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ThePierKilbaha

Keating’s Bar & Restaurant at the Kilbaha pier.

Our first Easter as residents of Lisheen, Kilkee, County Clare, Ireland – on the Loop Head Peninsula, began with a Sunrise Easter Mass at the pier in Kilbaha, the remote, last stop village before reaching Loop Head and the light house. Mass began in the dark, at 5:40 a.m. to be exact, and ended in the light. The between time had the waves of the Shannon Estuary lapping against the shore, song birds waking up, prayers and poetry. And as we walked back to our car in the morning light, a herd of cows was gathered along a wall at the roadside observing the strange morning event, as though they were wondering what all the fuss was about!

Bishop'sIsland

Bishop’s Island

Any of the three main routes home from this enchanted spot on the Peninsula is a pleasure to drive, each with its own personality. But on Easter morning we chose the most dramatic route, the western coastal road with its magnificent cliffs that rise up from the Atlantic Ocean and thrill at every turn with stunning scenery that still takes my breath away, though I’ve driven it many times now. I may no longer be surprised by the view, but the raw, wild energy is always present and the ever-changing weather and light of West Clare creates a new beauty that still amazes me every time I journey along this road. This particular morning it was cloudy and grey with a slight mist hanging in the air. A ‘soft day’. Soft where we were anyway, but down below it was anything but soft, with white waves crashing, thunder against sharp rock and who knows what wild creatures hidden from view. Quite a contrast to the softer waves of the Shannon Estuary that played in the background of the sunrise mass we had just attended. Our peace was shaken but we were now awake and energized to face the day ahead and even pushed along to face our future, as life in West Clare moves forward for us with its many delights, and not to be ignored challenges.

In September of 2016 our cottage retreat became our full-time home.

EasterBunny

Our first Easter in our cottage home.

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All is quiet today and the sky is bright above my Chicago suburb. No more sounds of plows in the streets as they try to keep up with a blizzard that dumped over a foot of snow on us. No more scraping of shovels or drone of snowblowers going up and down driveways every couple of hours.

Chicago man with snowblower, AP/Daily Herald, Bob Chwedyk

Chicago man with snowblower, AP/Daily Herald, Bob Chwedyk

The snow has stopped and the streets and driveways are as clear as they’re going to get. But with this storm’s one-two punch a brutal cold has settled in that explains the silence. As I type this it is -16 degrees Fahrenheit outside (negative 26.6 ºC)! And this does not tell the story of our windchill, which is much colder and describes how the air actually feels as these brutal temperatures, in the form of wind, hit your body. I haven’t heard a car pass by on the street for hours because those who can, are staying inside their homes. The local schools are closed and even my husband’s employer told him to stay home today, a phenomenon in itself! The birds are silent as though trying to go unnoticed by this biting cold and the squirrels that live in the two trees on my parkway are nowhere in sight. Hopefully, they’re snuggled up close together keeping as warm as possible. We only venture outside to walk our dog, who we dress in a coat with a turtleneck sweater underneath. Even wearing this get-up, he comes back inside shivering, feet frozen and  tiny snowballs clinging to his fuzzy fur. Seán is a Bichon Frise and not made for this weather.

Meanwhile, it is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Ireland. But, a milder temperature does not mean that Mother Nature is taking it easy on them. Lashing rain and 120 km/h winds have wreaked havoc with damaging waves and floods along the coast and across the country from storms that have come repeatedly since before Christmas.

The River Shannon floods Kilbaha Bay on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

The River Shannon floods Kilbaha Bay on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

Tides rise and huge waves explode against the shores of the Loop Head Peninsula and all along the coastline taking down sections of stone walls, washing over roads and flooding promenades. The howl of gale-force wind and the thunder of 40 – 60 foot waves would be invigorating and exciting to witness if it were not so destructive. I imagine the local people snug inside their homes having battened down the hatches, hoping for the best and afraid to venture out to see the damage each time it quiets down between storms.

Storm damage in Kilbaha, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

Storm damage in Carrigaholt on the Loop Head Peninsula, photo courtesy Carsten Krieger Photography

My house on the Loop Head Peninsula just outside Kilkee is inland enough that the waves themselves can’t reach it, but with wind like that and the lashing rain, I am preoccupied with concern for its wellbeing. A huge weight lifted  from my shoulders when we received an email from the local man who checks on the house for us. Reading the words, “You’ll be glad to know that Teach de Búrca stands proud with no damage done to it or any of the outbuildings,” was such a great relief that I felt a surge of optimism and a special warmth for my little Irish house as it continued to brave the storms.

So here I am surrounded by snow and cold so dangerous that I won’t be leaving the house today – not even for my mocha! The cabinet doors under the kitchen sink are open to allow heat to surround and protect the pipes from freezing as are the doors around water pipes in the basement. Curtains drawn and blinds closed through the night in an attempt to keep out drafts, are now open to allow the sun to magnify some heat through the windows. The furnace is on overtime doing its best to keep us warm, so far so good. I am here and I know what is happening and what I need to do. But since I’m not in my County Clare cottage, I can’t see for myself if all is well after each storm so I am haunted by phantom sounds of crashing waves, howling wind and the rattling of my red half-door.

Lahinch, Co. Clare Promenade photo taken by photographer/surfer George Karbus courtesy breakingnews.ie

Atlantic waves appear to swallow the promenade in Lahinch, Co. Clare, photo taken by photographer/surfer George Karbus courtesy breakingnews.ie

I’ve played a Damien Dempsey CD repeatedly throughout the holidays. In fact, it has been more the theme of my holiday season than the usual collection of Christmas CDs I unpack with the ornaments every year. My favorite track is, “School Days Over”. This version of the song is sung in a gritty, workingman’s voice that makes it easy to imagine a boy, barely a man, being called to work and facing the hard reality of his life. Although the song was written by Ewan MacColl and depicts the mines in England, Scotland and Wales, Dempsey sings it in a style that is unquestionably Irish. The lilt at the end of several lines throughout the song, tells us that the hard life of the laborer was as much a part of Irish culture as the more romantic and cozy things that resonate when we think of Ireland, like music in the pubs and strong, milky tea with brown bread.

Far from the streets of Dublin and the boreens of Loop Head, I woke up this morning to piles of snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. The Chicago area has been hammered by snow that seems to have been incessantly falling in varying degrees for nearly 48 hours. Declan was up early this morning with the snow blower and I with a shovel, trying to get a head start on the snow in the driveway, on the steps and in the dog’s pen in the backyard. After the shoveling and in spite of blizzard conditions, I still managed to drive to Elijah’s, my favorite coffee shop, for my morning mocha. It would take more than treacherous roads to keep me from my morning ritual of mocha, book reading and the occasional enjoyable interruptions of friendly banter with a couple of my favorite baristas and a few of the other regular customers who, like me, come in every morning.

It could have been the fiddle music playing on the speakers at Elijah’s this morning, or maybe just my obsessive Damien Dempsey exposure recently, but I spent the slow, white-knuckled drive home singing “School Days Over”. My weak imitation of Dempsey’s version of the song passed the time happily for me but didn’t bode well for Eoin when I arrived home. Seeing him still in his pajamas and playing on his iPad with all that snow piling up outside, I began singing my own, off the cuff, version of “School Days Over” urging him out the door to shovel the snow accumulating once again in the driveway. Lucky for Eoin it’s 2014, and aside from family chores, child labor laws are in place. His bit of shoveling didn’t take too long and was followed up by an hour or so of sledding with his friends on the little hill at the end of our street!

Come on then Eoin, it’s time to go.

Time to be shoveling all that snow…

Slug, Snail and Hurley

Slug, Snail and Hurley

A slug and a snail went riding on a hurley
one was rather pretty, the other fat and burly.

“Slug” asked Snail, “d’ ye loik hangin’ out wit me,
while dis lad has nuttin’ else to do, and no TV?”

Slug said nothing, just sighed and felt sublime
as he gazed around proudly at his trails of slime.

I tore Eoin away from his dazzling new Christmas iPad Mini with Retina Display so that he could reacquaint himself with his little buddies from County Clare and to see what he thought of the poem I wrote to go with the photo. He laughed after I explained what ‘sublime’ meant and read Snail’s comment with the Dublin accent I was trying to convey. (Although this was a West Clare snail, I settled for an approximation of a Dub accent I’m more familiar with.)

Eoin looked a bit wistful for a moment, remembering how he had amused himself at our cozy cottage in Clare by putting the snail and the slug on his hurley to see if they would race, or fight, or even react to each other.  This is the sort of thing a boy does when he is planted in the middle of the bog for two summer months with no TV and no iPad. After a moment Eoin trotted off, returning to the iPad and whatever game he most recently downloaded with his iTunes gift card… as I sat wistfully longing for a cottage in the bog with no television nor iPad in sight.

slugsnailEoin

Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen courtesy The Pure Drop

Bodhran by Gaga Nielsen

Growing up on the far South Side of Chicago, surrounded by a vast assortment of Irish names like O’Donnell, Murphy and Burke, and Irish faces of fair-complexion with freckles and sparkling blue eyes, I never felt very Irish. Although I had an Irish grandmother, I also had a Greek last name, a German mother and dark brown eyes. My somewhat olive skin didn’t go well with the Kelly Green Rugby shirts and Aran sweaters of Chicago St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. And for the most part, the Irish music I heard in my youth, which would move many Irish-Americans to tears, didn’t do a thing for me. In my opinion songs like “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” though fun to sing along with, were corny and dripping with sentiment that was not helped by the fake Irish accents with which they were often sung.

Then one day in the 1990’s, I opened a Sinéad O’Connor cd and everything changed. On track two of this pop/rock cd there was a song called, I am Stretched on Your Grave, which I later discovered was based upon an English translation of a 17th century Irish Gaelic poem. The track began with a drum rhythm and Sinéad’s haunting, Celtic voice and led unexpectedly to what I thought at the time was a taste of pure Irish fiddle and drum heaven! As I listened, I danced around an imaginary bonfire in my mind and plugged into a power in that music that felt ancient and tribal. This song opened the door for me to a type of Irish music I had never been exposed to before. My new passion led me to the Irish Folk Music section of my beloved Border’s Bookstore and resulted in an extensive collection of Irish Traditional Music cd’s. Over time I bought dozens of cd’s, many filled with ballads rendered in a language that spoke to me, even though I didn’t understand a word of it, and haunting melodies played with fiddles, whistles and the stirring beat of the Irish drum, the bodhran, a name I couldn’t pronounce at the time. As I drove my family crazy with this newfound musical passion, I slowly became connected through music to a land, a people and a culture that I was only slightly connected to by way of genetics.

The rest is history. This blog, my West Clare cottage, my Irish last name – my youngest son – the little Irishman with a name I couldn’t have pronounced even a year before his birth, all exist to some extent because of that one Sinéad O’Connor song and the countless bodhran, fiddle and tin whistle tunes and ballads that followed. I still can’t wear Kelly Green, and Aran Sweaters really do not suit me. But not only do I now feel Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, like the rest of the City of Chicago, I am also connected to Ireland in a way that goes far beyond genetics. And today my two older children, whom I once drove crazy with my Irish Music cd’s, have a bond to Ireland as well!

On February 28th, President Obama declared March, 2013 Irish-American Heritage Month. Perhaps his Moneygall, Ireland DNA is what drove him to do it. Or, his experience visiting that country where he only recently discovered his family connections. Or, maybe it was just good old-fashioned politics where it never hurts to nod to the millions of Americans with Irish blood coursing through their veins! I would say it was probably a combination of all the above. Whatever his reasons, I am sure that most Americans will be happy to heed his call this St. Patrick’s Day!

“… NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 2013 as Irish-American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to observe this month with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.”

I have found another reason to like the Irish people and it happened in a pub.

After Eoin’s tin whistle class on Wednesday night we wandered over to a nearby pub to hear his teacher performing traditional Irish music on the concertina, accompanied by his sister playing the harp. I ordered a hot whiskey for myself and a Rock Shandy (1/2 Club Orange and 1/2 Club Lemon) for Eoin and we joined the small group of people in the pub for the music. A television on the wall, albeit with the sound turned off, kept Eoin happy with a dose of the Olympics he has been so sorely missing due to the absence of a tv in our cottage. As for me, the lovely music and relaxed banter with the pub owner and the musicians between tunes, was a perfect way to wind down the day!

At some point the subject of crime came up and someone in the room quipped about how insignificant matters are reported on the local radio station as though they are of great importance, such as the recovery of a missing dog or a truck stalled and blocking a road in a town of only a handful of houses. I mentioned that they’re lucky that such small things are worth reporting here because in Chicago there is enough crime to report about to keep the small things well off the news!

When someone then mentioned how relatively low the crime rate is in this part of the country, I blurted out my usual superstition, “Knock on wood!” No sooner did the phrase escape my mouth than every person within earshot immediately and instinctively – reached over, in front of, beside, or even behind themselves and knocked on whatever wood furniture or molding was closest to them! Then everyone continued on with the conversation without missing a beat. It was so unusual to us that even Eoin remarked during the journey home, “Mom, did you see how everyone knocked on wood when you told them to?” These are my kind of people!

My “Willie Clancy” chair!

Musicians, singers, dancers and Irish traditional music fans, like me, have come to Ireland from all over the world to enjoy Willie Clancy Week. An 40ú Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, the Willie Clancy 40th Summer School, a.k.a. Willie Clancy Week or the Willie Clancy Festival takes place annually in the town of Miltown Malbay. Not only is this Ireland’s largest traditional music summer school, but it offers a week of recitals, céilithe (traditional dances), lectures and exhibitions, all open to the public. It is basically an intensive, week-long celebration of  traditional Irish music and culture. Lucky for us, Miltown Malbay is just a half hour from our cottage so today Eoin and I made our first, of what I hope to be a few, trips to the festival. Not only was this a feast of Irish traditional music, punctuated by the most Irish language speaking I’ve ever heard while here, but it was a treat just to see so many people of all ages with musical instruments strapped to their backs or carried in their arms and even children, with their instruments of choice, busking along the main street!

On the way back to the car, which I had parked “Irish style” (half on top of the footpath) a distance from the center of town, we were enticed into a used-book store by a Roald Dahl book displayed in the window. Eoin has discovered this irreverent and hilarious children’s book author since we’ve been in Kilkee this summer and was just telling me this very day how he hoped to get more of his books. We ended up purchasing three books, much to Eoin’s delight. However, much to my delight, there was a wooden chair for sale in the back room of the shop, hand painted and antiqued by a woman from Feakle in County Clare. This was the chair I had pictured at my kitchen table for the past three years and, at the fair price they were asking, I couldn’t resist bringing it home! Therefore, to anyone who attended the Willie Clancy Festival today confused by the sight of a woman carrying a green, painted wooden chair above her head through the dense crowd, you see – there is a perfectly reasonable explanation!

Below are a few photos we took at the Willie Clancy Fest. If you would like to see a photo of me carrying a green chair above my head down a crowded sidewalk, I’m sorry, but we didn’t take one. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if one exists in someone else’s camera!

A child busking at the fest.

My Kilrush Farmer’s Market treasures.

Bipolar West Clare awoke in a manic state this morning – dry, mild and bright! At least it did here in the Kilkee region. After a couple of weeks living with its depressive state, which had me feeling a bit like a character in a John B. Keane tale, this change of mood was overdue and very welcome. Also, as far as I am aware the fine weather today was not predicted, so it came as a very pleasant surprise. In the words of a local business owner, “Where did this come from?!”

The Nevsail Hut at the beach.

This morning, while Eoin was occupied in the Atlantic at Nevsail Watersports Camp, I enjoyed the beginning of this dry, mild day with a trip to the nearby town of Kilrush. After a leisurely breakfast of coffee and a scone at my favorite Kilrush hangout, The Potter’s Hand Café, I followed up with a visit to the farmer’s market in the square. Much to my surprise, not only did this market have the usual stalls selling such things as fresh produce, gorgeous flowers, homemade jams and local cheeses, it also had a vendor selling live chickens! After making my purchases, no chickens included, I took my time walking back to the car enjoying the warmth of the sun and imagining myself, produce and beautiful bouquet in hand, strolling through a village in the south of France!

After collecting Eoin at the end of Nevsail (where a seagull ate his lunch – but that’s another story!) we headed over to Diamond Rocks where I took a walk along the cliffs as Eoin, carrying his net and bucket, enjoyed the mild breeze and sun while searching the Pollock Holes for sea creatures.

Eoin inspecting his treasures.

Unlike last night, the only thunder I heard today was the sound of white, foamy waves pounding against the sun-warmed rocks beneath the cliffs. The cliff walk was a dazzling sight with the bright sun shining down from a sky of blue, highlighting a show of wild grasses in every shade of green sprinkled with tiny wildflowers of purple, yellow and white. This vibrant scene practically took my breath away after so many rainy days of muted colors under grey skies. And standing atop the highest cliff looking across Intrinsic Bay, with the warmth of the sun allowing me to finally remove my sweater for the first time in many days, there was no reason to imagine I was anywhere other than the west of Ireland!

As I write this it is after ten o’clock in the evening. The sky is still clear, the air is still mild and I hear the peaceful sound of cattle lowing in a nearby field – perhaps asking each other, “Where did this come from?!”

Mist rolling in from the sea…

Isn’t it great when life comes with a music score? Just as I started my car this morning in the car park at the Diamond Rocks Cafe, invigorated after my walk through a thick, misty fog along the Kilkee Cliffs, my spirits high and my hair a moisture-induced mess of tangled curls and ringlets, the Paul McCartney song, “Mull of Kintyre” began to play on Clare FM. Although Paul sings of a different place, the song could have been written about these particular cliffs on a misty day like today and to me it was the perfect choice as the soundtrack to my morning.

What is it about a thick fog, especially on the edge of the world here in West Clare, that makes me feel so invigorated and at home? Could it be its similarity to my inner landscape and how my dreams and even my waking mind often feel clouded in a mist? Or maybe everyone feels this way and I’m reading more into the experience than it deserves. Perhaps it’s just a human condition – the way a thick fog pulls us into the present, wakes up all our senses and makes us feel truly alive. 

On the Loop Head Peninsula, neighbors-bearing-gifts bring a sample of their catch-of-the-day! This was our delightful surprise yesterday evening when the friendly couple we met last week, as they walked their dogs up our quiet road, followed through on their promise to bring us some fresh fish. A pleasant surprise was much appreciated in a summer that has so far brought some disappointment. I’ve already written about the changes made to the Kilkee Cliffs, which I am still troubling myself over, but two other setbacks greeted us as well. First was the sad news that Eoin would not be experiencing any horseback riding at Pony Adventures Kilkee this year because it has closed up shop! Not only was this a disappointment for Eoin, who discovered a real love and enthusiasm for the ponies last year, but it was operated by two very nice people and we will miss their acquaintance during our stay this summer. The second blow came when I made my first trip to Doolin a couple of days after our arrival in Kilkee. Doolin is known for its pubs and their traditional Irish music and many years ago served as my doorway to County Clare, so it holds a special place in my heart. Although traveling these days with a young son in tow offers little opportunity for pub nightlife, two years ago I discovered a new reason to frequent the little town of Doolin – the Magnetic Music Cafe, which I wrote a bit about in an earlier post. Much to my dismay, and Eoin’s evil 10-year-old amusement, there is now a sign on the door stating that the cafe is closed for renovation and will not reopen until next summer! Oh, how I will miss its cozy atmosphere and the best rhubarb crumble I’ve ever tasted!

But if I’ve learned anything over the past two years it is that each summer I am lucky enough to spend in the Wild West of Ireland holds its own discoveries and delights. So instead of worrying over changes or disappointments, I am welcoming this summer’s unique surprises – like meeting friendly neighbors along our quiet country road! In fact, another great surprise of our summer so far was also thanks to a friendly neighbor. The man who is good enough to check in on our cottage for us while we are away granted me the best surprise I could have asked for – a clean, welcoming house complete with beds made, staples in the refrigerator and fresh-cut flowers on our kitchen table! I must admit that up until I set foot in the door of Teach de Búrca I had been absolutely dreading what horrors might be awaiting us inside a cottage that sat empty all winter long. But I was truly relieved and delighted with the lovely welcome we found instead!

And tomorrow Eoin will have his first tin whistle lesson and we’ll expand our horizons to Miltown Malbay, a town we’ve had little experience with up until now. Meanwhile, I’ll share a couple of photos that Eoin took today in The Burren and in Ballyvaughan, which remind me of the universal experiences of motherhood and the needs and energy of youth…

“Hey Mom, look how fast I can run!”

“Hey Mom, pay attention to me!”

If all else fails… climb on Mom’s back!

“Hey Mom, look how fast I can run!”

“Settle down Junior!”

A mother’s love.

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