Friday, November 27, 2015

To Adare then to Dun Chaoin

On the guest bathroom's basket above the toilet upstairs, nestled a Penguin Black Classic. Nietzsche's Aphorisms of Love and Hate. I leafed through it, and it was well worth our hosts' Tony and Sinéad's pound sterling. If I was not so in need of sleep, I'd have stayed up reading it.

The next morning, we talked until Tony had to leave Corduff for work, so our long drive from Co Monaghan to our next friends in the perennial Tidy Town award-winning Adare, south of Limerick city. was delayed. However, after we had to say goodbye to him and Sinéad, our GPS itinerary detoured us across many stunning autumnal scenes as we slowly traversed via Eden Road the Kilmainham Woods of Co Meath. I thought of Brinsley McNamara's melodramatic "tell-all" tattletale on my Kindle from a century ago, The Valley of the Squinting Windows as we passed a sign for Delvin in Westmeath. Vivid leaves shone in the late afternoon and gradually we headed into sunset over Birr, mentioned by Joyce surely somewhere.

The radio featured, in slim pickings, Gay Byrne hosting a mixture of classics and reverie on RT'E Lyric. Continually rankled by the miserable fare sung on either BBC or Eire's wavelengths, I supposed I showed my age, relegating myself to near the dreaded 55-and-up demographic, sometimes that which lacks any number on the right side of that classification. Two locals in Co Monaghan had glared at us from the upper ranks of that cohort, with their little dog, as we halted at a crossroads. A bit down the road, a hardened redhead lass with a stroller, for whom we stopped to let her and her larger dog pass by. pushed past our smiles with undisguised contempt. Was it our Dublin plates?

By the time we made it to Adare, it was dark. Traffic jammed the picturesque village, but not for its charms. A drunk driver, we later found out from our host (who knew by repute and custom the culprit in question), had crashed and blocked the main highway. I felt sorry for the drivers caught for hours.  This is the major thoroughfare between Limerick and the South-West, and there's no easy diversion.

To our surprise, as the last time we were here, the motorway being built bypassing other local towns, it ran straight down the middle of Adare. I was baffled, but it did mean that the town profited from the constant hum all day into the night. So, our rental car had to maneuver to get the space in front of Seán Collins & Sons pub. We had a nice chat with him and his wife, Bridie, about the pressures of the business he continued from his father in that town, and about the small hotel we stayed in that they had bought since we'd last visited. The pubkeeper's trade is a patient one, requiring constant surveillance of the staff, chatting up patrons, and dealing with exorbitant fees for such as the "rights" to play a radio or TV channel in the place. It filled mostly with locals, who greeted and paid farewell to each other in that spirit of bemused camaraderie presumably deepened by decades of proximity.

After a night at their hotel, and then a happy breakfast with Seán and Bridie, we departed for Kerry. Our first time there, the Kingdom beckoned us for its breadth. Tralee bustled with corporate parks and upscale hotels, then Blennerhassett's giant windmill. In Camp/An Com, a pit stop. In the petrol station's cafe, lunch drew in many hunched over their soups and coffees. The wind blew off the Atlantic, as we perched up just out of sight of it, and we could feel the change in the blustery air. We were nearing the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht, one of the last redoubts where (a bit of) Irish survived.

Layne pointed out a fort overlooking the highway as we left the village, and I later wondered if this had any association with the legendary landing of the Milesians on the hidden shores below, and of the healing of maddened maiden Mís made memorable in Austin Clarke's elegant, even erotic, poem.

Séan had shown us his photos of the one-way, dramatic Conors Pass road, and this tempted us. But construction was afoot there, so we had to go the safer if still hairpin route into the rolling hills down into little Anascaul, busily promoting Tom Crean, a local who found fame for his Antarctic expeditions with Scott and Shackleton. Now a brewery hustled a lager named in his honor. Nearby, a rebel who fought in the Rising and later died of force-feeding while imprisoned, Thomas Ashe, had been born in Lios Póil, received only a modest road sign indicated the townland where he began. In today's market-targeted Ireland, you can see which of two local Toms, without a doubt, gets lauded.

The day was overcast, so colors of green and brown were more muted, and glimpses of the strait between the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas were infrequent. But the weather held and we felt lucky.
Famously, some mercantile-minded locals of An Daingean cross out the signs (I saw one outside Ventry/ Fionntrá) indicating nowadays in the Gaeltachtaí the non-anglicized location names. But entering Dingle town, the tourists seem to have found the home of Fungi the Dolphin nevertheless.

Off-season, a lot was closed, so we figured that it'd be no-go to voyage into the harbor in a search for that noted citizen of the town. Tour buses gravitate here, and as one who'd been patiently driving on narrow roads, and often had only the windshield's view as my own as I passed many marvelous vistas, I could not naysay those who had the comfort of a vehicle from which they could gaze out.

We walked the seaside road past tracts you could find in suburban Tallaght or Swords, catering to the summer's rush of visitors. They faced rows of colorful older houses, dated to 1909 and all numbered. The contrast summed up much. Reading Peig Sayers or the other Blasket Island writers, you can conjure up the past, when that as a market town attracted the peasants on foot or cart, and where the garrisons of the Crown fought during the war for independence on the same road that brought us in.

After we climbed up Goat Street, past more housing estates and an stately but abandoned-seeming school, we descended back into the lively core, where we purchased a few gifts at the bookstore. Both Seán, whose grandparents were from the town, and Tony, who knew such treasure-troves well, recommended that I (and Layne, who had long learned to drag me away from these dens of iniquity), stop in. Its owner was markedly taciturn, but we figured he could use our euros. The single book (although I could have spent 300 euro--the singular as the Irish say--easily on my itinerary on such) I took back was Daragh McDonagh's Tochar, about a secularized Catholic from Derry taking the old pilgrimage routes. I felt it was a path I followed, and I will review and report on it in due time here.

The Catholic church also on Green Street was enormous, built on wealth from Peig's peasants, and those emigrants who may have made good from their trade or their own capitalist endeavor. Now the Díseart Centre of Irish Spirituality run by Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, the Sacred Heart chapel featured Harry Clarke's stained glass. I had seen his fluid craft in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and I admire its clear lines. Layne rightly recalled a resemblance to another artist we like, Eric Gill, from this same period when the medieval and the guild appealed against capitalist frenzy.

I thought of our fervently non-theist friends in Drogheda. In their bathroom, a few copies of  The New Humanist lay waiting. I found Tim Minchin's interview in a 2010 issue. He remarked that he saw no harm in "magical thinking" unless it caused harm, and I contemplated as often in my European travels the fate of the Church, its sanctuaries so spacious, as its congregants dwindled and died off.

Later on this Grand Tour, Layne noted my Pavlovian instinct towards any open church door. Surely this attests to my early imprinting, and I confess that I enjoy peering into any Catholic sanctuary. I've lost belief in the visions and doctrines it memorializes and inculcates, but I retain fascination for the cultural impacts and artistic legacies left by the Church over so many centuries, for better and worse. And, I suppose part of this calls up yearning, a return to safety, a quiet space enclosed and restorative.

We needed to get to our next room, so we drove north, the long way around so we'd in my hazy recollection go counterclockwise, the way I estimated best to see an ocean view. I guess I confused in my travel blur the Ring of Kerry (that next peninsula down) from the Dingle, but this took us to the iconic Gallurus Oratory. In my mind, this stone chapel, so modest next to the one of the Sacred Heart, endured fourteen centuries wind and sea on a barren outcrop overlooking stormy ocean tides. Instead, it nestled in a field, safe from view as it was closed off-season, and we barely glimpsed it over the fields and horses, from a gravelled parking lot of the empty carpark and luncheon spot for tour buses.

The number of new construction of subdivisions around An Clochan astounded me. I suppose while many decry the loss of Irish as a community language, they look to the schools. But as in my own study at Oideas Gael Uladh in Glencolmcille in Donegal a few years ago, the inward turn of the native speakers, who cannot be bothered to deal with the hesitant inquiries of wave after wave of students and daytrippers, leaves those trying to practice it left to struggle among themselves in class.

Also, I doubted that these largely second homes or vacation spots, given the massive distance even by cozy Irish standards from any commerce, were crammed with post-Tiger Gaeilgoirí eager to revive an teanga beo. We progressed at a horse's pace sometimes over gravelled byways, past farms or past McMansions. For all I imagined, Germans, English, and/or Dubliners might ease their BMWs into the asphalt driveways on weekends. The stark fact that the most prominent eatery and b+b in our next destination bore a German surname stood as testimony to me of who had moved into the homes the farmers or fisherman left behind. Surely, it's a primary reason why Irish fades from our hearing.

But I too am complicit. Lured by beauty and detachment from the city, I pass EU hikers on the winding roads, walking the designated route, and buying pottery and scones, from whomever remains, for these residents need to make a living. Here, survival of Irish matters far less than their own, in an economy perched at the far end of an island battered by austerity cuts and weak currency.

The next place of any size, Baile an Fheirtearaigh, was a remote holdout for pirates resisting Cromwell. It draws language learners to its center, similar to Oideas Gael in the northwest or An Ceathrú Rua in Connacht. Its museum was closed. Although as we crawled through the village, I noticed the door open. I was hopeful, but it was a cleaning lady. Three pubs in a row, one titled to me as a talisman Ó Murchú, loomed as the only thriving eateries for many a mile. We were hungry, too.

We finally found the next place. Asking at a very well-stocked cafe-gift shop, the owner failed to recognize the host. It turned out she went not by her name but a nickname known to her neighbors. But we had no indication of this with our correspondence, with her, and she kept insisting as we tried to find the "stone cottage" that any GPS could find it easily. Reduced to looking for that architecture, in a bucolic landscape that as Peter O'Doherty's photo above shows, has been speckled since Peig's death with many more structures, whitewashed or unvarnished, we despaired. Darkness on the edge of the Atlantic, next stop Boston, comes quickly in early November, and when we at last located the b+b brown sign at a junction and up a lane, we were exhausted. The tea was bagged, the loaf dry, so we went over the Camras road Peig describes often, into Fionntrá. We'd found online two restaurants that garnered rave reviews, one saying it was open all year on its website, but of course it was not.

Neither the first nor the last time on this trip, but this was Ireland. I liked that huddled townland, which I think is Baile na Ratha, and that blue house on the road with a for sale sign. We all can dream, even if I'd wake up to French trekkers or Japanese tourists with selfie sticks out my window. No matter how worn out the roads there make me, the breezes and the briskness boost my spirits.

Dun Chaoin fills a lovely series of fields. It slopes down to the shores facing the now-deserted Blaskets, and they loom like mounds from bygone civilizations from the Atlantic. Peig had been famous as a chronicler of life on the Great Blasket, but she grew up in the townland she called Vicarstown, as well as closer to An Daingean by the way of her school and her parish both in Fionntrá. She only moved to the Blaskets after she married. There is no center of her natal settlement, and Dun Chaoin instead spreads out as smaller hamlets on and off the twisting, if now paved, lanes.

The summit that opened up Ventry's vista must have been appealing in the day, but it was pitch black now, and oncoming cars roared past us, blinding me. Dingle was in the distance, but its lights discouraged us from another night of pub grub. So, a few miles from where the surviving soldiers from the shipwrecks of the Armada were slaughtered, we settled for take out: Spanish wine, sandwiches, and fruit from the local seller. I heard him chatting in animated Irish with customers. When I left, I shyly tried my thanks and my valediction with the correct grammar. He replied "Slán" and I could sense in farewell his sly bemusement. As Seán Collins had predicted of my attempts to hush, look native, and blend in  (as he had years ago teased my being a "professional Irishman, come to teach us what we did not know,") wait until they hear you speak Irish with an American accent.

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