Now Martin gives us a tour of Dan O'Hara's cottage. It's a brief tour as the place is hardly big enough to swing a cat. He points out where the various family members slept, including a reechy loft for the unmarried girls. "Where the term 'left on the shelf comes from'," he claims.
Then he pulls out a secret sill by the chimney and produces a clear bottle of Ischabaha, water of life, mountain dew, the taste of Irish culture, Poitín or, as we know it, moonshine. Distilled from malted barley grain, he says it is one of the strongest alcoholic beverages in the world and pours a wee dram into a quartet of glasses, lifts his high and says, "Here's to all who wish us well, and those who don't can go to Hell. Sláinte." I frankly can't remember what happens next, though I do recall Martin singing a ballad by the fire and a dream with Angelica Houston in culottes and a logoed blazer.
And here we are, later that day, in front of Kylemore Abbey, where we're told Angelica Houston went to high school. The teller is Bríd Connell, a fetching young architect who works here, and with moist eyes, tells the achingly romantic story of the castle across the lake.
The story goes that Mitchell and Margaret Henry visited Connemara while on honeymoon and were so enchanted by the beauty of the uninhibited landscape, Mitchell offered to build a castle for his bride on a 15,000-acre plot. It was completed in 1868, and the couple celebrated by inviting friends and family to come and dine and stay and rejoice in their happiness. But then during a vacation in Egypt, Margaret contracted Nile Fever and died suddenly on the return. Mitchell was devastated and abandoned the castle, though he built a beautiful memorial church, a miniature replica of Bristol Cathedral, about a mile from the Castle on the shore of the lake, in which Margaret was finally laid to rest, and where, in due course, he joined her. By the time Bríd finishes the tale, we're all in tears.
We find refuge that night at the Lough Inagh Lodge, where the rooms are themed after famous Irish writers, and I get James Joyce, which both thrills and intimidates, as I took a deconstruction course about the author in college, but even with Cliff's Notes, never understood the man and his musings. I was more of the Nora Joyce school, who complained to her husband, "Why don't you write books people can read?"
Down in the bar we discover the remnants of a wedding party -- and luck of the Irish, the couple hails from Portland, Oregon, where Didrik resides. So, we order up Irish coffees and sit with the nuptial stragglers who are soused and thumping away with Irish folk tunes, roasting everyone from Bono to Joyce to Oliver Cromwell. "How's the craic?" canvasses Dominic O'Morain, the general manager, who keeps the drinks flowing long after we've left the train to the temperate zone.
I have a hard time forcing sleep. The pillow is grudging my head, and a portrait of James Joyce is looking down on me, and through his round glasses he seems to be making some kind of judgment, either on the excess of drink or my insufficient writings.
With the morning, Dominic offers to ruin us with a walk through beauty, a hike in the footsteps of St. Patrick. Under ragged shreds of clouds and swirling mist we knock the van down a skinny rock and dirt road and park at the beginning of the Meanean Pass (Pass for Birds) in the round-shouldered Maumturk Mountains. At a signpost made of recycled tires, we equip ourselves with backpacks and wind up a stony pilgrim's path. We rise above a reflective corrie lake, fingered by fog, where some Druid lost his dog, so says Dominic. Then just past the bleached skull of a horned sheep we step not-so-smartly to the vertex of the pass, which is crawling with no snakes. But we do encounter a number of stone crosses, a little chapel (a hollow in the rock known as Patrick's Bed) and a life-sized statue of St. Patrick with his signature staff.
It is here Dominic divulges some shocking news: St. Patrick wasn't Irish!
Turns out Patrick was born in Britain around 390 A.D. to a titled Christian family, though he showed little interest in the family religion. But at 16 he was kidnapped and ended up a slave tending sheep in the countryside of Ireland for seven years. According to folklore, a voice came to Patrick in his dreams, telling him to escape. He found passage on a pirate ship back to Britain, where he was reunited with his family.
But then he had a dream telling him to head back to Ireland and convert the Irish to Christianity. He spent the rest of his life wandering the land proselytizing, climbing mountains and performing miracles, such as banishing snakes (truth is, it's too damn cold for snakes), using three-leafed shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) and somehow inspiring green beer.
On the way back down, facing the infinite romance of the sea, spears of light piece the clouds, looking like shortcuts to heaven. It feels like hiking into a watercolor of The Rapture. Near the bottom, Dominic detours us from the trail, and picks his way over bogs, becks, chines and scree to a scattering of sharp piebald stones near the tangled boughs of a Hawthorne tree.
The rocks look randomly dashed, until he moves us to a certain perspective where a clear pattern emerges.
"These are the gravestones of unbaptized children," he tells us. "This is unconsecrated ground, and it is here those who perished in accidents or as famine victims or committed suicide or simply died unknown of faith are buried."
We need some spirit lifting after the somber hike, so head to Westport, and Matt Malloy's Bar, an infamous watering hole owned by the flute player for The Chieftains, the multi-Grammy winning group among the first to make Irish trad popular beyond the Isle. By some estimates, Ireland has the second highest beer consumption in the world, and it would seem this pub is ground zero.
"The craic is mighty here," Ciarán says over the din of a hooley. When a rare stool becomes vacant, I grab it, but before sitting, notice it has a hole where the butt crack would go. Scanning the room, I see that all the stools are holey. Ciarán witnesses my puzzlement and cracks, "It's because of the Guinness. Guinness causes farts."
Keenly observant that I am, after settling into the stool I browse the room and register something else that seems a bit off. There are no women in the packed room. "Is this a gay bar?" I ask Ciarán, pulling on my coat.
"No, no, lad. This is X-Factor night. All the women are at home watching the telly." Ciarán glances at his watch, "Give it another ten minutes, and the hens will come." And sure enough, a quarter of an hour later the already full room becomes three times as packed, and we squeeze through the crush back to the street and decide to walk back to the hotel. We turn a corner and bump into a passel of partying teens, always a bit unsettling late at night in a foreign town. But rather than menace, they are toothy smiles and cheer.
"Need a taxi?" one asks. "My mom drives for the company across the street. And we turn and see a sign for "Taxi & Funeral Service."
"Sign of the times," Ciarán explains. "With the recession everyone is doubling up on services. They take you coming and going."
"It's a nice night," I turn to the teens. "I think we'll walk."
"That's craic-tastic!" one says, and off they skip into the night.
Read part five of this series.
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