I started out on my journey the day a friend said to me “You should go to Ireland,” in between sips of a pint of Guinness at our local Irish Pub. I hadn’t thought about it before. I’d never had any money to do it. When that money did suddenly roll my way, I ran to the reservationist (this was before the Internet) and booked myself a plane ticket. To save a few bucks, I agreed to fly in on a “bank holiday” and leave almost a month later. Total ticket cost: about $630 round trip. At the time it wasn’t much of a bargain, but I wanted to go.
It was not the birthplace of my Grandmother, but it was for all of her sisters. She was the last in a line of ten children, and unlike her sisters, was born in Greenwich Village in 1913. My great-grandmother was pregnant, actually about to give birth when she came over. She lived like many other Irish families, in a tenement apartment that had a bathtub in the kitchen. Great-grandmother washed clothes for a living, while the men worked wherever they could. Her husband was a copyist, a scribe, who worked for a local law firm. He’d been a scribe in Limerick, Ireland, and that’s most of the reason why I wanted to start my journey there. The family had lived in Limerick for at least a generation. Their last name was McDonald: the Irish version of MacDonald. It is said that Mc or Mac, the Sons of Don are rightfully from Scotland, descended from Kings, of course.
I sought out the help of a local teacher who worked as a bartender in my area, and took some Gaelic lessons. The elementary version of the language is pretty simple: Ta: yes, na: no. Asking someone how they’re doing is easy, and ordering a beer even simpler. I learned a little because I suspected that some of it had leeched into the local lingo. I didn’t want to be left out of any small side comments. I squeezed my teacher for information such as where to stay, what to expect, how to act, and how to be polite. He was full of info but most of it went in one ear and out the other. I started training, riding my bike every day, because I figured that I’d bike from place to place. Padraig (my teacher) told me that it would be virtually impossible for anyone but the fittest cyclist to hurtle Ireland. He also told me that once I’d gotten to my first destination, that I’d most likely stay there. I wanted to see the Ring of Kerry, and then go up towards Donegal – up the West cost. He laughed and said, “Well, just you go and try, and tell me about it when you’re back.”
On top of the need to know the little ticks of the local people, I also had to know how to drink. I figured that if I practiced by drinking as many pints of Guinness as I could, that eventually I’d build up a resistance to it. I was told that American/Canadian Guinness had a higher alcohol content than Irish Guinness. So I practiced for the half year I had until my trip. It wasn’t wasted time. I learned about my other Irish ancestors, where they probably came from, learned some tunes, and got to hang out with my teacher often. Well, after all he was the one serving me the drinks! By the time it came for me to leave, I could put down 12 pints without falling over. I figured that was enough. How could I go wrong?.
My flight was a little long. To combat the boredom, I bought myself a pint. I looked across the aisle, and there sat a little old man with a beard down to his stomach. He grinned as he poured his stout into a plastic glass. He toasted me and drank the whole thing down in one gulp. We took off at 7pm, and landed at 5am. It was actually only 5 ½ hours, but the time change made it seem like I’d been up all night. One could see the Ireland was certainly green! Looking out the plane window as we landed, it seemed very lush.
Upon successful inspection and immigration, I strode out of the airport to discover a pack of the biggest crows I have ever seen hanging out in a pack outside the terminal. These were no crows. They were ravens! The airport itself was like a giant green field, with only one road in and out. This was Shannon Airport – something I thought was bigger than it was. There were no cabs waiting. I guessed that if I followed the road it’d bring me into town, so I started walking. The crows stared at me as though they wanted to pluck my eyes out. After walking for some time, my pack getting heavier than ever, I found what looked like a bus stop. I sat down, waited, and within 15 minutes a bus came by. It was clean, fire engine red, and as shiny as any new toy that I have ever seen. I sat in amazement after the bus driver actually gave me change. The windows were spotless. The roads were spotless. Not a piece of trash, not even a gum wrapper could be seen, anywhere. Just perfectly manicured lawns, stretching as far as the eye could see. Twenty minutes drive and we were in the heart of Limerick.
Limerick reminded me of my hometown, Rockville Centre. It had stone buildings two stories tall, a couple of small office buildings that were the exception appeared to be at most five stories at most. Everything was closed. It was a bank holiday, and I was in town at 5:30am. When I finally found a taxi stand, I asked to be shuttled to the nearest camping facility, in O’Brien’s Bridge. The cabbie grinned a toothless grin, and mumbled something about it being near “Bird’ill”, to which I replied that I really didn’t know. He started bantering about the pubs I think, for I couldn’t understand his toothless jargon. The cabbie got us onto the only other main road that I’d seen, drove me ten minutes, and dropped me on the other side of a stone bridge. I paid 13 pounds, twelve for the trip, and one for the cabbie. He didn’t even thank me before he drove off. I stood at the gate of what appeared to be the camping facility, so I went and knocked on a very, very pure white painted cottage door. A woman answered (she looked like a housewife, her hair in curlers), and ushered me in to a desk where she took my name and announced that it was 6 “punt” a day to camp there. I agreed, paid up for two weeks, and then she took me to my campsite. Basically, it was a big ring behind their cottage, nestled right up against the River Shannon. There were other campers there, and I spied two men by the water fishing. It was absolutely quiet except for the sound of the river and a bird in the hedge next to my tent. I pitched my tent, shoved my belongings inside, pulled out my bedroll, and fell asleep at once. What would the next day bring? I certainly hoped for a good meal and a Guinness, for starters.
Next time: Hopping the Pubs of O’Brien’s Bridge.