TOURING THE TERRIBLE BEAUTY
We were driving south from Shannon Airport, heading for tiny Kenmare, in County Kerry, not far from Ireland's fabled southwest coast, the land of the Ring of Kerry, Bantry Bay, Valencia Island and the isolated but magnificent Dingle Peninsula.
Christina the Lawyer had rented a 150-year-old farmhouse on thirty isolated acres. It came with two stone barns, horses, a flock of sheep and peat fireplaces in every room, including the kitchen.
At this moment, I wasn't concerned how the farmhouse might turn out. But I was nervous, and for good reason.
We had just come from the safe cocoon of an Aer Lingus 747 airplane to a seat behind the wheel of a tiny four-cylinder Nissan. I was horrified to find that its steering wheel was on the right, complete with a left-handed stick shift.
What lay ahead after the twelve-hour plane ride was a four-hour trip on what for American drivers is the wrong side of the road. Complicating the driving was the fact that in Ireland, the narrow roads are lined alternately with either twelve-foot-high hedgerows or ancient stonewalls. The roads twist and turn, sometimes it seems in almost a full figure eight.
From nowhere, rambling groups of sheep or cows can suddenly appear directly in your path.
Without exaggeration, most of Ireland's roads aren't wide enough to allow two full-size cars to encounter each other from opposite directions without risk of collision. Taking no chances until I could become adept at steering the car, I drove as far over on my side of the road as possible.
"You're too far over to the left," observed Christina the Lawyer, wryly. "You'll sideswipe those parked cars ahead."
I hadn't seen the parked cars. I was too busy making sure of avoiding the speeding cars headed my way on the busy road leading from the airport.
Now, I expected to hear paint scraping as I barely eased by the parked cars. But I continued without veering. There was a huge Guinness Beer truck barreling down the road straight at us.
"Pretty close call," I said, attempting to both calm my own fear and bring attention to my skill at avoiding the truck.
"Look out for the baby carriage," I heard, almost in reply. "You're still much too far over to the left."
"Wasn't even close," I said as the baby carriage went off in the distance in my rearview mirror.
I had managed to miss both the baby carriage and the mother who was pushing it down the side of the road.
"All right," Christina the Prosecutor asked, "How many babies did you see in that carriage?"
"Two," I said, briskly.
"That's right. You're still driving too close to the left side of the road."
"I'm driving right on the center line on my side," I said.
"I don't care," she replied. "You're still too far over on this side."
It took days before we were finally able to talk and laugh about those first hours on Irish roads. We were taking an afternoon hike on a trail over bridges and along tree-lined roads outside the town of Kenmare that Christina had heard about from one of the locals.
She assured me it would be just a "short walk" to work up an appetite for dinner.
"It'll be good for your cholesterol count," she promised. I didn't know we had come to Ireland to fight cholesterol. I usually accomplish that at home by listening to the radio as Pat McMahon talks about successful his diet has been.
After we had walked three hours, I noticed that we were still heading farther from town. Christina the Lawyer, although a demon in the courtroom, has a notoriously bad sense of direction. The road we were trudging along was so untraveled that we hadn't encountered either a car or a pedestrian for more than an hour.
"Let's turn back," I said, "it's getting dark and it's starting to rain."
Christina the Lawyer shot me a look that told me what a wimp I was being and announced, "There's a turnoff just ahead according to the map." She kept walking straight on. Rain began to fall. By now, we had walked more than a mile up a long hill until we reached the top of a rise.
Everything around us as far as we could see was deep green. There were ancient trees, thick and tall, and fields crowded with sheep, cows and horses. Each piece of farm property seemed to be bordered by thick stonewalls.
The temperature had dropped more than twenty degrees since we started out. It was a good thing we were both wearing hats and windbreakers.
I didn't dare ask to turn home again. But after examining the view, Christina was satisfied. We headed for home. Her "little hike" had taken close to five hours.
Small-business people in towns like Kenmare, where we stayed, don't seem to have a profit motivation.
Try to change money with a commercial moneychanger and he is quite likely to advise you that you'll get a better exchange at the bank next door.
Pick up a highly regarded novel like Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French in a bookstore and the owner is liable to tell you that she attempted to read it but found it such heavy going she had to put it down.
Go to a restaurant that doesn't accept credit cards and they'll tell you it's perfectly fine with them if you write a check. Then they don't even ask for personal identification for the check. They only request that you write the amount in U.S. currency.
"How much is the dinner in American money?" you ask.
"You probably know that better than we do," they say. "Just fill out what you think it should be."
We had a flat tire one day. I actually wasn't sure which way to turn the wrench because the Irish and English seem to do everything the opposite way with their cars.
Several men moved from the sidewalk and one expertly handled the tire change in minutes. We hadn't asked them for help. It's just the way the Irish do things. When the job was finished, the man who did it hurried off, clearly not wanting to be embarrassed by an offer of money.
We drove part of the Ring of Kerry and down to Bantry Bay. A fellow named Jim Larkin did the driving. He is not necessarily a better driver than I am, but he is bigger and capable of great outbursts of temper. Christina the Lawyer decided Larkin was an excellent driver and that simple fact becalmed the day for us all.
It was at Bantry that a French armada came long ago with the intent of helping the Irish to overthrow the British yoke. The French ships were caught in a vicious storm and the rescue mission was aborted as the French suffered great losses.
The Irish are still waiting for a rescue from the British. I remember going to cover what was then called "The March on Newry" in the mid-1970s. The crowd was estimated at 100,000, and over and over again I kept hearing people in the march saying that they had it on good authority that the Russians were coming soon to save Ireland from the British.
At Bantry, there still stands from those old days a wonderfully loony mansion at the edge of the shore which once was the home of the Earl of Bantry. Now, its main purpose is to serve as a reminder of times past and as a restaurant and gift shop.
A case could be made, I think, for saying that most of Ireland seems to be one great gift shop.
Jan Morris, one of the finest travel writers of our time, wrote this perfect assessment of Ireland recently in her book, Ireland, Your Only Place:
"The Romans never Romanized Ireland. the Reformation never reformed it, the Industrial Revolution never revolutionized it, the world wars never convulsed it, the British Empire never finally suppressed it . . . "
This is all true. The longer you remain in the country the clearer this becomes.
We drove out to Valencia Island, where there is nothing now but a few ancient houses and a huge pub which is also a dance hall. We stopped for a pint of Smithwick. This is a very good beer to taste and one is clearly never enough.
The drive took all day and the views were breathtaking.
I'm incapable of remembering more than a line or two of poetry. But all during the trip, which lasted two weeks, I kept looking out on those incredible sights and the words of William Butler Yeats would echo in my mind:
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
A terrible beauty is born.
It is from a poem called "Easter 1916" which Yeats dedicated to the most famous rebellion in Irish history.
You have to wonder what it must have been like for all those Irish men and women forced to flee their own country to save themselves from the incredible ravages of the potato famines of the 1850s.
They had to determine for the rest of their lives if it had been worth it.
Certainly, they had saved their lives by settling in places like New York City, Boston, and Chicago. But in doing so, most of them had condemned themselves to a life in dark, crowded tenements and years of open prejudice during which signs were openly posted: "No Irish Need Apply."
We didn't go to Northern Ireland. I've been there too many times during the last twenty years. Nothing about it ever changes and probably never will. The British soldiers still stalk the streets. The Irish there are still busy plotting in all their waking hours to kill both each other and the British.
The Irish are set far enough apart from it all to take an independent view of United States foreign policy in the Persian Gulf. They do not embrace our theory that oil is important enough to rush into a desert war that will certainly kill off most of an entire generation of young Americans.
They don't think much of the United Nations, either. Nobody at the security council jumped up and down in anger when British paratroopers opened fire on a a peaceful march in Londonderry one day and killed thirteen Irish men, all of them discovered to be unarmed and shot in the back as they were fleeing.
I went to Londonderry a few days later. I was directed to it by Barry Liddy, a Derry man who like many Irishmen, had served in the British army both in Palestine and South Korea. He took me in a cab down William Street and under the great stonewalls of the Bogside area to the spot where the massacre took place.
Liddy is a short man with slicked- down hair and he wore a black leather jacket. He stood there and his eyes got bigger as he told what he had seen:
"I stood right here and the paratroopers had just jumped out of their Saracen tanks and they began spraying the area with fire from their semiautomatic rifles.
"There were three other young lads with me and I shouted to them to stay with me up against the wall. `Stay right here,' I warned them. `If you try to run, they'll kill you.' I knew everybody in the area. I saw Michael McDaid, only seventeen, wearing a freshly pressed sports coat for Sunday mass, walk toward the soldiers, thinking that was the safest thing to do. He was killed with a single bullet that went through his cheek and down into his chest.
"I watched Hugh Gilmore, also seventeen, try to save himself by crawling along the pavement to that nine-story apartment building across the street there. The soldiers kept firing as he crawled. They missed him three times. Young Gilmore made it to the door of the building and was crawling in the door when the fatal bullet struck him in the neck.
"The three lads standing with me were terrified. I told them to sit down and put their hands over their heads in a gesture of surrender. They did it for a while, but then one paratrooper came our way, firing as he walked. They panicked and ran. All three, James Wray, Joseph Friel, and Garry Donaghy, were shot. Two of them died. The Brits must have fired more than a hundred shots in just a few minutes. It didn't last long but it was murderous."
Doesn't it seem strange that the United States representative to the United Nations didn't demand an investigation into the British soldiers actions? Of course it doesn't.
Mike Lacey, a black Irishman from Newark, New Jersey, drove us to Dingle on a clear, crisp day when the waters crashed over the huge rocks offshore. We walked on the sandy beach. We lolled like children in the tall grass off the shore that was so thick that it felt like a down mattress.
And we went to an excellent restaurant in the tiny place that served good white wine and first-rate salmon, fresh from the sea.
Dingle is the town where Ryan's Daughter was filmed by David Lean. When Lean brought Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard here to do films on the beach, it rained for nine straight days.
Roger Ebert went to Dingle to write a piece for the Chicago Sun-Times, where we were both then working. I've always remembered the tale he told us many times in O'Rourke's Pub on Chicago's North Avenue.
Trevor Howard, who won an Academy Award for his role as the town priest in the film is since deceased. He was a drinker of heroic proportions and so was Mitchum. Both men had nothing to pass the time during the rain but listen to old phonograph records and drink Chivas Regal by the bottle.
One night, Trevor Howard's wife fell down outside in the dark and was subsequently discovered unconscious.
She was carried into the house where Mitchum's stand-in, a former member of the Coldstream Guards and a paramedic, diagnosed that she had probably broken her tailbone, her coccyx.
The nearest hospital was miles away over the mountains to Tralee by Land Rover. It would be a terribly painful drive with a broken coccyx.
They informed Howard of the predicament. He was sitting at the kitchen table with his Scotch whiskey.
"Pay no attention, old man," he said of his wife's injury, "Helen's always pulling stunts. Besides, I've been married to her for 27 years and I know she hasn't got one."
It then was explained to Howard that the coccyx was her tailbone and the trip to the hospital would be extremely hard because of the storm and the mountain roads.
Trevor Howard thought about that for an instant. He took another sip of his Chivas.
"Right you are, old man! Bloody difficult! Most painful! No sense in my going!"
I never did get a proper sense of the money in Ireland. The sinking value of the dollar makes a ten dollar bill worth about five Irish pounds.
One day, while Christina was busy shopping for pottery, I spotted a single-bladed pocket knife in a showcase. On impulse, I bought it, figuring the price to be 4.5 pounds or slightly less than ten dollars.
Much later, Christina came upon the receipt.
"I hope you like that knife," she said. "It cost nearly a hundred dollars."
I looked at the receipt closely. The price was 45 pounds, not 4.5.
On the night before leaving, we stayed at Adair House, complete with golf course and heated indoor swimming pool. An additional golf course by Robert Trent Jones is under construction. It is both very comfortable and very expensive.
The commercial atmosphere brings it close to your average Hilton Hotel. They even have CNN in every room. I found out just how close this hotel was to America shortly before we left.
We were coming back from a trek around the golf course. At the front entrance, Christina and I were met by a throng of people who were pouring through the front door.
I didn't catch on to what was happening fast enough to get out of the way. Suddenly, I was in the middle of the crowd and came face to face with none other than--you guessed it--Dolly Parton.
I didn't know we had come to Ireland to fight cholesterol. "Pretty close call," I said, attempting to both calm my own fear and bring attention to my skill at avoiding the truck.
We lolled like children in the tall grass off the shore that was so thick that it felt like a down mattress.
Most of Ireland seems to be one great gift shop.
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