The Klines and Bellairs boarded an AerLingus flight in early June. Marge and George Kline, Mal and Jo Bellairs, youngest son Chris, 11, next son Jeff, 12, next son Rick, 18. Our two oldest sons Jerry and Keith were grown. They never did make it to Ireland and I am sorry about that. It just never worked out, and they were always involved in their own busy lives.
Our daughter Kim was in college in California during most of this time, but her college offered a semester in another country and Kim had gone to the campus just south of London. The semester had ended and Kim had moved to Dublin to be with Pat. So Pat and Kim and John Kennedy met us at Shannon. They had all three spent the week before at Liscrona, cleaning like mad, buying a set of dishes and other housekeeping things. We had bought the house furnished so we were in pretty fair shape. Our “advance party" had really cleaned and scrubbed and polished. After all, we bought Liscrona sight unseen and Pat, the one who got us into this, was about to have a heart attack. What if we hated it?
We all met at Shannon. Klines rented a car. We rented a VW mini-bus, and we headed west trying desperately to keep John in sight. The road kept getting rougher. The hedge rows kept getting higher — closing in on us. By the time we reached the quarter mile lane that led to the dead end at Liscrona’s door our family had become very quiet. Tensions were obvious.
There it was. The Old Grey Beauty, 140 years old and gazing serenely out over the Shannon, was welcoming another set of owners. None of us will ever forget the waves of emotion that swept over us.
To say that from that first glimpse we were utterly captivated is just understating it. We loved everything we saw. Every door we opened was a thrill. The outer reception, the inner reception, the 6 upper bedrooms, the living room with the view south across the Shannon toward County Kerry, the winding oak stairs leading down to the kitchen, bar dining room and more
bedrooms …Ah …we explored and exclaimed and laughed and cried. We have never been happier. All this — unseen by us till this moment — our Bolthole! And there, just to the east of the house, was the woods that we had heard about. Some of the trees were 3 feet in diameter. It was the real forest and not another one in the horizon. Imagine, we owned a whole woods!
Doonaha, with a population of 27 lies on the Slina Mara (Gaelic for scenic route) between Kilrush, Querrin and Carrigaholt. When we arrived in Doonaha in 1971, it consisted of 5 houses, one derelict building that had been a store, a Catholic Church, a one room school and Lynch’s Pub.
One of the houses was an active working dairy farm and every day Boss Cow would lead the cows down the main street to the barn for milking. The cows all understood the rules of the road and never gave drivers a problem. If you happened to be walking it was a good idea to look down frequently. With the aroma of cattle and the perfume emanating from the village turf fires, the sounds of children playing outside the school, it was a peaceful and lovely area. The postman arrived once a day with mail and newspapers, always a special occasion. The Pub served as the store so fresh, warm bread was delivered daily, along with other supply trucks stopping a couple of day each week. Yes, the Guiness barrels came on schedule. Guiness was critical to the men of the area. As you know, Guiness was and is the life-blood of Irish males.
In 1971 our parish extended from Cross further back west, to Carrigaholt, Doonaha and Querrin, so the Pastor, a Father Lynch (no relation to John) was kept busy hopping from church to church. Ours was The Church of the Holy Gohst and mass was Sunday at 10 am. The interior of the church was fairly standard for older churches. The seating areas were in the shape of the cross. The women sat on the right side of the arm of the cross and the men on the left. Visitors and those who were a bit more integrated would sit in the main middle section facing the altar and the priest. The front rows were almost always empty. The men would linger outside leaning against the wall, having a last smoke, until the start of the service. Then they would drift in and fill up the very back of the church. These were our neighbors, the working farmers and their wives and children. It was always a shock to us to see the families divide with the women going to one side, the men to the other or the very rear of the church. But, it was always understood. You went to mass. It was as automatic as breathing. Also, you were on time, maybe only by 10 seconds, but never less on time. There was the 5 minute bell and the road filled with walkers, bikers, tractors and cars.
Mass was said like lightning. The priest spoke and the responses came tumbling out. The prayers, having been said at least a million times, came out in a sort of mumble. Irish Catholics in Doonaha were not demonstrative. It was a serious, no pause, business. A good priest became a great priest when he got it done in about 29 minutes, and the “Our Father" was always in Gaelic. The old boys in the back watched the time, believe me. Then they were out the door to exactly the same places along the wall for another smoke. …Since the rain and wind almost always came from the west, that wall protected them in the same way all the animals sought out shelter from the hedge rows. Oh yes, the men wore suits, probably the same ones they had owned for decades, and they wore caps. As we passed there would be a moment of eye catching, a bob of the head and a quick, “How do," with almost a salute to the cap. I soon learned to wear my cap and bob the head in the proper fashion.
There was an absolute routine for “after mass." The men would gather to chat, the women in their groups, the children in theirs, and depending on the weather, the whole congregation would amble down the road, the only street of course, to Lynch’s Pub. There the old boys would have their first pint of the day, the oldest getting to sit the closest to the turf fire. That also was understood. And out came the pipes. The women would gossip. I always wondered how they had so much to talk about. They would usually need a few grocery items. The little ones would rush to the penny candy counter and John Lynch would patiently, with twinkling eyes, help in the decision process. The Pub was the center of the social life of the community. It was the gathering place where you met your neighbors. The church was the actual hub of the wheel. All the spokes, from baptism, first communion, wedding and funerals all centered at the church then moved to Lynch’s.
I recall just one homily that Father Lynch gave in that summer of 1971. He literally roared at the men of the parish “for cuttin the hay on the Sabbath. It is a day of rest ordered by God and you’re all goin’ to Hell." I felt the discomfort of the farmers, however I thought the priestly duties had gone a bit over the edge. In Ireland, when the hay is ready to be cut and dried and brought in to shelter, you had better get on with the job. It does rain in Ireland. I am not sure whether that homily had much effect. Just a note here. In those days, the hay was cut with horses pulling the mowing machine, put in rows with a rake, and then farmers followed with the pitch fork to create the neatest little round stacks you have ever seen. Those little stacks were then moved to the farmer’s back yard and converted into one large stack protected by a galvanized metal roof. There were no stacks out in the fields, the kind we put up in America. The sight of the teams and the equipment, the smell of the new mown hay, and the milking of the cows really took me back.
The one room school was the center of life for the children. When we arrived in 1971 there were about 24 ranging in grade from 1st up to about our junior high. The teacher held a very respected place in the community and had to be good at all levels, moving from one grade to another and another. I do not see how she ever managed to keep control and teach but it was done. Looking back over the years, I can tell you that those children received a wonderful education. We watched them grow up and move into adulthood. Those youngsters from the one room school became highly successful. School is no joke in Ireland. It is serious business. Back in the horrible old days when Ireland was dominated by the English, schools were not allowed, the Irish were not even allowed to speak their own language and that’s when the hedge row school was developed. The teacher taught wherever he could find a place that was safe — even behind bushes or trees.
The practice of their Catholic faith was forbidden. If mass was said in a tenant’s house, the family was turned out and the house was burned. The Irish people were not allowed to own any piece of land and the law held that no one could vote who did not own land, a very clever arrangement. I do not intend to get into the history of Ireland and its people. It is a very sad tale, but somehow the Irish were tough enough to hold onto their traditions, educate their children, keep their sense of humor and in the end, win for themselves the Republic of Ireland. Their many revolutions were almost always a disaster. The “Troubles" went on for centuries, and Ireland is still a divided country.
I strayed, didn’t I? I went from a one room school to the history of Ireland. That big, big picture about this small island is not the purpose of this book. I hope I have at least introduced you to one tiny village.
The main worry that plagued Doonaha was the same one that concerned all of Ireland. It was the diminishing population. What would happen to the school if there were not enough children to keep it open? To have Doonaha school closed and their children transferred to another would have been terrible for the village. Most of the old boys, the ones who sat by the fire at Lynch’s Pub, went to that school and sat at the same desks. The school would have its centenary celebration in 1986. More on that a bit later. The good news is that the school is still open in 1997. It was a big day when they received their own computer. The importance of education at all age levels is critical in every corner of the country.
If you want to read more about the “Struggles," I would suggest Trinity by Leon Uris followed by The Terrible Beauty, The Year of the French, Michael Collins, and finally Angela’s Ashes, a beautifully written book about poverty in Limerick in the 30’s and early 40’s.
This Irishman has a unique background. He enjoys dual citizenship. John was born in Providence, Rhode Island of Irish-American parents. The date was June 29, 1917. The family was comfortable and surrounded with relatives. One day word came from Ireland. John’s parents would inherit the Lynch Pub in Doonaha provided they would return to run it. The family returned to Ireland. John has told us many stories of his school days, the severe teacher who wielded a long ruler and used it regularly. The school master was a severe disciplinarian and took no nonsense from anyone. John remembers the cold in the school, the small stove, the turf fire and how little it warmed the threadbare children.
When John grew up, he in turn inherited the pub. It was a relatively small building directly across from the school. People entered through the traditional double door which offered a chance to close the outside door before opening the inner door. The Irish wind can be fierce. Inside on the right was the pub proper, about 20 x 20 featuring a turf fire that never went out. The walls were once white, but because of the smoke were closer to cream color. The Irish have always been avid smokers. The wood work had been varnished so many times, it was nearly black. There were 4 chairs, hand made with hand woven seats. Male bottoms had weathered those seats into a comfortable hollow. On the left was John’s throne, the counter that separated the pub area from the bar and the general store. John could pull a pint, reach for a can of beans and supervise the penny candy department, all within about three steps. Oh yes, there were three barstools across from John and again, the old boys would call for “a pint John," climb aboard the stools and watch the pulling. It is a real ballet and it takes about 3 minutes, minimum.
Now, we are talking about a pulled pint, never a can or a bottle. The dark, amber Guinness is fed into the glass in a gentle manner, flowing down the side of the glass, 1/3 to 2/3 full and finally to within about 1/2 inch of the top. The surface holds that whipped-cream head and is never more than 1/2 inch thick. It is imperative that the buyer receive full value and the entire production is watched with an eagle eye. In other pubs I have actually seen the pint rejected when it was pulled too quickly and too much head was on the top. The pint was simply pushed back to the bar-man or woman. Not a word needed to be spoken. The job had to be done perfectly. It is a real downer to have the pint pushed back to be filled properly. I never saw this happen when John was behind the counter.
John, in his early days, was something of a man about town. He owned one of the first automobiles and in his spare moments provided a taxi service. John played the field and saw no great reason for getting married. Irish men have always seemed to put off the trip down the aisle as long as possible. Then something happens. He marries and children appear like magic. I think he was in his late 30’s when John found a striking, dark haired Irish lass named Annie. She was from one of the local farming families. John’s best friend, Michael Galvin, was his best man. Michael lived close by. You will hear a lot more about John and Annie and Michael, who married a young woman named Nora. Michael and Nora built their home next door to the school. We could never have lived in Ireland without them.
Now John and Annie were a team and on schedule produced 4 sons and a daughter, who of course went in due time across the street to school. Running a pub and store is a full time chore, but in addition, they had several milk cows, some calves and at one time even a few pigs, and farmed on land they owned. On more than one occasion I have been present when, after Annie had completed her last Irish jig, the last of the patrons eased out the door about 2:00 am, only a couple of hours after legal closing. The next thing I knew, Annie was on her hands and knees scrubbing the flagstone floor. Then, the next morning she was up to milk the cows and get children off to school. She also smoked all the time.
I have described the pub section. Let us go into the family area where they live. A door opened straight into their family kitchen. On overflow nights the pub and the kitchen all became one, and the crowd was “chock-a-block" which translates to back to back. It was a struggle to get a drink order. There was one more door, beside the fireplace, that opened on the right to one of the family bedrooms. I think there were 2 but I am not sure. That was private property. So you see, living space was tight, so tight that each night about 10:00pm two sons would appear with a ladder and climb up through a trap door into a space directly over the bar. That is where they slept. With all the talk, the singing , the music, we were always at a loss to see how sleep was possible.
Lynch’s Pub was the country club, the social center, where everyone gathered. It was a famous place. This was where we got to know some wonderful people, our neighbors. Visitors came from everywhere because they had heard about this tiny place out in the real Irish boonies. They came from all over the world. Government officials came for their pints. I have heard singing in Gaelic, Spanish, German and French. They brought their instruments and both played and sang for the Irish, what can I say! They all can sing, know all the words to every song that has ever been sung and even if you’re not a singer, when your turn comes, it is time to produce something, a poem, a story — they call it a “party piece." We loved our nights in Lynch’s Pub. Often we would make our way back to Liscrona when it was getting light in the east. And through it all, John was unflappable. He and Annie would pull pints and sometime during the night John would sing his songs, one of which was “They’re Cuttin’ the Hay in Doonaha Bay."
It was here at Lynch’s Pub that we sat back and I watched evenings unfold. We studied behavior patterns. We were coached by John, and after all his experience, he was a fine teacher. We also learned to keep our mouths shut and let the Irish come to us. To the Irish most Americans come on too strong with the "we’re Americans and we know best!
Let us take a look at pub life. It is clearly understood by everyone. If a patron becomes rowdy, starts a fight and is generally obnoxious, the Publican will issue a warning. If problems continue, he can say, “You are out," or words to that effect. At that point the individual can no longer enter. It is a very serious penalty because it is enforced. To be black balled from the Pub is to be cut off from friends and all the companionship. That power is seldom used, but when the Publican speaks it is best to listen.
There is only one thing that worries the Publican. He has a license to protect and he is subject to certain rules. The most complicated one is simply called “Closing Time," and the local Gardai (the police) are the enforcers. The problem is that the time seems to fluctuate. There are summer hours for closing, winter hours for closing, exemptions given for certain occasions like local fairs or celebrations. Pubs must close on Sunday afternoons. That rule makes sense. If they did not close they would never get the good old boys home to be with family for the Sunday lunch. Then there is the additional problem that some Gardai are very strict. Others are not. It all seems to come down to the question of the Gardai’s mood at the moment. Is he cracking down or does he just drive by and keep going, hearing no evil and seeing no evil. If the Gardai decides to use his muscle, he can issue tickets to all patrons caught in the Pub and worst of all cite the Publican. In court the fine is stiff and if repeated the Pub can lose its license to sell spirits. That would be the end of the Pub. It is a very complex and ever changing game that is played in earnest. Over the centuries the Irish have learned how to cope.
In the west of Ireland most men begin to trickle into the pub about 10:00pm. In the summer months the farmers work in the fields till late because it is still light till nearly midnight. There seems to be agreement that the danger time is after 1:00 am. Here is the way it used to work in Doonaha. At 1:00am John would put the shutter over the windows and lock the front door. That was the signal for one more round. Earlier in the evening all cars were driven behind the pub into an open field, and those on the street were moved about 100 yards to the east so they were next to the church. No cars were close to the pub. I guess if the Gardai made their drive through the village, they were supposed to assume that all the people were in church. All this while the walls of the pub were absolutely vibrating with music and song. This is a particular form of “Irish Pub Ballet" that is performed every night and is probably different in every village and town. The Irish understand it. I even have a hard time trying to describe it. Hotels have a different set of rules. For residents there is no closing time. Casual visitors can not enter after the legal closing time, but once inside, who is to know? Amazing, is it not? Here is a good Irish toast for you to remember..
St. Patrick was a gentleman
Who through strategy and stealth
Drove all the snakes from Ireland
Here’s a toasting to his health.
But not too many toastings
Lest you lose yourself and then
Forget the good St. Patrick
And see all those snakes again.
While we are at it, how about two more.
Health and long life to you
The woman of your choice to you
A child every year to you
Land without rent to you
And may you die in Ireland.
Here’s health and prosperity
To you and all you posterity
And them that doesn’t drink with sincerity
That they may be damned for all eternity.
May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
The sun shine warm upon your face
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand
May the roof above us never fall in
And may we friends gathered below never fall out.
Finally, the simplest toast of all:
Pronounced "Slawn chu!"
Since we are talking about life in the pubs, particularly Lynch’s Pub in West Clare, we might just as well get acquainted with Irish humor expressed in “Kerry Man jokes." These are examples of great ethnic humor. In our country, to be politically correct, you dare not touch a joke that has to do with almost anything ethnic. No so in Ireland. County Clare lies just north of County Kerry, and there is nothing a Clareman enjoys more than a good Kerry Man joke. John Lynch, one of the finest Clare Publicans in the world, loved to spice up the conversation with, “Have you heard the one about the Kerryman?" We will call them John’s bits! I have made a collection of some of his best.
Why do you never get ice in drinks served in Kerry?
The fellow with the recipe emigrated.
Have you heard about the Kerryman who went to a drive-in movie?
He didn’t like the show, so he slashed the seats.
Why do Kerry dogs have flat faces?
From chasing parked cars.
Two Kerry men were passing by a nudist colony. They decided to peep in over the wall and see what was going on inside. So one Kerryman stood on top of the other’s shoulders. "Are there men and women there?" asked the lower Kerryman.
"I can’t tell," said the upper Kerryman, "they’ve got no clothes on." *****
First Kerryman: "How much did the garage charge for towing your car home from Dublin?"
Second Kerryman: "$100."
First Kerryman: "That was a bit steep wasn’t it?"
Second Kerryman: "I made them earn every penny of it. I kept the hand brake on all the way."
A Kerryman wrote the following letter to the editor of a newspaper:
Dear Sir, Last week I lost my gold pocket watch, so yesterday I put an ad in your Lost & Found column. Last night I found the watch in the trousers of my other suit. God Bless your newspaper.
Two Kerrymen were in a space rocket. The first left the rocket on a space walk, and when he returned he knocked on the capsule door.
"Who’s there?" asked the second Kerryman.
Two Kerrymen had been lying in wait for over 3 hours in order to ambush their sworn enemy. Finally one Kerryman turned to the other and said, "He’s late, I hope to God nothing has happened to the poor fellow."
How would you get a Kerryman to climb onto the roof of a Pub? Tell him the drinks are on the house.
I heard this one on three different occasions within one month. Ireland is a small island and stories travel like the latest gossip.
“I met this wan at a dance last week," reported Mike, “a real posh on. I asked her could I drive her home, and when we got to her place she asked me in for a cup of coffee. Well, I wasn’t’ thinkin’ of coffee but I thought there might be a bit of Paddys somewhere so in I goes. We were not sittin’ down when she says, “going to get into something comfortable and relax."
I didn’t know what she was talkin’ about but in a minute back she comes in a nighty and sits down beside me. Then she put the lights out."
“What happened then?"
“Well, I can take a hint. I knows when not wanted. I grabs me cap and went home."
This next joining of funny, simple words, which I saw in an Irish Pub, illustrates the Irish ability to use language to express a thought.
I shall now deal with protocol, the proper way to enter an Irish Pub in the West of Ireland. The protocol will cover the 60’s and 70’s and does not discuss those “high and mighty Dublin people" and their customs. This is grass roots stuff, County Clare by the banks of the mighty Shannon. In a way, this city-county attitude is similar to New Yorkers’ feelings about the barbarians who live west of the Hudson River.
One never makes an entrance. One slips in the door and looks around. It is doubtful that anyone will look at you but you can be sure you have been spotted. If any eye contact is made, a slight bob of the head is permissible. If one enters with a female it is necessary to find a place to sit some distance from the bar. If one enters with a male companion it is acceptable to move toward the bar and catch the eye of the bartender. If one is a lone female it is not right for that person to enter at all.
All ears are adjusted to hear what one will order. Best is to say simply, “A pint please." That is very proper because it means Guinness and brands one as having good sense. A man must never under any circumstances order a “glass" of anything, that is a half pint. Only females ever drink a glass. Men have to be men. There are other beer and stout producers in Ireland and if one is slightly eccentric it is acceptable to order something like a Harp or Smithwick. There is danger here because it must be pronounced properly, “Smitik" never Smithwick.
If one wishes to make a slight impression and is a little more affluent, one may order “Irish please." If one is judged by the bartender to be a Yank, with a slight turn down of the mouth he’ll question, "Ice?" There is usually a small bucket nearby with five or six ice cubes at the bottom. Be careful. Ears are turned your way. With the same slight sneer on your mouth reply, “Water." With a slight sigh of relief the glass with the ounce of Irish will be pushed toward you accompanied by a small jug of water. Just a slight addition of water is allowed. It is always possible to order one’s Irish by name, Jamesons or Paddys if one is being patriotic and Bushmills if one does not mind drinking whiskey made in the north of Ireland. John Lynch always orders “A touch of the Protestant, " which means, “I’ll drink what I choose and enjoy the attention." Again, be careful. The name is “Jemisons," not Jameson. Pronunciation is critical and one must always add the water in whatever quantity, oneself. There is an old Irish saying, “Never tamper with me wife, or add water to my drink." Time will pass. The Irish are a very curious lot and sooner or later if one is patient, one of the patrons will be unable to contain himself and he will direct the opening shot your way, “Weather’s terrible, " or “Weather grand." The door is open and the response should indicate a degree of tolerance.. If it is cold one may say, “Oh, I don’t mind. Back home it get down to 30 below." If it is hot, the response indicates it gets up over 100 degrees. Like magic, the door is open, “Ah, and where might be home, is it a it Yank you are?" Of course he knows you are.
At this point several more patrons show interest and one will ask. “And where about in the states?" The next question will have to be, “And have ye any Irish connections?" It sure helps if one has, because every Irishman has an incredible number of “cousins" in America.
This is a ballet that is performed over and over. It happens exactly as I have described it. The Irish are the greatest talkers in the world and once one has crossed over the mine fields, the evening opens to talk on other subjects. The Irish are well read, and in many instances know more about us than we know ourselves. They know our history, our politics, our relationship to the world and our national policies that sometimes irritate and confuse them. Through it all one gets the impression that Americans are loved as individuals, but American government is highly suspect. They are amazed at our degree of isolation from the rest of the world and how little we know or care about anyone outside “the good old U.S.A." Sometimes it can become a little sticky when we are accused of being the “arms sellers of the world" or “big bullies who love to brag about our wealth and power."
Back to pub conduct. Here is a tip that should be useful. One must be careful about buying an Irishman a drink. Americans, for the most part, are kind, generous people and want desperately to be loved. Certainly the best way must be to buy a round. Be careful. The minute you do, that old boy on the bar stool next to you is obligated to buy back, and he might have come in for his one drink of the night and not have another pence in his pocket. It is seldom proper to buy a round for the whole pub full of patrons unless one is known by the group and has a special reason like:
Finally, just remember that an Irish pub is the core of the community. It is the most important gathering spot in the area. To be accepted in the “club" is a great accomplishment, and you better have a “party piece" just in case! You must sing, recite a poem, tell a story. Do something.
Earlier I discussed the proper procedure for “pulling a pint." This is standard everywhere in Ireland. Everything else is subject to local customs. Of course the attitude toward women has changed. The “for men only" attitude no longer exists. Dublin might be very modern, but as one travels west, the old conservative ways are still apparent.
Enough on pubs! No we didn’t spend all our time at Lynch’s. We were in love with the Grey Lady.
This was the period of discovery. We were learning about Liscrona, the property and the area close to us. We explored the woods and fields on the property. We learned that there was a certain way to climb down the cliffs and reach the great rock slabs next to the Shannon. We learned that the river has an 8 foot tide and we were able to watch high tide move to low and back twice a day. We spotted the freighters and the sail boats on the river and could see there were beautiful sailing conditions on the Shannon from its mouth back up river for about 15 miles and there were almost no sailors taking advantage of any of it. At night we learned to spot the navigation lights blinking on the buoys and to watch the lighthouse beacon at Kilcridon Point. I have always loved being near water, and Liscrona House was about 200 yards from the cliffs. Our view from the living room was straight south across the wide Shannon to Knockanoor Mountain in County Kerry , and on a clear day we could see all the way west to the Blasket Islands about 50 miles away. Also to the south we could pick up MacGillicuddy Reeks, the mountains near Killarny. We lived exactly where the Shannon joined the Atlantic Ocean.
Liscrona was isolated. Our closest neighbors lived in Doonaha, about a mile away. At first we had visitors who just dropped by for a drink. They did not know that Liscrona had become a private house. We did not realize that we still had a legitimate liquor license that had considerable value and possibly could have been sold to someone. We just let it lapse.
We and the Klines had a couple of wonderful 2 week vacations there at the house, because neither of us could spare more time away from the U.S. That frustrated me because we could see the dozens of projects that needed to be attacked. A house by the sea that stands alone and unoccupied rapidly begins to suffer, and to be perfectly frank, there was not the cash available to spend on improvements.
One of our most urgent concerns was the fact that Liscrona was totally bald. An earlier owner had taken down the six tall chimneys. The only logical reason for this treatment was this: If the chimneys on a house were down, the house was judged to be derelict and the taxes were reduced to almost zero. Many years later, we did attack the problem. In the early days we just had to make do. Yes, the damp was starting to creep into the house around aged window frames and between the uncaulked stone blocks of the two foot thick outer walls. I tried to scrape the walls inside that suffered from a white powdery residue and then re-paint. It did not do much good. I felt like the little Dutch boy with his thumbs in the leaking dike.
We purchased our groceries in the tiny shops in Kilkee and Kilrush. We found that we were obligated to bring our own string bag to carry our purchases. Every Irish woman carried one. We quickly bought one. No plastic bags were in sight yet and no frozen food. The Irish definitely thought “small" with tiny packages of everything. Women shopped every day so there was no need for stocking ahead. It was the social event of the day. We learned that the sign “victualler" meant butcher shop. I think later on I will develop the food availability, what was in and what was out, and maybe a few recipes that we have made part of our American life. That area was still to be explored over the years.
In 1971 Ireland dropped English currency and adopted their own decimal system. The Irish £or pound became the Punt, and then it was a simple punt divided into 50 pence, 20P, 10P, 5P, and penny. The Irish were still struggling with the problem when we arrived. The punt fluctuated in value in relation to the value of the dollar and still remained closely tied to the British pound.
We found that a hardware store was essential to life in Ireland. Williams in Kilkee and Brews in Kilrush got to know us very well. Many names were different., One example is the word emulsion. It means paint.
Liscrona was heated with oil-hotwater and there were two large, ugly tanks out behind the house. We knew one day they would have to go. We had two functioning fireplaces, one in the inner reception and one in the living room so we had to find a source for turf. We did and we learned how to start fires. There is a definite technique. Our kitchen six burner stove called a cooker was fueled by two large bottled gas tanks which stood outside the kitchen window. We also inherited a refrigerator-freezer that was so small it be called a “teenie-weenie." It brought on plenty of laughs.
We needed to learn how to become part of the community. I am sure they were just as curious about us. The fact that we went to church was a plus. We obviously enjoyed Lynch’s Pub which was also positive.
We learned that life on the farms centered on the milk cow, her nurturing and the milking. The land in the west of County Clare was poor, suitable only for the grazing of cattle. The quality of the soil would not support anything like alfalfa or grain. Land was life and after the final troubles ended and the land was divided up among the Irish, every tiny field was fertilized and the natural grass hay cut and stored. The herds were milked daily with delivery to the local creamery. Milk was the financial support of every soul. The dependence on weather, sun, rain, drying conditions of the hay and the milk production of the herd made up most of the conversations in the pubs, before and after church and at every crossroads in the west.
If you check the map, you can see that Liscrona House is on sort of a peninsula. It extends from Kilrush all the way out to Loop Head, the furthest point of land. You have seen how it gets narrower all the way out. That area is called Corcaboshkin in Gaelic. There is a phenomenon about this area — the underground telegraph. One word mentioned in Kilrush or Querrin, or Moyasta or Doonaha or Kilkee or Cross is heard plainly at Loop Head. The Irish are great talkers and gossipers, and rumors, good or bad, travel that telegraph. We learned never, ever to say a negative word about anyone because all the natives are either cousins, brothers, sisters or in some way related. I know we, the Yanks, were enough to keep them going with stories for years and years.
With the Shannon River on the south side and the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Corcaboshkin was a peninsula inhabited by handy people living lives of daily struggle. The potato famine and the massive emigration of the Irish from 1850 left many decaying derelict cottages. We would often drive by one of the old houses with the roof gone, maybe the four stone walls left, perhaps a hanging door and a falling down chimney, and we’d wonder where the people went. Did they just walk away? What is the story behind that rotting door?
John Kennedy took us to a gorgeous place out near Loop Head. It was on the Atlantic side of the peninsula and was called the Bridges of Ross. If you saw the movie Ryan’s Daughter, part of it was filmed at the Bridges. When we first visited, the old wooden tracks that supported the movie cameras were still there. John taught us not to go to the left from the parking area but to go right and follow a trail till you butted into a huge mass of rock. There was a sheltered V shaped area that gave protection from the wind. It was an ideal place for a picnic, with crashing, roaring breakers nearly surrounding us.
We went there for years, took dozens of people and swore them all to secrecy. We called it Bellairs Point or the Rendezvous. We seldom met many people. I will mention three exceptions. On one occasion our 12 year old son Chris was along. Above the picnic area, serving as our protective barrier from the sea, was a rock wall about 40’ high. It was climbable and you know how 12 year olds are. Chris climbed and came back with wide eyes.
“Dad, there’s a woman up there lying in the sun. Dad she is naked!"
I suspect that was the only exposure that he ever had to a real mermaid.
Another time, we found a man all by himself doing sketches. He turned out to be an English geologist who was studying the coast of Ireland, especially the tortured layers of rock in the area and how they were created back when the land was formed. We had a long visit and he answered many questions and, yes, he shared our lunch of wine and cheese and fruit.
The third memory concerns a woman who was sitting there looking out toward the breakers. We talked, and she disclosed to us that her husband had proposed marriage to her at this spot, that recently he had died and she had returned to remember. Gulp!
I guess Bellairs Point wasn’t really our private property after all.
So began the peeling of the orange, the sifting through the layers of Ireland that had preceded us by thousands of years.
I think it was 1972 when we returned to Liscrona for the second time. The Klines came again, Jo and I, Chris and Jeff and Pat. John Kennedy came from Dublin to join us.
Our son Jeff is a fisherman. I do not know where he got it, but he just loves to fish. John Kennedy had helped us arrange something very special for Jeff, an actual lobster boat trip with two young Kilkee fishermen. They had their lobster pots out near the Loophead area. They agreed that on the day of our arrival, they would wait and take Jeff along. It was a wonderful opportunity. Also, there are no lobsters in all the seas that compare with the big, wild one that grow in the icy Atlantic waters.
We flew from Chicago and when we reached Ireland, the country was completely fog bound. There was no way we could land. The plane flew on to Prestwick, Scotland where we sat on the ground and waited. By the time we did make it to Shannon, picked up our rental car and made it to Liscrona, the fishermen had left. They waited as long as the could and were sorry. They left a note saying they would take Jeff later that week.
We had one sad son but he was happy to know he would have another chance. We had gone to bed and I believe it was about 3:00am when Pat came into our bedroom and woke us to say that the boat had not returned and she and John were joining the neighbors to go out to Loophead and search for them.
Two days later, both their bodies were found in a small cave beneath a sheer stone wall. One of the fishermen was an under water demolition expert in World War II so had experience in swimming. Neither man was wearing a life jacket. The assumption was that he had helped his partner get to the cave, but could not get him out. The tide had risen and drowned them. Later the boat was found split almost in half. The locals felt that the boat had been close to land and one of the rollers was very high which in turn created a very deep and shallow trough. The boat had struck a submerged shelf of rock and split. Both men had found themselves cast into the cold water. Our son Jeff was saved by the fog that had gotten in our way.
Fishermen live a very dangerous life in the sea that surrounds Ireland. The tide and the weather can be extremely treacherous. It is so cold that for centuries Irish fishermen never have learned to swim. They were just philosophical. “Oh, ye’d only prolong the agony. Get done with it!"
This was not the only time we were in Ireland when the call came out to join in walking the cliffs. That is part of Irish tradition. The body must be found and given a decent burial.Jeff requested that he accompany us to the funeral. On that day in a subtle way, he stopped being a 12 year old boy.
Earlier I told you about our first experience with the Burren back in the 60’s. When I told John I thought it was a pretty frightful area he said, “Mr. Bellairs, you haven’t really seen it. Also something new is going on up there!"
The result was that in 1973 John drove us up to a cave that had been discovered in the Burren. It was called Aillwee Cave. That’s the Gaelic word for bear. The bones of a prehistoric bear had been found deep in the cave, hence the name. The cave was near Ballyvaughn at the north end of the Burren. We drove up a narrow twisting, one way road about half way up one of the grey limestone mountains. There we found a simple house trailer and a man selling tickets. I think it was 50P.
The cave was just a hole in the mountain. Light bulbs had been strung. The cave did not go back very far. It did not seem like a very big deal. Maybe we walked a couple of hundred yards back. After seeing American caves, I was not convinced that this was a good expedition. The Irish were impressed. We tried to be.
My, what has been done to the Ailliwee Cave. It is now a must see for all tourists. They have improved the road, provided for parking, and built an elegant entrance of natural Burren stone. The interior is large enough to include a nice souvenir shop, even a restaurant and a bar. From an environmental approach it is perfect. All this, and a cave that is now opened, with guided tours included to a depth of about half a mile. Now I received my Burren education.
It is a vast labyrinth of underground caves and fissures. It was on this trip that John got us out of the car, and we walked gingerly over the rough, gouged limestone. He pointed out plants and tiny flowers, even orchids, that made each square yard appear to be a separate rock garden. One does need to get nose-down into those cracks to really appreciate the corner of Ireland called the Burren. It is totally unique.
The long lens view from the Burren picks up first the three Aran Islands, lets you gaze across miles and miles of Galway Bay and pick up the mountains of Connemara on the distant horizon. The close up view of some of nature’s most rugged landscape once caused one of Cromwell’s soldiers to utter this truism: “There’s not a tree to hang a man, water to drown him, or earth to bury him."
I was wrong. The Burren is a small area, just 100 square miles. It is rugged and beautiful once you get up close and look.
Back at Liscrona, every day we were faced with the real world.
We had a big one, and this one could not be ignored. Typhoid fever or worse lurked. Ted Cavanaugh, by law, had created two bathrooms on the lower level adjoining his pub area. In one of the bathrooms there was a tub. Lo and behold, we began to see raw sewage coming up into the tub.
George Kline and I scratched our heads, prowled around outside, ran lengths of wire here and there and came up with nothing. We were about due to leave and I did what I should have done earlier. I went to visit Michael Galvin. Remember, he and his family lived across from Lynch’s. Michael had the reputation for being able to do almost anything. He had built his own house and he functioned all over the area as “Mr. Fixer." We had met Michael a few times, so I went to see him.
“Michael, I wonder if you can build us a septic system. We are in a real mess and have to go back to the U.S. There must be an old system of some kind since people have lived here for so may years, but we cannot find any sign of it. Do whatever needs to be done. We can’t go on without being able to flush a toilet."
The Irish in most cases are slow to volunteer. They are a bit shy, and never say, “Here, I’ll take over."
It was not till later that I was to discover that Michael, as a young man, had worked for many of the previous owners and he knew more about Liscrona than anyone. He knew its history, all the good things that had been done as well as the bad. Had I not gone to him, he would never have come to me. It would not have been proper.
Over the years Michael and Nora, their children John and Geraldine, have become our family. Michael is the brother I never had. We truly are bonded at the hip, the heart and the head. Our life in Ireland was possible because of them.
Over the winter, Michael took on a horrible job. He had to probe for the possible location of an ancient sewer system. He dug holes in a large semi-circle out in front with no success. Finally, in desperation, he took a can of paint, dumped it in a toilet and then went down to the cliffs some 200 yards from the house. He waited, and finally there was a splash of color. The paint had made its way down to a concealed opening on the cliff side. He took a sighting from there back to the house, dug a final hole and hit the system, 200 yards of stone shaped like a tunnel. It was the same stone that had been used in the construction of the house 140 years earlier. So back there in 1840 they had flushing toilets when most people had to make do with an out house or the open field.
Michael tied all the sewer lines into the old system and the job was accomplished. We never had any problems again, at least in that department and he never went into details about the days he spent digging and probing. With that twinkle in the eye he said, “Mal, those toilets will be good as new 200 years from now, and that sewer system will last forever."
I realize, if you have any plumber in you, you are now asking how they developed water pressure. I will explain. In the old days, there was a well just outside the kitchen and one of the do it yourself hand pumps. Each morning one or two of the workers had the job of hand pumping water from the well up to a tank in the attic. There they had gravity to supply the house for a day. On one occasion, we were able to meet a man named O’Brien who worked at Liscrona as a boy. One of his jobs was the pumping of the water. His father was the gardener and his mother was the cook. As we sat in our living room with him, his comment was, “Ah, I’d never have thought that I’d just sit in the grand house." He also told us a strange story that I will tell later.
As long as we are on the subject of utilities at Liscrona, here is one for you. Liscrona was one of the first houses in the west of Ireland to have electricity. The owner named Griffin, back in the early 1900’s, installed a whole wall of storage batteries in one of the out-buildings just off the kitchen. He also purchased a generator. His system was simple. The batteries supplied lights for the house, probably a small number of the most essential. When the charge in the cells got down to a certain point, the generator kicked in and re-charged the batteries. So they enjoyed an unusual degree of sophistication for the time.
The bits and pieces of Liscrona’s past kept coming to us and it was fascinating. Stories from Michael kept popping up at the most unusual times.
I must mention that there was another great fixer-upper who was a lifetime friend of John Lynch. His name was Packie Keating. He and his wife Mary, lived with their children in Carrigaholt. Packie was the auto mechanic for every car in the neighborhood. Additionally, he was a fisherman and owned his own boat. He also played the concertina and loved his nights in the pubs. Packie was a great Irish character who came to rescue us late on night when a pipe broke and turned our stairway into waterfall.