A herd of full-uddered Fresian cows ambled along the rural roadway to the milking barn, blocking all motion but their own. For a mad moment, my high-frenzy American instincts wanted to call out to the countryman guiding the herd, "get it moving, Mac, I'm in a hurry. I'm on vacation."
Happily, a vapor of self-control came over me, even though Mac - or Paddy, Sean or Mike - wouldn't have hurried his beasts if St. Patrick's snakes were hissing behind him.
Ireland's pace enters the bloodstream by small drops like this, not whole transfusions. I had come to Valentia because it is one of the remotest areas in Ireland. a slip of land 7 miles long off the coast of south Kerry. The county itself, in southwest Ireland, is where many of the Irish in Dublin and Cork - too wary of Majorca and too intelligent fro France - take their holidays.
Some of the planet's most stunningly beautiful coastline is here, beginning with the view from Valentia's cliffs across Dingle Bay to the Blasket Islands that lie in the sea like shrouded giants. Maurice O'Sullivan's "Twenty Years A-Growing," the lyrical account of life on the Blaskets before the islands were abandoned in the early 1950s, is a minor classic in Irish literature.
Americans coming to this part of Ireland usually con themselves into "doing" the Ring of Kerry. This is the 110-mile circle that begins in Killarney and loops around the Iveragh peninsula with Macgilicuddy's reeks looming in the center as Ireland's highest mountains. Much can be said for learning about Kerry this way, but Sean O'Shea says more. He is a Dublin artist and historian who summers in Cabirciveen, his birthplace near Valentia, and who believes that "the Ring" of Kerry is fine, but Americans are so feverish to rush around - lookee there, lookee here - that they never go near the dozens of little rings hidden within the larger one."
O'Shea is a companionable fellow. He founded the Kerry school of painting and stoutly treasures any form of what he calls honest complacency: talking, eating, painting or remembering. He is skilled at the latter and tells of the comment of his late friend, Patrick Kavanagh: "In Ireland, you can spend a lifetime getting to know just one field."
On his trip, I had only a month for the fields. That was enough to learn that in getting away from it all in America, Valential offers its own all: its placidity and scenery, on the obvious surface level, but deeper, in the wholeness of the local citizens and their robust traditions.
The name Valentia is not taken from the Spanish, even though the Armada once bobbed along the local shoreline where sunken ships wait out the centuries. It is from Bael Inse, the mouth of rivers. Technological history touched here in 1866 when the first Atlantic cable was joined, although local citizens dispute the nature of the first message. Some say it was a wire-burning curse against the English.
Knightstown, named for the Knight of Kerry who once reigned here and began a line of 21 descendants, is the island's main village. Its social philosophy appears to be resisting the idea of becoming a tourist trap. Instead, villagers are agreeable to absorbing the visitor into the easygoing local routine. On the main street - 300 yards uphill from a dock and twin fishing piers - are three restaurants, two groceries, a post office that also sells books, a youth hostel, a gas station, several bed and breakfast guest houses and two pubs. This unsplashy scene isn't going to set the place hopping wild with excitement but it's all anyone needs who wants to settle in, whether for a life time or a month.
Valentia's guesthouses - those in Knightstown, as well as about a dozen others around the island - are inexpensive. They offset some of the other prices: about $1.30 for a dozen eggs, 30 cents for the Irish Times (that is the price in Dublin, too). $1.85 for a gallon of petrol, $1.14 for a small jar of peanut butter, and up and up. As for real estate - buying that little corner of emerald earth for early retirement - prices are curving upward as much as in Washington. At the moment, the most avid buyers appear to be Germans. It is only a question of time as to when wider roads will be necessary to allow all the Mercedes to pass.
Bargains are still findable in the priceless abundance of clean water and pure air. A small beach down a pathway off the road to Bray Head offers waters that are pristinely coral. The bottom can be seen from 15 feet. The air off the Atlantic packs enough brace to almost double your lung capacity: When I went for 14-mile runs around the island, I felt as if I had gone only seven American miles.
Boats leave daily from Knightstown to the Skelligs Rocks. These are three rock islands eight miles into the Atlantic that were monastic communities a thousand years ago. The Great Skellig - a picture of asceticism - rises 700 feet above the sea, with a stone stairway leading to the beehive cells, oratories, holy wells and the church of St. Michael.
Assuming the good Michael didn't laze away his prayer time by fishing from his cell, it can be assumed his dark nights of the soul were considerably eased by the thought of all the bright days God was giving him atop this rock.
The most knowledgeable authority on the Skelligs is Des Lavelle, who runs a daily trip to the rocks in July and August when the weather is calm. Once there, as well as out and back, Lavelle is an engagingly informative guide. His book on the Skelligs is available at the local post office.
Valentia's weather is regularly denounced by the local people, but for our month it rained only three days. "Blessed luck," we were told.Most of the time, we had long stretches of sun, even when the forecasts would call for "bad spells." The Gulf Stream flows by these parts, which makes swimming possible even though still chilly. Ireland's summer temperatures, like good golf scores, seldom rise above the mid-70s.
Golf is one delight missing on Valentia. The islanders are hardworking dairymen and fishermen, who have little time for poking through the day following slices and hooks. Ireland has more golf courses per capita than any country in the world, but the sportiest local layout is in Glenbeigh, about half an hour up the Ring. Green fees at the Dooks Golf Club are nominal, with no charge at all for the sparkling conversation of the clubhouse hostess. She is the pro, resident psychologist and wit, all in one.
Another course - championship length, which means several par fours wehere two woods are needed to get home - is in Waterville, south of Valentia. This is the main resort town of this part of Kerry. The Butler Arms hotel, family run, became Charlie Chaplin's hideaway when he vacationed in Ireland. But the new hero in town is Mick O'Dowyer, the celebrated footballer who with his wife now runs a better-than-average restaurant in the heart of town. He is Kerry's Sonny Jurgensea, minus the driving problem, and he is usually on hand to tell stories of his all-Ireland playing days.
Except for a visit by train to Dublin for three days and two days with writer Richard Conden in Kilkenny, I had no pulls to wander from Valentia. It helped that I brought along a grip full of worthy books - Mary Lavin's short stories of Irish country life, Frank O'Connor on Cork, Peter Kavanagh's autobiography "Beyond Affection," a collection of his brother Patrick's verse, some O'Casey - and the new Barbara Murphy recording of harp music.
It was a boost, too, that Sean O'Shea would occasionally come by for an evening of friendship. Once, he brought the bouncing news that Valentia had been ruled centuries ago by the MacCarthaig clan. In fact, he said, they drove out the O'Sheas. The early McCarthys were landgrabbers, but like all those who have much but want more, they overextended themselves and were eventually conquered.
That was about all I wanted in the way of roots. I learned early, at least if the McCarthy's of Kerry are any indication, that the Irish are weary of Americans coming over on a roots kick. A parish priest sighed that he was frittering away too many of his days checking baptismal records for great-uncle Pat and great-grandmother Brigit for this or that descendant in Boston or Philadelphia. "They want to know about the family tree all right," said the priest, "but they think maybe there's still a gold leaf or two hanging on the limbs - unclaimed land still left in the family over here."
I would have been thrilled to find a few acres myself on Valentia, what with all of its 14 square miles once being in the family. But the island's people were so neighborly and its land so restful that ownership mattered little. Everything was here for the taking anyway - or rather the sharing.