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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.

Ballymun

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.

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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

Lily-of-the-Valley courtesy of Wikipedia

It is time to welcome Spring with the ancient Irish Festival of Imbolc! Normally this would be a laughable thing to imagine for a person in the Chicago area in February, who would more often than not, be snug indoors peering out at a snow-covered world and listening to the icy howl of winter wind. However this year in Chicago, except for a few normal winter-like days, January and this first day of February have felt more like Spring than Winter! In fact, yesterday I actually saw a child dressed in a t-shirt and shorts working as a crossing guard at my son’s school – though I couldn’t keep my self from mumbling, “Doesn’t that boy have a mother?”  So this year anyway, welcoming Spring does not require a great stretch of the imagination.

Imbolc falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox and was a pagan Irish festival that marked the beginning of Spring. Today Imbolc is more commonly celebrated as Lá Fhéile Bríde,  St. Brigid’s Day. This is one example of the early Christian tactic in Ireland of superimposing itself over the long-standing pagan rites and celebrations, which worked so well, to convert Ireland to Christianity while avoiding the bloodshed experienced in so many other lands. By creating the Feast of St. Brigid on February 1st, the pagan goddess Brigid, was somewhat seamlessly replaced with the Christian, St. Brigid of Kildare, of whom I’ve written a bit more about in an earlier post  titled  St. Brigid’s Day.

So, today I wish you a happy Imbolc and a happy St. Brigid’s Day from lovely, mild Chicago and leave you with a poem that is not only attributed to St. Brigid herself, but is a great example of why she is so loved and admired to this day!

SAINT BRIGID’S PRAYER

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
 
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering.
 
White cups of love I’d give to them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man.
 
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make the men contented for their own sake.
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
 
I’d like the people of Heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
The three Marys of great renown.
 
I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.

Flags lined both sides of the main street through Moneygall.

The Fourth of July is just another day in Kilkee, but on Sunday, July 3rd, the “4th” was celebrated with a U.S. Independence Day Festival in President Obama’s ancestral Irish village of Moneygall, a town with residents still delighted over the President’s May 23rd visit.

The Obama Cafe

The band was playing mostly American Country Music on a hot, sunny Chicago-like summer's day!

As we were traveling along the M7 motorway, returning home from Dublin on Sunday afternoon, I decided to turn off at the Moneygall exit in order to have a look at the town from which President Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney emigrated to the United States in 1850. Although I expected to see some signs that the president had been there, I was not expecting a crowded town with American and Irish flags displayed along the main street and a festival taking place.

Eoin at Ollie Hayes Pub

Although Eoin and I did not seek President Obama’s Irish 8th cousin, Henry Healy, we did stay long enough to enjoy the band onstage playing mostly American Country music, have tea and delicious home-made apple pie in the Obama Cafe, buy a couple Is Féadir Linn/Yes We Can t-shirts and read the plaque on the President’s ancestral home, having just missed the tour hours.

Plaque on Obama ancestral home

We even had a look inside the now famous Ollie Hayes Pub, where the President and First Lady enjoyed a pint during their visit. Inside we found an Obama impersonator schmoozing with the locals!

It may seem a bit over the top to some, but it was all in fun and the President’s visit appears to have given a needed economic boost to this quaint little town nestled within the fertile, green landscape of County Offaly at the border of Tipperary!

Obama impersonator schmoozing!

The sights and sounds contained in this video featuring the Cliffs of Moher are all the proof I need that Irish traditional music came out of Ireland’s landscape, as though it once grew there wild, just waiting for some musically inclined ancient Celt to pluck it from the rocky shoreline and share it with the world! For me, watching this video today has eased some of my apprehension over the likely challenges of making the journey in three weeks across the Atlantic alone with my 9-year-old son to our cottage. Also, the music and the magnificent sites have inspired me to begin to tackle some essential tasks, which I must carry out, between now and the day of our departure on June 20th. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it!

If you are so inclined, you may go to the link provided in the video to vote for the Cliffs of Moher in the third, and last, phase of an online campaign for the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

 

A photo taken by Declan during an early morning drive through the Gap of Dunloe in Killarney - just one example of the beauty Ireland offers.

 

A hundred thousand welcomes to you!

Failte Ireland Tourism 2011 recently released a new promotional video, that I just came across on the Cliff’s of Moher facebook page. Based upon the music, I’m guessing Failte Ireland is targeting young people who may not have a particular thing for Ireland, but are simply looking for a great holiday destination. To be fair, I suppose those of us with a thing for Ireland do not need a video to coax us to visit! Hey – whatever works, because Ireland is most definitely a marvelous holiday destination and it also happens to be in great need of a boost in tourism these days, considering the current economic situation.

Having lived in Ireland for a year during 2001-2002, and visited too many times to count since then, it was my personal observation that toward the end of the Celtic Tiger boom years Ireland was becoming a bit cynical about its tourist trade and had begun to take its visitors for granted. However, I have noticed in the last couple of years, since about 2008, a resurgence in the once famous Irish hospitality and welcome. People seem to be truly happy that you have come to visit their country, glad to meet you and talk to you and yes, appreciative of the tourist dollars you’re bringing in, knowing that times are hard for just about everyone around the globe these days.

Another recent upside for tourists is that since the housing boom has gone bust, rampant construction has come to a halt just in time to leave the unique beauty of Ireland intact. This was something I was beginning to worry about a few years ago as I watched more and more housing estates – and even a few strip malls – filling up the countryside between the cities. And not to completely dismiss the boom years, one of the positive byproducts of the Celtic Tiger and Ireland’s participation in the EU, are the new motorways that make traveling around the country much quicker and more convenient than the quaint country roads. The charm of meandering along winding, country boreens is still there for our enjoyment, but it is nice to now have the option of hopping on a motorway and zipping across the country with an ease that was not available in years past.

So, I urge everyone to consider a visit to Ireland, a country that has a lot to offer, both old and new, along with a renewed enthusiasm for its visitors. Here is a nice overview of the sites and delights of Ireland 2011 !

Beannacht Lá Fhéile Pádraig!

St. Patrick blesses Co. Mayo, photo courtesy news.NationalGeographic.com

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! So far this year, my celebration of St. Patrick’s Day has been to attend the local parade last Saturday with Declan and Eoin – bundled up from head to toe to keep out the cold – and to bake two loaves of Irish Brown Bread, my first ever! One loaf went with Eoin to school for his Culture Project Food Day and the other was just for us. Served with raspberry jam and the deep yellow richness of Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter – and moistened with cupán tae – the brown bread was celebration enough! However, adding to the pleasure of the holiday, I just received the following video in a “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” email from The Francis O’Neill Club of the Irish American Heritage Center. Song for Ireland perfectly conveys my affection for Ireland and this version by Dick Gaughan is particularly soulful. So, in celebration of the day that’s in it, I offer this video for you to enjoy a wonderful song and to feast your eyes on the beauty of the island St. Patrick loved so well! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PInNrFZQEwk&feature In addition, with thoughts directed toward the people of Japan in their struggle with the ongoing devastation in their country, instead of talk of green beer and shamrocks this St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll leave you with the comfort of a small part of  St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a prayer attributed to the saint himself.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

The Round Tower on Scattery Island on a beautiful August day.

Standing 120 feet high, the Round Tower on Scattery Island is among the tallest in Ireland. To the monks of ancient Ireland, the height of the Round Tower advertised the importance and stature, so to speak, of the monastery it represented. Apparently the monks at St. Senan’s Monastery had a lot to be proud of!

When Kate came to Kilkee in early August to stay for a week, I made arrangements for the three of us to take a ferry from Kilrush to Scattery Island in the nearby Shannon Estuary. I figured, since Kate was moving to L.A. she would have lots of opportunities to enjoy the Pacific coastline, however while she was in Ireland, I could treat her to something she won’t find on the Pacific Coast – the ancient ruins of St. Senan’s Monastic Settlement! Scattery Island has a long history that includes Viking Raids and  a community of seafaring residents who once numbered up to 141 and lived in the now deserted cottages. But it is the austere and ancient St. Senan’s Monastic Settlement that really makes this a destination worth visiting during any trip to the Loop Head area. St. Senan, a County Clare native, established his monastery on Scattery Island in the 6th century. Aside from the very impressive Round Tower, the site also includes the ruins of a stone cathedral; a small church called Teampall Senain (Church of St. Senan), also known as St. Senan’s Bed – believed to be the site of the saint’s tomb; the church of Ard na nAingeal (The Hill of the Angel); and St. Senan’s Holy Well.  These ancient ruins exist within a beautiful, wild landscape of natural grasslands and wildflowers, which together, serve to transport visitors into the past.

Legend has it that upon his arrival to the island, St. Senan had a vision of the Archangel Michael, who led him to the highest hill where he could spot “The Cathach”, a sea-monster that was terrorizing the people of the area. The saint faced the monster and banished it, never to return. Once safe, St. Senan set about establishing his settlement and abbey, of which he was the first bishop. Along with banishing the sea-monster, it is believed St. Senan also banished women from setting foot on the island! This history, along with the Round Tower dominating the scene, lends a very patriarchal vibe to the site! Interestingly enough, it is said that the saint died on March 8th of 544, while paying a visit to one of the two local nunneries, which he had established on the mainland. Senan apparently liked women well enough, as long as they were not invading his island!

Teampall Senain, with the Round Tower in the background.

The day we arrived on Scattery Island was one of the mildest and sunniest of my entire stay in Kilkee. Kate, Eoin and I, along with a handful of other visitors, rode a small ferry from the dock in Kilrush to the island. During the tour we were delighted to learn that the ferry captain happened to be one of the last people born on the island, uninhabited since 1978! Except for an embarrassing disruption caused at the onset of the tour by my cell phone ringing several times with calls from Declan  – until I figured out how to turn the unfamiliar phone off – our tour of this historical island was peaceful, quiet and pleasurable. We listened attentively to our guide as we walked among ancient ruins, surrounded by wildflowers and tall, natural grass blowing in a fresh breeze with the warm sun shining upon it all. We were very impressed with the natural setting where only unobtrusive stone paths have been added and briar and nettles removed from the pathways and buildings, for convenience sake. There is no visitor’s center, except for a tiny information shop housed in one of the cottages, and all the historic buildings remain respectfully in their rough condition. To Kate and me, the monastic site was perfectly presented in its natural state surrounded by an unspoiled landscape. However, a 30-something Irishwoman who came along for the tour was not as pleased and let our guide know as much in no uncertain terms. She declared that she thought it was disgraceful that the island was “let go the way it is and allowed to fill with weeds” and stated that she believed it should be “put to better use”. When the guide asked her what she would prefer they do with Scattery Island, the woman responded that it would be a great place for weddings and could be developed and rented out for functions!

Perhaps St. Senan had this woman, with her ideas for improvement, in mind when he decided to banish all women from the island so long ago!

It’s very hard to close up and say farewell to Teach deBúrca, Kilkee, Loop Head and West Clare, in general! Our last event in Kilkee tomorrow is “cake day” at Eoin’s Nevsail Watersports Camp and we’re bringing lemon cake and meringues, freshly baked by The Pantry in Kilkee. Following camp, we’ll return to the cottage to say goodbye to this place we’ve called home for the past six weeks and then it’s off to a hotel in Shannon where we will be close to the airport for our Saturday morning flight and the beginning of the long journey home.

This trip has challenged us in many ways. I had to get comfortable driving a stick shift  – with my left hand and on the opposite side of the road! We had to tame a cottage that was a bit wild when we arrived. I’ve had more contact with repairmen and workmen than I ever expected and spent a good part of the beginning of our stay in combat with spiders and even a few mice. I won the battle but I am not naive enough to think I’ve won the war – especially since I must retreat until the next trip back! War or not, I am leaving a clean and cozy cottage that has benefitted a lot by a good start to the improvements we knew we needed to make.

Eoin and I have spent the last several weeks in intimate contact with the ever-changing Atlantic coastline, surrounded by breathtaking beauty and local quirkiness, housed in a peaceful, rural setting, had a braying donkey as an alarm clock, and have even become so used to the local accents that when we heard an American accent today we looked at each other and laughed at the sound! Being back in the suburbs of Chicago will be an adjustment. However, we are thankful to have had this time in West Clare and equally thankful to have people we love waiting for our return home!

"Look, Thor cut through the clouds with his sword so God could look down on Ireland!" exclaimed Eoin.

Yesterday was a sad day for Eoin and me because my daughter, Kate, headed back to Chicago after spending a week with us in Kilkee.

The actress hams it up at the fireside.

Kate’s enthusiasm and the delight she takes in her surroundings – from admiring the grandeur of the cliffs to the tiniest details, like the cup her tea is served in – makes her a kindred spirit and we have great fun together! We laughed our way through The Burren in search of The Burren Perfumery; scared ourselves investigating a holy well at the side of a dark, country road; walked along cliffs and admired the ever-changing views of the sea; took countless drives around Loop Head on bright Irish summer evenings; marvelled at dolphins and ruins; and explored the Pollock Holes – cringing at sea creatures, which Eoin handled with ease.

Kate's "eww" face

We oohed and ahhed over beautiful scenery, baby animals in fields, Irish pottery and handcrafts, cozy, quaint tea shops and even the perfect shade of blue paint that trimmed the windows of a stone cottage!

During our long journey through The Burren in search of the Perfumery, I joked that the three of us were “Thelma and Louise – and Bart Simpson”!

…well Louise, Bart and I had a great time exploring West Clare and sharing the cottage with you and hope you come back again and again! Slán abhaile a Kate!

"Louise" and "Bart" having tea at the quaintest tea shop in The Burren.

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