At the craic of noon next day we make our way to an interruption in the road, a pause between thoughts, the privately-owned 18th-century grand edifice known as the Westport House, lording over some 500 park-like acres. We're here to probe some pirate history. We meet up with Lady Sheelyn Browne, the 14th great granddaughter of the Pirate Queen of Connaught, the mistress of the western waves, Grace O'Malley.
Lady Browne escorts us to the dungeons of the grand manor, which she has converted into a pirate's cove, replete with treasure chest, Jolly Roger flags, brandy casks, cutlasses, flintlocks and fun house mirrors (not sure how they fit the pirate theme, but they are fun). Here she tells us the story of her ancestor, the most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.
Born in a nearby castle in 1530, Grace O'Malley grew up idolizing her sea captain father. Once a teen and determined to join his crew, she cut off her hair and dressed in boys' clothing, earning her the nickname "Grainne Mhaol" (bald Grace) and set sail with her dad. Once, when the ship was boarded by English buccaneers, she climbed the sail rigging, and as her father was being attacked from behind, she sailed through the air screaming and landed on the attacking pirate's back. Her father and crew then won the fight.
She married into a wealthy clan, and when her husband died in battle, she inherited three galleys and 200 fighting men. Soon Grace had a thriving piracy empire and controlled Clew Bay and five castles, including one on whose foundations the Westport House was built. When the English captured her son and brother, she sailed to England to meet with the other great woman pirate of the era, Queen Elizabeth.
Grace spoke no English but was fluent in Latin, so she and the Queen conversed freely. She asked for the release of her brother and son and agreed to use her pirate skills to help the Queen defeat her enemies. Legend has it she then sneezed. A member of the court handed her a very expensive handkerchief of lace and delicate embroidery. Grace loudly blew her nose into the hankie, then tossed it into the fire.
The court was aghast and expected her to be executed for the act of insolence. But instead The Queen gently chided her, suggesting she should have put it into her pocket instead. Grace replied the Irish did not put soiled articles into their pockets, and therefore must have a higher sense of cleanliness. The Queen laughed, agreed to Grace's offer, and ordered Grace's family released. Grace continued to pillage and pirate into her 60s, died a wealthy warrior in her 70s, and served as inspiration for spirited women for the following ages, as well as for Keith Richards and Johnny Depp, I would suspect.
There are true stories, and then there are Irish stories. After leaving the manor house we make our way to Galway, a college town with as much history as future. Christopher Columbus pulled into port here, and rumor has it a band of sailors jumped ship, thinking the world was indeed flat while the beer here was not.
"The Irish, and I'm also guilty of this, think they invented everything," says Bono. And so they say lynching was invented here, by James Lynch Fitzstephen, Mayor of Galway, who hanged his own son from the balcony of his house after convicting him of a murder in 1493.
But we're looking for a narrative a tad more current, so we check into the G Hotel, designed by Philip Treacy, or, as I call him, "The Man Who Mistook a Hotel for a Hat." Treacy is the Galway-born theatrical milliner who designed twizzling headgear for the likes of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Sarah Jessica Parker, Victoria Beckham, Grace Jones, Boy George and most notoriously, the toilet seat top for Princess Beatrice at The Royal Wedding. The G looks like the inside of such a hat, asymmetrically hemmed, a mish-mash of eye-popping colors and textures, raspberry carpets, furnishings in undercooked hues and leopard skin. The lobby men's room is done in hot, hot pink. The effect is of something I used to envision after certain parties in college, something perhaps a little too flamboyantly trendy, at least to my plebeian sensibilities today. I do take comfort knowing that for future travelers this, too, will be a curious relic, like the dolmens and ancient forts of County Clare.
So we head downtown to a proper Irish pub and quite providentially turn into the bright blue doorsill of The Quays, reeking with age, as the interior is the transept of a medieval church, complete with stained glass, Gothic arches and pews. Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder here, so we belly up and order a pint of Irish mothers' milk: Guinness. The verger-barkeep Simon Powell asks, "Want to see how I pull a perfect pint?"
Nothing that exists is without imperfections, some philosophers contend, but they haven't met Mr. Powell's artistry. He first double cleans a dry glass and then holds it at 45 degrees under the spout. He slowly pulls the handle and allows the beer to flow smoothly down the side of the glass. As the glass fills, he straightens it. He then stands the glass on the counter and allows the gas to surge through the beer. To create the fabled head, he pushes the handle backward slightly, topping off the brew as the head rises just proud of the rim. Then he adroitly swirls the glass to etch a shamrock in the foam.
For the denouement, he picks up his stout, holds it up to the light and with an economical nod says, "That's savage craic!"
Yet the pièce de résistance of the trip comes that evening, after Karen Coleman, who inspired this quest, calls and says she is in Galway visiting friend Dr. Frank Sullivan -- and asks if we would we like to join for a dinner of whelks and homemade Irish stew. We spend a few delicious hours sipping, feasting and recounting the wanderings and encounters of our rove through Western Ireland. As the night winds down, Karen lathers the summary question, "So, all in all, how was it?"
What else could ever be returned?
"Karen, it's absolutely impossible to describe. But I'll try. We had great craic!"
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