A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: coolmcjazz

Day 5: Halfway Through+the Heart of the Great Atlantic Way!

in which your author returns to a classic trad pub and

semi-overcast 70 °F

Day 5 begins in Westport, at one of the nicer Airbnbs of the trip. It makes a big difference to meet and engage with a host, and Patricia is a great exemplar of the tradition of Irish hospitality. We head into the center of town, only about a 5 minute drive, where Dan gets out to grab us coffees; the traffic is substantial and street parking is impossible so we circle around, eventually finding a small lot. I go and get Dan, eavesdropping on a walking tour on the way (the charismatic guide tells the story of how the statue in the center of town was originally a British banker who the townspeople shot at) and we stop into an Irish tchotchkes store where I pick up some patches of Tyrone and Westmeath, my ancestral Irish counties. (Or at least the ones I know about.) Dan buys a mug that says “Irish seasons," each showing a sheep under a raincloud. We wander around a bit, stopping into a kitchenware shop, where I pick up some cocktail-making utensils, and a bookshop, where I pick up a discounted Liam Clancy CD. (I don’t need another, but it was only 5 Euro and knows what gems might be found!)


We grab a specialty hot chocolate for the road, and make our way the short distance to Croagh Patrick, a grand mountain I climbed, through dense fog, back in 2008. It’s a legendary Catholic pilgrimage spot in Ireland, and I tell Dan and Dad that St. Patrick was said to have – well, in fact I forget what he did here, but it was something very important and religious! I recall fighting my way through fog to the top, and finding an actual chapel up there! Dad tells us how, at age 22, he climbed Ben Nevis, a similar mountain in Scotland. We park for a couple minutes in a driveway and look up at the imposing mountainside, too covered by fog to make out much of the upper reaches.

We press forward, passing through Louisburg, a sleepy seaside Mayo town where I stayed for a few days in 2008, courtesy of Peter and Moira, our friends who we will meet up with later this week.

Dan has a recommendation from a friend involving the coastal town of Clifden, another place I’d never been. The main part of town is packed and we luck out with a parking spot; I depart to go check out an antique shop and a music shop, and Dan and Dad head to Lowry’s, an inviting whiskey-focused pub. The antique dealer is a bit brusk, but I’m able to bargain my way into picking up this beautiful book on France between the World Wars for ten Euro. (Ergh, just realized I coulda picked it up for Amazon for less, but I didn’t have cell service to check, and there is something old school and support local-business-y about buying on object where you actually found it.) I didn’t find anything to buy at the music shop – CDs are terribly pricey these days, and I admit the convenience of Spotify has really taken a hit on my music purchases!

I join them at Lowry’s, where Dan asks about an alleged former bartender who used to date his friend Meghan, and a picture of Boston mayor Marty Walsh which she says was hanging in the front window, but the friendly bar minders don’t have any recollection of either. We get a recommendation for a food spot across the street, and sit down for soups, which are really terrific. Dad enjoys the rich seafood chowder and Dan and I order carrot-based curry soups. Two musicians start playing and they’re very good, singing acoustic covers in harmony vocals – sadly we must be on our way toward Galway, but we have a bit of chat with them before departing. Clifden is definitely bookmarked as a town to make a stop in for a day or two on a future trip, seems like one of those delightful Irish places halfway between a city and a small town.


The drive to our next stop, Galway, reveals some of the most impressive scenery of the entire trip. This is the heart of the Great Atlantic Way! Eeking our way down winding, one-lane roads, the mountains and lakes are massive and lush. This drive is not for the faint of heart, as turning a mere 4-5 feet to the right of our lane would launch us over one of the cliffs. Along the way, we encounter many ambling sheep, grass munching happily on grass, and we shoot this fun interview with two of them.


Dan leaves a sticker of his beloved dog Howie, who passed away last November (special thx to Jackie for the awesome specially designed stickers!), on a road sign looking out at one of the most dramatic views, and I leave one of Aeronaut Brewery. Wonder how long they’ll stay up? We stop at a rest center and Dad buys a beautiful Aran sweater; I pick up books on gravestone letterings and Irish traditional music, which are like, almost kind of the same thing.


Galway is of course one of the musical centers of Ireland, and its 6th-largest city by population (odd, I would've thought it ranked 2nd to Dublin!). This is technically my 3rd time here, but I don’t know the city very well save for a few musical and rainy memories. We locate our Airbnb, which is an actual Bed & Breakfast in a residential neighborhood about a 10 minute drive from the city centre; our hosts John and Anne and very pleasant. Though it’s quite expensive, our room is tiny (only two beds!) in comparison to some of our previous lodgings; not only is it a holiday weekend, but the annual Galway (Races (horses) is on this weekend, and (admittedly) I also booked the place on the late side.

We take a cab to the Crane Bar, one of the best known music pubs in all of Ireland. I first visited here in 2008, and met a man named Gerry Shannon, who sang these epic solo songs about Donegal and his hometown of Doolin. (Apparently he still comes in!) After stopping at a convenient pizza place next door, we walk into this famous venue – I recall walking here from our hotel late at night, during the pouring rain, during my last visit to Galway in 2014, just to see it. The upstairs music listening room lives up to my memory of it, as it’s stuffed with people focusing on the quartet of traditional musicians facing the bar. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage audiences with music in drinking establishments, it’s so impressive to be reminded how seriously and respectfully the patrons treat the music here. We find a table toward the back, and the folks sitting next to us are really the only ones talking at anything above a low-medium level. Our friend Leo (Mark Madden’s Dad) joins us with his friend Bernadette. I grab Dan and myself some whiskeys, which are priced ridiculously cheap compared to American bars, and I particularly enjoy the Jameson Crested. (I would pick up a couple bottles of this on the cheap later on the trip.) We swap pints with Leo, and fight to understand his thick Northern Irish dialect underneath the din of the music. Leo and his son are two of the finest people I know anywhere, and it’s cool to meet up with him again.


Toward the end of the music, I consider asking to sing a tune, but chicken out, as it doesn’t feel quite the right vibe or timing yet. I know another chance will come up. Dad’s tired, so we part ways with Leo and offer a personal tour of Boston if he ever makes it over. I take a picture of the document attesting to the fact that the Crane Bar is a sister pub of DeBarra’s in Clonakilty, where we’ll be in a couple days.


We grab a cab back to the Airbnb and experience one of our many friendly cab drivers, who hives us recommendation on fish & chips for tomorrow: “that place will blow the ears right off ya!”

I do wish we had more time to spend in this town, but we did experience some good craic and will have some time to explore a little tomorrow.

Posted by coolmcjazz 16:07 Archived in Ireland Tagged galway westport clifden Comments (1)

Day 4: The Top of the West, Westport & Dan McCools Pt. II!

in which your author does a wee bit of driving toward the wild wild west

semi-overcast 68 °F

The towns of the north of Ireland possess a certain dryness, a gritty, almost left-behind quality. Far off the familiar tourist routes, with nary an American to be found, the unspectacular, workaday-ness of these places remind any visitors who do pass through that Ireland isn’t all boisterous energy and reckless vistas.

We wake up at the Kee’s Hotel in Stranorlar, on the late side, with a fairly substantial travel day looming ahead. After a pop-in at fine café/bakery (about as close to Brooklyn as this town gets), we have one more important stop before heading down along the northwest coast of the country.


During my first trip to Ireland in 2008, I stopped into Stranorlar in search of McCools; an old Griffiths Valuation land survey ca. the 1840s indicated there were a bunch here. Along with a fantastic old sign (seen by pretty much every McCool in America) on the side of a rickety barn (actually a decades-old funeral parlor/pharmacy), I met up with a 60-something man named Dan McCool and his wife Patsy. I promised him I’d return one day with my same-named brother, and I did this back in 2014. We thought it would be fun to stop in say a quick hello, especially as Dad knew the story well and had never met the man. And, sure enough, there he was, sawing away at his sawmill! He instantly recognized my brother and I, greeting us with a warm handshake, then met Dad – two mid-seventies fellas, most likely 7th or so cousins, chatting in a mild Irish drizzle about the sordid state of American politics. Elder Dan has a meeting to get to in 20 minutes, so we say our farewells, with Dad pledging he’ll be back with his fiancé some day. It’s a nice thread connecting three of my Ireland trips–one of many similar threads on this trip. On the way out, Dad remarks he doesn’t think he’s ever seen an actual sawmill before.


Approaching the town of Sligo (new to me!), where we plan to stop for lunch, we fortuitously happen upon the ancient grounds of Drumcliffe, once a monastery and now site of the final resting place of W.B Yeats. Adjacent to the parking lot is a Celtic cross dating to the 900s, and across the road is a tower almost as old, struck by lightning in the late 1300s. We stop into the guest stop and I pick up some gifts (including some witty Irish magnets and this splurge) before walking over to the graveyard which abuts the church. Last year, I played W.B. Yeats at a party commemorating the 110th anniversary of his marriage, so it’s good to be here to pay my respects in person I also realize that my Dad’s sister (our Aunt Betty) stood here years ago (she once gave me a book of Yeats poems with a photo of the grave inside) so that’s a nice remembrance.


The massive Ben Bulben looms in the background. A congenial clergyman gives us a brief tour of the church and chats with Dad. He mentions he’s from Tyrone so I tell him about our likely family history in Clougher, and he repeats a short rhyme along the lines of “Clougher, Augher, Fivemiletown… six miles around and seven to town.” It’s a nice little stop on the way.


I attended Eastman with violist and (future) travel writer Zeneba Bowers, who along with her husband published two “Little Roads” books on travel in Ireland and Italy; these are really terrific sources for anyone who wants to experience things the more touristy guides might miss. Zeneba recommended Hadagorn’s in Sligo, an expansive Victorian-era gastropub dating back to the late 19th century. The place has a sort of layout that would never be constructed today – the old goods counter by the entrance, adjacent to a tiny snug room that fits maybe 6 people, followed by a long hallway of tables and two larger rooms and bustling backroom bar. Our meal is lovely, though we’re beginning to feel the creeping effects of covering so much daily distance.


Before departing, we pop into a pub called Shoot the Crow, recommended by Dan’s friend Sarah, where some gents are fixated on the women’s field hockey match. We have some fun banter with them, and they give us a hard time about ordering half pints. On the way back to the car, I take a few shots of a very slender W.B. Yeats statue.


With soft serve ice cream in hand, we press forward toward our next stop, the delightful music-saturated, seaside town of Westport, where I visited in 2008, and haven’t been back since. We’re running on the late side, and roll into our Airbnb, on the outskirts of town, around 9pm. Our host, Patricia, is a warm and welcoming as could be (the "Welcome Jason & family" chalk sign is a nice touch!), gets us set up, then drives us into the town, giving us the lowdown on Westport, which was named as the best place to live in Ireland by the Irish Times; the town seems to have it all: water, great food, history, and easy access to Galway and the gorgeous west coast.


Patricia leaves us at Matt Molloy’s, one of the more famous music pubs in all of Ireland. Matt Molloy was a founding member of The Chieftains, and this place is packed continually with some of the finest Irish musicians in the world. (My Vice President (and hopefully future actual President?) Joe Biden stopped by here a few years ago. The band is lively, featuring a mix of friendly, crowd-pleasing songs and more “pure drop”-style traditional music. We manage to score a few stools near the door; the back room is just as packed with tourists as I remember it was in 2008. Live music was the only thing Dad specified he wanted to experience on the trip, and this is our first exposure. We walk around a bit after the bands wraps up – it’s Saturday night of a holiday weekend so this town is nearly overrun, but it’s a refreshing change from the barrenness of the last few days.


We grab a cab back to the Airbnb, I do a bit of catching up on the blog, and call it a night. We’ve launched into my favorite part of the trip: joyful, live Irish music for four nights straight!

Posted by coolmcjazz 15:09 Archived in Ireland Tagged yeats westport sligo stranorlar Comments (0)

Day 3: McCools Kick at Mud + Digging Seamus Heaney

in which your author re-visits a most-likely not ancestral mud patch and reads at a master's grave

semi-overcast 70 °F

So, where were we? Attempting to recall Day 3 of this whirlwind trip, I begin this entry in Galway, expecting I’ll only complete a few paragraphs before we launch ourselves back along the Southwest coast in our trusty Renault.

Day 3 began in Magherafelt. Neither Dan nor I slept very well, having stayed up too late the night before either writing or attending to political Facebook groups presently raising bundles of cash to turn America blue. [Fun interjection from the present: Dan holding up a ten Euro bill in Galway and saying, “oh I thought this was trash.”]

We pack up the car, park, and drop into a friendly breakfast place, where Dad and Dan have their first traditional Irish fry, with curling chunks of bacon, eggs and sausage. (The vegetarian of 20 years opts for a raspberry white chocolate scone.)

Dan is experiencing some strange jaw pain so he runs across to a pharmacy to get some heating compresses. (“Are ye havin’ a wee bit of payin?”) We drop by Bryson's Bar, built in the early 1860s, and site of my first true singing experience in an Irish pub, captured by my dear friend Amy for posterity. It's nice to show Dad this place, and Dan and I remark on how small it seems these years later.


We make our way to an area on the outskirts of Magherafelt called Toberhead, where John and Olivia McCool set up a farm back in 1730; it was this homestead that initially led me to this town back in 2014, and this will be my 3rd time there. We drive up the long dirt path and walk up the muddy lane to where we can see one of the old houses in the distance; everything in this part of the world is very spread out. (A recurring joke between Dan and I on this trip characterizes the same rural Irish types who asked "MacKooule? MacKooule?!" on our last trip, saying "Aye, it's moahre MacKooules over to look at some muck.")

Robin, the farmer who owns the land comes out with his teenage daughter, wondering about what these odd trespassers are doing staring off behind a fence on his property, and I re-introduce myself. He’s a friendly man and we chat with him for 5 minutes or so – the thick rural dialect is just as I remember it. On the way out, we spot a better view of the farmhouse and take a few good selfies, then stop at the sign boasting “McCoole’s Road” on the way out.


Next stop is Bellaghy, just up the road a bit, birthplace of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I’ve been following the Heaney HomePlace on Facebook since it open just over a year ago, as I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the man’s work and presence, and a couple years ago had the chance to perform some of his work in an event led by the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge. (Poets’ Theatre director Bob Scanlan was a close friend of Heaney.) There’s a characteristic light Irish mist in the air as we pull up.

The Centre is organized in two floors, and begins by introducing small displays on people who the poet featured in his early poems. Throughout the exhibit, there’s a deep sense that although this was a man who gained access to the highest, richest perches of creative language, imagery, and metaphor, he was ever rooted in his hometown and the colorful, characters who inhabited it. Every description extols him as not only a true artist, but an eminently decent and humble human. Many poems are posted alongside visual representations of the persons or themes discussed in the poems; I’ve never been to a museum dedicated to a poet before, but this seems a spot-on solution for how to lift something off the page and turn it into an experience. Heaney’s poems placed people and experiences on the page, so in a way making this transition in reverse makes perfect sense. There are videos one can sit and watch that feature people either describing their relationship with Heaney, what Heaney’s work means to them, or reading their favorite passage of his, and in most cases doing all three, with a wide range of interviewees from Bono and Bill Clinton to schoolchildren from this area.


We pause at a lovely café upstairs – Dad comments that this is the best food he’s ever had at a museum. I can’t recommend this place highly enough if you’re in the area, and even if you’re not in the area, it’s worth a day trip. There isn’t too much else around this region in terms of tourist attractions, so I imagine (and hope) the Heaney Centre will become a solid anchor for economic development. I splurge in the gift shop, wanting to support the fine work of these curators and Heaney’s extraordinary legacy. I hope to make it back some day.


On the way out of town, we stop at Heaney’s grave, where I visited two years ago. It’s lightly raining now just as it was then. I read Heaney’s “Digging” as well as a piece in honor of Mom’s good friend Sheila who had passed away within the week, a piece that our dear friend Dan, who passed away last year and whose memory we carry with us on this trip, has emailed around after the death of Ted Kennedy. I take a beautiful wet leaf that had fallen on the grave, and leave another in its place. The Heaney stops are real highlights of the trip so far.


We press forward and make the trek to Stranorlar, a place I first visited ten years ago this month. (There are some bittersweet emotions being back inside this place, to be honest.) I booked us a room at the Kee’s Hotel, built in 1845, a rustic place that is as opulent as anything could be in this area. We have dinner (excellent food) in the restaurant, and have a long chat about work life – Dan and I are following very untraditional, self-created career paths, often very rewarding, but with many unorthodox challenges. As ever, I feel extremely fortunate to have this support system. Dan and I round off the night by having a pint and a whiskey (omg it’s so cheap here) in the hotel bar, then walking across the bridge that runs over the River Finn, past the Sean Mac Cumhaill football pitch, to a bar I recall hanging out at ten years ago, now closed. There are many old ghosts here.


We’re getting our sea legs with the trip, and writing these words from Clonakilty days later, I can vouch for this: the best is yet to come!

Posted by coolmcjazz 18:16 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged donegal bellaghy stranorlar Comments (2)

Day 2: I Hear You Calling Me (To the Ancestral Lands)

in which your author explores rich ancestral piles of mud

semi-overcast 70 °F

Sleep! Glorious, transformative sleep! It’s astonishing how much more functional human beings become when they get it. I woke up a new man on Tuesday, ready and able to take on our Irish vacation with gusto after conquering the dreaded and inevitable jetlag. Plus, a wonderfully comfortable bed – way to go, Airbnb and local host with the tough to pronounce name ("Blaithin") who we never even met.

After packing up and saying farewell to the first lodging spot of our trip, we grabbed some quick coffees at a place on the other side of the bridge; Dan scorches his hands after a nasty spill from the back seat. We drive past Sean’s Bar (open at 11am!), and a man gives us directions (past a treacherous narrow passageway hosting a scared bird) to one final stop in Athlone – the childhood home of Count John McCormack!


McCormack has been an increasing figure of interest for me over the past few years. I imagine that if I ever took classical vocal training seriously I’d end up with a voice like his – perhaps not approaching his magisterial flexibility, but at least somewhat similar in tone. I can pull off some reasonable facsimiles of his popular Irish pieces, however, and I’ve wondered whether writing a show based on his life might be a fun project someday. I hum a few bars of I Hear You Calling Me while standing outside his boyhood home, nestled amidst a rather non-descript bundle of short row houses in a lazily dense part of town. Perhaps let’s revisit this some day, Count John?

A major element of this trip is genealogy. I’ve been an amateur family historian (particularly on my father’s side, which is far less well documented than my Scottish/Cape Breton mother’s) for about a decade now, coinciding with my very first trip here ten years ago. I recently discovered specific details about my great-grandmother’s birthplace, as well as what is very likely the origin town of my great-great-great-grandfather, and first McCool of our line to come to America. Also, Dad is looking to complete his Irish citizenship for which he requires his grandmother’s birth certificate. (Unfortunately, they recently changed the laws that used to allow non-native born Irish citizenship to be passed on to children, but it’s still worth him getting this if he can.)

We make a first stop in Mullingar in seek of this document. After visiting a few different offices, we finally find out where the document should be – but the office closed 45 minutes earlier! Still, the kindly secretary advises us to wait, then she asks the records man to help us out by looking up the info. Unfortunately, it’s to no avail – dear old Bridget Creighton was born on the border of Counties Westmeath and Cavan, and Westmeath doesn’t have her birth certificate, even though I’m able to show the man the original birth record documents that I located online. I’ll need to do a bit more exploring to find this! Still, it’s nice that they took time to help us out, and Dad and the man have a nice chat about how civility is a fine option to take up.


We press on to investigate the area of Westmeath Bridget came from – the combination of GPS and multiple maps helps us find an area called “Togher,” close to Finnea, Westmeath. (I know this place from the reference to “the bridge of Finnea” in the once-popular song [[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCBSjcYmCq0|Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff.)


We’re out in deep farm country, and “Togher” appears to be nothing but an intersection of country roads, dense with thickets of greenery and rustic, crumbling stone edifices. I spot a man digging at the side of the road, pull up and ask him about Togher – he replies that we just passed it and “it’s really just a piece of road.” Who knows what part of this belonged to our ancestors prior to young Bridget’s emigration in 1882?


Through a web of trees, I spot a tall, stonefaced structure slightly set off from the road, and decide to explore. We park and walk up to it; I hop the fence and take some shots from the inside. Who know what this building once was?


We press on, and a blinding flash of colorful signs sticks out on the left side of the road. I stop the car to take a few shots and a jovial, trollish man bops over to the car, leaning on Dad’s windowside. He insists we get out and have a closer look. Hugh is a true and rare eccentric in the way that reminds you that the world is ever filled with strange, beautiful creatures, utterly unafraid to carve out their own way. He introduces himself as Hugh, chattering constantly in thick, near indecipherable Irish country dialect, and leads us through a brief tour of some of his eclectic, folk art-stuffed home. Dan asks if he’s ever been to Boston and he replies “Yes, I went there for my brother’s wedding but I HATED it! I’ll never go back!” He doesn’t explain why. We notice a row of scissors dangling from the ceiling. It’s a bit creepy (the dangling doll in the upstairs window doesn’t help), but there are safety in numbers and he seems harmless, if certifiably daffy. We say goodbye and carry on, stopping briefly at a nearby cemetery to look for Creightons; we don’t find any but do find plenty of Smyths, another family name connected to our Creighton lineage.


We pass through Cavan, home town of an Irish theater friend in Boston, staying long enough to have a quick lunch at a cute little café – where a TV broadcasts exciting news that OUR PRESIDENT(S) Barack Obama and Joe Biden visited a bakery in DC together! – followed by coffees at a shop next door, where the barista from Michigan instantly picks up on our American-ness. (Perhaps it's the 1st place Red Sox hats we all seem to be wearing constantly?)


It’s getting late in the day, and we still have to drop in to Clougher, Country Tyrone, which I only a couple weeks ago discovered is the likely origin spot of Edward McCool, my great-great-great-grandfather. It’s a bit of a hike over smallish, two-lane roads (Dad is justifiably skittish over these), passing through the architecturally intriguing town of Enniskillen.


Eventually, we roll up into the hilly town, which is literally just one main street with a few options: pub, general store, restaurant, and a handful of other random small businesses. I park in front of a pub and catch two men , one mid-40s and another probably 80, locking up the general store next door; I ask them if they know any McCools – the older one says yes, there would be a few in nearby Fintona, as well as an old place known locally as “McCool’s cottage.” This is certainly intriguing.

We decide to have a wee pint in the pub, in part because it’s called “Whiteside’s” – Whiteside is yet another family name on Dad’s side! The barmaid is as friendly and chipper as can be, and is the granddaughter of the owner, named Whiteside. (Probably very distant cousins!) We chat about the US and what the area is known for – she’s home on vacation for the week but lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland as a school teacher. She refuses to take cash for our beers, saying “ye’s are family!”) It’s a lovely little personal keepsake of the town which is most likely where our McCools came from in the 1830s.


We drive around a bit in search of the afore-mentioned McCool cottage – it takes us a few tries but we do eventually find a road that leads to a very rickety old industrial-type barn. No idea if this is “McCool’s cottage” (the older gentleman mentioned it had been refurbished and someone was living there, so I somewhat doubt it given the state of this place), but it’s an interesting diversion nonetheless. Genealogy feels very much like detective work.


We continue on toward our evening destination, Magherafelt, home of good buddy Mark Madden, who I met on my third Irish trip back in 2014 and who I visited on my last trip. Unfortunate timing dictates that Mark has to fly out of Dublin early the following morning, so we won’t get to see him tonight. His peach of a human being Leo (who shepherded us around to rainy graveyards those years ago) meets us at the Flax Inn, site of the infamous “Flax 4” encounter. We have a couple pints and introduce Dad to this meaningful place, which is really fun. A couple lads down at the end of the bar (the place only seats maybe 10 at the bar) say “youse were the Americans who came in here four years ago, aye? We were in here that night.” It’s amazing – they actually remember us. We’re borderline famous in these parts! One had joined Mark on a trip to DC and he happily shows me photos of the trip.


It’s a fun, lowkey time, and we head back to Mark’s place, where Dad and Leo talk about Catholicism. Leo gets out his beautiful guitar and the lot of us hack our way through a few songs in the living room.


We’re starting to settle into the rhythm of the trip at this point, and having great fun with some excellent people in this amazing and beautiful land!

Posted by coolmcjazz 03:25 Archived in Ireland Tagged tyrone magherafelt westmeath Comments (0)

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 Comments (1)

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