Now we had time and the dollars to concentrate more on Liscrona.
To us, the 27 acres of Liscrona property were a piece of the United States of America in Ireland. We decided to prove to one and all that we were in reality, a bit of America. I asked Michael to do a project for us. We talked about a pair of flag poles to be erected in front, one on the right and one on the left. The plot was hatched over the transatlantic phone. Michael got the picture. I went to the VFW in Woodstock and I asked them to order flags, big ones, one United States and the other Irish. Both came just before we were to leave for Ireland.
As we drove up our lane to the house there were two flag poles about 20’ tall, painted white, set in a concrete base in a kind of sleeve so they could be taken down in winter. The ropes were ready to be attached, along with the snaps adjusted to the size of the flags. Michael had known exactly what to do. In 2 minutes we had our flags up flappin in the breeze — a beautiful sight. From that day on, whenever we were in residence, the flags flew. Every day Shannon River traffic sailed past our house. On more than one occasion, a passing freighter would give us a friendly toot as I would be either raising or lowering the colors.
Michael and I had a little game we played. We never spoke of it. We both enjoyed it. As you face the Shannon, I would raise the American flag on the right hand pole, the Irish on the left. Whenever Michael raised the flags he would reverse the flags, Irish on the right and ours on the left...it was our game.
Over the years, dozens of our friends have visited Liscrona, many when we were not there. The flag raising and then lowering at sunset became our tradition.
My friend John Miller, an ex U.S. marine, was so serious about it that we would be required to march across the lawn to the pole for the lowering. All we needed was the sound of the trumpet blowing retreat. Believe me, the flags were always folded properly when John was in charge.
A number of times local boy scout troops asked us if they could camp out in the fields. We always gave them permission and they used the flag poles for their own ceremonies. We would watch from our living room as 15 or 20 scouts with leaders would do the Irish raising-lowering. Sometimes we joined in with them. We loved it. Our two flags flying side by side made us feel very good. I longed for a small cannon to add spice to the flag ceremonies, but I fear the local Gardai would have misunderstood our good intentions.
We gave the scouts permission to prowl the woods for campfire wood, and they did a fine job helping to keep everything tidy. It was interesting to us that in Ireland we found their scout troops consisted of both boys and girls, and there did not seem to be any problems. They were fine young people. What pleased me the most was their interest in our woods. On more than one occasion, I would come upon them doing my job, cutting the ivy off the trees, slashing away at the blackberry brambles and cutting back dead branches. In return, we baked them cookies. Liscrona loved young voices.
Maria and I had an idea. John Lynch had done so much for us over the years, advising, answering questions, telling stories, making us feel at home and keeping our accounts straight, that we felt we should do something for John. We invited him to come to the U.S. with us, stay in our home where he would see many of our friends who had visited Liscrona. He could also plan to visit his friends and living relatives at the same time. The visit would come in August, and it would be about 3 weeks in duration. We suggested that he buy some light clothes, Irish wool in the states in August being a definite threat to an Irishman’s blood pressure.
John was excited. This was his first visit to America since his family had left. I am including a couple of articles written about his trip1. It was quite an event.
Before we left, I recall one of John’s little granddaughters saying, "Granddad, is America as far as Kilkee?" The truth is, the Irish do not have the same wanderlust that we Americans have. One year when we drove John to Dingle with us, about 60 miles, we were amazed to find out that it was his first time there.
About half way across the Atlantic on an AerLingus 747, I had quite an experience. I arose from my seat and entered the nearest toilet. The tap was flowing and the water was just about to slosh over the top. I opened the door and called one of the flight attendants. She let out a nice squeak and ran for the phone to call the captain. I figured we’d be a swamp if something did not get done in a hurry. So, I dropped to my knees, not a very nice position in a toilet that has been used hundreds of times. I pulled off a wall panel, scrounged around and found a valve. With three wide eyed young flight attendants, exclaiming from the open door, "Glory be to God, he’s saved the ship!" I closed the valve.
To express their undying gratitude in preventing the plane, St. Bridget by name, from becoming a swamp, I was given a package containing two bottles of champagne.
Maria and I had left our car with the kids just outside New York so we took a limo to the hotel as planned. John’s American experience had begun. About half an hour later there was a tap on our door. John was in the room next to us. He was wringing wet.
“Mal, will you show me how to work the shower? I’m for sure getting drowned!"
Another half hour passed and John returned, “Mal, there are two beds in my room."
“Yes John, what’s the problem?"
“Well, if the place fills up will they rent the bed next to me?"
“No John, you get both beds."
There was a pause and John commented, “Now that’s a terrible waste!"
Obviously John had been worrying about the fact that he was carrying considerable cash and he was concerned about hiding it so that person in the next bed couldn’t find it. You cannot be too safe, and after all, he was in America the home of lots of bad guys. With John’s problems out of the way, I put Maria to bed and John and I both drank a bottle of champagne that I had earned on the flight.
We planned to leave the next morning and after retrieving our car, we were to drive up to York Beach, Maine where our Wilmette friends, Dave and Adelaide Meskill have a summer home on the ocean. John told me that he had made plans too. He wanted to go to Canada, then back with us to Chicago. Then he wanted to fly out to California to visit our kids, and as long as he was there he would go down to see some of Mexico. Then he would fly back to us and in a few days fly down to Miami to visit his elderly godmother and Disneyworld, and finally fly up to Washington D.C. and then to Providence, Rhode Island to visit cousins. I suggested that might be a bit much and we decided to take it a day at a time. Let John see the size of America for himself.
The next morning when we left, I put a map in his lap. John tended to drop off to sleep frequently. When he would wake up he would say, “Where are we?" I would show him, and about the third time he said, “Is that as far as we’ve gone?"
We had a fine reunion with Meskills. All of us had lobster. John had steak. Incidentally, he likes it done till it is like a brown, black slab of wood. “That’s well done, can’t stand the sight of bloody meat," said John.
We traveled on to Niagra Falls where John stood midst the spray and roar and said, “Any Irish plumber with a wrench could fix that in 20 minutes!"
John loves his jokes. We continued across Canada, stopped somewhere for the night and at the end of dinner, I ordered Irish coffee which came with powdered sugar, the spray can of whipped cream and a green mint sauce over the top. John gave up on Canada by muttering, “Man should never put sugar in good Irish whiskey." It was awfully awful Irish coffee.
Upon arriving at our home, John got in touch with all his Irish relatives on the south side of Chicago. One was Jimmy Powers, brother of our dairy farm friend Paddy. Jim came to call and took John up to Milwaukee’s Irish Fest. Of all things, another Irish bash. John returned somewhat dejected, “I’ve heard all that stuff a million times. Besides I got my ears sun burned."
By now John had figured that California and Mexico were too far away but Florida was a must. His godmother must be seen. So off he flew. Upon his return he reported that the old lady drove like she was chased by the devil, up to 90 miles an hour with cars passing on both sides. Yes, they did do Disneyworld.
“Ah God help us, there were queues everywhere for everything, and the weather was fierce. I found the only place that was air conditioned. I spent most my time there — the men’s room."
So after his taste of Florida in August, John flew north to Washington. He visited Maria’s sister Dorothy and then went on to Providence where he met relatives. He visited the cemetery and reported that there were a lot of changes everywhere he went.
Upon his return to Ireland, John reported he was happy to be home. He said he kissed the ground. I am not sure I believe that part of the story. More likely he thought about it.
Here are a couple of asides on this man, John Lynch, The Remarkable Publican. John kept a book, actually a number of books. In them he gathered the names, addresses and comments of all the people who came to Lynch’s. On one occasion, David and Adelaide Meskill were paying their first visit to Liscrona and naturally they visited Lynch’s Pub and met John. It was 1974. They signed the book and included Wilmette, Illinois as home. John said "Hmm," went to his kitchen, came back with a ladder, climbed up into the loft over the bar and returned with an old beat up book. He said, "I had someone here some years back, a woman from Wilmette." He opened to the page and the date was 1946. When David and Adelaide returned to Wilmette, they tracked her down. Yes, she remembered John.
John is our teller of Kerryman jokes. He has a million of them. They do not depict Kerry people as being too bright. I am sure they have Clareman jokes. Those that you have been seeing scattered through these pages are just a few of John’s favorites. His eyes light up when he has a new joke to tell. He even tells his Kerryman jokes to visitors from Kerry and no one takes offense. The Irish are unpredictable, but humor is an essential part of life2.
In 1990 I was asked to do an article on Irish golf. With wonderful courses all around the west of Ireland, many of our guests came to test their skill. I have listened and watched. I am a terrible golfer myself, but I put this one3 together for North Shore Magazine which is popular all over Chicagoland. I have always enjoyed watching other people play golf and I wish I could be a Greg Norman, provided I could just play the game without all the practice, lessons and work.
The Irish are extremely good at the game of golf. They usually carry a small bag with no more than 3 or 4 clubs. They never seem to hover over the ball testing the wind, doing practice strokes and all the rest. They just walk up, take a look and knock the heck out of the ball.
A golf story overheard in the clubhouse:
“I’m listenin’ to these gents. It is about 165 yards to the green — par 3 and easy. Up comes this Yank. I didn’t know what sort of a golfer he was, but I’ll say this, he was very well dressed."
“This should be good for a 7 iron and a putt," says yer man to the caddie whose face was red from strugglin’ with the size of the bag. With that yer man hits the ball and it goes about 10 yards tricklin’ along the ground. There was silence for a minute and, God help us, I hope yer man didn’t hear us roarin’ in the clubhouse.
The caddie was chewin’ his gum and he didn’t move a muscle of his face except he got out the putter and says, “I’m afraid it is goin’ to be a hell of a putt, sir!"
I think we began to get smart in the early 80’s. We could see the many things that needed to be done to Liscrona. So we brought Michael into the picture and had a long talk.
We laid out jobs that were essential, not the ones to beautify the house but the ones to protect her from becoming derelict. These were projects like rewiring the house, new gutters and down spouts, new windows, roof repair, a new heating plant, a new pump for the well and work on the storage tank, and we were in need of a new bathroom. These were the essential jobs and Liscrona was crying for help.
This is the way we worked. At the end of each year’s visit, we would sit down with Michael and lay out the jobs to be accomplished over the winter whenever he had the time, outside work in good weather and indoors in the cold and wet time.
I am not going to make an attempt to get to my diary and report our inch by inch progress, but over the next ten years, Michael saved Liscrona and made her more beautiful than it had ever been. Yes, he was even able to rebuild three of the chimneys. He worked from pictures we had and actually duplicated the originals. That was a cosmetic touch we appreciated.
As soon as the house was protected from the elements, he started to work inside, replastered old walls, and completely blocked out any signs of damp. He built two new bathrooms, created an entirely new kitchen, removed old carpets and restored the hard wood floors to their original state. There was no inch of Liscrona that did not get a total going over. Of course, each year we were doing our share with new linoleum for the lower level, new carpet in all the bedrooms, new beds, a new refrigerator, reupholstering chairs and Maria the interior designer was having the time of her life, making it all go together. We even bought electric blankets for every bed.
All these projects never stopped our good times and the steady stream of guest who came to visit. Michael was able to do remarkable things.
As we moved along through the decade we enlarged the team. Nora, Michael’s wonderful wife became in charge of the house, the inside. She and Maria went through it together so she could see how Maria liked everything done. Then Nora took over. Liscrona became her house and she took pride in every room.
The old days of the house being vacant and cold were gone. Michael had installed a heating system that automatically turned on for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple about sunset. There was no longer a musty odor. Also Michael or Nora visited every day just to see that everything was going well. There was also Nora’s’ kitchen window that had direct view of our lane and no car could approach without Nora spotting it. We also enlisted John Lynch to be our money handler. We opened an account in the Allied Irish Bank so John could pay all the bills, and we had plenty of them. It would have been nearly impossible for me to have tried to keep accounts from America.
I have to tell you that we were so thrilled with every step along the way. Every year when we would arrive, Michael’s eyes would be shining with pride as he would walk us around to look at his accomplishments. Sometimes he would surprise us with unscheduled jobs. His judgment was always right. We never were displeased with anything he did. I really believe that Michael and Nora lived for Liscrona and the chance to see us acting like little children, jumping up and down with excitement. These were wonderful years for all of us.
Then there is the side of Nora that appealed to my stomach. Each year when we arrived for our visit, and always beset with jet lag, Nora and Michael and John would be waiting for us in the kitchen at Liscrona. Fresh flowers would be everywhere, the turf fires would be going and Nora would have breakfast ready. Her scones and homemade strawberry jam bring tears to my eyes just thinking about them. The tea, the Irish soda bread and then a rhubarb tart with Irish cream …recollection slays me.
This delivery system would go on week after week. With Nora’s baking and the fresh vegetables from Michael’s garden, the Irish tender loving care was certainly appreciated. It continued from the early 80’s as long as we were there with no sign of let up. The generosity extended to our guests who would report to us how they had fallen in love with Nora and her world-class baking.
The projects continued. Year after year we gave parties for a steadily increasing number of Irish friends and we will admit how proud we were of the results. Liscrona loved parties.
Michael began to think about the exterior of Liscrona. Our fields were tidy because we rented the land to a neighbor farmer named Paddy Powers. Our agreement was that Paddy would keep the hedgerows trimmed and by cutting the hay the fields would stay in shape. In the fall, with the help of a moveable electric fence, Paddy was able to bring his herd of about 35 cows for grazing. We loved looking out our living room windows and watching the old girls chomp on our grass.
Michael’s first exterior effort was directed to a large area just east of our front door, another area about 40x40 just south of the house, and another area on the west side. In the old days, beautiful lawns surrounded Liscrona. Over the years, while we were rescuing the house, these places became an overgrown wreck. Michael brought down his own tiny lawn mower, and after a good scything and a generous application of fertilizer, Mother Nature came to the rescue. Grass does grow in Ireland and there is no need for a sprinkler system. We told Michael to go out and buy the best self propelled mower he could find. From that moment on, the sight of Michael going round and round was a weekly occasion. The lawn on the east side became the scene of many a ferocious croquet match.
With the 20 foot tall and shiny Escalonia bushes that lined our driveway and now our lawns, we were becoming respectable.
The next year we returned to Ireland to discover that Michael had gone to work in back. He had removed the two ugly oil tanks and put two new ones inside one of the small out buildings near our back door and next to the attached room that held our furnace. Then he rebuilt the 8 foot stone walls that extended in a semi circle around the rear of the house. This created an enclosed courtyard. Over the years previous owners had used this space as a junk gathering spot, just throwing things out in back.
When Michael removed all the mess, we saw weeds and plenty of neglect. He and I set out to spade up this whole hunk of real estate and remove the weeds. Michael would settle for nothing but examining every shovel full and extracting every root. We dug and dug. My hands blistered. My back ached. I thought I would die. Michael went along accomplishing twice as much as I with no physical problems at all. It was a joyous occasion working and talking together. Maria would bring us lunch and jugs of water. It was a hot period, well, at least to us slaving away. We finally got to the raking part. The soil was without weed, a root or a clod. Michael hand sewed the whole plot and then went up to the woods and cut a big branch. I could not imagine what it was for. He walked back and forth pulling the branch behind him. I understood. It was to put a little soil over the seed. He stood back, admired our work and explained to me that we had waited to attack this job till August because that was the proper time to plant grass. He said we would have grass in two weeks and we did.
From that time on, the lawn in our back yard protected from wind by the house and our wall, was a favorite place for lunches, reading the paper, the cocktail hour. Warm sunny days in Ireland are like pieces of gold. Over the years we created a rose garden in front of the wall. We named it Jo’s Garden. Michael cared for it, always knowing just when to water, to feed, or spray for bugs. Michael was a superb gardener. The ivy and climbing roses grew to nearly cover the wall, just what we wanted.
Just remembered and interesting development. One day when we were digging away in the back, we came upon a large clump of bullets. With age they had welded themselves into one mass. Michael analyzed it this way. Back in the early days an owner had taken his ammunition and concealed it in the pile of turf at the rear of the house. It had been forgotten or lost and gradually worked down into the soil. We did not know how stable those bullets were. Michael took them away for another burial.
The next year when we arrived we discovered Michael standing out in front with a look of fiendish glee. Maria took one look and started to cry. We had an extension of the big stone wall that ran at an angle from the corner of the house up the driveway toward the garage. There Michael again cleaned the whole area and created gardens on both sides of the front of the house and all along the wall. There were masses of sweet peas, peonies and more plants and flowers everywhere. It was entirely unexpected and a joy to see Maria’s face. Michael was mighty pleased with himself. That season Michael and I found Liscanor slate and made a nice stone bench where we could sit surrounded by flowers with a direct view across the Shannon. Oh Michael! I sit there still! In my thoughts and dreams here is the garden featuring Peggy and Jim Hughes, best friends from Milwaukee.
I want to talk about our land. Fields that grow hip high native grasses and flowers are fun to watch. I mean by that the fertilizing, the growing and the cutting. In the old days, it was done by horse and manpower. As the years progressed, the hay was converted to silage, all one quick process of cutting and storing, then the baling process, great round bales. Machinery replaced sweat.
My relation to our woods was like father to a child. To the east of Liscrona we owned a wonderful forest, I would guess about 8 acres. The trees had been there for 150 years, beech, maple, oak even palm trees and plenty of brambles and dead wood. We had huge rhododendron bushes, a whole carpet of bluebells in the spring, two species of ferns, ivy and sometime in the past someone had planted many pine trees. On the perimeter we had a 20 foot tall wall of an evergreen called Escalonia. Since the growing season never completely stops in Ireland, this woods was a magical, living place. My greatest satisfaction was working in the woods for days and days, year after year. I would take my slasher, a long sturdy staff with a curved sharp blade. I would slash away, cutting out the brambles and the ivy off the trees. Ivy is the devil. It grows up and around the tree, saps its energy and eventually kills the tree. Each year I had a lot of it to do over again but I made headway. I loved the being alone in my “primeval forest." As I sat to rest, the little birds were all around me. We provided a home for owls, hawks and whole families of pheasants. When the weather was cold or windy or soft, I could always find shelter in the woods and go about my business. Maria knew that if she needed me or if it was lunch time, she could ring the bell on our front porch and I would hear her.
Since all my life I have been involved in talking, I got my greatest pleasure from silently growing blisters on my hands, cutting the brambles to make way for forest plants and new trees now given space to grow. I could see I was making a difference. I found complete peace there in the woods.
I let it be known in the area that when trees died, it was okay, (with Michael supervising) to take out the trees for firewood. These old trees were useful for many families because in West Clare there are almost no woods. The old dried wood could be added to the turf fires, and on a cold winter night it was appreciated. I repeated many times that under no circumstances should any live tree be touched.
Each year when we arrived, I would make a bee line for the woods to see what was going on. I loved Liscrona’s woods.
North of the walled rear garden we had our apple orchard. It was almost inaccessible but Michael and I fought our way in, and after several years our orchard came back to life. In the early days this orchard produced a great quantity of fruit. One of the rooms in the lower level of Liscrona was called “The Apple Room." Each fall the apples were brought in and individually wrapped in paper. Over the winter Liscrona supplied the shops in Kilkee and Kilrush.
Most fields in Ireland are rectangular in shape and outlined with stone walls or hedgerows, but we had one round field. It was revealed to us that it once was a pony ring used by children.
The locals always seemed amazed at the joy we American city people found in our fields, hedgerows and woods. I am reminded of the old saying “so close to the woods you cannot see the trees."
It seems that there is always color in Ireland. The hedgerows of firze, or by another name “gorse," turn a rich gold color twice year. The rhododendron are multicolored from early spring to summer. The fuchsia, whole hedge rows of it and often 20 feet tall, are a rich red with summer blossoms. Masses of wild flowers take turns from May till Christmas. The ferns turn a lovely bronze in the fall along with beautiful Irish heather. Red holly berries are a part of Christmas time. Finally, roses love Ireland and bloom till Christmas and begin the process again in late February.
There is the title of a book if I ever read one. We were fascinated, bought the book in the spring of 1988, just before we departed for Ireland. All the way across the Atlantic, Maria simply devoured the book. Of course, it dealt with our neighbors. The town of Kilmihil is only 15 miles from Liscrona.
I will pick up the story two years earlier in 1986 when Niall Williams and his wife Christine Breen left good paying jobs in New York and all their American comforts to return to the rugged rural life of Ireland. Christine had inherited an old cottage and a few acres near the tiny community of Kilmihil just a few miles east of Kilrush. The only heat in the house was from the turf burning fireplace. Niall had to learn to cut the turf from a nearby bog, a back breaking job. They had no phone, almost no furniture, and they did not know anyone. Christine set out to salvage an overgrown garden. Niall’s assignment was to become an instant farmer.
I well remember that summer of 1986, their first exposure to Ireland. It rained all summer. I do not remember going anywhere when the windshield wipers were not flapping away. The weather made headlines. Farmers fields were flooded. Cows had to be sold because there would be no hay in the winter. We were warm and dry in Liscrona, but we felt the anguish of all our nieghbor farmers. What a time it was for Niall and Christine.
That is the subject of the book, which in addition to all their problems, was further complicated by their desire to start a family but to no avail.
We loved the book and when we got our jet lag under control in May of 1988 Maria said, “I’m going to call them." She found that by this time they did have a phone. She reached Niall, told him who we were and asked them if they would be able to come over for dinner and swap some Irish stories. One question was answered when Niall said, “We’ll have to find a babysitter." They had adopted a baby. How nice for them.
The result was that we got together in July. It was a great evening. We had much in common and Niall filled us in on the complications in becoming authors of a best seller. He related how Americans would come storming up the road to “discover" if Niall and Christine did actually exist. They would demand to see the old chair that is mentioned in the book, insist on tours of the garden, the farm and the house. These two had become celebrities and were paying the price of public adoration. With a real gleam in his eyes, Niall told us about a “care package" they had received in a large box. When opened, they found two Chicago Bears winter sideline jackets. A note said, “The Chicago Bears and Mike McCaskey." Evidently, Mike, a man with Irish-ancestors, had read the book and reacted to Ireland’s cold and damp. Niall and Christine admitted they practically lived in those jackets.
Then there were the letters, hundreds of them, and a large proportion said, “What a wonderful life you’re having! We’d like to do the same. Can you advise us?"
Niall told us that one woman was particularly turned on to the idea of moving to Ireland. She reported that she had a substatial sum of money, wanted to buy a small inn or a B & B and emigrate. Niall wrote back to her suggesting she consider all the changes the move would cause, the weather and the having to start over in her life. He did not want her to jump too quickly. As it turned out, she went right ahead, came to Ireland and bought a two story B&B at the end of Dingle close to Slea Head. She look right out toward the Blashet Islands, the pounding Atlantic ocean and the wind swept coastline. The paint on the outside of her establishment is fairly extreme and the walls are covered with large painted teddy bears. The inside of her B&B is filled with assorted types of her bears. Do not ask me why. The four of us did have quite a discussion about what gets into people to cause them to make such drastic moves.
At one point, Maria came right out and asked Christine if she could continue to take the difficulties of their life style. Her reply was a simple, “I don’t know."
So far as we know, they have mangaged. Christine is a better than average painter and there is a lot to paint in Ireland. Niall has written and directed winning one act plays as well as a play that was produced at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. He also produced a local version of “West Side Story," no small feat. Two more books have been turned out, and not too long ago Charles Kuralt arrived with camera crew and spent almost a week documenting life in Kilmihil with Niall and Christine. They have received priceless television exposure in the United States which is critical for those who write books.
So back there in July of 1988, after a big meal, lots of talk and armed with a box of our homemade chocolate chip cookies, they left for home leaving us the open invitation to “drop by." We never did. It seemed to us that they had plenty of Americans doing just that without our adding to the list. We wished them well and admired their courage.
The autographs in the front of the book that they brought us read:
To Mal and Maria,
Thank you for the wonderful evening and the chocolate chip cookies.
All the best,
Christine Breen Niall Williams
It was Maria who hatched this one. It also became a tradition. We were there on the 4th of July. The Fourth is just another day in Ireland but Maria decided something should be done. There were just four of us at Liscrona but Maria decided we should have a parade down Doonaha’s main street. Since this is the only street, we could hardly be ignored. Maria made tri-corner hats for the four of us. I carried our flag. Maria carried the drum, a big kettle with spoon. Pat and friend carried pot lids to substitute for cymbals. We waited till we knew that Lynch’s would be full. We drove our car to the top of the street by the church, got out, formed our parade and proceeded down the road, banging away. Our audience was not huge or receptive. Nora Galvin, alone, heard us. She came to the front door and waved a dish towel at us. Encouraged by our success, we burst into the door of the pub and I mean burst. All together we sang:
We are Yankee Doodle Dandies
Yankee Doodles do or die.
Real live nephews of our Uncle Sam
Born on the 4th of July.
Yes, we are Yankee Doodle Dandies.
We have traveled from afar.
All the way to Doonaha
A riding on our ponies
We are the Yankee Doodlers!!!
Well, the old boys almost died. They howled, roared and almost fell off their bar stools. Nothing this bad had ever happened. We ended up being forced to sing our song three more times. Then we bought a round for the house.
Our first 4th of July had been noted. Maria was toasted by the crowd. She was the hero! After all, it was her idea.
The story of our first 4th of July spread throughout the community and the next year the Irish were waiting for us. Obviously we had to top the preceding year’s celebration. By luck, we had a larger group for the parade. We had one of Jeff’s friends with a trumpet. He could actually play it. We had a kazoo section and a lot more percussion. The parade was almost a parade and when we marched into the pub we passed out small American flags for one and all. Lynch’s was more crowded than ever but still something was missing.
We had it! Fireworks! Of course, they were totally against the law. No plane would allow them as luggage. The Irish customs guards hated any form of explosives. That was understood.
Somehow a supply arrived and the word got around that when it was dark, about midnight, there would be fireworks. Everyone turned up. All the children came. Most of them including parents who had never been close to fireworks. No, we did not do a Chicago type show and we did not have explosives. We had sparklers, some sky rockets, roman candles, cones, that sort of thing. Michael Galvin and I took our supply inside the school yard behind the wall and the crowd formed in the road on the other side. It was so exciting. We passed out sparklers to the children and you have never seen such eyes. Anything that went up in the sky caused such oohs and ahs! We were a huge success. Life in the pub and out in the road continued till very late. The Gardai, happily for us, did not make an appearance. On a scale of 1–10 we were a 10.
And so it went on year after year. One year our dear friend Ed Wolowiec who owns the Port Edward Restaurant in Algonquin came to visit. Ed is a talented musician and he brought his flute. The Irish love music. Ed also brought green T-shirts with “O’Curry Arms, Doohaha, Ireland" on them. Everyone in the parade wore one. He played and played and you have never heard such silence. Ed admits he is not James Galway, but for us all he was “The Best in the West." Now we had to plan for yet bigger and better for the following year.
Maria bought me a set of bagpipes. No, I could not play them, but they made a fine decoration on the outer reception wall. Here was my idea for the next year’s festivities. Ed owned a small stereo cassette player with two tiny speakers that could generate considerable volume. I went to a friend in Woodstock who has a recording studio and found a tape of a pipe doing MacNamara’s Band. We made a cassette and took it and Ed’s cassette player with us. On the big night our troop once again slipped up to the church and formed up. Maria tied the pipes on me. Really, it was the only way. They were flopping all over. Someone alerted the Pub and everyone came outside. There I did a solo. Maria pushed the start button and I marched down the street pantomiming like crazy. The crowd got into it and started singing. I stomped around, squeezed the bellows or whatever you call it, and faked like mad. I will never know for sure but I do think some of them thought I really was playing. One of the old boys came up to me later and said, “That was grand. You know there’s good money being paid to pipe at weddings." I did not tell him I only could play one song.
One year, I cannot remember which, we went to Michael and asked him about live music for the affair. Michael knew everyone and hired a group called the Bannermen. They came every 4th of July for a long time and became family. After the parade they would play for dancing. Then all would go outside for fireworks and back for serious pubbing. These were good times. The 4th of July made its mark.
Over time, we had many a long discussion about Irish food. One interesting fact was that there was no such thing as Irish corned beef and cabbage. They just did not know what corned beef was. Perhaps by now they do. Irish bacon and cabbage is different in that the bacon is like a chunk of uncured ham. Combined with cabbage tit is a staple food of County Clare people. I doubt if Dubliners know about it.
We decided to bring American corned beef to Ireland. Just like fireworks, it is not legal to import meat products. Somehow the word went out to all people coming to Ireland. Purchase a good sized corned beef. Wrap it carefully and freeze. Bring it! At the 4th of July affair we provided food, loaves and loaves of bread and trays and trays of corned beef. The Irish are great eaters with huge appetites. You should have been there.
We were aware that the whole community looked forward to our 4th of July parties. We loved the togetherness we all shared. I believe the summer of 1992 was a climax. We decided to start with a big picnic on our front lawn and we invited the village and many families from the area. It just so happened that it was a perfect day, warm and no wind. We moved all the tables and chairs out to the front. Gwen and John Miller were there and we all worked like mad. Maria and Gwen made tons of potato salad. I set up my Weber grill out front and we had a hamburger, potato salad, beer bash to end all. Everybody came including the Bannermen and their wives. There between our two countries’ flags we had a genuine home town picnic.
Later that evening the weather turned on us and by the time for fireworks, the rain was coming down in sheets. We stayed inside and danced, sang and partied. I promised we would do the fireworks before we were scheduled to leave on August 3rd.
Word went out. August 2nd was the night. We had a much larger than normal supply of fireworks. A contact in Japan and Ireland had obtained the "good stuff" and by some quirk of fate it had arrived intact.
The crowd assembled outside and the night was calm. Well, we really did it. We rattled windows for miles. Our sky rockets out did anything we’d ever presented before. We even amazed ourselves. Michael and I were brilliant.
As we reached our smoky climax and were congratulating each other, we saw the headlights of a car hurtling toward us. The local Gardai pulled up, rolled down his window and without any sign of good humor gritted out, "And what’s going on here?"
If you remember that was the very day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I, still high with delight over our celebration, came out with, “Didn’t you hear, the Iraqis have just invaded Ireland!" It was not the best reply. With a steely look he said, “I should have known you’d be mixed up with this. Now let me tell you what you’ve done. The lighthouse across the river in Kerry saw the rockets you fired and thinks a ship is sinking in the river. He called the rescue service in Shannon Airport and they are about to send a helicopter to the rescue." With that he reached for his phone and called Shannon. “You can call it off. It is just the bloody Yanks having themselves a party."
He gave me a stern look and one of the locals behind me whispered, “Ah, take no note of him. This keeps them on their toes." With that he rolled up his window while growling, "Let’s have no more of this!"
He roared off and everybody cheered. We retired to the pub and the rest of the night I could not buy a drink. I became the Hero of County Clare. At one point there were 6 pints of Guiness and three Irish whiskies on the bar in front of me.
In 1993 on July 2, the Sergeant came to call. We invited him in for a cup of tea. We talked about the weather, our guests, the big football match and finally as I was trying to figure out just why he had come, he let it slip out, “Oh about the 4th of July!" So that was it.
I responded, “Sergeant, we haven’t any fireworks at all this year. Our source has dried up."
With relief he said, “Well, I just thought I ought to inquire. We’ll miss the excitement."
It was obvious. I had been forgiven for my sins.
Americans who visit Ireland are always curious about “turf." I think in America it is more often called peat, right?First of all, turf is only possible in an environment that is wet, where organic material grows all year long and layer after layer grow and die on top of each other. This decomposed product, when extracted from the land and dried will burn. It is the basic fuel for heat and cooking in Ireland except in the cities where oil and coal and gas prevail.
Here is how it works in the rural area where we lived. Each family either owns or rents a piece of land in the bog. In the summer after the hay has been cut, often the whole family will "go to the bog for cuttin the turf." It is a hard, wet, dirty job, with the strongest men using a long, narrow type shovel called a slane. Turf is extracted in layers. If you have traveled through the bog areas you have seen the long trenches. The cutter, working knee deep in the muck, slices out a wet block of turf and flips it up out of the trench. His wife or the kids will make small piles in such a way that the air can blow through and dry the brick sized blocks. After several weeks of drying time they will return to the bog and load the turf in a trailer or wagon and take it home. In the old days a donkey bore the load with a large woven basket filled with the turf on either side of him, like saddle bags. The neat, round, black stacks of turf are a part of every farmer’s yard.
In many homes the turf fire never goes out. Sometimes coal is added to lift the heat level. Wood is usually not available.
In recent times a process has been developed to compress the turf into hard black pieces, similar to our charcoal. It is generally considered to be too "dear."
Also huge machines have been created that actually move through the bog and mechanically do the cutting. Usually the bogs are too small to handle their size.The farmer still goes himself to lay in his winter supply of turf. When you see a farmer whose face is fire engine red, you know he has just come from the sun and the wind and the back breaking work in the bog. The smell of a good turf fire is superior to any perfume in the world.
*Turf Note: When starting a turf fire, go first to a hardware store and buy "Fire Starters" in packages of 12. The fire starter when lit will start the turf burning in its slow fashion.
Patience is required.
John Lynch was nearing his 65th birthday when he experienced what his doctor termed, “a slight heart attack." John has always been quite aware of his health, his weight, his blood pressure and the IDEA that exercise can be very harmful. Over the years, John’s monthly letters to me always briefed me on his health, and usually concluded with, “Well Mal, so far I’m cheatin’ the undertaker."
You can easily deduce that his “heart attack" was of some concern to John. He was in his bed contemplating just how close he was to the great beyond. It just so happened that his bedroom was located just off the bar and the door was open. Two of John’s old friends were sitting there by the fire, puffing on their pipes and having a pint when after a long sigh one said, “Ah, tis a sad thing. Looks like poor old John will only be needing one more clean white shirt!"
The implication was obvious. John heard this, rose out of bed and has continued “cheatin’ the undertaker" ever since.
I have been sitting here for sometime wondering just how to approach this delicate subject. The good times are easy. The bad times fight me. I do not want to be judgmental and most of all I don’t want to hurt my old friend, John Lynch. If I am to be honest, however, I am obliged to describe the event that shook a community and changed our life in Ireland.
John had become 65. That is the age when the Irish can retire and go on pension. Now, John did have that small heart attack, and he was growing weary. He was tired of the noise, the smoke, the pulling pints hour after hour and all that involved running the pub.
John made the decision to retire and give the ownership of the pub to his daughter Roseanne. She was young and attractive, a nurse by profession, and we knew her well. She had even traveled to the U.S. and visited us. There were four brothers, but John decided on Roseanne who by this time was married to a local, a farmer named John Harvey.
So Roseanne and John Harvey took over and made some critical decisions. They decided to build a whole new house just west of Lynch’s Pub using a portion of the building for family living quarters and the remainder for their pub which would be named “O’Curry Arms." The old pub would be closed, stripped and converted to a house they could rent. I have to assume that the memories Roseanne had of growing up in the tight quarters of the old pub, her brothers sleeping up in the loft, etc. must have been the one thing in the world she would not want to continue.
The project was begun and over a period of time the largest house in Doonaha was constructed. John had his bedroom upstairs. The bar was a plain and simple area with a modest grocery corner, and a simple fireplace. There were small tables and benches for patrons.
It was the end of an era and it nearly killed us. While it was none of our business, nevertheless, we were hurt and we were not alone in our feeling of loss. We missed John’s always being there. We missed the old chairs and the fireplace. At one point Roseanne said that her business was with the young people of Ireland. They were her customers of the future and they were all tired of that old stuff. Yes, sentimental. I have always felt that Ireland gave me something I could not find anywhere else in the world, and a big part of that was the warmth of Lynch’s Pub. I will not linger over the facts of life in Doonaha over the next two years.
Roseanne’s family was growing. She had a difficult job being both mother and a publican. She and John Harvey both disliked the business and eventually the O’Curry Arms was closed. She returned to being a nurse and John went back to farming and construction jobs. The result was a final death blow to that tiny community.
There was no longer a place to gather. When mass was over there was no meeting at the pub to pick up the newspaper, have that pint or just talk to neighbors. It was the same thing after funerals, confirmations, weddings and baptisms. There was no longer a place for the old boys to sit by a fire and just talk to each other. The children lost the place to buy their sweets. Mothers could not drop by for a loaf of bread or a pound of butter. There was no place to gather and watch the telly when Clare was playing Kerry in a big match.
The street that used to be packed with cars was empty. Happy people crowded together and singing their hearts out in Lynch’s Pub were no longer there.
It all just went away. Sad! Silent! Dark!
One of my favorite memories of Ireland concerns an experience we had one Sunday afternoon as we waited in a long line for the ferry to transport us across the Shannon. There had been a greatly anticipated football match in Killarney between the County Kerry and County Clare teams. The crowd making its way back to Clare was large. The single line of cars extended for at least half a mile.
It so happens that there is, in addition to the ferry landing, an oil fired power station located at the point of embarkation. The entrance to the station is about 100 yards from the ferry and it is necessary to keep a lane open so employees can come and go. Consequently, a large warning is painted at that junction. “NO STANDING!"
On the day in question, Maria and I were the second car before that opening in the road, the “NO STANDING" zone. We were indeed surprised to see a car come whipping down the road past all the other cars and pull into that very open spot. There were four adults in the car. After a few moments of consideration, an Irishman in the car in front of us opened his door, got out and walked up to the sedan firmly lodged in the “NO STANDING" zone. He tapped on the window and said, “Ye can’t be here. See the signs. Get back to the foot of the queue!" I heard every word. There was no response. All four passengers looked straight ahead. The request was repeated in a firm but not belligerent tone. No result, except they locked the doors.
With that “our man" walked past to the car behind us. Three men emerged and all four walked back to the scene. Again, he tapped on the window and repeated his request. No reaction.
With that, the four men each went to a wheel and knelt down. They let the air out of all four tires, made no comments, and just returned to their cars. The ferry came and we all pulled around the car sitting there with four flat tires. We sailed away.
I have often wondered just what those four people did about their problem. There were at least 3 miles from the village of Killimer and possible assistance. Did they carry a hand pump with them?
Irish justice had been administered, no bashed in windows, no profanity, no obvious rage!
Moral: Do not jump queues in Ireland!
Since, by this time, you have shared many of our experiences in Ireland, I think we ought to talk about eating or buying and preparing meals when you are living there. The dumb story that the Irish do not know how to cook food is just that …dumb. However, the Irish do have preferences that are sometimes difficult for Americans.
When traveling around the country and staying in B&B’s the breakfast is large and pretty much the same wherever you go. Coffee or tea, juice, dry cereal, rasher (bacon to us), one egg or two up or over and half a broiled tomato with toast. For some reason the lady of the house will serve you store bought white bread unless you ask for her brown bread. I think she feels white bread is what Americans prefer.
Usually breakfast is so substantial that lunch can be small or ignored. One kindness to the Irish is this: ask for breakfast no earlier than 9:00 if possible. Early rising is hard on the Irish.
For the Irish, lunch is the big meal of the day so for us we went for “pub grub." Enter the pub and find the menu at the bar. Soup is a good starter, usually pureed and excellent. It is smart to check on the sandwich. To the Irish a sandwich can consist of 2 slices of bread with 1 slice of cheese, or 1 slice of ham. It is smart to specify your choice of bread and then go into detail on what you want between the slices. They will oblige. If you forget to be specific, you will be sorry. The Irish make a wonderful curry that is fine at lunch. A glass of Smithwicks (Smiticks) with curry is great. Remember the proper pronunciation.
In Irish operated hotels and restaurants the main meal is the big one, usually with soup to begin. Seafood is some of the finest in the world with wild salmon, turbot, hake and white fish leading the parade. Beef and lamb are fine. I prefer lamb to almost any red meat. Then stand by for vegetables, the carrots, cauliflower and three kinds of potatoes — boiled, baked and french fried (called chips). Irish love their potatoes, and they have huge appetites, eat with enthusiasm and are big on desserts which are always top drawer. Save room for a dessert.
Tea time is observed in Ireland. In hotels it is tea and sandwiches and a sweet. For the working farmer in the summer time it is a late afternoon break for some food before going back into the fields to work till dark, about 9:30 pm. A big vegetable salad is popular.
There are a number of fish and chip and hamburger establishments in Ireland but they always seemed a bit greasy to us. Franchise restaurants are now established in the big cities but not in the country.
The gourmet restaurants in Ireland are some of the finest in the world. Some have Irish chefs, others can be French or German or Italian. As the world gets smaller, the knowledge of fine dining spreads to all lands. You just have to ask around.
Now, let us pretend you are living in Ireland, a short time or longer and you have to feed yourself! It serves no purpose to talk about buying groceries in Ireland twenty years ago. Suffice it to say:
In today’s world it is all different. There are the supermarkets. Frequently we visited Quinnsworth in the Shannon Industrial Development Complex and in Ennis when we needed to stock up. There we saw a piece of equipment in the vegetable department I have not come across in the U.S. It consists of a scale to weigh the product, tied into a window with pictures of all the fruits and vegetables available. The technique is to place your selection on the scale and push on the picture of the product. The scale weighs and prices, and out comes a sticker to apply to the plastic bag of your selection. Few products are prepackaged and priced the way they are here in the U.S.
Other than that, the large stores have everything that we enjoy here. They serve as all-purpose stores with the variety of goods similar to our major chains. In smaller towns, stores tend to be smaller. However, they are able to carry all but the most exotic products. Fresh bread is delivered daily. One vegetable fascinates us — tomatoes. They are always the same size, halfway between golf ball and a tennis ball. I have no idea why this standard size is so important to the Irish, but it is.
Except for root vegetables that are grown in Ireland, everything else must be imported and naturally the price rises, items like tomatoes from Israel or Spain. Incidentally, corn on the cob is not common and when it is on a restaurant menu it is always offered as a starting course.
Irish love their sweets and the candy department is always very obvious. Cadbury is everywhere.
Yes, the Irish are very particular about their tea and usually add milk and much too much sugar. Tea is preferred to coffee.
Irish dairy products, produced in quantity and exported all over the world, are wonderful. There is cheese of all kinds and the finest milk. The cream and butter, especially the cream, bring tears to my eyes, along with the fresh bread, delivered while still warm. Ah!
We have always had a great love for Haugh (pronounced Hawk) Victuallers, our local meat market in Kilkee. This is the old fashioned meat market with sides of beef and lamb suspended from hooks, sawdust on the floor, and the big power saw designed to deliver just the size and cut of whatever you desire.
It was here that we learned how to do bacon and cabbage, a mainstay of the area. We also realized it was proper to order mince, not hamburger. Mince is a 50–50 combination of beef and lamb and is specially ground for each order. We were able to show just how thick to cut a steak, lamb and pork chops. It was the simple measuring device of thumb and index finger. “About this thick." Irish lamb chops, beef steaks or leg of lamb are superb, and, of course, home grown. Irish beef tends to be a little tougher than American because it’s grass fed, not corn fed and heavily mottled in the American fashion. I have a long standing joke with young Haugh, the butcher. When we really had a special urge for a beef filet, I would ask him to go to the safe and get out the tenderloin. He would bring it out. I would specify how many and how thick. I called it his “meat from the safe" because it was so expensive, that is “dear."
At Liscrona we had a head high broiler and I always enjoyed broiling cuts of beef or lamb right up there where I could see what was happening.
Oh yes, the rashers are great and a bit different from our bacon without all the sugar or smoking we find here in America. Pork is available and pork chops are great. I must also not forget their roasting chickens. They tend to be free range and are the best in the world. I think we lose some flavor in American mass production of chicken.
A visit to Haughs was always a highlight of the day, good conversation or shall I say great craic."
I have left seafood till last. Since we were right on the Shannon and the Atlantic, where the fishing is some of the world’s best, we fared very well. A ring on the phone to one of our local fishermen was all it took. Within a day, our front bell would ring and there would be our neighbor with a beautiful wild salmon, averaging from 5 to 8 pounds. I would scale the fish and usually cut and freeze individual steaks. We had a salmon poacher but seldom needed the whole salmon for one occasion. I prefer my salmon broiled with just lemon juice, butter, salt and pepper. I contend that sauces and other embellishments detract from one of the greatest fish in the world. About sauce, in Ireland when you are having lamb chops you can always find real mint sauce, not the mint jelly served in the U.S.
There is a time in the spring and early summer when the sea water warms a little and the mackerel come in. Their slender, shiny black and white markings are beautiful to see and are very tasty. Nora taught us how to clean, prepare and cook mackerel. We found a local fish called Hake to be excellent. At a pub-restaurant, the Long Dock in Carrigaholt, a hake pie was a special dish. We loved it. Whiting and pollack are plentiful.
All along the west coast the lobster boats are very evident and we had our source for lobster. Yes, they too are “dear" because of the demand from Europe. I have always felt the struggle to cook and serve and eat lobster is too much. I prefer salmon. I admit though, a good lobster salad or lobster bisque is hard to beat.
Oysters are available except in the months that don’t have “r" in them, May, June July and August. The reason is simple. Those months are the spawning season. Also salmon fishing is suspended for a 3 or 4 month summer period, same reason. The Oyster Festival in the Galway area in September is a big event. The Irish themselves are not too enthusiastic about shellfish.
We even found to our surprise that we grew our own mussels down on the cliffs below Liscrona. Our son Jeff went down frequently, brought them up to the kitchen and proudly prepared them. Imagine, home gown mussels.
You can see, from what I have written, that there are no shortages in Ireland but since many items have to be either flown in or shipped in, that cost has to be covered in the price structure.
I will never forget home made strawberry shortcake, rhubarb tart, apple pie, gooseberry tart, all with Irish cream. Oh the Irish cream, it whips in about 30 seconds.
If you are doing the cooking and following Irish recipes, be sure you are armed with a metric conversion chart. Either that or take your own recipes from the states.
In addition to the daily shopping routine, is the stop for the newspaper. The Irish have an insatiable need to know what is going on and TV does not satisfy their needs. In the old days the papers would be dropped off at Lynch’s Pub. After the pub closed, it just meant a stop in Kilkee, Carrigaholt or Kilrush. The weekly Clare Champion comes out on Fridays and is devoured by all. The Sunday newspaper is nearly as important as mass attendance. The Irish "need to know" is just a part of being Irish. You receive good marks when you too are up on the latest.
I have suggested some of the difference between Irish and American dining. Here is another major gulf between us. It is found in two words, “rich" and “poor."
I think most Americans think of the Irish as poor. Most Irish think of us as rich.
Why is it that most Irish social life is conducted in the nearby pub? It is because Irish homes are small, and quite often there aren’t enough plates and silverware to accommodate guests. Possibly there are not enough chairs for more than the immediate family. Part of this is by design. The Irish don’t see any need to gather things the way we do. I am sure they could if they felt it was important.
They see no need for closets full of clothes for men or women. A man has his dark suit for church and any other big events. His wife always looks nice. She has what she needs but she sees no reason to spend money on a large wardrobe.
There is no emphasis on jewelry either. More than anything, Americans should never reflect a “you poor Irish" attitude. They are very proud people and resent anyone being sorry for them. I do not think there is a lot we can do about their feeling that we are all rich.
I will give you an example of what happened to us one year at Easter time. Our priest, for a good bit of Lent, was talking about the Easter collection. More than once he said he did not want to hear any clinking of coins. The result was that the Easter collection was unusually large. I made the comment that they could now pay off al their debts. I was told, “It all goes to Africa." This small parish was steadily supporting missionaries in Africa, one of whom was a local priest, who had built a hospital and a college with money sent from Clare. Now tell me who is rich and who is poor.
One time I asked John if there was something we could do in the community. We felt that we were so lucky to be there, and Maria and I just wanted to be a part of it. Any money gifts we ever made were just given away. John thought awhile and said, “Well, the altar boys are looking pretty threadbare. They’ve been wearing the same outfits for 50 years. They’ve been patched, they’re too small, and they’re black. We hear they’re now being allowed to wear red. That would be nice."
Maria and I went to the Irish version of the Yellow Pages and found the address of a shop in Limerick under “clerical vestments." Off we went to the city, found the shop, explained what we wanted and were told they only carried priests attire but perhaps there was a place that could help us. The clerk gave us directions to an order of nuns who did wonderful lace work and all kinds of religious attire. His directions were complicated but we got the gist of something about a park and “next to Don Derry." We drove around and around and were totally confused. Finally I stopped the car and saw a woman waiting for a bus. I approached her, described what we were seeking and she said, “Oh you mean Dawn Dairy." She pointed, “The nuns are right across the street, next to the park, about right down there." We drove through a large gate, saw a huge castle like building, parked and approached the front door. It was just like a scene from Sound of Music. The great door opened and there stood a larger than life Mother Superior, in complete habit from head to toe.
We told her about our 4 altar boys and their needs and she listened nodding her head, “Ah, yes, perhaps we can help. The sisters are at lunch. Would you take a seat over by the garden. We’ll come for you directly." In due time another nun arrived and she invited us to come in. First of all she insisted on showing us ten of the sisters at work.
“Our sisters do the finest lace work in Ireland. Nancy Reagan was here not long ago and took home some lovely lace."
We then entered a little song and dance period, with all the sisters, sewing away but eavesdropping. Sister said she probably had what we needed but only in pieces and they would need to be sewn together. “Wouldn’t that be something you could do my dear?"
Maria quickly declined, “No, I couldn’t possibly do it right." It was obvious to sister that here was a sale ready to be made and we had not even asked about price. Finally, with a deep sigh she said, “I’ll just have to let the Monsignor wait on his order. He won’t be pleased." She then went to four boxes and produced exactly what we wanted in size and the color, red. She took me into her office, referred to paper and pencil and handed me the number. I paid in cash on the spot. Maria and I picked up our treasure, said our grateful farewells to the smiling sisters and took off for home.
We headed straight for Doonaha and stopped at Nora Galvin’s front door. Nora is what Maria calls “Mrs. Church." Nora does everything, the cleaning, the flowers and sees to it that the priest is fully briefed. We handed her the boxes and I have never had such a feeling of satisfaction. She said, “How did you ever get it done in one day. It would have taken us till Christmas." Actually, it never would have been done.
The West Clare telegraph system then went to work. The next day there was a wedding and when all four altar boys appeared in RED you could almost hear the gasp from the packed church. Mission accompslished!
The Yanks had pulled it off. On another occasion, we shared the cost of padded kneelers for the pews. Prior to this time we all knelt on bare wood. This was not an act of kindness or charity. This was done just for us. Our knees used to kill us, the Irish never never seemed to notice. Later there were some gentle, smiling comments about the tender Yanks. No one ever complained about the padding. The wonderful Irish! They accepted these gifts. They never fawned over us which would have made us feel awful. They understood. We understood.
Never let it be said that all Irish are preoccupied with sitting in pubs draining pints and telling stories. They relish all kinds of entertainment.
Sporting events lead the list. As soon as children learn to walk they start kicking balls. Soccer, Gaelic football and hurling are played at every level of skill and the competition is fierce. Team loyalty is bred into every person whether its a match between parishes, towns, counties or countries. The World Cup (Soccer) is bigger than our Super Bowl and World Series combined. The men who play in these matches are national heroes. When age finally forces retirement, they usually open pubs and spend the rest of their lives showing off their pictures and being admired by their fans who never forgot them.
Then there is the part of Ireland that revolves around the horse. The country has always been perfect for breeding and developing thoroughbreds. Weather and food conditions are ideally suited for these animals, as is the Irish temperament. Nearly every major town has its own track so there is a race meet going on somewhere in the country nearly every week. This is called flat racing. Then, there is racing over the hurdles and show jumping. The Dublin Horse Show in early August is host to top international teams. Irish bred stock are sold around the world to those who love racing. It is sad that for economic reasons the Irish have been compelled to part with their finest.
Most towns in Ireland have their own festivals, smaller but similar to our county fairs. In the country events like “reverse tractor racing," “tossing the sheaves," “baking bread" and “slow bike racing" are popular. One in which only men are eligible is “hanging up the clothes." A clothes line is hung, a certain number of clothes and pins provided and men compete for the best time in getting everything hung. Women love to watch and taunt. Every event in Ireland is adjudicated and woe betide the judge who doesn’t take it seriously. Pub singing is always part of any festival. The elimination process moves from pub to pub and the level of talent is always extraordinary.
Cetainly the Irish love sports, but their ability to entertain themselves extends far beyond football and nursing a pint in the pub.In the west where we lived, there was not much interest in movies or TV. Concerning television, the exception would be any major sporting event and late show on Saturday night hosted by Ireland’s answer to Johnny Carson, a talented radio and TV star named Gay Byrnes.
Most Irish communities have created their own theater groups. I recall one year the Kilkee Players wrote and produced a musical based on the life and music of Percy French, one of Ireland’s talented composers. The show was a hit, so good the troop took it on the road for a whole season. Kilrush even has its own opera group that goes on singing year after year.
From the late 1980’s we have seen a definite increase in live music in the pubs and it is not all Irish. Country western is popular as well as rock which seems to have infected the whole world. Also dancing has grown in importance and Irish set dancing is everywhere. Groups of set dancers always remind me of our square dancing. Why shouldn’t it? We learned it from them. There are dance competitions and Michael and Nora Galvin have won dozens of cups and trophies. They are beautiful dancers.
On the subject of competition, a few years ago, Ireland issued a challenge to the world, an international barbecue event. It is held in a most unlikely place, the tiny village of Fanore, in the middle of the Burren. Teams complete with grills, pork, beef and all the hot sauces, meet every summer.
A look at any newspaper proves my point. Ads for all the upcoming events fill page after page.
Life is never dull in Ireland.
One day, Maria and I took a long walk in Kilkee. With Kilkee Bay beneath us and George’s Head, the great stone promontory to the west, we climbed up a hill, walked through a gap and came upon a most magnificent sight. The Atlantic was pounding in and breaking against a wild confusion of cliffs. We have gone there many times since to relish Ireland at its frothy, crashing best.
When we came back to our car, we decided to stop at the new golf club for a cup of coffee. We saw a sign in the window, “Bridge, Monday night, 7:30." Maria is an excellent bridge player and she taught me the game. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into but we decided to come the following Monday. It was one of the best decisions we made in all our years in Ireland.
The Irish we met were some of the best bridge players in the world. One entire room was set for the event. On most nights, there were from 30 to 40 players. Their game was Duplicate Bridge. At home we mostly played Party or Rubber Bridge. The Irish did not recognize that as bridge. We discovered that at times these people played 2 or 3 times a week. They were mad for the game and always played with the same partner year after year.
The Irish welcomed us, took us under their wings, and taught us the protocol. Some were natives of Kilkee, some were visitors on holiday. From that day on, every Monday night was reserved for bridge. These evenings gave us the opportunity to meet Irish people other than our Doonaha neighbors. It was a broadening experience. Each player paid 1 Pound to play and the competition was fierce but good natured.
Subsequently, Maria and I had several bridge parties at our home. We set up three tables and included supper with bridge. One time we even taught our guests “the old fashioned American Rubber Bridge." They were good sports about it. After the game was finished, we’d all gather in an area and tell stories and talk and talk, which is what the Irish do better than anybody. I got to retell all my ghost stories and they loved it.
We made great friends. Maria and I miss those Monday nights. The Irish taught us a lot about bridge and definitely improved our game. In all those years I think we won only once or twice. On each occasion the Irish cheered. Time passe, we became a part of the group and were no longer treated as “Americans on holiday." No more questions, “Have you Irish connections?" We belonged!
“Man does not live alone" is a saying familiar to all which had a great impact on our Irish experience. It would have been impossible for us to live alone at the end of the road with only sea, sky and fields for company.
One of the greatest compliments we ever received came one year shortly after Maria and I had arrive at Liscrona from America. We were in Doonaha walking along when a neighbor approached and said, “Welcome home." It meant that we were accepted. Further proof came slowly. After about 15 years in residence we became aware that the Irish had started to gossip with us. We were let in on the juicy little tidbits of the neighborhood. Prior to that time it was more of the “Are ye enjoyin’ yer holiday?" We had moved from being visitors to being a part of the fabric of West Clare.
As far back as the early 70’s Jo and I had urged our friends to come see what we had found. David and Adelaide Meskill and Gwen and John Miller sampled Liscrona back at the time when the Old Grey Lady was not at her best. Though they never said so, I suspect they thought we were quite mad. One of my business associates, a public relations genius named Sue Snow came to see Liscrona with husband Bruce. That began for Sue a love affair with Ireland that continues to this day. Bruce was not well but he was great for things Irish. When he died, he was buried wearing his Irish cap and sweater. He was another American who made it to Ireland just in time.
One interesting fact is that over centuries, the Irish of the west have settled on certain areas for their holidays. The Limerick people went to Kilkee, Ennis people preferred Lahinch. It was natural that we should meet more Limerick people. We discovered Connie and Emmett Ryan, Noel and Pauline McDermott and Norene and Pearce McCrann at Lynch’s Pub. Lynch’s was their favorite because it was recognized all over Ireland as one of the traditional singing pubs and John was famous as the host. We loved being there for the “sing songs" that just seemed to break out. Usually Emmett would become the MC. He would go around and around picking the people who were there dying to be called on. So, our Limerick friends became part of our life and we gave them full use of Liscrona.
I wish we had kept a book the way John Lynch did. Over the years, Liscrona was busy. We loved sharing a real Irish experience with friends and Irish Americans looking for a place for family reunions. I regret I have lost track of the number of people who learned about Ireland from Liscrona.
On at least three different occasions, we gave a Liscrona Holiday as one of the auction items of The Lambs, a home for disadvantaged folks. We felt good that Liscrona was able to put money to work for the Lambs.
I think it was about 1992 that AAA, the Chicago Motor Club asked Maria and me to host a tour to Ireland. We agreed as long as it could be to “Our Ireland," not the typical hotel to hotel tour. We took 24 friends and showed them our life in the west with a visit to our home, a stop at our school and church in Doonaha, and all the places we felt were special. The skies were blue, we enjoyed the professional guidance of a charming tour director named Mary Gibbons, and there were no hitches. That tour was a high point.
To the best of my knowledge only two people, in all those years, came to Liscrona and stayed only one night and bolted. Two young TV executives from New York were on the verge of a long tiring presidential election — I have forgotten which one. They wanted to get away from the excitement and rest up for a few days and they heard about Liscrona. They came and were terrified by the silence and the dark. They arose after one long night and fled saying pitifully, “There aren’t any street lights." So much for New Yorkers.
It is true, the silence was absolute. You could hear your heart beat, and in our bedroom it was so dark you could lie there and feel you were both blind and deaf.
Then there were the times when the storms would blow in from the southwest across the Shannon. The waves would crash on our cliffs and the wind would cause our woods to scream. A force 9 gale generates winds above 90 miles and hour and we were grateful for 2 foot thick stone walls and windows with strong shutters. Only one hurricane was ever reported in our area and Liscrona weathered it without serious damage. Good builders they were back in 1840.
When the winds howled we loved watching the white caps pounding away. Many nights we were lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the sea music, which began with a deep WHUMP as a wave broke followed by the rattling of thousands of round rocks as the water receded and the boulders tumbled over each other.
There were many times when we would deliberately get up and out of bed and go to our living room window to watch the moon shining down on the Shannon, as the dark clouds hid and then again revealed its shimmering magic. We were two people caught up by the power of nature. To this day I never see the moon without seeing the Shannon River shining — shining!
In the years that we were a part of Doonaha there were two events that were unique to this tiny town. One was the “School Centenary," and the other “The Eugene O’Curry Commemoration."
The school centenary celebrating 100 years of Doonaha School, was held on July 18, 1986. Graduates returned as far away as Australia and the U.S. to mark the day. The concelebrated mass of thanksgiving in Gaelic was at 5:00 pm. One of the priests was Father Lidane, who was a student of the school and went on to do outstanding missionary work in Africa. An open air dance and concert were held on the school grounds. We presented the school with a new Irish flag since they had the pole but no flag.
Interesting to note: When Doonaha School was founded it was held in 2 thatched roof cottages and the enrollment was 90, in 1986 it was a one room school with 22 children. Emigration!
Shortly after the centenary came the “Eugene O’Curry Affair." This Irishman was born at his father’s forge just a mile from our house. Eugene grew up in the 19th century to become one of Ireland’s most famous historians. He was the one to take on the ancient almost impossible writings of the Irish and translate them and so doing preserve the past. Much of what is known of the early times was done by Eugene O’Curry who was born in Doonaha in 1794 and died in Dublin in 1862.
A group of Irish decided it was time to do something special so the old forge was restored with patched up stone walls and a new thatched roof, and a large plaque was created and unveiled on November 7 by the president of Ireland, Dr. Patrick J. Hillary.
Liscrona became involved in this event as well. Here is how it unfolded. A ta1ented young dancer and piper named Aggie O’Connell grew up in the Doonaha area. In time she moved to London and created a “Marching Piper Band." It was made up of youngsters, boys and girls of Irish parents living in London. Under the iron hand of Aggie, the group became famous and the committee decided it would be wonderful to bring Aggie’s group back to Doonaha for the big dedication.
One day after mass one of the ladies approached us and asked if it would be possible to house a few of these young people. Maria asked, “How many are there?" The answer was "15, but we couldn’t ask that of you." Maria said, “We’ll take them all, but we’ll need some help."
What followed is one of our most cherished memories. One day we looked out our front window, saw a big bus slowly being guided by a young woman, splendid in her black slippers, green socks, plaid kilt, red jacket, black leather belt and sporan. We dropped everything to rush out and become the best hosts in the world, just oozing with friendship. The band came out and simply stood there, obviously frightened, not knowing what to expect. Then came Aggie, a real sergeant major, of considerable girth and obviously the one in command. Aggie marched up to us, bowed slightly, and said, “We will inspect the quarters." So in we went, parading from room to room as she drew up her plan for the bivouac. Aggie had put the fear of God in these kids. Something like, “If you get out of line, you die!" In a few minutes she came out, made the bedroom assignments and off they scurried.
They were with us for three days. These were the sweetest, most lovable young people I have ever met. We had a terrible time understanding them. The blend of Irish and Cockney was difficult. In spite of the communication gap, it did not take long till we all made friends. These were city children from the streets of London. They fell in love with our fields. They kept bringing Maria bouquets of wild flowers. They would just go outside and run for the sheer joy of it. We ended up giving a birthday party for one of the boy drummers who turned 17 during their stay.
The band played, the High Mass was said in Gaelic. The march to dedicate the plaque was led by the pipes with all of us bringing up the rear.
I knew I had made the grade when, on the last night, one of the girls rushed up to me and blurted, “Sir, ave ye got a spare lice. I broke mine and I cannot dance in me bare feet." Aha! She wanted a shoe lace. I ripped one out of my shoe.
Dear Eugene O’Curry and dear Maggie and her London-Irish pipers, drummers and dancers. No, you have not lived until you have experienced 10 pipers tuning up in your living room.
The local ladies came to help with meals. It was a long party. Liscrona relished a new experience.
One summer day, we turned the house over to an Irish American family and they were having a family reunion. Two of the guests were young men from Los Angeles. They set out to take some pictures. One walked down to Glosheen beach about a quarter of a mile from our property. The other walked straight down through our front field to the edge of our cliffs above the Shannon. His purpose was to get some good shots of Liscrona. He apparently faced the house and then took several steps backwards, slipped and fell about 30 feet down onto the rocks. He was hurt and couldn’t get up. The other man finished his picture taking on the beach and came back. Good thing that he walked down to the cliffs to look around. The 8 foot tide was coming in and there was his friend flat on the rocks below.
A frantic call on the phone to Lynch’s found Roseanne, the nurse, who happened to be there. She jumped in the car and drove down. She knew every minute counted, and it was going to be very risky to try to move the injured man. She called the Rescue Service in Shannon and in just a few minutes a big red and white helicopter came fluttering down the river. By this time the word was out and the whole village had gathered to watch. The helicopter hovered. A doctor was lowered to the scene followed by a stretcher. Just as the rising tide reached them, the doctor and two locals loaded the poor Americans aboard and the helicopter lifted him up and set the stretcher down on our field. He was checked out there and then flown to the hospital in Ennis. He had a separated shoulder, a nasty cut on the head and I think ended up feeling quite embarrassed.
Doonaha had a wonderful time. The story made the newspaper, the locals talked about it for weeks. Roseanne’s quick action and the response from the Rescue Service averted what was developing into a very serious situations. If not discovered, he could have drowned.
Yes, this was still another experience for Liscrona.
Year after year we kept discovering the little things that make Americans different from the Irish. We had to learn them the hard way. I will make it easier for you and call them:
The Irish speak English, but it is quite different from our. In the first place, Americans are loud. The Irish are quiet. This is most obvious in an eating establishment. We Americans just project. I have no idea why they feel the need to lean toward each other and whisper. Get used to it and stop telling the whole room about Aunt Lucy’s arthritis back home in Kansas City.
Beware the word “sorry." When an Irishman or woman uses the word there is no apology implied. It is more like a warning. “I’m coming through so get out of the way." This term is particularly dangerous when spoken in an Irish grocery store where the aisles are narrow. Serious injury could be imminent. I did learn how to use “sorry" in a very constructive manner. When the Irish mumble something at you that you do not get, you just say, “sorry, " with a slightly quizzical expression and he know he has to say it all over again — for the deaf American.
Pronunciation offers many a challenge. For instance their “th" is pronounced as a hard “t." One day Maria asked Michael if the pretty blossoming tree she was admiring was a Blackthorn. He replied, “Yes, it’s a ‘Blacktorn.’" She said, “Oh, a Blackthorn." He agreed, “right, a ‘Blacktorn.’" On another day, I was watching a golf match and the announcer informed us that a certain player was out because of an injured TUM. I got it in a flash. Here are more!
As long as I mentioned the Japanese, I would call your attention to the similarity between the Japanese and the Irish. First of all, the Irish will never ever come right to the point. Any discussion on why you really came to see him and the decision to be made must wait for all the essential preliminaries.
Secondly, the Irishman hesitates to say “No, you’re wrong. It won’t work that way." He will wait you out saying “I know." He will agree with you completely for a long time and then subtly you will become aware he is saying “You’re wrong. It won’t work that way."
Listen very carefully. In almost every instance, he is right. Sound Japanese? You bet.
Just remember — It is almost impossible to completely uinderstand the Irish 100% of the time, and remember, even tiny Ireland has many distinct dialects.
The Irish love being compressed into a small, smoky, noisy mass. And how they do smoke! “Fags" are really "dear." No matter. It is the togetherness that counts. There is very little air conditioning in Ireland so whatever air is in a room just gets used over and over. Deoderants have never been on the list of high priority items, and a suit coat may have been in use for 30 or 40 years without ever having visited a cleaning establishment.
We were in America. Sue and Paul Olsen and friends were visiting Liscrona. Yes, after Bruce Snow’s death, Sue had remarried and happily Paul too fell in love with Ireland. They were off somewhere on a short trip. Nora was in her kitchen working, and she heard a chain saw from somewhere west of their house. When Michael came in, she told him that there was that unusual sound from down near Liscrona. Michael hurried down to see what was going on. There he discovered one of our neighbors with his car, a trailer, and chain saw loading up lengths of wood. He had cut down 2 or 3 of our live big trees in the middle of our woods. Knowing Michael and the way we both felt about our trees, I would guess he went completely off the wall. Among lots of other things he said, “You know how Mal feels about these trees. You know you were allowed the dead wood. Why did you cut live trees?" The answer was, “It burns better."
Michael ordered this individual out of the woods and off our property. This was a neighbor we had known for years and part of a family Michael had known all of his life.
Our trees had now driven an angry wedge into the community. Michael and Nora were so crushed they were unable to pick up the phone and report the incident to me. Sue and Paul, being on the property, took pictures. They were told the whole story, especially about my standing orders in regard to tree cutting. When they came home even they were reluctant to call us. They knew how I would take it. They had been with me on too many trips back through the trees, my own personal beautiful trees, not to know how I would react.
Finally, they came to see us and the story came out. I think I experienced the sensation of rape and how awful it must be for the victim. I felt truly raped, and worst of all by a neighbor, a man who had been in our house many times, a man who knew exactly how I felt about the Liscrona property and those trees.
I do not believe I have ever been as angry. I was ugly. I made calls, I screamed, not at Michael or Nora, they felt as bad or worse because they felt as though they had let us down. I never received an apology. All I got back was, “After all, it is only a couple of trees." That man did not see any difference between live trees or dead trees.
I was tormented by this affair and I felt a crisis was approaching. After all these years, I again felt like an outsider. I never felt “at home" at Liscrona after that event.
I recall one day when Michael and I were discussing the tree problem. I said, “Michael, why did he do it?" After a few moments of deep thought he said, “Mal, the man is a farmer. He sees value in his milk cows, his hay and the turf that he cuts. The only reason for a tree is that when cut, it helps heat his home, looks nice and preserves his turf supply. You just happen to have the only trees in the area."
This was very hard on Michael. He represented us at Liscrona. He had to order one of his neighbors off our property so Michael was caught in the middle. I have no way of knowing, but I doubt that our neighbors had much sympathy for our trees.
Looking back, I know now that I was experiencing growing periods of discomfort about many conditions in Ireland.
Molly Hagan, Maria’s niece4. Can you see my fingerprints on every tree? A spring picture with carpet of bluebells.
I began to become uncomfortable with the Irish political process, the true welfare state mentality. I would see men lined up each week for the dole. These were men who, as far as I could see, never intended to work again. I could see the cradle to the grave protection promised by the different political parties. I could see countless young, brilliant Irish men and women, leaving Ireland, using all that great free education they got at home working all over the world now.
The excuse given was that there just were not jobs in Ireland. To me, it seemed they were leaving because they couldn’t make a decent living. With taxes starting at about 50%, a small work force was being asked to support the whole population with free everything. It didn’t make sense. Then every day I would read in the paper about “Industrial Disputes." Just when a business seemed to be doing well and making a profit, there would be a strike over some frivolous grievance. The Irish are very stubborn people and time after time I saw logical negotiations being ignored over “principle."
Then the EEC was formed, the European Economic Commission and most countries joined. Ireland presented itself as the country cousin, that poor tiny island off the coast of the mainland, reaching out with both hands for all the money and grants the rich European members would give them.
I told myself many times to stop acting like a typical American free enterprise, sink or swim, fish or cut bait capitalist. I tried to convince myself I should live in Ireland for my own pleasure, enjoy the sea and the sky and the fresh air of this lovely place, and stay far away from all the things that were bothering me. The Irish seemed to be happy with what they had. Who was I to criticize? After all, it was their country and I resent negative comments about the U.S.A.
Finally, one day as I was sitting on the rocks looking out over the Shannon, I saw the reason I was grinding my teeth. “Malcolm, you are an American. You enjoy this place and its people, but you can never be or think Irish. It is time again to look to the future."
Maria and I talked it over for the thousandth time and I placed a phone call to Jackson, Stops and McCabe Real Estate in Dublin, spoke to a Marcus Magnier and invited him to visit us.
He came with his camera and tape measure.
Maria and I realized that the one thing we could not slow was the passage of time. We were no longer even middle aged. We were getting old. None of our children had the time or the interest in taking over the continuous expense and responsibility of caring for Liscrona. We were determined not to let this Grey Lady start to deteriorate.
All of us, our whole family, experienced heavy sadness. This was like selling one of our children. We knew the clock was ticking and we could not change it.
It was not the tree problem at all that caused our decision. It probably was the trigger that forced me to face reality. We felt that a five year plan would give us time to find the right people to love Liscrona.
Our visit to Liscrona in the summer of 1994 featured an event that had a profound effect on me.
I was reading a book and keeping an eye on TV. Maria had retired but I was keeping track of “EuroVision ‘94." This is an annual competition that is beamed to all of Europe. Each country, during the course of the year, selects its top vocalist or group along with an original piece of music. Judges are selected from different countries and performances are rated on a numerical scale. It is a hug 3 hour event, and it is taken very seriously. The competition is held in the country that won the previous year. In ‘94 Dublin had the honor because they had won in ‘93.
I have watched EuroVision for a number of years, sometimes impressed with the talent and more often bored with the attempts to duplicate American rock and roll, not my favorite form of entertainment. On this evening, toward the end of the competition, the host country presented a seven minute combination of Irish dance, music and singing. It was called Riverdance. I sat there absolutely glued to the television set. At the conclusion of the seven minute performance, the audience of about 4,000 rose, shouting and applauding. Something rare had just happened to those in attendance and watching on television. Over the next few days, everybody talked about Riverdance, the bolt of lightning that Ireland had loosed on Europe.
It was obvious what would happen next. The seven minutes were expanded into a full two hour performance with an international cast of 180. Riverdance, the show, played in London for a year and then was brought to New York’s Radio City Music Hall. We saw it on the best of day, St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1996. It was electrifying, and again, the capacity audience cheered, stomped, whistled and shouted.
There is a medieval line that goes like this, “I am of Ireland! Come dance with me in Ireland."
By now, most of you have seen the show on stage, on television, or you have purchased the video, so I do not feel I should go into greater detail. Two theatrical events top the list for me, the original cast performance of “My Fair Lady" in New York and Riverdance, the show. That 7 minute event in 1994 excites me every time I think about it. I also believe Riverdance will have a profound impact on Irish music and dnacing in the future. Wait and see.
P.S. Two days after I wrote the above words, the 1997 Grammy Award for best music show of the year was awarded to Riverdance. For the first time, I saw Bill Whelan who wrote the score. He accepted the award for the 180 dancers and musicians currently touring the world with two companies.