I grew up a few blocks from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut. In high school–actually because of my after school job–I fell in with the crowd from Our Lady of Sorrows. Tommy Shortell, Johnny Harvey, Joe Tobin, Bernie Sullivan, Colleen McCarthy, Eddie Connole, Pat Fitzgerald, I’ve known Irish-Americans all my life. John Brett. Jack Carroll and his sisters, Maribeth and Susan and another one who was a nun and a brother, a priest. Jack’s dad was one of the founders of the CYO in New England–I grew up in Hartford, remember. Jack’s mother used to make her own root beer. She’d keep the bottles in the bath tub under a blanket lest they explode. Some evenings when I’d be visiting, sure enough there’d be an explosion–more like pistol shot actually–come from the bathroom. It never stopped or redirected the conversation though. Just part of the package, you might say, kind of like the rain in Ireland.
Jack and I went to Hartford Public High School together. Mornings and afternoons before and after school and on Saturdays we worked together in the mail room of The Hartford Insurance Group. Jack had a folding canoe. Once in a while we’d play hookey, get into his father’s car, and go off fishing in one of the quarries outside the city. Mr. & Mrs. Carroll liked me being Jack’s friend. As far as they could tell I held all those good traits that working families in 1950′s Connecticut encouraged. They did not like the idea of me dating either of Jack’s sisters, much as my folks wouldn’t want Jack looking too long at my sister, Barbara. As mentioned it was Hartford in the ’50′s.
Anyhow, with all this history, I landed in Ireland expecting no surprises. More would be revealed.
The fellow in the back is Sean Curran, a most extraordinary man who served as guide–”program director” officially–of my two week stay in the Republic of Ireland with a group of remarkably well-traveled folks from Down South, Iowa, Texas and California primarily. It was in a pub in the countryside we were when this photo was made, listening to traditional Irish music as so often in my two weeks there that I did. Irish song lyrics, you should know, are inevitably about missing home, losing love and dying. Instrumental music–fiddle, guitar, tin whistle, squeeze-box–fills one with more than enough energy to accomplish anything. Anyhow, should you ever need a travel guide, Sean is surely your man. Knowledgeable, skilled and of great heart–all that delivered with a wonderful sense of humor and a willingness to repeat whatever you didn’t get the first three times it was mentioned. Sean can tell you about the island’s first inhabitants, the Neolithics. He can then go on to the Celts, the Vikings, the Anglo-Normans, St. Patrick and the British Protestants. He’ll tell you about the economy and about particularly Irish sports like Gaelic football and hurling.
Here he is in protective hurling gear. Hurling uses a stick like and for the same purpose as the long handled throwing net used in lacrosse, a game it much resembles and claims to predate. “Always remember,” Sean told us. “The Irish will never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”
Sean drew a clear set of distinctions between Irish and Irish-American cultures, pointing out that Ireland has a population of 6 million (about 2 million in the North and 4 million in the Republic) while there are 40 million Americans of Irish descent, a great many of whom hold on to and embellish Irish culture with a fierceness unknown in Ireland. American teams compete in Gaelic football and hurling leagues created by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and do quite well. The last several years the winners of the Irish national step dancing competitions have been Americans. Irish Americans are quick to say “faith and begorra” or something like it. Irish Irish have never used the phrase. As for St. Patrick’s Day parading and associated hijinks, only recently has that begun to reach the Emerald Isle from its point of origin, the USA. And “luck of the Irish”? According to Sean, when you look at Irish history, you’d be more likely to think of an old blues line, “
“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
Irish life is difficult. The soil is rocky. Digging peat–turf, they call it–is back-breaking. Irish history is marked by invasions and famine. The Famine of 1845 took out about a quarter of the country’s population through death and migration. It’s climate was described to us this way:
If you can see the mountains, it’s about to rain. If you can’t see the mountains, it’s raining.
Temperatures below 40 or above 60 merit consideration for the Guinness Book of Records.
Through or because of all this the Irish people show great charm, humor and friendliness. Folks stopped me on the street for nothing more than conversation. Pubs, centers of community, are frequent and so often filled with either traditional Irish music or the rock ‘n’ roll people my age remember well enough to sing along with. A night spent in a pub is a glorious feast of music, conversation, a remarkable feeling of belonging, Guinness, Bulmer’s cider and, for those who are ready, Bushmill’s. It’s never about getting drunk. It’s always about being there.
Castles, cliffs, Catholicism
Ocean, Burren, bogs and, yes,
Forty shades of green.
It says “Welcome to Ireland” and be sure they mean it.