I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar (in Leitir, about ten minutes’ walk from our cottage), which is only open from 6:00 PM to midnight daily. Friday night is traditional music night. Daniel Elliott, the pubkeeper, was a friendly young gent who for whatever reason seemed to like us very much. He explained that in some pubs, particularly hotel bars, the Guinness might spend a long time sitting in the lines. It never sat for long in the lines at Elliott’s. The craic (banter) was always strong at Daniel’s establishment, with a motley assortment of locals glad to engage us at any given time. Turf (peat) fires produce an unmistakably Irish smell (think rich burning earth, which of course it is), and for a Gaelteacht pub in west Donegal it would be the norm. It is at Elliott’s. Daniel’s father founded the pub one year before I was born. Considering how few people live within easy walking distance, its prosperity speaks volumes. I’ve never been to a better.
It can happen this quickly: on the first night, we were somewhat novelties: down-to-earth tourists with in one case some slight proficiency in Irish, and the locals got to take their time discovering us. Over those days, Daniel hinted rather often that I might be called upon to sing on Friday, when there would be traditional music and an open mike. I gave all the expected and quite truthful evasions: I have a lousy voice, I tend to forget the lyrics, I’m not good at singing at all, I could clear out the pub in half a minute of atonal wailing. All dismissed, of course. It’s one of those cases where you know you will be had, but at least you are given fair warning.
Friday came, and most of the band was German (plus Daniel’s mother on the accordion, and now I can see where he gets his kind heart). After a few of those in attendance gave us some rather pleasing renditions of traditional Irish and American rock tunes, Daniel arranged somehow for my dragooning in the direction of the mike. (Yes; MIKE. I don’t give a damn who spells it ‘mic’; that in my view is pronounced ‘Mick,’ and I refuse to do so. People need to learn their phonics. It’s a damn MIKE-ro-fone and the short form is MIKE—thus, ‘mike,’ and I hope we won’t have to have this discussion again.)
Perhaps a few days of unease got to me. I started with a southwestern American number originally from the Kingston Trio, but faltered a pint too far on the lyrics. I figured that was the time to retreat in modest disgrace, but the crowd would not have it. I wasted a lot of their time looking through the songbook for something Irish to which I could do moderate justice, then gave them the first three stanzas of Back Home in Derry, a lament with at least neighboring historical overtones of Ireland’s past anguishes. All good, except that the songbook page misplaced the final verse, and by the time I found it and tried to continue, I had the tune misplaced with regard to the lyrics. I prepared to get back to the bar and let a competent entertainer take over, but again they would not have it. I looked about the pub, and they were shushing one another, not a scornful face to be seen.
All right. I knew one short song I could get right, one from my own homeland, the state song of Kansas: Home on the Range. I told them what it was, then delivered it as well as I can ever deliver a song. The assembled gave me a lusty round of applause. I got up, thanked everyone, and let an actual musician take over. I saw nothing but smiles. At first I didn’t understand. Not even two more pints of stout helped.
At first I felt like a flop, but over the next couple of days I came to see that for what it had been: an initiation, however voluntary, into the society of Elliott’s Bar. What mattered was not how well I sang, but that I kept after it upon request until I managed at least to sing up to my own modest level. In the days after, I could see a change in the locals’ approach to us; no longer novelties, we were as near to regulars as any tourist could ever be. The patrons began to tell stories of ways in which other tourists acted: either marveling that rural Ireland had things like electricity and flush toilets and Internet, or braying in the typical American outside voices, or very uptight and unsure what to expect. “Yous’re genuine,” said Daniel, a kind word I’ll treasure along with every other memory of Elliott’s.
Two days before we prepared to head south, the word was all out: Ophelia was coming. Ophelia, an Atlantic hurricane, looked to centerpunch the western Irish coast (Leitir included) come Monday. Forecasts varied, but in general the forecast called for sustained 40mph winds with gusts up to 80. It would slug Counties Cork and Kerry, then Limerick and Clare, then Galway and Mayo, then Donegal and Derry and Antrim. The whole country would be hit, on one level or another. Bus services, flights, and schools were canceled. Gardaí (‘gar-DEE’, guards; the national police) asked people to stay indoors if they possibly could, and off the roads unless urgently necessary. We let the local small shopkeeper (the town’s only one) know that if fate and fortune deposited any scared and lost tourists on them, our rental cottage could easily take four more people, and to send them up. I could just imagine a couple of terrified young tourists guilty of poor situational awareness having fetched up at the shop in a panic about where they might shelter for the night. If there were nothing else we could do to help our new friends, we might lift one small worry from their ready supply of concerns about life and property.
It is the Irish way to commiserate with the traveler about any bad weather or inconvenience, apologizing as if they’d had personal responsibility for designing the weather. In the first place, what mental defective would go to Ireland in October unprepared for wind and rain? We tried to tell people that they needed not worry about us; while we understood that the disaster potential was real for a country not built to stand winds clearing 80 mph, we had spent a good portion of our married life somewhere that weather like this could be expected about thrice yearly. Our ‘holiday’ was not spoiled. If the power went out, we’d light a candle. If the satellite TV went down, we’d use the radio if it were operational. In the evening, we’d at least go down and see if the pub was open, and join in the usual fun. Whatever happened, we’d battle through.
The satellite TV stayed up into early evening, giving us some news of what Cork and Kerry had experienced. Trees down, roads blocked, over 300,000 people without electricity. Ministers on TV taking media questions. Government acting like adults (in the US, we are beginning to forget what it felt like to be governed by honest adults who at least felt the obligation to make a show of desiring our best interests). Only two reported fatalities by the time it began to grow dusk, rather miraculous in a country unused to such a storm.
In the end, it was exhilirating to be shot at without result. By the time the eyewall reached our latitude, it had veered out to sea. We got high winds and plenty of rain, but didn’t lose power. The worst thing that happened was I aggravated a hamstring pull from before the trip, and it would slow me for the rest of our time in Ireland. It could have been far worse.
Our second week was less adventuresome, mostly due to illness: first Deb’s, then mine. This was worsened by our unfamiliarity with available cold remedies, as well as the inability of Irish pharmacists to adapt recommendations to our situation. Everything they had was probably great for someone who could take a few days of paid vacation and let the disease run its course. They were not equipped to help people who would be glad to suppress as many symptoms as possible and save up the suffering for later. We had to buy a random assortment of medications with which to experiment. By the time she began to feel better, I was feeling horrible, and that’s how it was when I entered the airport for the twenty-two-hour trip home. (Fourteen hours in airplanes, four in a layover, three at the airport before, one riding home with our house-sitter back in Portland.) Our second town had more amenities than Leitir, but much less charm, and pubs are less fun without your wife. She felt up to some exploration a couple of times, so we had to settle for that.
In future installments, I’ll get to some of our other observations, and Ireland’s peculiarities for the traveler.