By Bob Corbett
Our very last morning at The Old Pier. I will miss these breakfasts. This morning we both ordered the same thing: fresh haddock, fried potatoes, sautťed mushrooms, tea, a large fruit bowl was there -- and we were again the only guests! A variety platter of toasts. What a feast. (On the entire 30 days in Ireland I drank tea. They do it so very well, and they don't seem to me to do coffee as well from my past experiences. Sally doesn't drink coffee at all, so she was just having her normal morning drink.)
After the long walk to Ballydavid yesterday, we decided to take a restful day, and also, this was our last day for a while in such a remote area, we wanted to enjoy the peace, quiet, even nothingness of the day.
Ironic that for a day we were designating for doing almost nothing, we got a bright sunny clear day, modestly warm. One of the prettiest weather days of our trip. We were out of wine, so we walked the mile or so up the road to the small grocery and got some wine for the evening. Walked back to the B&B to drop the wine and then walked the other way on the small road, the direction we had not yet been, to the north. For a while we walked along the sea, it being just a few yards on our left. However, the road began to curve slightly to the east, beginning its gradual turn back toward Dingle Town. We passed a lovely sheep farm and by this time we could no longer sea the ocean, but on the left were now sheep fields, enclosed by 3 foot tall stone walls. Finally the road began to drop down and make a very large gradual turn east.
We came down a long hill, curving right, and getting steeper. My legs were just a bit sore from yesterday's walk, but were loosening up. I was quite aware that this was a peaceful and beautiful walk along this lonesome road, but, at some point we were going to have to walk BACK UP this hill. That wasn't going to be as easy as going down.
When we arrived in the valley, now down off the cliffs and at sea level again, but in farm fields, not seacoast, we turned fully east and came to two buildings. One was a lovely well-kept small cottage with the owner out working in his yard, fussing with his flower. Next to that was a pub, but it seemed closed for the season since it was past time when the pub would have been open, and it was looking very quiet.
We were at a small crossroads. A road turned off to the left to run toward a small collection of houses near the sea that we could see on the hillside in front of us. Across from the pub, actually on the edge of someone's field, was a picnic bench. We walked over and sat on the top of it. We were looking back toward where we knew the sea was, but it wasn't visible, just a hill and road, curving to the left up the hill, headed up to the cliffs. Alongside the little road that turned off to the right was a small creek and a stone bridge over the creek.
We were right at the corner of these roads, and directly across the other side of the road, again at the edge of someone's field was a lone phone booth. The sun warmed us, it was very bright and not at all windy here in the valley. We just sat a very long time in silence. Mainly there were no sounds at all. Now and again the man in his garden some 40-50 yards off would scrape a rock or something with his hoe. A car would drive by now and again. I was lost in thought about how I could ONLY be a happy visitor here. I love this peace and quiet, am stunned by the natural beauty of the sea, cliffs and lay of the land, but Iím a city boy to the core. This is an awesome place for me to come to rest, enjoy and see something different, but before long I would be going crazy for the busyness of the city, the noises of my street, the people on the sidewalks, near-by coffee houses and pubs and so on.
Then I fixated on the phone booth and I remembered Jon Dressel's magnificent poem about this theme. When I took my position at Webster University in 1965 Jon was poet in residence in the English department. He also owned and ran Llwelyn's Welsh Pub in our Central West End of St. Louis. Jon is of Welsh roots and took them very seriously. Later on in the 1970s he decided he would leave the U.S. and move with his family to Wales. And off he went. He spent about 10 years there and upon his return in 1983 he published a magnificent book of poems: OUT OF WALES: FIFTY POEMS 1973-1983. I have been deeply moved by many of those poems, but few moved me as much as the one about the phone booth -- a booth exactly like the one across the road from me.
Jon tells of his being in the village with his own young children, and all the kids gathering in the dim wash of light at night in the village, and hovering around the phone booth, a tool and symbol for them of ESCAPE, or connection to the larger unknown outer world. Sophisticated Jon, a man well traveled, watches the kids and could tell them that it's not necessarily so great out there in that far away world they seek, that perhaps here, home, this tiny village even, is as good a place as any other. But he is a wise man and he knows he can only feel those things because he had already experienced that outer world, and he can make decisions out of genuine choice and experience. I was wishing I had Jonís book with me; I so wanted to review that poem which I've read a hundred times at least, one would think I would have memorized it by now. In fact one of the first things I did when I got home was pull that book off the shelf and again read that poem, what I always think of as "the phonebooth poem." Today, as I copy these notes out of my journal, I grabed the book off the shelf to share that poem with you so that I can share with you what that silent sitting on the picnic bench across from that phone booth was doing to my mind. The quiet joy of it all.
In the poem Jon isn't sitting on a picnic bench in remote Ireland as I am; but his location isn't so very different. He's in the tiny Welsh village of Llansteffan just across the waters in Wales, an extremely similar landscape and cultural world. I'm here in 2005; he was having very similar thoughts in the mid-1970s. They are timeless thoughts.
Children, Night, Llansteffan
From: OUT OF WALES: FIFTY POEMS 1973-1983
Walking my own through the village
after supper, down the long lengths
of empty street between lights,
towards the top of the hill where
the castle road begins its half-mile run
to a dead end, I see them there, in the
wash of light from the pub, the shop,
the candy store, around their totem,
the phone booth, tall, transparent, lit:
two or three, the oldest, crowd in,
while the rest, even the smallest
who don't yet know the need, move
restless, magnetized around: those
inside call, where? Carmarthen?
Llanybri, a mile away? anywhere
but here. Anywhere but here.
We arrive; my own join the fringe.
I sometimes think my forty years
might rouse the tongue to speak to them,
most of whom will never see Vienna
or Honolulu, and tell them it's
all right, that some of us who have at last
come glad for silence, shrunken, here.
to the dark of Wales by sea and owl.
It's no good. for we come, of course,
from having sound and glitter, after years.
The call ends: they move off, slowly,
from the booth's cold light, one amorphous
creature, murmuring, towards the dark
of the bus shelter, till time to go home.
I was hopelessly lost in thought of Jon's marvelous poetry and realized that my paltry journals couldnít muster a voice as sweet, powerful, insightful, rich as Jon's, but I could tie into his thoughts since what we were experiencing, he 30 years ago in Wales, me now in Ireland, were not so different.
I thought back on the last couple of days in this very special quiet corner of Ireland and to my discussion with Jackie about the difficulties of getting just the right fish for her very high standards of food. And again I was back to Jon and giggling aloud leaving Sally looking at me rather quizzically. I remembered the poem about the cockle man.
Jon had friends coming from California and his friends were experiencing the red tide, a condition which wipes out the shell fish in some areas. This often occurs in California. He wanted to provide some cockles for them, something they loved. He heard of a man in the council houses (sort of subsidized housing for the poor), a guy who knocked about doing odd jobs and gathering shell fish was among his skills. That poem make Ireland and Wales seem even more alike in culture, thinking of the magnificence of people we had experienced in only the first WEEK of our trip. There on the picnic bench on that warm sunny day, I tried to tell Sally about the awesome poem about the cockle man, but itís so frustrating to know its been said so magnificently and one just canít get the words to recreate it. Again, upon getting home, I raced to my Dressel and delighted in the poem, The Cockle Man.
In the poem Jon isn't sitting on a picnic bench in remote Ireland as I am; but his location isn't so very different. He's in the tiny Welsh village of Llansteffan just across the waters in Wales, an extremely similar landscape and cultural world. I'm here in 2005; he was having very similar thoughts in the mid-1970s. They are timeless thoughts.THE COCKLE-MAN
From: OUT OF WALES: FIFTY POEMS 1973-1983
They'd had the red tide in
California, and our friends
had written ahead, starved
for cockles and mussels,
asking if Molly Malone
ever hustled Llansteffan;
they were good friends, so we
asked the postmistress, and she
said well, there was this man
in the council houses who still
tried, now and then; we went
to him and he threw up his
hands and said Duw! cock1es were
past tense, like Llywelyn Fawr;
my wife's face fell like the last
bell Sunday but she said all right,
we'd just take mussels, then:
wait, he said, there may be
one place, up the river; no
promises, mind; the day
before they came he rode up
to our house on his bike,
rubber leggings white
with flecks of tide, produced
a sack of mussels, then a larger
with cockles enough to gorge
a choir of gulls, charged us
a pound: keep the faith, he said.
And finally, here in St. Louis, and not that day on the picnic bench, I started thinking back to yesterday's experience in the pub in Bally David. How in the world could I really give you a living flavor of Paddy? I just don't have the sensitivity of observation and words to do it. So I scrolled down to one last poem from OUT OF WALES, Dai on Holiday. Dai is to Wales what Paddy, the hundred of thousands of Paddies are to Ireland. In just a few days later we were to meet one for a long evening of laughs, whiskey and music in the tiny village of Doolin -- that will come in due time.
The Paddy figure is an older man, relatively unkempt, a habituť of the pub, slouched over his Guinness, happy when someone else is buying, full of great stories, a smile always lurking in his eyes ready to spread to his whole face. But Jon Dressel captured him in his full glory in Dai on Holiday.
In the poem Jon isn't sitting on a picnic bench in remote Ireland as I am; but his location isn't so very different. He's in the tiny Welsh village of Llansteffan just across the waters in Wales, an extremely similar landscape and cultural world. I'm here in 2005; he was having very similar thoughts in the mid-1970s. They are timeless thoughts.Dai on Holiday
From: OUT OF WALES: FIFTY POEMS 1973-1983
Dai you startled me, I had been away
six months, back to Missouri, and when
I came into the pub there you were,
in a tweed jacket looking like a thing
exhumed, a white shirt soiled as Job's
boiled sheet, trousers from a dead Sunday
suit, shapeless, held, barely, by a thick
belt gathering without the help of loops,
and shoes, mud-bronzed, in place of boots;
a quantum change, but of the village,
even so; it was that thing on your head,
that cockeyed halo of a crumpled blue
beret, that did me in; it was not
some soldiered surplus from the market,
but Basque, or French, apache, rakish, wise,
reeking of bistros, women's necks, and wine;
and you'd shaved; your face was strangely
white; you'd gashed, and stanched, your chin; still,
the truth was there, fifty-nine years of weather,
forty-three of ale, the man-virgin eyes,
alien, fierce, intact, beneath the brow's mute
crease on crease; they fixed on me; you nodded,
silently smiled, parting your lips till the dreg
of your fag, a finger-stub of ash, hung,
about to flower, from your toothless upper
gum; I stood beside you, dumb; "he's on
holiday," whispered someone later, in a crowd.
Somehow I came out of my reverie on that picnic bench, realized the day was getting on toward late afternoon and we did have that hill to tackle. Sally had been so patient and kind. I had gone off into this near-trance. The weight and power of these three oh so quiet days in this little backwater remote area of Ireland had hit me full force.
I realized and articulated what I knew so clearly at some intellectual level. Ireland for me is not the sights, even the stunning scenery. It isn't the places, it's the place itself. It's a quietness, a backing away from the world I'm normally in, a world where I somehow end up several hours a day at my computer, buried in my books when I'm not typing, out riding my bike in the park or to the grocery. Here I come and I exist among a lovely people in peace, quiet, a different universe like being lost in some great forest, away from all one's security and habits, not sure if I will find the road to safety before dark or rain or storm, and not much caring, yet knowing I will have to leave the forest in due time.
I'm getting better and better at coming to Ireland. My first marvelous and wonderful trip was back in the late 1980s, and like so many I rented a car and raced all over the place, needing to see every town, village and sight I'd ever read or heard about. Like Jon Dressel says in the poem above about the phone booth, one can never tell someone of this "other" Ireland. I think one just has to do it as he or she will and discover what he or she loves and needs through direct experience. My second trip was a bit more relaxed, concentrating on the area I had loved best -- this west coast (in the end we on this trip we spent 26 days on the west coast and 4 days in Dublin). The next trip was with my brother John, and he, on his first trip was wanting much of what I wanted. He didn't want to see a city or a town, a castle or a ruin. He wanted to hang out in the "little places" and the pubs, he wanted to meet the people and be with them, and he made a million friends and saw almost nothing if one measured his trip by the standard tourist measure. But he made a choice to see the Ireland he wanted. Of course I was back again last November on a very different trip, not a vacation to let Ireland cleanse me, but a trip to see if I couldn't help John and Terri in their time of hardship and be the communication link to those left at home.
Now I was back again, and coming closer and closer to knowing what my ideal visit is like. It is much much more of THIS. Sitting some hours on a picnic bench in a nowhere place, not overwhelmingly beautiful as the ocean is at the top of the cliffs. But, feeling the sparsely populated fields and their history, or appreciating the man tending his attractive cottage, of thinking back on the past few days and hoping so much there would be more like it in the coming weeks, and joyously there were quite a few such times.
We left our bench, I feel like it is MY SPECIAL bench in front of my special telephone booth. And we labored, oh my we labored back up that curving hill to the top of the cliff and down to The Old Pier. We had a small snack of our foods in the room, a glass or two of wine and then just sat outside on the picnic bench in front of The Old Pier watching the sun sinking into the sea, and thinking of this last meal under Jackieís gift of food.
When John and I had been here in 2003 for our one meal, all alone in the large dining room, I had looked at this forbidding and formal menu and realized that at home I never had fresh lamb dishes and really don't know how to prepare lamb myself. (Nor, for that matter, where to even buy lamb in a grocery store.) So I had ordered lamb that night and it had been just spectacular, but John ordered a fresh ocean trout and it just looked so good on his plate that I had resolved if I ever returned I would have fish.
Well, the first two nights of this visit I had done so, and they were spectacular. However, in the afternoon Jackie had told me she had some very special racks of lamb and that she would recommend it. When a cook like Jackie recommends a dish I'm not about to turn it down. Sally had been so impressed with my sole stuffed with prawns of last night that she ordered that. I ordered the rack of lamb. First however, I tried Jackie's fish chowder as an appetizer -- and again my meal-sized appetizer was the best chowder I had ever tasted, and I'm a chowder nut.
My rack of lamb was a dish to behold and the whole dining room turned to watch me being served. A rack of five (count them 5) lamb chops, each topped with the little white gloves on the end of the chop. It was served on a large platter with side dishes in their own bowls, of beautiful crisp and colorful vegetables. As Jackie told me in the afternoon the chops were extremely tender and small. But so many of them. I ate with great relish, and this evening, in deference to my red meat, we got an Australian wine again, this time red -- Paul was pushing these with great justification -- we got a Cabernet. Delicious.
The dining room is really elegant, and though I travel only with blue jeans and wear sandals all the time it's not raining, I did bring one decent sweater which I wore to dinner each night so I didn't look so much like a bum, a younger version of Dai on holiday. But that night I really didn't want to keep up the pretence of the elegance of the room, which isn't my everyday style of living. I so much wanted to grab those lamb chops with my fingers and suck every drop of juice and claw every morsel of meat off the bones with my teeth. I didn't. I ate daintily with my knife and fork, though it occurs to me those little white gloves they put on the end of the lamb chops in a rack of lamb suggests to me they might have been intended to allow the diner to pick up the chop by that little glove and eat it with the fingers. But I didn't know if this were so, thus I was more restrained. But I put that knife and fork to careful use to extract every morsel of those flavors and tastes from my plate.
I could barely stagger up to the room, plop in front of that great window and watch the very last of light sink into the sea. The night was clear enough -- a very rare occurrence on our whole trip -- that the zillions of stars in the place with almost no outside lights -- shown above us.
I think we were both surprised that after a while we did dig out two little squares of chocolate each to have with a night cap of Bushmills whiskey. A lovely way to prepare to head to bed. Tomorrow we would be returning to Dingle Town, a very tiny place, but it was going to seem like a gigantic metropolis in comparison with the isolation of The Old Pier. I have to be honest. I wasn't, at that moment, terribly excited about moving on. I could have used several more days on this tippy tip tip of the Dingle Peninsula, and at the warm and inviting Old Pier under the warm, friendly and gourmet attentions of Jackie and Paul.
Just so you have some idea our bill for the three days at The Old Pier was 460 Euros.
That was 35 Euros each a night for the bed and breakfast = 210 Euros That means the three meals with three bottles of wine and a generous tip to the Polish servers who work for them = 240 Euros, or 80 Euros a meal for two of us. Our exchange rate for the whole trip was just about $1.30 for a Euro so that meals we paid 35 x $1.30 = $45.50 each a night for the room and breakfast and at 40 Euros each for the meal, it would be 40 x $1.30 = $52.00 each for the meal each night.
Not cheap for sure, but for the level of luxury and beauty this place offers, that seemed a great bargain to me. Those were the only three "restaurant" meals we ate on the entire trip, the rest were the afternoon meals, many many days only eating either a bowl of soup or a bowl of chowder "out" and then just snacking in the evening on cheeses, nuts and such things with wine in our room. We ate quite well on the whole trip. Almost always Irish foods -- Irish stews, only a couple of times fish and chips, some lamb dishes, fish with mash and veg as they say (mashed potatoes and vegetables). Sally pointed out to me that breakfast was the only meal where we weren't given two kinds of potatoes at every meal. Since we always asked NOT to have chips (French fries) we would normally get both boiled potatoes and mashed potatoes along with marvelous fresh and crisp vegetables. Irish food is a bit heavy, but quite tasty and inexpensive in the pubs.
Shucks, back to civilization tomorrow in Dingle Town.
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Bob Corbett email@example.com