It was my first day in Ireland and the Westlodge Motel in Bantry where I was staying had paper-thin walls and catered to Americans. It smelled like Lifebuoy soap, and boasted a different rock and folk group in its lounge every night. At the end of one of the two-story sprawling wings was an indoor swimming pool and squash court. If it had not been for the Irish brogues of all the staff, one might think she'd never left the States.
Bantry is off the beaten track for tourists in southern Ireland, though tours of the Ring of Kerry and Blarney Castle are offred at the hotelhs front desk. The major city of Cork is to the east and an hour away; Glengariff, the next town to the west, offers horseback riding at O'Donoghue's Riding Stable and an exquisite view of lush green hills.
"Ah, 'tis but a mile into town and a nice walk, too," assures the hotel clerk, "if you don't wish to hire John Brady to give you a lift.
Indeed, it is a nice walk, and especially nice to see and feel a bit or Ireland as I walk round the bend that leads into the town. The wind gusting off the bay numbs my earlobes. It taps out a code on my shoulder with the labels of my coat. It parts my hair, sleeks it back flush against my head then reverses direction and floods my eyes. Small cars whisk by me and several of the drivers give a thumbs-up greeting. Bicyclists startle me from behind with their good-morning greeting. A rattling tin can, pushed along by the wind's force, keeps me company for a few yards.
In the distance, farmlands divided by borders of planted trees and hedges cover the hills that surround Bantry. Tghe Gulf Oil terminal's long-boomed cranes can be seen as I approach the town. Bantry Bay is the second deepest in the world and the oil company moved into the town of 4,000 inhabitants about 10 years ago, thereby improving its economy and bringing new people to live there.
Alongside the dock a sandyhaired young lad squeals, "Catch it, Liam," as he hurls a twitching fish through theair. A three-boy relay is in progress: One casts his line from the boat he stands in, which is tied to the pier; the other wrestles the fish off the hook before he flings the fish to Liam who is standing on shore. After catching it, he mercilessly bangs the head of the fish against the rounded stone wall that surrounds the pier. Within minutes, seven quivering and sliding mackerel are piled at his feet.
The toothless, hunched over, black-suited old men along the dock encourage Bantry's newest generation of fishermen as I turn into the bend leading to the main street of the town.
The Bay View House is operated by Margaret Evans and is the first "Bedand-Breakfast" home that you see as you enter the town. For $6 a night a guest can stay with Evans and receive the same Irish hospitality she has been offering to tourists for the past 30 years. They have come from as far away as the Fiji Islands and California, she says, and she has served them all an Irish breakfast of juice, porridge, bacon and eggs, sausage, corn flakes and tea or coffee.
"When my husband died, leaving me with four small children to support, things were not too good in Bantry then so I decided to open my house to uests as well as operate our small grocery store," she reminisced. "I've never been sorry. I just love people and tourists are lovely . . . they're the same the world over. The house is a bit upset but I'll show you the bedroom if you wish," she offers, taking me upstairs.
The walls in Evan's home are covered with Irish leader killed during the Troubles of 1922, hang on all three floors floors. "Do read "The Great Hunger' by Woodham Smith if you want to know about our Famine," she tells me as we enter an upstairs bedroom.
Pointing to the door of an oversized, heavily shellacked wooden wardrobe over in tghe corner, she shows me where a bullet splintered the wood. It landed there when it came trough the second-floor window during the Troubles; there was fighting outside in the Square. She's proud of her historic possession and relieved that life in Bantry today is strife-free.
As the smell of burnt cabbage rises she excuses herself, leaving me free to look around the room. Clean, white-on-white, Grecian urn-design wallpaper covers the walls. A citation proclaiming Evans a member of the Central Midwives Board in England during World War II hangs on the wall. A pink, matted chenille bedspread covers the double bed that squeaks when I sit on it. There's a sink in the room with hot and cold running water; a plastic glass hangs in a metal holder next to a small mirror on the wall. Venetian blinds cover the windows, letting in plenty of afternoon light but not keeping out the sound of the windows rattling from the wind. A solitary lamp encrusted with shellacked snail shells rests on a linen-covered table beside the beds. Its fluted rayon shade is disclored with brown burnt spots. Many a traveler has read well into the night at the home of Mrs. Evans.
"I can always cook more cabbage," she says, returning and smoothing the bedspread where I had sat. "Come now and see my tub and I shall tell you its story."
The sign inside the bathroom reads "40p" to see the tub/shower combination. Her L-shaped tourist attraction is cerntainly unique. A batter can turn on one of three faucets and experience one of three sensations. One faucet fills the tub with water to bathe in, one controls the overhead shower and one controls the sprays of water that will shoot out from all three sides of the semi-enclosed unit. Mrs. Evans beams with pride as she tells me the tub was made in 1900 and its counterpart is on display in the Leeds Museum in England. I take her word for it.
The sweet aroma of peat burning in her dining room fireplace draws us downstairs and past the religious shrines displayed on shelves at each landing. "Here, come sit by the fire," she beckons as she consents to tell me about herself.
She doesn't look well into her 60s, sitting trim and rigid in her neat red polyster dress. "Blue Nun" is written across the top of her red vinyl apron that pictures a nun carrying a basket of harvested grapes advertising the popular California wine. A skylight in the dining room highlights the permanent wrinkles in Mrs. Evan's brow and her chestnut-colored hair covered by a blue transparent scarf.
Life is simple and happy for her at the Bay View House, she says. All of her children are grown and some of her world now rests on the mantel over the fireplace; thinking-of-you cards from guests are displayed. Her shamrock-design linen tablecloths are starched, pressed and cover her four dining room tables. She has no guests that evening that she knows of. "Most of the people just arrive," she tells me with a beaming grin, "and I leave my door open at all times for them."
All the doorways in Bantry are painted in vivid colors; aqua next to lilac next to seocking pink next to mocha. Shiny brass knockers or forsted glass panes decorate the doors. Quart-sized milk bottles are placed outside of private homes for the milkman's delivery. Hugh bunches of 15-inch-long carrots and baskets full of bowling-ball-sized cabbages are placed for sale outside of stores.
Travelling tinker hawks his wares from the back of his blue van parked in the village square; fishermen's knit sweaters, puffy, cream-colorred sheepskin rugs, hip-high green vinyl boots and nylon snorkel jackets spill out of sagging boxes placed on the ground.
Two local construction workers pose for a friendly picture when I ask them to. "Get on with it now," one jests, "and make sure you get me sandals in the picture," he says, pointing to his leather shoes which he says are 14 years old.
Gossiping Irish line the narrow sidewalks of Bantry. There's always that extra minute to exchange a few words. Customers in shops are waited on with ease and storekeepers sometimes will stand outside of their stores and direct a customer to another establishment.
At any time during the day or evening, pub patrons lean toward each other sharing lengthy stories and turns buying pints of Smithwicks lager. The pace in Bantry is slow I am finding out my first day in Ireland. Although the Irish drive fast, speak rapidly and like toe-tapping music, their service is leisurely.
Dinner reservations that evening, at the Vickery's Inn located on the main street in town, are for 6:30 p.m. Our party of five is on time, however the owner comes over as we wait in the lobby to inform us the waitress is late for work and we will have to wait. About 7, a sweet, round-faced, unassuming young girl gingerly hands us one of the two menus used in the hotel.It is ripping in half and offers a limited selection: Smoked salmon, mutton cutlets, bacon and eggs and sausage, or a t-bone steak are the entrees.
We wait in the lobby of the hotel until dinner is served. A 21-inch color TV blares in the corner of the room that is also furnished with a carved oak credenza, a gold-leafed marble-topped sideboard, Naugahyde lounge chaifs and dust-covered hanging Waterford crystal chandeliers.*t"Your dinner is ready," the young waitress whispers as she directs us into the dining room. Linen tablecloths cover shaky mahogany tables. An overweight Dalmatian dog wobbles from table to table followed by a small black cat.Music is piped in from somewhere. Although the decor is very diverse, the service painfully slow, the food at the Vickery Inn is excellent and inexpensive. A grilled salmon cutlet served with a vegetable dish mounded with mashed potatoes and French-style string beans, plus a side order of grilled tomatoes, costs only $7.90. A cup of Irish coffee with a layer of thick real cream is just right to finish off the day.
Though John Brady, the taxi driver, has gone home for the evening, the boy at the gas station tells us to just knock on his door, which is across the square, and he will come out and drive us back to the motel. He does just that. Past the dimly lit pubs; Mrs. Evans' home with the light on outside; past the main attraction in Bantry, the Bantry House, that displays 18th-century Irish relics as well as original Marie Antoinette tapestries, and past the fishermen's boats anchored in the bay.
"Would you be aneeding me tomorrow?" John asks after pulling into the circular driveway at the Westlodge. "If you do, just dial 23," he says tipping his cap while standing in the mist that is softly fallin over Ireland that night.
"Probably not, John," I answered. "If it's a nice day, I think I'll take another walk around the bends of Bantry." CAPTION: Picture, Bantry, with Bay View House at right; by Judith G. Albanese