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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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