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A Sort of Homecoming

Ireland extends an easy welcome to all

By Andrew McCarthy

November/December 2017

Arriving in low spirits from a dreary London, I kissed the ground the first time I landed in Ireland as a very young man—my friend snapped a photo of me doing it. My father’s family had come to America from the “Old Sod” generations earlier, but that vague awareness carried little import in my life at the time. Why I dropped to my knees and kissed the tarmac like some kind of youthful, heathen pontiff, I couldn’t explain to my bewildered, camera-toting friend. By the time we left three weeks later (we had intended only a weekend getaway), I had begun to understand my impulsive act.

In the mid-1980s, Ireland was a poor country, yet we were welcomed with an openheartedness that allowed me to relax in a way I’d not previously experienced. I felt strangely at home, in a fashion that I had never felt in the suburban New Jersey of my youth. In Dublin and Cork, and especially in the Irish countryside, I felt myself received.

On that first trip I walked into McDermott’s Pub in Doolin, in County Clare, and discovered the effect that ripping Irish traditional music played to a packed room has on the nervous system. Atop a nearby hill beside a 15th-century ruin, I came upon Ballinalacken Castle Country House Hotel. I’ve been returning ever since, and three generations of the O’Callaghan family have welcomed me with their country hospitality. Until Denis O’Callaghan died a few years ago, he always greeted me by crushing my hand and pumping my arm and shouting, “You’re welcome here, Andrew” in his thick country accent (even after I’d backed into—and severely dented—his brand-new car). And when I was caught sneaking into the kitchen to pinch some of Mrs. O’Callaghan’s famous (to me and my friend) brown soda bread, she slapped my wrist, then upon checkout handed me an extra loaf “for the long journey back.”

On that first trip I met an elderly man named Tommy Ahern, who had been captain at the Lahinch Golf Club, a classic seaside links course. Tommy suggested I become an overseas lifetime member and offered to sponsor me into the club. Without a notion of ever returning to Ireland, I impulsively accepted. That frivolous act has brought me more satisfaction over the decades than almost any practical thing I have ever done. When I’m nowhere near the links—or even Ireland—a passing recollection of my membership elicits in me a sense of belonging, which continues to enhance my connection to the country. (And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a hell of a golf course.)

On my second or third trip I went to County Galway and discovered its Gaeltacht (Irishspeaking) region of Connemara, with rugged, almost tundra-like terrain and filigreed coastline. Memories of a flat tire on the “haunted” Bog Road outside Roundstone on a moonless night still elicit shivers. And at some point I made it out to the Aran Islands, those isolated, wind-battered
outcrops in Galway Bay—where I have never endured such profound silence.

Eventually, I met a woman (it’s an age-old story) who would bring Ireland even further into my consciousness and change my life. A place where I had always felt at home suddenly became home. Soon there were children, in-laws, and a mortgage. I came to know more than the traveler’s tantalizing taste of Irish life.

Beneath the blarney, a darkness to the Irish character reveals itself over time. (Could the Irish have given the world Joyce and Wilde and Beckett without it?) But the rebellious, “stick-it-to-the-man” edge only made me love the place and its people more. After all, aren’t we all just the strength of our flaws, as the Irish might say?

Yet neither individuals nor countries get rich quick gracefully, and the Celtic Tiger of the early 21st century sapped much of that easy welcome the Irish had been famous for. Thanks to EU bolstering and tax incentives, the perpetual underdog was now feeling like a top dog. Helicopter rides across the country to Moran’s Oyster Cottage outside Galway supplanted a ham and cheese toasted at the local pub. Irish hospitality took on a distinctly Polish accent, and it became difficult to find any Irish in the service industry. For the first time, a generation grew up knowing only a wealthy homeland. The 2008 financial crisis brought all of that to a halt. The housing bubble burst, silencing the braggadocio.

“We had simply lost the run of ourselves, full stop,” my mother-in-law summed up with not a little relief when it all came crashing down.

Since then, Ireland, like much of the world, has recovered a great deal. But that ingrained wariness so central to the Irish character and charm has lingered. I feel it in the playful “slagging” (teasing) when I slip into Kehoe’s off Grafton Street, my favorite Dublin pub. Golf courses that had begun to think of themselves as Augusta National are only too happy for me to “give it a lashing” once again. The easy welcome has returned.

So lately, I’ve been exploring more. With Ireland, as with any truly worthwhile place, the more you discover, the more there is to be revealed. Just last year I finally made it to the Dingle Peninsula, that small finger of land jutting into the Atlantic. Just north of
its more famous neighbor, the Ring of Kerry, Dingle is on the road to nowhere but itself—with the vast Inch Beach, a buzzing town, and the gateway to the haunting Blasket Islands, it’s worth the trip. There’s more on my to-do list. I’ve long intended to make the pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick mountain, where patron Saint Patrick was said to have fasted in the fifth century. I am forever hoping to spend more time in remote County Donegal. And someday soon I will steal a month or two and walk the “Old Sod” from top to bottom—from Malin Head to Mizen Head. No doubt my feet will ache and my clothes will be sodden. But as it has done since I first arrived three decades earlier, the land under my feet will send my spirits soaring as I trudge that long walk home.

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