Nodlaig

 

Nodlaig welcomed us into her little house, the one she and Charlie built, on my very first visit to Ireland. Charlie was still alive then, and Nora and I visited with them in their sitting room, with Nodlaig and Charlie in their chairs on either side of the fireplace. We must have had tea, and Nodlaig must have asked gentle, prodding questions: Had we come far? Did we like Ireland? Did Nora enjoy living in Cork? Why was she there? Was the university a good place to study? I remember warmth and kindness and signs of sardonic humor. I would find out on my next visits that the sitting room was reserved for company most of the time, and that the life of the house was in the kitchen.

N's kitchen windowNodlaig seated cropped

Nodlaig died today. Her death was hardly unexpected. She was 95, and had been in Sancta Maria Nursing Home for nearly four years after a couple of falls. Two or so weeks ago she had a mini-stroke from which she subsequently made what was reported as a miraculous recovery; one of the nurses called it Lazarus-like, I’m told.

I visited Nodlaig many times in the nursing home. She would be in one of the chairs lining the perimeters of the two reception rooms. Even though her bedroom was just down the hall, her pocketbook would always be nearby, usually on the arm of the chair, and she would be wearing a sweater no matter how stifling the temperature.  She would be dozing, and her head would have fallen forward. Sometimes she would stay that way, her chin resting on her chest, for the entire visit, answering questions but never looking up. More often she would sit up when I touched her on the shoulder, kissed the top of her head, and said hello. On my first visit each summer, each time soon after I returned to Ireland, she would say, Kathy! And then she would lean toward the people sitting in the chairs near her and say, This is Kathy. She has come all the way from America to see me. Always she did this, every summer.

We would talk about what I was doing in Ireland, where I was living (in the same place, the gate lodge at Ballindoolin). She would ask about my children. I would show her photos of my grandson and last summer, my granddaughter. When Nodlaig had the energy, I would ask her about her childhood in Mylerstown. These memories were still with her, although the short-term memories were completely gone. I would need to respond again and again that I had come from California, that it was very far away, that it took me a long time to get to Ireland. Nodlaig never left Ireland, not even to go to England. She was one of the lucky ones of her generation; she didn’t need to emigrate. As a young woman she found work in Dublin, and, in her 50s, she married a neighbor she had known since she was a girl, my cousin Charlie.

I will miss Nodlaig. Since she had to leave it, I have missed dropping in to her little cottage for tea and talk and Scrabble. I have missed the trips to the bookmobile and the lunches at the local pubs. Now I will miss the nursing home and her humor and her sweaters and her soft white hair and the chance to put my arms around her one more time.

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A last fine morning

IMG_0828Woke up to a fine morning here, and took a last walk through the Ballindoolin woodlands. The woods are quiet and gentle; there is no sense of menace in them. The only creatures I am aware of in these woods are birds; they fly up from the ground when I get close, and they sing. Despite a few attempts to learn something about Irish birds, including one summer when I borrowed a pair of binoculars and invested in a small bird book, I remain ignorant. What I know are rooks and crows and magpies, finches and tits, and robins of course. I know the ubiquitous call of the woodpigeon; when I was in Tipperary I began to think that I would not be able to live there because the long whine of the woodpigeon was so relentless.

Another bird I know now is the swallow (although I still don’t know swallows from swifts, except that there are fewer swifts). Up to this year a swallow nest on top of the porch light greeted me every year when I arrived. I began to get used to having the nest but leaving it there was not without hazard. The parents would regularly dive-bomb me as I came and went in case I had any designs on their young, and I spent a lot of time ducking as they zoomed in close in an intimidating manner. Because the only real means of creating air circulation in the gate lodge was to leave the front door open one or the other of them would routinely make too large a swoop and end up in the front room. Then I would run around closing the shutters so that the bird would know to fly toward the light of the open door.IMG_0481

The nest was made of compacted mud, and the babies were visible as they peeked up over the top. I could see when the birds were ready to fledge, and then one day they would be gone. They made a terrible mess on the stone porch; I scrubbed it and put newspaper down to catch the droppings, but still their shit caused a permanent white stain on the stones. It’s odd to think that the stones had been there for nearly 200 years and now they would forever bear the mark of a pair of stubborn swallows.

When I arrived this year the swallow nest was gone, thwarted by a chicken-wire cover that Greg had put over the light. The swallows were so persistent that they tried to build a nest right beside the porch light, but Greg, who was probably as sick of cleaning up after them as I was, had persistently knocked that one down too. I couldn’t see where the swallows had built their new nest, but the first few days I was there they went back to their menacing swooping to let me know how unhappy they were at their treatment.

There are other creatures living in the woods. Minks and voles certainly. Rabbits and hares. Grey squirrels, unfortunately, transplants from America (a couple was given with a pair as a wedding gift and now they are everywhere). Red squirrels, perhaps. I saw one red squirrel up near the Ballindoolin walled garden. They are regaining some population, although seeing one is still very unusual. William, who is six, proudly told me when I first got to Ireland that he had seen one, and the very next day I saw it too. I don’t think there are badgers; a badger sett would be noteworthy. There must be hedgehogs, although I’ve only seen them once, on the road at night, over the many years I have been coming. I have seen foxes. Ireland exterminated the wolves a couple of hundred years ago, but the foxes have been allowed to thrive and I have seen many of them when I’ve been out at night. On this morning walk I found fresh fox tracks in the soft mud; I liked being the first animal to walk there after the fox had passed

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Ancestors

Driving back to the gate lodge from a visit to Sancta Maria, the nursing home where my cousin Charlie’s wife Nodlaig has been living for the past three or so years, I spotted a sign for Castlejordan and made a spontaneous detour in that direction. Several generations of my family are buried in a small cemetery there, and I decide to try to visit the burial site. I had found the cemetery a few summers ago and, although I wasn’t sure I could locate it again, when I got to Castlejordan I found I remembered quite well where it was.IMG_0479 The cemetery is in an old churchyard, which is only accessible via the entry to a tractor parts distributor. This has happened because the church has not been active for decades and businesses and residences built up around it. I pulled in, parked the car as best I could in the haphazard driveway, and unlatched the gate into the churchyard. The church itself has been demolished, but the church tower has been left; it sits in the middle of the cemetery, more a vulnerable and scarred leftover that seems torn from its roots rather than a stalwart guardian of the sparsely-dotted gravestones.

The family gravesite is set at the back of the cemetery, in front of a line of trees. It is on a slight rise in the ground, and is surrounded by a low iron railing.IMG_0475 There is only one large stone, full now with the names of twelve relatives. My great grandmother Mary Ann Haughton is buried here. Evidently stubborn and individual to the very end, she refused to be interred with her husband, who is buried in another family grave on a hillside miles away. The gravestone ends with the name of Robert Tyrrell, known as Bobby, who died in 1993. The top names are nearly obliterated with age; soon enough Bobby’s name will be the last one visible as his predecessors are washed away, one generation at a time. Since he died without children, there will be no more names to add when his name, too, fades.IMG_0472

A few days later, as I sat with Esther, Norman and Trina around what is de facto the family table on the patio outside the teashop at Ballindoolin, Norman casually said, I see you made a visit to your ancestors.

How on earth did you know?

Well, I was driving along the road and I saw you turn into the driveway. I figured you weren’t buying tractor parts so the only other reason to turn in there would be to visit the cemetery.

Such is rural life: You can’t get away with anything.

Driving

As an Irish friend who has driven abroad quite a bit remarks, It’s not the driving on the wrong side of the road that’s the problem; it’s everything else. There is a lot of everything else here. there’s the roundabouts. In theory they are brilliant, far better than four-way stops, and once I reacquaint myself with the simple rule, look right (those coming from your right have the right of way) I appreciate their simplicity. The best part is that, if you aren’t certain which exit to take you can circle around more than once while you explore your options. This can make other drivers crazy but you can just signal and keep going around until you find your way. There are also an awful lot of roundabouts; it’s not at all unusual to go through a dozen or more of them when you enter or leave a town or make your way to the motorway.

The motorways are astonishing. They are wide, clear, with huge signs and miles of notice about exits. They are impeccably maintained and nearly everyone drives them correctly, that is, driving in the left-hand lane and using the second lane only to pass. The occasional tolls seem eminently worth it, although I was taught the first year I was here to avoid an expensive one between Kildare, where I stay, and Dublin by getting off at the exit before the tool booth and driving across country, advice I have followed ever since.

The worst part of roundabouts is that, at least for me, they are not at all intuitive, and I invariably make several mistakes when I first arrive, cutting off drivers who have the right of way or entering too slowly and thereby throwing the other cars out of rhythm. This year I have also noticed that there is a new tendency on the part of some drivers to simply flout the rules, stare at you and pull out in front of you.

Nearly all of my driving is in rural Ireland, where a main road is one where you don’t know everyone who goes by and you can pass each other easily; a road is where you can just squeeze by a car coming in the other direction if both of you head left and drive along the edge; and a lane is where, if you meet an oncoming car, one of you has to pull into a layby or driveway or, in worst case, reverse until you find somewhere to pull off. When you have to slow down on any road to assure safe passage for both vehicles you always salute the driver in a one-handed wave. In fact, waving is always the safest way to go here, since on these roads most people will assume they know you; otherwise why would you be travelling on the road?

Tractors can be daunting: You stay behind them in the knowledge that their farm can’t be too far away and hope that they pull over to let you by when they can. Most do. Tractors appear on town streets as well as on the roads; it’s not at all unusual to have to follow one through Edenderry, joining a long string of cars that just have to put up with the pace since there’s nowhere for the tractor to go and no way to pass it.

IMG_0391Roadworks, Funeral in Progress, Race in Progress, hedgerow trimming. Walkers in bright green vests who have nowhere to go but on the road itself since there are rarely berms. Increasingly there are cyclists. And this time of year the road is also alive with turf carts. The carts are low and open and are filled with a mound of peat cut into neat blocks. A few blocks are always falling off, so the road is dotted with dark brown piles that look like animal waste but have a much more pleasant odor. Peat is harvested in the summer, when it is at its driest, and although most bogs are now protected there is a certain amount of harvest allowed. The area where I stay in the Midlands is full of bogs, and several are still active. Long-time residents are allowed their allotment of turf, and there are plenty of houses in Ireland that still burn turf as nearly their only source of heat unless they can afford electric space heaters. IMG_0776You always know when you are driving on a bog road. The road is stick straight and flat, but the bog has its revenge: It is a living, breathing primordial thing, and it lifts the macadam in tidal waves that cause you to bounce from small peak to small peak. There is a distinct road sign that warns you of these waves.

The nature of the turf bogs is such that animals are not grazing there (not much to eat, and the domestic animals would sink) but all through Ireland animals are a major road worry for drivers. In Tipperary last week I came upon a temporary roadblock to allow cows to cross at milking time. These happen a lot; the cows need to move between their grassy pastures and the milking parlors and the only way to get there is via the roads. At this crossing there was a handmade sign with big red letters, Slow Down. A few yards further up the farmer was just herding the first of his cows across to the barn. When the last of them had crossed I drove off but decided to circle around and photograph the sign. By now the cows were walking quite nonchalantly single-file up the path in a sort of contented way that suggested they knew where they were headed and were quite happy to follow their habit. I got out the iPhone again, and this time the farmer came up beside me and said, Never seen a cow before, eh? There is a great sense of dry humor here.IMG_0572 IMG_0569 IMG_0575

As you move up into the mountains in Tipperary, the cows are replaced by sheep, which can graze on the rough hills and, since they don’t need to be milked, can largely be left to their own devices. There are fences but they seem largely ceremonial; the sheep wander freely in the ditches and on the roads. Generally they are skittish and will move out of your way as you drive by. The first evening Breda and I drove into the Knockmealdown hills to walk we encountered many sheep along the way, and when she turned one corner there on the road was a huge one-horned ram, basking in the late sun and not at all interested in moving. He gave us a scornful stare as Breda inched her way around him, then kept driving up the mountain.

The Abbey

IMG_0679 (1)The lack of mention of the Mount Melleray Abbey in the guidebooks is most likely because, even though the Abbey itself claims a venerable history, in fact the first settlement, a gamekeeper’s cottage already on the site, was blessed only in 1832. In Irish terms this barely qualifies as yesterday. Having survived the famine years (more miracles, possibly with some substance behind them—in the area around the abbey, only one person died of the black hunger in 1840 at the height of the famine because, the story goes, the community was fed from a miraculous bag of oatmeal, like the 40 loaves and fishes), the brothers began to build a Cistercian college, which stayed active until its closure in 1974.

When Breda took me to the Abbey I was stunned. The place is enormous, wildly out of scale with the surrounding farms and the closest bulge-in-the-road village. Even the Knockmealdown Mountains seem to cower next to its presence. Up closer, the whole place seems to be a series of long and narrow interconnected stone buildings that surround the huge church in a kind of tight maze pattern. Most of the buildings look like dormitories, built rather haphazardly in the heady days when there were so many men wanting to enter the monastery that they were being turned away. The fact that most of these would be empty now (the order is careful not to say how many men are currently in residence) must be gloomy for the few monks still in residence.IMG_0684

We wandered through the main nave, a space that could easily hold hundreds, a number I’m sure this abbey hasn’t seen for decades. As we left for our walk Breda pointed out the café and bookshop, both closed for the night. On the way out, a solitary monk walked by us, wishing us a good evening and blessing us.

IMG_0718The day I got back to the abbey the rain was coming down in torrents. I lost my way for a bit because of poor visibility and a road closure. When I finally arrived, peevish and hungry, I could only just make out the huge church tower through the raindrops on my windshield. Not surprisingly I was the only person in the café, it being late for lunch and the weather so foul Even so, it was not a peaceful place. The two young women working behind the counter had RTE1 blaring on some speakers; Talk to Joe was in full sob-story mode. The women were clearly bored and not about to stop their bantering for anything more than a quick glance at me. When they heard my accent they practically rolled their eyes, and probably did when I wasn’t looking.IMG_0721

I ordered a toasted sandwich which, when it came, was surprisingly tasty. During lunch I read a book about Irish food history, which of course centered on the famine. I am ashamed to admit that it was surprisingly easy to eat a chicken sandwich while reading about the million Irish who died and the other million who left. The darkest history of the famine reveals a time of unimaginable shame, which was not the subject of this particular discussion; I would not have managed so well had I been asked to confront those facts.

IMG_0726  When I arrived at the Abbey the bookshop wasn’t open, but soon enough the lights came on, and by the time I walked across the nearly flooded courtyard (although the central fountain was spraying away) there were already two other customers browsing the stock. There were few actual books in the bookshop, which was filled with Catholic tchotchkes, virtually none of which I would have the slightest idea what to do with. Even so I was intrigued by some tiny prayer cards, but in the end I bought two bookmarks—Irish birth trees, no religion involved—and a photo-filled booklet about the Abbey that I will give to Breda. She has taken several people there but says she can never answer any questions about it. The monk who runs the bookstore carefully wrote out on a small paper bag the times for the various services in case I wanted to come back to pray.little bag

Two walks & holy water

Breda phoned just after I arrived from an afternoon of shopping at Marks & Spencer in Clonmel, the largest town in the nearby area. She invited me for a walk, which I couldn’t resist even though it was late, close to dinner, and I had to race to change. She picked me up, risking the terrible hedgerows of the two bureens, which have gotten noticeably worse since I have been here. Breda’s husband Greg refuses to drive down the bureens at all; once when he picked up Simon and Erica from the bus after a long trip to the U.S. they had to walk down the bureens pushing a wheelbarrow that contained their luggage because Greg dropped them off at the top of the road.

IMG_0629Our walk was across country, from the road to the river; we were accompanied by Breda’s spaniel Molly. Molly is a rescue dog, and even after several years of living with Breda and Greg she is extremely wary of strangers and ducks any time someone reaches down toward her. The walk was through a sheep field. At the edge of the river we came across a sheep’s skeleton, its skull separated and a short distance away.IMG_0636

The ground was very wet from the day’s rain, and by the time we got to the river we were all soaked through. On the way back to the car my socks sloshed around inside my boots, my hiking pants were wet past my knees and I was definitely in need of a hot shower. Back at the car I carefully approached Molly, who licked my hand. When we got to the top of the first boreen I told Breda I would walk back in, an announcement she received with relief.

We made plans to walk again the next evening, and at 6 o’clock Breda was back, turning down my offer of meeting her at her house (the boreens again). This time we drove to Cappoquin for a walk along the river. This walk follows a path. If I had been able to leave earlier we could have walked the full 3-hour loop, but instead we opted for two hours of walking. We started at The Forge, a twee cottage with murals painted on the front of it. It looked like a tea shop but was someone’s house. The walk took us over several wooden bridges and at one point through a campground full of Scouts, who were preparing dinner to loud rock music. Their tents were pitched across a grassy meadow and they all seemed to be having a good time in the warm dusk. Breda pointed out that they would be less pleased with themselves the next day, since a major storm was due. Still, it was good to see some many girls and boys enjoying what was passing for nature for them.

IMG_0688On the way to the walk Breda took me to two holy places in the area. The first was the Grotto. This was the site of a vision, one of those visions that bring Our Lady down to the people. The vision is the usual kind, with masses of roses and a lack of specifics, but in essence Our Lady was explaining that the waters were blessed. Near the water there is a trough full of plastic bottles so that believers can carry away the water. There is a box for petitions (with a misplaced apostrophe) and the ugliest donation box I have ever seen. Clearly the earlier ones had been breached; this box was a human-size lump of bright blue concrete that looked like it had been plucked out of a sewer. Given the fact that thieves in Ireland had been known to attach chains to ATMs and yank them out of the wall with a tractor, I wondered how secure even this pile of cement would be.IMG_0690

Evening walk

IMG_0599Just back from an evening walk. This is my favorite time to walk, no matter where I am. Having had an industrious day that included some gardening and the cleaning out of the tiny press shed in hopes that I can print there this week, I decide to take the short walk that Erica suggested: over the stile and then along the edge of the wood until I got to the top. But when I get there, I realize I don’t want to stop, so I head back down again through the field to the path that divides the pastures. The fields are ringed with electric fencing. It can be difficult to see, especially in low light, so I walk with caution. I have Simon’s stick with me with its forked top, useful for lifting the fence lines. The cows are just at the end of being herded toward the milking parlor for their evening run, so I don’t have to dodge them, and I would not have tried to walk through a field of cows at any rate.

This walk is a walk of smells. I catch a good whiff of slurry—cow, not pig. Pig slurry has an indescribably acrid odor; it is cow manure on steroids, but it is also one of the reasons why Irish dairy products are among the best in the world. At some point there is a very strong aroma of vinegar, and there is the persistent smell of silage, which is in the midst of being cut. The sour smell of manure waft up at points, and other more indefinable, at least to me, animal-y odors come and go as I walk.

Once past the cows I head up the lane, past the woman with the self-sufficient homestead (geese, goats, hens, a large garden, a poly-tunnel greenhouse and, for good measure, a tiny house at the edge of the small property) and eventually onto the road.IMG_0604IMG_0605

The road is a road and not a lane because two cars can pass on it, barely, without one of them having to pull onto the grassy edge, although two cars hardly ever meet. For the mile or so of walking I do on it tonight, three cars come by, all from the direction of Newcastle, the closest village. Three cars seem like rush hour here. At one point just beside the road there is a cow congregation, waiting dutifully for the farmer to herd them into the milking parlor. They know when they’re supposed to go, even if the farmer is late. Just past the cows is the very last of the elderflowers, their heady days past.IMG_0617IMG_0614

The road heads away from all three sets of mountains, which ring the plain on three sides, leaving a forth side open to spill out toward the flat horizon. The Comeraghs are at my right, the Knockmealdowns behind me, and to my left, the mysterious blue mass of the Galtees.

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Now I’m sitting outside while the swallows dash by overhead with their evening chitter. In the distance I can hear a tractor going back and forth across a field despite the gathering darkness. Rain is forecast for tomorrow, so the silage must be cut now, while it’s still dry.

Sybaritic Saturday

A sybaritic day in Tipperary is all I can say. Morning tea at Erica and Simon’s long table and a perusal of what hadn’t been read of yesterday’s papers (Guardian and Irish Times). At 9 we all went off to Cahir, me driving so I would learn the way, to eat porridge in the River Café. IMG_0552After breakfast we went across the street to the Saturday market, small and familial. The stalls are eclectic: wooden bowls next to the man who sells eggs out of the back of his car, young potter selling mostly seconds to clear out her inventory.IMG_0558IMG_0560 Two stalls with vegetables: One had only carrots and cabbage. The carrots were as big around as a child’s wrist. The other stall had some greens for cooking and, by the time we arrived, just a handful of shell peas left. The highlight of the market is the fishmonger, tucked into the back corner of the parking lot. Here there was a line. The two fish sellers were chatting up the crowds, calling most of the customers by name and anticipating many of their orders. We got an enormous piece of cod, which they filleted on a cutting board right above the display case, sweeping the skin and bones into a plastic tub. Erica told me later that if you ask, the fish sellers will dump some of the bits and pieces into a plastic bag for you to make fish stock or, for the cleaner bits, a fish pie. They don’t charge for these. I bought John Dory, a flat and delicate fish with an ovoid shape and spiny fins. The man filleted that for me and asked if one fish (which doesn’t yield much flesh once the fins and skeleton are gone) was enough. For a treat we also bought oysters. Simon asked for nine, but instead the man counted out six, put those back in the bowl, and dumped the rest into a bag for us. We didn’t know until we got home how many we had, but since Erica opted out of eating them Simon and I had more than enough between us.IMG_0553

The little market was practically overrun with Americans. Besides Erica and myself there was Joan, who has come here in summer for the better part of her ninety years, and two of her daughters, who were visiting. One is from Majorca and one is from Petaluma, where Joan lives when she is not in Tipperary. The Ferry Building in San Francisco, where Maggie’s daughter has a spot, seemed very far away from this ten-stall market in a car park with the walls of a twelfth-century castle looming over all of us.

Back home, and a salad lunch that consisted of warmed duck breast, fried polenta and the arugula that I had brought down with me from Ballindoolin. The duck and polenta were left over from last night’s dinner.duck The salad was unlikely but delicious, as is everything Simon puts his hand to in the kitchen. While Erica and Simon prepared for their upcoming trip to Italy I watched the women’s final of Wimbledon, and although the outcome was pre-ordained the match had some terrific moments. After so many weeks of no TV or internet the act of sitting down to watch anything at all seemed indulgent.

Tennis over, chores moving along, and rain showers calming down, we all set out across the field behind their house, which involves climbing over a wooden stile. stileUp through the farm yard where the cows were just heading in for their evening milking, then along the roads and back down the two boreens to the house. The boreens were menacing when I first started visiting here, but they have become part of the expected landscape for me and I don’t mind them at all except for the terrible scraping of hedgerow on the rental car.boreen

We got nicely damp on the walk, a great excuse for a sauna. Erica and Simon installed a sauna when they first arrived. It faces the back of the property, the little porch overlooking the same field that we had crossed for the walk. I had forgotten how relaxing a sauna can be; once I got used to the baking. I didn’t want to leave it, but the misty air felt fantastic when I finally and reluctantly stepped back outside and crossed the lawn.sauna

Hot showers, then oysters and local paté washed down with Erica’s elderflower cordial, and a quivering mound of just-cooked cod with some parsley pesto, made by the same woman who does the patés. IMG_0561Dessert was berries, also from the market, a cross between black currants and gooseberries that no one seemed to be able to identify by name and that I had de-stemmed earlier in the day.

Then, sleep. No human noise penetrates this place, just the wind and the possible rustle of foxes as they slink across the broad fields under cover of darkness in search of prey.IMG_0580

Mystics & bookstores

The weather is crap. Not unsettled, not breezy, certainly not soft. Crap. The trees are heaving in the wind, the sky is the color of nickel, sheets of rain come and go. I will probably have to build a fire later since the bedroom heater can’t do more than take the chill off even my tiny gate lodge. Welcome, as they say, to summer in Ireland.

After a day of struggling to write, of struggling to keep warm, of struggling to concentrate in a jam-packed library with no spare table space, all while shivering in my black jacket, I impulsively get in the car and head off to The Hill of Tara.

IMG_0491During the 45 minutes or so that it takes me to get there I can’t stop thinking about the absurdity of driving on one-lane roads with two-lane traffic toward a place that lives on tourism and crystals and that in any case I wouldn’t be able to enjoy because of the weather. What Tara does have, however, is a bookshop.

IMG_0488IMG_0492The Old Bookshop (forgive the name and the uncial letters) is a speck of a space carved out of an old stone outbuilding. The shelves holding the books are made of raw pine by a not very skilled hand, the kind of shelves that will give you splinters if you’re not careful. The place is suitably stuffed with books in teetering piles, but they are organized if somewhat sloppily labeled. As I enter the proprietor greets me with a sort of grunt. His back is to the door and he does not turn around. Music is playing softly from somewhere, clearly not for the browser but for the owner. I am the only customer in the place, but then it is a Tuesday afternoon in miserable circumstances.

All of the books are secondhand, and at least 80% of the books are Irish in some way. There is Irish history, Irish mythology, Celtic studies, Irish art, Irish drama, Irish literature, Irish tour guides, Irish landscape and nature books, memoirs of growing up in the Irish countryside or on the Aran Islands, books printed in Irish. Since this is the Hill of Tara, center of mysticism in Ireland, there are plenty of books near the door on everything from druids to yoga. The bulk of the stock, though, suggests that the gruff man behind the counter caters to the crystal trade only with reluctance. This shop is owned by the dying breed of a real bookseller.IMG_0494

There are lots of books I like. There are even the two recent memoirs about the Yeats sisters, the subject of my summer research, but I have copies of both back in the States and resist the impulse to buy second copies to keep here. In the middle of a small shelf of work by Sean O’Casey I spot a delicate clothbound volume of Yeats’ The Tower, with plain gold inlay in a pure Art Deco style. Amazed that the owner has misfiled such a find, I open it only to see a funny note inside, Not for Sale. I wonder for a moment if someone has hidden it and put a trick note inside, but it isn’t far enough from the Yeats books to be invisible. Reluctantly I put it back.

I settle on four books, many more than I should buy given the fact that I have nowhere permanent to keep them in Ireland and that it is prohibitively expensive to ship them to the U.S. When I take them to the counter the owner looks up for the first time. He goes through them and says, Nice books. Ah. I have him now. I have seen this so many times before: I walk into a used bookshop and am automatically dismissed by the person behind the counter, usually the owner. When I return with purchases the person sits up and comments, surprised to see that I have laid hands on some of the better books in the shop.IMG_0496

He tots them up—they add up to €46—and says, €40. Thank you, I say, and hand him my card. Now I get instructions to go next door to the teashop and tell the person at the till, €41 for Michael. She will keep the extra euro to pay for this service. When I come back with the receipt (which he doesn’t bother to look at) he says, I’m glad you got the book on the Irish Revival; you might be interested in a book I have here. I know immediately which book he means. He pulls The Tower off the shelf and tells me that his wife, now dead, bought it for him years ago as a special present. I said I had spotted it among the O’Casey plays and agreed that it was a fine book. But why keep it here, I ask? It seems vulnerable. Yes, it is, he says, but why have it hanging about at the house where no one would ever see it.

When I cross the road to the car park I realize the sun has come out, at least in a watery sort of way, and that I can see across the valley. The Hill of Tara is behind me, but I don’t even bother to go. Instead, I salute the view and drive home with my purchases through sunnier terrain, texting Esther at some point to suggest dinner at Furey’s Bar, an invitation she readily accepts.IMG_0502

Walking

The Irish know how to walk. On the sidewalks, alongside busy roadways, and up and down the narrow bermless roads that are often more like lanes and where you take your life in your hands just by walking there, people are flying along, arms pumping, their long strides making fast progress on their journeys. The walk singly or in pairs, generally, and they walk fast.

The country has an initiative, Get Ireland Walking, and many local municipalities are part of it. There are city walkers, town walkers, hill walkers. I have joined the latter, a group in the Slievebloom Mountains, for several walks over the past few years. These walks (we would call them hikes in the States, a word not used here) are thrilling because they usually don’t follow paths. Instead, we gather in a small village or at the edge of town, move on to a starting point, and then just take off across the landscape following the walk leader who has mapped out a route, sometimes planting small flags to remind him of the way. These walks last for several hours, and everyone has a backpack with snacks, a sandwich, a flask of tea and a water bottle. These are usually muddy or boggy walks, requiring hiking pants and gaiters. Sturdy boots are a necessity, and a stick is helpful. I have a stick from an ash tree that was made for me on one of the walks and is one of my proudest possessions here.

A few nights ago I joined a friend on a more organized walk. This one was part of the Co. Laois Walking Festival, a series of 22 walks over the month of July. Each one lasts about two hours, most begin in the evening and all are rated according to difficulty (A, B or C, with A being ‘strenuous’, B ‘difficult’ and C ‘moderate’ and designed for families; this is the standard rating system used across Ireland). This was a B walk. My friend Una is a terrific walker. Her summer vacations for the past few years have been to Spain and Portugal to walk parts of the Camino. She considers these organized walks as part of her training. We were joined by her friend Lorna, who is even more of a walker than Una. I had forgotten how fast Una walked, and I did my best to keep up, but we were in a pack of 160 walkers and there was plenty of opportunity to drop back and chat while they forged ahead for awhile.  IMG_0379

Even Una and Lorna couldn’t keep up with the two walk leaders, who took off like shots when the walk began and were soon completely out of sight (evidently not clear on the concept of leading a walk). Soon another woman came up through the pack at a brisk trot, shouting Stop, Stop to the leaders, who were so far away by now they were out of sight and hearing. This woman was noticeably angry, but we all got sorted, as they say here, by the addition of two boys on bicycles who took off after the leaders then waited for the rest of us at various junctions so we would know which way to go.

IMG_0384The evening (we started at 7:30) was fresh and lovely, and while the walk itself was not over the most beautiful of terrain there were some fine views at the end. Despite the various stops and starts we finished the 10k distance easily within the two hours allotted, and had time to visit the local church, which was specially opened for the walkers. At the church I saw two women I had spoken with on the walk. One of them, Myriam, a Brazilian living in Portlaoise, invited me to join their walking group sometime. Fast Forward has a homemade business card (Remember: Moving is the best Medicine) and meets twice a week at the same spot for a 50-minute walk. Her friend Susan is one of the group. Between vapes she told me that this was the first time she had been out longer than their bi-weekly 5ks.IMG_0387IMG_0390