The Grace of the Irish
The grace of the Irish is what immediately comes to mind when I think about the two weeks I was in Ireland in July. Oh, I know that people usually think of the common phrase, “the luck of the Irish.” Throughout history, though, the Irish have not been particularly lucky. Think of the potato famines and Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, for example. The luck of the Irish, in my opinion, is that they live in Ireland, a land of remarkable beauty. True, my friends in Ireland talk about luck frequently. They love to make bets—on horse racing, dog racing, football (soccer), and who can drink the most pints of Irish stout. I, however, think of their grace, which came to my rescue during my first day in Ireland in July as I struggled—and it was an extreme struggle—to drive from Dublin to Dingle, a small town on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry in the southwestern part of Ireland.
After finally landing in Dublin and getting my luggage, I stood in line for an hour to get my rental car. Everyone was annoyed. I must compliment the rental car companies in American airports for being so efficient in this regard. Finally I was assigned my rental car, a white Fiat, in parking spot E12. I located E12 and found a Honda sedan. I managed to flag down an attendant, who said this happened all the time: wrong vehicles in the specified spots. He found the Fiat in F18. Damn! A slug. A tiny, white Fiat slug with a clutch and no air-conditioning. Nobody walked me through the basics of the car, such as which knob did what. I figured out how to open the micro-trunk; I started the car. Then, seriously, I could not find reverse. Nothing I did with the gearshift worked. I have driven simple Toyota trucks since 1998, so I blamed that circumstance for my being so clueless about the location of reverse in this slug.
I flagged down the attendant again. He gave me a bit of a look but was friendly and showed me how, and then he pointed me in the direction of the rental car lot exit. He clearly thought I could not find it on my own, and he was right. I asked him to tell me how to get out of the airport and find the highway that went towards Killarney. He told me to follow the signs to M7, comparable to an interstate highway in the United States, and then to follow the signs to Killarney.
“Just keep going south. T’is easy enough. You’ll do it fairly lively,” he said.
At this very moment, my memorable struggle began.
I couldn’t get out of the airport and onto a regular city street. I traversed the same roundabout three times, each time taking a different exit trying to get to M7 and each time ending up back where I started. Finally I yelled at a man in the crosswalk at the roundabout from Hell. He walked over to the car and gave me directions. He was sympathetic. Grace. By the way, all the roundabouts in Ireland are from Hell.
At last I was driving in Dublin, but I saw none of the landmarks the man told me I would pass on my way to M7. I realized I was lost. I pulled into a Toyota dealership to ask for help. I figured someone there would definitely tell me how to get to M7. I told the salesman that I was lost. Little did I know how often I would say “I’m lost” to complete strangers that day. He drew a little diagram for me. Grace. I told him I drove a Tacoma back home in Colorado, which made him smile. I promised that I would buy a Toyota from him if I ever moved to Dublin.
I found M7 and was on my way. At least an hour had passed since I got the Fiat slug. Ah, yes—the Fiat slug. Now is a good time to mention that my struggle was not just with continually getting lost. My struggle was also with the clutch in the Fiat. It was extremely touchy. No. It was worse than touchy; it was downright wicked evil. I have driven many vehicles with standard transmissions in my lifetime. No problems. I also had been warned about how bad the clutches in rental cars could be. I would be fine. I did not think my clutch encounter would be all that bad. I was so incredibly wrong.
Somehow I got off M7 and ended up on M8, most likely because there was a roundabout with a sign that said Cork; I knew that Cork was on the way to Killarney, and Killarney was on the way to Dingle. Yes, I had a Google map, but its directions were significantly inaccurate. Along the M8 route were many signs and roundabouts, roundabouts that went to the left. I was, of course, on the right side of the car. I was always tentative at a roundabout, stopping even if I didn’t need to, then moving to the left or exiting slowly, and always with this maniac clutch giving me trouble. Admittedly I was partially to blame for the struggle because sometimes—not often, mind you—I was not in first gear but rather in third. Naturally the car would stall. I started riding the clutch. Then I noticed the smell that will never be forgotten and should not be ignored: a hot clutch. As the smell got stronger, my frustration increased. It seemed like I took the wrong exit at every roundabout and inevitably got lost. One person I asked for help told me to “take the ten past two exit.” Ten past two exit?! That was useful only if I knew which exit was the twelve o’clock exit. Any exit could be the twelve o’clock exit, depending on which exit I was entering the roundabout on. T’was a dilemma.
Speaking of hot: all of Ireland was sunny and hot, in the midst of an atypical hot, dry spell—three weeks so far. Every time I had been to Ireland before, the weather was cool and rainy; I didn’t get a rental car with air-conditioning because I didn’t think I would need it. So there I was: driving a hot Fiat slug with the windows down, and worst of all, an evil clutch. I do not like hot weather. Moreover, I had anthropomorphized the clutch and felt like my struggle with it had become personal. I was not happy. My frustration was becoming almost intolerable. And I kept getting lost.
Getting lost so frequently—at least seven times between Dublin and Cork—was why I became so aware of Irish charm. Also, I was not reluctant to tell a stranger I was lost and ask for help. I have always talked to strangers, a habit that truly worried my parents when I was a child. Every time I approached a stranger for help—every time—that individual went out of his or her way to help me. Once I pulled into a small gravel parking lot about a mile from the roundabout where I took the wrong exit because the sign indicating the way to a specific city was ridiculously misleading. I was now on what had become a county road and took a side road exit where a car was stopped at a stop sign. A teenage girl was driving with her father. I explained my plight.
He asked, “How in the world did you get here when you are heading to Killarney? You are going completely in the wrong direction.”
I responded that I didn’t know for sure, but I must have not correctly understood the directions I got from the last person I asked for help. They were so sympathetic and helpful. He was actually worried. He gave me a toll free number for the Garda, the Irish police force, just in case. They got me going in the right direction on the correct road. Another time, I was on a street with four lanes in some small city—yes, lost—so I yelled at the two guys in the car in the lane next to me and said I was lost. The driver smiled and asked, “American?” He then told me to follow him and when we got to the top of the hill at the stoplight, he would turn right but I should turn left and go straight out of town, going straight through any roundabouts I came to. That actually worked, even though signs at several roundabouts made me think that I should take a different exit and not go straight through. I followed their directions, however, and found my way.
Still, I continued to get lost, have trouble with the wicked evil clutch, and get hotter and sweatier. My frustration was seriously interfering with my confidence and my presence of mind. Would I ever get to Dingle? Somebody was staying late at the B and B just to check me in. I had already called the B and B to explain that I would be several hours late. Then my struggle reached its apex. I was driving through a town, bigger than a village but smaller than a city. In Ireland, this means there were regular busy city streets and stoplights, but only two-lane traffic with lots of cars parked along the sides of the streets. In contrast, villages had one-lane traffic, stop signs, and cars parked wherever one could find a spot. Everywhere. Both towns and villages had roundabouts from Hell. I was hot, nervous, anxious, frustrated, and hungry. I had been driving with a touchy clutch and getting lost again and again for over four hours. I still had not reached Cork, and Dingle was two or three hours further on, depending on how often I would get lost.
What? Oh, no! It just could not be. I couldn’t believe it! I had to drive up a hill with a stoplight at the top. The street was crowded, and the cars were moving quite slowly. I was actually freaked out about the light changing to red before I got to the top of the hill and could drive through the intersection. If the light changed, I would have to stop. Then when the light changed to green, I would have to start traveling up the hill—with so many cars behind me. The wicked, uncooperative, smelly clutch actually caused me to become afraid that I might roll into the car behind me or stall the car. I doubted my capability to do the clutch–accelerator two-step and successfully move forward up the hill.
It had to happen. Yes. The light changed to red, and all the cars stopped. I was the fifth car down the hill from the stoplight. I cursed, took a big drink of water, cursed again, and breathed deeply. The light changed to green. My fear took over. I could not finesse the two-step. I kept revving the engine and riding the clutch. No way was I going to back into a car with my rental Fiat slug. But the car did not move forward either. Wow! The smell of the clutch was like burnt wires mixed with something out of Dante’s Inferno—absolutely scary. The car died. I started it. No luck. I could not get the clutch and accelerator right in order to move forward. I turned the car off, waited a few seconds, and started it again. This time I think I was in third gear, not first. The whole situation was infuriating. I knew how to do this. I had done it many, many times in my past. Yet I could not make it work.
I was mortified. I felt like this was my version of Hell, and I had just been transported into Sartre’s No Exit. Cars started pulling out and around me. Obviously these Irish drivers did not express much grace at this time. Responses varied: dirty look, “Moron,” the finger, “This is not a parking spot,” really dirty look, “Are you from up Nort?” (“up Nort” means Northern Ireland), and, worst of all, “Learn to f****** drive or get off the f****** road!” Something unexpected happened next. A car with two guys in it stopped next to me. The driver, calm and friendly, asked, “What’s wrong?’
“I can’t get the clutch to work right so I can’t get up the hill. Everybody is pissed.”
“Ignore them. They’re eejuts (idiots). Have you driven with a clutch before?”
“Yes. A truck. But not since 2007. And this is a rental car.”
“I see. That could be the problem, then. Stay put.”
We both laughed when he said this. Like I was going anywhere. The other guy in the car was clearly amused.
The man drove up the hill. I didn’t watch to see where he went. And then here he came. He walked up to my car and told me to turn it off and get out. I did. I will never forget what this wonderful man did next. He got into my car and drove it up the hill, through the intersection, down the street a bit, and then pulled into a small parking lot. I walked up the hill to the lot. He got out of the car and then talked to me about the car, the clutch, and what I could do so I wouldn’t have so much trouble using the clutch and driving. Maybe have no trouble at all. I could not thank him enough. He asked where I was going and why I was in Ireland. And then he said:
“I’m Tommy Connelly. And you?
“Cheryl Ray, from Colorado.”
“Never been to the States. All right, then. Let’s go for a pint.”
His friend, Kevin, piped in, “Yeah. I fancy a gargle.”
I actually thought they were kidding. “Uh, what? Are you serious?”
“Yes. Why? Always a good time for a pint,” he said, laughing.
“But I have to get to Dingle at least by eight or eight-thirty. They are waiting for me at the Bed and Breakfast. Besides, I’m not sure it is a good idea to have a beer. I keep getting lost.”
“So you say. How’s that been for you so far, then, coming from Dublin?”
“Completely terrible. You saw how I was back there.”
“Seems a pint couldn’t make it any worse, then. . . .”
I paused a few moments, and then reality struck.
“Good point. O.K. Let’s go have a pint.“
Tommy and I got in my car, and he drove a short distance to a pub. Kevin drove Tommy’s car. Once again, Tommy showed his grace by driving. He knew I wasn’t ready yet to drive.
The pub was cheery with exceptionally good food. I had vegetable-beef soup and some heavy brown bread. The Irish tend to puree soups resulting in a thick consistency. This was absolutely the best vegetable-beef soup I have ever eaten, and it went so well with a pint of Guinness. Make that two pints of Guinness. Tommy and Kevin had a few more than two. We talked, laughed, and drank for over an hour. I finally relaxed. They could not understand why I wanted to study Irish, but they respected me for wanting to learn such a difficult language. The Irish do not call their language Gaelic; they call it Irish. Gaelic refers to more than Irish. As a language, it comprises Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, and Basque, and all are different. Tommy told me about the controversy concerning the requirement that Irish be taught in the public schools. Mostly the controversy is about how this requirement was imposed on them by the government. Anyone who knows even just a little about Irish history will understand why the Irish oppose anything that is imposed on them. After awhile, Tommy suggested that I should stay and drink with them. A band would be playing Irish trad at the pub that night. He would find a room for me in a Bed and Breakfast. I could drive to Dingle in the morning. Although the offer was tempting, I wanted to keep on going to Dingle that day. I finally felt so much better, so calm, so self-assured. I knew I would make it with no problems.
Tommy wrote down his phone number and gave it to me; I entered it into my iPhone. He did not ask for my number. He gave me this look that I can only describe as serious yet with a beckoning smile from ear to ear, and he said:
“We are friends, you and me. I want you to know you can always count on me. You deserve that.” Laughing, he went on, “T’is true. Can’t deny it. You’re learning Irish, but you don’t even live here. I’m saying that if you ever need any kind of help when you are anywhere in Ireland, you call me, and I will come get you. True. I’ll come even to Scotland to help you, if that’s where you are. No joke. You know how you get lost so much. T’is my word to you, then.”
Tommy then wrote down the route to Dingle for me—in extreme detail, including all kinds of little roundabout drawings with arrows pointing in the right directions. I believe that he will always think of me as the lost wee American woman. He then got into his car and had me follow him out of town and made sure I got on the correct road to Dingle. Ah. Success. I finally made it to Dingle—without getting lost again—thanks to Tommy Connelly.
I made a friend, a true friend, that day. All in all, an excellent beginning for a trip.
Dingle is a very small village. Even in the summer when its population doubles in size because of all the tourists, it is still a small village in every regard; in particular, the locals know everything about everybody, or so it seems, and they all talk to each other. Oh, how they love to talk. One does not remain a stranger for long in Dingle. I was staying in the same Bed and Breakfast for my entire time in Dingle. Also, I went to the same pub each night to listen to the truly extraordinary traditional music played not only by locals but also other musicians famous across Ireland who were in town. Dingle, along with Cork, in the southwestern part of Ireland, are known for their great Irish music and amazing music festivals in the summer. My point here is that it truly was the music attracting me to the pub and not just the Guinness, although it was clearly a bonus.
Anyway, I was an American woman staying for several weeks at one bed and breakfast—compared to most tourists who stay for two or three days—who was studying Irish at Oidhreachta Chorca Dhuibhne, the Gaeltacht school in Baile an Fheirtearaigh, a really tiny village eight kilometers from Dingle; I also went to the same pub each evening. Naturally I made many local friends; that I was studying Irish was of great interest to them. Essentially, many people came to know me, to know who I was. Therefore, it would not be difficult for someone to track me down in Dingle. One bed and breakfast, the Gaeltacht school, and one pub—small stomping grounds in a really small village.
It was Friday evening and I had just eaten seared ocean scallops in a saffron sauce at my favorite restaurant and decided to go to the Courthouse Pub, my favorite pub, to listen to the music and try to dance in the limited space. As I walked into the pub, I heard a familiar voice from the end of the bar:
“Hey, Colorado. T’is time for another pint or three, don’t you think?”
Yes. It was Tommy Connelly. Apparently he would come find me even if I did not need his help. This time he asked for my number. We drank and we danced and we reminisced about the day we met because I was in a horrid little car and was lost. I was delighted that he was there in Dingle, with me. I was not, however, surprised. Coming to Dingle to see me, to check on me, was just one more example of Tommy’s decency, and the grace of the Irish.