Michael J. Quinlan

Remembering “The Master” Michael J. Quinlan

Death approaches.  Be dignified.

It was August, but an unseasonably chilly wind nipped at the ankles.  Dark, threatening clouds darted across the sky and before it was all over, cold raindrops splashed down on the crowd gathered around the grave.

Michael J. Quinlan

Michael Quinlan

I first met Michael J. Quinlan at Shannon Airport in Co. Clare, Ireland.

My group and I arrived from the States, bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, but happy to be in Ireland.  It was my first group tour and I was anxious for everything to run smoothly.  Much of that depended on the tour bus driver.  And that driver was Michael J. Quinlan. 

I spotted him immediately as we exited the baggage claim area.  He held a placard with my name on it.  “You must be Deirdre,” his blue eyes twinkled as I approached.  “And you must be Michael,” I replied, immediately charmed.

I had no idea that at that moment I had met one of the most interesting, educated, fascinating and yes, charming individuals I would ever have the pleasure to know.

The Shanachie

Over the next five years, Michael carted my groups all over Ireland.  He was so much more than a driver and guide.  He shared stories of his teaching career that spanned more than 30 years.  He always referred to himself as a teacher – never once did he mention that he was actually principal of the local school.  I only found that out much later. 

Michael explaining architecture

He was a masterful shanachie – a storyteller.  Whether a ‘story’ (joke), folklore or a legend – Michael could spin a yarn that kept his audience rapt.  He had farmed land and milked cows. He showed us the village in Co. Cork where his grandparents had lived.  He shared tales of his volunteer experiences teaching the people of Belize how to grow potatoes. 

Michael loved to sing.  And loved getting others to sing as well.  As we traversed the winding backroads of Ireland, he would find any opportunity to break into song. “Come on now, Deirdre,” he’d say.  “Let’s have a song!” My feeble protests were no match for Michael’s enthusiasm.  Even I, who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, sang my heart out!  I am pretty sure that he might even have gone out of his way as we were driving through Co. Kerry, to detour through the town of Castlemaine – just so he could share this familiar song with his guests:

There was a wild colonial boy

Jack Duggan was his name.

He was born and raised in Ireland

In a place called Castlemaine


Michael once asked me if I spoke Irish.  “Sadly, no,” I replied.  My mother, who completed her entire education in Irish, told me my pronunciation was awful so I never pursued it.  Michael encouraged me.  He gave me book titles, tips on how to learn the grammar and assured me that I was quite capable of learning to speak it.  He pushed me to try and then patiently corrected my horrid pronunciation. 

A Renaissance Man

As my groups traversed Ireland with Michael at the wheel, we learned snippets of his life.  He was always more interested in talking to and about his visitors, but occasionally he would share some of his own stories as well.  We learned that he had a lovely wife, Anne and six grown children scattered all over the world.  After he “retired” from the primary school in Bruff, he earned a degree in Archeology and loved working on site excavations throughout Ireland. Like all Irish, he passionately followed hurling and was thrilled to watch his grandson play. 

No site in Ireland was too remote for Michael to find or visit.  No matter where my guests asked to go, he would always figure out a way to get us there. On time.  And be waiting for us upon our return.

Michael the teacher

The consummate teacher

We often wondered what he did during all the “down” time of driving us around. Some drivers get coffee or chat with other drivers.  Maybe polish the fenders.

Not Michael.

He read.  Avidly.  He always had three or four books with him on a trip and he would spend his free time devouring them. 

 He also wrote.  Every single day.  For years, he had kept a journal.  Once I asked him what he wrote about.  Thinking – presumptuously – it was probably accounts of his travels with tourists, he said, “Today is my daughter’s birthday.  So I’m writing about her.”  Poetry, songs, anecdotes, stories, memories, Michael kept journals for more than twenty-five years. He joked that they would probably make a great bonfire – but I highly doubt that anyone will be burning them. 

This year, when I rang to make my coach/driver arrangements for my tour group, the young woman quietly told me that Michael was not available to drive.  My concerned queries were, as is so typical of the Irish, answered very vaguely.  “Oh, he isn’t well.”  “No, we’re not sure when he’ll be driving again.” “Yes, actually it is a bit serious.”

Michael explaining stone circles

Michael explaining stone circles

Too Late

I had planned to ring him when my guests left Ireland.

I was one day too late. 

Sadly, Michael J. Quinlan slipped into a coma and died on August 4, 2018.

I could not leave Ireland without going to the funeral.  Despite going alone and knowing no one there, I felt compelled. Michael brought such joy and laughter to my groups of visitors; I had to represent them.    

St. Patrick’s Church in Loch Gur is a tiny, wooden, country church and yard that stands next to the Honey Fitz Theatre at a crossroads in Co. Limerick.  The entire parish turned out to help it seemed, with men in neon yellow safety vests, directing traffic into adjoining fields that local farmers had opened to allow parking.  Ladies stood in groups, chatting quietly. Guests waited patiently in the queue to sign the guestbook before filing into the church.  Surprisingly, there were lots of young people.  Former students, I guessed.

As is the tradition, the casket was already at the front of the church, having been brought there from the home the evening before to remain in the church overnight. I was early, but nearly every seat was already filled.  I paused in the back for a few minutes, then walked up the aisle to pay my respects to the family. 

On top of the casket was a photograph of Michael, all decked out in cycling gear and grinning out from under his bike helmet.  It was perfect.

I introduced myself to Anne.  At first, she looked puzzled, as of course, she did not know me.  But when I explained that Michael had been our driver for so many trips, her face broke into a great smile, she hugged me and said excitedly to her children, “Dad was their driver for their tours!”  By then I couldn’t hold back tears anymore, but I was so glad I’d come.  

As the time approached for the Mass to begin, the church was bursting at the seams.  The ushers found me a seat much nearer to the front than I wanted, but in the end, I was happy to be able to see and hear Michael’s children and grandchildren speak and sing as we celebrated his life. The songs and prayers were in both English and Irish. 

I learned so much more about this amazing man that day. The choir, which he founded and led at St. Patrick’s aptly dubbed him “The Master.”  I discovered that he had been guiding tourists for more than 30 years.  I realized that he was the driving force behind having his beloved Lough Gur established and developed as a World Class Heritage Center. He had personally trained all the guides. 

His friend, Fr. Liam Holmes, said that Michael’s accomplishments were so great that he fitted two lifetimes into his 80 years.  He spoke of Michael’s writing and the pages of words he would produce every day.  However, on the day that Michael learned about the aggressive cancer that was attacking his body, he wrote only four words: 

Death approaches. Be dignified. 

Sword fight

Sword (cane) fight

At the conclusion of the Mass, the men took their turns under the casket, shouldering Michael’s mortal remains on the final journey to the tiny churchyard outside.  As the large extended family surrounded the grave, scores of mourners braved the unseasonable wind and stood back a bit, making room.  Everyone joined in praying the Rosary and the graveside prayers. Songs followed.  The family members tossed the traditional handfuls of sod into the grave.  The raindrops fell.  It was, as they say, a fitting send-off.


Oh! I long to see that churchyard

By Lough Gur’s romantic shore,

Where the shamrock and the ivy ever grow;

Where the wild dove and the raven like protecting spirits soar

O’er the green graves of silent Teampall Nua.

The Jarveys – Touring Ireland the Old Fashioned Way

Jarveys are prominent in many parts of Ireland.  On our recent Emerald Essence Tour, we traveled up to the Gap of Dunloe, Co. Kerry in one. 

What on earth, you ask, is a jarvey?

Driver or car(t)?

Originally, the jarvey was the name given to a hackney driver. 

In modern terms, the title jarvey refers not only to the driver but also to a variety of vehicles drawn by a single – or less frequently, a pair – of horses. 

Although the jarveys provide tours in many parts of Ireland, they are most commonly associated with Killarney, in Co. Kerry where they ply their trade up and down the streets taking happy tourists out to see the sights.  Today, the “car” might be one of three main types of vehicles that carry from two to eight people.

A jarvey passes through the gardens of Muckross House, Killarney

The original jaunting car was a two to four passenger open vehicle.  They call it an outside car because the passengers sit facing out over the wheels with their backs to each other.  If you ever saw the movie The Quiet Man, the jaunting car was the vehicle used in the courting scenes. 

“No patty-fingers if you please.  The proprieties at all times.  Hold on to your hats.”  (The Quiet Man)

The driver sits in the front, with his back to the passengers.  The name jaunting car comes from going out for a jaunt or a ride.  

An inside car was considered more genteel as the riders sat facing each other.  While it is still an open car, the passengers might have a rug or blanket to cover their knees.  The driver may sit in the front, or stand in the back with the passengers.  Since we traveled in this type of car, we were quite cozy! (That’s me in the back)

Brian pauses at the Gap of Dunloe, and poses while we take photos!

The third type is a covered vehicle to protect the occupants from the weather.  The drivers outfit these with oilcloth (or, nowadays, plastic) “curtains” that can be rolled down to keep out the rain and mist. 

Covered jarvey with plastic “curtains” to protect from rain.

The Irish Cob

The typical horse used to draw a jarvey is the Irish Cob.  This is a strong, stocky, draught breed with a high trotting step and is well suited to hackney work.  Characterized by long, flowing hair around the ankles (feathering) and a long mane, these horses possess a willing and docile disposition.  The Irish Horse Society, which recognizes the breed, accepts all colours except Albino.

Our Irish Cob, Brian waiting to go!

A variety of tours

There are numerous routes for the Jarveys in Killarney.  They will collect you at your hotel and take you for a ride to Muckross House or Ross Castle, two very popular sights in the town.  Or you can combine a ride to the Castle with a boat ride on the lake, offering spectacular views of the surrounding Macgillycuddy’s Reeks.

 We chose to take the ride into the Gap of Dunloe.  It lasts about an hour and follows the narrow, winding road that passes through the Reeks into the Gap.  While we trotted along, our jarvey chatted away, sharing stories, tales, and lots of information about the region.  He told us all about Brian, our Irish Cob, who was quite happy to deliver us up, but even happier when we turned and headed home.  Brian clearly knew the way and the brightness of his step told us that he knew it was nearly the end of the day. 

Pausing on the bridge as the lakes flow into rivers.

As we arrived in the heart of the Gap, the early evening clouds settled in and deposited a light mist that created a magical atmosphere amid the rocky crags and lakes. The light mist quickly became a heavy mist, then a steady, if light, rain. However, it did not dampen our enthusiasm one bit.  We had a thoroughly enjoyable ride through the stunningly beautiful scenery. 

Mist adds to the atmosphere at the Gap of Dunloe

Lots of choices in jarveys

Killarney has both companies that specialize in jarvey tours and many individual jarvey drivers who will collect you at various locations throughout the town.  Prices are slightly negotiable with individual drivers, although most are about €10 – €12 per person for approximately 40 minutes.  The Gap of Dunloe tour is €15 per person.  The combined jarvey and boat tour is an all-day event and costs considerably more.  If you are staying in Killarney, consult with your hotel for guidance on booking a tour.

Jarveys of every size and colour await tourists in Killarney

Whatever way you take your tour, the jarvey is a fun and entertaining way to experience the breathtaking scenery of Co. Kerry. 

views from The Quay House

The Quay House – Clifden’s Historic B&B

I’ve just returned from nearly three weeks in Ireland.  While there, I happily revisited one of my very favourite Boutique Hotels:  The Quay House (pronounced: The Key House for North Americans).

flowers at The Quay House

The front garden is filled with colourful flowers

Historic and charming

The Quay House, located on Beach Road, right on the harbor in Clifden, Co. Galway is over 200 years old. Originally built as the Harbourmaster’s House, it also has served ( at various times) as a monastery, a convent and a private home.  You’ll notice niches in the wall where statues might once have stood.  

harbour views at The Quay House

Most rooms feature harbour views

Today, right in the heart of Connemara, hosts Julia and Paddy Foyle offer an exceptional accommodation experience.  Clifden, the capital of Connemara,  is a beehive of activity.  It boasts great food, plenty of traditional music, a variety of pubs and a range of festivals, fairs and events.  Furthermore, Clifden is a great hub from which to explore Connemara and The Quay House is the perfect accommodation.

awards at The Quay House

The front garden features numerous awards

Art, Antiques and Hospitality

They say first impressions are important.  The Quay House makes a great one – as you pull up to the door, the front garden is a waterfall of colourful, cascading flowers.  Adorning the front wall are years’ worth of award plaques – all well-deserved, in my opinion.  On fine days, you might find the front door ajar, as if waiting for friends to arrive, not strangers.

cherub at The Quay House

Grinning cherub greet you at the door

The first thing that strikes you as you step inside is the elegant winding staircase.  I always imagine myself gliding gracefully down in a floor-length evening gown (a la Scarlett O’Hara). Windows surround the stairs and provide a natural showcase for decoration and art.  At the bottom a cherub, perched atop the newel post, grins impishly – I love him!  The staircase gets plenty of use.  Due to the age of the house, there is no elevator.  But Paddy (and sometimes son, Toby) is always available to help with suitcases to upper levels. There are about 6 rooms on the ground floor as well.

double at The Quay House

Double room…

Fireplace at The Quay House

…with fireplace

Unique, with views

Each of the 15 rooms en suite at the Quay House is unique – individually decorated and styled with antique furniture, mirrors and appointments.  Nearly all of them overlook Clifden Harbour.  I loved the last room I had – it was huge by European standards!   Painted clouds covered the ceiling and floor-to-ceiling double glass doors opened onto small balconies that overlooked the harbour.  Three little stairs down to our bathroom that featured a huge tub, shower and my personal favourite, the towel warmer.

bathroom at The Quay House

three steps down to the bath

antiques in The Quay House

even the bath is furnished with charming antiques

During this visit, I stayed in the Bamboo Room, so called due to the theme of bamboo dominating the decor.  Big, round windows like giant portholes looked out to the harbour. – For privacy, venetian blinds covered them.   And just outside the windows, more riotous color flowed from pots and flowerboxes.

Bamboo at The Quay House

The Bamboo Room

windows at The Quay House

Porthole windows

The common rooms are very homey and give a real feeling of being lived in.  Be sure to take some time to examine the antiques and animal statues.  You can “hang out” in the lounge on overstuffed couches reading, writing or just relaxing.  Wi-Fi is available throughout.

sitting room at The Quay House

Very comfortable sitting rooms

wifi at The Quay House

There is wifi throughout

The Quay House does not offer dinner, but within a 7-minute walk into downtown Clifden, the choices are nearly boundless.  Restaurants include seafood houses, steak, lamb and pub grub. And there’s trad music nearly every night of the week in summer.

The Quay House Breakfast is a treat

Breakfast at The Quay House

The Breakfast Room

Breakfast is another matter entirely.  It is an event.  The breakfast room is a wonder; a completely glassed-in tropical greenhouse-type affair, with plants and shrubs abounding.  The tables, decked out in matching floral motif cloths are laid with lovely ware and cloth napkins.  There is a self-serve cereal, fruit, juice and yogurt bar.

garden at The Quay House

The feeling of a tropical paradise

Immediately after sitting down, the attentive staff or sometimes Julia, herself, offers tea and coffee and take full Irish breakfast orders.  Hot porridge, toast, eggs (nearly any variety), bacon, sausage, tomatoes and black pudding appear in short order.  Everything prepared just to your liking.  You certainly will not begin your day hungry here!  You can choose as little or as much as you wish!

fountain at The Quay House

The fountain in the courtyard

One of my favourite features of the hotel is the charming fountain in the ground floor courtyard.  Follow the sound of falling water down the hallway and you’ll come to the pretty little tiered fountain surrounded by stone walls and various plants and flowers.  On one stay, I had a room right next to the fountain.  I loved the calming sound of the falling water just outside my door.  Paddy told me that they turn it off at night so as not to disturb guests.

The Quay House is a very popular Clifden hotel so be sure to reserve your spot early.  For more information and to make reservations, visit the website:  www.thequayhouse.com

Do you have a favourite hotel in Connemara?  Have you stayed at The Quay House?  Let us know in the comments below!

The Way – Not Always What You Think

The Way


Whenever I see those words, they jump out at me.  I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago – the 500-mile pilgrimage route in northern Spain – four times.  It has and continues to play an important role in my life.  Known by various names, El Camino, The Pilgrim Road, The Way of St. James – and for those who are intimately familiar with it, it is simply The Way. 


In 2010, Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez heightened awareness, particularly in the United States, of the pilgrimage with their fictional, yet inspiring film by the same title. 

The Way


Recently, when I was in Adare, Co. Limerick, I ducked into the cool interior of one of my favourite churches in Ireland, Holy Trinity Church.  Centrally situated on the main street, it is a stunning 14th century grey stone structure with simple yet elegant lines. On this visit, I was immediately intrigued when I spotted a cone-shaped, bronze sculpture tucked into a corner at the back of the church.


On first glance it reminded me of the Sorting Hat of Harry Potter fame, so, curious as to why something pertaining to Harry Potter would be in the church, I had to appease my curiosity by getting a closer look. 

Sorting hat

It was clearly NOT a Sorting Hat.  


The Camino de Santiago – near Cacabelos


However, due to the title The Way, my next assumption was to associate it somehow with the now famous Pilgrimage route.  The popularity of the Camino has grown immensely in Ireland as well.  Wrong again.  Despite the title, the fascinating sculpture had nothing at all to do with the Camino de Santiago. 


Approximately two feet high, its conical shape represents the hill of Jerusalem.  There, the sculptor, John Blakely, obtained a 5 million-year-old piece of marble excavated from the city walls.  It is one of only three such stones to have been taken out of Jerusalem adding to the unique nature of this bas relief. The marble stone is embedded near the top of the bronze sculpture, which is actually a representation of a staircase and path leading through the city of Jerusalem, a path which Jesus would likely have used.


So in a manner of speaking, the Camino de Santiago and the Irish Sculpture are related.  Pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela often make reference to Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Or perhaps it is just me – I seem to find correlations to the Camino de Santiago in many strange places. 


Nonetheless, this piece is one of many treasures found in Holy Trinity Church.  When visiting Adare, with all there is to do and see, it is easy to overlook this beautiful church.  Don’t. 

‘Tis a fine soft day, thank God! and other Irish euphemisms for rain

A gentle mist all heaven kissed 
Like teardrops off an angel’s wing 
Don’t you know you’ll cleanse your soul 
With a walk in the Irish rain.


In 1961, songwriter Johnny Cash described Ireland as having “forty shades of green”.  Anyone who has ever been to Ireland would probably agree with that description. 

Glen of Aherlow, Co, Tipperary

Glen of Aherlow, Co, Tipperary

And why does Ireland have forty shades of green?  

Why, the rain, of course! 

According to Met Éireann (the Irish Meteorological Service), the annual number of days of rainfall (measuring more than 1mm) varies from 150 days in the East and Southeast, to 225 days in parts of the West.

For the more than 7 million annual visitors, understanding the terminology for Irish weather is very important.  One needs to know how to dress; what activities to plan or to avoid depending on the weather of the day. 

sampling potín in front of a turf fire

sampling potín in front of a turf fire

A typical daily weather report might be:  “Sunny spells with scattered showers” or “A breezy mix of clouds and sun with possible scattered showers”.  That pretty much covers everything.  Situation normal.   A regular day.

But when discussing the weather in Ireland, often a more specific jargon is necessary. 

Here are some helpful terms when the conversation, as it inevitably will, turns to the Irish weather and rain.  

MIST – as in:  “Ah, suretis only a mist.  (especially effective when pronounced with the soft ‘sh’ sound borrowed from the Gaelic – ‘misht”).  Noticeable when you are standing in the sunshine and see the clouds hanging or moving over the mountains.  Nothing to change plans for – it will probably pass as the cloud moves away. 



SOFT – as in “ ‘Tis a fine soft day, thank God.”  A heavy mist (see above).  Generally grey skies (excellent for photography), but warmish and it may clear as the day goes on. 

SPITTING – may begin with mist.  Intermittent periods of light rain clearing to mist or clearing altogether.  No reason to cancel outdoor plans. 

The River Suir, Cahir, Co. Tipperary

The River Suir, Cahir, Co. Tipperary

SHOWERY – this is good weather!  Some sunshine and white puffy clouds with a few black ones thrown in.  The occasional black clouds will drop possibly heavy-ish showers, but will clear.  A good time to pop into a pub for a cuppa or a pint. 

note the very fierce looking black cloud amid the blue patches

note the very fierce looking black cloud amid the blue patches

WET – often in the afternoon or evening.  The sky gets generally dark and grey and the rain moves in to stay.  Soaks your clothes and drives you indoors.  Windscreen wipers on all the time. 

The result of very wet rain

The result of very wet rain

STAIR RODS – the rain (that you are looking at out the window because you don’t want to be out in it) is coming down straight out of the sky.  It in no way resembles drops and has no intention of stopping anytime soon.  Have another pint.

LASHING – the accompanying wind is causing the rain to travel horizontally. If you attempt to open the car door, the wind whips it out of your hands nearly taking it off the car.  It requires the help of two other people to close the door and you are now soaked.

DIRTY – often applies to rain at night as in “It’s a dirty night”.  It’s dark and wet and when you come inside you leave a puddle on the floor from the water dripping off your clothes and shoes.  Generally requires a hot drink and a warm bed.

Formal Gardens, Dromoland Castle, Co, Clare

Formal Gardens, Dromoland Castle, Co, Clare

Back to the forty shades of green.  Without the rain, Ireland would not have those glorious greens and the magical beauty that millions of people come to see every year.  Her gardens would not flourish with the magnificent array of vibrant colours and the nearly endless varieties of flowers and plants. The rain is as much a part of the landscape as the sheep, the cattle and the stone walls.   

So grab your brolly, your wellies and your mac – and take a walk in the Irish rain. 

Childhood Memories of a Disappearing Ireland

These are reflections that I wrote two years ago.  In 10 days, I’m off to Ireland again with a group and so this seems a good time to finish this post.  This will be a special trip as there are many friends included in the group.  I’m really looking forward to sharing this place that is so special to me.

 Ireland is where my roots are.  It is where I feel the most at home, surrounded by familiar voices and memories that extend back to my early childhood.  I sit here alone, outside the back door at Ballyculhane, the house where my mother was born, in brilliant sunshine – shocking really, as the normally unsettled weather has been replaced by weeks of glorious sun and warmth – basking in fond childhood memories.  As I look around this yard where my mother’s family has been farming for 7 generations,  I am swept into a different time – one when there was a henhouse full of chickens and eggs that needed to be collected daily; one where you learned quickly that the Bull’s Paddock was a place to be avoided at all costs;  one where 4 enormous, salmon-coloured pigs were kept in at night and let out every morning.  I watched in wonder as they trotted, with no guidance whatsoever, into their field to begin their daily enterprise of poking and digging in the ground for whatever delicacies lay buried under the soft soil.  I always wanted to try riding one out – they were as big as a small pony!

Ballyculhane pump

The pump, long rusted now, stands as a monument to a different era, but once it produced all the water needed for the kitchen, house and yard, pumped by hands small and large until it rewarded the exertion with a cool, crystal-clear stream of water.

Just outside the back door there was a walled flower garden, called “Aunt Cis’s Garden” for the maiden aunt who planted and lovingly tended it until her untimely death.  As a child I played hide and seek among the blooming giant hydrangeas, roses and fuchsia.  Paths meandered throughout the garden which wasn’t large, but to my tiny four-year-old feet, it seemed a glorious playground affording hours of fun.  There were stone walls to climb, stiles to cross, streams to ford, fruit to pick – an endless array of activity from morning until night. 



Inside, the thatch cottage was tiny by American standards but was a fine house for its day.  It had 6 rooms and at one point housed nearly 15 people.  The fireplace was large and served for both heat and cooking.  The stone floor in the kitchen area doubled as a dance floor when the large table and benches were pushed back.  On one wall stood a huge “press” – a massive (at least to my childish eyes) piece of furniture that held dishes, glasses, cutlery, tableware and myriad unseen treasures. 

I can still see my grandfather whom I unfortunately barely knew, sitting at the table eating his breakfast, served up to him by my grandmother before he went out to milk the cows.  They were the only old people I had ever known and I was very wary of them.  It is sad to me now that my most vivid memories of them fluctuated between awe and fear. 

Milking the cows was an experience.  Not the modern day mechanical wonder of a sanitized milking parlor overseen by government or European Union health boards, but rather a bucket and a stool, milking each beast by hand.  It took 15 minutes to milk a cow and there were 4 people to milk 50 cows.  Twice a day.  Every day. The milk was then placed in large milk cans and taken a mile or so in a pony and cart to the local creamery where it was deposited and processed.  Each day there was a bucket or two kept back for the use in the house.  Neither pasteurized nor homogenized, just fresh, pure milk.  And the butter was made from the cream. 

Irish Creamery

We kids never missed the trip to the creamery, because it was up at “The Line”, where the shops were.  That meant that after the milk had been delivered there might be an ice cream or a bag of sweets to be had.  So as the pony and cart left the yard it was our job to close the gate.  Then we ran up behind the cart, hopped on and sat, laughing, giggling and dangling our feet off the back as the pony ambled on.

During the summer, Ballyculhane was a beehive of activity.  Hay was saved while there was sun.  The weather, which is always a topic of conversation, became a major event.  There were tractors with blades attached to cut the hay, but after field drying, the men saved it by hand into reeks – dome-shaped mounds the height of two men.  This was long, tedious work and often undertaken in fields far away from the house.  So it became the job of the children (and often the visitors) to take tea to the men in the fields in the evening. 


Tea was made in the house and put into thermoses or large pots or kettles.  Sugar and milk were added as well.  Freshly-made white or brown bread, smeared with rich butter and jam was packed in baskets and the children were commissioned to take it all down to whichever field the men were working.  Mostly we walked, although the odd time, if the field was a distance, we went in the car.  But the process was the same. 

As the “yankee cousin, home for holidays”, this was never a chore for me, but rather an adventure.


Today there are more than 100 cows.  There are calves and there is machinery to do the work that it took men and women so long to do by hand.  Although saving hay is still a major event for farmers, tractors and bailers and big machinery complete it now.  The pigs and chickens are long gone and their former homes remain as shadows of the past.   

But still the sturdy and elegant thatch house stands as it has for over 400 years, overlooking Ballyculhane with its castle ruins nearly unidentifiable under a blanket of deep green moss and ivy. 

Ballyculhane Castle

 The people change, the way of life changes, but the land endures adding each generations’ memories to its history. 

Reflections on a Birthday

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday, January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany,  is Mom’s birthday.   She would have been 89.  She was always so youthful and active, I guess I thought she’d be around forever.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t miss her enough.  We had our moments when we were like oil and water – she used to say (jokingly, but in all seriousness) that we got along great as long as there were 300 miles between us.  But other times, I just want to sit down over a pot of tea and have a good old chat.

She was such a free spirit; smart, clever and articulate.  Ever the teacher, when I’d call on Sunday mornings, I’d say, “Hi, Mom.  It’s me.”

“It is I”, she would correct.  The thought of it still makes me smile.  Of course I knew that was the correct way to say it.  She had taught me well.

On my second trip to Ireland, at the age of 7, I began to pick up the vernacular “dis, dat, dese and dose “.  But she would allow none of it – she quickly corrected my newly (and proudly, I might add) colloquial pronunciation to the standard “this, that, these and those”.  There would be no uneducated speech in our household, I’m telling you!

From her, I got my love of language, learning  and my fortitude.   She could be the most determined person I ever knew.  If she got her mind to something, neither hell nor high water could stop her.  When, at 72, she suffered a major stroke that left her unable to read, she spent the next 10 years teaching herself to read again and then reading every, single evening to continue to improve.  It was so difficult – she had to focus on every single word to force her damaged brain to make sense of the text, but it wasn’t going to best her.  She persevered and slowly read book after book – no matter how long it took to get through them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

She loved to be free to take off in the car as she pleased and go for a drive or a walk in the woods.  Nothing was worse than being tied down – she even wanted her ashes to be tossed into the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and the United States.  My dad couldn’t deal with that, so we took her to Ireland where she rests in a family plot next to a field with a view of Knockfierna, the Hill of the Fairies.  I hope she likes that – it is a quiet, pretty place. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They say we become our mothers.  That would not be the worst thing that could happen to me.

After her death, I moved into their house to live with my dad.  I may have filled the void of loneliness and companionship, but I know he misses her.  He often mentions how she did this or that.  This morning at breakfast, he mentioned that today is her birthday.  I hope that when I am 92, as he is now, that I shall have such a good memory.

I have never felt  mom’s  presence –sometimes I wish I did.  But I hope that wherever she is there are open fields and forests,  gardens and lots of sunshine.  Happy Birthday, Mom.  Miss you.


Corned Beef and Cabbage – typically … American???

Last year for St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to try my hand at Corned Beef and Cabbage.  Now, honestly, I don’t think I’d ever images (3)before cooked a corned beef for anything but to make corned beef hash.  Certainly not as a main meal. 

Primarily because I am Irish and it is not.  “What??”, you say.  “How can that be? Everyone who is Irish eats corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day! ”  Hmmm, not quite.  But I’ll get to that in a minute. 

My father, born and raised between Rathkeale and Newcastle West in Co. Limerick, blessedly eats everything I make for him.  Most of the time I am a pretty good cook, but there is the occasion where what I put on the table is questionably “cuisine”.  

Last year’s corned beef and cabbage was one of those occasions. 

corned_beef_cabbage_by_spackletoe_FlickrIn theory, if you boil the heck out of the corned beef,  you really can’t go wrong.  Well, I thought I boiled the heck out of it but…it was rather rubbery, not good at all, and I absolutely knew I was in trouble when my father looked up at me from his plate across the table and casually asked, “What kind of meat is this?”

As I slid down in my chair like a five-year-old, I rapidly replied, “Well, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and it was on sale, and I thought it would be nice to try something different…(pause)    Corned beef.”

“It’s a bit hard to chew, “, he said.

In thoroughbred racing jargon, my dad would be considered a “good-doer”, meaning that typically he cleans his plate, isn’t a finicky eater.  But a few moments later, he placed his knife and fork side by side on the plate leaving the better part of dinner behind.  We moved on to dessert.

Traditionally Irish…NOT!

Meat, especially pork and potatoes were staples of the Irish diet.  Pork was relatively inexpensive and readily available.  A preferred cut was bacon, a lean, smoked pork loin not unlike Canadian bacon.  Cows were used for breeding and to supply milk and would only be slaughtered when they were no more use for milk production.  Hence beef was generally too expensive for regular consumption by the Irish populace.

downloadEven today Irish bacon, nothing like the slabs or strips we think of in America, is plentiful and frequently boiled with root vegetables for a tasty yet simple meal.  A few years ago, I purchased a beautiful bacon at a butcher shop in Ireland, intending to bring it back with me and enjoy at home.  I froze it solid so that it would transport well and happily put it in my suitcase.  It had always been possible to bring meat from Ireland without any difficulty.  Imagine my surprise when the customs officer in New York confiscated my lovely bacon telling me that I didn’t have a “certificate of authenticity” that it had been “on the hoof” in Ireland.  Apparently after entering the European Union, all meat from Ireland needed to be certified because of the risk of strange diseases coming from other EU countries.  Despite his assurances to the contrary, I’m reasonably certain that one immigration officer’s household had a lovely dinner that night…

Well, back to corned beef. 

There are lots of theories or legends as to how Corned Beef became associated with the Irish. 

Firstly, the name has nothing to do with “corn”, but rather the kernel sized salt that was used to cure the beef in order to preserve it.  Since the 18th century salt has been used as a preservative for and in the curing of various kinds of meat.

One of the most plausible theories stems from the cultural collaboration and interaction between diverse ethnic groups during the great influx of immigrants to New York during the 19th century. 

When the Irish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they found that the pork to which they were accustomed was much more expensive than beef.  The Jewish kosher cured beef was similar to the pork and could be boiled with root vegetables to produce a meal similar to the familiar bacon.  Since the Irish frequented the local Jewish delis and food carts, it is likely that they “borrowed” corned beef and made it their own.  Cabbage was much less expensive and more plentiful than potatoes and so it became a worthy substitute as well. 

The meal became a staple in Irish American households, easy and inexpensive to prepare.   As the Irish migrated west, corned beef migrated with them.  But look for it in Ireland?  It is only available to tourists particularly around St. Patrick’s Day, when people go expecting to find what they think is a typical “Irish” meal. 

I say, go for the bacon and the lovely floury potatoes.  It is SO much better. 

Which brings me back to today:  St. Patrick’s Day. 

As I stood in the grocery store yesterday, considering what I would buy for dinner, I was once again lured by the throngs of people poring over the array of Corned Beef on Sale.  I succumbed.  I purchased a nice small piece for a great price. Presumeably made by somone called O’Reilly.  download (1)

But today I’m trying something different.  Since early morning, it is inside in the Crock Pot, slowly simmering away, filling the house with a mouth-watering aroma.  I’m hoping that 8 hours of slow cooking with lots of vegetables will improve my result. 

No doubt my dad will eat it…he is so good that way.  But I wonder what his comment will be this year? 

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!

Who was St. Patrick? And why does the whole world celebrate him?




Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, people sport their “green”.  Being Irish, I never felt compelled to “show off” my heritage and if I forgot to wear green that day, oh well.  But for my entire life, I have been surrounded by people who, on March 17 celebrate the Irish.  I think.  Or St. Patrick.  Or being Irish.  What do they actually celebrate on March 17? Does anyone even know?

Let’s start with the man, himself. 



St. Patrick, (Pádraic or Pádraig in Irish) was born in Scotland to an aristocratic, Christian, family around 390 A.D.  His parents, Calpornius and Conchessa were Romans who were living in Britain and were in charge of the colonies there.     


Around the time that Patrick was 16, he was captured by an Irish raiding party, enslaved and taken across the sea to Ireland where he was forced to work as a shepherd.  At that time Ireland was a pagan land – the land of the Druids – and young Patrick learned both the language and the customs of his captors. It’s possible that he was taken to the west, perhaps Mayo, where his existence was rugged, isolated and lonely.


In his youth, Patrick had expressed little interest in Christianity, but during the nearly six years of his captivity, he deepened his relationship with God.  Patrick wrote in “The Confession” that those years were critical to his spiritual development and that the Lord took pity on him in his ignorance and forgave him his sins.  According to his own writings, “The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same.” “I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.”


Eventually, heeding a voice that he heard in a dream, Patrick escaped his captors, walked nearly 200 miles to the east coast of Ireland and made his way home across the Irish Sea to Britain.  There, he continued his religious studies, was ordained a priest and then a bishop.   patrick


Some years later, Patrick recounts having another vision in which a man comes to him in dream: “I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”


Patrick returned to Ireland with a mission to convert and minister to Irish Christians. 


Despite having great success in converting the pagan Irish to Christianity, Patrick’s life in Ireland was difficult.  As a foreigner and a Christian, he did not conform to the typical lifestyle of the Druids and Chieftans; he did not accept gifts from kings nor did he have affinity or kinship to any family.  As a result, he was without protection and was frequently robbed, beaten and even put in chains. 

Chapel atop Choagh Patrick

Chapel atop Choagh Patrick


Throughout all the hardship, Patrick “baptized thousands”.  He converted kings and their families to Christianity. He ordained priests to lead the communities that he founded and converted women who became nuns and formed communities throughout Ireland.  For forty years Patrick worked tirelessly until his death on March 17, 461 A.D. near Saul, where he had built his first Church.  He believed so completely in God and the importance of his mission that he feared nothing, not even death.


The Shamrock. 

The shamrock was a sacred symbol to the pagans.  Three was a symbolic number and the beautiful color of the plant was revered by them.  It was seen as representing the cycle of life:  birth, death, rebirth.  In the pagan culture there were numerous triple goddesses. images (2)

Legend tells us that Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons in one God.  For that reason, the shamrock is traditionally linked to St. Patrick and to the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.


Celebrating the Feast Day


Historically, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a national religious holiday. Families celebrated by attending Mass in the morning and returning home for a celebratory dinner.  The typical Lenten prohibitions were waived and people danced, drank and feasted on bacon and cabbage.  (There is NO corned beef in Ireland!) Up until the 1970’s Irish laws mandated that pubs be closed on religious holidays.  Beginning in 1995, the Irish Government, realizing the keen interest throughout the world in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, began a national campaign to increase interest in and drive tourism to Ireland for the annual festival.  Today, more than one million tourists flock to St. Patrick’s “Day” in Dublin which is a multi-day celebration of Irish history and culture featuring fireworks, parades, outdoor theatre productions and concerts.


St. Patrick’s Day Parades


The first recorded St. Patrick’s Day Parade was on March 17, 1762 not in Ireland, but in New York City. According to the New York Mercury, Irish troops in the British Army marched through the streets playing “fifes and drums, which produced a very agreeable harmony.”  It helped the troops reconnect with their roots, their music and other Irish troops serving in the British Army at the time. History_History_of_St_Patricks_Day_SF_still_624x352

images (1)

As the numbers of Irish immigrants grew, so did the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  It became a way for the Irish to show pride of heritage and solidarity in numbers. When over a million poor, uneducated Irish fled to America during the Potato Famine in the 1840’s, Protestant America despised their strange accents and religious ways.  “No Irish Need Apply” became a slogan that eliminated Irish from applying for anything but the most menial jobs.  When the Irish came out to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, the press portrayed them in cartoons as drunken monkeys. 

Anti-Irish cartoon - late 1800's

Anti-Irish cartoon – late 1800’s

Soon, however, the Irish realized that their large numbers empowered them with considerable political clout.  The Irish became a powerful swing vote and the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations became a “must attend” for political hopefuls. 


The immigrants spread throughout the U.S. and traditions sprung up in every city and town.  Unfortunately, the stereotype of the drunken Irishman persists, but organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians continue to do great work to dispel that myth. 


So, this weekend, as you boil your corned beef (that should be bacon!) and lift a glass of green beer (really????) while singing along with a familiar Irish tune, give a thought to the man and his legacy.  I wonder what St. Patrick would think of the worldwide celebration in his name?   150px-Kilbennan_St._Benin's_Church_Window_St._Patrick_Detail_2010_09_16

Have you seen Ireland’s “Must See”?

The Cliffs of Moher.  One of the most recognizable natural wonders on the west coast of Ireland.  Even the name is magical.  The Cliffs of Moher.

Looking south towards Hag's Head

Looking south towards Hag’s Head

The name comes from the Irish word mothar, meaning a ruined fort.  In the 1st century BC, a fort stood near the site where O’Brien’s Tower is today.  The name of the cliffs commemorates that 2000 year old, long gone structure.


Looking south – O’Brien’s Castle – Aran Islands in the distance

The dark, limestone walls of the cliffs soar straight up out of the Atlantic Ocean to a maximum height of just over 700’.  They extend for nearly five miles – from near the village of Doolin in the north to Hag’s Head in the south.  A well-established footpath winds along the edge of the cliffs – far enough away to be safe, yet close enough to ensure that visitors enjoy breath-taking views.

O'Brien's Castle

O’Brien’s Castle

On a clear day from Knockardaken, the highest point near O’Brien’s castle, one can see from Loop Head and the Blasket Islands in Co. Kerry to the Aran Islands and on north to Galway Bay and the Twelve Bens of the Connemara Mountains.  Nature enthusiasts come to view the more than 20 species of birds, from Puffins to Peregrine Falcons that nest in the cliffs and fish of their waters.  Sharks, whales, seals and dolphins are frequent visitors to the waters at the cliffs.

One of the most fascinating things about the Cliffs is how they are constantly changing.  I have been visiting them for more than thirty years and every time I go I notice the changes that Nature has wrought on the landscape.

Entrance bollard

Entrance bollard

A calm summer’s day affords visitors spectacular views and a tranquil environment with hardly a thought of the force and fury of the wind and sea that combine to create this spectacular natural phenomenon.  Atlantic storms typically head west towards the Americas, but occasionally they turn north and can pummel the west coast of Ireland with wind of up to 100kmph and waves of more than 30 feet.  As a result, only seaweed and lichen survive on the lower portions of the cliffs.  Closer to the top, however, fallen bits of soil have created a perfect environment for a variety of plant life and wild flowers.

Some of the more domesticated residents of the area

Some of the more domesticated residents of the area

No visit to Ireland is complete without a stop at this spectacular natural wonder.  The cliffs are open daily at 9 am with varying closing times – as late as 9 pm during the peak summer months.  Fees are 6€ per person, 4 € for seniors over 65 and children under 16 years are free. Group rates are available.   May your visit to the Cliffs of Moher be blessed with clear skies and gorgeous sunshine.