Preamble: The following is from my 2007 book, The Stranger is Me. It seemed appropriate to post on this St. Patrick’s Day and in remembrance of my late wife, nee Patricia Ann Lynch. It recounts at time in Ireland, the Spring of 1979, that seems long ago and far away.
I spent my first five years growing up in a center city Italian-American neighborhood. Then my Italian-American parents bought a double house in a predominantly Irish-American neighborhood, which was only about two miles away in terms of distance, but a world away in other respects. I got in more fights than I should have, for reasons I can’t recall. I spent as much time as I could back in the old neighborhood, where my buddies were no less bellicose, but ethnicity was not a causus belli.
Even after years of playing and going to school with the kids in my Irish neighborhood I never felt fully accepted, at least by many of their parents. Maybe that was because, incredibly, a few of their daughters found my swarthy looks worth more than a passing glance. Still, I never expected to marry an Irish-American girl, certainly not to prove that I was good enough to be accepted by the Irish.
I married Patty because I loved her Irish beauty, her sweetness, and her quiet strength. I had no reason then to think I might one day be grateful for her Irish heritage when I traveled to Ireland. In Ireland, it’s an advantage to have a wife who has the blood of Erin coursing through her veins.
It was Patty’s first trip to the Emerald Isle as well as mine. We agreed beforehand that she would “take the point” for this segment of our European travels; that is, she, as Patricia Ann Lynch, would arrange our reservations, and I would tag along as the guy who had the good sense and taste to marry this lovely colleen.
By the time we were able to make the trip we had two half-Irish-American and half-Italian-American daughters, twelve and thirteen at the time, as traveling companions. They had observed for years the good-natured inter-ethnic rivalry between their parents. The Irish halves of them would enjoy assisting in Patty’s St. Patrick’s Day pranks: putting green food coloring in my breakfast milk, secreting little notes on green paper saying ‘top o’ th’ mornin’ in my pockets, innocent stuff like that. The badge I wore for several St. Pat’s days, that sported a black hand crushing a shamrock, was tolerated in equal good humor.
The badge stayed home when we went to Ireland in the middle of a sabbatical leave I was spending in London in the Spring of 1979. We took the traditional route from England, the boat train from London’s Euston station to meet the ferry that crossed the Irish Sea between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire. Patty took her first steps on the ‘ole sod’ in the fading twilight and a chilly April drizzle.
Although it hardly compensates for the restroom stops involved in traveling with three women, there was one advantage: the inexpensive cost of staying at the YWCA. Having Patty make the call and stress that we had two weary young daughters helped secure an instant reservation and we took the train south from the port to near Martello Tower, the tower which appears in Joyce’s Ulysses, and where I subsequently learned the author himself had stayed briefly. From there a taxi took us to the large house that was the main building of the women’s “Y.”
It was well past midnight when the little man we came to call “Liberace Leprechaun” ushered us into the vast dark foyer of the main house. We all wondered not so much at why a man answered the door, after all the hour was late, but at his appearance. He was shorter than thirteen-year-old Laura, wore a reddish-brown double-breasted suit with bell-bottomed pants, a grotesquely-wide tie and, most outrageously of all, a pompadour toupee that, even in the poor light of the foyer, clearly looked to have cost all of three Irish pounds. I had to ask him to repeat himself several times, owing to the combination of a brogue and breathy lisp that sounded like an Irishman doing an impression of Liberace.
He apologized for his speech, explaining that he was somewhat out-of-breath from rushing down to get the door for us from the long staircase that rose from the foyer. We also couldn’t help noticing that he had buttoned his suit jacket crookedly, putting his lapels askew. Only our exhaustion from the day’s long journey kept us from breaking into uncontrolled snickering at this odd apparition.
“Little darlinth must be all in,” he said, glancing up at the girls. “Now I’ll be but a moment longer t’ fetch ye some towelth an’ I’ll be showin’ ye t’ your quarterth.” That said, he raced toward the staircase, slapping at the light timer switch on the wall, and bounded upward. The switch, a common device to save electricity in Europe, shuts off automatically in a few seconds, and he must not have depressed it completely because by the time he reached the top of the staircase and the upper hallway switched back into darkness.
It was a couple of seconds later that we heard the screams. The first, and louder of the two, was the typical blood-curdling scream of sheer terror; the second, following almost immediately, was more of a high-pitched shriek.
“Good lord, what was that?” Patty said. The girls just looked wide-eyed. The big, dark old house, the late hour, the screams in the night: it had the makings of a ‘B’ horror movie.
We could hear an unintelligible exchange of words and then light from the second-story hallway spilled sown the staircase. In less than a minute Liberace Leprechaun came slowly down the stairs with an armful of towels. As he approached us we couldn’t help but notice that his face was flushed and his toupee was askew.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, ‘bout that disturbanth,” he said rather sheepishly and motioned to us to follow him toward a small room in a newer building behind the main house. But he didn’t explain further about the hallway incident. As we moved in our luggage a calico cat strolled in with a proprietary attitude. The girls immediately named it ‘Brendan,’ and protested when I ejected it before we bedded down because the room was already cramped.
The following morning I decided to take a jog on the beach along the Irish Sea. Light mist added to the damp and dreariness as I scaled over the embankment to the hard packed sand flats that extended some distance to the waters edge. In the distance was Martello Tower, one of a string of forty-foot granite towers that were built between 1804 and 1815 to warn of an expected invasion from Napoleon. Behind me my footprints were the only marking on the wet, hard-packed shore, extending far back and disappearing into the mist. If this was the typical weather, little else would have been needed to ward off a French invasion.
The weather also seemed to match the mood of Ireland in these days. The “troubles” in the north were, of course, a constant; but in addition, economic conditions in the Republic were grim. There was a postal strike that had been going on for months (which meant no mail in or out, no long-distance phone service), and an imminent dock strike threatened to cut off oil imports. But the Irish are no strangers to such tribulations. Earlier and more severe days had put Patty’s grandparents on packet ships to America where their stories of the days of famine and the abuses of English overlords only fired her imagination and resolve to some day visit the land of her origins.
When I joined Patty and the girls in the breakfast room the previous night’s little horror show was the main topic of conversation among the guests. As we gorged ourselves on thick porridge, soda bread and marmalade, and tea, we learned from a woman from New Zealand what had happened.
Failing to fully depress the timer switch, the lights went out in the hallway just as Liberace Leprechaun reached the top of the stairs. So he groped along the dark hallway, rubbing his hand along the wall in search of the next switch. Unfortunately this was precisely when a tall Nigerian woman was emerging from a hallway bathroom, whereupon Liberace Leprechaun’s hand ‘caressed’ the unsuspecting woman’s breasts. In the pitch dark she screamed, and then he answered with a shriek as she bolted and smashed him against the opposite wall, unmooring his toupee.
Nobody seemed to think that it was more than an innocent mistake, and one look at poor Liberace Leprechaun, head bowed as he bussed and set up tables, would be sufficient to confirm that opinion. One woman even commented that it was fortunate that “the little fellow” hadn’t been injured. When all six-feet of the full-bodied Nigerian woman strode into the breakfast room as we were leaving that possibility seemed quite plausible.
Later that morning we stopped by the front desk to ask Liberace Leprechaun for some directions in getting up to Dublin by public transit.
“You’ll be wantin’ th’ noomber thray boos,” he advised. “ It coomth about . . . “ and he looked at his watch, then bolted for the front door.
“Quickly now, and mind the stepth,” he called back at us. “It’ll be coomin’ straightaway!”
Suit jacket flapping, one hand waving us toward the street, the other desperately holding down his toupee, he rushed headlong into the road to flag down the oncoming bus. Apparently the driver only noticed him at the last moment and we froze in horror as the driver braked hard and narrowly avoided smashing him like a bug on the windshield.
The huge double-decker was still rocking from the panic stop as Liberace Leprechaun held the opened bus door as though he were the doorman at an expensive at an expensive hotel.
“Th’ noomber thray bus,” he said, as though we were boarding a limo.
The bus driver just shook his head with a wry smile as I fished through my pockets for the fare and then drove off. I had the feeling that this might not have been the first time that Liberace Leprechaun had tested his driving skills.
When I plopped down in the seat next to Patty, she whispered, in a voice that sounded to me to be tinged with a bit of brogue: “ I’m worried that we just might be the death of that poor man.”
A few days later we set out from Dublin in our rented tiny Ford Escort. I had been mentally practicing driving on the left by sitting behind bus and taxi drivers but, in spite of being a good driver, I was uneasy about shifting gears with my left hand, and the other brain-scrambling coordination that would be required. There was a bit of a fuss at the rental agency when I insisted on having a car with a side-view mirror on each side, even though none of the Irish cars seemed to have both. I wanted every advantage and argued that my insurance wouldn’t cover an accident if I were driving a car without one. That was a bit of convenient “blarney” on my part, but they accepted it. This caused a two-hour delay while one of the rental agency’s staff had to go out and buy a mirror, then find somebody to install it.
In the meantime they let us take the car to get our luggage and go to a launderette, where I proceeded to lock the keys in the trunk. I called back to the agency to ask if they had an extra set of keys they could bring over to me, because I had locked my set in the trunk.
“Why would we have the keys for your trunk?” the same guy I had argued with over the side-view mirror inquired.
“It’s your trunk, not mine,” I petulantly shot back. “You’d be the one to have them, not me.”
“Where’s the trunk?” he asked.
“In the back of the car, where else!”
“Perhaps you could take it out and take it to a locksmith,” he suggested.
“I can’t take it out, it’s part of the car!” I nearly shouted in frustration. I was certain he was getting back at me for the mirror.
By this time we each thought the other was a complete idiot.
Then he said, “Perhaps you can use the tire iron in the “boot” to force open the trunk.”
The boot! It was then that I remembered overhearing one of the men at the agency saying he need to check the “boot” to see if the spare tire was properly inflated.
I was saved from my linguistic embarrassment by the pay phone disconnecting for lack of another coin. In desperation to save face I pulled out the back seat of the car, then extracted the luggage through that opening and finally retrieved the keys from the inside of the “boot.”
Several hours later than our scheduled departure from Dublin we were cruising along on country roads leading to County Cork that were about as wide as the average American residential driveway. The tall hedgerows that lined the roads gave me the feeling that I was coursing down a long, green gutter. I was surprised to find that in a couple of hours of driving I had adjusted rather nicely to the strange controls of the car and was getting over the tendency to suddenly jerk the vehicle over into the right lane.
That is precisely what I did a few kilometers along. The weather had turned to a heavy drizzle, with the visibility further compromised by the addition of a mist. Consequently, I wasn’t quite sure what I saw through a break in the hedgerows to my right. But it made me curious enough to pull over, get out of the car and walk back the few feet to where the hedgerows were open to allow tractors passage.
There, about one-hundred meters away and almost obscured by the rain and mist was a full-on Irish “hurling” match in progress. The goal posts at one of the field could be seen but the other posts were too far into the mist.
In spite of the poor weather, I went back to the car for my camera. The girls saw this interest as sort of a “guy thing,” so I returned on my own and walked up to the sideline of the playing field. There I could determine that, except for a couple of referees and two coaches, I was the sole spectator of a battle that was being played with the intensity of a civil war.
The different colored jerseys of the two teams were difficult to distinguish from the mud that covered them. The players’ hair was soaked and matted and spots of blood could be discerned on knees and elbows. Just what possessed these guys to be out in cold rain, beating the daylights out of each other with the cudgels that are used to inflict concussions as much to advance the baseball-sized ball exceeded my comprehension.
I stood transfixed as play went into and out of the gloom, taking what photographs I could with the poor light and the rapid pace of the match. There were shouts and grunts and the occasional smack of the ball with the ferocious-looking cudgels, called hurleys. The scene might well have been from some pitched battle between contending clans out of misty pages of Irish history. With nothing visible but the churned up green pitch, the mist, rain, and armed combat, it might well have been. That no one bothered even to look in my direction only added to the sensation that this was some dreamlike surreal moment of time travel that might at any moment evanesce like a hazy dream.
Patty took me out of that state, calling to me from the hedgerow opening that if we didn’t get on our way we’d be sleeping in the car that evening. She had made a reservation with some farmers who took travelers into their thatched farmhouse near Dungarven.
In the Flynn’s comfortable parlor that evening I recounted the encounter with the hurling match that afternoon, expressing my wonder at such spirited play under the circumstances of the weather and the total absence of spectators.
“Aye, it’s a good way for the boys to let off a bit of steam, you see,” Mr. Flynn offered, pouring some tea for us. He went on to explain that it wasn’t an easy lot for young men in Ireland. “In the countryside, if one doesn’t own land, the livin’ comes even harder than if ye do. What kin a young man offer a garrl if he’s no land, no work. How kin he marry? And there’s a lot of frownin’ here about the sorts of things young people seem to be able to do in America. We ‘ave the sorta circumstances that makes for a lot of poets, pugilists and, drunks in Ireland.”
“And hurling players,” I added.
“Aye, and I expect they’d be in the pub by now, and feelin’ little pain from th’ match.”
Things weren’t all that easy for Mr. Flynn either. Though they were listed in the Irish Tourist Board’s roster of guest quarters in farmhouses I wondered whether it was something they found necessary to supplement their agricultural income. We didn’t see Mr. Flynn when we left the following day, after being awakened by the methane-powered alarm of a cow grazing immediately outside our bedroom window. Mrs. Flynn explained that her husband had to rise early and make a 120 mile round trip to get diesel fuel for the farm machinery because of the dock strike in Dublin, and that prices were rising.
With the postal strike still on as well, I was surprised at the lack of anger, and the rather stoical resignation which the Irish exhibited under such trying circumstances. A few months later, when we were returning from Greece in the car we had purchased in Europe we read reports of the gasoline shortages back home in the states during America’s ‘oil crisis’. It was sobering to read of people in lines and the gas pumps back in California getting into fist fights and bashing each other’s windshields with tire irons over a few gallons of gas. The Europeans we met could only wonder what mayhem would be caused if, in addition, Americans had to pay European prices to fill their tanks.
With the scarcity of fuel I was glad that the distances in Ireland weren’t that great as we drove southwest into County Cork, birthplace of Patty’s maternal grandparents. She came back from the phone booth outside of Castletownshend and said, “The lady said to drive on up this road until we see a man standing near a charch.”
“A charch, you know a church. Remember, we were married in a charch?” she said, enjoying the Irish accent.
Sure enough, a mile or so on down the road there was indeed a man standing beside the road, and as we were instructed, we asked him how to get to the Haggarty farm. It appeared as though he had been expecting us but we had no idea how he could have known. Except for the small charch there was nothing else around, not a phone booth, not even a road sign. Another Irish mystery.
At the top of the winding dirt road, which we now realized we never would have suspected was the way to the Haggarty farm, stood another man. He was leaning on a cane, wearing a fedora, and looking for all the world like the doppleganger of Bing Crosby, ears and all.
The Haggarty farm looked a good deal rougher than the Flynn’s place. The area around the house, which also featured a thick, thatched roof, was muddy and rutted. Mr. Haggarty stood there with mud-caked boots that reached his knees, a heavy tweed jacket, and a pipe clamped in his mouth. He pointed to a spot to park our car but said nothing. The reception seemed as chilly as the temperature in the late afternoon.
That changed when Mrs. Haggarty came out the door of the house.
Tall and erect, her gray hair pulled back into a bun, and wearing a cardigan and brown tweed skirt, she appeared much more fit than her weary-looking, and shorter, husband.
“Ah, so Patrick pointed the way for yeh,” she said, referring to the man standing by the charch. “I’ve been airing out the rooms. As I told yer missus on the phone, it’s a leetle arly in the season fer us. Narmally we’re not receiving guests until late in May. But welcome you are.”
She seemed warm enough that I thought she might even have welcomed me even if I didn’t have an Irish-American wife and two teenage daughters with me.
When we were taken upstairs to our rooms I couldn’t help but notice that the temperature in them was several degrees colder than the already quite chilly air outdoors. The girls had their own room, which was just as frigid. The Haggarty home had no central heating, only a small peat-burning fireplace in the parlor so far as I could see. We changed clothes quickly for a dinner at an establishment Patty had turned up in a travel guide. It was renowned in the area for its fresh and varied seafood.
When I asked Mrs. Haggarty if she knew the directions to MaryAnne’s Bar she instructed me to turn left “where you see the man standing by the charch.” (Was he there all the time?) There were a couple of other turns, one of which involved turning where two men would be standing!
My curiosity about Irish folkways was aroused once again. How did she know that these men would be standing in the places she indicated? And why were they standing around like that in the first place?
Later, as we drove further to the West, I noticed an unusual number of men standing on street corners, usually wearing those heavy tweed suit jackets and tweed caps, and with little concern for the cold, damp weather. With the overcast skies and gloomy light it reminded me of those black and white photos of American cities during the Depression. I had read in the papers that unemployment in this region was rather high, but could it be that the Irish were deploying their jobless workers as human directional signs?
The brown, hand-hewn ceiling beams in MaryAnne’s Bar were about three inches above my head. The low ceiling gave the place a cozy atmosphere of wainscoted walls stained with peat fire smoke, heavy old chairs and tables and saw-dust covered floor. It was small, snug, and beery-smelling.
“Mrs. Haggarty phoned to be on the lookout for you,” MaryAnne, a handsome, large, middle-aged woman greeted us. “I’m M-A, of course. That’s my husband over there, the English-looking one with the pipe.” The man looked up and smiled. “She said you read about us in some book?”
“Yes,” Patty said, holding the guide out to her. “It’s very complimentary about your fresh sea food. That’s what we would like to eat.”
“Oh dear, then I’m afraid I have bad news for you.” She looked genuinely disappointed. “Didn’t Mrs. Haggarty tell you?”
“Tell us what?” I wondered. Did we turn the wrong way at one of the human directional signs?
“You see, our fish is fresh because our patrons call early in the day, even the day or days before they are coming to dinner, and tell us what kind of fish they would like. Then on that day I send my fisherman out to get their fish,” Mary-Anne explained as though it was perfectly obvious. In one sense it was. Asian restaurants have fish tanks one can choose their entrée from. But this restaurant’s fish tank was the Celtic Sea.
We were as disappointed as we were hungry, and she seemed to see it in our faces.
“It’s still twilight, and I would chance to send my fisherman out to see if he might get you something. But that’s him over there,” she added, pointing to the dead-drunk man with his head lying on the bar. No further explanation was necessary.
The cheese sandwiches and pints of Guinness weren’t quite what we were expecting for our dinner that evening. But the girls sat and played with the cuddly pub dog, Patty chatted with Mary-Anne, and I played a few relaxed racks of pool with her English husband. A nice Irish evening.
When we left, a little bond seemed to have been formed. Mary-Anne declined to charge us for our simple meal, but did ask if we might part with the travel guide that, unbeknown to her, did, in fact, have high praise for her bar. We asked if we could mail it to her when we left Ireland, assuming that the postal and telephone strike would end one-day.
That night was the first time in my life I slept with a sleeping cap. Actually it was the knit watch-cap that I used for my morning runs. In fact, I slept with my entire cold weather running attire as pajamas. Patty and the girls were likewise bundled into everything they had to ward off the bone-aching cold of the Haggarty upstairs.
The following morning we sat around the dining room table at breakfast suppressing snickers at being able to see our breath as we talked and noticing that the Corn Flakes were frozen solid as they clanked into our bowls. That afternoon, while the girls inspected the farm Patty and I were invited for tea and scones with Mr. and Mrs. Haggarty. We would be leaving that afternoon and Mrs. Haggarty said they wanted to have a little chat with us.
“D’ya know the Mr. and me ‘ave lived our entire lives in County Cork,” she said as we huddled around the peat fire in the parlor. “Forming is not an aisy loife,” Mr. H put in, tamping his pipe. “Yer tethered t’ th’ land.” Indeed, Mr. H did look as if agricultural life had taken its toll on him. He moved with the effort of a man with severe arthritis.
“So, you see, this is how we get to ‘travel’ to other places. . . by taking in guests like yerselfs. . .” Mrs. H added. They alternated their lines as if they had been spoken the same way many times before. “This is how we larn a leetle about th’ rest of the world, and other people, you see.”
Patty and I were touched by their resignation to their rather harsh circumstances. It was not lost on Patty that, were it not for the migration of her grandparents to America, she might have been the daughter of the Haggartys, ‘tethered’ to the cold and debilitating work of an Irish farm and, judging by the Haggartys, with little relief from its demands in old age and infirmity.
We buttered and marmaladed our scones in silence for a few moments, not certain that we had been given some sort of a cue to respond. As I masticated the chewy mixture Mrs. Haggarty asked: “So, what part of America do you come from, if I might ask?”
I was about to say New York, where we were brought up before we moved West, but before I could swallow enough scone to reply Patty said, “We’re from California.”
“Ah, California. . . yes, California,” Mrs. Haggarty said. Her face brightened. “Well then, d’ya know th’ O’Malleys?”
© 2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.17.2012)