If the Pipes Call, Take a Message

11004671_10204759247295547_215425634_n

Our son had called the tune when the singer invited requests. “The Rocky Road to Dublin” was the second of the boy’s picks honored that night (the first, “Galway Races”). The crowd of pensioners packing the small hotel bar in Tuesday-night Donegal took a shine to the wee lad from America with a taste for Irish tradition. It was well past 10, but the boy was fighting sleep – afraid to miss a minute.

When he reached the end of that verbose “Road”, the singer called out for more. An old lady piped up.

“‘Danny Boy’,” said she with a tone of good-natured frustration. “I’ve asked for ‘Danny Boy’ three times now.”

Like Ronald Reagan dodging questions from the press corps at the door of Air Force One, the singer pretended, for the third time, not to hear. Instead, he issued a musical plea to be taken home by way of “Country Roads”.

Go raibh maith agat, I thought, for I share his evident disdain for “Danny Boy”, the go-to anthem for every dyed beer-swilling frat boy in a green plastic derby, the obligatory sendoff for every ward-boss before he’s planted in the ground. Ironically, this insufferably sappy tune – held dear by Irish communities around the world – was, in fact, penned by an Englishman. These traits, when juxtaposed with the infinite canon of fine Irish music new and old (or even the John Denver catalogue), permit no justifiable cause for suffering “Danny Boy”.

Frankly, I just don’t get it.

Though often reduced to drunk and downtrodden caricature, Irish music is, in fact, rife with a kind of exuberance that is at once comic and tragic, and it often employs a dark, inherent brand of humor which, at its best, may be equitably applied to both cirrhosis and the RIC.

“It’s not that the Irish are cynical,” author Brendan Behan once noted. “It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.” Behan certainly fit that bill, as did his brother, Dominic. The latter, himself an author, singer, and songwriter, had a paradoxical sensibility that could at once convey humor and sorrow, loyalty and insolence. It fully manifests in his recording of the jaunty “A Grand Old Country”, written by the Behan boys’ uncle, renowned rebel songwriter Peadar Kearney:

We’ll pray for mother England while I’m waiting on the day
I’ll pray for mother England ’til I’m blind and bald and grey
I’ll pray that I and she may die, and drown that she may drown
And if ever she tries to lift her head I’ll be there to push it down

But Behan is but one voice in a musical oeuvre that includes Planxty, the Dubliners, the Wolf Tones, the Clancys and Tommy Makem (who introduced the world to Irish music), but also Enya, Thin Lizzy, The Cranberries, Van Morrison…to name very few.

Just not U2, who might be the only humorless lot in the bunch.

I don’t know if the old lady’s request was ever fulfilled, as the craic was still going full bore when we retired for the night. But it was not the last we saw of her. The next morning, we crossed paths in the hotel lobby. She and a friend of similar age engaged our son with a few friendly words, and complimented us on his conduct. Many Irish, we observed throughout our travels across the Emerald Isle, seem to have a soft spot for children.

Maybe that explains “Danny Boy”?

Advertisements

Among The Little People Now

National Leprechaun Museum, Dublin
National Leprechaun Museum, Dublin

Between the holdover time in Boston, the duration of the flight, and the five-hour time difference, we were thoroughly exhausted by the time we reached Clontarf Castle. Nevertheless, figuring our best bet for acclimating to local time was to forge on until bedtime, we checked in, threw down our bags, and after a short rest were off for Dublin Town.

Traveling with a 9-year-old (who’d held up amazingly well thus far) meant that our first stop should be of correlative interest. And so it was that we found ourselves at the door of the National Leprechaun Museum. Despite the hokey implications of its name, the Museum could be as easily marketed as a crash course in Irish mythology – Aos Sí 101 – which manifests throughout Irish culture to this day.

11015403_10204746698981847_1554666426_n
National Leprechaun Museum, Dublin

As our seanchai led us through a series of exhibits depicting leprechauns of lore as well as their modern convention (rooted in the 1959 Disney film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People), elaborating upon the púca and bean sídhe, Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fenian Cycle, I recalled, of all things, one Friday night in high school, when a friend and I drove a half-hour to see Schindler’s List. However, we faltered at the ticket window. Were we, a pair of strapping lads perched at the precipice of the weekend, really up to facing three-hours of celluloid-induced depression?

Indeed, common sense prevailed, and we blew off the Oscar-winning Holocaust epic in favor of seeing Leprechaun 2 (which happens to contain one of the most hilariously inconsistent nude body-doubles ever committed to film, but that’s another story). I related this tale to Warwick Davis (who plays the namesake leprechaun) a decade later at a horror-con in Baltimore. His reaction belied an unparalleled sense of diplomacy.

William P. Tandy regaling Warwick Davis with his cinematic preferences
William P. Tandy regaling Warwick Davis with his cinematic preferences

But back to the matter at hand. A noteworthy gift shop awaits visitors at the end of this rainbow. However, a word of note: although the National Leprechaun Museum is indoors, there seemed to be no source of heating, so should you go there in January, dress accordingly.

11008954_10204746698821843_1208744226_n
National Leprechaun Museum, Dublin
10961781_10204746698861844_1058248962_n
National Leprechaun Museum, Dublin

Thank God We’re Surrounded by Water

Clontarf Castle
Clontarf Castle

Davida and I first crossed paths with Bram Stoker in January 2000, on the moors of North Yorkshire. With daylight bleeding out and many miles till Edinburgh, we arbitrarily decided to seek lodging in a brooding little waterfront town on the North Sea.

It was by chance, for us, that Whitby bears the literary distinction of being the point at which Stoker deposited his greatest creation, Count Dracula, on Albion shores. Although I had read Dracula, it had been many years since, and I had no recollection of the town or its role in the novel. However, this connection, we soon learned, has made Whitby, with its lurid tourist draws and ruined cliff-top abbey overlooking the sea, the Coney Island of goth culture that it is today.

We still travel this way – every January, often spending the night wherever the day has taken us. Ireland in the off-season, we figured, would be no exception. In fact, when planning our January 2015 road trip of the Emerald Isle, we had booked lodging for only one of our seven nights – the first, not far from Dublin Airport.

11015161_10204723941292919_2144134601_n
Clontarf Castle

 

Online, Clontarf Castle had appeared a bit more upscale than our usual digs, but we figured some comfortable sprawling room might be in order following a full day and night of travel; plus, our son would enjoy the prospect of spending his first night abroad in a castle.

Clontarf Castle
Clontarf Castle

Now an affluent suburb on the north side of Dublin, Clontarf was, a thousand years ago, the site of an epic battle that in the annals of Irish history commands a hallowed status comparable to that of, say, Gettysburg for Americans. It was here, in 1014, that Irish Ard Ri (or high king) Brian Boru defeated a joint force of Viking marauders and contentious Irish factions from the kingdoms of Dublin and Leinster. Nearly every commander on all sides , including Brian, died that April 23 – Good Friday – but the bloody Battle of Clontarf effectively ended 200 years of Viking raids in Ireland. Unfortunately, with Brian’s death, it also spelled the end of the fragile alliance between various Irish clans that he had spent a lifetime crafting, setting the stage for socio-political unrest that would pave the way for invading Normans in 1169.

Battle of Clontarf
Battle of Clontarf

In the 1960s, songwriter Dominic Behan (brother of author and playwright Brendan Behan) poetically summarized the Battle of Clontarf in his oft-covered tune, “The Sea Around Us”:

The Danes came to Ireland with nothin’ to do
But dream of the plundered old Irish they slew
“Yeh will in your Vikings,” says Brian Boru
As he pushed them back into the ocean

Those combatants would recognize nothing of Clontarf today…save, perhaps, for nearby Dublin Bay. However, the extant Clontarf Castle, which dates (only) to the 19th century, might be a familiar sight for the area’s most renowned native son – one Abraham Stoker, born here in 1847, at the height of the Great Famine. Fifty years later, Stoker would turn loose upon the world one of the most enduring icons of gothic horror with the publication of his magnum opus, Dracula.

Bram Stoker's childhood home
Bram Stoker’s childhood home

While I knew Bram Stoker was Irish by birth, I could not have told you his particular place of origin – that was, until Clontarf, where, to our mutual astonishment, we once again found ourselves in his presence. Fifteen years and who-know-how-many-thousands-of-miles had found us on the very grounds of the ruined church in which he had been baptized, and but a short walk from his birthplace. Indeed, it was enough to render the most rational mind superstitious.

But that could be said for much of Ireland – and this was only the beginning…

So Goes the Story

With a small fortune of highly refined poison coursing through my veins, I listened to Davida promise that one day, once I was better, she would take me to Ireland, fulfilling my lifelong dream. The year was 2007, and I was in the midst of hard-hitting chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We had just celebrated our son’s first birthday.

Ireland--12

 

It goes without saying, thankfully, that I lived to tell the tale – and, thanks to Davida’s perseverance, see the land of my forebears.

I’m more Irish than anything. While my mother’s family is an amalgam of English and German ancestry, my father’s side is Irish through and through. My paternal grandfather’s branch of the family tree stems from late-18th century Irish revolutionary Napper Tandy. Also a sympathizer of the French Revolution, the Dublin Protestant aligned himself with Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the turn of the 19th Century was the best bet running for anyone with a British bone to pick.

Though less well known today than contemporaries like Wolfe Tone, old Napper did achieve a certain level of immortality by way of “The Wearing of the Green”, a traditional folksong that recalls the Irish Rebellion of 1798:

I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand
And he said, “How’s poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?”
“She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they’re hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.”

10979356_10204693845980555_2081987159_n

I do not yet know at what point the New World Tandy contingent crossed the pond. But I do know that four generations later, my father’s maternal grandfather, another Dubliner by the name of Daniel Desmond, stood to inherit his family’s farm – an enterprise in which, so the story goes, young Daniel wanted no part. And so it was that he, like so many Irish throughout the century following the Great Famine, cast his sights westward, toward “The Shores of Americay”.

The Tammany-run New York of the late-1800s was rife with opportunity for an enterprising young Irishman just off the boat. Or so my old man – born a decade after Daniel’s death – believes, as within just a few years, his grandfather went from poor immigrant kid to owner of a saloon in the Wall Street District.

Or so goes the story. Which is something I’ve always loved about the Irish: their deep-seated oral tradition, the lyrical tales whose fire-lit origins are as vague and elusive as the ubiquitous ruins that pepper the Hibernian landscape. And yet to this day, like those moss-covered monoliths, they persist – integral yarns in the cultural fabric. They live on in the artistry of the modern seanchaithe – authors and actors, musicians and playwrights – as well as in the lives of everyday women and men.

Fortunately, my own “Troubles” came and went. I was healthy once again – more so, in fact, than I’d been for many years leading up to the cancer – and Davida, hell-bent on making good on her promise, continued to sock money away for our epic journey-in-waiting. The only thing holding us back was the age of our son; he had to be both old enough to appreciate such an experience and sufficiently strong to withstand our at-times frenetic pace…

In January 2015, on the eve of his ninth birthday, that time, we felt, was finally upon us.

Ireland-0020

Irish Snack Foods

(Or Fine Dining on the Motorway)

We at Next Exit Travel are curious about local cuisine. For us, this means stopping at various supermarkets and gas station mini-marts to sample local delicacies. We seek to experience the potato in all forms. In fact, that really should be our mission statement.

Several of the gas station mini-marts offered fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as bread baked fresh on the premises. But you all know what bread looks like and snack food packaging is so much more fun. We also found out there is an amusement park devoted to fried potato products – Tayto Park! It was closed for the winter, but it gives us an excuse to go back.

Ireland-4451
I could probably live on salt & vinegar chips. This was a good one.
Ireland-4480
These were vegan and since they were baked they were practically a health food. And nothing beats the comedy of asking someone in the car where the zombie fingers went.
Ireland-4484
Yes, the cashier did look at us a bit funny.
Ireland-4492
Could have been a bit spicier, but were a nice change.
Ireland-4494
I can’t remember what these had in them, wheat I think, so I didn’t try them, but WPT ate the whole bag rather quickly.
Ireland-4636
I loved these. They were like the love child of salt & vinegar and garlic & onion chips.
Ireland-4770
I’m saving these for a special occasion.
Ireland-4771
Just the right mix of salt and vinegar.

 

11 Unexpected Things About Ireland

Ireland was really WPT’s trip. I had a few places I wanted to see, but it was really more about fulfilling a promise I made him several years ago. So expect more in-depth posts from him and some nonsense from me. Starting now…

1) DRIVING

I expected to drive on the left-side of narrow roads. I had driven on the left before, but that was 15 years ago. What I didn’t expect was to find the drivers in Ireland to be the most polite I’ve ever encountered. I’m used to driving in one of the most aggressive regions in the US. The drivers in Ireland were such a pleasant surprise. Slower cars and trucks pulled over to let faster traffic pass, people took turns merging, and there was friendly waving and a lack of beeping. I shed my East Coast skin of speed and rage and cautiously wound my way around the island.

Driving the Ring of Kerry
Driving the Ring of Kerry

Much like people ask, “Did that tattoo on your foot hurt?” and my response is generally, “Why, yes, it did. Quite a lot.” People similarly ask about driving in Ireland. The narrow, often dark and rainy, winding roads were very challenging. In fact, after driving all day I was completely spent. I was usually rewarded with scotch and a hot bath for my efforts. I should also mention the black ice. Yeah, that was unexpected. I deserved a badge of some kind for dealing with several miles of that shit and not a scratch on the car or any of us. Ultimately, after 1829km, I could hit a roundabout at speed and merge like a pro.

Pointless studying
Pointless studying

We brought several maps with us, but they were useless at times. Actual street names are something of a secret handshake known only to locals and postal carriers. They change block-to-block and I saw one instance where different sides of the same street were known by different names. WPT deserves a badge for navigating.

2) PORRIDGE

Oatmeal tastes better when you call it porridge.

3) SELFIE STICKS

People really use selfie sticks. This is weird. We saw one guy with a selfie stick and iPad at the Giant’s Causeway. He appeared to be having a great time with himself.

Selfie Date
Selfie Date

4) THIS DISPENSER IN A HOTEL TOILET

What more could you need?
What more could you need?

5) MY BRAIN EMPTIED

Those of you who know me in real life know that my attention is all over the place. I tend to have 2-3 trains of thought going at any given time. Not so in Ireland. I had to concentrate fully while driving. The usual din of brain chatter was quelled. I focused like I hadn’t focused in years (maybe decades). I was thrilled to see it was still possible. An odd side-effect was that my brain was empty and quiet at night. I actually slept. It was amazing.

6) THE QUIET MAN

In the village of Cong there’s not only a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, there’s a museum and a gift shop devoted to The Quiet Man. You may want to take a moment and sit on the bench devoted to the movie and reflect on that.

Ireland-0921 Ireland-4554 Ireland-4555Ireland-4555-2

7) EIGHT-YEAR-OLDS IN BARS

People are downright pleased to see an 8-year-old in a bar, requesting songs, at 10pm on a Tuesday night. The 8-year-old was ours.

I loved the child-friendly attitude and that people were so nice to our son.

8) JOHN DENVER

Based on live music we heard, John Denver is very popular in Ireland. Or maybe just the song Country Roads.

9) PICKLED ONION CRISPS

Ireland-4636

Simply undeniably delicious.

10) AIR

For unknown reasons I expected the air to be clean and smell of damp earth and the ocean. Instead it often smelled smoky from all of the wood and peat burning hearths. It was also colder than usual.

11) CONFLICT

Conflict
Conflict

There is a constant struggle between the permeating damp and dry heat. The greatest casualties in this war appear to be paint and hair.

Battle of the Split Ends
Battle of the Split Ends