On Wednesday, October 2, Brian and I drove in from Des Moines after playing for the Iowa State Assessors Association banquet. East along I–80, I texted Mick Nolan, our driver in Ireland just to make sure everything was set to go on that side of the pond. It is an amazing thing to have technology like this at your fingertips! I shot him a picture of the traffic along I–80, as he has been over to the States and has enjoyed driving our freeways. Tomorrow would be a much different kind of drive through the Midlands and up into the beautiful wilds of Donegal.
By the time we arrived in Chicago, picked up Brian's wife Maggie, stowed away hoodies, CDs, luggage, (weighing everything carefully to make sure that we did not exceed the limit), we piled our baggage into the Switchback van. Maggie's brother Dennis rode along with us to take the van back, we managed to say goodbye, but were delayed slightly when Maggie caught her hair on one of the zippers of her suitcase. So for an awkward three minutes Maggie was hunched over a suitcase on the curb trying to get one of her braids free from a brand-new luggage zipper. We all hoped that this was not some sort of sign.
We proceeded to check in with Aer Lingus and of course I naturally got challenged on just how much my carry-on weighed. "You've exceeded the limit by 2 pounds,” said the Aer Lingus employee whose name I believe was Sanchez. I quickly rectified the situation, by taking a hoodie out of my luggage, and handing it over to Maggie so she could put it in her luggage. Now I was able to bring my carry-on onto the plane. Once that was done, I lurched over to security with a box of hoodies balanced on my carry-on. The hoodies were to give to our fans joining us for the tour.
I was amazed to see that they had redone the entire entry way to the international gates. Now I would have to take the hoodies through security. What proceeded next was something more reminiscent of a Marx Brother's movie scene as I had to unpack a cardboard box, put it, my book bag and carry-on, as well as my jacket and boots onto the conveyor.
"This is your lucky day," said the TSA employee as she took my carry-on to screen it for any chemical explosives. While she was doing that I refolded the hoodies into the box to bring to the gate. She found nothing suspicious of course, and once again I was lurching on my way, with the help of Maggie and Brian.
We relaxed a bit and watched the Aer Lingus plane taxi over to our gate. The sun was starting to set as our fans started coming in from various parts of the country. Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Colorado were just a few of the states with fans coming. Some were veterans of previous Switchback Ireland tours and we all had a nice reunion there. Others were fans that were joining us for the first time. About 7 p.m. our tour boarded. The rest of our tour group was flying in from various parts of the USA, and we would meet up at Dublin airport.
The flight over to Ireland was an incredible 6 1/2 hours, one of the fastest flights in my recollection. I was seated next to a very pleasant gentleman named Mike from Dublin. We spent part of the evening discussing traveling around the world, spirituality, and of course music. After dinner, I was able to drift off to sleep and woke up just in time to watch the gray fingers of dawn reaching its way across the North Atlantic.
Since we were nearing Ireland so quickly, the flight attendants rushed to get breakfast over with. Just as I reached for my coffee cup the flight attendant pulled the tray back tipping half of my coffee into my new friend's lap. Mike was a true gentleman throughout it all and of course the flight attendant gave me a withering look. When I asked her if I could have another cup of coffee she looked at me and said, "It’s too close to landing, and I don't think I would trust you with another one now, would you?" I let the matter rest.
Once we gathered our luggage and came through customs, we greeted Mick and Dave, our drivers. After some 20 minutes gathering the various members of our tour, we proceeded to head off on the buses and take off for the long drive across Ireland to County Donegal. Clouds of gray gave way to little splashes of sunlight as we headed to our first stop which was an Oasis on the dual carriageway. It was a short stop just to get a little more tea and coffee and to let us walk around and stretch our legs a bit. I was immensely satisfied with a cup of coffee to give me just enough energy to stay awake as we drove across the beautiful Midlands of Ireland toward our next destination, which was Sligo city.
The tide was out on the river when we arrived in Sligo city. It was just 10 minutes after two in the afternoon, and we decided to take a break and have a quick bite of lunch. I walked down to a nice little pub with Brian, Maggie, Lenny and Nancy. We were joined by other members of our tour, including Brian's mother and his brother Jeff. I just decided to have a bowl of vegetable soup. Soup in Ireland is not like anything in the US. It is much more substantial, thick and hearty. After having a bowl of the vegetable soup, I chased it down with several cups of Irish tea. Looking out the window at the pub, we all marveled at a quick burst of rain that slashed the windows and drenched anybody who was unfortunate enough to be caught in the downpour.
Dave pointed out to us some of the peat bogs beds that make up this part of the country. It is amazing that in the 21st-century, Ireland still relies on peat for heat and to generate electricity for a great part of the nation. A new member of our tour noticed that the sheep all sport different colors of paint on their backs. He asked Dave, "Why are there different colors on each of the sheep in the field?" Dave, not missing a beat, quickly replied, "That's so we can make different colored sweaters."
We arrived at Jackson Hotel and our two coaches quickly emptied. The weary travelers queued in line for the "lift" or elevator, while some of the more determined carried their suitcases up the stairs. Jackson is a hotel more in the tradition of grand old Irish touring hotels. The front hall boasts two stag heads looking over all arrivals. There is a cozy pub that has a nice fire going and the lights down low. And the rooms are a good size, with a maze of hallways that challenge even the most direction-oriented traveler.
Dinner was at 7:30 and consisted of beautifully baked cod, sea bass, Irish beef or lamb and some traditional spuds and "veg," and an array of pastries for desert. Brian announced the limerick contest and we welcomed everyone and congratulated them for getting past the longest day of the trip.
Over tea and coffee, Brian and I brought out the guitar and mandolin and performed "The Homes of Donegal,” which was first recorded by our Irish band, "The Wailing' Banshees.”
I just dropped in to see you all,
I'll only stay a while,
I want to see how you're getting on,
I want to see you smile.
I'm happy to be back again,
I greet you big and small,
For there's no place else on earth just like,
The homes of Donegal.
Over the next four days this little hotel in Ballybofey will be our home. As I was heading up toward bed, one of the waiters nodded at me and said, "That's a great song you were singing. And it's about a great place.” I couldn't agree more.
Click here to read Day 2