I spent as much time as possible snorkeling on the trip to Jamaica. No photo can replicate the peace of the ocean or what it is like to be surrounded by small fish who are as curious about you as you are of them. Nor can a photo capture delight and surprise when you see a new fish species or watch an eagle ray swim. But I still tried.
We interrupt our Ireland trip for a quick jaunt to the Caribbean.
As we’ve mentioned before, we both travel for work. In fact, a work trip was the impetus for starting this blog. Often times we’re in detail-less conference halls in face-less cities and we make the best of the time by exploring early in the morning and the few hours after we arrive and before we leave. Only once in my career have I been presented with a work trip that elicited the response, “Are you serious?” That was this trip.
And so it was that WPT (thanks to frequent flyer miles) and I found ourselves at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. I was initially dubious, but I looked at the costs and compared them to the same meeting, held in San Antonio, the previous year. The all-inclusive rates and direct airfare were actually cheaper than going to Texas. Huh.
We stayed in Montego Bay, at Iberostar’s Rose Hall Suites, and had a room (with a small porch) that overlooked the pools on the first floor. The ocean was literally right outside our door and I went to every single work obligation with wet hair. In fact, we had a 30 minute break after lunch one day and I managed to go from business suit to swimsuit and back again in that time.
We usually prefer travel that is under our control and allows us to see the real place and people and not what the tourism board (if there is one) promotes. We relinquished the reins this time and just let the resort do what it does best – take care of its guests and present an appealing artifice.
The buffet restaurant catered to vegetarians fairly well and was accommodating when they heard I was vegan. I pretty much lived on potatoes, plantains, and rice for the days we were there. At night and in the rain the local frogs sang, which delighted me. Also, there’s a lot to be said for someone showing up at your door at 9pm and offering you chocolate before bed.
From what I could see, many people come to these resorts to bring home third degree burns and drink the bottom-shelf liquor. To each their own. We learned early on to ask for the top shelf and it would be served in a brimming glass. I highly suggest the coffee with the coffee liqueur. It is especially delicious when sipped during a meeting. Working!
I was surprised by how few people came out to the beach for sunrise. That’s the best part of the day! Plus, by getting up early I was able to get in almost an hour of snorkeling each morning (we brought our own fins and masks). Once I was done with work we took out a small catamaran and then went out on a snorkel charter to the deeper reef. The small artificial reefs in front of the hotel weren’t bad, but the deeper reef had older, bigger corals and older fish. It was the first time we’ve ever had an actual guide snorkeling and free diving with the tour group. I absolutely loved being in the water there and will do a separate post with underwater photos.
Our final morning we got up early for sunrise and then swam the small artificial reefs looking for the young eagle ray WPT had seen the day before (he was able to swim and sail while I was in meetings, the lucky bastard). After patrolling the three small artificial reefs and swimming with many schools of juvenile fish I feared I wouldn’t get to see the ray. I saw a large stingray and was prepared to be content with that. Then the young eagle ray appeared and swept by us with a grace that is unmatched by any other animal. Those are the travel moments I live for.
All-inclusive resorts dissuade you from thinking about much other than where you want to swim and what you want to drink. You find yourself playing water volleyball with your boss or having shirtless conversations with colleagues (him, not me) and that is perfectly normal. And then it is time to return home. We walked into the Montego Bay airport and it was like the interest for not feeling stressed for three days quadrupled. Lines everywhere. Chaos. Sunburned, confused, drunk, and hungover people as far as the eye could see. Confusion in at least four languages. Eventually we checked our bags and entertained ourselves by watching people walk through the doors and seeing expressions we wore not long before playing across their faces. I thought perhaps it was just a new experience for me, but a colleague traveling on the same flight said that he had traveled the globe and had never seen a line like this. We made it through security and to our gate in time and if anything the experience was more amusing than frustrating. I have no idea what Jamaica is really like, other than the ocean, but the ocean is what will draw me there again.
I was unemployed. Davida was underemployed.
Looking back, we had no business going to the UK. But I’ll always be glad that we did, for that first trip together, in January 2000, proved just the start of a now 15-year journey.
Another part of the underlying magic of that first trip was the friends that we made. Our first three nights we stayed with zinester friends, Rachael and Jo, in southeast London whose flat – the converted chapel of a former school, adorned with everything from 70 years worth of toy robots to Trashwomen ephemera – remains to this day my all-time favorite dwelling. From London we headed south to Hove, a suburb of Brighton, where we stayed with friends of Rachael and Jo, in a cold-water squat without heat. So cold was the house that, when I got up to pee in the middle of the night, the cold porcelain produced an instantaneous cloud of steam. Yet another zine-friend put us in touch with a friend of his, a most gracious pensioner with whom we stayed the next night, in her posh house in Hastings.
Meeting locals always adds another layer of excitement to travel, one you would never otherwise experience. You learn of places and things and customs exclusive of any travel guide. And if you’re lucky, you gain a new friend from it. Zine connections are often particularly fertile given the automatic shared interests. And so, for these reasons, we looked forward to meeting yet another friend of a friend during our trip to Ireland.
Anto, his wife, Aine, and their two young sons live in Youghal, a seaside town about a half-hour’s drive east of Cork, on Ireland’s southern coast. He and Davida had been in touch via email before our trip, and with a quick phone call on the road from Dublin we arranged to meet not far from their home.
Quickly proving to our mutual satisfaction that neither of us was creepy or conservative, Anto invited us back to his house. There, we met Aine and the boys, with whom our son happily played despite a few years difference in age. Aine prepared an impromptu dinner, after which we retired to their living room.
The boys cavorted and Anto played records while the four adults talked of everything from parenting to zines to travel to politics to our shared love for the ocean. The single bottle of wine they had on hand didn’t go far, so Anto and I drove to a local supermarket, where I made sure there would yet be wine in their cupboard after we left. On the short ride to and fro Anto pointed out local landmarks like the Clock Tower Gate, in downtown Youghal, which housed prisoners during the Irish rebellion of 1798.
Back at the house, Anto and Aine invited us to stay the night. We gratefully accepted, and we all spent the rest of that evening talking and drinking wine by the fire, while Anto spun Irish records and we talked of our favorite music. Later in the evening, he gave me a Dubliners record to take home. When we went to bed, hours later, it was to allow our curious young one to finally sleep.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast of Irish porridge, we piled into the cars and drove to Goat Island Beach, a favorite destination of theirs, in nearby County Waterford. The frigid wind did nothing to dissuade Anto from stripping down to his swim trunks and going for a dip in the cold sea. He and Aine also introduced our son to Irish sport of hurling, while Davida and I explored the rocky, majestic coastline. Afterward, they took us to the 13th-century ruins of Ardmore Cathedral. Anto pointed out the adjacent 9th-century stone round tower, used by local monks to protect their valuables from marauding Norsemen.
While the three of us would have gladly spent the rest of the weekend with our new-found friends, the road beckoned. Our plans called for us to be in Killarney that night, and to ensure time enough to see everything we wanted to, we reluctantly bid our hosts goodbye.
But Anto and Aine’s hospitality and generosity left an indelible impression on us for the rest of the trip, and beyond. I’ve played that Dubliners record countless times since returning home, while Davida has worked to replicate the delicious pasta dish Aine prepared for us. And we’ve both been reading his zine, Loserdom.
One day we will go back, while we’ve made it well known to our Irish hosts that they will always have a place to stay in Baltimore should they ever venture stateside. For now, I can’t help thinking that, but for 3,000 miles of interfering water, we would all likely spend time together.
As we planned the trip to Ireland, the short list of places I wanted to visit included:
- The Leprechaun Museum (which WPT has already written about)
- The Giant’s Causeway
- Ashford Castle (a filming location for the final episodes of Remington Steele)
- The Donkey Sanctuary
(That list evidently proves that I am 12 years old.)
When I travel I like to visit animal sanctuaries, particularly ones devoted to farmed animals, and I was thrilled to learn of The Donkey Sanctuary. Located near Mallow, just north of Cork, it was roughly on the way from Youghal to Killarney, so we made plans to visit.
The Donkey Sanctuary is part of an organization based in the UK, which became affiliated with a donkey rescue center in Ireland in 1987. In addition to providing rescue services and a home for donkeys in need, the sanctuary also provides education and training to the benefit of donkeys and their caregivers. Over 4,000 donkeys been rescued since the charity was formed, with 388 rescued in 2014.
I was charmed by many of the donkeys I met and completely smitten by one who was keen to nuzzle a stranger. So charmed that I now dream of coming home to a wee donkey.
The Donkey Sanctuary
Liscarroll, Mallow, Co Cork, Ireland
Phone: +353 (0) 22 48398
Admission: Free; free parking
Hours: Monday – Friday: 9 AM – 4:30 PM, Saturday–Sunday and Bank Holidays: 10 AM – 5 PM
“That’s a real writer, with the true comic spirit.”
– James Joyce’s summation of At Swim-Two-Birds
While I respect his rightful post in the pantheon of Irish letters, James Joyce, frankly, never really captured my interest. And to this day, I cannot really say for certain why. Perhaps it’s because so overbearingly much has been made of Joyce over the last century, often at the expense of other Hibernian talents. But the sentiment more likely parallels the way I feel wandering the beer-soaked streets of old Key West: it isn’t Jimmy Buffett himself that I dislike so much as his fans, the lobster-colored “parrotheads” who seldom venture beyond the din and glitter and margarita-puke of Duval Street; in so doing, two centuries of local character eludes them.
Of Irish authors, Flann O’Brien – real name Brian O’Nolan – has long been among my favorites. English novelist Graham Greene (another favorite) praised O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, upon its publication in 1939. And Dylan Thomas famously praised it as “just the book to give your sister, if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl!”
A metaphysical joyride, At Swim-Two-Birds concerns a lazy college student who, rather than go to class, holes up in his uncle’s house and begins work on a novel about an innkeeper named Trellis. Trellis himself is working on a novel that, shirking redundancy by recycling pre-existing literary characters that fit the bill rather than creating new ones, is populated with the likes of the mythological warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the inhabitants of a Western dime novel. To keep this feisty cast in line, Trellis keeps them locked away in his inn. But when they take exception to being written into some rather unsavory situations, they decide to rebel against their would-be author.
Joyce’s influence on the young O’Brien cannot be understated. But O’Brien followed his own postmodern path, and today, more than 70 years later, his debut novel remains not for the faint of mind.
Unfortunately, At-Swim-Two-Birds sold so poorly (about 250 copies) upon its publication that the disheartened O’Brien shelved his next novel, another metaphysical masterpiece called The Third Policeman, altogether; it would not see the light of day until a year after the author’s death. (The Third Policeman, and O’Brien, found an unprecedented surge of interest when the book was featured in an episode of the television series Lost in 2005.)
However, O’Brien’s limited success as a novelist hardly curtailed his writing habit. Indeed, the writer spent the next quarter-century writing a regular column called “Cruiskeen Lawn” for The Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen. In this forum, the mild-mannered O’Brien’s talents flourished as he at once celebrated and skewered “The Plain People of Ireland” and all that they held dear – sometimes going so far as to respond to outraged letters to the editor that, in fact, O’Brien had penned himself pseudonymously.
When complications from cancer and decades of alcohol abuse claimed the life of Brian O’Nolan in 1966, they silenced not only a 54-year-old career civil servant, but also a vociferous melange of some of modern literature’s most ignoble, cranky, fantastical, and perversely sanctimonious characters.
* * *
The verdant sprawl of Deans Grange Cemetery lies just across the road from a car dealership in a busy South Dublin suburb in which most tourists would at best find themselves by accident. Its stones, both new and ancient, invite exploration, even in the bitter cold of a January morning.
The woman behind the counter of the little cafe at the cemetery’s main entrance confirmed that Flann O’Brien enjoys the “deeper and more refined sleep” mentioned in the pages of At Swim-Two-Birds within the grounds of Deans Grange. However, precisely where in that 70-acre necropolis he was she wasn’t sure. Then the helpful lady handed over a book from a nearby shelf – a guide to burial sites around Dublin – and welcomed me to try to suss it out myself.
Sure enough, it listed O’Brien among two or three dozen of the cemetery’s most notable decedents, which include the great Irish tenor, John McCormack, the Domingo of his day. (Fans of the Pogues might recall his name from “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn”, the opening track from the band’s 1985 album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.) After snapping photos of every page concerning Deans Grange with my smartphone, I returned the book and thanked the woman for her help.
The only problem was the frigid wind, as the guide presented itself as a walking tour of the cemetery (no doubt a pleasant prospect in the warmer months). Compounding this was the fact that directions to each grave began from the previous listing – not easily achieved in the freezing cold, nor from the warmth of a running car. And Flann O’Brien was twenty-third on the list.
After a good deal of fruitless poking about, it was Davida who found the needle in the haystack, using clues derived from the description of the grave that preceded O’Brien’s in the book. She reasoned that that tomb – described as being, with its stone balustrade, “one of the grandest” in the cemetery – would not only be obviously large, but most likely be situated not far from the church; both, we reckoned, would be found among the older grave sites.
Soon, we located the church and, not long thereafter, the stone balustrade (which was grand, indeed). For the first time that morning, we were getting warm, if only in the figurative sense. From there we followed the directions given in the book, and, lo and behold, just a bit farther along, we found the modest stone of one “Brian O Nuallain” (the Irish form of the anglicized O’Nolan).
Flann O’Brien. Myles na gCopaleen. Brother Barnabas. And only he knows how many others, buried there, in the humble southern shadow of the Joycean metropolis.
We lingered a few minutes and snapped a few photos before moving on to our next adventure. I took one final look at the name to which the simple stone paid homage and marveled at how, in a sense, the enigmatic Flann O’Brien had so deftly eluded even Death himself.
“When health is bad and your heart feels strange, And your face is pale and wan, When doctors say you need a change, A pint of plain is your only man.” – Flann O’Brien, “The Workman’s Friend”