Let’s keep it as bright and light and magical as the Shannonside evening over my head this minute as I pack my black bag for hitting the road back to Connemara in an hour or so for a very special occasion indeed in my life. Within hours, you see, I will be beaming widely with pure joy and pride as I attend the first Confirmation of a lovely grandchild.
Where do the years ago? It seems like only the day before yesterday that Cuan and Niamh’s first daughter Orla was a small pink baby. Now she is almost a teenager, very special in every way, and I am so looking forward to her Spiddal ceremony.
Orla has inherited the best characteristics of her mother Niamh and my eldest son Cuan and, true to the MacConnell side of her family tree, she will almost certainly be playing a blast of Irish music on her accordion before the day is over and, true to the O’Brien distaff side, I’ve no doubt but that she will be the belle of the ball all day. I have a bias, naturally, but sure that is only natural under the circumstances.
Being so joyous and proud already, I wish to dispense some special magic altogether to you readers too, something unique that many of you will never forget for the rest of your lives. It has to do with an alchemic item I have just packed into my travel bag, truly alchemic in my view...and probably in the view of many of you too, especially if you have a fairly significant dollop of Irish blood in your veins.
And, on a magical evening, ye will have to let this zany grandfather tell the yarn in his usual roundabout fashion. Okay?
So we will begin, please, under the heavy golden canopy of an ancient copper beech tree in a greening field outside the Galway town of Gort which I will be passing through in a few hours from now. Under the canopy of whispering baby leaves of this new season the gnarled bark of the old tree is ribbed and ripped and scarred in a unique fashion. Some of the scars, indeed the most of them, are more than a century old.
However, a local guide is never far away and they will explain to you very quickly that this is the fabled Autograph Tree of Coole Park upon which, when the Celtic renaissance was being supported by Lady Gregory at the beginning of the 19th century, her distinguished literary guests, many of them already with worldwide reputations, were encouraged to inscribe their autographs on the then young and juicy bark of the beech.
All of them did that in their own style. And their spirits are etched there on the bark. All the great ones.
Here is WB Yeats close to George Bernard Shaw’s signature. Nearby the etched signature of Douglas Hyde, our first president, and others of international fame today like GW Russell and Sean O’Casey and Synge. The sight is likely to strike one dumb as the canopy whispers.
It was from here, thanks to Lady Gregory, that our mighty literary reputation emerged and brilliantly flourished. We owe so much of our high artistic standing today to those wordsmiths who gathered beneath that copper beech in the long ago and faraway when, on the other side of the coinage of the world, there were No Irish Need Apply hanging high in too many windows in the New World.
Finally, before I drink a final coffee and hit the road for Connemara and Orla’s special Confirmation day, it is necessary, in this often cruel and suspicious world of ours, for me to state strongly that I am prepared to swear upon the proverbial mile of Bibles that I have no commercial connection whatever with the magical product I am about to commend to you all as a special gift apart from being a frequent and very satisfied customer of the company that produces this magic.
It is a magical product indeed because, in some incredible fashion, when you sip the liqueur aptly named Coole Swan you are transported to the mysterious area and aura under the Autograph Tree and somehow become directly involved. And deeply impressed and moved.
The title of this snow-white cream and chocolate and single malt whiskey aptly is derived from the works of Yeats. I had a quick scan of the website a few minutes ago and it would seem that it is available on the international market as well as here at home.
My bottle cost me €20 here in Killaloe and the website for further information is Cooleswan.com. If you cannot manage to physically get to Coole Park this summer a chilled sip of Coole Swan, for sure, will magically and enjoyably transport you there in some Celticated fashion well beyond my ken. I warmly commend ye to avail of the experience.
When Orla starts playing and singing on her Confirmation evening her proud old grandfather will raise his glass to not just his grandchild but also to Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole and her husband Robert who served the nation we have become so well by offering total hospitality to the first Playboys of the Western World. Slainte Augusta!