The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Posts from — February 2008

The Old Road to Fenore

pinnacle_well.jpgIt was a clear and sunny day, so I decided to find an old road up the side of Cappanawalla, a few miles out of Ballyvaughan. My butt and legs have gotten used to cycling again, so I headed along the coast road on a still, windless day. It was cold, and my breath formed small patches of frost in front of me. After a couple of miles I came to something totally unexpected, an old covered well by the side of the road, which was done in grand, high-church style.

Farther along, I took a side road to Gleninagh Castle, a well-preserved gleninagh_castle.jpgexample of a tower house, where the gentry lived in 15th and 16th century Ireland. Of course, the entrance was barred, so I couldn’t go inside. It had a beautiful view of the sea, and opposite it, someone had constructed a grotto of painted rocks. Inside was an homage to the Virgin. For a moment I thought I was in Baja again.

On my bike once more, I looked for the old path up Cappanawalla near an old medieval church, but nothing is marked in Ireland. I unwittingly sailed on past for another mile and took an old farm road which dead-ended near a house in the middle of nowhere. I asked the woman there where the old road to Fenore was and she pointed back to where some bulls were eating silage on the other side of a gate. Being a trusting soul, I parked my bike, climbed the fence, and took off up the mountain, thinking I would find the old path across Cappanawalla. With the mud, loose moss, thorns, rocks, water, and bracken, it was a steep, hellish climb, but being a never-say-die kind of person, I kept on going. About halfway up the mountain, however, I realized I was nowhere near a road or path of any kind. Luckily, I came to my senses and slid back down, ripping my pants and jacket in the process. At the bottom, I had thorns in my skin and blood dripping from my face for the effort. Of course, I had everything mixed up. The old road to Fenore had no relationship to the path I was looking for. But now I at least knew where the Fenore road was and clambered along it for about a mile. It was really nothing more than a hiking path, slicing through the bottom of the mountain. When I returned, I saw a newborn calf being licked by its mother, with the umbilical cord still attached to each of them. In a way I felt reborn myself.

Finally, heading back to Ballyvaughan on my bike, I came to a road leading to something called The Rine, a long arm extending into the sea. I was curious, so I locked my bike against a gate and headed along a rutted, muddy road to the sea. I walked along the Rine. It extended for about a mile or more into the Galway Bay, and was grassy, with mud on one side and rocks and limestone on the other. I met a few cows and a dog who was curious about me. I also found a cashel of sea shells, which I fondly hope was constructed by two young Americans, very much in love (whether they know it or not), whom I saw heading out there the other day.

I’ve just been informed that Irish immigration wants 100 eurocashel_of_shells.jpg for the privilege of staying on this island and gouging us poor tourists for everything under the sun. I’m laughing my ass off. My only consolation is that they must pay their inflated tourist prices themselves. Tonight I’ll order a Guinness and raise my glass to the Irish authorities. (I’ll post the remainder of my pictures of my adventure under the photos of Ireland.)

February 13, 2008   1 Comment

Joseph Conrad and Henry James

While here, I’ve reread Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an amazing piece of literature I first studied in freshman English in college. I know now why my professor assigned it. It’s an almost perfect work of art–Conrad at his very best. I’ve also read The Aspern Papers by Henry James, which is almost as impressive. Some of the descriptions of Venice are so evocative that they transport you to Piazza San Marco, the lagoon, or to the Grand Canal. Can you imagine Venice without the sound of motors–just voices and gondole transversing the canals?

I’m writing in the hotel, where I’m alone sipping a double espresso, which is mild by American standards. The Irish don’t like bitter coffee, I’ve discovered. The sound system has been turned to full volume and an American rap group is telling the world that it has ninety-nine problems but my bitch ain’t one.

slot.jpgThe thing about Conrad and James is that they were geniuses. I know what this means now. They weren’t superhuman, as I used to assume, but simply operated at another level, a cut above Average Joes like myself. The difference is probably a few IQ points, but when measured by the quality of output, is a light-year away. It’s a nice thing to know. The hill I’m pushing my rock up is much smaller than theirs.

By the way, here’s a photo I took the other day through a slot in the outside wall of a ruined church. Our little group was inside, admiring what was left of the structure, listening to Gordon explain its history.

February 13, 2008   Comments Off on Joseph Conrad and Henry James

Fear and Loathing in Bellharbour

point2point.jpgYesterday we went to the point-to-point races sponsored by the County Clare Hunt association in Bellharbour. It was not for the faint of heart. A point-to-point race, as we discovered, is one which loops around a mile course 2-1/2 or 3 times, depending on the length of the race, and includes steeplechase hurdles positioned strategically around the circular course. Often seven or eight horses and their riders started the races, and only half would finish. This was because some horses lost their riders on the hurdles, and more than one horse landed awkwardly, tumbled, and fell. Even I could see the elementary mistakes some of the riders made, like turning to check over their shoulders for their pursuers before they took a gate (which put the horse slightly off stride) or taking a hurdle faster than the horse could manage. Many of the races were for horses which hadn’t won a point-to-point in the past (called maiden races), which meant that there were a few untried horses and inexperienced jockeys. Part of the “sport” was the knowledge that there would be falls, some of them potentially fatal. One of the students called it “primal.” fallen_horse.jpgI found it a bit like watching a bull fight. Seeing a horse writhing on the ground, quivering, with steam rising from its body, unable to catch its breath, with a possible broken leg or fracture touched the most primal emotions in me. In a more primitive society, even one which still hunted with horses, it might make sense. For the Irish, it was a way of connecting with their past. Personally, my sympathies were always with the horses.

February 11, 2008   1 Comment

Trip to Galway

trobinson_steve_sm.jpgYesterday we went to Galway on the bus. The round trip cost about $20 per person. We first went to see an exhibit by Tim Robinson (the dean of the college here who is fascinated by the rain) at the University, and then I had a glass of wine and tapenade in a wine bar, while I watched the crowds. Then, we lugged two backpacks full of groceries to the bus.

The highlight of the trip for me was our conversation with the bus driver, a tall, quiet Irishman who barely spoke above a whisper. Near New Quay, he stopped the bus in the middle of the road to show us a heron he had spotted nesting in a low tree by a turlough. When we didn’t see it at first, he got out of his seat and patiently drew a line to it from a landmark, until we could both see it. The traffic be damned.

Today there are the horse races in Bell Harbour, and next weekend Irish music in the village. By the way, I’m in shock. I just received our Master Card bill. I’ll tell you where to send donations when I can type again.

February 10, 2008   Comments Off on Trip to Galway


Through the brakes are a bit dodgy, my bike hits most of the gears and the tires are in good shape.my_trusty_bicycle.jpg You see it here leaning against a gate not far from Martello Tower. After having born my weight for several miles, it needed a rest. On my travels, I often encounter farm dogs, usually versions of sheep dogs, who are generally friendly. A few of them will yammer at me, but are not inclined to bite. There is a dog in town, Rex, who follows people everywhere. He has the bad habit of chasing the tires. Rex is pals with everyone and will walk with you from one end of the village to the other, just for company, even when it’s hailing and the gale-force winds are driving the cold rain in your face. I haven’t seen him for a few days and will enquire after him. I hope he’s okay. If he’s been hit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his picture posted at the Spar, like they did for the old priest recently, with a date for his funeral.

February 7, 2008   Comments Off on Rex

Father Ted

I’ve seen more than one of the Limestone’s customers stomp off in disgust, so, after getting my pint yesterday, I suggested that a few of us had started calling the place “Fawlty Towers.” I was expecting a bit of a laugh, since the manager is heading to Bangkok at the end of March. Instead, he gave me a worried look and demanded to know who had been saying this. Naturally, I demurred. The truth was that I heard one of the customers practically screaming it as he grabbed his wife and ran to the exit the other day, after having waited fifteen minutes for service. You kind of need to be here to understand, but it’s like watching an episode of “Father Ted,” the Irish spoof on the clergy. Nothing can  get quite as gummed up and twisted around as a common scene of Irish life which suddenly goes all wrong. Everything seems to fall apart at once. Anyway, when I handed him my credit card at the end of the meal, he told me sheepishly that all the phone lines were dead and I needed to pay in cash. I smiled and handed him a fifty. He had the last laugh, though. When I got home and counted my change, I realized he had overcharged me by a few euro. Anyone know of a Spanish waiter named Manuel who’s looking for work in Ireland? Oh, by the way, would you please remind Steven to count his change, or at least get a bill, before leaving the premises.

February 7, 2008   1 Comment

Martello Tower

It’s bright and clear today, but cold. The manager at the hotel just told me he’s resigning. He can handle the breakage, he said, but not the fact that the tradesmen never show up to fix anything. He said he’s going to take a trip around the world, something I’ve heard many of the Irish under thirty say, who have a hankering to get off the island for a while.

When it warms up, I’ll head up the coast on my rented bicycle toward Bell Harbour and Martello Tower, which I can see from my window here in the pub/dining room. It’s about a mile and a half as the crows flies (the crows here are gray and white and the ravens are black), but several miles along the road. One of the things I’ve learned in Ireland is that there is no straight line between two points.

I’ll have photos when I return, and will add them to this post. If you don’t hear anything from me, check at the surgery.

martello.jpgNaturally, the trip was longer and windier than I expected, but more fun and interesting for it. The tower was on a point of land which could only be reached by going five or six miles along the coast and then a mile or so into a peninsula which juts into the sea. I’m back at the Limestone writing about my adventure, but getting a pint is proving to be as difficult as seeing Martello Tower. The hotel’s pub is full of characters from “Waiting for Godot,” nodding back and forth, and speaking in a tongue I can’t understand. Perhaps I’m a bit tired. I’ll post some of the shots I took today under my Irish photos.

February 6, 2008   1 Comment

A ride, a pint, and a bit of companionship

Kind persons have been coming out of the woodwork. Yesterday, as I was walked along the coast road a mile or so out of Ballyvaughan, a guy slowed down and asked if I wanted a lift. Of course, he wasn’t driving a Land Rover, but a tiny, battered car, smelling of tobacco inside. I said, “Sure,” and got in. I noticed his fingers were stained yellow from tobacco, his eyes were slightly crossed, and his clothes were more than well used. He said he was from Kilfenora and was headed for Monk’s. I said it was closed until the 15th, but that there were two other pubs open in town and named them. He wanted to know if I was from the States. When I said yes, he asked whether I was a Democrat or a Republican, and I said I was very liberal politically. Like many of the common Irish I’ve met, he offered the opinion that George Bush had done much damage to the image of the United States. When he dropped me off at my road, he gave me his hand and told me his name and asked for mine in return. We parted as friends. It was another unsolicited act of kindness by someone who offered what little he had, a lift in his car. These common Irish men and women are so far removed from those who are moneyed, which, I suppose, is how it is everywhere. He viewed the world in the most basic terms: a ride, a pint, and a bit of companionship.

February 5, 2008   2 Comments

A Simple Act of Kindness

The Internet connection at the hotel where I pick up my wifi is working at a crawl this morning. Of course, I’m not complaining, since it wasn’t working at all for much of yesterday. The feed to the village is distributed from Aillwee Cave via small dishes. (Visualize a number of cups and saucers tumbling through space like something from a Disney cartoon with a number of them breaking.) The more reliable service is via a portable telephone modem which plugs into your laptop, but, alas, this requires a one year contract.

The glass panel in the door opposite where I’m sitting in the hotel has been smashed. There are still traces of blood and, also, a large gash in the plaster where someone planted a forearm. I’ve been told it was the result of a fight, which occurred at 6:00 A.M. in the morning. Apparently, such fights are common in the pubs. Even though it went on for half an hour, the Garda wasn’t called. Because it was in a dark corner, the cctv cameras didn’t catch the action, so everyone is willing to put it behind them.

The cook here, whom I’ve chatted up from time to time, just brought me a free cup of coffee with two tiny biscuits. It’s black and delicious. It was totally unexpected. A simple act of kindness. How strange and wonderful it is to be alive.

February 4, 2008   1 Comment

The Flotsam and Jetsam of Irish Life

paper_studio.jpgRebecca has created a paper studio out of the flotsam and jetsam of Irish life. Fibers from a garden left fallow for winter, a castoff vat from behind the school, woolen blankets from a secondhand shop in Ennis, a paint stirrer to break down the pulp, and an old press Robert (the school’s wondrous wizard) found somewhere on his travels. It’s beginning to look and smell like a real paper studio.

standoff.jpgYesterday, Gordon D’Arcy placed the ages of ancient man (stone, bronze, iron) onto the Irish landscape in the Burren. On a narrow road on our way to see a wedge tomb we met a tractor and trailer which was as wide as our bus. Every inch of the road was used to sneak past.

February 2, 2008   1 Comment