Here on the outer fringe of Europe, a stormy autumn arrived hard on the heels of an abominably cold, wet summer. I have stopped looking at the Irish Times' weather map because I know it will just show another low pressure system off Iceland headed straight this way. And my wife, Lo, packed away her bathing suit unused. Except to feel our garbage to the gulls at low tide, she hasn't been near the water since we moved to southwest Ireland from Northwest Washington in April.
Why did we do it? our County Kerry friends ask in puzzlement. Their questions contrast markedly with those asked last spring by the much missed friends and family members we were leaving behind, who seemed to understand (and, in many cases, envy) our decision to try, in our sixties, a new way of life in a new country.
Our neighbors in rural Tuosist have made us warmly welcome with gifts of fresh eggs, new-dug potatoes, rhubarb, jars of black currant jam and cuttings for Lo to set out on our acre and a quarter. They have advised us on weedkillers and plowed and manured our small vegetable garden. But while helping us to settle in, most people here have been less than successful in their courteous efforts to conceal their feelings that we must be mad. Why leave the States, with all the ease and material advantage Americans have? And where its cheaper, too?
Our Kerry neighbors have a point. A Dublin columnist recently wrote that Irish-Americans no longer speak fondly of "dear old Ireland" but complain about costs in "dear, dear Ireland." Inflation (at an annual rate of 20 percent) and, to some extent, the effects of membership in the European Economic Community have brought European prices to the Irish Republic without, in most instances, comparable European value and amenities. And this, for us, at a time when the dollar is doing poorly against European currencies, including the Irish.
"It's so beautiful here," Lo said, trying to explain the reasons for our move to a polite but persistent elderly questioner at the Pier House, one of the three pubs -- each a distinctive social center -- within a five-mile radius of the townland of Canfee, where we have settled.
"Ah, of course," he agreed. "It is that. But a man can't live on a view."
Maybe not. We don't really know yet.
Six years of visiting South Kerry whenever we could swing the fare and free time had confirmed for us a mutual initial impression that this was the landscape of our desire: pine trees, palm trees, bamboo and huge rhododendron beside the sea against a backdrop of rugged, rock-faced mountains. Our visits had also taught us that this lush spot takes a lot of rain to keep it so.
But "soft" Irish weather was what we had experienced: frequent gentle showers, often with rainbows, broken by what the forecasters on Radio Eireann describe as "bright spells." Not rain in torrents. Not rain so hard and steady that the boggy hillside behind the house we now own could hold no more and water flooded in our back door and out the front. Not rain every day save three from late May throughout June, July, and August!
Those are the months that are supposed to compensate residents for the dark Irish winter when the sun rises late and sets before tea. Summer months with 15 to 18 hours of daylight (Tuosist is at the latitude of southern Labrador) during which, in other years, we have gloried in the ever-changing patterns of sun and cloud shadows and mist on the 3,000-foot McGillicuddy's Reeks across the Kenmare River below our house. This broad stretch of water, open to the Atlantic 15 miles west, is really a bay. It was designated a river, we have been told, so that the British lords who once owned all the shoreland (and still hold part of them) could retain fishing rights. This year for weeks at a time we have seldom seen the far side of the river, let alone the breathtaking vistas seaward.
One thing the summer-that-never-came verified: That is the sense we have always had in rural Ireland of the indomitable spirit and wit of an island people who live intimately with the hazards of weather. Atlantic weather. Economic weather. Political weather.
Courage and humor are savored here as they can be only where a tragic sense of life -- or at least the daily recognition of its uncertainties -- prevails. How else could a Kerry farmer survive having to look at the sodden hay he cut between downpours in early summer still standing in September?
We spent these rainy months living our own version of that post-World War II novel, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House."
The O'Neill version involved the 200-year-old, two-story, slate-roofed stone farmhouse we arranged to buy after living in it for six weeks in 1979. Although restored in 1968 by its British owner as a place for summer holidays, it needed a sizable amount of renovation for year-round living.
We didn't expect to get this work done quickly. We were well aware that Ireland's usual tempo is rather like that of a pubkeeper drawing a pint of Guinness stout. He pulls the tap and the glass if filled with what seems to be nothing but brown foam. After much of the foam subsides, more stout is added. And then more, and perhaps even more, before a perfect pink with a 3/4 inch collar is pushed across the bar to the patiently waiting customer. No Irishman would have it otherwise. What we didn't quite realize was how apt the metaphor would prove to be with "tradesmen" (Irish parlance for workers in the building trades).
Shortly after our arrival our contractor himself made us some bookcases. These were set up only a few days before what worldly goods we had decided we couldn't live without -- including 25 cartons of books -- arrived from the Port of Baltimore, via Rotterdam and Dublin. So far, so good. But it was nearly a month before the plumber-resident, a young Dutch-born resident, appeared. Then came three days hazed with stone and plaster dust as holes were knocked through 2 1/2 foot walls to accomodate a maze of pipes and electrical conduits. When the dust had settled in a thin gray coating on everything -- including all those just unpacked and half-shelved books -- we had a new hot water tank, a solid fuel stove for cooking and heating, and three radiators in place. Then Ron, the Dutchman, in his capacity as plumber, found that he needed a pump to make the system work properly. It took another three weeks for that to be found.
The course thus set has continued. We have never known when someone might turn up to work or quite what the job might entail. Amazingly productive spasms of construction and clean-up have been followed by long periods in which we have waited while the tradesmen have gone off on some other job.
My mother-in-law, a wise woman of Irish descent, has written recently to say she believes we will be very happy here when we finally get settled "if your money and your health hold out." Well, we have found a pretty barber in Kenmare who cuts our hair in her shop ("Will-o-the-Wisp -- Ladies and Gents Hair Dressing") for a pound (about $2.15) apiece. That helps balance the high price of food and drink. Whiskey is more than $17 a bottle (gin and vodka the same) so we can't put away an unhealthy amount. We also have found an excellent doctor, who clearly keeps up to date on matters that affect us. He charges 4 pounds for an office visit. Our Washingtonian physician might like to know that the medical records he has compiled on us for years "read like a novel" to our man in Kenmare, who says he "sat up half the night over them." I think he was kidding.
We'll never know for sure, though, when a Kerryman is having us on. They're subtle, wonderful people. We like living among them, more all the time. And the beauty of this place, when the rains break and the western light streaks the sea with silver, never fails to move us. In short, despite problems, what we can report from Tuosist after six months here is that life is good.