Alone and Looking for the Ireland of the Guidebooks
by David Maloof • Boston Globe • 09 Mar 2004:M.4
I don't know where I had gotten the image I had of Ireland when I boarded the ferry from France for the solo portion of a six-week European trip. But some combination of movies, songs, and tourist board publications must have convinced me that I would be welcomed by a land almost unbearably beautiful and generous in its landscape and its people.
What I learned is that ignorance may yield relative bliss, but lugging around a load of misconceptions led to a confusion and fatigue that would end only after I returned to Boston, when my Ireland journey would finally be cast in a clearer light.
In the meantime, there was Dublin, which for me evoked Yeats's oft-quoted "terrible beauty" line, minus the "beauty" half. Here, the River Liffey flowed like ancient sludge, pub patrons stared me down for invading their second home, and my bed-and-breakfast was run by an old woman best remembered for her scowling rationing of toilet paper and hot shower water.
Following one local's suggestion, I headed to Killarney, where I was greeted by hucksters shilling for lodging and carriage rides, and a ratio of one genuine Irish person to every seven tourists.
Certain that my promised Ireland awaited me farther out in the country, I phoned the Green Hills Bed and Breakfast, 30 miles away in Kenmare, then rented a bike and began pedaling along the Ring of Kerry.
My bike - an upright five-speed - was about 10 pounds too many and 10 speeds too few. Climbing the dreary hills of the Gap of Moll, my legs began to throb, and I wondered if I should have left Killarney, Dublin - or Boston.
When gray buildings replaced gray mountains, I asked a teenage girl how far to the Green Hills B&B. "Oh, it's about four kilometers," she lilted.
"Four?" I grimaced.
"Oh - I mean two," she offered, and her sympathetic revisionist geography made the four (not two) kilometers more bearable.
Finally I coasted into the driveway of the farmhouse B&B. A rooster strutted around the lush green lawn, the inn's owner offered me a chair beneath the late-afternoon sun, and her teenage daughter appeared with cucumber sandwiches, soda bread, and tea. Now the long ride was worth it, and I could hardly wait to devour the real Ireland.
Well, I never saw that rooster again, the daughter soon acted put out when she brought me towels or tea, and her mother often eyed me suspiciously. It was an outpouring of unwelcome that their other guests, a young family, never suffered.
In the evenings, I would head into the town center for the "pub grub" that my guidebook promised was plentiful at any local tavern. But every time I asked in Kenmare, I was directed, without confidence, to the Atlantic Pub, where - when I inquired what they had to eat - they looked at me as if I had asked if they had the pope tied up in the back room.
I would end up buying fish and chips at the local carry-out place and bringing it into one of the pubs, where I would order a pint and be raucously greeted, then warmly talked up, and then insistently bought consecutive pints by absolutely no one.
The obvious solution was to head even farther into the country, so I pedaled another 30 miles toward the seaside town of Castletownbere. When I stopped at one country store for some cheese and bread, the scowling old woman at the cash register asked me where I was from. My chest swelled as I proudly declared that I (all 7.5 percent Irish of me) was from Boston, that Irish-American haven.
"Ah yes," she snapped, "the home of the Irish in the immigrant days!" as she slammed the register shut and all but planted a boot in my backside.
My ride continued along rocks, dirt, and rare patches of grass. But just before the town of Ardgroom, a solitary school building and its large playing field emerged before my eyes. I stopped my bike to watch the 6- and 7-year-old boys and girls play soccer during recess.
They spotted me. First a few ran to the wall, then more, and finally all of them. "Oh, will you play catch with us?" one cried out.
"Yes, please play catch with us," others sang. I wanted to play, but I didn't know how to react to this uncharacteristic warmth.
"Oh, puh-leeeeze, puh-leeeeze!" they cried in a rising soprano chorus as I wondered if only the children in Ireland were as innocent as I in believing in that fabled Irish warmth.
Their chorus had become a fading echo by the time I reached the small port town of Castletownbere, on Bantry Bay, where I again tried the pubs. I knew enough not to request the apocryphal "pub grub," and instead downed a pint in one pub, then returned to my musty room to try to nap away the beginnings of a cold.
I awoke convinced that the magical instant camaraderie of the Irish pub was a myth. What did these people care about some deluded American? Well, self-pity's a good enough motive for drinking, so I walked back to that pub and bought one more pint from the wary older woman behind the bar, drank it down, then got up to leave.
But then, behind the bar, a younger woman appeared - in her 30s, her blond hair just beginning to fade, her fair eyes not. I remembered her name was Adrienne, from the older woman talking to her during my earlier visit, and without a word spoken, Adrienne drew a pint, then held it out for me. "For your loyalty," she said, rewarding me for returning to her pub, of all the ones in town. Hideous waves of sentiment, punctuated by cold-inspired sniffles, swept over me. I smiled a pitiful smile, took the ale from her hand, thanked her, and drank in this moment of illusion come fleetingly to life.
Maybe Adrienne had seen the same movies I had. Maybe she was an undercover agent for the tourist board. Maybe she liked how I looked pedaling a five-speed bike. But for some reason, she had seen me as few others had.
Back home, seeking to both extend and understand my journey, I found myself talking to an Irish woman in an Irish pub about how Ireland had so rarely wrapped me in a big Hibernian hug. She asked where I'd visited, and with whom I'd traveled.
"Myself," I said.
She looked at me as if I'd said "Godot." And then she explained that anyone traveling alone in Ireland is automatically suspect, that couples and families were welcomed, but a solo journeyer - well, what was wrong with the fellow that he couldn't find anyone to accompany him? It didn't matter that I'd wanted the freedom of solo travel; I was clashing with cultural expectations.
That was what, despite rare moments of warmth, had too often put the "ire" in my Ireland. But now I know, and maybe someday I'll return. With an entourage.
David Maloof is a freelance writer who lives in Belchertown.