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Day 1: An Adrenaline & Jetlag Cocktail Back in the Auld Sod!

in which your author returns to the mother country with the brother and the father

semi-overcast 70 °F

A fond hello again, travel blog! It's been a minute. This portends to be a particularly challenging trip on which to pause and compose travel blog entries; I begin tapping out these first few words while stopped in a loading zone in Athlone, County Westmeath, while waiting for Dan and Dad to come down with the suitcases after our first full night together in Ireland.

There are many collective hopes for this trip – we’ve been planning the logistics for a few months but I suppose I’ve been imagining bringing Dad over here since my first trip here, now a full ten years ago. (I had an epic time here with Dan back in 2014!) Our itinerary is ambitious, and we’re basically circumnavigating the perimeter of the country in ten days–mostly as there are so many good folks to try to see, and certain stops that feel mandatory–some related to genealogy, some past highlights, plus a few unfamiliar places where it will be nice to set down a few good memories. Always, I hope, with comfortable accommodations.

All went according to plan leaving Boston, where I packed my bags set to LPs of JFK speaking in Ireland and notable speeches from Irish history, and after lunch at The Burren – the closest one gets to Ireland in Somerville – Mom and Jackie (Dan’s fiancé) dropped us at Logan Airport.


On the flight, I reviewed syllabi for my pending courses at Merrimack and Boston Colleges, watched The Post, and caught up in adrenaline, was mostly unsuccessful in my desire to get some sleep and ward off the first inevitable wave of jetlag. We land and I welcome Dad to Ireland – his first trip here since 1970!


The plane arrives 40 minutes ahead of schedule, at 4:15; our first interaction with an Irish person here, the 60-something female customs officer, a pleasant breeze. Our arrival at the rental car counter inspires the first of an endless wellspring of terrible Dad jokes: “It only Hertz a little.” We end up swapping out the first car given to us for one with a roomier back seat; Dan will be spending hours back there.


We lurch out onto the Irish highway and the wrong (right)-side-of-the-car-left (wrong)-side-of-the-road adjustment takes everyone for a loop. It’s exceedingly early (6am) and we don’t have our first planned visit for another four hours. We drive to Celbridge, circling around Castletown House, site of my second trip here back in 2011 (the Swampoodle development week), and I take Dan and Dan down the long dirt road which ends at the tiny castle I called home during that stay. Although it’s late July, it’s freezing cold!


We make a stop at the nearby University of Maynooth, where I gave an academic paper as the first stop on my last trip here; Dan stays in the car napping and Dad and I take a few minutes to explore the beautiful campus, stopping into the main building and walking the long hallways which display the portraits of many priests dating back to the early 19th century.


We press on to visit my good friends Jo and Tom, masterminds of Swampoodle, gracious hosts during my last visit, co-founders of creative theatrical dynamo The Performance Corporation, and in general fantastic and fascinating human beings. We spend the next few hours (could have been many more) deep diving on the sorry state of American politics and the horrifying spectre of Tr*mpism; Dan’s expertise (now manifesting as chief architect behind Blue Revolution, which recently passed 30,000 members and raises around $5,000 a week for progressive candidates around the country) is always an inspiration, and Jo and Tom catch us up on how our horrifying President is going over locally, and how Ireland is progressing on social issues. As their three well-behaved and adorable dogs fidget with their new toys, Jo and Tom lay out coffee and breakfast foods, including our first Kerrygold spotting! Dad feels at ease and as I imagined, this makes for a perfect first stop; we share a toast with some cocktails I’d premixed in tiny plastic containers (probably my favorite travel hack) and Jo and Tom draw out some recommendations for our itinerary on a map. Someday, I will get these two to Boston and we will produce immersive theater out at Ft. Warren if only someone would donate at least a quartet million dollars to make it happen.


We swing back around to Castletown House, and our Collective weariness opts us out of taking the full tour. We do walk across into the courtyard and into the back end of the building, and I talk about about our inspiring week spent here back in 2010, really one of the most creative highlights of my life. It's nice to be able to share a bit of this place and that time.


We’re only driving a little over an hour to Athlone, County Westmeath, in the center of the country, and yet the jetlag has kicked in like a dull hammer to the part of my brain charged with not getting us in an accident. After 25 minutes or so I have to pull off and shut my eyes for a few, which helps, as does chatting with Dad for the rest of the drive.

I passed briefly through Athlone during my third trip to Ireland, pledging one day I’d make it back, and thinking at the time that my great-grandmother Bridget Creighton was from here. (It turns out that was one of those “if you repeat it enough times it becomes a fact” things–Bridget was from Country Westmeath, but I discovered about a month ago was actually from a tiny place called Togher, in Westmeath but close to the border of Country Cavan, over an hour away by car. Still, Athlone seems worth seeing, and is also the boyhood home of the great https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCormack_(tenor) (< ERROR: the link title is too long!), the famous Irish tenor; I’ve been reading a delightful book about him printed in 1918, within which he speaks fondly of his hometown. Dad jokes that if I go for a run in this town I’ll be running A(th)lone.

Our Airbnb host is away in London but her brother lets us in; the apartment is far beyond our expectations and one of the nicer Airbnbs I’ve stayed at over the years, mainly because the view over the river is so spectacular. From the tiny balcony, we see the River Shannon spread out in much glory, bisecting the city; we can see the back side of the oldest bar in Ireland, Sean’s Bar, just beyond the banks of the opposite side of the river.


We take an hour-long nap and although every cell in my body wanted to keep sleeping (it feels like 1pm for us), I force myself to get up and I wake the others. We get ourselves together and walk across the bridge, lazily ambling through winding, abandoned streets, finally deciding upon an Italian restaurant. Dad gets his favorite: the Spaghetti a la Carbonara, which is surprisingly good for a random Italian restaurant in the middle of Ireland, Dan the Bolognese, and myself a Margherita pizza. It’s all we can do to keep our heads up from the jet lag; I feel like my brain is coated in mashed potatoes. We resolve to have one beer at Sean’s Bar, which is well worth it.


The bar is quintessential old Irish pub: tightly packed tables and small stools, musicians lazily checking sound, sawdust coating the floor. The barman tells me the history of the bar dating back to the year 900, and how the nearby Clonmacnoise monastery produced possibly the first whiskey; priests created perfumes which after they imbibed realized they enjoyed quite much. There’s an exposed section of the original straw walls preserved behind glass; Dan buys me a black t-shirt.


After one, we make our way out – I ask the same bartender if he knows the name “John McCormack,” and whether folks in the town still know the famous tenor’s name. (They do.) When I ask him where McCormack lived, he walks me outside and down the street to point me in the direction of the place. It’s such a consistent characteristic of this place: when asked for directions, the Irish will, to a man/woman, always stop and offer help effusively.

We stumble (not from the beer from lack of sleep) back to the flat and konk out like sacks of bricks. After but one day, our trip has already featured a whirlwind of new sites, experiences, and excellent people, and we sleep soundly on good Irish vibes. Here’s to what we McCools can do after a full day of rest!

Posted by coolmcjazz 03:46 Archived in Ireland Tagged athlone

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Jason, I always enjoy reading your posts. I'm very interested in your trip to Ireland and what the three of you may discover regarding our ancestors. Enjoy and stay safe. Love to the three of you ?

by Barbara Shea Chartier

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