We had planned to bypass Limerick completely. Irish friends had recommended skipping the historically industrial hub, given the scale of our trip and improbably limited amount of time, in favor of more epic destinations like the Burren and Newgrange.
Yet one unlikely nook of Limerick still beckoned – a rough, working-class suburb on the city’s eastside called Garryowen. The area’s Irish name, Garraí Eoin, translates to “the garden of John”, a reference to John the Baptist. Indeed, St. John’s Cathedral, built in 1861, towers fortress-like over the heart of Garryowen, and, at 94 meters (or about 308 feet), boasts the tallest spire in all of Ireland.
However, my interest in Garryowen was not grounded in religious history or its renowned rugby club, but rather an eponymous tune whose origins may be traced back two or three centuries. Today, the song is probably best known in America as a march favored by the U.S. Army, and it often emanates from bagpipes during St. Patrick’s Day parades. But, in fact, “Garryowen” began life purely as a hooligan’s refrain:
Let Bacchus’s sons be not dismayed
But join with me each jovial blade
Come booze and sing and lend your aid
To help me with the chorus
Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail
For debt no man shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory
We are the boys who take delight
In smashing Limerick lamps at night
And through the street like sportsters fight
Tearing all before us
We’ll break windows, we’ll break doors
The watch knock down by threes and fours
Then let the doctors work their cures
And tinker up our bruises
We’ll make the mayor and sheriff run
We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun
We are the boys no man dares dun
If he regards a whole skin
Our hearts so stout have got us fame
For soon ’tis known from whence we came
Where’er we go they dread the name
Of Garryowen in glory
I was about 12 when I first heard “Garryowen”, on an album of Civil War-era music performed by folk musician Jim Taylor. The rowdy, infectious tune appears, ironically, as part of an instrumental medley that includes “Haste to the Wedding” and “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning”.
“Garryowen” was part of a canon of traditional music that accompanied an unprecedented wave of Irish immigration to America during the mid to late 19th century and, before long, manifested throughout Union Army camps in the War Between the States. It was there, so the story goes, that General George A. Custer first heard “Garryowen”, and favored it so greatly that his Seventh Cavalry took the jaunty air west with them during the Indian Wars, adopting it as its official theme – one which they still play today. Indeed, “Garryowen” (both instrumentally and with lyrics) is ubiquitous throughout the 1941 Errol Flynn vehicle They Died with Their Boots On.
Surely, a rough-and-tumble town with such an inspired musical heritage must merit a brief detour. Hell, for all I knew, Garryowen was now a gentrified hipster haven sporting Thai restaurants and art galleries on every block…
We rolled into Garryowen shortly before the local afternoon rush hour, and while I wasn’t sure of the precise whereabouts of St. John’s Cathedral, one thing soon became clear: if 300-year-old lyrics are to be believed, Garryowen has remained true to itself. I’ve lived and worked in Baltimore long enough to recognize a tourist destination…and this certainly is not one. From ubiquitous security cameras and graffiti to ruins both new and ancient, Garryowen bears all the scars and hallmarks of an area still awaiting a ship that is several centuries overdue.
Yet the towering architecture of Garryowen’s centerpiece, St. John’s Cathedral, remains an awe-inspiring sight for the intrepid (and streetwise) traveler. Garryowen itself stands as a resilient and sobering reminder of the truths that ground the most elaborate mythologies.
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”
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”?