Here are some highlights from a trip my wife, sister, and I took through Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, which collectively spanned most of May, 2019. We met up with my sister late Saturday morning on the 11th in downtown Dublin. Cath had just returned to the city by bus, after spending a week in Edinburgh and Belfast, and Jamie and I had come in on an overnight flight from San Francisco. A week later, after driving together through much of the southern half of the country, Cath would close out her travels and head back home, while Jamie and I would go on to have adventures in Northern Ireland and Scotland of our own.
Inisheer Island and Kevin
Kevin is a man of about sixty, with white, unruly hair poking out from underneath a woolen knit cap. His face is sanguine, angular, and weatherbeaten, he is tall, and his archetypal build is one that usually comes not from the gym but is the result of decades of hard, physical work. As we approached on the small ferry, several landmarks on the island came into view, most prominently a shipwreck, midway point on its eastern shore. Not knowing what to expect once we landed, I immediately launched into figuring out just how long it would take to walk from the harbor to the wreck, which looked to be about a mile or so over an unfamiliar, rocky shoreline. Waiting for us at the dock, in the driver’s seat of his rig perfectly designed for its purpose, Kevin presented to us a better idea, and so after a brief introduction and Inisheer history presentation, we were off.
Kevin has only lived on the island, and yet is a man who’s existed in two very different worlds. While navigating us through the stone-walled maze above, possibly built centuries ago, he told us about life on Inisheer when he was a young man. He was a fisherman then and he told us about how in those days, long before the ferries or practically any other boats ran out to the island, they would row the day’s catch the six miles to the mainland. It was a near-perfect day when we took the ferry across, and yet the ceaseless wind characteristic of the area was so strong I could see just docking the power boats here required a specific skill set. For good reason, sometimes a couple approaches had to be made before a line could be thrown from deck, to help haul the vessel alongside the pier. As a former boat operator myself, who worked the windy San Francisco Bay for years, I still couldn’t help but be impressed by the boat handling displayed by the captains pulling into Doolin. On our hour-long ride out to Inisheer, the weather conditions only strengthened, with sizable swells and whitecaps spread across the Atlantic, horizon to horizon. Later, on the ferry ride back to the mainland, I did my best to imagine what it must have been like in earlier days, four men rowing a small wooden boat loaded to the gunwales with fish, miles across a wind-whipped, angry ocean, wet and chilled to the bone in the dead of winter, with a storm approaching.
Kevin and most of the other 260 year-round residents of Inisheer now subsist primarily on tourism. In addition to the ferries, there are small planes that run to the island, received by a tiny regional airport, and we spotted at least one hostel and a bed-and-breakfast in our walk about the neighborhood. Artisans sell their wares here and there, a bar well-known for its fine local music is nearby, and a small fishing industry still exists, keeping the island’s history and traditions alive. Given the stories we’d heard about the antediluvian way of life he once knew — one easy to romanticize from a distance — somewhat tone-deaf, I asked Kevin if he missed the old days on Inisheer, expecting an ambiguous response. Instead, he said affably, “Not at all.”
After the ferry dropped us back in Doolin, we made for our lodging for the night, not more than a few minutes’ drive from the pier. Pulling into the gravel parking area, we knew instantly which shelter was ours, as it looked just as advertised on the website: the most yurtish yurt on the lot. If you don’t know exactly what a yurt is, the first definition I came upon describes it pretty well: a tent-like dwelling of the Mongol and Turkic peoples of Asia, consisting of a cylindrical wall of poles in a lattice arrangement with a conical roof of poles, both covered by felt or skins. In this case the covering was canvas.
Having never been glamping before, I didn’t know what to expect, but upon entering the teepee-like construction, I was stunned by the almost storybook-like space inside, one that also seemed twice the size of its modest exterior. If there’s such a thing as a standard “glampground”, this place is probably whatever that is, plus one or two more. For Jamie and me, this was our third full day in Ireland, and for me alone, the fourth full day with little to no sleep, and I was really starting to feel it. At the end of the night, after the three of us had spent an excellent evening with cousin Emer, at a pub just down the road pulled straight out of a movie scene, this glorified tent — one even cozier than it looks — would finally set my clock to Ireland time.
The walk to O’Connor’s Pub was short and even though we’d gotten there early, the place was nearly full, so we were lucky to grab an open table, situated near the entrance. Never having met before, but being connected on Facebook for a couple years, Cath and I knew what our cousin looked like, and when she entered through the front door, due to my position at the table, I was the first to see her and recognized her immediately. Emer is somewhat tall and slender, with shoulder-length, straight, reddish brown hair, has dark blue eyes, high cheek bones, and a calm, disarming smile. Descriptions are necessary here because this night I had left my camera behind, the only time I didn’t have it with me during the eighteen-day trip; I didn’t want to be in picture-taking mode this evening, a mindset I get into easily, that usually distracts me from everything else.
Not surprisingly, Emer’s appearance was aligned with a pleasant demeanor and soon the four of us were talking about all kinds of things, most of which I can’t remember. In time though, we began to discuss exactly how we all fit together, and that’s when it became clear our cousin knew more about the subject than Cath and I. When it comes to family in the States, (which makes for most of it that I’m aware of) my sister and I were among the last to visit Ireland. Always on the to-do list, but never done. My sister and I grew up “Irishy”: We had been in and out of stateside Irish pubs since we were kids, had heard plenty of stories about the country, gathered some history about where our family had come from, and had even picked up a little about who within it was still there. But even as adults, Ireland had always been an anachronistic, almost mythical place, and the stories, regardless of the familial characters, were still nothing more. We never had more than bits and pieces to a picture we were too far from to see. Fortunately, Emer had brought some more pieces with her.
After finishing some of the best food we’d have in the country — fish and chips, for Jamie and me — we all stepped outside. Only coming from a couple towns over, Emer had brought her dog along, a white, curly-furred little guy named Ernie. Sitting on a picnic table across the street, we talked some more about this and that for a length of time, while Ernie played around and enjoyed himself in the vicinity. Although it was well into the evening, the sun was still up, as in these northern lats it drops late in the spring and summer. The wind was blowing between a breeze and a howl and it was getting chilly, so Ernie was put to bed in Emer’s car and we went back inside. Surprisingly, we were able to reclaim our table by the entrance, one that still sat unoccupied, and looking about the place again, I saw the scene had changed a bit; the lights were dimmed and a band was playing out of sight, hidden somewhere within the larger, epicentral room conjoined with ours. We could only hear the music from our location, acoustics that of course provided a perfect soundtrack to the new setting. The pub had more people now, and things were livelier, with folks lined up along the long dark wood bar, most of whom were Irish, and more than a few, by all appearances, locals. Seated on stools at the end of the bar near our table, we struck up a conversation with a man and his teenaged son who by chance were from a place in Maryland not more than forty minutes’ drive from where my sister and I grew up. He was the proud owner of a few Ledo’s Pizza restaurants, a regionally famous franchise headquartered in the state’s capital. It was their first time in Ireland as well and we swapped a few stories about our experiences thus far, and talked a little about home, too.
Having not yet even ventured past our table and farther into the heart of the pub, and wanting to see the source of the music, I walked over to the next room. Situated on old, plush sofas and easy chairs arranged in a circle, five men and a woman were playing traditional Irish instruments. Some folks were seated next to the musicians, sharing the same furniture and intimate amphitheater, while others stood behind them, forming a larger circle of their own. I honestly can’t remember if there was a lit fireplace in the room or not, but from some source a soft orange-yellow light reached nearly to the edge of the long bar at the opposite end of the communal space, which dimly illuminated a conference of cheerful, chattering customers. Standing on the seam connecting the two rooms, waiting for my Guinness near the end of the long bar, I looked over and saw Jamie, Cath, and Emer were engaged in a lively conversation, while through the front door I could see the sun had finally dropped and another group was coming in from the outside chill.