Dancing to an Irish Reel Companion
For all the kind souls who read "Dancing to an Irish Reel" and wrote to me to say they loved it. This companion is for you!
Kilmacduagh Monastery, County Galway, Ireland Kilmacduagh Monastery is a ruined abbey near the town of Gort in County Galway, Ireland. It was reportedly founded by Saint Colman, son of Duagh in the 7th century.
Introduction to Dancing to an Irish Reel's Companion.
Once upon a time, I left America and spent a year living in the rural region of Inverin, on the western coast of Ireland. It is a land separated into geometric prisms by grey-stone walls leading down to the rock encrusted shores of the Atlantic on one side of the coast road and bog-land that stretches out forever on the other. The reason I did this can best be described by saying I am one of the legions of Irish American's who "heard the call to the homeland." If you're one of us, you know exactly what this inexplicable siren-call means. Alongside the novelty of discovering Ireland was a curious sense of familiarity that gave way to a sense of belonging. Between the time I arrived in Ireland and the time I left, I managed to ingratiate myself into the rhythm of a land that has more soul and character than any place I'd ever imagined.
And as I am a writer by nature, meaning one of those people who walks through life with a running commentary in their head, I took the experience and used it as a basis to write a novel about a single American female who leaves the record business in Los Angeles and relocates to rural Ireland, where she meets an Irish traditional musician who won't come closer nor completely go away. The novel was released in March of 2015 by Vinspire Publishing and is entitled, "Dancing to an Irish Reel." I went out of my way not to patronize anything about Ireland, particularly its people. I wanted to refrain from bringing an American frame of reference to the book because I felt it had been done before and somehow cheated what I wanted to be the point of the story, which concerns the ambiguity of a budding love relationship, with its attendant excitement, hope and doubt. On the one hand, this story could have happened anywhere (I know of very few people who haven't been thrown into confusion as they navigate the minefield of new found attraction) but because this story takes place in Ireland, I had the opportunity to highlight a setting in possession of unfathomable beauty, with a history of cultural nuances worth the singing of deep praise. In writing "Dancing to an Irish Reel," I did what all novelists do: tell about how they find the world through the vehicle of one painstakingly crafted case in point. But after "Dancing to an Irish Reel" was out in the world, I realized I had more to say about Ireland that went beyond the book. It was the luck of the Irish and the hand of fate that led me to Liam O'Connell's online site, "GotIreland," and it was Liam who led me to The Wild Geese online Irish community, who gave me a forum for "my little Irish stories." This companion to "Dancing to an Irish Reel" is primarily a collection of first person narratives published by The Wild Geese, with photographs I took in Ireland, an excerpt from the book so that the reader can become acclimated, and a few other published pieces thrown in for good measure.
Irish Keys - The Author at Kilmacduagh Monastery, County Galway.
I've had many people ask about a certain picture on my website, where I'm standing against a gray stone wall on a windswept day, in the middle of an Irish field, with what are obviously the ruins of a monastery behind me. Observant people said to themselves, "Wait, there's a ruined monastery behind her, why is her back turned as she looks into the camera, holding a set of keys in her hand as if it were the bigger focal point?" I'm so glad for the opportunity to explain.
We kind of knew where we were heading, my friend Tama and I, and by this I mean we had a loose plan with regard to how we were going to spend the afternoon in Gort, Ireland. We'd been freewheeling across the countryside in a rented car the size of a match box, with its steering wheel on the right side, while we drove on the left of the two-lane road as if trying to best a test for dyslexia.
Tama is a devout Catholic, who has a thing about historic churches, which is why we couldn't have adhered to a plan had we had one. "Stop," Tama would shout every time we spied one of the dim, ominous structures off in the distance. We'd scratch the gravel driveway and wander inside, our solitary footsteps crossing the marble floor in a tread- ye- lightly and humble yourself echo off the cavernous vaulted ceiling. We did this so many times that after yet another sweep inside a church, I'd take to wandering the halcyon graveyards to read the Irish tombstone inscriptions, while Tama would light a red votive candle and fall to her pious knees.
I thought I was alone in the yard when a voice came sailing from behind me. "Have you found your way to Kilmacduagh monastery?" it queried. I turned to find a young woman taking in my outlander attire of three quarter down jacket and rubber soled shoes. "It's just up the road there," she continued, pointing. "Just knock on the door of the middle house across the road and ask Lily for the keys."
I was standing behind Tama when she knocked on the front door of a low slung house on a sparsely populated lane. Across the lane, placid fields of damp clover shimmered in the afternoon mist as far as the eye could see. On one verdant field, a series of interspersed ruins jutted in damp metal-gray; some without roofs, some with wrought-iron gates, and one in particular beside an impressively tall stone spire, which had two windows cut in vertical slashes above a narrow door raised high from the ground. Immediately the front door opened, and a pair of blue water eyes gave us the once over with an inquisitive, "Yes?"
"Are you Lily? We're here for the keys," Tama said.
"The keys, is it? Just a moment there," the woman said, and after closing the door, she opened it seconds later and handed us a set of long metal keys. "Just slip them through the door slot when you're through," she said, closing the door with a quick nod.
I can't say there was any indication of which key went to what, among the cluster of gates and doors throughout the 7th century monastery called Kilmacduagh, but we figured it out. I was so tickled over the keys that I couldn't get over it. "Is this weird?" I said to Tama. "We could be anybody. It's not that there's anything anybody could steal, but that's not the point." I could wax rhapsody over the hours we spent unlocking gates and pushing through doors in the eerie, hallowed grounds, but that's not my point either. My point is that's Ireland for you: a stranger offering directions without being asked, Lily handing over the keys like an afterthought, and Tama and I trolling the grounds of sacred space when nobody else was around. But suddenly a German couple appeared as we were on our way back up the lane. They looked at us wide eyed and queried, "What is this place?"
"It's a 7th century monastery," I said, "here, take the keys and slip them through Lily's door when you're through."
Mannion's Pub, Clifden
Dancing to an Irish Reel Excerpt
The distance between Inverin and Clifden is approximately sixty kilometers. It's a visually inspiring hour-long ride through undulating midlands with grass as soft as velvet, gray stone walls that split the landscape, and bubbling intermittent streams as you glide along a two-lane road that cuts through a terrain devoid of street markers, stop signs, or any other indication the area has been previously trodden. There is little suggestion of civilization anywhere in sight and it is a quiet, unobstructed journey through the heart of Connemara with nothing in store, save for the destination of Clifden.
Driving into Clifden, one is abruptly thrust into the center of a thriving village that hosts an annual, three-day music festival wherein every pub door is invitingly open with signs outside announcing which Irish traditional musicians will be playing within the standing-room-only venues. A rudimentary chalkboard sat on the sidewalk outside of Mannion's Pub with "Welcome Liam Hennessey" sprawled across in large, eye-catching cursive.
I followed Liam into the middle of a waiting crowd, which parted ceremoniously as he made his way to the old man seated against the wall across from the bar. Wind-tossed and toothless, the man sat on a battered wooden chair, tuning a fiddle and nodding his greeting while Liam opened his accordion case and settled in beside him. When a flute player joined them, the crowd fell into an anticipatory hush, ready for the music to begin. I stationed myself in front of the bar, minding my own business, but that soon became short-lived.
"Are you here with Liam?" asked a middle-aged man who was standing too close to me.
"Yes." I took a step back.
"She's here with Liam," the man announced, turning to the man beside him.
"Ah," the second man gasped, "she is, so!"
"Where did you get that blond hair on your head?" The first man eyed me.
"I brought it with me from America," I said.
"She's from America!" The man turned to the other man, his eyes opened wide.
"America indeed!" The second man drew in his breath.
"All I want in the world is for me brother to come in and see me standing here talking to you," said the first man. "I wouldn't care if a pooka came for me after that. Will you have a pint? Get her a pint, Tom," he directed.
"Tom, make that a half-pint," I said, trying not to laugh. I looked over at an obviously amused Liam, who smiled and winked as if to say he knew what was happening. I looked toward the door and noticed an unusually small woman walking in with what appeared to be members of her family due to their similarity in stature. I'd met her in Galway before: she was a musician named Deanna Rader who played guitar and sang anything from Irish traditional music to her own compositions. I'd heard her sing in her low, husky voice a few times before, and because she was a friend of Declan's, I'd exchanged pleasantries with her a few times as well. From the looks of things, she was in Mannion's with her father and two sisters. She came smiling to my side instantly.
"Well then, you've made your way out here now, have you?" She looked up at me.
"I came here with Liam," I said, grateful to know someone in the crowd.
"I knew you must have. So, it's the two of you now, is it?"
"Well, I don't know if I'd put it that way," I said, diverting the implication. I couldn't recall if I'd seen Deanna while I was out with Liam, or if she asked this because she'd heard people talking.
"You're a long way from home yourself," I said. "Is this festival a big deal?"
"Oh God, yes. People look forward every year. Luckily my parents live in Letterfrack, just up the road. I've been spending the last couple of nights with them. We've all come 'round tonight for the craic."
"Well, it's nice to know someone here," I said.
"My sister came out to sing tonight. Would you mind asking Liam if she could give us a song?"
"Sure," I said. "I'll ask him when they take a break."
"They probably won't do that, so you'd be waiting for ages," Deanna said. "You'll just have to lean over and ask, like."
"When?" I asked.
"How about now?" she said.
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," she smiled sweetly.
I looked over at the musicians, who were in full swing. There was no way I was going to butt in, even though Deanna kept standing there looking up at me expectantly. Just then, a man at the bar stepped forward enthusiastically. He leaned into the musicians circle, grabbed Liam by the arm, and shouted loudly, "The young lady here wants to give us a song." With that, the music came to a screeching halt, and a whirlwind of preparation commenced. Liam leaned over and whispered to the two musicians beside him, instruments were set down, a microphone was raised, a path spontaneously cleared, and into the arena stepped Deanna's sister. It was like the infamous scene of Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy.
There was a hush in the room as all eyes riveted upon the girl. She stood all of five foot two, but within that minuscule framework there was a lot going on: thick, raven hair fell in loose waves across her forehead and down her back. Large green oval eyes slanted and squinted catlike beneath thick, dark lashes. Turn by turn, her eyes focused and held one man in the room after another. She stood with her right hand on her hip and her voluptuous weight shifted to the left. With great histrionics, she crooned out a song in the Irish language I'd never heard before. When she finally stopped, she sashayed over to Liam, totally aware everybody was watching. With grand theatrics, she threw both her arms around his neck and kissed him square on the mouth, nearly knocking him over with her forward advance. All hands in the room clapped loudly, wolf whistles erupted, and a few eyes turned my way.
"I imagine you'd have something to say about this passionate display," said Deanna's father, who had materialized beside me.
"Not really," I said. "Do you?"
"You have to watch that one is all. She'll be the death of me one day, he said, cocking his head toward her.
"I hope not," I said.
"No harm done then?"
"No harm at all," I said.
Genetic Memory and my Irish Friend
There's a case to be argued for genetic memory: the Jungian theory that certain memories and proclivities are bequeathed to us at birth from our forbearers. As a Scots-Irish descendant on every branch of my family tree, it seems my blood is imbued with a haunting, genetically ingrained longing; some deep-seated calibration to my ancestral lineage, which has spawned poets, writers, and musicians who have seemingly come into this world with aptitudes waiting to be developed throughout life. I was drawn to the arts long before I had the facts on my antecedents, just as I've carried a mysterious affinity with certain proprieties specific to the United Kingdom: its cool, misty climate, sweeping vistas; its close proximity to the sea. I've lived with this overarching, ineffable partiality for as long as I can remember, and every once in a while, some magical happenstance springs forth and brings it straight into my home through my front door.
Last May, Anthony McCann paid us a visit. He is Irish as the soil, younger than me, and someone who was part of my daily life when I lived on the western coast of Ireland. We worked side by side for a common goal in Galway. At the time, he was casting about for his bearings in life, but to me as an outsider, he was emblematic of everything it means to be Irish. Anthony comes from a line of historians: some amateur, others by trade. I sensed he would put this to use one day, which he did, for today he is a professor of ethnomusicology who lectures at universities throughout the world, which is why he had cause to be in Santa Barbara, California, one hour's drive from my home.
It's funny to see people out of context, most times it brings to mind a fish out of water, yet there are those unique souls who can walk into your life as you've been leading it and make you question your vantage point; Anthony McCann is one of those. He sauntered into my Southern California living room, all long limbed and russet- haired, with that lightning-quick spin on his "How ye been keeping?" I'd told my husband I needn't prepare for his visit. Anthony is the kind of guy who feels at home wherever he goes because he's in possession of those distinct Irish traits common to all from that self-sufficient island covered in green: he's comfortable in his own skin, present in the moment, devoid of pretense, under no expectations, and able to rise to any occasion.
Now, the Irish are not a lot to offer themselves freely, but neither are they the sort to be coerced after dinner. And I, being wise to honoring my guest, leaned comfortably back in my chair and said, "Anthony, give us a tune." I felt the air shift in my kitchen to a whirring, vibratory force that hovered like a mantle upon Anthony's shoulders. He centered himself, I could feel it, and watching him furrow his brow to a serious line, it seemed he reached back through the veil of time and aligned himself with something ancient, something that was his right to claim, for Anthony is no imposter; he simply slipped into something already there on his skin. It began with a hum in the back of his throat: a low, resonate, otherworldly invocation that set a pace, which he rode like the swell of a wave. With pitches and free-falls, he regained a flat center line, which was all the more poignant having been contrasted with his vocal ornamentation. It was an old tune, yet in that moment it belonged to none other: "Una ni Chonchuir bhain," or "Blonde Una O'Connor," sung in Irish sean nos, in the lament that "I loved her, she didn't love me; I missed my chance, oh woe is me." I couldn't recall if I'd heard the tune before, but something within me remembered the spirit of its intention. It didn't seem to be a singular expression; it was an intonation that spoke for us all as initiates of an ancestral inner circle, and I knew in that moment something archival had been trigger within me; that one doesn't have to be born in Ireland to own its spirit. Ireland's spirit is vested in its children at birth: a sacred, atavistic, spectral commodity residing as genetic memory and passed down through family lines.
Coole Park is a nature reserve of approximately 1,000 acres located a few miles west of Gort, County Galway, Ireland.
Above photograph taken in Gort, County Galway, Ireland
Ireland and My Grandmother's Faith
My father's mother was named Helen Ford. She was long and lithe, narrow and fluid, and gifted with a full head of wavy hair that turned, in her later years, to a color that by-passed gray completely to shine an enviable white. Her family hailed from Tuam, County Galway, and as I write, I'm glancing up at the photograph on my wall of her Irish family homestead, where three women stand before the white-washed, humble home, with arms entwined and blue eyes smiling. I've positioned the picture above my desk just so because it reminds me from whence I come.
I have no memory of Helen Ford, for she died the very year I was born. But there's another photograph I have, which means the world to me because this seraphic woman is holding me in her arms. Even then, you could see our similarities. There's the same shape to our heads, the same light colored eyes, and I'm told to this day of our striking resemblance.
I heard it told repeatedly, in my coming of age, that my grandmother was a devout Catholic, so devout that when my father married my mother in a Presbyterian church in Memphis, she couldn't bring herself to darken the threshold. It was as if a psychic force field precluded her entrance, so during her only son's wedding, she sat demurely outside on a garden bench with her legs daintily crossed and her green marble rosary in her hands, much to my mother's infinite chagrin.
My father's view of Catholicism was something he never shared, but surely he knew his way around the subject, as his Irish father was also Catholic. But my father was a nonconformist by nature. He found God in the great outdoors where His mysteries were whispered in talisman's and signs. And although he wasn't a denominational observer, my father was the most pious man I've ever known.
All this explains why my three brothers and I were raised in my mother's Presbyterian faith. Kind of. I say kind of because in as much as these things should influence, after I grew up, I realized my mother's religion didn't actually take. Yet my pied piper of a father had somehow managed to instill in me a sense of God's awe and wonder. I feel His presence more often than not, and I'm wise enough to know whom I serve, I just don't have a gift-wrapped box that pleases everybody.
But my life-long friend, Tama, does; she's a Catholic, in no uncertain terms. I've always admired her clench- fisted devotion; I've seen it guide her unwaveringly through unspeakable times. This is how I came to visit at least a dozen Catholic churches during my last trip to Ireland: I had the good sense to bring Tama with me.
You have to know Tama. She's of Irish blood on both sides, with an eternally young, impish look about her that's always reminded me of a young Vivian Leigh. She is wickedly funny, maddeningly unpredictable, and I'd follow her anywhere.
"Stop," Tama cried, "There's another one!" I put my foot on the brake and backed up in the middle of a country road just outside Kinvara. We scratched up a gravel driveway, got out of the car, and I followed Tama inside a gray-stone, cavernous church. The church seemed older than the land itself. It had vaulted ceilings, stain-glass windows, it reeked of incense, and echoed with every step on its granite floor. I've already stated I don't have a religious box, but I do have a grand respect for the civility of ritual and ceremony. I had a seat in a back pew as Tama made her way to the front of the church, where a wrought-iron stand housed endless tiers of red votive candles. Striking a match, then another and another, I knew what Tama was thinking. I know her family, I know her history, and it didn't take much for me to intuit for whom the bell tolled. I was suddenly overwhelmed, watching this reverential gesture. It seemed so beautiful to me, so appropriate, so very perfect.
I thought of my brother in heaven and rose unsteadily to my feet. For a moment, I stood questioning if I had the right to light a candle, then I thought of the woman I've referred to my whole life as Gaga Helen. I saw her standing before the candles, a white kerchief on her bowed head, performing an act that resonated in her bone marrow. I saw her pause for a reflective moment then turn and walk to the pews, where she kneeled, bowed her head, and folded her hands. It was in that moment that I suddenly knew I had the right to light a candle for Haines. When I was finished, I turned and spied Tama, in an alcove beneath a stain glass window. She held something flimsy, plastic covered, and book-size before her. She scrutinized it with such focus it caused me to intrude upon what was clearly a private moment.
"What is that?" I whispered to Tama.
"Shhh. It's a prayer to St. Theresa."
I stood for a moment, wanting in on the experience, and asked her to read it aloud. Tama moved closer and lowered her voice to recite the "Miraculous Invocation to St. Theresa," and I wept all the way through it.
It may have been that I was standing not far from Helen Ford's ancestral home, or it may have been that something in the ancient text spoke to me of a faith so strong it kept my grandmother from her only son's wedding. Whatever it was, it brought a sigh to my heart and a deep-seated sense of relief. It took Ireland and Tama, and an ancient church on a country road to understand the sanctity of my grandmother's faith.
Inside a Catholic church, County Galway, Ireland.
The Claddagh, Galway City, County Galway, Ireland
On an Irish Bus
He would have stood out anywhere, and standing in front of the entrance to a boutique hotel in Spiddal, wielding a black walking cane with an ivory handle two paces before made him glaringly incongruous to everything I'd come to know about the western coast of Ireland. He wore a three piece suit on his gentle frame: black, with gray stripes the width of angel's hair, with a fitted vest, tailored trousers, complementary cravat, and a black Fedora angled just so.
I looked out from my window seat on the bus from Carraroe to Galway. It was one of those old kinds that looked as if it once had a life as an elementary school bus, now put out to pasture. With aluminum rails on the seats before, the bus would take off noisily, gravel scattering beneath its wheels before I had a chance to sit down. The bus driver greeted me in awkward English. It took a few rounds of greeting me in Irish before he finally realized I am an American, and his guttural salutation now came out sounding like something a little to the left of "Hiya."
The bus rolled to its customary stop on the coast road that runs through the heart of Spiddal. There is no sign there; the stop is force of habit because years of driving this rolling route through Connemara told the driver where travelers would be standing, shielded from the vagaries of Irish weather.
Heads turned as the dapper, elderly man mounted the bus. He steadied his gait with his cane and favored his right foot up the three steps then halted beside the bus driver to beam his greeting. Out of the corner of my eye, trying not to stare, I saw the man tip his hat repeatedly to the right and left as he made his way down the aisle to the vacant seat beside me.
"Nice day," he said to me as he took off his hat and placed it on his lap. "Going into town, is it? Where you go every day?"
"Yes," I said caught by surprise and thinking nothing gets by anybody around here.
"Kearney's the name, Seamus Kearney," he offered himself. "You're an American, yah?" he asked in that way the Irish have of answering their own question.
"Yes," I answered.
"From the South, is it?" he continued.
"That's a good ear you have. Yes, I'm from Memphis, Tennessee, but I spent the last five years living in Los Angeles," I clarified.
"God helps us all," he said with a wink. "And what is your name, then?" he prodded.
"Claire Fullerton." I shook his offered hand.
"And your middle name then? Have you Irish connections?"
"Yes, I have Irish connections on both sides. My middle name is Ford," I said.
"Ford," he considered, wrinkling his brow. "That's an odd middle name for a girl."
"Yes, perhaps," I said. "But I'm not an odd girl; I promise."
"Now the Fords, they're from around these parts. They're old as the hills and Irish as the soil. Many are up the road in that old graveyard by The Centra," Seamus Kearney said. "So they called you here, they did," he said in more of a statement than a question.
"No, actually it was a whim that brought me here. I never knew any of my Ford relatives. Most of them died before I was born."
Seamus drew in his breath in that audible sigh the Irish do, when they're getting ready to say something poignant. It is a sound with a world of understanding contained: one part camaraderie, the other commiseration. "So, they called you here, they did," he reiterated patiently. His white eyebrows raised encouragingly, as if leading a child along the road to good reason.
"Yes, definitely," I complied.
"Ah then, there it is, so. We in Connemara don't see the need in being parted by a little thing like death," he said.
I couldn't wait a second longer; I couldn't help but ask, "Do you always dress like this?"
"Like what?" he asked genuinely unaware, which made me wonder if I'd put my foot in my mouth.
"You look so nice; I was only thinking that," I said, the heat rising to my face.
"Pride of person's not an unpardonable sin," he said. "Now let me ask you what it is you do in town."
The next thing I knew, I was explaining everything I did at my job in Galway, while Seamus gave me his rapt attention, with a pleased look on his face. Had I still been living in Los Angeles, a conversation like this one would have never taken place. One simply did not divulge personal information to a stranger in Los Angeles without thinking it would come back to haunt. But this was Connemara, and the Irish have a way of exchanging pleasantries in a manner that is somewhere between an exploration of and commentary on this business of living. It is an art so subtle you have to narrow your eyes or you'll miss it; it comes creeping softly wearing white cotton socks and sensible shoes.
The bus rolled to a stop at the Spanish Arch, down by the quays in Galway. I stood up to disembark. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Kearney," I said.
"Call me Seamus, please," he returned. "I live just by the church there in Spiddal. I'd love for you to call out any time for a cup of tea," he said, with his blue eyes smiling.
"Thank you so much, I will," I returned, and as I got off the bus to head over the River Corrib's bridge, I turned to wave to Seamus Kearney, and knew without question I would.
Church in Spiddal, County