Ireland . . .

—From EF—

It rains, it rains, and the air is rich with ravens — swooping, quorking unsolicited instructions . . .

Sounds like a good opening for an Irish song, but it’s just what came into my mind as I was beginning to think of this week’s blog. Today, Sunday, we’re in Kilkenny; last Tuesday we were on Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands. The plan was to take the ferry from Doolin, the closest port, and we stayed Monday night at a very sweet hostel.

Come morning, the word was that no boats would embark from Doolin, given the violent weather. We’d paid a non-refundable 100 Euros for our Aran B&B and were aghast. Our valiant hostel-keeper, however, phoned our B&B and was told that the ferry was still running from another port west of Galway, a two-hour drive, and we might be able to get there in time.

Indeed, we were able to get there, park the car, walk onto the boat, and begin a stay on Inis Mor. We even had an hour of watery sunshine and did a modest walk northward toward the major cliff-and-fort sights. We’d leave the major trek to the next day, with assistance from one of the many battered vans that accommodate tours for a mere 15 Euros each.

Tuesday dawned with a howl. We shared a huge Irish breakfast with three other guests, one of them an intrepid citizen of the Isle of Man, who had arrived in a kayak. (He was resigned to the inevitable delay of his departure.) No ferries at all had arrived from any port, so the tourist trade was slim. We found a driver who was willing to go with only two fares, and off we went. He took us slowly past houses, cottages, rocks and fields, and knew who dwelt in every single one. He’d lived there all his long life, forty years as a fisherman, now trawling for tourists.

There were no sheep. Not one. Years ago, every family had a flock of forty or so, but times became hard and cows were more profitable. The population of humans dwindled, too, with nothing for the young people to do other than farming, fishing, or the tourist trades. Many dwellings were boarded and vacant.

We were left off at the little cluster of buildings where we would pay our admission to a spectacular hike along massive cliffs to an ancient fort, and we were to be back at that spot in an hour and a half. Perhaps the cafe would be open then, but it was closed tight, as was the gift shop.

I’ve never tried walking in such a wind: it made a fair bid to knock me flat. We arrived at the gate where admission would be paid, and it was locked tight, as were the toilets. A workman waiting in his truck to do god-knows-what came out and walked around with us, but any fool could see that the site was closed because of the weather. We walked back to the pickup place and knocked at the door of the closed cafe, and a compassionate lady came to the door, heard that we were facing an hour and a half out in the storm, and let us in to wait.

At twelve-thirty we climbed aboard our rattly van and forged on. There was a stop at Seven Churches’ graveyard, whose entrance gate was in the midst of a mini-lake. Never mind, I slipped off my sandals and walked barefoot—onto sacred Irish ground. I will never forget.

We went on to the barren jumbled rocks out by the lighthouse, one of the many whose human guardians were being ousted by automation, and again I took off my sandals and walked through the gooey kelp froth out to the end of the boat-ramp. 

Once back in the van, trying to ignore my fragrant feel, we reversed and went back via the low coast-road, past rocks, ruins, and abandoned dwellings and storage sheds. 

People are hanging on. Ravens are hanging on. The wind and the water continue their work. It’s hard to see the hope, but easy to see the love.

It rains, it rains, and the air is rich with ravens — swooping, quorking unsolicited instructions . . .

Sounds like a good opening for an Irish song, but it’s just what came into my mind as I was beginning to think of this week’s blog. Today, Sunday, we’re in Kilkenny; last Tuesday we were on Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands. The plan was to take the ferry from Doolin, the closest port, and we stayed Monday night at a very sweet hostel.

Come morning, the word was that no boats would embark from Doolin, given the violent weather. We’d paid a non-refundable 100 Euros for our Aran B&B and were aghast. Our valiant hostel-keeper, however, phoned our B&B and was told that the ferry was still running from another port west of Galway, a two-hour drive, and we might be able to get there in time.

Indeed, we were able to get there, park the car, walk onto the boat, and begin a stay on Inis Mor. We even had an hour of watery sunshine and did a modest walk northward toward the major cliff-and-fort sights. We’d leave the major trek to the next day, with assistance from one of the many battered vans that accommodate tours for a mere 15 Euros each.

Tuesday dawned with a howl. We shared a huge Irish breakfast with three other guests, one of them an intrepid citizen of the Isle of Man, who had arrived in a kayak. (He was resigned to the inevitable delay of his departure.) No ferries at all had arrived from any port, so the tourist trade was slim. We found a driver who was willing to go with only two fares, and off we went. He took us slowly past houses, cottages, rocks and fields, and knew who dwelt in every single one. He’d lived there all his long life, forty years as a fisherman, now trawling for tourists.

There were no sheep. Not one. Years ago, every family had a flock of forty or so, but times became hard and cows were more profitable. The population of humans dwindled, too, with nothing for the young people to do other than farming, fishing, or the tourist trades. Many dwellings were boarded and vacant.

We were left off at the little cluster of buildings where we would pay our admission to a spectacular hike along massive cliffs to an ancient fort, and we were to be back at that spot in an hour and a half. Perhaps the cafe would be open then, but it was closed tight, as was the gift shop.

I’ve never tried walking in such a wind: it made a fair bid to knock me flat. We arrived at the gate where admission would be paid, and it was locked tight, as were the toilets. A workman waiting in his truck to do god-knows-what came out and walked around with us, but any fool could see that the site was closed because of the weather. We walked back to the pickup place and knocked at the door of the closed cafe, and a compassionate lady came to the door, heard that we were facing an hour and a half out in the storm, and let us in to wait.

At twelve-thirty we climbed aboard our rattly van and forged on. There was a stop at Seven Churches’ graveyard, whose entrance gate was in the midst of a mini-lake. Never mind, I slipped off my sandals and walked barefoot—onto sacred Irish ground. I will never forget.

We went on to the barren jumbled rocks out by the lighthouse, one of the many whose human guardians were being ousted by automation, and again I took off my sandals and walked through the gooey kelp froth out to the end of the boat-ramp. 

Once back in the van, trying to ignore my fragrant feel, we reversed and went back via the low coast-road, past rocks, ruins, and abandoned dwellings and storage sheds. 

People are hanging on. Ravens are hanging on. The wind and the water continue their work. It’s hard to see the hope, but easy to see the love.

Emigrants . . .

—From CB—

We’re the sort of tourists who can marvel at the scenery and traipse through every sort of museum, but we seem to gravitate toward paleolithic tombs, cemeteries, and various locales of atrocity. Today: an artifact recalling the Irish Famine.

The workhouse would have been an atrocity even without the Famine. The chain of Irish workhouses, financed by taxes on landlords and modeled on those of England, was a response to the fact that of a population of 8 million, 2 million were near starvation—before the failure of the potato crop in 1846 that led to a million deaths and 2 million emigrants. During which ample harvests of wheat and dairy were being shipped from Ireland to England. 

It’s all a long, complex story, and one wonders how that tale—like the Trail of Tears—occupies only a footnote in history. The Nazi-driven Holocaust is at the front of our minds (at least every sentient mind), but in my view an intentional, planned holocaust is perhaps less horrid than one that’s simply allowed to happen, a function of economics, acts of Parliament, and benign neglect.

The Irish Workhouse Center offers a fine tour of a facility slowly being restored. I’ll spare the details, except for one fact that screams out of the tour guide’s calm lecture. As one means of discouraging the myriads of starving peasants from entering workhouse “charity,” it was required that entire families enter as a unit (a means of ridding estates of unprofitable tenants), but once entered, the families were separated: men in one block, women in another, boys in another, girls in another. Only children under 3 were allowed to stay with their mothers. The only way you might know if your child or spouse died—disease being rampant—was a weekly announcement at morning Mass of the roster of the dead.

Many others emigrated, mainly to Australia, Canada, or the USA. Many died en route. One can readily imagine the welcoming committee:

We need to take care of our own people first. 
They’re only coming for the money.
They’re taking American jobs.
They’re changing America.
It’s their own laziness.
They’re diseased.
They’re degenerates.
We don’t have the room.
Why don’t they send us their upper classes?
No scum from a shithole country.

Clearly, the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Bohunks, the Polacks, the Chinks, the Japs, the Africans, Cubans, Scots, Vietnamese, the refugees from the St. Bartholomew’s massacre, the tired and poor from the world’s vast, encompassing squeeze of injustice—they all ought to fucking go back to where they fucking came from. And leave us to our gold-plated toilet seats. Us who have one.

I don’t like to get exercised by politics. I feel things, but I have very effective armoring in writing and in irony. At times, though, it gets through to me. I was feeling a bit of self-pity, after the workhouse side-trip, in having to drive considerable distance on narrow, winding roads, to get to our night’s lodging. And then I thought, “Christalmighty, Conrad! You’re going to a hostel in Doolin and listen to Irish-trad music at a pub, not on a coffin ship to Boston! Suspend your self-pity, at least till Tuesday.”

Jet-setting, Economy Style

—From EF—

We’re reveling in our daughter Johanna’s pocket paradise in Tuscany, breathing the scented air and eating her amazing cookery, but we really paid our dues to get here. The three-airplane bounce from Dublin to Amsterdam to Milan was tedious, yes, but that was routine. It was the trains from Milan to Florence to Pontassieve that nearly did us in. They say Mussolini made the trains run on time, but he’s long gone.

We fretted that the hour-long shuttle bus from the airport to the train station might not get us there in time and were very relieved when we had a whole twenty minutes to spare. Ha. We boarded, found our seats, and then our snakey-looking Freccia Rossa (red arrow) sat for fifteen minutes past its departure time. Fellow-passengers said there’d been an announcement of a half-hour’s delay, but we’d still be able to connect with our little regional train at Florence, if we put speed into hiking way down the far track where they put the less-glamorous trains.

But half an hour came and went, and we still sat there. No further announcements, no lurch into bullet-train movement. 

At the one-hour mark we started to fret. We’d miss our scheduled connection, but there was a later train—just one. However, we didn’t yet have our ticket for that one, and the ticket machines in the Florence station often had long lines, even late at night. I texted Johanna to warn her that we were delayed.

After an hour and a quarter we finally departed, and the train engineer gave it all the speed he could muster. We watched the info screen as the estimated arrival time edged backwards, gaining us nearly ten more minutes, so we might not be doomed to the midnight train. 

The arrival process in Florence is always frustrating, because the track comes to an end there. The train crawls into the station, slowing to a stop at the bumpers, and will go into reverse to head onward to Rome. It took forever, but the doors finally opened and we galloped down the endless platform to look for the display board that would tell us what track our little train would be on, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t be Track 18. The other seventeen tracks start right at the station hall, but to get to Track 18 you have to walk down what feels like half a mile to get to where the train will be—if it hasn’t left yet.

Surprise. A barrier with turnstiles had been installed since last year, allowing everybody to exit into the station hall from the tracks, but re-entry requires the ticket we didn’t have yet. We could have stayed on the platforms and bought our ticket on the train, hopefully avoiding the penalty because of the massive delay, but the display board had lost its mind. It was past 11 PM, and no trains were listed past 9 PM. Whatever had crippled our train from Milan had knocked out the normal display system; we didn’t know what track to go to, and had five minutes to find our train.

Nobody could tell us where it was, but said that Track 18 was likely. The ticket machine wasn’t working, so we begged to be let back in, succeeded, and started running like hell. Before we could see the train, the fatal whistle blew, and the train took off without us.

I texted Jo to warn that we’d be on the last train, and we walked back to the head of the track to try a different ticket machine. Conrad ran back and forth to see the postings at the head of each track while I tried all the machines, none of which would work, but fate was kind. Track 14 suddenly posted our train, the one we thought we missed on Track 18, and given the system-wide delay, we’d be able to leave right away instead of waiting for midnight.

Jo had warned me that buying a ticket on the train would only work if I could find the conductor before the train started; evidently there are more than a few people who don’t pay and just count on not being caught. I stuck my head out the door, couldn’t see anybody on the platform, so just started barreling down the inside corridor from car to car. At the head of the train I found the conductor just stepping aboard, and as the train lurched forward I stuck out my hand with the exact fare and explained my problem. He just smiled, waved me away, and said “Never mind.” It was after midnight when we finally got to Pontassieve, but Jo and Fra picked us up, took us home, fed us minestrone and wine, and all was well. Hail, Tuscan paradise!

###

 

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