Tag Archives: ireland

Dear Ophelia, part two

(Continued.)

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.

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Dear Ophelia, part one

The trip was, in a way, misbegotten.

Maybe it fits well that I drafted this account in a hurricane that appeared destined to centerpunch our location.

Like most people in the modern age who are comfortable with computers and the Internet, Deb and I handle our own domestic travel arrangements. It isn’t that hard, and a travel agent can’t offer much value helping you plan your dream trip to Wichita. We knew the travel agency industry was in decline, but for a trip to Ireland using some unfamiliar means through an unfamiliar entry point, we felt it was of value to consult a specialist.

Nah.

We went to one of the longest-established travel agencies west of the Willamette (the river that divides eastern and western Portland, Oregon), and contacted the individual billed as their Ireland/England specialist. On everything we could as easily have done ourselves—flights, car rental, hotel nights at the airport—she seemed to perform fine. All that remained was to pick out two cottage stays, a week apiece. We had given her a three-week window and asked her to time our two weeks of travel so as best to fit the cottage schedules.

That seems logical, right? Flight day, jetlag airport hotel stay, then pick up rental car and head for cottage. Week later, transition to next cottage. Departure day, drive to jetlag hotel, drop off rental car, enjoy last day in town using mass transit, fly out in morning.

She sent us three options for cottages. In all three cases we thought perhaps we could do better, and asked for more options. What naïfs we were. We waited patiently, and time marched on. Options were disappearing daily as places booked up. After a week’s strained patience, we contacted her and asked could we please move this forward. She made a number of unverifiable excuses, the kind of plausible deniabilities one usually hears from people who have learned how to lie by habit, including that she had not forgotten about us. I grew uneasy, but presumed that she would not simply cease to bother helping us to complete our plans. A blistering review online—and if I may say so, when a professional writer wants to blister someone, he or she knows how to make sure the marks hurt like hell—would be exactly what she did not need.

It is a weakness of mine to underestimate human stupidity, laziness, and shortsightedness until nearly too late. I show no signs of improvement.

After another week, she sent us a batch of .pdfs of cottages, nearly all without prices. A rather important bit of information, one would think, and I contacted her to explain that this was hardly workable. She ignored me. I went over and over in my head: had I done something wrong, somehow alienated her? Or, more likely, had she just decided she had gotten all the money she cared about, and that we could now fuck off until her convenience allowed her to deign to finish booking our trip?

I was sure I had been very restrained and non-alienating to this point, but in case I had somehow been socially ham-handed, I asked Deb to take over the interface. Deb got no better response, not even with a message for the owner. Now we saw that the firm’s rot seeped from its leadership. After one full month since first meeting and arrangements, and with barely that long to go before departure, and no further anything from the agent or her chieftain, we realized that we must book our own cottage stays. All right; go to hell, lady, we’ll muddle through without your expertise.

We soon learned that she had botched the flight dates. Irish cottages typically run on the calendar week with Saturday as the beginning and end, and she had scheduled our flights so that the two weeks did not fit calendar weeks. After checking dozens of cottage prices, we learned was we were welcome to book an available cottage any time that suited us, but that each cottage stay would mean paying the equivalent cost of two full weeks. It would transform about a $650 experience into well over $1100, exactly the sort of blunder we had expected a travel professional to avoid. As I’ve often said to errant vendors (especially contractors), if I wanted it all fucked up, I could have done that all on my own without professional assistance.

It was either change the days off, the flights, the hotels, and the rental cars, or swallow the cost. The flight alone would be problematic to change without a large cost.

Nothing for it but to pay up and hope, and we did. Our plan was to fly into Dublin (mistake #1; we saved a lot of money we later wished we had not, as Shannon is far easier to deal with), hotel stay, then pick up the rental car and take it deep into the wilds of County Donegal. That part at least went well enough, and after overcoming the lunacy of getting out of Dublin with right-hand drive, we were free and making for the village of Leitir mhic an Bhaird (in Irish; say it, LAY-chur WICK-a-word, in English, Lettermacaward pronounced LET-er MACK-a-word).

Ireland doesn’t have much freeway kilometrage, but most of the roads have good enough surfacing. There often is no shoulder, so there’s the rock wall or dropoff to avoid, and oncoming trucks can be harrowing when their right tire is over the line and won’t move. It took about four hours to reach Leitir, as locals call it, complete with confusion over directions to the cottage. This being a Gaelteacht (Irish-speaking area), some of the signs are in Irish alone, some bilingual. Our turnoff was at a place called Dooey Beach, and had I not seen the sign saying ‘Dumhaigh’ (roughly, ‘Dooey’) and figured out that part, we wouldn’t have known where to go.

The cottage had a number of disappointing aspects; no Internet (I admit that failing to note this in advance was my bad; I had been very flustered), an odd mixture of interactions between electrical devices (where you had to turn on this switch over here to make that device work, but please kindly turn it off as soon as you are done), an absentee owner, and a local caretaker who seemed put upon, leaving us to figure out much of the house for ourselves. We gave serious consideration to just leaving and finding B&Bs, but we decided to buck up and make the best of it. There we were, on a one-lane country road without Internet service, a forest behind and north of us, a pasture to the immediate south with rooks (think of a crow with a light gray beak) scavenging all around the livestock, and not much of anything in near walking distance except an elementary school. Oh, and an obviously closed-up bar. There had been a bar just after the Dooey turnoff, though, which looked like about a ten-minute walk. Fine.

One way you know you’re in a Gaelteacht: the school zone signs are in Irish alone. Just south of our cottage, painted on the road in big letters:

AIRE (AR-rah)

GO MALL (guh MAWL)

SCOIL (SKULL)

“Attention, slow, school.”

Over the next few days, we explored western Ulster by day. By night, we became part of the scene at the local pub; we’ll get to that later.

One of our trips was to the southwest Donegal coast, to visit the cliffs of Sliabh Liag (‘SLEEVE LEAGUE’; I am not going to render all the Irish names in English as well, but I will help you say them right). Great slate-layered rocky upthrust headlands gazing down talus slopes and sheer faces into the North Atlantic, with coppery sheen in the broken black stones at your feet, astonishingly white quartz chunks here and there, and of course Ireland’s ubiquitous grazing sheep. One might say, with justice, that any attraction where there is no risk of stepping in sheep crap isn’t very Irish. True to form, one had to pass a gate posted with a fógra about keeping it closed in order to avoid letting the sheep out.

I had better explain about fógraí, which means ‘notices’ or ‘warnings’ (depending on how one chooses to take them). At antiquities, the Fógra advises one in Irish and English that the site is under the protection of some state ministry, and requests visitors’ aid in preserving them. It then advises that there are severe penalties for doing the opposite. Last time we visited, Deb and I picked up the habit of giving each other ad hoc fógraí as we perceived each other’s demeanor and actions demanded it.

Another day, we took a drive up to Ros Goill (ROSS GULL), a narrow rocky peninsula sticking out of north Donegal. On Donegal’s coast, which is part of a long drive called the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s hard to find an ocean view that does not offer some kind of holy-shit-you’ve-got-to-see-this scenario. That happened to be my birthday, a fact which my treasonous wife revealed of course to our waitress during a wonderful early dinner in Dunfanaghy (dun-FANN-a-hee). Irish food has gotten a lot better since the early 2000s, though hotel bar pints are still the soured monstrosities they once were. Guinness does not travel, and responds badly to long supply lines not merely between keg and tap, but brewery and delivery.

Other trips took us to Beltany Stone Circle near Raphoe, the Giant’s Causeway in north Antrim, and Killybegs, an important port for the North Atlantic fishing fleet. The latter had delicious seafood, eaten in sight of the giant looming trawlers. We will have a lot to say about the Causeway later; what has been done to it, and to other Irish signature sights, deserves its own cross-hairs.

Back in Leitir, I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar… (To be continued)

 

[The title is a stupid self-indulgence. Stupidly self-indulgent titles are a peeve of mine, and I deal with them in clients on a regular basis. The client thinks she has just come up with the coolest title ever. She should kill this Faulknerian darling, but she will not, so she ends up with a garbage title. In this case, the title is stupid because it barely says anything clever about the story, and in fact is just a lyric from an Abney Park steampunk song. It’s like the author had only heard two instances of the word ‘Ophelia’ in his life and decided that somehow they deserved connection even when every reader would be left asking: “and what was the point of this?” However, I went through a lot to bring you this story, so I am stupidly indulging myself in this, covering the privates of my indulgence with the fig leaf of intellectual honesty.]

An abnormally long absence

I do not normally go this long without posting.

Here’s what happened: I was preparing for international travel. It is clear to most people that if you are about to leave your home for a couple of weeks, what you don’t do is announce it to the entire world. That invites criminals to come visit you.

Deb and I were in Ireland. I did not post from there for a number of reasons:

  • There was no Internet at our first week’s stay.
  • The Internet at our second week’s stay was glutinous.
  • About halfway through, Deb grew very sick, and I had other things on my mind. As she began to improve, naturally, I got sick.

Having to spend fourteen hours in aircraft seats, plus seven hours sitting around airports, doesn’t do much for a sick person–especially one who has not had access to familiar remedies. When I got home, I was ill enough I could not sleep reclining, and every cough created a ripping feeling all the way up my trachea. A couple of times I even coughed up tissue. In short, I have not really had a very good time since returning.

I do have some material I composed in Ireland (when your wife wants only to lay around and suffer and be helped by you, you have a lot of leisure time), and will sort it out and publish it as I regain strength. For now, that strength is limited but improving daily. I also have some client work that is due soon, and I trust the reader to appreciate that such has first claim upon my finite energy supplies.

Thank you for your understanding. I have not forgotten my regular readers, and I am grateful for each of you.

Irish at me

Weird sentence, isn’t it? But that’s how you say ‘knowing the Irish language’ in said language. Tá Gaeilge agam: “Irish is at me.”

Very many years ago, I studied Irish with a druid group led by my longtime friend Domi O’Brien. She has been studying and teaching Irish for what appears to be most of her adult life. While I never attained much proficiency, I wasn’t her worst student in a very challenging language.

More often than you might suppose, people ask me why Irish is so difficult. Since I’m up to my ears in brush-up, so that Irish may be at me when I visit the country itself (in which only about 25% of the population speaks any, and in which first-language immersion exists only in enclaves out west), let me go ahead and run with it. Here’s why Arabic and Russian, which use different alphabets, never rattled me as much as does Irish.

Before we go further, let’s talk ‘Irish’ vs. ‘Gaelic’ as the proper term. While Gaelic sounds really, really cool and I myself would rather it were the right term, it isn’t. The Celtic language family numbers six, neatly split into the three each of the Brythonic and Goidelic branches. The Brythonic languages are Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. The Goidelic family comprises Irish, Scots, and Manx. Yes, ‘Goidelic’ relates to ‘Gaelic.’ Thus, ‘Gaelic’ could describe any of those three, and that might be ideal: Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx Gaelic. But the owners of a language rightly retain the sovereign power to confer its name, and the Irish people refer to Irish just so. I’m supposing that, to them, that it is a Gaelic language is perhaps so obvious it need not be repeated on each mention. Thus if you really, really, really would love to call it ‘Gaelic,’ great–see if you can get the actual native speakers to go along with you. Let me know how it went.

In my not terribly educated opinion, the Latin characters are an odd fit for the Irish language. It would make the most sense for Irish to have its own indigenous alphabet, in my view, but it does not (at least not now). Takeaway: you can not trust a letter in an Irish word to have the expected phonetic value based on English-speaking assumptions. One must learn a whole new set of sometimes counter-intuitive phonics. Fh is silent. A leading Gc is G. Mh is a V or W, depending. Ch is what I call a ‘chutzpah H,’ the throaty hock version in a somewhat lighter Irish way. Bhf is usually W, sometimes V. That is a minority sampling. So, welcome aboard: here’s not a brand new alphabet, but much more challenging–a redefinition of your existing alphabet.

Irish does not have the words ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Ever hear an Irish person answer something like ‘Were you visiting’ with ‘I was’? One answers in the affirmative or negative with a sentence. Are you home? I am not. Was the trip difficult? It was. Would you like some tea? I would. Does the car run? It runs. One cannot just learn to get by with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Irish, because the words do not exist.

Irish has what I believe is called a vocative particle, which you might think of as an ‘O…’ word. You might render it as ‘oh,’ ‘hey,’ or even ‘yo,’ but it is not optional in Irish. Cara is friend. My emails to Domi begin with A chara, literally ‘O friend.’ If she addressed me by name (Seán, in Irish), she would render the greeting as A Sheáin. And it would be pronounced ‘ah HYAWN.’ I am not making this up.

Why the extra h? asks the observant reader. Because of aspiration, also called lenition (I’m told the latter is the more precise term). All those Hs you see littering Irish? Most are the equivalent of diacritical marks that modify the sound of the preceding letter. They matter, but they are not pronounced as English Hs in most cases. The vocative mentioned above is only one situation in which aspiration is obligatory–but only for those dozen-odd letters which experience aspiration. Thus, A Nóra (O Nora), but A Mháire (O Mary). To say ‘good morning’ to our B&B lady in Tralee, Mrs. O’Neill, I said: “Dia duit, a Bhean ui Niall.” (“God to you, Woman O’Neill.” This gave her evident delight, as it delights so many Irish speakers to hear a foreigner say a single intelligible sentence in the language. That I’m not Christian is of no consequence to the propriety of the greeting.)

That sensation in your brain is your head beginning to explode. This is normal. This is the point at which most of you will say ‘hell with this, I’m out.’ I understand, but if you do, you’ll miss out on the parts where we really wallow in pain. We haven’t even conjugated any verbs yet! (Let’s don’t and say we did, as my father used to say. The fact that the positive and negative forms can conjugate differently might be a grammar too far.)

The other form of initial mutation in Irish is called eclipsis. About a dozen letters may be eclipsed in certain circumstances, mostly the same dozen as may be aspirated (in different circumstances, naturally). One eclipses a starting letter by prefacing it with a consonant and pronouncing that letter rather than the eclipsed one. For example, C is eclipsed by G. Thus: A chara, ‘O friend;’ this is also how you say ‘his friend.’ But: a gcara, ‘their friend.’ The first is said ‘ah HAH-rah;’ the second, ‘ah GAH-rah.’ Ever seen the Irish version of Donegal, Dun na nGall? ‘DOON na NALL.’ G is eclipsed by N, and in this case eclipsis is obligatory.

Now imagine looking words up in a dictionary. Unless you know about the initial mutations, you won’t even know where to go. You’ll go to look up mbord and it would not be under M. You can’t even progress much in Irish without understanding these, you see.

Oh, it gets more fun. Irish is hyperdependent upon prepositions, some of which do not have direct, precise English correspondences. If you have ever studied a single foreign language, you know that the translation of prepositions rarely breaks along the same lines from tongue to tongue. In Irish, this is true but more so: Irish doesn’t use a verb ‘to have.’ Everything is on one, at one, with one, etc. Now you understand why I titled this post so. To know Irish, in Irish, is for Irish to be ‘at’ one. As earlier, ‘I know Irish’ is Tá Gaeilge agam, ‘there is Irish at me.’ Ag is mostly ‘at’ and here you see its declension (declension is like conjugation, but for non-verbs) to mean ‘at me.’ When I want to say I am joyful, I say Tá áthas orm–‘joy is on me.’ A similar construction is used to tell you if I am cold, ill, and so on–but the proper prepositions vary a bit.

Since ‘to be’ is handled so differently from tongue to tongue, you would expect Irish to handle it in some weird way unlike anything else you had ever seen. Irish, like many languages, has two verbs ‘to be.’ Except that–this being Irish–the second is, strictly speaking, not a verb but rather what we call a copula. It has nothing to do with sex, except perhaps to help one realize that one is truly screwed. In some situations calling for a form of ‘to be’ (for starters but not exhaustively, those conveying identification or definition, such as ‘I am an editor’) one must use the copula form rather than the existing functional conjugable verb ‘to be.’ So there’s that. This isn’t quite the same as the Spanish method of having two different ‘to be’ verbs, but the concept is not far away.

It doesn’t have as many tenses as, say, Spanish, but Irish does have the usual load including moods: present, past, future, and imperfect (‘was doing X’) in the indicative; the conditional (‘would do’), and the usual imperative (command; “Do!”), past participle (‘had done’), and verbal noun (‘doing’ as in “it’s in the doing”). A dozen or so of the commonest, most necessary verbs are irregular and require memorization in all forms; true of very many languages. To make verbs even more fun, some forms change depending on whether the question or statement is positive or negative. “Was it…?” is asked differently than “Was it not…?” To make this much more entertaining, often the difference is that one form requires eclipsis or aspiration; the other either does not require any mutation at all, or requires the other form of mutation. Just have to learn them.

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to lately, twice daily, twenty minutes at a pop. Anchoring important words to the active vocabulary surface of the vocabulary log pond lest they sink back to the inactive bottom, usually through repetition aloud: “I dtaobh; ‘about.'” If you can enforce the association on your mind, you will at least begin to recognize the word when you see it, giving context a fighting chance to prompt you.

This would be the point at which those who kept reading might think, “This would drive one insane, and I’m not joking.”

YES.

The labyrinthine fen that is Irish grammar would be enough to drive one to madness, to drink, to write like James Joyce.

If you not only understand that, but think it’s kind of neat, you should definitely take up the study of Irish. The few, the proud.