Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oy! The Tales of an Eyeries Christmas

The Day of the Wren

I don't know about you, but the day after Christmas is usually spent sleeping off the Christmas Dinner of the day before. In Ireland, that day - that 26th of December - is a celebration in and of itself. Saint Stephen's Day marks the celebration of St Stephen, apparently Christianity's first martyr. Betrayed by the worrisome presence of a wren - a small bird of wondering heritage - the poor Saint was stoned to death by invading Vikings.
It's no wonder that wrens have a bad name in this part of the world. Which is why on St Stephen's Day - and if you're very lucky - the Wren Boys (usually a bunch of local neighbours intent on making a few bob) will knock on the door on this day to sing magically (or drunkenly, depending on the time of day) regarding the poor bird. To whit:

The wren the wren the king of all birds
St Stephens Day was caught in the Furze
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
And give us a penny to bury the wren.

Often, the small group will be dressed in costume and whatever comes to hand: old Santy hats, Irish football jerseys, and mad wigs. All I know is that the lazy day after Christmas is made brighter with the appearance of the Wren Boys.

In Eyeries, we have more than our share of crazed human beings who delight in giving their neighbours a spot of almost free entertainment. Constant knocks on the door all the morning gave me much pleasure. Next year I think I'll try it myself, if they'll have me.
Crazed Christmas Swimmers

Ah, but if you think performing in wild costumes on what had to be one of the coldest days of the year is nuts, how about taking a swim in Coulagh Bay? Sounds crazy? You're right. But that's exactly what some of the more crazed residents of Eyeries did on this St Stephen's Day. My God, but it must have been well below freezing. The wind was howling. Snow glistened in the surrounding fields. Combers pounded the rocky coastline tossing spume high into the air. But did that stop the erstwhile swimmers from Eyeries, County Cork?

You guessed it. It didn't.
Fortified with mugs of hot mulled wine (for adults only, naturally), male, female, young and old plunged into the cold sea apparently to provide exceptional entertainment to those who refused to join them.

Did I go swimming on St Stephen's Day? Not on your life. Not even next year. And that's a promise.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Songs of the Sea

It's a poor picture taken with a lousy camera, but it gives you the idea...

Five miles from where I sit are the Skellig Islands. Pushing up from the floor of the Altantic, one of the most westerly bits of land in Ireland, and home Centuries ago to a group of Monks who sought solitude, the Skelligs - and Skellig Michael in particular - are some of the most beautiful, and most magical, islands to dot the Irish coastline.

The geographic glory of this area is startling. Coastal roads twist and turn, yielding stunning and breathtaking views. Seabirds hunt and play in the often stormy Atlantic. Those same storms drive mountainous waves against rocky shores and hidden snags that have sunk many a local trawler.

The Skelligs are often inaccessible due to the weather, as if ocean jewels just out of reach, teasing many with their isolated beauty.

It's as if God has created a small corner of heaven in this place, dotting the landscape with beckoning mysteries. As the weather improves, I intend to visit many of these wonders, which seem so impossibly out of reach just now.

And when I do I'll bring you along. That's a promise.

Monday, December 13, 2010

65 Souls Here - Oh, make that 66

Ever wonder what it's like to live in a small village? Don't know about you, but I've always lived in the Suburbs. First in Chicago. Then in...Seattle, New Jersey, Miami, Chicago again, Ann Arbor Michigan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Island, San Francisco again (Dublin California, actually)....then Ireland...Navan, Kentstown, Trim and Dunshaughlin, all in County Meath. And all of them (except Kentstown which could be best described as a wide spot in the road) were Suburbs.

Well, there are no Suburbs in Eyeries. Located on the Beara Peninsula in the very southwest of County Cork (and the island of Ireland), and the next stop west being northeastern Canada, Eyeries is a village of only 65 (make that 66 as of a few weeks ago) souls.

The village has a main street. A Catholic Church. Two pubs. One very good upmarket restaurant. No fast food restaurants. One petrol station which also acts as the village's only hardware store and also one of three food stores. A post office (in which another food store is also located). A small tea shop owned by Evie, a wonderful older woman who makes scrumptious Scones, but only during the Summer months. An old Dance Hall that is closed now but used to be a true Ballroom of Romance.

And that's it.

And yet...the village isn't isolated. It's only 10 minutes from Castletownbere (one of Ireland's largest fishing ports), 30 minutes from Glengariff (where Maureen O'Hara of The Quiet Man now resides), 50 minutes from the bustling town of Bantry, and 2.5 hours from Cork, Ireland's second capitol (or first capitol, if you believe anyone from County Cork).

Eyeries is small. The coastline which you've seen is beautiful. Miles of coastal walks along the Ring of Beara eminate from this small village. An 18th Century English Coast Guard station - now in ruins - rests near. Older ruins, the site of many Irish legends, dot the landscape. From my back window I have a view of Coulagh Bay. Across the Bay, and at night, I can see the lights of the equally small village of Kilkatherine. Beyond that - the Atlantic. And jutting up around the Bay, holding it in great stoney arms, are the Kerry Mountains.

It's wonderful. It's unknown. Only a few hundred tourists, mostly walkers from Continental Europe, visit every year. They come for the views and for the silence and the peace. Yet they seem to keep the location of Eyeries to themselves. Eyeries seems to be an unknown paradise. Perhaps another Bali Hai or Shangri-La.

I hope it stays that way.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Serendipity of Music

Every now and then something magical happens. Some people call it Serendipity. All I know is that when something good; something joyful; something that strikes like a thunder clap occurs it makes life worth living.

Or perhaps it simply allows us to see a bit more clearly, or to have the strength to get up for another day.

When I was a kid, I lived in Arlington Heights Illinois. Like any teenager, friends were important: those were the folks that showed me how to start weaving the tapestry of my own life. Those were the guys who helped me explore: bicycle trips, girls, Scouts, girls, music, girls, religion, girls, nature, girls, and the world around me, which very much included girls.

I never kept friends too close possibly because I was bound to move on. That's what happens when you're an airline pilot's son. You move and move: from Illinois to California to New York to Florida to Washington State to Ireland. Along the way, you'll pick up treasures that you can take with you and that are easily transported: the glory of a sunset; the fun of a beach; the memory of a first kiss. But you can't take friends with you. They don't pack too well. So instead you save the memories in your mind's photo album, taking them out occasionally to study them like a worn but valuable stamp collection.

When I was 13, I had a couple of good friends: Jeff, Terry...and my best friend Steve. Steve was taller than me (easy to do); he was stronger than me (easier to do); he could play the Guitar better than me (easiest of all). And I looked up to him and treasured him because I had at last found a real friend. We hung out together. We played Guitar together. We talked about girls together. He was the guy that I stammered to when I finally got to 2nd Base with Barbara Whazhername. He laughed like hell because I was so damned innocent. Like a character out of Summer of '42, my hand had initially turned left rather than right at the first obstacle. But I finally found my double objective, or so my memory remembers.

When Steve laughed at my innocence I laughed with him. I laughed because he was my friend and I loved him.

Usually, I'm the guy who leaves when my father would sadly state that we'd have to move. This time, in 1970, it was Steve. His folks were moving back to their homestead way down in the Southern US, and they were insisting that he come with him. Damn. It almost broke my heart.

We did our best to keep in touch, a couple of boys writing letters separated by a couple of States, a few thousand miles, and wildly different experiences. But as the months passed, our letters became less frequent. Finally, they stopped all together.

We lost touch. For the next forty years we stayed out of touch.

Then only today, I found him again. Or he found me. He saw me on Facebook, and he emailed me. It's a damned miracle, is all I can say. And all because of Music and a new Guitar. Just like it was when Steve and I played together.

I wrote him instantly. This is what I wrote to him. And it's true. Every word.

Dear Steve: One more note before I get back to work:

I'd always had music in my life one way or another. A song, a guitar, albums.... Over the years and as kids and grandkids came along, music was shelved to make room for family, work, and the clutter that goes with living. I even managed to break the neck of that old Harmony Guitar that I had when we were kids. I'd taken it all the way to Ireland with me, and the music died 10 years ago.

Then only last week I'm walking through the small town of Navan where I've lived since 82. I knew I needed a bit of personal music in my life. Across the street was a music shop. On the spur of the moment I walked in and bought a new guitar. I started playing it only days ago. And yes, I'm still horrible. More so now because the fingers have forgotten. Mind, I know it's like a bicycle. Hidden in there somewhere is an ancient memory, and until I remember I'll keep struggling.

But while my stiff fingers picked the almost remembered strings, I thought of you.

And then today, I heard from you.

And that, I suspect, is what Music is all about.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Passion for Irish Ressurection

On Good Friday, the faithful walk into their local churches, heads bowed. Before them stands a sanctuary empty of the Body of Christ: it's a space of shadowy reflection; a time of sorrow; a time for remembering holy sacrifices of days gone by. A time when many confess the sins that have been committed.

It's also a time for remembering that soon, the sorrowful days will be swept away by the Winds of Ressurection: that following confession comes forgiveness. And with that, light finally intrudes upon a season of Lenten darkness.

In contemporary Ireland, we have so much to forgive!
  • We have an economy in shambles. More young skilled workers are emigrating to Canada and Australia than at any other time in the last 30 years. And while the country is being bled dry of its most important asset - its people - Irish politicians play with their worry beads as they seek to prop up the country with billions of euro in borrowings. "Surely," people think, "they understand that this will bankrupt generations to come." Unlikely, I'm sure.
  • The Church, with its crimes of sexual abuse, cover-ups, and denials has worked to blow out the flickering lights of faith, trust, and spirituality. Within this vacuum, Irish people attempt to look for hope, recognising that an institution and way of life is dying before their eyes.
  • The public sector, with their eyes locked on money, failing to see that those in the private sector are suffering the same deprivation. Yet allowing strikes and discontent to disenfranchise the very people that they are supposed to serve.
Oh, we've so very much to forgive! We stare into the darkness, pummelling our chests with agony, daring to seek hope.

And yet, hope there is.

Ireland and her people have overcome challenges over generations. Their stout hearts and strength of character will overcome. And with Christ as a loving example, the Irish will forgive - and move on - into a time of Ressurection.

Despite the crazies who would stop them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

An Ex-Pat's View of America

It's my last day in Florida. After days of sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures, the weather finally warmed up, and Florida feels at last like Florida. Mind you, I've been gone for so many years that I wonder if I know what Florida is supposed to feel like. Or any State in the Union, for that matter.

What got me thinking about this was a question posed by one of the resident's of Freedom Plaza, a retirement center for Seniors. This woman - and I suspect that she's near 90, and endowed with a wisdom beyond even her years and an energy and sensitivity that seems much younger - asked me: "Tom, you keep writing about how you find Ireland. Let me ask you: How do you find the United States? What changes do you see? What impresses you? What disappoints?"

Tocqueville, the 19th Century French political thinker and historian, was able to encapsulate his views of America in his treatise, Democracy in America. I am no Tocqueville, but the woman's question intrigued me. Therefore, and for what it's worth, some views from an ex-pat who hasn't lived in this country for 27 years, going on 28:
  • The price of gasoline is higher than it used to be - and folks over here bitch about it. They should be thankful that they're not paying over 5 bucks a gallon. That's what I pay in Ireland for the stuff.
  • Americans are out of work and they like to blame a lot of people - while it's true that many American companies have given away a whole slew of jobs by 'out-sourcing' skills to India, Malaysia, and similar (which makes me fume, by the way), I grow tired of the blame game. Yes, it's horrible when people lose their jobs (I've lost everything more than once). And it's also true that the greed of bankers, consumers, business people, congressional leaders, and regulators are to blame. But at this point - who cares? If someone is out of a job then go get one. If they can't get one, then start a business. I've been out of a job a couple of times. No one offered me much - just an opportunity. And I grabbed that with both hands, started a business, and began writing. I stopped blaming and started doing. I wish that people would stop bitching and do something constructive.
  • America is not falling apart - this is one of my pet peeves: folks I know in both the United States and Europe, citing Rome as an example, seem to take pleasure in stating that the sun is setting on the "American Empire". To that I can only say: "BS". Americans are some of the most industrious in the world. They are innovators, doers (contrary to my point above), reachers of Moon Dust. While it may be true that the United States will no longer be the strongest economic power in the world (China will possibly pass us very soon), the country and its people will be able to hold its head high.
  • Americans are extraordinarily giving - and not only with their money. With the smile of welcome that is on their lips as they greet a stranger; with the generosity of living that is in their hearts; with a recognition of how kindly fortune has smiled on them, and a willingness to give back. That is the America that I know. A kind hearted people firmly rooted to the soil of a great nation, who always seem to extend a giving hand when adversity strikes. That's always been the case. It was when I left and it still is.
  • America has problems, but it will prevail - it is true that this country has its share of problems: a hurting economy; an enormous pile of debt; a racial question that even now does not seem to be completely resolved; high levels of crime; falling disposable income. The list goes on and on. When I left here in 1982, that list of problems was almost exactly the same. While nothing would seem to be solved, so much has also been accomplished. Yet so much remains to be done. I am concerned when I see educational funding fall, knowing that this undermines the country's most important resource: an educated citizenry. I grow desperate when I still see high levels of bigotry: against African Americans, homosexuals, Islam, and anyone else who doesn't quite fit into the 'accepted mould.' I become greatly concerned when I see our values eroded: when this country would even consider taking the word "God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, I can only wonder what this country has become...
Ask me what I think of this country and I'll tell you: it's not perfect. It still has a long way to go. But its geographic beauty is stunning. Its people rich in intellect, determination, and benefiting from an unique melting pot of cultures.

In the past 27 years, this country has changed. Of course it has. Some changes have been for the better. Some have been for the worse. But my attitude to the United States hasn't changed:

This ex-pat still believes that it's the best country in the world.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Soft Blessings of Ireland

Right now I'm sitting at my father's desk in his apartment at Sun City Center, Florida. He lives in Freedom Plaza, a retirement center for those of a certain age. A glass of wine (a nice Shiraz) sits at my right hand. I think of the day that's just set and think of the people that I've met here and smile. Maybe it's the wine, but I don't think so.

When my father introduces me to his friends, he invariably says, "This is my son. He's the fellow who lives in Ireland." And just as invariably, Dad's friends stare back with a look of bewilderment as they attempt to process the information.

"You live in Ireland?" they ask, not quite comprehending. "Do you like living there?" And often, I'm quite not sure what to say.

As I've mentioned in other entries on this Blog, I'm a self-confessed schizophrenic when it comes to my attitude regarding living in Ireland. On the one hand, I miss my American homeland with all of my heart. I'm proud to be an American, and that feeling gets spun into a web of romantic images of vast plains, and purple mountaintops, and a diverse people that are some of the best in the world.

But I also think of what has happened to me during the past 27 years of living in Ireland; of the gentle journeys that I've taken; of the honest steadfast people there; of the small miracles that I've been blessed to experience...

A number of years ago, I attended a writer's centre in the Beara Peninsula way down in West Cork. That centre, located in Eyeries, attracts writers and other artists from far and wide. Many come because of its setting right on the Atlantic Ocean. Stunning sunsets, amazing moons, the soft warm breeze swept in by the Gulf Stream; all create a mystical landscape that nurtures the creative spirit with a will to live.

I should explain that when I'm working on a project, I tend to write a lot. Twelve to fourteen hour stints are commonplace for me because once I enter the world of a screenplay it's difficult for me to escape. However, there are times when the words simply won't come, no matter how long I stare at the blank laptop screen.

This was one of those times. I had been sitting in front of my laptop for hours on end, but my fried brain simply refused to cooperate. I glanced at my watch: it was 6AM and I had wasted an entire night. I knew that I was blocked and had no idea at all of what to do about it.

I grabbed my camera and walked out of the still-sleeping centre. In the east, the still unseen sun was painting brush strokes of salmon pink on low scudding clouds. I turned toward a beach in the near distance, intent on walking across the sands and to the small village of nearby Eyeries.

However, I soon discovered that a stream blocked my way. I eyed it warily. It fed right into the Atlantic. The tide was high, and its depth was unknown. But its waters were clear and it didn't look too deep. I figured that I could wade across.

I stripped naked. Bundling my clothes together and placing those with my camera atop my head, I took a breath and stepped into the stream ... and immediately found myself out of my depth. I tread water against a stiff current, yelling at the surprise of icy coldness that set my teeth chattering. I pulled myself out as soon as I could, let me tell you.

For a moment I stood at the side of that stream, catching my breath. Then I saw the sun: it glinted above the horizon. Its warmth struck my nakedness, touching my soul with its bright steady fingers.

And I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed, my head full of the image of a naked Yank standing in an Irish morning sun. But I also laughed with the sudden joy of living, of having the good fortune to be in Ireland; of the luck that had made me turn right at a cross-roads in Wales back in 1980 that had led me to this exact spot.

It was as if I had been baptized anew, and that Ireland had given me a gentle blessing with the loving waters that ran through its living veins.

I put my clothes on and walked back to the centre. My writer's block had cleared. I finished that screenplay three days later.

So to answer my Dad's friends' question: "Do I like living in Ireland?" The answer is yes. Quite a bit.

Usually, anyway.

For more stories on one American's journey in Ireland, why not buy A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland, written by Tom Richards.