Saturday, November 6, 2010

5. Clear Island: Watery Guinness and Aiden Power and the Farting Ballerina

I had been hitch-hiking out of Kilarney for a couple of hours when I spotted this brand new bright red Citroen -- the basic type with the bulbous headlights and canvas roof -- and lusted after it. It stopped. German coulple, 30 or so, energy and good humour. Raucous laughter at butchering the English language. A beautiful ride past the lakes toward the mountain range. The town of Kenmare, County Kerry.

The towns are a little too cute and I always walk right through them. Within minutes, the inevitable priest brought his Envoy Epic with the Plastic Jesus to a stop. He drove very slowly, a mellow peaceful voice.

Over there was where he was born and there where his parents were born. The town I was headed to -- Skibereen -- was where his grandparents were born. Post card valleys of rustic bliss.

The conversation turned somehow to the culture and the spirit of the people. And the troubles, which introduced a very heartfelt, wise, loving summary of the struggle in the North. From this priest came the tale of the oppression for centuries at the hands of the English and his realization of the present struggle being an extension of this history. While he of course could not condone the murders and suffering brought about by the IRA, he clearly saw them as patriots fighting against the oppression of a cultural and economic tyrant. He felt an anger that he did not try to soften by some sort of liberal "understanding" of the torture, harassment and arrest without trial of Irish men and women at the hands of the British Army. 

"They'll never beat the Irish," he said. "We're a fighting race." The Loyalists would never leave but British rule might. Britain, he said, would be happy with any workable solution. Most of the trouble was caused by Orangemen he said.

He'd driven well past his destination ans suddenly said he would have to let me out here for there was nowhere else for miles for him to turn around. We were in the highlands on the steep narrow road to Glengariff which hugs the mountainside the sweeps through two peaks and descends into the valley on the other side. My pack was heavy and stinging my sun burnt back but I walked on through the pass and half way down the other side before hitch-hiking again.

"You can't see this country from a car," the old priest had said. The view of the valleys and the hills on the horizon were very impressive and I had the company of grazing sheep all along the way. Tunnels through rough jagged rock. In one of these tunnels a skylight has been drilled in, 10 or 20 feet from above.

On down into the valley to the small village of Glengariff where dozens of Irish men and children stop cars and obnoxiously hustle the rental of their boats to go the famous island of something or other.

Here I ran into a woman from Wisconsin I had met at hostels a couple of times before  and we hitch-hiked together getting a ride with a lecherous patronizing old lawyer who didn't care for how I closed the door when I got in. "Sure, you're just like all the rest of them. You slam that door like you've never shut a door in your life!" I apologized repeatedly, only taking him half seriously. He glared red faced straight in front of him.

Hitch-hiking in Ireland is very good and we were sitting on the dock in Baltimore waiting for our boat a couple of hours early. 

This is the first time I've gotten right to a secluded area right on the coast. It's 10:30 and going on 11:00 when the sun sets here and the sun was still high in the sky when our "ferry" eased out of the harbour last night. It was a converted fishing boat with a large steam-shovel like apendage and a hold full of gravel.  Six passengers made the 10 mile journey to Clear Island for 75 cents each.

The tiny island community is one of the last where people speak Irish and last night in the pub a man sang the most beautiful song in Irish. The pub is very tiny and is infamous in the hostels for its weak, watery Guinness draught. After one last night I switched to bottles which weren't nearly as good as a pint "well pulled" but are far superior to the pints this great fat red faced barman pulls. Guinness draught must be tapped carefully and slowly. The glass first half fills with stout and half with head. It must then be left 2 or 3 minutes while the head settles into the stout. This must be repeated 2 more times with a pause after each. The fellow at the pub here on the island lets it settle only once then scoops all the head out with a spoon, fills it letting the rest of the head overflow and hands you a pint with most of the flavour and thickness and syrup gone from it.

The pub got so packed -- mostly with students here to study Irish at a special school as part of their training to become teachers -- that I had to retreat across the road to sit on the rock fence. The sun went down and the lights of the pub went on. The light and the sounds and the sight of the people shoulder to shoulder through the tiny doorway were very warm things. A group of Irishmen studying at the school were also sitting on the stone fence and we had a fine amusing talk about Flann O'Brien. There seems to be no such thing as closing time at the pub but suddenly I couldn't see any hostelers and it was a half hour past the time they lock the front door so I wandered off under a sky thick and bright with stars to find the back door still open. (Though this morning I find it locked.)A

I wanted to drink buckets of Guinness last night and get numb. I did. For the first hour or so I was the only person at the pub who was not speaking Irish. Am now about to commit heinous, viscous crimes on a group of noisy schoolchildren who are staying at the hostel. This fresh ocean air and a walk around the island should set me straight.

Fellow hostelers for the most part are dippy giggly simpletons. But then there's the young Irish people at the school here -- teacher trainees. They all speak only Irish except for small conversations with hostelers. They know lots of earthy, sexy, proud folk songs and last night there must have been about 60 of them packed in the tiny pub singing. They get quite drunk and any conversations I've heard that drift to literature or politics are quite interesting. Later there was a ceilidh and a fellow I had met earlier went out of his way to make me feel welcome to come along. It's very similar to square dancing and kind of dull for that not to mention how drunk I was so I left to go lie on the rocks by the shore and watch the night sky.

Lay at the shore yesterday afternoon and finished At Swim Two Birds, and got my legs painfully sunburnt.

Which was in the middle something I forget what when in comes the Dublin fellow, Aiden. I met him in Kilarney and he's been here since yesterday. Says he took up with the woman from Wisconsin who left this morning on her way to London and her flight home. He sat down at the table and started to chat and try as I did to stay inside my hangover and be pissed off at him for disturbing my writing, he cheered me up immensely.

Aiden Power. It's a common joke among people who meet him that he looks like Kurt Vonnegut in the famous photograph in which he holds a cigarette up to his sly, good natured face. Six feet and a bit, of what I think is known as medium build. One of his dearest possessions is his racing bike on which he is now touring the southwest. His extroversion never seems to wear thin and it seems like there's always at least one woman pursuing him.

Aiden Power, Clear Island 1975
It was a great pleasure to sit and talk to him about movies or books or Ireland or any number of things. Later he produced piles of food: meatballs -- cold, specially prepared in garlic, farm fresh cheddar cheese (a rarity in the little general stores in Ireland), figs and more fine stories. Mid-afternoon he said he had to go to work and he produced tools and an assortment of rings and wire and horseshoe nails. From these he makes rough, well designed jewelry to supplement the little money he gets off the dole in Dublin. 

I went upstairs to get my laundry done -- cold water and hand soap. When I came back down there was a crowd around the table where he was working and the school kids were buying his pendants of leather necklaces as fast as he could make them. They paid about $1.75 each for them, The talk that he maintained with the kids was so good. They traded slightly dirty jokes and he told them stories the same as he would anyone else. They really dug it of course. I finished my laundry and went for a walk leaving Aiden at his work. Over to and around the lake and down to Denis Burke's where I am now having an altogether delicious pint of Guinness.

This hostel is very easy to break into. There's always a door or a window open somewhere. This being an island with no police of any kind the pubs close when people are finished drinking them -- though last night the poor old fellow behind the bar did, shortly after 1:00 a.m. call out a token "Ah, drink up lads. Tink of da licencee..." A few locals nearby did hear him and looked at him in a distant, confused manner.

For some reason there was no electricity in the place at all and the only light was a single kerosene lamp burning lowly. I had earlier discovered Murphy's, the creamy stout draught that is giving Guinness a run for its money. (The Irish don't drink Guinness on these smaller islands... they say it gets sea sick.) Two young couples sat in the corner, one of the men with a guitar, singing very un-Irish songs -- among them some beautiful wailing Leonard Cohen songs.

This pub had been closed earlier in the evening when Aiden and I and an English fellow were by. This fact took us to Dennis Burke's where Aiden told a very long story about the very famous ballerina from one of the poor rural areas of Ireland. She was due to give a command performance for the Queen but had a serious problem. Invariably and uncontrollably while executing a certain turn she would fart. This turn was done 2 and 3 times during which she would fart 2 and 3 times. The story followed her great anguish to London where she studied the brass doorplates of all the specialists until she came to the fart specialist. He listened patiently and studied his texts having her demonstrate time and again. With a wise nod he stood up and left the room to return within a moment with a long round wooden pole with a sharp brass hook on the end of it. "What in the name of Jesus are ya goin' to do with that?" demanded the frightened ballerina. "Open this window up here before I choke!" replied the fart specialist.

We figured we had time for one fast pint down the hill before the hostel closed. That was 11:00 and it was well past 2:00 when we left. Aiden had been talking to some prosperous looking people who he figured were out from Cork in their yachts. They told him they were having a party up past the hostel and so we set off. There was no such party there but at the girls' residence of the Irish school there was the most amazing activity that had obviously been going on for hours. In we went and sat on the floor of the first room we came to. Bunk beds one after the other all around the room supported a large number of people in their late teens. Some necking and hugging some drinking from quarts of cider that were being handed around, some singing or playing music. Aiden decided to "get us a couple of chicks" and staggered off. I was quite drunk and couldn't quite grasp what was happening or at least to grasp how cool it was for me to be there. I sat up against a wall and smoked and took it all in. Out in the hall I could see a fellow I knew to be a teacher at the Irish school having an intense, animated conversation with some of the students. I started to get the feeling that it wasn't very cool to be there so I walked outside to hang around to see what would happen. The feeling grew and most of the Irish guys were splitting so I figured I best go back to the hostel. I thought if it turned out I had missed a great party by my over caution I would be very pissed off.

About 10:00 this morning Aiden returned to the hostel having spent the night in an empty cottage he'd stumbled on. It had not been cool and he'd almost gotten into a fight when they tried to kick him out a few minutes after I left.

And an afternoon of sun and Donleavy. A pint of cure mid afternoon at the bar near the harbour where the old guy who'd been minding it last night gave me a mischievous wink. Three in the morning before he got out of there and up to look after his cattle at 7:00 this morning. Warm and friendly. He had a pint with me and told me there had once been 2000 people on the island. And that the Lord knows where they all lived. The present population is 150. Back then the population of Ireland was 8 million. Three million now he says, 6 counties and all. And the craziness where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. "Tings wouldn't work if everyone was rich or if everyone was poor. There's got to be things working well between them. But," leaning into me confidentially, "right now the rich is misusin' the poor." And that it will all end in the old 6x2. And that it's funny when you come to think of it.

I have only 4 days of this peace and torture left. Since it takes a day in and a day out of the most remote hostels, this will be my last stop. I've got my laundry done. I have a sunburn and I've been drunk half the time. It will feel very good to be home again.