Episode 8 - Family Business

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March 21, 2006

With a new exhaust pipe, CV boot, rear brakes, and two new tires, our time in Westport came to an end. The night before leaving, we made one last trip to the pub, bringing with us our red-faced friend Brendan, the Spanish pseudo-Mick Jagger, our Italian companion Tommaso, a local man named Des, and Aoifa, the manager and heir to the Old Mill Hostel dynasty. The night was filled with pints, questioning looks and hand gestures as our group from around the world tried our best to understand one another. But it mattered not, because the traditional Irish band’s set list was made up of the American classic rock standards that united us all.

From Westport, we continued our journey north through County Mayo and stopped to spend the night on Achill Island. Achill was once a thriving fishing community but now, like much of Ireland, survives by catering to tourists like ourselves. Fortunately, tourism is almost non-existent during the winter, so the local pub was as it should be, filled with locals who take part in the American tradition of watching the Simpsons while enjoying a few pints. Despite it being the slow season, the hostel we stayed at was full; four Yale students were also spending the night. After being properly anesthetized by a couple of glasses of wine, the conversation turned to (what else?) politics, and the admirable Irish attitude toward, ummm…current world events. We all agreed that we hadn’t met one Irish person in our travels who was in favor of the war, and that the Irish seem to be more aware than Americans of world political issues despite the fact that many of them live in fairly remote locations. After a few hours of this type of banter, Jess and I went to bed, and though it was one in the morning, those crazy ivy-leaguers were just opening another bottle of wine and settling in to a heated game of scrabble.

The next day, we continued to make our way up the northwest coast heading toward Donegal and my grandmother’s birthplace. We spent most of the day in the car and crossed over into County Donegal that evening. In our guide book we found a hostel to stay at just outside the currently very inactive fishing village of Killybegs. See, the Killybegs fishermen have a bit of a problem. It seems that they haven’t really been paying taxes for the past hundred years or so and, now that Ireland is part of the EU, fishing quotas are based on the historical catch records for a particular area. Needless to say, when the EU checked the books to see what the fishermen of Killybegs had been catching, it didn’t look like they had caught much of anything. So now the port is filled with multimillion dollar fishing boats that can’t bring in any fish because their owners cheated on their taxes. It’s somehow comforting to know that some things never change regardless of where you are in the world.

Jess and I had a lovely stay that night in tiny Dunkineely, where we had the hostel completely to ourselves. The owner, originally from the same area as my grandmother’s family and familiar with the hotel that they currently operate there, was kind enough to offer us a bit of the illegal drink poteen that Jess and I had read so much about. Poteen (po-cheen), the Irish version of moonshine, is a potato-based alcohol that was a crutch for many during hard times of the past. Of course, the owner, being Irish, sat and chatted with us for the better part of the evening, and this is how we found out about the dilemma in Killybegs, the Irish Government’s budget failures, the current state of public education, his family history, the history of poteen… From there it was a brisk ten-meter walk to the nearest pub, which happened to be hosting a trad music session. It was all a very perfectly Irish evening.

From Dunkineely, we made our way along the rugged Donegal coast to the Slieve League sea cliffs, the highest in Europe at over 600m (about 2000 feet). The road that takes you to the cliffs is, of course, windy and narrow and scattered with sheep, and I was happy to know that at the very least the brakes on our little Ford were sound. Fortunately, we had a perfectly clear day, unique in Ireland, to take in the splendor of the cliffs before continuing north.

A few days earlier, I had emailed my family up in Donegal to let them know when we would be arriving. Not having heard back from them, I decided to go ahead and book a room at their hotel. So after doing a quick search for the Ballyliffy Hotel in Donegal, I found what I thought was the correct website. It turns out, however, that I ended up booking a room with the local competition, so upon our arrival in town there was a bit of confusion as to what hotel my cousins owned and what hotel Jess and I had booked a room at. When it was all said and done, we ended up spending the first night at the swanky and over-done Ballyliffin Lodge and Spa instead of at my cousin’s place, the Ballyliffin Hotel. In the end, it didn’t much matter, as the two hotels were within walking distance, so we were able to have a few pints with the family and then walk back to our room at the lodge.

It is both strange and wonderful to be able to travel 3000 miles and meet people who not only treat you like an old friend but who also share the same look and mannerisms as people you have known your whole life. My father’s cousins are wonderful folks who showed us around the area where my Grandmother grew up. We were able to see the old home place, the school she attended, the church the family still goes to, and the graveyard where many of my relatives are buried. It turns out that I am related to just about everybody in the town of Urris (just outside of Clonmany), and it would have taken weeks to meet them all, but we did our best. That night, St. Paddy’s day, we gathered at the pub in cousin Paddy’s hotel, where we were now staying, and talked about relatives back in America as well as relations in Ireland. With local kids playing Irish tunes in the background, and long-lost cousins trying to make up for lost time by buying us a ridiculous amount of beer, time flew by. It was nearly midnight when Jess and I realized that we hadn’t eaten dinner, so we bade farewell to the cousins and made for our room where we had stashed some cheese and soda bread.

The next morning, we went back to Urris to say goodbye to Paddy’s brother Sean and his wife Anne. Over tea and a light lunch, we realized that Anne grew up in the same town as Jessamy’s aunt’s father-in-law (the father of the man who owns the house in Bantry where we have been staying [welcome to Ireland, where everybody is connected]). The McGlincheys’ house was our next stop on the trip, so they pointed us in the right direction and we were off.

The directions from Tommy’s mom went something like this: bicycle, turn, end of road, go left. She said we couldn’t miss it. About 45 minutes later, having already asked one person if they knew where the McGlincheys lived (to which she strangely replied “you’re American, aren’t you”), we were thoroughly lost. Eventually, we saw a man out in front of a house working on a garden, so I pulled over and Jessamy got out to ask if he knew the house we were looking for. Naturally, it turned out to be Mr. McGlinchey, and the house he was in front of was one that he was building for Tom, Helen, and the kids. He gave us a quick tour of the house and then showed us the way down to his farm.

Down at the farm, we met Tom’s mother Mary, his brother Jerry, and his sister Mary Francis. They are all wonderful people who made us feel very welcome, and when it came to food would not take no for an answer. So, one hour after lunch at my cousin’s, we had a meal of lamb, mashed potatoes, vegetable soup, roasted carrots and peas, biscuits, soda bread, apple pie, cake, and three cups of tea. After convincing Mary that we really couldn’t eat those scones if we wanted to, we were given a quick tour of the farm. They keep over one hundred sheep and about thirty cows, and of course this is the time of year for lambing so there were little ones everywhere. In fact, while we were there we just missed a birthing, so that upon arrival there was simply a pile of lamb and afterbirth lying on the ground.

We ended up spending the night at Tom’s sister’s house in Buncrana. She lives in Belfast full-time but keeps a holiday home where she and the kids spend weekends and most of the summer. When we arrived at her house, there was a gaggle of kids peering out the window, as it would seem someone tipped them off that the Americans were coming. After meeting everybody, we sat down to have pizza, bread, cheese, marmalade, cookies and several cups of tea (Mary Francis not wanting to be outdone by her mum), at which time one of the kids informed us that we had funny accents, and then asked us if we knew Alana with blond hair from America. We disappointed her by saying that we didn’t, but assured her that next time we were there we would keep an eye out for her. After the kids went to bed, Mary Francis, Jess and I walked down to the pub to have a few pints and to talk about, you guessed it, politics. (When we expressed our embarrassment at being Americans, Mary said, “I would be too, with that boy at the helm”.)

As I was getting sick and the car was leaking a good bit of coolant, we made the trip back to Bantry a quick one, stopping only one night in the town of Athlone. Jess and I were both tired that night, having stayed out with Mary Francis until two in the morning, but seeing as how the oldest pub in Ireland (there since the 1400’s) was right down the road from the bed and breakfast we were staying at, we felt obligated to go out and have a pint. We got to talking to a Spanish cop who now calls Dublin home and loves Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. We told him to walk down School Street and listen for a Mitch Miller type sing-along the next time he was there.

—Bobby (mostly)