Skip to content

What Dangles before Dingle

ie by Audrey Webb

In a narrow pub in Dingle, a crowd of damp patrons wait out the passing squall – outside, liquid razor blades hurtle at a steep slant toward the twisting cobblestone roadways. I carry my pint of gold across the room, dodging umbrellas and drenched slickers, to the counter opposite the bartender’s well. The wall behind the counter is filled with thin brown cardboard boxes of nails and screws – the pub pulls double duty as the town’s hardware store. foxyjohnsAfter I take a sip of my drink, I set down my glass beside three boxes of rat poison and ant killer. When you’ve reached the Dingle Peninsula, the westernmost edge of Ireland, rules no longer seem to matter. If you’re here, it’s assumed you must have wits enough to be responsible for your own well-being.

Earlier in the day, I’d made my first stop on the peninsula at Dunquin, where my group’s driver fashioned a parking space for our bus near the town’s pier. The wind rocked the vehicle as though to rattle awake my senses for the landscape I was about to witness. I stepped onto a sodden field, where grass bent to the will of the wind and formed spongy pathways dotted with butter-yellow blossoms. The salt-laced air licked my hair into damp tangles.

I looked out toward the bay, where heavy clouds sat down to rest upon the water, making the horizon a meaningless blur. I was considering making a ferry passage from here to the Great Blasket Island, a journey of fewer than five miles through a veil of gauze. Still drowsy with Dramamine – I’d been gearing up for the possibility of choppy waters — I peered over the edge of a cliff, dingle2where a walled pathway coiled against the hill towards the water’s edge. Waves white-knuckled their way to the rough-hewn shore, and the water relaxed into a startling aquamarine, forming a sharp contrast to the grey-blue of the deeper waters. A ferry had just recently launched; its bow plunged deeply with each wave’s sigh. The Great Blasket Island looked so close – when the sun periodically elbowed its way between the clouds, I could make out the remains of the white-washed homes that dot the steep banks of the island still. But the boat’s path was not a direct one between where I stood and the island. It meandered across the strait to make a landing at an oblique angle, fighting for purchase against the winds and the stubborn waves. What seemed on paper to be a “simple” journey was more than I could contemplate. I’m not cut out for such voyages, sadly – a few minutes of a movie filmed with a shaky camera can send me to bed for hours – so I decided, with few regrets, to remain on land.

While the others braved the waves, I walked a pathway that swept through fields of raucous colours. In the long green grass, clumps of purple heather huddled with orange montbretia, introduced to these shores from South Africa and thriving here now. The flowers are more abundant than people. Dunquin, which means “Caon’s Fort,” has a population of only 180. I saw evidence of one family beyond a barbed wire fence. dingle4A row of black clothing danced on the clothesline beside a white house, whose grey-tiled roof was as steep as the surrounding mist-draped hills. Further down the road, however, any such evidence vanished. At the overgrown entrance to an empty house sat an abandoned chair; the sun and wind had pried beneath its green paint, and its woven seat hung in lanky strands over its weathered bones. dingle3Another former dwelling, now a roofless brick shell, framed a view of the enticing waters through its glass-less window. The stories they told – of struggle and determination, of optimism and defeat – are spoken still.

There’s no doubt the land has a harsh beauty, so there’s also no question that to live here would mean a world of sacrifice. It’s little wonder then, that pushed to this edge, so many residents chose to continue their journey further still, sailing on waters that touch both this and the more distant shore of America. In County Kerry, the population topped 293,000 in 1841; in 1996, it was just 126,000. Many Dingle residents left during the 1800s for Holyoke, Massachusetts, where they found work in paper plants and textile mills. The pull of the sea is as much physical as it is economic. On the beach at Coumeenole, I edged my way into the frigid Atlantic waters, where the sea grabbed frantically at my toes. Their journey completed, the waves grasped at every bit of land they could, pulling back with each rush grains of dark sand that scrambled over one another to make an escape. For those who can resist that pull and choose to remain on the Dingle Peninsula, what lies before them may be as hazy as the horizon. But as I climbed back up the steep path from the beach to the road, I saw clearly what keeps them hanging on.

St. Flannan Got Fleeced

by Audrey Webb


St. Flannan’s stained glass window in Honan Chapel

I’m not the least bit religious, so I don’t pray. Well, except during take-off and landing. To pray more often than that strikes me as egotistical. I’ve never understood how someone could think they are so worthy of attention that a guy in the clouds would stop what he’s doing just to help them find their cell phone or get a parking space close to the Dollar Store. If I were religious, though, I’d sure as hell want a patron saint. Why go to a general practitioner when you could see a specialist?

Patron saints have a pretty damned good life. In exchange for listening to the prayers of a select group of people and getting all the credit if things happen to go well, their job comes with some pretty sweet perks. Take St. Cajetan, for example – the patron saint of gamblers. Sure, on Tuesday nights he has to hang out with the old ladies in the basement hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo, but more often than not, he’s in Vegas, hanging around some guy’s neck as a medallion. From there, with complete impunity, he can stare down some lady’s blouse as she leans over the craps table. Or with a little luck, Cajetan could celebrate his feast day with a front-row view of the dancing girls. Sweet Jesus, what a life!

And what about St. Eligius, patron saint of taxi drivers? Free lifts to the airport anytime he wants. St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, has racked up enough frequent flyer miles to jet all over God’s green earth without ever having to endure the hell of a layover in Cleveland. Christopher does have a demanding job, though. He also covers bachelors, storms, epilepsy, gardeners, holy death, and toothaches, making him far too busy to shop for an electric egg poacher in the SkyMall catalog.

But not all patron saints have it so lucky. Take St. Flannan, for example. St. Who? Yeah, no kidding. Poor Flannan! Never mind the lack of recognition factor – Flannan isn’t even a proper kind of name. When Flannan was a young boy, he was always disappointed that his name never showed up among the toy license plates in the parish gift shop. His dad was a chieftain, though, so Flannan was frequently consoled with as much of the store’s homemade fudge as he wanted, which lead to the saint’s obsession with sweet goods and baking.

Flannan loved to bake. Once Flannan baked for 36 hours straight. Even in the darkness, our lad kept right on baking. How? Because Flannan’s left hand started to glow, that’s how. His left hand glowed like a mo-fo, and he was able to see well enough to keep rolling out those sugar cookies and filling those muffin tins. Fat lot of good that miracle did him, though. Did Flannan get to be patron saint of baking? Noooooo. That’s St. Honorius of Amiens, whose hot cross buns took the blue ribbon in 598 A.D. at the annual bazaar in St. Pillsbury Cathedral.

No, Flannan has been assigned the unglamorous role of patron saint of the diocese of Killaloe, where it is believed he rented a flat above the fish ‘n’ chips shop. When Flannan realized he had drawn the short straw, he was overheard to have said, “That’s a bit of a shite gig, isn’t it?” Luckily, he didn’t stay bitter too long. Flannan founded a lot of churches and was a great preacher. As he was dying, his last words were to his disciples, instructing them “to live in peace and always to be just.” To this day, historians debate whether Flannan meant for his disciples to live in peace and always be morally upright and good, or whether he simply died before he could finish that last sentence.

Aside from a few Scottish islands named for Flannan (okay, more like a couple of giant rocks), he really got a lousy deal. I searched high and low for any sign of him where you’d usually find religious artifacts. You’ll find no medal of St. Flannan in any flea market. No Flannan candles in the Catholics ‘R’ Us stores and no Flannan pajamas either. I feel sorry for the guy. If I ever take up praying, I’ll ask for someone to pay homage to Flannan’s miracle by coming up with a St. Flannan scone mix, which would consist of 100 pounds of flour, 36 pounds of raisins, and only the right-handed oven mitt.


The Sporting Life

by Audrey Webb


If you’re expecting to come to Ireland and find the island totally populated with hot Irish men like Colin Farrell and Pierce Brosnan — a magical place where the men are so hot, you might get Gabriel Byrne’d alive — you might just lower your expectations. There aren’t very many snappy dressers here. A lot of guys in Ireland wear clothes that look like they were giveaways at a 5K road race. T-shirts with sports logos and polyester track pants with stripes up the side seem the trend. To any Seamus or Finn, a two-piece suit is a pair of sweats with a matching hoodie. A three-piece suit includes the team’s scarf. Is there some law that all the men in the country must be ready to break into a rugby scrum at a moment’s notice?

It’s Sunday, and I’m in a Life Style Sports store. My son has sent me a request for a rugby shirt. I look for a sales clerk and notice they all are attractive young women — all wearing more make-up than you’d expect for anyone representing a sports store. My clerk’s face is so dolled up I think someone must have been doing her make-up while she slept. Nobody could have time to put that much make-up on and still be at work by noon. I show her a picture of the shirt I’m looking for. She sneers at me and says, “Ye no can buy a Leinster shirt in a Munster store!” I’ve been outed as a proper eejit. Basically, I’ve just walked into a store in Boston and asked to see their Yankees gear.

A twenty-something-year-old man strides up to the till. He’s tall, athletic, and wears a pair of shorts and a bright orange T-shirt. I figure he’s just come from church. He’s got short hair, styled to look like there’s a hedgehog perched on his skull. Beside him totters his girlfriend, wearing a pair of black patent stilts. She and the clerk are singlehandedly keeping Maybelline in business. Her long blonde hair, pulled back from her face so tightly that she’s getting a free facelift, is clasped with a hinged contraption that could double as a bear trap. The man puts a shoe box on the counter, and beside it, a pair of cleats.

“Will ye be wanting the box?” asks the clerk.

“Noooo, it’s straight off to the pitch for me, it is,” he says, and looks around, quite chuffed with himself.

Off to the pitch. There’s something you won’t hear in Texas. Not only because nobody in Texas calls a playing field a pitch, but because it’s too feckin’ hot in Texas to engage in any kind of outdoor sport in July.

“Can I get a discount?” asks the man. He’s physically fit, sure, but financially? Maybe not so much.

The clerk blushes so hard beneath her make-up that two clouds of powder form in front of her cheeks. “No, I canna,” she says. She lowers her head and sweeps the floor with her eyelashes. “Can I get your e-mail address?”

“NOOOOOO! Ye won’t give me a discount, I won’t give ye my e-mail address. What’s good for yooooou is good for me!” he jokes, and bounds toward the exit, cleats in hand. His girlfriend follows, and as she makes the treacherous adjustment from the carpeted store to the tile in the shopping mall corridor, she struggles to keep her balance.

rugby 2

A middle-aged man in a T-shirt striped in thick horizontal bars of blue approaches the till next. On his chest is the hashtag #workoutjunkie, but he doesn’t fool me. It looks like his priest has been replacing the wine and wafers with Guinness and chips, and Pasty McPandrippings here has been sneaking into the communion queue more than once per mass. A roll of fat clings to his middle like a tipsy aunt at Christmas. Odd that Dolly doesn’t ask this guy if he wants his sneakers in a box. She can see that he does. She even puts the box inside a bag, where it likely remains to this day. I’m certain the sneakers will stay in the box in the bag in the hall closet until the man has just the occasion to wear them, like a job interview, his granny’s funeral, or maybe even going to the premiere of a Pierce Brosnan movie.


My many flags of Ireland

by Audrey Webb

A flag may represent a country, but can it capture its complexity? The Irish flag — three equal vertical stripes of the colours green, white, and orange — packs a lot of meaning. The green represents the Catholics, the orange stands for the Irish protestants, and the white symbolizes the hope for peace between the two. It’s more than a flag that the Irish wave — it’s a poem for the past and the future.

Just the other day, a reminder popped up in my inbox: “You have an upcoming trip.” Feck off, e-mail. I know I’ll be leaving Ireland; the prodding only makes me weep. How can I take everything I’ve acquired since I arrived? I don’t mean just the books I’ve bought, written by Irish authors whose voices I’ve yet to hear, or the crisp linens or the bags of fragrant lavender and tea. My problem is much larger than logistics. How do I take home all I’ve experienced? How do transport the wrinkles around the eyes of an elderly couple who laughed their way through their Saturday night dinner beside me in a pub? How do I pack the sound of pipes, whistles, and fiddles, or the deep voices of two men who broke my heart with an impromptu ballad? And when I am on the other side of the ocean, how do I unpack the smell of salt that rises over the coastal cities? My mind will carry all these images, and I will wave them there as proudly as the country’s flag.

2irish sea I will remember the salt-stained green fishing nets, dried more by the breeze than by the shy sun. When I close my eyes, I will hear the snap of white sails in Kinsale harbour, and see the orange buoys that remind us the sea may be as cruel as she is beautiful.
2irish plants I will remember the plants that thrive on this mist-drenched island: the ivies that climb over stone dwellings, the white hydrangeas, like cheerleaders’ pom-poms, and the orange drops of wild blossoms that blaze along the roadways.
2irish sports I will wave a flag for the men who wear their team jerseys to church, and for the country’s love of sports that go unheralded elsewhere in the world. My skin will tingle as I remember the sound of the 60,000 fans who cheered for the hurlers of Galway and Wexford at Croke Park, and for the way their rivalry never fell to rancour in the stands.
2irish veggies My flag of the colours of Cork’s English Market will represent its sounds and smells — the chatting of the shoppers, the smell of fish and olives and bread — and of the wonder of knowing that these stalls have fed people for more than two centuries.
2irish dairy The flag I carry will wave for the country’s dairy products — 17,000 dairy farmers producing 199,000 tonnes of butter and 207,000 tonnes of cheese. Where else in the world would you find a Butter Museum?
Irish Beer I will wave my flag for Ireland’s pubs, where friends and music were made. Cheers to you, dear Ireland! You export 43 percent of the beer you produce. I was happy to help drain your kegs of some of the other 57 percent. Of all the flags I carry, let this be the one I never am asked to surrender!

Kinsale, Ireland

Perseverance. It’s a trait the people of Ireland have had to learn after centuries of invasions, conquests, and oppression. Getting by with what little you have and continuing to do what you must has been a matter of survival for the Irish spirit and for the preservation of the Irish culture.

These plants in Kinsale epitomize the Irish attitude that against all odds, you must continue to grow. It’s the only way you’ll eventually bloom.

Kinsale 1