall in front of me.
Alive and violated
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.
The poem is called “Oysters.” The name scrawled on the bottom reads Seamus Heaney. I ask the barkeep if it is, in fact, written by Ireland’s Nobel Prize-winning poet.
“The man himself,” he replies.
“Is that his handwriting?” I ask.
“Why don’t you go ask him,” he says. “He’s sitting over there by the fire.”
Struck suddenly shy, I finish my oysters and leave. After driving a mile up the road, I swing the car around, determined to at least let the man know that he has a fan in America. I march back in. The seat by the fire is empty, his place cleared.
It’s 4:30 on a Monday afternoon and the dance floor at the Rathbaun Hotel in the spa town of Lisdoonvarna is alive with the sound of Peter Burke’s one-man band. Dozens of 50 and 60-somethings are waltzing away at the annual month-long Matchmaking Festival. Every September, this sleepy town of 882 swells to, by some estimates, 20,000, and what started more than a century ago as a way for local farmers to meet prospective wives after the harvest has become big business. I encounter at least two dozen people who met and later married their mates here, but that crowd is usually in bed by 9 p.m. Festivities are in the hands of a different demographic after nightfall.
“It’s a drinking festival now,” says Declan O’Callaghan, and on this Saturday night main street resembles more a raucous Times Square than a civilized courting ritual. Still, there is a good deal of connecting—Willie Daly, a horse trader and one of the town’s two traditional matchmakers, claims to have paired at least 2,000 couples. A silver-haired man with a noble beard, Daly stalks the festival with his torn, tattered, and taped Matchmaker’s Bible. “It belonged to my father, and to his father before him, and I’ll pass it on to my son Henry. He’s got the gift.” Daly confides that “the matchmaking is made a good bit easier by Guinness and whisky. Match-making at 5 p.m. is a trial, but by midnight it’s a breeze.”
I leave the bustle of Lisdoonvarna and head west. Drive County Clare’s dark, hedge-bound lanes at night and you’ll swear you’re the only person in the county. But swing open the door to nearly any pub and life explodes around you.
Music is the attraction here. County Clare has long been the epicenter of Ireland’s traditional music scene, and it is treated with a reverence unmatched elsewhere in the country. And nowhere in Clare is it taken more seriously than in Doolin, a tiny one-lane town leading down to the sea.
“The usual Sunday night boys are off in Quin, competing in the finals of the ‘Seisiun nah Eireann,’ a festival of traditional Irish music, but these fellas are grand as well,” says Jennie Browne from behind the bar at Gus O’Connor’s Pub, just as the quintet behind me lets rip. There are three pubs in Doolin, each playing live music most nights of the year.
“Young people are playing the music now and running with it,” says Manus McGuire of the Brock McGuire Band. “Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t be caught dead walking home with a fiddle case. Then things began to change. Riverdance brought the music to a whole new audience.”
There’s a certain moment in every memorable journey, often recognized only in hindsight, when the trip you are on presents itself, and the one you thought you were taking or had planned is jettisoned. It’s then that you begin really traveling, not merely touring.
I’ve made yet another wrong turn, trying to get out of the summer resort town of Kilkee. Like so many seaside resorts out of season, the town and promenade look broken and spent. It’s hard to imagine Kilkee as the thriving summer escape the travel books portray.
As I dead-end in a car park at the local pitch and putt, I fling open my door. A stray Labrador appears, yaps at my heels, and leads me to what looks like a pathway. The fog is thicker here, closer to the sea. The rain seems to float and drift in all directions at once. I climb up and away from the town, through the fog. I’m unable to see more than ten feet in any direction, but I know from the sound of crashing surf that the ocean is close, beneath me, and to my right.
The cliffs below Kilkee, leading to the lonely lighthouse on the point of Loop Head peninsula some 15-and-a-half miles away, mark County Clare’s southernmost point. They are said to be nearly as harrowing and certainly more remote and wild than the Cliffs of Moher, their more celebrated cousins to the north. I see not another soul. As the dog and I climb, the fog lifts for moments at a time, giving me glimpses of sheer cliffs and the unsettled gray sea below. As many times in my life, the moment I’ve been looking for, the moment when I find my rhythm, my peace of mind, my sense of belonging, comes from simply putting one foot in front of the other, with no greater purpose than that. My hair clings to my face, my spirits soar. My canine friend races off into the fog, only to reappear, minutes later, from a different direction. I walk for miles, the veil of fog rising and falling, releasing and enveloping me again and again.
“Did you enjoy our fine soft day?” asks the owner of Fennell’s Seafood restaurant in the remote village of Carrigaholt. Wet and happy, I tell him I did.
“That’s grand then. You’re welcome here.”
The owner introduces me to Michael O’Connell, a silver-haired, blue-eyed gent. Over a fine seafood chowder and lamb, conversation rambles from the burning of peat to the art of “cutting turf ” to how the bogs “may be played out in the next 12 to 15 years” to the O’Connell and McCarthy clans. It’s an unremarkable chat, made memorable by circumstance and the fine art of conversation practiced by the kind of man you can still find in parts of rural Ireland.
Later, O’Connell walks me to my car in silence. The fog encircles us. He pauses and lifts his face into the night air.
“Ah, it’s still soft and grand out,” he says. He looks at me a last time and stretches out his hand.
“Safe home,” he says.
He doesn’t know, but I already am.