Friday, December 19, 2008

Our Time In Ireland

This blog chronicles our visit to Rosscarbery, Ireland in December, 2008, by four Iowans.

Part pilgrimage, part pure escape, the stay ended up exceeding our wildest expectations. The credit for this goes to good people of Rosscarbery.

They were beyond kind. Witty, generous and helpful, they embroidered moment after moment with good cheer. For seven days, they were fast friends to four Americans who had pressed themselves like iron-on patches to the social fabric of the community.

In the days leading up to our departure to Ireland, we would tell friends the trip was months in the making. Perhaps it was more than that.

Yes, our conversations about going to Ireland began in the spring. But now that we’ve returned with so many memories to treasure, we could be convinced that maybe this trip was, in a spiritual sense, years in the making.

Rosscarbery is a scenic, unpretentious village with a gentle soul. Located on the southwest coast of County Cork within earshot of the sea, the community has a population of about 950 year-round residents. It is off the well-worn tourist track of foreigners and too often given short shrift by guide books.

Despite its low profile, Rosscarbery has an attraction that most other cities in Ireland cannot claim – a direct family connection to John, one of the four Iowans and the shooter of the photos below.

The tie goes back to Ellen Wolfe, who left Rosscarbery in the shadow of the 1840s potato famine with her husband William Hawks of nearby Bandon, Ireland. They settled in Iowa and so many decades later, John, one of their many descendants was back in the clan. With his wife, Heather, and their friends Carol and Tom, in tow, John kept the memory of his ancestors alive with church and heritage center visits.

Ireland is a place where the phrase “Cead Mile Failte!” (One hundred thousand welcomes!) is more than just a tourist board slogan. Reaching back thousands of years, it is a greeting that reflects the ageless yearning of our species to commune in a spirit of good nature.

From Nora Hubbert, the craft shop proprietor who was keeper of our apartment over looking Rosscarbery square, to the 9-year-old who beat us at a ring toss game in The Abbey Bar, everyone we encountered treated us as if they were sincerely happy we were there.

All this made leaving on Friday, Dec. 12, for the airport at Shannon a sad experience.

Today, it’s difficult to say whether the fondness in our hearts for this one small town in west County Cork is the result of an accident or spiritual design.

But this much is certain: Genealogical research years ago by John’s family paid off. It lit our way to Rosscarbery, making all of us richer for our time away.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Eating well, very well

Ireland is bit like Iowa when it comes to dining. Food snobs have traditionally given the local cuisine in both places a bad rap. The four of us know there are fine places to eat in Iowa. Now, we also know there is wonderful food to be had in Ireland, at least in Rosscarbery.

Gossip, a full-service restaurant, and Roc’s, a delightful, traditional fish-and-chips takeaway place, have already been mentioned. We were also most impressed with Lily House, which calls itself a Chinese restaurant but actually offers more than Chinese fare. For example, one dish in the gut-busting meal for three that we had on Tuesday evening was Malaysian.

The place we’ve eaten the most here is Pilgrim’s Rest Coffee House and Restaurant. Serving breakfast and lunch through the afternoon, Pilgrim’s Rest is an exceptional eatery. For starters, it is bold enough to have an Illy coffeemaker from Italy. This is daring in a country that worships at the altar of tea. Breakfasts are ample and delicious, owing to the fact that all ingredients are fresh.

Alex Suss and Joanne Durrant opened their restaurant here five years ago. Alex is from Switzerland. Joanne is from England. They definitely know what they’re doing. This is a place that tourists passing through might not know about, but they should.

Lord of the Rings

Oh, they shoot darts in Rosscarbery. Indeed, some lads were playing 301 Monday evening at The Abbey Bar. They made the game look easy.

They also toss rings at The Abbey. This would be a great indoor game to share with friends who might not be safe to put close to sharp objects.

The concept is similar to darts. Each player gets to toss six rings at a board outfitted with `13 cup hooks. Each cup hook has a point value. The object is to land a hook on a ring until a player hits a predetermined number, usually 200. Then, before the first person to hit the number can claim victory, he or she must land three rings on the #1 hook at the bottom of the board.

Because this blog reports the whole truth, it must be mentioned here that the HPT delegation went looking for the toughest local competition they could find. In the late afternoon Wednesday, they took on Aaron. Little did they know, he was a ringer. Aaron quickly raced past Tom and Carol and then John. For a while, it was neck-and-neck with Heather. Finally, though Aaron landed the winning ring, teaching the Americans a lesson they’d likely remember for quite a while. Oh, by the way, Aaron is 9 years old (he’ll be 10 in January).

The holy places of Ireland

It might be stretching it a wee bit to suggest that John has spent as much time in churches as he has in pubs. But it is a fact that not since he was an altar boy has John genuflected as often as he has this week.

On Wednesday, John woke up at the crack of dawn to attend the daily 9 a.m. Mass at the aforementioned St. Fatchna’s. He discovered that the sacraments here can be dispensed with reverential efficiency. Mass lasted about 15 minutes.

Tuesday, he called on St. Patrick’s in Bandon, the hometown of William Hawks. Built in 1861, on a spot that had been a place of worship for centuries, St. Patrick’s is impressive. The church rises above Bandon’s bustling center-city shopping district with regal flair.

As it turned out, John slipped into St. Patrick’s between two funerals. He even served as an impromptu usher, holding the church doors open for locals bringing in flowers for the second funeral. Once an altar boy, always an altar boy.

You betcha

It is about as easy to find a place to wager in Ireland as it is to find a fast-food joint in the States.

The Irish clearly enjoy games of a chance. The Mouse Races we went to on Saturday are a good example. The betting was fast and furious. And when the four Yanks strolled in, eyes lit up. Someone was heard to exclaim, “The heavy money has come in from the States!’’

Rosscarbery, for as small as it is, has a bookie on the square. One day, Heather walked in, thinking there might be a wireless connection for her laptop. A customer smiled and asked, “Do you have a hot tip for us?’’ Seeing as how she had already won money on Saturday, Heather said, “Yes, go with mouse four in the sixth race.’’

And, finally, the fondness for gaming here was put this way at one restaurant. “Oh, yes, people here will wager on just about anything,’’ we were told. “We already have bets in the kitchen on how many pieces of bread will come back from your table.’’

In the doorway of Dillon’s

The last time Tom and Carol were in Ireland, their partners in crime were Marilyn Dillon and Brian Horton, great friends in New Jersey. Back then, they were all delighted to find Dillon’s pub in the small West Cork town of Timoleague.

Our fantasy was that if we stayed in front of the pub long enough, one of Marilyn’s cousins would come out and ask if she’d like to have the pub. While we waited, Brian snapped a classic photo of Marilyn leaning against the door. That photo hangs on the wall of Tom and Carol’s house back in Des Moines.

Because we miss Marilyn and Brian and think of them often, and because we wanted to share a piece of our past with John and Heather, we returned to Timoleague. Carol leaned on the same spot where Marilyn leaned more than a decade ago. A photo was snapped.

Coincidentally, when we visited with Marilyn and Brian, Dillon’s was closed. It was also closed on Wednesday. If Marilyn had been given the pub back then, we know it would have been open.

The magical history tour

Today will be our last in Rosscarbery. Tomorrow we will venture north through counties Kerry and Clare, before returning to Shannon for our Saturday flight back to the States. Today is likely to be bittersweet for us.

It is amazing how life works sometimes. Long lost echoes of time drew us to Rosscarbery.

More than 150 years after they left Ireland, William Hawks and Ellen Wolfe, John’s ancestors, spoke to family and the new friends tagging along: This is my Bandon. This is my Rosscarbery. Hear the sounds we heard. Men, women and children living, working, praying, playing and laughing. Smell the turf fires burning into dusk. This is our West Cork, with green hills, churches, castle ruins and narrow, squinting roads. This is the land we once knew, with proud little towns that have risen up through sunshine and rain for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Yes, this is the place we left behind so long ago, to make a better life for ourselves and those who would follow. Don’t make too much of what we did. Just enjoy the place where we lived while you can, and remember it when you like. That will keep us living for another 150 years.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Drive time in West Cork

After spending four days as little miss know-it-all with Garmin GPS in backseat, Heather got behind the wheel. Driving on the left-hand side of the road is challenging for most Americans, but for Heather, it was as if she had been driving here her entire life. Heather's theory: “It’s from all those years of playing Pole Position.’’

Irish officials say pork off

Irish hospitality has outdone itself this week. Consider that they have four Americans from Iowa casting about in County Cork. Sure, the Iowans love the scenery and the good people they’ve met in Rosscarbery.

But being Iowans, who all happen to work in the media, they are accustomed at least one jigger per day of pig news. So, to assure that the Iowans would not be incapacitated by nostalgic longing for pig news, someone in Ireland arranged for the headlines here to be dominated by pig news.

It seems some pigs somewhere ate some bad feed. For safety sake, Irish officials pulled all pork products off the shelves. That means no rashers, no sausage, no pork chops, no bangers. It was “Pork Off,’’ as one headline writer for a tabloid newspaper put it.

The Iowans heard the news Sunday in O’Mahoney’s, a small pub in Ardfield. At first, they thought it was a joke concocted for the benefit of four Iowans who might be going through pig-news withdrawal. But soon enough, the Iowans realized the news was both sad and true. OK, so Iowans are accustomed to pig news, but hearing this makes us feel bad for everyone touched by the episode.

Release the hounds

Everyone who knows John and Heather can appreciate how much they love dogs. So, in a way, it is appropriate that our two encounters with killer canine were visited upon them. Call it the revenge of Riley and Quinn.

On Saturday, as we headed west, we turned down a lane so that John could shoot some scenery. Heather got out of the car too. Carol and Tom, being somewhat jaded perhaps, stayed in the car. While John, cap turned backward, snapped away, Heather ambled down the lane a bit. Without warning, a large black farm dog bounded out of the brush. The dog startled Heather, who began to make her way gingerly back toward the car. Clearly the dog was deliriously happy about having some human contact, indifferent to the reluctance on the part of the human. Heather ‘s every move back to the vehicle was diplomatic, sort of like a woman trying to move away from a drunk friend in a bar. For his part, the dog became even more enamored. His muddy paws left brown prints on her jeans. And poor Heather, as she finally eased into the backseat, smelled a little like a swamp mutt who’d been left out in the rain.

Monday, on our way toward the nearby sea, we stopped at a castle ruin. Across the road from a most impressive ruin, we spied more spires over the tree line. As John stepped out of the car about a dozen different dogs raced toward him, baring their fangs. As the lead dog was about to get the taste of fresh American ankle, John was able to pull himself back into the car. With all of us safely inside, we ventured forward. A woman came up to us as we rolled through a courtyard that clearly dated back to centuries ago. We had seen no “private property” signs, but still we apologized. The woman smiled. She said it was no problem. “Can we get out and take some pictures?’’ we asked. She smiled again, but shook her head. “Oh, I wouldn’t. Cross dogs.’’ None of us had ever heard the expression “cross dogs’’ before, but we knew enough catechism to know that “cross dogs’’ was not old Irish slang for Christian dogs.

You say it’s your birthday

It is official according to Sean O’Donovan, The Abbey Bar’s publican and a man who would certainly know about such things. Talia, who turned 11 on Tuesday, became the first American girl to hear a pub in Rosscarbery sing “Happy Birthday’’ on a cell phone via satellite.

Talia is the daughter of Tom, John’s older brother. Uncle John and Aunt Heather felt bad about being 5,000 miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, for Talia’s birthday. So, they figured they could celebrate in spirit.

They told just about everyone in town about Talia’s birthday. At Pascal O’Brien’s pub, they found Ger Deasy, one of the best entertainers in the land, and convinced him to waive his usual performance fee. He and Heather sang a duet, much to the glee of everyone in the pub.

Later, at about 11:30 in the evening – quite late for uncle and aunt, of course – they walked out the front door of The Abbey Bar to call Talia at home in West Des Moines. Sean, who was behind the bar, asked the good patrons if they would sing to Talia. Sean rang the bell over the bar when John and Heather came back inside with Talia on the phone. Instantly everyone in the bar, and we mean everyone, began singing.

“I can hear everyone singing!’’ Talia said.

Yes, indeed everyone did sing. As a matter of fact, even after Heather and John walked outside to say goodbye to their neice, the gang sang on at The Abbey Bar, declaring that Talia is a jolly good fellow!”

Ireland is a feast for the eyes

Very little has been written here about the scenery we’ve been seeing. Part of the reason is because words could hardly do it justice. Sure, many have tried with varying degrees of success. But the truth is that no matter how gifted a wordsmith someone might be, the images he or she might paint would be impoverished facsimiles.

Monday began with angry rain beating down against our skylights and the cobblestone sidewalks below. Nora, however, promised that by afternoon, the sky would clear. John set out on foot to shoot some sights around Rosscarbery. St. Fatchna’s smiled for his lens. Later, as the sun tumbled down toward the Atlantic, we drove out south of Rosscarbery. We stormed a castle or two, photographically speaking, of course. Then, we plunged our car toward the sea. We ended up on a ramshackle road, and when we dared not drive the car any farther, John hoofed it down toward the sound of the waves. He returned with the rewards for his toil and trouble swallowed up in the belly of his camera.

Plate it again, Sam

Ann Marie Haggarty waited on our tab Saturday at Gossip. She made us feel as welcome as loyal regulars from the moment we walked into the door.

Gossip, as mentioned previously, is a culinary joy. Ms. Haggarty’s wit and good humor made our experience all the more pleasurable.

Gossip’s decor is elegant yet understated. The tables are set not only with both salt and pepper grinders, but also square black plates that serve as a base for other dishes. These plates sparkled and gleamed. This may be due to the fact that they are meticulously buffed. Ann Marie informed us, with a glint in her eye, that touchie-feely customers are sometimes cautioned against touching the fine china.

“I do tell people to keep their paws off the polished plates,’’ she said.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Mouse Racing...Part 2

Enjoy the mouse racing video!

Songs at The Abbey Bar

Rosscarbery is home to three pubs, as mentioned previously. The Abbey Bar is nearest to our apartment, less than 20 yards from the front gate of our small residential complex. The Abbey has brought us good cheer in abundant portion during our first 60 hours or so in Ireland.

Sean and Betty O’Donovan own The Abbey Bar. In a way it feels like an old living room, as do many pubs in Ireland. Open the door, and there is a bar to the right and an open fire place to the left. Straight ahead there is a dart board, where Heather schooled John and Tom in a game of cricket. (Since Tom is writing this, he is deliberately obfuscating details to protect the wounded. He will mention that when the Americans returned to the bar, the darts were gone, perhaps to protect The Abbey’s regulars from the errant pitches of yours truly.)

The pub is friendly and welcoming. The air of hospitality is comforting. The beer is poured perfectly. On Saturday evening, after a tough night at the mouse races, we returned to find a band playing at The Abbey. After the band stop playing, we met Ger Deasy, a musician who stays quite busy around West Cork. We coaxed him over to our table, where he was kind enough to serenade Heather (yeah, OK, John and I were there, too) with a beautiful a capella version of “Fields of Atherny.”

Ger has his own CD, which after hearing him we purchased for 15 euro. The album is called “Ger Deasy’s Shenanigans.” Sean has told us that Rosscarbery was known for years as “The City of Saints and Scholars.” One of the songs on Ger’s album is “Viagra.” We wondered why the song was on the album, and Ger informed us that Viagra is made in Ireland. Somewhere, those saints and scholars might be looking on all this with doubt or amusement.

Noel Redding jammed here

Noel Redding was the bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And we were at his home today. We met a great chap, John Miles , and he now owns Noel’s home. He was gracious enough to invite us to a tour of the home. Although it looked very modern and is in the process of being updated – 20 miles of wires and cables run through the manse – it dates back to the 1700s.

As a house that was home to one of the giants of music, the place comes with lore. John pointed out the spot where Noel fell out of a window and where he died. Of course, there is also the room where he jammed with Paul McCartney. While not necessarily a mystery tour, there was plenty of magic.

Scones on the stairs

Our hostess for the week is Nora Hubbert. An engaging woman, she is not only proprietor of a delightfully well-stocked Irish craft and gift shop in Rosscarbery, she is also in effect our innkeeper for the week.

It was Nora with whom we corresponded, by email, to arrange our stay. Our accommodations, as you can see by clicking on an earlier link, are splendid. We are in the center of it all here. We have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a comfy-cozy sitting room.

What sets our Croi an Bhaile apart from the ordinary is the affability of our hostess. Nora had fresh scones and other provisions waiting for us Friday. Then on Saturday we returned from a hard day of sightseeing along the Irish coast to find a bowl of fresh scones sitting on the stairs leading to our flat, a sweet and pleasant surprise for weary pilgrims indeed.

Communion in Ireland

(This is Heather writing, so forgive us, Tom does a much better job!)…Despite visiting many pubs on Saturday night, the four of us were at Mass Sunday morning at 11:30. And we were not the last ones in the Cathedral. (Aunt Pat, you should really be proud of your nephew – he even had the good-feeling rosary beads with him). It was a beautiful service (and was over in less than 30 minutes).

It might be added here that the God of the Irish was quite understanding on this Sunday morning. John and Heather had in tow what would be described politely as non-regular church-goers in Tom and Carol. Had God been in a pissy mood, he could have rained fire and brimstone down upon them. But, in a way, He blessed the entire congregation. Just before Holy Communion, he chased away the sulking gray clouds that greeted parishioners as they arrived and sent out a burst of sunshine to warm the old stone walls. The Cathedral sits on a site where Christians have come to worship for about 1,400 years, according to local tour guides.

Gossip gives patrons something to talk about

Saturday evening dinner was extraordinary. We ate at Gossip, a restaurant on the square in Rosscarbery. The food was absolutely wonderful. To start: A cold seafood platter, with locally smoked salmon and trout. The entrees, all delightful: Grilled sea bass, monkfish with a tomato and pancetta sauce, roast pork belly, and Heroldshire steak topped with blue cheese. The service was flawless. We could try to go on in great detail about how spectacular this place is, but it might still be a case of us not doing it justice.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Coming soon

Pictures and video from the mouse racing are coming soon!

A night at the races

It is a little known fact in the United States that Ireland has secret sports society. Few Americans have ever seen the sport in person. But on Saturday night, through a series of random events, the four of us not only witnessed, but we also wagered and won at the Night of Mouse Racing.

The Shark, aka Big Fish, would find us and kill us back in Iowa if divulged the location of Saturday’s mouse racing event. But because of John’s long families ties to County Cork he was allowed the document some of the evening proceedings for the readers of this blog.

Sooner or later, everyone goes to Roc’s.

The Irish should be proud. They have, from what we have seen, resisted the temptation to desecrate their landscape with fast food joints. In Rosscarbery if someone wishes to indulge in the guilty pleasure of deep-fried food, they can go to Roc’s for fish and chips. It is wonderful, especially after you’ve visited the three pubs in town. They serve the best fish and chips we’ve ever had in Ireland. Roc’s serves only take-away. The place always seem to be crowded with folks from all works of life. It is a fact of life in Rosscarbery that sooner or later, everyone goes to Roc’s.

The good sense not to drink and drive…

At one point as we sat in O’Brien’s , Heather looked around and exclaimed with giddy incredulity, “We’re in Ireland!’’

Without missing a beat, John tossed in the day’s best response to anything said by anyone, “Yeah, and we can’t take a cab home from here.’’

Rosscarbery, a fine place indeed

We arrived in Rosscarbery after 3:30 p.m., after a somewhat torturous drive through alternating jags of rain and sun glare. As a reward, perhaps, we were treated to at least four rainbows. This prompted John to wonder out loud, “Are they on a schedule?’’

Rosscarbery is not listed on cheap maps of Ireland. It is as if they cannot afford to tell the secret of the small town’s location on the southwest coast of County Cork. This is a blessing, because while Rosscarbery would certainly welcome tourists, it does not yet seem ravaged by crass commercialism.

The focal point of Rosscarbery is called the square. Most of the village’s businesses congregate on two sides of a main drag. We haven’t taken full inventory of the shops, but we were able to visit three pubs: The Abbey, Nolan’s and O’Brien’s. There will be more on these establishments later.

The hostage incident on outskirts of Bandon

Part of Ireland’s charm is the old-school conveniences that linger. For example, motorists are still able to find gas stations with restrooms. These can be places for rediscovering the simple joy of a cold toilet seat, as Carol pointed out.

Anyway, it happened that we were on the edge of Bandon, the County Cork city of John’s ancestors, the Hawks, when we decided to examine the facilities of a road-side gas station. The most intrepid of our group, Heather, went first. Tom and Carol, dog tired, watched passively from the car. After some time passed, they looked on to see that Heather had been taken hostage inside the bathroom. John launched immediate hostage negotiations, talking calmly through the door. Wisely, he sought local assistance. A man, we presumed to be the station’s owner, came to the door. Heather was released. The only ransom paid was an indignity visited upon the Americans by the gas-station man, who offered that there would have been no hostage incident had the instructions for unlocking the door been followed. This is malarkey, of course.

The shocking drive from Shannon to Rosscarbery…

John did the heaviest lifting of the day behind the wheel, driving through the mangled streets of Limerick. No matter what anyone ever tells you, vehicles are still driven on the left side of the road in places like Ireland to encourage Americans to go on bus tours.

The most shocking part of the drive to Rosscarbery will be revealed in the following statistic: Pubs between Shannon and Rosscarbery: 321. Pubs visited by HPT between Shannon and Roscarbery: 1.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

O'Hare today...Ireland tomorrow!

So here we are sitting at O'Hare. Skies are sullen and it is cold outside, but it December in the Midwest. It could be worse. We're looking forward to arriving in Ireland, where, as we have been told by tourism officials, the weather is likely to be sunny and warm, as usual for the time of year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


We will be staying in Rosscarbery, a village of about 950 year-round residents. The small town is located on Ireland southwest coast. It bustles with tourists during summer months, by all accounts. More important, one of John’s forebears, Ellen Wolfe, is from Rosscarbery. We have rented an apartment, Croi An Baile, which is Irish for “In the Town.” Virtual tour of our digs here: