I’d been promised a glimpse into how Ireland was in the 19th Century, and “a view of Ireland most Yanks never see,” by an old friend from Chicago.
He was coming over to Ireland to visit his cousin who lives in a small town called Drummin, just outside Westport, County Mayo.
The timing was a bit difficult since a time during the week worked best for him I had only two free days in the middle of the week.
The train ride was no short venture but still it seemed worth it. Both Yeats and Synge adored the West of Ireland, and the area is rich with folklore.
So after some difficulty with the Irish Rail System whose website would not let me buy a ticket online and whose phone put me endlessly on hold, I finally managed to successfully purchase a ticket from Dublin to Westport.
More trouble ensued on the trip to Heuston Station, mostly a fault of my own because I missed the stop and then hadn’t left enough time to allow for such errors so had to frantically search for a taxi. Big mistake.
A ride that would have cost me less than $5 in Manhattan cost €10 in Dublin. For that price I could have taken a cab from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn. Instead we had driven the equivalent of the distance of the Flat Iron district to Grand Central.
The only thing that made that expenditure worth it was that my taxi driver used to live in Hoboken, NJ and was the headwaiter at the Plaza hotel for 11 years. Once again, I’d found yet another Irish person who’d lived, worked or studied in New York. It seems that everyone I meet has some story about a friend or relative who lived there. I wanted to ask him what made him become a taxi driver but he didn’t seem too amenable to such questions.
The train ride was long but thankfully uneventful. As soon as I got off the train I was immediately struck with how quaint and charming Westport was. Bigger than Maynooth, but nowhere near as big as Dublin, it had enough pubs, shops and restaurants to offer a variety of choices without being overwhelming.
One of the few planned towns in Ireland, Westport features an abundance of Georgian architecture and a tree-lined promenade (the Mall) that reminded me of a miniature version of Paris.
Over pints at the local pub, Matt Molloy’s, of Chieftains fame, I was briefed on the family history of Pat, the cousin I was to meet the following morning. He’d lived all his life in Drummin, where he ran his parents farm. He’d never married and has since become too old to run the place so he sold off the cows and a neighbor’s son tends to the sheep and the land. He doesn’t drink but loves his pipe, the smoking of which has caused him to lose his sense of taste. He lives on cheese sandwiches and tea.
The next morning I was outfitted with Wellingtons, which, my friend insisted were an absolute must on the farm, especially considering the rainy weather. I would need them, he said, as soon as I stepped from the car.
The drive to Drummin took us through wild, ruggedly beautiful countryside. The cottage, though lacking a thatched roof, was like something out of an old folktale. Pat’s sheepdog, Toss, greeted us with a round of enthusiastic barks. The inside reminded me of the set of Brian Friel’s play "Philadelphia Here I Come!" Aside from a flat screen T.V. against one wall, that seemed there merely to gather dust, there were no modern accessories.
A flip of the light switch revealed that the electricity was out. There was no heat aside from that produced by the turf and wood-fueled fireplace in the center of the room. There were old photographs on the wall, and religious icons. Everything seemed as if it had a faint layer of dust over it, made slightly damp by all the rain.
The first thing to be done of course, was build the fire. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such care taken in assembling the rectangles of turf into a triangle, with sticks to fill the middle. Once that got going, it was quite warm and wood was selected to burn later. But that wasn’t the end of attention to the fire. As we gathered around it, constant care was given to the flames and every stray ember was fed back into the fire.
Between bouts of conversation, the ticking clock on the mantelpiece was the only sound to be heard. There was tea and later whiskey. The whole time Toss sat close to Pat’s chair, guarding him and following every movement.
Pat was a bit hard of hearing, which made conversation a bit difficult at times. He kept asking if I was warm enough and then he’d poke the fire or move an ember.
“This must be very different from New York, very different,” he said at last.
“Yes, it’s different, but in a good way,” I responded.
There was more ticking of the clock and shifting of the fire. It was refreshing not to have to fill every silence with 1,000 useless words. There was nothing to rush off to; no thinking about what happens next, just this moment, this company and the pleasure of a few words, well spoken, witty and poetic.
The trip lived up to its promise; a glimpse back into Ireland, the way it used to be, a vision vanishing into the countryside.