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Ireland: A Writer’s Paradise

Author: Karen P.
Date of Trip: July 2007

Misty rain. Gusts of wind. Mountain peaks veiled by fluffy fog. Blindingly sparkly ocean chop. Centuries-old stone walls, portly white sheep with black faces. Flat, plain-fronted houses with inventively-colored doors. Cheerful mums pushing red-headed babies in strollers. Dogs trotting importantly down the sidewalk. Outside every pub, a huddle of smokers; inside, toe-tapping tourists, well-behaved children, football players hoisting a pint of Guinness (“the blonde in the black skirt”). Musicians squeeze the accordion, elbow and finger the bagpipes, tootle the flute. The people are cheerful, friendly, and like Americans. Best of all, they have rich literary culture and a love for writers.

Where is this heaven?

If you’ve ever been to Ireland, you recognized the description.

I recently left my home in North Carolina and visited the Emerald Isle for two weeks. The first week, my husband and I traveled around together. I spent the second week at a writers’ residency in the seacoast town of Dingle.

Allow me to share a bit of our travels, and the bliss that was Dingle week.

Let’s get the worst bit out of the way. Driving. Most Irish rental cars have manual transmission. You drive on the left side of the road. The driver sits on the right, and the gears are to his left. Instant dyslexia. Many roads are narrow – in some places, only big enough for one vehicle – and the locals drive fast. We chuckled fearfully at the 100 km/hour signs on the twisty cow paths with only stone walls for a shoulder, as we puttered along at 50 km/hour, leading long lines of impatient natives curled behind us until we could pull over and let them pass. My husband was the white-knuckled driver, and I the white-faced navigator, whispering hoarsely “Look right!” as we crept into each roundabout.

Map-reading tip: Roads with one number (the M5, the N2) are excellent – four lanes, wide shoulders, exit lanes. Two-numbered roads have two lanes, with wide shoulders where the slower trucks and terrified Americans can pull over. Three numbers – you’ve got about six inches of clearance on either side, then stone walls. Four numbers? You’ll be wondering if your kids can find that brown envelope, the one with your will in it? (In the guest room closet, look for a black storage box marked “Personal,” under the carton of high school yearbooks.)

But our fears were soothed by the sheer beauty of the Irish countryside, the craggy cliffs and white beaches, charming little market towns with brightly-colored storefronts, green fields dotted with sheep. We stayed in B&Bs in Ennis, Donore, Waterford, and Dingle, chatting up the innkeepers and listening to stories from other guests. The most interesting came from an elderly woman who told us about living with her engineer husband in Botswana in 1961 when it gained independence. She had been most impressed by a bejeweled Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, who presided over the festivities, and the trip to the store along miles of narrow paths, crawling with snakes, that she and her children walked. She told us she wrote fiction and poetry, and I said she should try memoir. I’d buy it – snakes and royalty are an irresistible combo.

When we’re traveling, food is always on our minds. The B&B breakfasts were plentiful and similar. On a sideboard: fresh fruit, cereals, cheese, bread (including wonderful brown soda bread that I have tried unsuccessfully to replicate). You also order from a menu – poached eggs with cheese, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, full Irish fry (sausage, ham and blood pudding), beans on toast. Breakfast keeps the motor humming for many hours. We had a memorable lunch in Ballyvaughan (http://www.ballyvaughanireland.com/, pop. 300), at Burren Fine Food and Wine (http://www.burrenfinewine.com/), housed in a little stone building. An impressive wine collection. Our simple quiche and salads were so perfect that we even sampled dessert — a cherry tart – and bought Burren wild honey and a rooibos tea blend to take home. Everywhere we ate in pubs. I so liked the nut loaf at John Benny’s (http://www.johnbennyspub.com/) in Dingle, served with ratatouille and rice, that I had it twice. Also a repeat was dinner at Tig Aine (http://www.tigaine.com/), on the Slea Head Drive. We dined al fresco, overlooking the sea, entertained by a flock of quarrelsome ducks and geese, a cartwheeling child, and a cat.

One of the highlights was a guided tour of the Burren, a hundred-mile area on the western seaboard with fascinating geology, botany, archeology, and history. Shane Connolly (http://homepage.eircom.net/~burrenhillwalks/guide.html), a cattle farmer and tour guide, helped us see the evolution of the region, from seabed to mountains to forests, now exposed and eroding limestone. He showed us arctic flowers, brought by glaciers during the last Ice Age, side-by-side with orchids from the Mediterranean that came via land bridge, when Ireland was connected to Europe. We sat at a Stone Age cooking site and wondered what folks would have discussed as they waited for their meat to boil (“weather, politics, and the price of cattle,” surmised Shane).

At the top of the mountain, a stone-walled ring fort offered views of Galway, the entire Burren, and Connemara. Shane has a dry wit and a deep well of knowledge about everything, including American Civil War generals. To our shame, we couldn’t think of one from North Carolina.

We visited the Cliffs of Moher (http://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/), five-hundred-feet of rock rising from the Atlantic along five miles of coastline. Visitors are kept from the edge by a fence and warning signs; anyone who peers over the edge in that wind proves Darwin was right.

Ireland’s been occupied by humans for about 6000 years, and some of them lived in the Valley of the Boyne River, west of Dublin. We toured Newgrange and Knowth (http://www.knowth.com/newgrange.htm), enormous passage tombs and the most famous prehistoric sites in Ireland. These tombs pre-date the Giza pyramids. The most magical aspect to Newgrange is the alignment of its passage: on December 21, the sun shines through a roofbox over the door for exactly seventeen minutes and illuminates the central chamber. Only a few people can fit in the chamber, so a lottery is held to select those who’ll observe on 12/21. We entered our names. I get goose bumps when I imagine being there. The creation of Newgrange seems not unlike like writing a short story: moving 200,000 tons of stone to commemorate one day.

From Dublin to Dingle is a longish drive so we made a stop in Waterford and toured the glass factory (http://www.waterfordvisitorcentre.com/) to watch the highly trained men melt, blow, mold, cut, and engrave fabulously expensive crystal glassware (e.g., napkin rings, four for $150). Busloads of tourists are guided through the factory, and allowed at the end to talk with an engraver. As a successful artisan-based business, Waterford must be the dream MBA case study.

In Dingle, we cruised the Slea Head Drive and checked out some beehive huts. Best-guess date is 12th century. As in 1100’s, as in a thousand years ago. Still standing.

I might move to Dingle permanently. Dingle’s known for its dolphin, Fungie, who’s been swimming alongside snorkelers and boats for twenty-three years. Dingle’s also mildly famous for the fact that “Dingle” has been replaced by “An Daingean”, its Gaelic name, on all directional signs, by the government. People were not happy. Stay tuned on that one.

What did I like best about Dingle? That my luggage finally arrived? The many pubs, Internet cafés, and bookstores? Murphy’s Ice Cream (http://www.murphysicecream.ie/)? Yes, yes, and yes. I was with a group of writers from the University of Southern Maine, all students in the low-residence Stonecoast MFA program (http://www.usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa/faculty/deppe.html), which offers the Ireland option for a residency. The poets Ted Deppe (http://www.usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa/faculty/deppe.html) and Annie Deppe (http://www.pplp.org/HootCalendar/anniedeppe.htm) lead the program. They are two of the kindest, sweetest people on this planet. The novelist & memoirist Suzanne Strempek Shea (http://www.suzannestrempekshea.com/) was the other faculty member. You be my witness – I hereby deem her my honorary sister. The most important requirement for a fine week, excellent people, was in place.

After an incomparable breakfast served by Vivienne, owner of the Coastline B&B (http://www.coastlinedingle.com), we would gather for a couple of flash seminars, fifteen-minute talks highlighting an Irish writer. During the week I heard about William Trevor, James Joyce, Anne McCaffrey, Nuala O’Faolain, Maeve Binchy, Frank McCourt, John Banville, and Eaven Boland. All, sparkling drops from the diamond-filled pool of Irish writers.

Manuscript workshops followed. At lunchtime, we had a two-hour break, to walk into Dingle – about a mile – to check our email, look for postcards, grab a bite at a pub. In the afternoon, another workshop and a seminar from faculty and visiting writers.

Forgive me. Here I’m going to gush about the dynamic visiting writers. Claire Keegan (http://www.dublinwritersfestival.com/event_17.php) gave a mesmerizing master class on writing fiction. She projects an absolute confidence in her craft and the intelligence of the reader. It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous in a Botticelli wide-eyed flowy-hair kind of way. The poet Kate Newman (http://www.irishwriters-online.com/katenewmann.html) led us through quick-quick writing exercises. A bright spirit, she is. Gabriel Fitzmaurice is a musician, poet, essayist, teacher. A personality bigger than life, he introduced the writers of Kerry. It seems like everyone in Kerry is a writer. All, wonderful geniuses, sharing their wisdom with our small group of ten! What a privilege.

In the evening we’d walk back into town for dinner, then head to the An Cafe Liteartha, a bookstore, for readings by the day’s seminar speaker. We heard Suzanne read from her forthcoming book, Sundays in America. Ted and Annie read their beautiful poems and I could have listened all night. Claire Keegan read the title story from her newly published Walk The Blue Fields. Her charming Irish lilt delivered a story so cold, heart-wrenching, and poignant that one cherished the final scrap of hope. Kate and her mother Joan Newmann (http://www.geocities.com/abbeypress/jnewmann.html) read their poetry. Kate’s brilliant poem about Thomas Crean (http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/crean_thomas.htm) inspired me to buy his biography (http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/crean_thomas.htm) by Michael Smith. Joan has a dry wit. In Prone, she writes poems entirely about recovering from a horrific auto accident, shiny gems about the people and experiences in the hospital. Joan and Kate run the Summer Palace Press, which publishes Irish poets.

Our first night in Dingle, Aine ui Laoithe and Eilin Ni Chearna (http://celticgrooves.homestead.com/CG_Ui_Laoithe_Ni_Chearna.html) treated us to a concert of traditional music and singing, playing the accordion and the bodhrán. These two women, with fine strong voices and mastery of their instruments, are descended from residents of the Great Blasket Island (http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/blaskets.html). In the 20’s and 30’s, island residents, in a flowering of literary spirit, produced dozens of books about their lives in the Gaelic language. So appropriate for a group of writers to visit! Mid-week found us heading to the Great Blasket, now deserted. It was a clear sunny windy day, and our group wandered about the island, startling the rabbits and sheep, looking for dolphins, taking pictures of the seals and the stone-walled remains of homes. A fine day, for us, though bringing to life the precarious lives of the Islanders, without electricity or running water, enclosed by stone walls all the dark winter, dependent on the dangerous sea.

Two weeks in Ireland weren’t enough. Virginia may be for lovers, but Ireland is for writers. Artists in Ireland don’t pay income tax (http://www.citizensinformation.ie/categories/money-and-tax/tax/income-tax/exemption_from_income_tax_for_artists). I’d certainly have a better chance at a Nobel prize in literature if I were Irish. It’s been awarded four times to Irish writers, that’s one per million population. In the US, the ratio is eleven per three hundred million. Let’s see – that means the odds are twenty-seven times greater if you’re Irish. Perhaps it’s because there’s a poetry contest in every town? The importance of story-telling in the pub? Ireland has the third oldest literature in Europe, after Greek and Latin, and a strong oral tradition of legends and poetry.

I’m considering selling my belongings, buying a one-way ticket to Shannon Airport, renting a cottage by the sea, and getting used to dial-up. I want to be an Irish writer.

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