The air is different in Ireland. The ocean never feels far away, and rain often seems a distinct possibility, so you are always somehow in the presence of water. This gives the atmosphere a soft, often tranquil quality, and the land a pliant, spongy feel. But you don't mind the wet here, because it doesn't so much rain as mist in Ireland, and sometimes the whole country seems bathed in soft focus, awash in a lovely green blur.
Not far from the west coast of this atmospheric land, in the middle of County Galway, is Loughrea, a town of about 3,500 people where my mother, Bridie Flynn, was born in 1906. Actually, she was born in a mud-wall, thatched-roof cottage on a farm in Coorheen, one of Loughrea's rural satellites. She came to America in the 1920s, settling in the Bronx and leaving behind most of her large family in Ireland. Eight of her siblings stayed in Galway, in the areas around Loughrea -- Kilnadeema, Cloonoo, Coorheen.
Today, the Irish are few in the Bronx, where I was born, and I have no one left there. But when I first saw Coorheen a number of years ago, I felt I was home. And subsequent visits have strengthened the feeling. My cousin Martin Flynn runs the farm (renovated now, with indoor plumbing and electricity) where my mother started out in life, and as I look around this very small corner of the planet and breath in the air, it's clear this is where I belong.
Ireland is a wonderful land to look at, to smell, to travel through, to be part of. For so small a country, it offers great topographical variety -- mountains, lakes, rolling farmlands, woods, even palm trees in County Kerry. In the Burren, a 100-square-mile plateau of rocks and hills in County Clare, you feel like you've just landed on an asteroid. And everywhere the skeletons of antiquity -- old ruins, towers, dolmens, the shells of castles -- evoke the profound sense of the past that is missing in a young country like the United States.
If you're smart enough to come in out of it, the rain is also a good excuse to sample indoor life in Ireland. The Irish are mostly a very hospitable and friendly people. You might wind up becoming friends for life with the hosts who run your bed-and-breakfast inn. Or you might mix very well with the patrons of the pub you're in one afternoon.
I'm no beer drinker, but in Ireland it's hard to stay away from the Guinness (which tastes different and better in its native habitat) or the pints of Smithwicks (pronounced smid-iks). On my most recent trip to Loughrea, we visited Mick Keary's pub. Keary is an old friend of my cousins, and a musician to boot, so his establishment is a congenial place to spend an afternoon -- talking, singing, playing tunes. In Ballinasloe, a small city of 6,500 10 or 15 miles east of Loughrea, we tried The Log Cabin on Main Street. That night there was a ceili (an Irish word for "social gathering," but most often applied to Irish dances), but The Log Cabin also features disco and other forms of entertainment. Later on, we stumbled upon an after-hours session at The Bridge Bar, a few blocks away. The curtains were drawn, the lights dimmed, and the music and song flowed as readily as the stout.
I grew up thinking that Galway was the center of paradise and that Galwegians were definitely among God's most thoughtful gifts to humanity. These early biases are difficult to shake, especially when they seem so accurate.
Sometimes the Irish seem to be a people of extremes. A man or woman will either not drink or will drink to excess, just as some love to hear the sound of their own voices while others will almost never speak. In Galway, assent is often signaled non-verbally: by a quick whistling intake of breath. My friend Charlie Piggott is a quiet man who will often inhale Galway-style rather than talk. In the little town of Kinvarra, on Galway Bay and about as far to the west of Loughrea as Ballinasloe is to its east, Charlie and his American-born wife, Maggie, have recently opened a little restaurant called The Cafe, specializing in sandwiches and fresh soup every day.
In the United States, people laugh at any suggestion of a link between the Irish and good food, but this is very unfair. You'll get a decent breakfast ("a fry") at any good B & B, usually enough to keep you going for hours. We're talking a good feed of eggs, incredibly delicious Irish sausage, bacon, fried tomatoes, crumbly brown bread, maybe a dab of jam and plenty of steaming strong tea. And turn down no invitations to eat a home-cooked meal in the country, where the fare will consist of incredibly fresh ingredients.
(To digress just a bit, in defense of black pudding: This popular sausage is made from pigs' blood, and Americans usually seem horrified at the mere thought. I don't understand this at all. Of course, I was raised on the stuff -- among the Bronx Irish, it was referred to less euphemistically in those days as blood pudding -- so I admit I'm conditioned to like it. But I truly believe it's a genuine no-frills Irish treat that shouldn't be passed up. C'mon, take a chance.)
Stop by The Cafe in Kinvarra, and perhaps you can coax a tune out of your host. Charlie was for many years a charter member of DeDanann, one of Ireland's premier traditional bands. He plays tenor banjo and button accordion and knows hundreds of unusual tunes.
Galway is alive with music and musicians. Many of the greats of Irish music (particularly Irish accordion music) are Galwegians: the late Joe Heaney, singer and storyteller from Carna (in Connemara, the rugged Irish-speaking area at the extreme west of the county, once described as resembling "a landscape of the moon"); Joe Burke, accordion and flute player from Loughrea; Joe Cooley from the town of Peter's Well (and later of Chicago and other U.S. cities, where he taught the music to numerous Yanks); the brilliant, innovative Martin O'Connor; and Sean McGlynn, a magnetic person and player. The music in Galway is the genuine article, cut right out of the land, with "the smell of the turf still on it," as they say.
Galway city is the great metropolis of the county -- a charming 501-year-old town that got its charter in 1848, during the reign of England's Richard II. It's sophisticated, yet without the sometimes oppressive urbanization of Dublin.
There are free concerts in Eyre Square (the city's center), ticketed concerts and other events at the Taibhdhearc (pronounced tive-yark, the only Irish-speaking theater in Ireland) and performances at the prestigious Druid Theater. There are good bookstores (especially Kenny's), restaurants and hotels. And there are a few pubs -- Cullen's, The Crane and The Kings Head among them -- where you can hear tunes and ballads, and maybe discover a seisiu'n (a jam session) in progress. August is the month for the famed Galway Races, when the city really comes alive with excitement over the fast horses, hot times and the whole colorful business.
But if you tear it up in Galway city and find yourself in need of an antidote, there is another spot in the county that will help restore you to sanity -- Thoor Ballylee. This is the beautiful tower in the woods near the town of Gort (10 minutes from Loughrea) that William Butler Yeats refurbished and lived in for a time. Yeats called the tower, now a government-run museum, "a permanent symbol of my work." You will find serenity and a sense of enchantment here. Also near Gort is Coole Park where Lady Gregory, Yeat's patron, spent her days. It too is open to the public.
Just over the Galway border on Galway Bay is the lovely town of Ballyvaughan in County Clare. There, in 1881, the birth year of Seumas O'Kelly (Loughrea's most famous writer, author of the classic story "The Weaver's Grave"), my father's mother was born. Margaret Guthrie was a beautiful, intriguing woman -- a poet and allegedly a friend of Sir Roger Casement, the controversial rebel executed by the British in 1916 -- and I had always wanted to visit her birthplace.
The house where she was born still stands. It is now home to an excellent restaurant downstairs and a wonderful craft store above. Manus Walsh is the craftsman. He is the grandson of Maurice Walsh -- author of "Trouble in the Glen" and of the story used as the basis for "The Quiet Man," the 1952 John Ford movie filmed in Galway and starring John Wayne -- and the maker of a beautiful array of Claddagh rings (which originated in Galway), enamel and metal jewelry based on Celtic designs, and piles of other inviting goods.
On that same recent visit, at the little home of my cousins and their 10 children, we held all-night parties for two days in a row and it seemed like practically the whole of Ballyvaughan showed up. It did my heart good to see the Clare set danced for the first time. A four-couple, five-figure dance, the set is customarily done in country kitchens or living rooms, with dancers shouting "Round the house and mind the dresser!" as they spin around, battering the floor in a dazzle of footwork that can frighten unsuspecting dogs, children and tourists.
In Ballyvaughan, and all over Ireland, old people are never discarded or dishonored. Quite the opposite: They are figures commanding respect. They are also the life of the party. Katie Droney -- drink in one hand, cigarette in the other -- sang funny, sad and sometimes risque' songs in both Irish and English. Mick Keane and Mick Corrugan sang, danced, told stories and played about six instruments between them. No one could keep up with these people, all of them in their seventies and eighties. They have mastered one of the most attractive traits of the Irish: the capacity for self-entertainment.
I don't like to leave Ireland. I feel as though I have always been here. Back in Galway, my brother Jesse and I found that we blended right into the family, and all the relatives kept telling us it was good to have us "home" again.
My aunts all reminded me of my mother, who died when I was a teen-ager. Auntie Nora made me promise to come back in a year and I said okay, I would, and we both cried. I took my wife, Susan, to meet Auntie Moll, who at 94 is the family elder. We sat around the fire with friends and relatives, having some tea and a bit of talk. Auntie Moll was quiet, taking it all in. Finally, she took hold of my hand and Susan's, and drew us close to her. She squeezed our hands and asked if we were enjoying life. She had gigantic, hypnotic eyes and a benevolent aura.
Somehow I felt this was the most important question I'd ever been asked. We both said, yes, we were. "Good," she said happily, as though she had just imparted the secret of her beauty and longevity, "enjoy life." I can still feel her hand in mine.