Beginnings

It begins with brainwaves, an idea: I want to see Ireland. Then, like a gentle breeze, enters emotion, a curious yearning, whispering: I need to see Ireland. Add imagination, and the lady is wearing a smile. A beautiful smile. A coquettish smile.

All right. All right. So the lady is a country, you were expecting a romance maybe? Well, all right again, her name is Rachel and she lives in Sligo. But that’s its own separate story, and for the moment the subject is beginnings, so as I was saying, the Lady is sporting a smile. Dressed in soft green velvet, her shoulders support a shawl of lakes and rivers and mountains. And around her neck curls a single strand of wedding-white pearls, one each for Dublin, Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Killarney, Cork, and Waterford.

On her left wrist dangles a gold bracelet, heavy with the charms of song and dance, art, and the four Nobel Prizes for Literature, all jingling sweetly beneath the smaller Claddagh brooch nestled near her heart: two arms circling to join hands in friendship, then cradle a heart for love below the crown of loyalty, while in the center, twin emeralds sparkle to speak of the two Hs – History and Humor.

I suppose that is why she is not wearing a watch. For when the Carrowmore Tombs teach a text originating a thousand years before the Pyramids, and the pictures paint a painful but poignant panoply of tragedy and triumph in human nature’s native colors, the lesson learned is live now and laugh as much as possible.

“Sounds good to me,” I slide out through the grin curling from the corners of my mouth to light my face. And as I lift my eyes from the Lady’s figure spread out across the kitchen island to put a match to my pipe, synchronicity swells the grin full. For green tiles edge the counter’s white face, and the tiny letters engraved on my pipe spell Peterson’s of Dublin.

A coincidence? I consider, once again focusing on the Lady’s smile and listening to her siren song. No, I don’t think so, squirms the answer several seconds later, all I can see and hear swimming together to configure secrets in giant green letters. So many secrets, says the smile, and the song sings sweetly of so many shades of green, that somehow they must harbor a truth I need to know.

“Yeah.…Either that, or you’re losing what little’s left of your mind,” I crack sharply into the silence, seeking to shake free of the trance and noting how hot my kitchen has suddenly grown. As a luxurious defense against the Oregon winter, the thermostat is set at 70. And though calculated to create comfy-cozy, the spontaneous ideas swarming about now turn toasty to tropical as “You’re going” teases off my tongue, then tiptoes several feet away to wait and see how it’s been received.

“I am?” answers the left side of my brain, neurons spinning faster and faster in response to the mixture of anticipation and anxiety coursing through me.

“Uh-huh. For sure,” responds the right side with growing confidence. “Hell, deep down you know it, I know it, we know it. So with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost all in agreement, why not just face up to the fact that there are no real accidents in life, and start celebrating with a nice glass of wine.”

“O-kay,” I nod cautiously, security struggling for a foothold, a thin smile sneaking across my lips.

It widens as I pour the merlot, add chocolate to the burgeoning festivities, and then shuffle into my study in search of an article about Ireland I’d clipped out I don’t remember when and carefully stored I don’t know where. But the night is pregnant with surprise, and inside five minutes, I’ve located it, relit my pipe, and digested the fact that 20 million Americans trace their ancestral roots to the Emerald Isle. “Well, how about you, you got any Irish roots?” old Righty chirps cheerfully, still seeking to secure my commitment.

“Oh, sure,” snickers Lefty. “I mean you’re half Russian, one-quarter Lithuanian, and one-quarter Hungarian. Does that ring a bell in St. Patrick’s Cathedral?”

“Well, it has all the makings of an Irish stew,” rips the reply. “And what about dreams, and adventure, and romance, don’t they count?…”

In the renewing silence, the noun dreams turns slow-motion somersaults until a nerve is nudged and I reach for a favorite book of poems and slowly steer my eyes to savor Ireland’s greatest bard:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread my dreams under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Oh, yes, murmurs through my mind as solace stirs to tranquilize doubt. Yes…Yes…Yes. ‘Cause dreams are the children of hope, and they do indeed count. Big time, huh, Mr. William Butler Yeats. ‘Cause they help hold you young and fully alive. They point patiently at purpose and invite passion. And they promise that if you really believe and risk, you will be truly free. No guarantees of course. But the precious package does include a limited warranty: There’s magic even in trying.

“Okay…I’m in,” escapes through a sigh when optimism rests to refuel. And as midnight arrives and I climb the stairs into bed, I smile through the darkness at the newborn dream of discovery, allowing adventure and romance to snuggle in around the edges and add to the collective cozy. “So many shades of green,” I echo in whispers, nestling deeper into the pillow, “you must hold a truth I need to know.”

Uh-huh, counsels my coy companion silently as I fall into sleep. And all you have to do to learn it is go slowly and tread softly.

Dublin

…Temple Bar is “the place to hang out.” Named after Sir William Temple, the Provost of Trinity College who lived in the area during the early seventeenth century, and redeveloped in the 1990s after its modern-day warehouses fell into decline, this revitalized island of activity is a magnet for the young and the restless, the avant-garde and the bohemian, and the artistic and the entrepreneurial. And as I reach Fleet Street and enter this cultural hot spot, an understated “Wow” whistles through my teeth, so taken am I by the off-beat charm that warms round me like an electric blanket.

For color is everywhere the eye turns. And people too, a veritable cross-section of size, shape, sex, and age, with tourists adding a multinational flavor. But the subject is color, and here every hue has a home. As housed inside a motley mixture of Georgian and Victorian architecture, restaurants, cafés, and bars, as well as shops, studios, and art galleries wear bright shades of red and yellow, blue, green, purple, and orange – a peppy parade of pigment that rivals even the most garish rainbow. And variety? As in almost too much to choose from? Try over 150 shops for clothes and crafts, books and gifts, jewelry, pottery, and toys. Then add music venues, the Irish Film Centre, and the Gallery of Photography to the mix, along with a spicy splash of hotels and dance clubs, and the full bounty of Temple Bar’s buzz circulates into view.

“Holy molies, what a place!” spurts off my tongue, when, after a happy hour of roaming, I flop down onto a curb facing the small square that serves as the area’s hub. A favorite meeting place, even as the dinner hour approaches, the plaza is well populated. On the near side, a street performer is strumming guitar, and as I listen to the folk melody float over the crowd, a striking blonde dressed in a sleek black pantsuit crosses diagonally and disappears up an alley. Oh, yes, what a place for sure! And not easy to leave either, my mind sighs as I pull myself up from my perch and head off to meet the River Liffey.

Eustace Street drops into sight inside three blocks, and just before I reach it I treat myself to a mocha from a cute café called The Joy of Coffee, spending my first Irish pound, nicknamed punt. Then, a right turn, and another short block lands me on Wellington Quay, where one blessing instantly follows another. At home, night after night I’d gazed at photos, but none had prepared me fully for the eyeful I now enjoyed. For even under leaden skies and the thinning light, beautiful echoes and re-echoes as my eyes search and survey. The Liffey, which cuts through the center of Dublin, immediately captures the core of my attention, steely gray yet softly peaceful against the ominous overhang, and crowned by a series of low-slung stone bridges. On both the north and south banks, buildings stretch east and west as far as the eye can follow. Most are constructed from various shades of brick, with stucco fronts of several hotels bearing bright colors, accented further by the facades of ground-floor shops and restaurants. And every so often, like a solitary candle on a cake, a church steeple rises over this multi-colored collage of old and new in sacred celebration of the beauty playing round its feet. North and south, east and west, and from ground to sky roam my ravenous eyes. And when they can hardly hold any more, “H-e-l-l-o, Dublin,” finally escapes in whispers from my post on the Grattan Bridge. “I’ve come six thousand miles to meet ya, and if I had to leave right now, you’re worth it!” tumbles my abject admiration, my head bobbing in agreement.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

…and I’m stopped in my tracks by my first view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

A poetic philosopher once said that architecture is frozen music. If so, St. Patrick’s is a symphony of lullabies featuring the sweet-soft sounds of the violin. For though Ireland’s largest church by virtue of its 300-foot length and 140-foot bell tower, and while formed from impressive gray limestone, its classic lines speak simply to the absolute absence of pretension, whispering, “I’m special all right, please notice,” while simultaneously smiling, “Welcome!” Having frozen in place myself, several musical minutes sound before movement is able to reoccur. Maybe it’s the two-block-square park inside which it sits that makes it seem so user-friendly, I muse when I finally resume walking and enter the grounds. Or, maybe it’s the quiet strength flowing so humbly from its stately shape that over the centuries has caused it to be seen as the people’s church, finishes my thought as I stop fifteen feet inside the gate to note a slightly raised stone slab surrounded by flowers.

“Wow, this is where it all began,” escapes off my tongue as I gaze at the spot where in 450 St. Patrick baptized the locals from a then existing well, my mind racing on to recall how a wooden church was subsequently constructed nearby to honor him. And quite a story too, headline news today. For kidnapped from Britain to Ireland by pirates when but a boy, Patrick had later escaped to study Christianity in France before returning to convert the Celtic tribes. And in similar fashion, it was after the passage of centuries that in 1192 the church was reborn as a stone cathedral, with the bell tower restored even later, in 1370, by Archbishop Minot, thereby providing the steepled column with its name.

Holy molies! Ain’t it something! bounces my brain in sync with the bells now chiming to announce the arrival of nine o’clock. And though an apt expression of the admiration coursing through me, when I then enter inside the Cathedral, my colloquial tribute proves to be an understatement of magnificent magnitude. Standing at the western end, one has an unobstructed view of the altar, a football field away, while overhead, a vaulted ceiling constructed of gold-tinted wood arches gracefully downward around windows whose stained glass kisses the sunlight to scatter jewels across the inlaid wooded floor. No less than totally awestruck by the warmth of the beauty before me, I slowly amble up the center aisle to within twenty feet of the altar and sit down to study the even larger and more intricate stained-glass windows above the dais. Though I’m not religious in a doctrinal sense, the overwhelming aura of peace permeating the air is so inviting that I am suddenly moved to pray, first giving thanks for being allowed to experience such beauty, then less selfishly, for peace in our troubled world.

Upon lifting my head moments later, my eyes fix on the raised wooden pulpit slightly left and ten feet to the front of the altar. It was here, history offers, that Jonathan Swift, the great political satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels, preached when he was Dean of St. Patrick’s from 1713 to 1744. And concentrating, I try to imagine him exhorting the congregation to wrestle with the irony of do unto others within the framework of bitter Anglo-Irish relations, my mind’s split screen also returning to high school and my beloved English teacher, Eunice Schmidt, who had labored so lovingly to help us know Swift’s genius. Grateful then, and even more so now, minutes later when I visit the Dean’s grave behind the pulpit inside the north transept, I thank them both, bowing, then blowing a kiss.

The Professor

…“I mean, how in the holy hell can one little island hold so much?” I then chuckle, suddenly catching sight of the Professor, a character I created to serve as the hero’s conscience in my last novel. Named Euripides Bartholomew Schwartz, the greatest of all Greek-Jewish philosophers, of which in reality there were none, I nevertheless invested him with a status equal to that of his collegial chums, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Not as well known, of course, but equally well respected for his practical approach to sophisticated issues by those with Ph.D. credentials. And, in that I was sorely in need of a large dose of practicality, the sighting proved fortuitous indeed.

“Listen, Little-Boy-I-Want-to-Know-Everything,” oozes his warm greeting, “Face it: You can’t. Period! So why not just stick to basics, and rescue yourself from the Lost Land of Empty Statistics.”

“Yeah…right,” ventures my reply sheepishly. “Guess my enthusiasm’s trying to do a little too much, huh?”

“A little?” he groans. “Hell’s bells, you’re trying to cram nineteen centuries into nineteen days! You can’t know everything, or see it all. Who do you think you are, Albert the Einstein, or Newton the apple dropper?”

“No.…Just curious me.”

“Well, I’m going to lay off the old pussycat story, but I do have a news flash for you: You better stick to basics and rest your brain, Buster Brown, or the Synapses Union’s going to file a formal grievance for abuse of overtime! Ya hear?…”

The Vikings Arrive

…which brings us, ten minutes and two sloping blocks later, to Wood Quay, the special spot on the River Liffey’s south bank where in 842 the Vikings landed to found Dublin.

Though undeveloped, the area already had settlers. In fact the Greek geographer Ptolemy had pinpointed this location on a map 600 years earlier. But now, the ambitious Danes had decided the time had come to upgrade this scrawny settlement at the junction of the Rivers Poddle and Liffey into a city. A walled city no less. And along with it, no extra charge, create a story that would undoubtedly have headlined the “Evening News with Dan Rather”! bounces my brain as I sit down on a nearby bench for a smoke, then stare up at the modern Civic Office Complex that now stands where the fierce invaders once pitched camp. Yeah, they’d be amazed all right, my thought continues as I turn to gaze at the Liffey and try to imagine how raw and primitive Dublin, or Black Pool as it was called then, must have appeared. “What do you think? Huh, Professor?” I shrug to my famous but fictional guru.

“Well…I’ll tell you,” he answers slowly, choosing his words carefully. “Those Vikings would be pleasantly surprised all right. But they got an even bigger buzz when they found out they couldn’t take over Ireland.”

“Yeah?…”

“Uh-huh, you just bet. Oh, they had their day, but they couldn’t dominate. And in 1014, when they were aligned with the army of the King of Leinster, old Brian Boru, the King of Munster, kicked their butt at the Battle of Clontarf!” he smiles, now warming to his subject. “After that, the Vikes just merged into the Celtic tribes. So at the end of the day, or millennium as it were, they started one hell of a city, introduced some valuable farming techniques, and best of all, added red hair – like on that curvy cutie that just walked by, or didn’t you notice?”

“Yeah, I did. How could you miss that?”

“Well, good. ‘Cause I was afraid you were only into old buildings, and the red-hair factor has a very important role to play. You see,” he rolls on, “After the ass-whipping at Clontarf, the Leinster folk gradually lost their lands over the next century. So, finally, in 1166, old King McMurrough sailed over to England in search of help. No problem, of course, those Anglo-Norman lads were always hot to seize an opportunity.”

“Ohhh, yeah, I remember. Strongbow, huh?”

“Exactly! And once Mr. Richard de Clare got a good look at King Mac’s daughter – a lovely lass with long red hair and a body that wouldn’t quit – and his cronies got equally turned on by the beauty and productivity of the Irish lands, they – “

“Decided to stay permanently,” zips my interjection. “And there’s been trouble ever since.”

“Uh-huh. You got it, little buddy. Old King Henry II, who was financing the venture from back in England, declared himself overlord of Ireland, and the battle was on. And you know what? Old Strongbow’s still here – I mean, lying in state, up the hill a bit. Wanna take a look?”

The Warm-Hearted People

Friday.

6:15 a.m.

The tiny travel clock cheerfully chirps me awake. Wide awake, and instantly able to feel the nervous anticipation of seeing Sligo hollowing a home for butterflies in my stomach, Drumcliffe, Yeats, and Ben Bulben marching spryly into mind as I slide out of bed and stroll into the bathroom to shave. “Uh-huh, and as Grampy used to say, we’re up before breakfast to see’em too,” I mutter to my reflection as I turn on the hot water, then retreat to the sitting area to snap on the coffee maker.

Add cream and two sugar cubes, and my movements ramp up to full speed ahead. Inside an hour, I’m showered, dressed, fully packed, and downstairs at the desk checking out, having whispered good-bye to Room 322 and left a Thank You note and five pounds for the housekeeper. Len, the attendant, shares in my excited chatter, tipping me off to the Half Moon Pub in Sligo as well as other special eateries in Galway and beyond, before escorting me to the waiting cab and waving alongside his “All the best” as the driver pulls from the curb.

Ten minutes later, I’m lighting up my pipe outside Connolly Station and studying the gray bank of clouds that have lowered the sky’s ceiling and produced a finely falling mist, a slight twinge of sadness at leaving Dublin and my comfy home at the Hotel Central rubbing up against the eager anticipation of the day’s adventure ahead. But no problem, no real time to miss what has somehow become so familiar in such a short time, as I have to find my train. Also no problem, as the bright lights on the Arrival-Departure Board quickly advise that Train 75 will be leaving from Track 3. And at eight-thirty sharp, the train’s first lurches find me comfortably settled on a cushiony seat inside a smoking car, my journal and camera spread out before me on the table, with friendly conversation already under way.

Three hours and 150 northwest miles will pass between Dublin and Sligo, and Mary, a sweet-faced, middle-aged housewife provides a most amiable beginning. For though she is traveling only an hour’s distance up the track to Mullingar to visit an ailing uncle, her good-natured curiosity spearheads a steady but relaxed dialogue. I explain about Oregon and Portland, my family, and the switching of careers from lawyering to writing after Patty’s passing, and she shares her thoughts and feelings about working-class Irish families, keynoting her hope that education and the technology age will raise the prospects for her children, before warmly encouraging me to look up my newest literary companion, Mr. John Keane, for a possible chat when I reach Killarney. Then, when Alice joins us after our first stop at Maynooth, the purring pot of conversation adds seasoning to grow even more flavorful.

A pretty lady in her mid-seventies, with delicate features and sparkling blue eyes that belie her age, Alice softly radiates refinement, from the tasteful blue suit and matching overcoat to the educated quality of her speech. She, too, was traveling only a short distance to Longford to visit relatives, but it’s long enough to share her treasured memories of living in Chicago when her now deceased husband was stationed there by his insurance company. Lake Michigan, the Loop’s skyscrapers, concerts, theatre, and close friendships tumble off her tongue as if it were only yesterday, the genuine enjoyment of that life experience sunlighting her smile, while outside the window miles of green fields flow by, growing greener in the light rain, their lush folds dotted with haystacks, stone walls, and clusters of cows and sheep.

All too soon, Mullingar Station looms, and Mary makes ready to depart. I had confided in her that my literary hopes were tied to a novel being considered in New York. And now, after pulling on her coat, she hugs me while adding “I hope I’ll see you again at a book signing. Remember, we Irish love love stories.” Then, when Longford appears shortly thereafter, Alice charges me to “Take the best of care, and enjoy Ireland,” punctuating her warm wishes with a firm handshake before disappearing from view.

Still smiling as I return to my seat and begin an entry in my journal, the pen has barely begun to move when I am surprised by the sound of someone calling my name. Glancing up, then right, my eyes fix on a small man two rows forward. A hint of a grin is fighting for birth on his lips as he motions for me to join him. And when I reach his table, he quickly adds, “Sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with the ladies, and you seem like such a regular fella, I want to know ya. Name’s Jerry McDonald, but my friends call me Jerry Mac,” he ends, extending his hand.

The grip is firm, and his infant grin now widens to match mine as I slip behind the table and peer across at him. Sky blue, the eyes are lively beneath a full head of closely cropped gray hair, and his nose, mouth, and cheeks are finely drawn, as if carefully measured to fit his narrow face. Dressed in stonewashed jeans, with a crisp white shirt accentuating his black blazer, the snug fit highlights the leanness of his slight frame. Not exactly basketball material myself at five-foot-six and a hundred forty pounds, I guessed that I was an inch taller and outweighed him by a similar margin, judging further that the weight of his years was also slightly less than my sixty.

Opening our dialogue by presenting a riddle, his voice tone was low-key and lightly accented. The details about a farmer filling bags of potatoes escape me, as did the answer, my focus having centered on the current of playfulness curling out of the corners of his mouth to light his face.

No problem, however, that the answer proves elusive, a second chance is immediately provided. And when I flunk that test as easily as the first, Jerry Mac just chuckles while revealing the answers and then creating my excuse. The problem is, it seems, that I need a drink. Deemed an urgent necessity after a half second’s careful consideration, the second half includes his eager offer to furnish same. And after refusing my request to pay on the grounds that “You’re my guest,” he promptly heads for the bar car.

During his less-than-two-minute absence, I mulled over the issue of whether I’d fallen in with a good-natured but slightly mischievous Irish elf. And when he returns, bearing both beer and Jameson’s Irish Whiskey “to add a bit of punch,” the verdict is sealed. It’s only ten o’clock in the morning, flashes my thought, and you’re having an Irish Boilermaker for breakfast – not to mention, on an empty stomach! Hell’s bells, counsels caution: Did you say a little mischief’s afoot? You trying to win the Understatement-of-the-Year Award, are ya? Well, not to worry. For while Mr. Mischief is indeed tiptoeing about, it’s his co-conspirator, Mr. Good-Nature that strides purposefully to center stage, and after a quick sip or two of Guinness, announces: Let’s share! Which, aided by the freedom-fostering properties of our nourishment, we do. Like me, Jerry Mac had lost his wife to cancer. And as he describes his daughters, Jenny and Liz, a sliver of sadness softens the mixture of pride and gratitude sounding inside his voice, before echoing into mine as I reciprocate with details of Amy, Matt, and Nick. “Well, I’ve got ten acres or so,” he picks up. “And I gave each of my ladies one of’em to build their own houses on. Pretty sneaky trick to keep’em close, eh?”

“Yeahhh. For sure,” I nod, watching the corners of his eyes crinkle with glee, affordable housing having been high on my list of reasons for moving the boys to Portland. “But how’d you manage to grab onto ten acres?”

“Oh, I raise sheep, like my folks and theirs before’m. Land’s been in the family a long way back, you see.”

“Right. I hear ya,” trickles my reply, trailed by a brief outline of my family’s shopping center business in California.

“Then you left lawyering and property, to be a writer?” he queries, curiosity creeping into his tone.

“Uh-huh. Guilty as charged,” enters my plea. “I just wanted a more simple life, with time for the boys. But then too, some strange creature inside me said I really need to do it. Sounds crazy, huh?…”

“No, not to me,” he shakes out, smiling as he adds another shot of Jameson’s to our beer. “Shows character, if you ask this old farmer. Besides, writing’s important,” he tosses out, lifting his mug.

And after we toast my decision, and ask the literary gods for their blessing with a second, the conversation ages past comfortable, switching gears to spontaneous. Flow, flow, and more flow, as any and everything mixes with fleeing miles and minutes to churn chitchat into comradeship. Now how about this? I consider, relishing my good fortune as music and art, poetry, politics, and pretty ladies parade past. Just five days ago I was in my kitchen in Portland, and now I’m cooking up conversation with an Irish shepherd on a train to Sligo. What a strange and wonderful world, eh? I smile, as Jerry Mac slants off onto religion, and the beloved John Keane arises for the second time.

“Know what he said?” Jerry Mac sidles out slyly, raising his eyebrows for effect. “He viewed that Ireland is composed of Catholics and Protestants, some of whom are even Christians. And if you ask me,” he chuckles, “he hit the old nail squarely on the head. I mean, hell, the whole damn world’s fought more wars over who’s got the right church, than anything else – when all we gotta do is reach out a little and be friends like you and me, right?” he concludes, having echoed the same sentiments I espoused during yesterday’s visit to St. Mary’s.

“You got that right. Big time!” I chime, the rollercoaster then running on and over the Great Famine that led to the enormous wave of Irish emigration to America, to JFK, the Clintons, and soccer before finally settling on the delights of traditional Irish music awaiting me when I reach Doolin. Then, seemingly in an eye-blink, the call on the train’s speaker is Carrick on Shannon. Rising, Jerry Mac hugs me, and when our eyes meet, says: “Remember. On your next visit, you can stay with me.” Then, as my thank-you toned “Take care” echoes back into ear, he’s gone.

For several seconds, I just stand and stare at the empty doorway, my head still bobbing. Then, before happy and sad can mix further inside me, for the second time I hear my name called out and spin round to meet the smiling face of Tommy McPartland. A strapping fellow seated three rows beyond Jerry Mac’s pew, Tommy advises that now it’s their turn to talk, pointing to the half-dozen folks seated near him, several of whom nod their greetings.

Time is short, as my audience will depart at one of three stops during the next fifteen minutes. But after Tommy, who had retired from the merchant marines last year at fifty with a bad back, proudly announces that he had visited Savannah once for three days, we make the most of it. When I confess that I had never visited Georgia, Tommy replies that he hasn’t been to many of the spots in Ireland on my itinerary either. And after I explain how mysteriously drawn to Erin I am, and how truly beautiful and friendly I was finding it to be, a fusillade of questions flows my way. What was New York really like? And how about San Francisco, Dallas, and Boston? Say, did we Americans ever feel lost in such a large country? And, of course: Where exactly, is Oregon?

They all know California, so I guide them north, like from Dublin to Belfast. And when I share with them how much Oregon is like Ireland, with its rivers and lakes and farms, and almost as green with forests and mountains, they nod and softly chuckle their appreciation, each of them then shaking my hand or patting me on the shoulder as the tiny towns of Boyle, Ballymote, and Collooney arrive and they depart.

Then, suddenly after all the wondrous commotion, I am alone. Totally. The sole passenger in the now empty car, I slowly wander back to my original seat and slump down beside my backpack, voices echoing all around me in the silence. Mary. Alice. Jerry Mac and Tommy. All gone now, but not before making a minor miracle. For inside three hours, they’d walked into my life and warmed a stranger with laughter, stories, and shared pieces of their lives. The car is empty all right, but I’m oh so full. For each and every one who welcomed me with an open heart had left footprints on mine. “Footprints of feelings that will last forever,” I whisper to the flowers outside the window as the train rumbles on. And when the phrase, stranger in a foreign land, filters into mind as I carefully tuck the small empty flask of Jameson’s into my briefbag for safekeeping, “Not anymore,” murmurs through my smile as the gift continues to settle, the outskirts of Sligo now sliding happily into view.

Heaven's Landscape

Killarney National Park

…As having hiked almost three miles, we can now look both forward and back down toward Killarney. And as far as the eye can see in either direction are mountains and valley, the Tomies and MacGillycuddy Reeks standing like gentle giants that smile down upon us in our childlike wonderment, the verdant valley catching the sun’s golden rays and painting the trees countless shades of green, yellow, and ochre, its floor dotted occasionally by a tiny silvery lake or distant farmhouse. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Keats had versified. And the weight of his wisdom only grows heavier as the three comrades resume hiking, their eyes continuing to eat and drink from the heavenly feast spread out around them.

And if, by some strange machination of the mind, you’re thinking that the Godperson forgot dessert, stop immediately, and reconsider. For there’s more. Much more. Chocolate cake. Apple pie a la mode. And a hot-fudge sundae, with not one, but three cherries on top! For at two o’clock, when we finally reach St. Brendan’s Cottage at the end of our three-hour trek, awaiting us is a boat trip back to Killarney that gently descends over three of the loveliest lakes on Planet Earth, each one hand-carved and caressed with charm by the loving Lord. And now reunited with Mary, and morphed into the friendly foursome, we’re soon seated in a bright-green dinghy powered by an outboard motor, and slowly cruising up a narrow channel and into Lough Fada.

Known also as the Long Lake, because it’s shaped like a finger, as well as the Upper Lake because it enjoys the highest altitude, this smallest cherry on the divine menu is arguably the sweetest. For encompassing as it does four hundred and eighty exquisitely serene acres, with Eire’s tallest mountain, Carrantuohill, sheltering her from a height of three thousand-four hundred feet, awe-inspiring is indeed a humble base off which to futilely try to build an accurate picture of the enormous beauty now radiating from the surrounding naturescape. A simple “Wow!” escalates into an even louder “Holy cockamolies, it’s unbelievable!” before finally, simple vocabulary feels fully its inadequacy and falls silent, the thought which arose beside the Cliffs of Moher that God loves Ireland with a whole heart then returning in the form of a prayerful smile.

A heartfelt offering of both praise and thanksgiving, this adoration cannot help but repeat itself when fifteen minutes later we reach the Meeting of the Waters and enter the Middle or Muckross Lake, where the Rhapsody of Scenic Splendor is then replayed on an even grander scale. As fifty percent larger than its shimmering sister, the virginal vistas are even wider, and beneath Golden Eagle Mountain, several small rock islands appear, their flanks blanketed with moss, stalwart trees standing sentry on their craggy bluffs. And when several enchanting minutes later, we then glide into Lough Leane, the magic which has been floating before our eyes builds upon itself to reconstruct the Garden of Eden I had first viewed late yesterday afternoon. For with the mountains now fanning back to a distance of a half to three-quarters of a mile, the Lake of Learning, with its five thousand acres of water wonderland, takes center stage, amplifying the omnipresent Rhapsody of Scenic Splendor into a full-fledged Symphony. As fully encircled by a thick bank of old-growth trees and flowering shrubs, Leane’s violins now sing the siren’s song underneath a sky that has grown impossibly blue while harboring powder-puff clouds – caressing with charm one’s every nerve ending, carving yet another mesmerizing memory inside one’s heart, and spiriting impulse to shout loud and long: “Killarney, you are the Kingdom of Camelot!”

Lough Gill

…Geography. History. Mythology. And all wrapped neatly inside a blanket of green countryside that stretches as far as the eye can see. Then, just as it appears that the valley holds a monopoly on magnificent scenery, the bus stops at the top of Cairns Hill, and so does my heart at the breathtaking view of Lough Gill, the lake that so captivated Yeats. No problem understanding why, bursts a brainwave as I leave the bus for a closer view. For seven miles long by two miles wide, and surrounded by gently sloping hills that are heavily forested, the Lake of Brightness easily lives up to its Gaelic name. As everywhere the eyes roam, pinpoints of sunshine spring off its blue-bright surface to startle me with their silvery song: Stop! I’m special!…Look at me! As if one possibly could not, murmurs my next thought, my heart now slowing to a peaceful rhythm in sync with nature’s pulse, my eyes finally able to locate the smallest of the lake’s islands as W.B.’s fabled words pour into ear:….

Glencar Lake & Waterfall

…But more there is, and so much so, that Madam Mae West’s whimsical words, “too much of a good thing is simply wonderful,” take on new meaning. As with Enya and Mary Black crooning Irish ballads over the sound system, for a half-hour our tiny bus winds and weaves eastward along narrow roads and through farmhouse-dotted valleys that are green, to purple-green, to avocado-green, with a hundred varying shades in between. And when it seems as if the eyes can hold no more, we arrive at Glencar Lake, lying like a fine plate of silvery china in a valley hollow, with Ben Bulben serving as sentinel in the far distance, and forests of trees hugging the surrounding hills. The Land of Heart’s Desire, indeed! shouts my mind, my tongue frozen by utter awe. For the glory is everywhere, it’s around us, above us, and at every turn of the eye!

There’s even a waterfall, gamboling gracefully from between the flanking evergreens to tumble over several beds of rock before settling into the calm-sure hands of the lake.

Sex & Sugar

The Cookie on Steroids

…Three short, shop-filled blocks later, the object of my pursuit appears. But before approaching further to become more intimately acquainted, I stop for coffee – and a cookie. Hey, let’s get serious now. One doesn’t just go hippety-hopping off into the Middle Ages, you gotta be prepared. I mean, we’re talking the Dark Ages here, history buffs, so you better bring along a little light, or you could get so lost that the combined resources of the FBI, the CIA, and Strongbow’s Secret Police couldn’t rescue you. And frankly, if one’s looking for a spot of illumination, well, calorie for calorie, no better brightness exists than that from a freshly baked cookie! Especially, if it’s large and iced! And as Lady Luck would have it, a generous measure of both attributes loomed in my immediate future. I mean, the cookie I spied in a nearby window looked like a pancake on steroids! And having been conceived during a romance between giant spices, this Godzilla-sized confection was smilingly smothered with a glazed icing that was doing its best imitation of Ben Bulben Mountain. Not only that, but if you looked closely, smack dab in its cream center was a message: Hobman, I was made just for you!

Now, serious soul that I am, and not one to ignore a direct command from the Sugar Gods, I immediately snapped into executive-decision mode, entered the enticing bakery, and claimed my prize. And for so dutifully honoring the Cookie Creator, I was instantly rewarded further with the sensuous sight of the attendant-angel Lisa, whose honeyed smile is the only thing in the entire world that’s sweeter than the ecstasy melting on my tongue. I mean, mere adjectives and adverbs fall all over themselves in failing to adequately describe this luscious lady. Suffice it to say, that on the sacred scale of one to ten, she registers a solid twelve!

Most unfortunately, however, the Dark Ages are just that: Dark! And this heavenly cookie was not created for me, not in this lifetime anyway. Unh-unh. No way was the message I read this time. You have a daughter who’s older. So, clutching my cookie with both hands, so as to preclude any possibility of kidnapping, I munched my way the remaining quarter-block, then settled onto a nearby bench in the well-maintained churchyard and began ogling a lovely lady from a different time and dimension.

Molly Malone

…my feet then christening the new beginning by carrying me to a visit with Ms. Molly Malone. A happy hop, short skip, and jaunty jump to our prearranged rendezvous – upon arrival, “Good golly, Miss Molly!” echoes into ear courtesy of Little Richard, the upbeat then rock ‘n’ rolling my reappearing smile all the way from my lips to my eyes. Now, before you get too excited, let me explain that she isn’t real, though I most certainly wish she were. ‘Cause this lady’s such a babe, she could’ve posed for Playboy if Hugh Hefner had been a Viking. I mean, we’re talking a full centerfold layout here, with Playmate of the Year honors in the bag! Instead, however, cast in bronze, and rightfully awarded a commanding location at the foot of Grafton Street, this fish monger from once upon a time serves as the perfect reminder of just how pretty the Irish ladies are.

Now, actually, I’ve been meaning to comment on this lovely phenomenon before, but delayed in order to prevent jumping to the proverbial hasty conclusion. But now, having enjoyed over forty-eight hours in which to collect blonde, brunette, and redheaded evidence in support of my original observation, the truth of it, the whole sensuous sooth of it, is that I fully understand why Strongbow couldn’t leave. In fact, inside the short space of a single, solitary hour, one could fall in love here five hundred times. I know. ‘Cause I have. I mean, no problem at all. None! All you gotta do is open up your eyes, and zap, instantly your heart’s a goner! You like soft skin, so clear, and clean, and marble-white it gleams? How about if sometimes it’s flushed ruddy-red, to highlight sky-blue eyes? Or do you prefer violet, or green, or the deep darkness of midnight with a thousand stars shining? Care for high cheekbones and a finely formed mouth? Or is a rounder head more to your choosing, with flatter features and pouty lips? And don’t worry about discrimination in favor of faces either, ‘cause equal treasures are to be found in the accompanying physiques. You like tall and slim, do you? Or maybe shorter and slightly fuller? No problem. How about lithesome legs, and flat tummies fronting tightly-tucked tushes that tease till your eyes dance? And if, by chance, you’re a fan of the bulging bustline, well, you’ve simply arrived in paradise, that’s all. I mean, the entire experience is like being in a candy store that carries all your favorites, each of which is carefully made by a loving Lord while in the best of humor, and using only the finest ingredients!

The only problem, and most unfortunately it’s an excruciatingly large one, is that the vast, overwhelming majority of these adorable angels are young. I mean, young, as in under the age of thirty. Mere children, to sixty-year-old eyes, the experience necessary to fully appreciate their glory easily trumped by just enough wisdom to see also that some dreams are simply fantasy.

Middle-Aged Dating

…Well, dear reader, let me put it to you this way. What we have for middle-aged dating fans are two perilous pools of possibility from which to choose amorous activity. First off, are widows, who almost exclusively harbor a desperate desire to be with their husbands. Now I don’t blame them of course, not one bit, ‘cause I want to be with my Patty too. But on the other hand, if that’s really all that’s on your mind, then better to stay at home and watch TV – it couldn’t possibly be any more dull, and that way you’re free to yawn, belch, or fart whenever you want.

What? sneaks through your smile. I’m kidding? No, it’s straight-skinny time all right. Why on just my second excursion into the wondrous world of starting over, the very first thing that Trisha said to me was: “You know, I don’t actually consider this a date.” Okay, lady, I thought, nouns aren’t a problem, call it what you want: a chance meeting, two ships with broken radar passing in the night – a kidnapping even. ‘Cause I want to go home anyway, I’m missing SportsCenter on ESPN.

What? you say a second time. I CANNOT be serious? Johnny McEnroeing into mind. Hell, they can’t all be that way, jackknives your jargon – and you’re right. But only because I gave’m up after the third non-date. I mean it was baseball season, and I figured three outs and the inning’s over. I just moved on to cataclysmic category number two: divorcees and never-been-marrieds.

And no better? now tiptoes over eggs into your brain’s backyard, the sad reality of my predicament beginning to seep into all your senses.

Well, the truth dictates, worse. Much worse! In fact, after a few of these Senior Sallies, I had to take a refresher course in CPR. No, really. I mean these ladies were all so old, tired, and defeated, that I was afraid they were going to die on me, and how the hell was I going to explain that to the folks at home. I mean, what do you say? Oh, I’m so sorry – we were just having this lovely little conversation about pets, bric-a-brac collections, and social security, when all of a sudden age simply reached its logical conclusion and she toppled over into her broccoli. I mean, how does that sound? Not too good, right?…See, I told you. And what else is there? 9-1-1 was busy? The doctors were on strike, ‘cause health insurance doesn’t cover an acute absence of life?

Right. I’m so glad you can see where I’m coming from. That way you’ll better understand how pleasantly surprised I was to meet Rachel when I telephoned the Sligo Park Hotel last April in search of a room reservation. “No problem,” she assured me, the musical lilt of her voice smiling away my accumulation of three prior unavailabilities. “We have a special room for you overlooking the garden. And I’ll look forward to meeting you,” she added after we had joked about the complexities of operating a computer.

Me, too, I thought after we hung up, a wave of sudden excitement sweeping a smile across my face as I underlined Rachel three times on my notepad. And when my confirmation arrived by fax several minutes later, accompanied by a map with hand-drawn notations to “ensure my safe arrival,” Mr. Romantic rubbed the Rip Van Winkle cobwebs from his eyes, grabbed hope with one hand and desire with the other, and clapped them fast together in a rising crescendo of applause. Add a dash or two of imagination, or three or four or five, and inside of one happy hour a full-fledged fantasy was boogalooing across my brain, then slip-sliding cheek to cheek into both chambers of my heart.

Repenting With Father Matthew

…Upon returning to Patrick Street – I mean, Pana, as after four hours there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m a local, though the Professor argues for just plain loco – I pause to light up my pipe before ambling onward to Princes Street. There, I find one of Cork’s great institutions, the Old English Market, more popularly known as the City Market, a huge indoor marketplace dating back to 1610, that’s stocked full with colorful stands brimming with fresh vegetables, fish, and fruit, as well as traditional Cork foods. Most fortuitously, my rapid review fails to spot a single confection for sale, as several blocks later, just after I pass my old friend Cook Street, of Chocolate Bar fame, who should I suddenly come face to face with but a large statue of Father Matthew located at the junction of Pana and Patrick Bridge. “Hi, there, Father Matt. How ya doing?” gallops my greeting in an effort to head-off a scathing indictment of indeterminate length, the sincerity of my tone as thick as the sugar-coated plaque lining my arteries. “Very nice likeness of you, sir. And really quite respectful of all these fun-loving Corkonians to place you in such a prominent spot here at the central point of the whole city, what eh?…”

Silence is the only answer. Bronzed silence, in fact. But in the corners of his mouth, I detect just the slightest inkling of a smile, and that’s all I need. “Now listen, Father,” oozes my plea, like maple syrup over buttery pancakes. “I know I’ve been bad, as in horrible plus. But you gotta understand, it’s not easy overcoming a sixty-one-year addiction. No way. In fact, I’ve been trying really hard. For instance, it’s true I bought three Chocolate Bars at Bewley’s, but I’m only a visitor here, you know, just trying to help out the local economy a little bit. Besides, I only ate two, so you see, I am abstaining – I mean, kinda, at least for me. And you know what?” aims my knockout punch, my tone as promising as pecan pie a la mode. “The next two destinations on my tour are both churches, and I intend to pray for strength at each one. Not only that, but did I mention that St. Finbarr’s a friend of mine?…Well he is, so don’t give up on me, not completely, okay?…”

His smile, the inkling that is, doesn’t widen. But it doesn’t shrink either, so after a candy-coated “Thanks. Nice visiting with you,” I hastily stride off along Lapp’s Quay, and after concluding with relief that the Sugar Police are not in hot pursuit, then cross over the Lee on the bridge leading to John Street Upper.

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