We Need More Ireland

Canada is home. I have enjoyed time in a number of countries but for years was comfortable in my conviction that there is no other in which I would be happy. That no longer holds. Having just returned from twenty days in Ireland, I now have a second country where, if for some reason I was deported, I could quite happily resettle. My wife and I travelled with two other couples, met another friend there, rented cars, and stayed at tremendous Airbnb houses.

We avoided much time in cities and tourist spots, shopped markets for food, wandered small towns and villages, drove the countryside often somewhat lost and exploring, and enjoyed local pubs. I fell in love with the place. It has to do with the intersection of the physical and historical.

The physical begins with the roads – they’re nuts. Getting used to driving on the left and shifting with the left hand comes quickly enough but once outside of Dublin the roads become narrow and curvy goat paths. Every tiny, shoulder-less road is flanked by stone walls making it impossible to give way when a car is approaching. Each encounter with an oncoming vehicle brings heart-to-throat with the screaming imminence of a side-scraping incident or head-on collision. I felt myself involuntarily inhaling to shrink thinner as each vehicle whizzed past with my left mirror skimming the wall and the other narrowly missing his. Every passing was an adventure with many of the insanely blind and tight turns bringing audible gasps.

But then I got it. I relaxed. The speed limit signs are wry jokes. The roads are meant to slow you down. They are a reminder of a gentler then and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the frantic now. The roads remind you that the journey is as important as the destination.

The valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. There is tranquillity in a horizon so distant and shades of green so endless. There is perspective in the walls, stone buildings, churches, and castles constructed hundreds, or in many cases, thousands of years ago. Enormous cliffs and sweeping empty beaches welcome the Atlantic’s cascading waves with a rhythmic reminder that they were there long before us and will be there long after we’re gone; sparing nary a thought for our piddling worries and trifling foibles.

Irish Eyes...

Like the physical, the historical is everywhere. The Irish do not hide and deny their history like Canadians or bleach and commercialize it like Americans – they live it. We visited three memorials to the 19th-century famine that killed thousands and sent millions abroad in a diaspora that changed Ireland and the face and culture of many nations. The blunt and honest memorials spoke of tragedy and loss and hinted, some rather directly, of the damn English landlords who swept the suffering from the land and the damn English government that offered scant help for the starving who remained.

Irish Eyes

We visited Michael Collin’s grave. Collins was the West-Cork rabble-rouser who was jailed for his role in the 1916 Rising and then became a guerrilla fighter, leading the fight for Irish independence. After negotiating a treaty that allowed the Protestant north to become a separate country and the Catholic south to declare itself the Irish Free State, he was assassinated in the subsequent civil war.

Irish Eyes.

The visits added a great deal to books that I had read in advance and the biography of Collins that I read when there. Together, they revealed the major themes of Irish history that I came to know better as I watched, listened, and eavesdropped: tragedy, resilience, strength, pride, humour, community, and the long-held, deep-seated desire to be left alone.

Like every nation’s history, it is lived not just in what they choose to memorialize, buildings they chose to preserve or tear down, and the roads they refuse to straighten. It is more subtly revealed in how people treat each other, relate to each other and strangers, and in song. History is alive in the pubs. The made-for-tourist pubs in Dublin’s Temple Bar district are okay but the tiny pubs in tiny towns are magical. In Sneem, for instance, population 850, the young barmaid told me there were six pubs and believed I was having her on when I said that my village of 2,400 has only two.

Irish pubs are small, low-ceilinged, wooden, with tilting floors and doors that no longer hang quite right. They smell of the decades when smoking was fine, of generations of patrons packed shoulder to shoulder, and of oceans of poured pints. Did you know it takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect Guinness? Signs indicate that the local was established in 1812 or 1759. There are no drunks. Locals gather to tip a pint, yes, but is more about coming together. The pub is their communal living room. A few folks bring a fiddle, concertina, accordion, flute, or bodhran. They sit in a circle, not on a stage but around a table and somehow without discussing the tune or key, play one lively song after another. From time to time it’s everyone else’s turn. The players stop and the pub falls silent when a person stands to sing. A funny, bawdy song or, more often, a long and forlorn ballad about heartbreak and loss fills the pub and hearts. And there, in sad and happy songs, the playing not by professionals but fun-loving neighbours, and in the laughter and stories and tippling together is betrayed the history that defines the culture that fills the spirit.

Irish Eyes....

I love Ireland. I love the stunning views. I love the heartfelt music. I love that when ordering a pint, the barman or barmaid stays to chat. We were not customers but new folks to meet. I love the smiles that come quickly and often, the gentle sarcasm, hilarious slang, and ribbing that simply disallows arrogance or pretention. I even grew to love the crazy roads.

Canada is great. But we could use more Ireland.

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The Rebels Among and Within Us

Keith Richards was once asked if he had a drug problem. “No,” he replied, “I have a police problem.” I love that. I love the old joke that the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust would be cockroaches and Keith Richards. Nineteenth-century American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” I’m not sure that’s true. But I do know that out there right now are people like Richards – the wild, the untamed, living on the edge of out of control and, while not necessarily breaking the law, not giving a damn about polite expectations or the rules of acceptable behaviour and, in so doing, proving Thoreau wrong. Maybe that’s the lure and maybe even the purpose of rebels and rock stars.

Keith Richards

Photo: New York Times

As a kid, I loved books, movies, and TV shows about cowboys, pirates, and space adventurers. I still do. My favorite Beatle was John, my favourite Monkee was Mike and my favorite Rolling Stone was, well, you know. I loved John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits – singers with something to say who couldn’t sing worth a damn and didn’t care. I loved not just the writing but the idea of Hunter S. Thompson. And yet, I was always straight home after school and then on to university like a good boy. I still live my life like that, while all those real and imaginary rebels are still out there, attacking life not just for themselves but for folks like me who have never been arrested, fired, divorced, and except for that sad roll-on-the-ground tussle in grade 5, never even been in a fight. Is my admiring them a confession of quiet desperation?

And what of Adam Shoalts? Shoalts is a Canadian currently completing his PhD at McMaster University, which sounds ordinary enough, but he is also an explorer. That’s right, there are places on the planet that are unknown and unmapped and, even more astounding than that, there are present-day Lewis and Clark and David Thompson explorers burning to find them.

In 2007, Shoalts scoured maps and journals seeking an unexplored place in Canada and finally found it – the Again River. It had been discovered by a government agency that mapped the area by plane. The Again meanders roughly along the Quebec-Ontario border and empties into James Bay but it’s so remote, so removed from even distant Cree villages, that there was no evidence that anyone had ever he traversed it. Certainly, no one had ever explored it, that is, traveled it to create a detailed map and record. Shoalts determined to be the first.

Adam Shoalts

Photo: AdamShoalts.com

With little but inadequate support from the Canadian Geographic Society, he set out with rudimentary gear and a partner who quit shortly after beginning. Another year brought another attempt but that partner quit too. Shoalts determined to do it alone. He paddled but mostly dragged his canoe through swamp and bog. He suffered freezing, blinding storms and endured ravenous clouds of relentless blackflies and mosquitoes. He fought hypothermia. He watched for bears and wolves. And, he made it. The river was stunningly beautiful but hardly welcoming. At one point it turned rapids into a 7-meter waterfall that smashed Shoalts’ canoe but not his spirit.

Three times I have read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. At one point a character says, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!” I like that. Adam Shoalts and Keith Richards understand.

Right now, Adam Shoalts is out there somewhere either searching for another mysterious place to risk his health and life to explore or he’s out there doing it. And Keith Richards is still writing and playing rock ‘n’ roll or doing God knows what else, and maybe even He doesn’t know. And as I carry on with my life, not of quiet desperation but gentle contentment, I say thank goodness for them both. Thank goodness for all like them.

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