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PatrickThis is my version of an actual event that occurred during the short time since we moved to West Clare from the US. The narrative is presented through the eyes of my son, because it was his experience – but it is all my words and my perspective.


When I was a boy of 14, I carried my uncle up the stairs to his deathbed. My father and I had spent the morning traveling by train from Ennis to Dublin, followed by a bus ride to the north side neighborhood of Ballymun, to visit his brother who was recently home from the hospital. We didn’t know it then, but this was the last time my dad would see his baby brother. When we arrived my uncle was lying on the living room sofa. We learned that Patrick had been confined to the downstairs sofa since collapsing there a day or two earlier. Either there had been no one strong enough to carry him back to his bed upstairs, or else he had refused to be moved, I’m not sure which. But my uncle’s stubborn nature being legend, I think he would have been upstairs if that was where he wanted to be.

I barely knew my Uncle Patrick. Since I was 3 months old I had lived my life in a suburb of Chicago until only recently returning to live in Ireland, the place where I was born. Getting to know an uncle who lived across the Atlantic Ocean wouldn’t be easy for anyone, but was an impossibility for an introverted child of an introverted father.  However, we had managed through the years to visit him on enough occasions that I had a memory of him as the standing man he once was, before he became this bent and frail man on a sofa. I remembered him as a slightly smaller and thinner version of my father, who was his older brother by one year. A chain smoker with sharp, intelligent eyes, his head and shoulders slightly bent down, a foreshadow of what was to come. I could barely understand a word of his thick, north Dublin accent, which he acquired from living his entire adult life in Ballymun. In fact, he and his family could have been speaking French for all I understood when they were speaking fast and laughing in conversation. I was used to Irish accents alright, but my father’s different life from the time he had been my age, had left him with a softer, south Dublin accent mixed with some Mitchelstown he picked up from summers spent in Cork with his Uncle Declan’s family. What I did notice from listening to conversations, was that Patrick said a lot of funny things. He would talk and end sentences with words I rarely understood, but with a sly, humorous look that was usually followed by laughter from the people in the room. I didn’t get the impression of any silliness about the man though. I think it was more of a biting wit.

However, this day my uncle was obviously very uncomfortable and I don’t remember much, if any, banter and laughter. My dad and he were talking quietly. I was shocked to see him in such condition lying crumpled up on the sofa and I distracted myself by pushing a fork around a huge plate of stew that had been set before me as soon as we arrived, by Patrick’s long time partner Mabel, whose accent I understood even less than that of my uncle.

In the middle of their conversation, I heard Patrick say, “So Eoin, how are you getting on at school? Your dad tells me you play basketball, does your school have a basketball team?”

“It’s OK. Yeah, they started a new basketball team when I came.” At the time I just looked up from my stew and shyly answered my uncle’s questions without thinking much about it. But knowing what I know now, I realize that his questions showed me a bit of the measure of the man.  In all his pain and discomfort, and only hours from his death, he took the time to ask me about my life. He even remembered details I didn’t think he knew, or certainly didn’t think he would care about. In this small exchange I got to know him in a way that I hadn’t in all the years previous.

It was a long train ride to Dublin from our West Clare home, but the visit in the house in Ballymun lasted little more than an hour. Sensing how tired his brother was getting, my dad finally took a deep breath and said, “Well we should get going and let you have a rest, but we’ll be back soon. I hope you start feeling better Patrick.”

Next, to my surprise and not sure if I had understood him properly, Patrick asked my dad if he would mind carrying him up to his bed before we left. The idea of an adult being so sick that they needed to be carried to bed was a shock to me. But even more than this, I thought, “How is Dad going to manage it?” This I found out quick enough. As my father awkwardly maneuvered himself behind his brother’s back, hooking his arms under Patrick’s and lifting his upper body to a sitting position he said, “Eoin, take Patrick’s legs and follow as I go up the stairs.” My instinct was to freeze and say no, but the afternoon being full of surprises, I just did as I was asked without complaint or hesitation. Together, my father and I carried his brother, my uncle, up the stairs and laid him as gently as possible into his bed. The lightness of his frail body surprised me and I worried the whole way up that we were hurting him.

The next morning I awoke in my own bed. The train ride from Dublin back to Clare the night before was much longer than the visit in Ballymun had been — although the stew I had to force myself to eat (I don’t like stew), had made the time there seem longer. Sometime around mid morning that day my dad made a phone call to see how Patrick was doing. I wasn’t paying much attention to the conversation until I noticed that he was crying. He had just been told that his brother died that morning, only shortly before his call. This was the first time I ever saw my father cry. It was also the first time I had heard about someone dying, that I felt like crying too.


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’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.


Our first Easter in our cottage home.

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

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

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.


I’ve started this post with Happy St. Paddy’s Day instead of Happy St. Patrick’s Day, as a nod to the rant my Irish husband has been on all week. Apparently, calling the saint, Paddy, is alright (though, I think Patrick is preferred) – but woe to those Americans, including a certain beer company whose ad decorates a local restaurant, who dare to call Patrick, “Patty”! Patty is a girl’s name you see and not a name you would call any Patrick, let alone the saint Himself!  So to those of you wishing friends, loved ones and nearby strangers a Happy St. Patrick’s Day today, be warned! You may certainly be familiar enough with Patrick to call him Paddy, but should you call him Patty within earshot of Declan, you will suffer the ire of an Irishman who likes his saints’ nicknames to be gender correct!

It is probably fair to say that adding to Declan’s ill-humor is the fact that he has to work today, of all days. During the last several St. Patrick’s Days spent in the U.S. he has lamented that in Ireland the day is a national holiday for which all students and most working people would have the day off to celebrate. Since this year the holiday fell on a Saturday, he might have expected to celebrate a real St. Patrick’s Day! However, his employer apparently didn’t consider ethnicity when drawing up the call roster for the year and Declan was scheduled to work, yet again, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Since we faced the holiday on our own, I had planned to bring my son, Eoin, to the downtown Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  A combination of the holiday falling on a Saturday coupled with the strangely warm weather we are experiencing made it feel almost like an obligation to attend the parade.

Inside the ‘L’ train today, photo by Anton.
(Not even close to the ‘sardines’ on the Metra!)

However, after watching a sea of Kelly Green humanity being squeezed onto two dangerously packed Metra trains at the Elmhurst train station this morning, I decided it was best to spend the day far from what I am sure will be Mardi Gras level festivities in Chicago. I may instead celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by making a loaf of brown bread to have with tea tonight!

But parade or no parade, the day is lovely and even my husband’s mood is looking up. He has cheerfully informed me that someone, perhaps another indignant Irish person armed with a marker, has changed the “t’s” to “d’s” on the restaurant’s beer ad! It is good to know you are not alone in your indignation!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!



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