Saturday, October 5.
The Waters of Lake Michigan
It’s very surreal to know that in a few hours I will be several thousand feet about this lake and heading out east, up the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic. I’ve taken Áine to a little park besides the lake, right off of Greenleaf Avenue. She meets a little girl her age and immediately begins to play. As she plays, I am busily texting Mick our guide and driver over details of our arrival and Ireland. In this day and age, the world is indeed small and the prospect of a seven hour flight almost inconsequential. Yet, Looking over the rough, grey waters of Lake Michigan, I am acutely aware that a journey is a journey nonetheless. Along the lake shore, the waves washed up Monarch butterflies that succumbed to the distance of the waters. It is a sad reminder that summer has come and gone. Intermingled with the orange and black of the butterflies are the first red leaves of Autumn.
At the park, on the swing is a young man, obviously with special needs. He is swinging furiously back-and-forth arcing high into the sky. He screams with delight and laughs with each pass. His black shorts slowly inching down, revealing an untucked shirt the flaps flag like. He is the embodiment of joy. And he reminds me that equal to my calling him music is the calling to live a life of joyful abandon. Perhaps he has been sent as a messenger to help me put together that the butterflies on the beach, the change of the seasons and the pursuit of the musical career are on an amazing arc of life. That it is up to me to consciously choose to live it joyfully.
Áine is having a great time, almost oblivious to the fact that her papa will soon be gone for another tour. And that is the tug of being a traveling musician. Knowing that the price that is paid he shared by those one loves. Later this evening, as I pick up the bass guitar case and my bag and head out into the light rain, Áine starts to cry. And it is hard to leave, on the butterfly journey that is the calling of music.
Sunday, October 6
And yet, it is new
We depart Chicago for Dublin. I have now been traveling across the Atlantic for over 15 years. And in that time, I’ve learned how to cope with the adjustment leaving one time zone and ending up in another. For me, it is crucial to try to trick my body into thinking that I am going to get a full nights sleep sitting upright, leaning against the window of an airplane. It is accomplished for me by quickly eating the dinner, avoiding any movie, putting an eyepatches, earplugs, and will the talking and light Iof a very full plane go away.
And I concentrate on the sound of the airplane engines through the wall of the plane and fall asleep. The next thing I know, is that I feel the seats moving behind and in front of me. I left the eyepatch in there on a display there’s a figure of our plane making a lazy loop on a map of the eastern coast of Ireland. We are now heading west, past the few lonely little islands and into Dublin airport.
Part of our group departed earlier and once we are all reunited, Mick Nolan our guide and driver, picks up from where I last spent time with him. Mick is an artist, a statesmen, an entertainer, storyteller and the embodiment of the modern successful life of an Irishman. He would be the first to shrug it off, but that too is typically Irish. Our goal is to get to the Lake hotel in Killarney as fast as we can. Our group has some new folks and veterans on board, from California to New York. As we drive along, I look over the countryside. And, I feel the feeling that I get when I get to Ireland. It is the feeling of seeing something as if it is new. Even a quick stop in Adare, a town that I have been in several times now reveals new revelations about Ireland. I walk inside a church that I have never been in prior to this trip. A wonderful silence of the sanctuary envelops me. I see a quick prayer of thanksgiving for a safe trip I’m just marvel at the ornate wrought iron hinges on the wooden door as I leave.
Arriving at the lake hotel I find my way to my room, drop off my bags and head down to the bar for a pint of Guinness. It is as if nothing has changed in three years since I last gazed out of the view of the McGillicuddy reeks. Yet I know how much has changed. My daughter has grown, I lost both my parents, recorded several albums. I realize that one of the reasons I like to return to Ireland is to lock into that sense of continuity. I welcome the fact that the mountains still look the same, the old castle ruins by the lake shore still beautiful. After a beautiful meal chicken served with impeccably blended garlic and mashed potatoes, fresh snow peas and cauliflower, I head back into the pub to watch the Chicago Bears lose to the Oakland Raiders. Another sort of continuity that I don’t like to see unfortunately! But hope springs eternal. My goal on this trip is to experience and appreciate the sameness but also look for the new. Starting with an early rise to see if I can come across the red deer that this National park is known for.
Monday, October 7
In the realm of the red deer
Quite a gale blew through last night and through the wind and a little drops of vapor that over the security lights looked like so much falling snow, I could hear it: a low, guttural bellow that resonated against the room windows as if a very spirit was trying to gain entrance. I was up and down throughout the night, inpatient for dawn. My thought was to get up with the stars and head out to find a field of red deer. By 7 AM, just the faintest hint of the coming sun was discernible. The outline of the McGillicudy reeks stood out against the dark black sky peppered with a few last stubborn stars.
I quickly showered shaved by 7:30 was heading out to the fields. My body, fortified by to espressos still protested against what do it still felt like 1:30 in the morning. I had walked no more than 20 feet into the car park at the hotel went to my surprise I saw several does grazing along with a couple of Sica deer. Then coming over a berm was a splendid Red deer stag. He looked at me with a bit of distain as I was obviously running an opportunity. I kept my distance, but that was no matter to him there’s now that does acted with a bit of fright. I had proceeded on to the lawn and toured the woods. I made sure that I kept at least a football field distance, and soon realized that I wasn’t the object of the bulls irritation. Rather it was a very large coach coming to the hotel to pick up luggage. It’s been less than 10 minutes watching the deer and had only been outside for 20 when the spell was broken and all the deer retreated into the woods of the national park.
With what I thought would take at least an hour over with in less than a half an hour I decided to stay outside. I walked around the grounds, to the ruins of the castle and listened to the sounds of birds singing in the pines and the wind out of Lough Lein rasping among the water grasses.
Pretty soon other people walking around and I decided to get some breakfast. It’s always nice to get back to Ireland as this country takes it’s breakfast very seriously. I reunited with the rashers, the black and white pudding, fried eggs and best of all, Irish tea.
By 10:30 AM, everybody was outside and onto the jaunting carts heading to Ross castle and our boat ride. We could not have had a more perfect fall day. The sky was clear, the sun warm and that made all the difference as we made our way to the cadence of the horse hooves. I have been to Killarney at least four times in the last 15 years and every time I appreciate even more. The park itself is a minor miracle, having been held in private ownership until an American donated to the Irish government the lands. Unlike in the United States, where the national parks were created while the land was relatively untouched, the national park here once was a vast estate. On the lands were ancient sites. Tiny Innisfall island where the Augustinian monks trained none other than the great Irish king Brian Boru. Old copper mines, now covered in “relatively new“ 300-year-old forest. Everything now left as much alone as possible. The beauty of the land still there even after the hand of humans did what they could to tame the land.
We enjoyed an Irish coffee as we took one of only two tour boats allowed on the lake, leaving from Ross castle and slowly making our way across the waters. Everybody celebrated the great weather and that rare Irish sunlight diffused by the missed around the mountains.
Some of us spent lunch in the town. I had oak smoked salmon on a bed of potatoes. The perfect simple fare accompanied by a pint of Guinness. After having my meal I decide to walk back to the hotel while others were picked up by Mick to head off to experience falconry. My early rising, coupled with a warm sun and a 2 mile track made a nap a necessity. I woke up at about 4:30 PM and get ready for our lakeside concert. Our sound system was on the coach, and unfortunately the coach was delayed. We hurried down to the lake and the castle ruins. And now, was not so much a race against sunset, the more race against a drop in temperature.
We managed to get the system up and running and gave about a 45 minute cancer along the lake. Everyone seemed to enjoy the combination of the outdoors, agent ruins and the wonderful feeling of a day well spent.
Strictly medicinal purposes, compelled me to have a couple good Irish whiskeys at the hotel pub. Those helped take off the chill of the early evening. We sat at the pub laughing and enjoying the relaxed pace of our tour. It was a magical day in the realm of the Red Deer.
Tuesday, October 8
A very full day
We have been very blessed with some fantastic weather. And we were not to be disappointed as we all got on the coach to head to the Dingle Peninsula. This part of Ireland is rivaled in beauty only by Westport County Mayo. It is in the area at the end is the western most reach of Ireland. Two tiny islands off of it literally housed Western civilization during the dark ages. Some parts of the world people need to just experience and this is one. The town of Dingle is a bright cheerful place for tourists as well as a hard-working fishing town. We arrived around noon and headed over to Harrington‘s, which is well known for its fantastic fish and chips. It was a great meal, the cod lightly battered and as Mick described, capable of melting in your mouth.
A little meandering up the street brought us to a tiny pub that have a young lady manning the bar. Clodagh made several nice Irish coffees that we enjoyed. A couple of young kids, who I guessed must be her siblings were helping out. It turned out that one of the parents is an American from Minnesota. I looked at the kids I thought how fantastic it must be to be able to spend time between both worlds. Small town Ireland and Saint Paul Minnesota.
One of the funny incidents happened as we proceeded further west. Here the road gets pretty narrow. Anybody that walks a park sidewalk in Chicago knows that most park sidewalks are wide enough to take a SUV of the Chicago Police Department on it. The road that our coach drove on it’s pretty much that size. However, these are about 1000 feet up from the sea and oncoming traffic. The problem is that there are very few places for two vehicles to pass. The result is that a car greeting a coach has to back up, sometimes over a half a mile and a winding narrow road with an ancient rock wall between them and the sea. 20 minutes were spent in one case as the cars kept on piling up and backing up. All the drivers understand that for the coaches the unwritten rule is that everybody goes in one direction. Apparently that note has not been passed on to anybody else.
Car jam aside, we proceeded along and got to Slea head. This was the area where the epic film Ryan’s daughter was filmed. Robert Mitchum was supposed to have consumed three bottles of whiskey a day during the filming of this movie that took almost a year to complete. It is rugged, The waves slamming into the land in a constant attack.In the mist of all the big rollers swam a seal. It was nice to see that this animal has adapted so well to such a harsh place.
Along the route curious shaped stone huts hundreds of years old are all that remains of the monastic settlements that date back to the timer Patrick. How these men decided to live here can only be answered by the fact that we inhospitable land was the perfect refuge from the invader.
By the time we got there to Kalarney the day was nearly spent. I took a quick shower and head back to the coach, with the bass guitar so we could go up to Kate Kearny‘s near the gap of Dunloe.
This is a cute restaurant with a nice stage. We had a great dinner. I had salmon and shrimp soup followed by leg of lamb. After dinner to young lads in the name of Seamus and Thomas, twins, danced for our group while we played jigs and reels. Our bodhran player Takeshi Horiuchi came by to join us on stage. Takeshi is over in Ireland for three weeks, playing many of the sessions throughout the country.
Everybody was treated to a lovely singing of Maggie FitzGerald. Maggie did the song here’s to the evening and it was very sweet to see that some of the veterans now know the lyrics. We finished up at 10 PM and headed back to our hotel. It was a very full day. blessed with sunshine.
Wednesday, October 9
A view from Torc Mountain
It was raining pretty heavily when Takeshi and I drove from the Lake hotel. By the time that we reach the old Kenmare Road, the sun had won again and the road revealed a deep moss covered forest. The light coming through the trees turned the same blazing emerald color. We parked the car, Takeshi pulling out an umbrella putting on hiking boots and we set off for a trek up to Torc mountain. The path was gentle and wide, With the sound of running water echoing in the distance. Pretty soon we came to a bridge that’s spanned an actively flowing stream. The peat stained waters swirled charged over the rocks as if being chased by some unseen foe.
Pretty soon the stream and the words gave way to the moor. This stretched inbroken all the way to the far mountain peaks miles in the distance. The rain came across the fern and bracken, enveloping us in a light but very cold shower. Takeshi promptly opened his umbrella, and I decided to let the rain fall freely onto my hair and clothes. It will rivulets of water streamed down the long hair, gathered on my eyebrows and rolled off my nose. I imagined myself a Celtic warrior, one who probably looked upon this valley centuries ago, scouring the hills as best he could for sign of the red deer. As difficult as they were to see, the sound of the stags in rut echoed up the valley. The broad path gave way to small boulders and flat rocks as we started climbing up the mountain. As climbs go, it was not overly challenging, as the Park service made an excellent trail. Across some of the boggy areas, railroad ties were lashed side by side, wrapped in mesh wire to give a bit of traction.
As we climbed, the rain stopped, bringing out the sun. However, a stiff wind continue to blow numbing our hands and faces. Occasionally we would pass a hiker heading down and exchange a few pleasantries. But for the most part, we pretty much had the valley to ourselves.
A little more than halfway up, we stopped to drink some water and take in the view. Far below us I could see the outline of a long vanished village. The old peat beds used for turf fires, overtaken by heather and gorse. The half buried walls and fences betrayed the sense of complete wilderness. I wondered if famine or a landlord were the cause of this village disappearing? At some point, these people too had the valley to themselves. The rain returned and we climb on gingerly stepping over little streams of water and mindfully avoiding snails that stretched out in search of a shell.
Finally, the sun came again and we doubled our efforts to reach the summit before the next cloud of rain made its way to us. A couple was resting up on the mountain and we were pleasantly surprised to see that they were from Wausau, Wisconsin. We took pictures of them, and they of us. Then I took an entire panoramic sweep of the valley laid out before us. It was a marvelous feel to see the lakes far below, and the beautiful fields of Kerry.
Once again, the cold rain king bed and doubled its effort with the wind to make our lives miserable. However, we felt very elated and the exertion kept us warm. We quickly made our way back down the mountain, stopping long enough to spy a majestic stag herding his harem across the boulders and bushes. About an hour later we made it back to the car. The sun broke through as if to congratulate our efforts.
We drove back into Killarney to join our group who were in the midst of a “Pub Squat”. That is when one finds a place so nice, one decides not to crawl or bar hop to the next place!
The Celtic Whiskey Bar and Larder is an excellent place to sit, chill out and get a wee bit of education on“the water of life”. Michelle Shubitowski, who is quite an aficionado of whiskeys, and the rest of us, not as expert, nevertheless tried several flights of whiskeys. For a person hiked up a mountain and back, it was the perfect way to relax, slowly dry and warm the inside. I took advantage of their food menu, and had a half portion of mussels. These were cleverly done, almost as if Ireland was meeting Louisiana. For the broth had a hint of sausage and a spiciness that reminded me of jambalaya.
We stayed at the pub neither hopping or crawling to the next. Finally, it was getting close to dinner time when we decided to leave. After a couple more visits to various pubs, we decided to have dinner at Gaby’s, which proved to be an amazing seafood experience. For starters, I tried a deep fried brie on a bed of lettuce greens with a light vinaigrette. The cheese was crispy on the outside and smooth and gooey on the inside, it’s creaminess blending wonderfully with the tartness of the dressing. Dinner was a fantastic wedge of perfectly cooked salmon. A light cream sauce was spread over it as well as over the broccoli that accompanied it.
For dessert, there was a chocolate brownie also smothered and cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and if that was not enough, a dollop of Vanilla ice cream on the side.
In more ways than one, I felt like I had “been to the mountain” getting my fill of scenery, libation and wonderful Irish cuisine. Another satisfying and very full day.
Thursday, October 10
Burning ring of Kerry
Eventually, rain factors in to a tour. And, considering our luck to this point, it was no great surprise that part of our day would be visited by some rain.
We did the ring of Kerry. Probably the most famous of all Irish excursions, it is a necessary trip for the novice as well as a veteran. Since it is out on a peninsula, we are at the mercy of the weather. And since it is one of the most popular routes in all of the world, we are at the mercy of other people too. I was surprised to see as many tour coaches on the road. Well it doesn’t take away from the scenery, doesn’t make any sort of road stop a challenge. One of the more traditional and popular stops is the Red Fox inn. Over the years I’ve seen this place grow with the addition of an old time Irish village. It also has Irish coffee and Irish Bailey’s coffee in the tavern itself. And these are ready for the several hundred tourists.Two people lan the station with glasses that are pre-poured with whiskey. These glasses are stacked four high so that there’s easily four stacks of 50 glasses. The charge is €3.50 for a glass. The coffee is quickly poured and a bit of cream dolloped onto it. The assembly line over, one fights for a place to sit.
There are also gift shops that are associated with this sort of visit. The challenge over the years in Ireland is trying to find something that truly is unique.That answer came a bit further down the road, when we pulled over to see a man sitting in the back of the sheep trailer. Imagine the trailer for horses about half the size and you get the idea. This gentleman was making simple Brigid crosses. Next to him was a cane of his grandfathers that had a rams horn for the top.
For three euros you could get a homemade cross made of Irish reeds. I bought one of those, to bring home to Áine. For me that was a better connection with Ireland. My cousin is used to make these back in County Mayo.
Another gentleman had small bottles of poitin. Essentially moonshine, it can be used either as a liniment or a drink. Either way it can warm you up! Another gentleman was selling wildlife photos of animals in Killarney National park. There’s something very Irish about these sort of vendors. The only comparison I can make is to the Navajo jewelry sellers outside of Grand Canyon National Park. The authenticity that’s what makes it all the more special.
Another authentic Irish skill has to be soup.I don’t know if it’s the climate, sheer hunger, excitement of the views or perhaps that you’re not cooking yourself, but hands-down they know how to put together the best tasting and filling soup. And just to make sure they also include their own brown bread on the side. I ordered a chowder of seafood and it was exquisitely seasoned with saffron and a dash of anise. The fish, a combination of salmon and cod as well as vegetables, thick in the bowl. Add a cup of tea and a meal that stays with you for hours is there.
The rain came through as we tried to catch the scenery along the ocean. Thankfully we had better luck a few days earlier. But the ancient islands of Skellig Michael were not to be seen on this tour. Mick did a great job discussing the famine and its ramifications until today with the Irish psyche. Driving along the rain soaked and forlorn fields, with the shells of abandoned houses, is something that anybody with a bit of Irish blood should see and do. And, it is good that the Irish continue to keep the structures intact as a reminder that this did not occur that long ago.
Brexit was also discussed, and it is clearly a worry for the Irish nation. The idea of reestablishing a hard border between the six counties and the republic is something nobody wants to see. The danger of backpedaling into sectarian violence is also something that did not occur that long ago.
Mick also talked about some of the mythology of Ireland. I especially enjoy his ideas and research into the Sì, or fairies. I believe there’s some truth to the idea of an older community of humans that were taken over by the precursors of the Celts, the Milesians. Those tribes, the Danu and Fir Bolg, subsided into mythology and magic and indeed dwell in the parallel world. Looking over the landscape, it is not that hard to imagine that parallel world existing side-by-side with this world. I would think that it’s always summer there, probably with no rain. To be drawn into that world is to be lost forever and many stories touch on the duality.
By the time we reached Moll’s Gap fleeting bits of sun lit up the mountains. This was perfect as we were able to have people get pictures of some of the prettiest views in all of Ireland.
It was the sort of day that could have easily been spent sitting around a turf fire. And, I totally get the people who are lucky enough to gaze at these mountains every day. Autumn burns its way across the ring, and with the coming winter comes the rain the dark and clouds. That somewhere, perhaps by a lone tree in a field or stone circle is the portal to that other land, that middle earth of always-summer.
Friday, October 11
As the sun sets over Dublin
Morning came way too early as during the night the hotel was serenaded by a stag, keeping his harem of some eight does in order. So I packed quickly and looked over the mountains one last time.
By 8:30 we were on our way to Limerick and I have to confess that I slept most of the way until Mick brought us to the An Lar or city center. There stood King John’s castle. It was a Norman fortification with its share of blood and conquest due to the strategic spot it had on the Shannon. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the castle now had a visitor center, which completely changed this destination from a “shoot and run” to a nice stop. The docent took our vouchers and like hood tourists we stormed the bathrooms with as much enthusiasm as a swarm of Vikings.
One of our groups came out and said how the ladies room could accommodate a lot of people. “ That’s why it is called King John’s” I quipped. I could feel the docent frown through the back of my head.
We could have spent about two hours easily, but we took it in quickly and grabbing some cappuccino were on the road to Dublin. Even with two of them I was soon nodding off as Mick described the ring forts that are around the whole country.
Rain fell as we drove and by the time we reached Dublin the clouds were scattered and the streets dry. We had a few hours to see Temple Bar, which on a Friday was packed with locals and visitors. Gogarty’s pub had the feel of St. Patrick’s as a duo on violin and guitar thrashed our all the pub tunes. Upstairs was closed with one lone partier crashed out in the smoking room, oblivious to the world.
We ducked into a nearby restaurant for lunch and were entertained by a Palestinian waiter who described each entree as “beautiful” and it was beautiful food.
After lunch, I walked with Andy and Sue to another pub and had it in English coffee. Bunch of young women were dressed like nuns for a “hen party“. Basically a bachelorette party. The difference from the States is that they have a tendency to be a bit more wild here. We sat and watch them have some Jell-O shots and then they were off, riding on a pedal-powered mobile bar.
We took the coach back to the hotel and then on to Taylor’s Three Rock where we had our final program for the evening. It was a fantastic sunset in the Dublin sky and I felt a bit sad that the Ireland tour was coming to an end.
at Taylor’s, we were greeted by John Keenan Kenny the owner of the venue. John head shots of whiskey waiting for us as well as beautiful dinner.
We had a great performance by some professional Irish dancers and then we played some of our fans favorite Switchback tunes. Finally it was time to say goodbye to Ireland for now. Some of us heading to Iceland in a brand new adventure and some of us heading back home.
American Roots & Celtic Soul