It's a strange, small and occasionally wonderful world.

On the west coast of Ireland is a little town that boasts a few hundred people, 27 pubs and a sweeping vista of the sea. It's called Miltown-Malbay.

In the little town lives an elderly woman, a retired American schoolteacher whose son lives and works in Washington. For Christmas she came to the States and stayed for a time at this son's home.

One thing she wanted to do in Washington was to see the National Gallery, so her son dropped her off there a day after Christmas. Then he and his daughter went next door to the Sculpture Garden Ice Rink and rented two pairs of the worst excuses for ice skates either could imagine.

"The people who rent these skates should be shot," announced a woman sitting next to the man and his daughter on the bench where they were lacing up.

The floppy suede boot tops of the skates provided no ankle support; the laces were inadequate and the blade edges hadn't been sharpened. But no one expected paradise, and it was enough to be sliding along under the leaden winter sky with the pigeons sweeping across the rink and the scratchy music over the PA system.

It was not crowded but it was getting there: Tall people and short people, kids and adults trickled in for the 2-to-4 session; some could skate and some couldn't.

The ones that could took the middle of the rink and performed pirouettes, camels and axels. The ones that couldn't, like the man and his daughter, slid around the outer edge of the rink at various speeds until their ankles or feet gave out, and then clung to the steel railing, regaining strength.

The man liked this part, hanging onto the outside rail for a breather, because he could watch the crazy panoply of faces streaking by. He couldn't remember being anywhere where people seemed more happy, and he noticed that among the happiest people were the ones who could barely stand on their skates, to whom this exercise was a great adventure.

After one such break he took off again, holding hands with his daughter, but three-fourths of the way around the rink they came to an abrupt stop when a tiny snowy figure collapsed in front of them and couldn't regain its feet.

The man and his daughter asked the little figure if it was all right. A boy's face looked up and asked timidly, "Can you help me?"

So they took a hand each and coaxed the boy to his feet and nursed him along in the slow line. His legs seemed disconnected from the rest of him, dangling like pupppets' limbs as the rental skates rolled and flopped and twisted on the slick ice.

But in time the knack began to come to him. "I thought it would be like roller skating," he said. "It's not."

"What is your name?" the man asked.

"Taragh," said the boy. "Spelled T-A-R-A-G-H."

"And where are you from?"

"Galway, in Ireland," said the boy. "Could you help my brother now?"

Ahead loomed another collapsing puppet, slightly larger than the first but dressed exactly the same. The man and his daughter took the larger boy's hands. He said that his name was Conor, and that his and his brother's last name wasy Crowley.

"You are from Galway, eh?" asked the man. "Then you must know County Clare."

"Yiss," said Conor Crowley.

"And have you ever heard of Miltown-Malbay?"

"Yiss," said Conor Crowley with a smile.

"My mother lives in Miltown-Malbay," said the man.

The man and his daughter helped the two Irish boys through most of the session, taking pleasure in the way the youngsters accepted assistance and placed their trust in strangers. t

Just before 4, the music stopped and a voice warned that the session was coming to an end. Conor Crowley, visiting America for the first time, looked up at the man and said, "My mother is from Miltown-Malbay, too."