We were in our Wilmette, Illinois kitchen doing the dishes when I came out with, “We need a Bolthole. I was reading a book by an Englishman named Commander Schweppes. You know, he is the man who made gin and tonic famous. He created the tonic part. Anyway, the English use the word ‘Bolthole.’ It is a place where you can go when you want to get away from it all, sort of a retreat."
“Oh," my wife Jo replied, “and you think it’s time for us to find one?"
We were at this time in our mid 40’s. I was a radio performer on WBBM, the CBS outlet in Chicago. I was successful doing all the shows I could handle. I loved my work and for some time had been on the air seven days a week. Sponsors liked my shows and I was having a hard time saying “no" to new offers. The term is “workaholic." Along the way, we had produced 7 children, 5 boys and 2 girls ranging in age from 4 to 21.
The challenge in my life was trying to find a balance between work and family from the 21 year old Keith to Jerry, Pat, Kim, Rick, Jeff and the youngest Chris. My life was full. I was either on the air or at home with the family. I was not one to play golf, go bowling or go night clubbing with clients.
I brought up “Bolthole" because of a slight gnawing in the mid-section. At 45, I knew that at any time CBS brass in New York could decide, “We only want 25–35 year old talent. The demographics are pointing us to a younger market." I felt a need to look ahead to the future and make some plans. Fifty and sixty sounded pretty old, and we were definitely heading in that direction.
Jo, in her level head way said, “Well, let’s talk about it. Do you think we need more than our home here in Wilmette? Is your ‘Bolthole’ idea like a retirement place?" I agreed that was the general idea. All of us could enjoy it as a vacation home and then somewhere down the road, it could be more permanent. Thus began our discussion.
“Florida?" No, I do not need the heat or humidity.
“California?" Too many people.
“Colorado?" Winter’s too long
“Smokies?" Too much Gatlinburg.
At this point, Jo looked off into space and ventured this idea, “Maybe we should return to our roots." Since her maiden name was Morrissy, and there were Irish Morrissys all over southern Wisconsin, it was obvious what she meant by “roots." My roots were in Scotland. The Bellairs family emigrated to the U.S. from Edinburgh to New Zealand and to the high country west of Fort Collins, Colorado where they raised Hereford beef cattle.
As I was to hear repeatedly over the next 25 years, “And what kind of an Irish name is Malcolm Bellairs?"
The decision was made. We should travel to our roots and see what turned up.
We left our brood in the capable hands of one of Jo’s sisters and took off for London. We did all the usual tourist things, Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, the Tower, just wandering around and looking. Yes, these were the mid 60’s and if we thought we had some strange long-haired types in the U.S., England was miles ahead of us. We rented a car and I did my first “wrong side driving." There were a few dirty looks and some horn beeping but mostly the English were tolerant, heaving sighs and muttering about “bloody yanks."
We drove through the Cotswold area which was beautiful and preferable to the big city turmoil. Since Jo and I were both theater addicts, of course we made for Stratford on Avon, which at that time was not yet overrun by tourism. We visited Ann Hathaway’s cottage, the swans on the Avon, the final resting place of Shakespeare beside the altar of the local church, and to top it off, a performance of Macbeth in the theater. We couldn’t get seats so we stood in the back and never missed a word. We both hated to leave England, it was wonderful.
We B & B’d our way northward to Edinburgh, Scotland. The Pipers were piping as we prowled around the castle that dominates the city. I could feel the antiquity, the War Memorial that saluted Scotland’s fallen sons, and the nearness of Braveheart. This could be what roots were all about!
We continued north to Pitlockry, the gateway to the Scottish Highlands where we discovered McNaughtons of Pitlockry, the home of traditional Scottish wear. Here, I was fitted for my kilt and everything to go with it, including specially woven socks in the matching Malcolm tartan. Jo had her Malcolm long skirt, blouse and a full cape. We were magnificent. We even took home yards of material to outfit our kids. It was genuine Scottish “show and tell" time.
Then we drove north into the Highlands, the mountains, the lakes, the sheep and the heather. Oh the heather …the waterfalls. One day we took a narrow road to nowhere in particular, through a set of gates and up tiny trails until all of Scotland was stretching out before us to the distant horizon. Yes, I did actually feel I had been there before. We tried to spot the monster at the Lough. He did not show up. We got lost dozens of times and loved it.
Finally we arrived in Glasgow. We were unimpressed. There is an adjective that is sometimes used to characterize the Scot. The word is dour — like the dour Scot, the sexy Frenchman, etc. We found Glasgow to be a dour city. The dull greystone houses just seemed to go on block after block. Please excuse me, native sons of Glasgow. I mean you no harm We just did not see your good side. So much for my half of the family roots.
The airport at Shannon is an intimate place, small and wonderful, and no one seems to be in a rush. For our first night, we had made reservations at Dromoland Castle and were lucky to get a room in one of the four corner round towers. The view of fields and trees and flowers was breathtaking. The dining room, aglow with candles, and what seemed to be tons of silver, the sparkle in my wife’s big brown eyes — well — judge for yourself. I have forgotten what we had for dinner. I know we were too impressed to taste the food. We loved Dromoland and we prowled it is many corners, found a tiny pub in the lower depths and shared Irish coffees.
I was to discover in later times that we had behaved like typical Americans, dreaming of knights and castles and fair maidens. The Irish, in their gentle manner, disclosed that Dromoland was in no way Irish. It was owned by American interests who designed the whole complex to please us sentimental travelers. The term used for Dromoland was “up market" and it really was. Over the years it only became all the more “up" and was completely remodeled and enlarged. We returned many times to the scene of our first Irish night. It was a designated spot on our tour when friends visited. A real eye opener. We often came for a Sunday lunch and a stroll through the gardens. When I am in a meditative mood I place myself in the tiny gazebo on the hill and feel the Castle in all its magnificence gently folding me in its embrace.
After Dromoland, we eased our way down through the bustling city of Limerick to a town called Adare. We had read in a travel book about the pride the residents took in their gardens which reminded us of the English gardens we had visited. I believe that was one of the few similarities between the two countries. Ireland was definitely not British. We saw no one in a hurry to get anything done right now. What we did see reminded me of my youth in Colorado. There were farmers putting up the hay by hand, horse drawn mowing machines and hay rakes.
We saw tiny donkeys pulling the milk cart to the local creamery. We actually counted the 40 shades of green. Ireland was slowly taking us over. We swung south to that spot called Cashel where St. Patrick had baptized an Irish king so long ago. We crawled up stairways and made our way to the very top. Cashel was silent and alone, no guided tours, no renovation in progress. We were alone with the nervous crows, the view out over the valley and two thousand years of ghosts watching us.
We found Irish roads to be a constant challenge. It seemed that at every bend a new crisis would arise — farm equipment, a herd of cows, a couple of farmers deep in conversation, a good old boy on his bike …you get the idea. There were no “Dual Carriage Ways" in Ireland in the early 60’s. Since Jo and I are verbal people, we loved our moments in the pubs. We quickly learned that there was a definite way to behave and things to do and not to do. I will get into that in detail some time later.
It was out on the Dingle peninsula that we experienced our first feeling of exclusion. We walked into a dim, smoke filled pub with a half dozen local residents at the bar. They were speaking English. The moment they spotted us they switched to Gaelic. I wonder what it was that we were not supposed to hear. We were now in a corner of Ireland where real Irish was spoken. We saw that they had rooms so we asked for one and the lady agreed and said, “Would you be having a fire?" Yes, it was chilly.
At this point we discovered two more Irish-isms. I know that is not a word but it fits. On entering our room the fire that was offered was a tiny electric heater with maybe one or two slightly pink coils. To avoid freezing to death we leaped into bed and found two more “isms." First, a very welcome hot water bottle, and then the discovery that at that time all Irish beds featured a concave configuration that forced sleeping bodies to roll down into the valley in the middle. Accordingly, we slept close together and shared our hot water bottle.
We left the Dingle peninsula by way of Connor Pass, a winding road leading up and up till we felt we were in the Alps at about 10,000 feet. The summit is about 3,000 feet but feels much higher. Irish sheep were every where. The road descended to the edge of Tralee Bay, took us through Tralee town and then continued north through Listowel to Tarbert, the village on the south side of the Shannon River.
A new ferry system had recently been developed that crossed the 2 1/2 mile wide river from Tarbert to Killimer. The Shannon serves as the dividing line between County Kerry and County Clare. The ferries were a godsend for people, cars and businesses. The only other crossing of the river was bridge in Limerick about 40 miles east.
After the ferry crossing we continued up the coast road to Lahinch and its world famous golf course, and like all before us, a few miles north, took a left into a simple parking area, passed a man playing a fiddle and came abruptly to the edge of the earth — the Cliffs of Moher, one of the great wonders of the world. It was blowing a gale, the sea birds were wheeling and swooping . The roaring Atlantic Ocean was smashing its way onto the rocks 800 feet below us.
After many deep breaths of that rich, Atlantic air we found ourselves a little further up the road in a 100 square mile godforsaken area called The Burren, a great rolling mass of gray wrinkled and water eroded limestone rock. My first impression was “Get me out of here!" Later in this book, I will tell you more about the Burren as we became acquainted with it. On this trip we did not even stop.
We stopped overnight at a B & B in Salthill right on Galway Bay. This area deserved more exploration but much too soon it was time to return to Shannon and fly back to Chicago. We had explored our roots. I had browsed through telephone books in Scotland but could find no trace of any Bellairs. We had visited Enniscothy and we found where Jo said her family originated. We could find Morrisseys in church records but none spelled Morrissy. While no cousins had popped up to greet us, we agreed on our transatlantic flight that we had found our “Bolthole."
We were drawn by the peace and beauty of Ireland, and even more by its people. The Irish men and women and the beautiful children had pointed the way. Where in all the rocks and hills and valleys would there be a spot for us?