"It was just here, sir, I'd say, this would have been number seven . . . ."
I noted his precise use of the subjunctive, thanked him, left the cab and
stood on the sidewalk looking at the hospital's smooth bricks. Near the
door, a bronze plaque caught my attention, the likeness in relief of a
man's head wearing round rim glasses; the name below: James Joyce, 1882-1941.
There was also a quotation.
"At the housesteps of the fourth of the equidistant uneven numbers, No. 7 Eccles Street, he inserted his
hand mechanically into the back pocket of his trousers to obtain his latchkey . . . ."
I had found Bloom, probably coming home late from the pub.
It is arguable I suppose, and some will consider it a blasphemous thought, but I have always considered
James Joyce's enigmatic tale, Ulysses, to be one of the greatest travel books ever written. What's more, I
think Joyce would agree. (He once said that if Dublin were ever destroyed by some catastrophe, it would be
possible to rebuild the city from the descriptive details in his novel.)
Ulysses is about a man on a journey. Never mind that his travels are all within one city's limits — and all
take place in one day. It is nevertheless what every classic travel story must be about: going places — about
both the going and the places. (And, oh yes! about the traveler, too.)
I was in Ireland now to go places, some that I'd seen before, some not. But I hoped this time to see in a new
way, perhaps in the way that Joyce would approve, for he was a master of observation, a writer who well
knew — long before the expression became fashionable — that "the genius is in the details."
Details, in Joyce's term, were particulars and he provoked us to cogitate when he said, "In the particular
is contained the universal."
What a lovely way that would be to find Ireland, I thought, not as a small green island in some astounding
photograph from space, but as a place where particulars suggest the universal more truly than the
generalities of guide books — a human landscape where there might even be found a cabbie with the
conscience not to charge a fare.
I did some more Joyce-Bloom browsing in Dublin. I found Davy Byrne's pub on Duke Street; I admired
the steps, porch and pillars of the National Library; I walked to the Oval, a pub on Abbey Street — and to
Mooney's pub, too, nearby. (The great number of "licensed premises" involved in any description of Dublin
should give no offense, dear reader. Joyce once speculated that it would make an interesting puzzle to try to
find a way to cross the city without passing a pub. No such route has ever been found, nor is it likely to be.)
At Byrne's, a friendly gentleman with a firm grip on an inky pint of Guinness made a joke I had heard
before — that with all its many pubs, "Dublin is to an alcoholic what a girls' gym is to a sex maniac." I may
have given a bit too much away in reply when I remarked on the unfortunate imbalance in this comparison:
too many pubs, not enough gyms.
Following Bloom's trail through Dublin is often made easier by clues and markers placed along the way. (I
also referred to a 1992 St. Martin's Press edition of Joyce's Dublin by Jack McCarthy, a most lucid guide.)
In the window of venerable Bewley's Oriental Cafe, a Dublin institution from Joyce's time, I find a letter
reproduced: "My dear Curran. I am in trouble, mental and material. Can you meet me tomorrow at half
past four at smoke- room Bewley's. Yours truly, James Joyce." (Some Joyce scholar could no doubt tell
us what this was all about.)
A few blocks beyond, in this Joyce-Bloom obsessed city, another bronze plaque,
this one affixed in the sidewalk where a now-lost eating establishment
was once located. From Ulysses, a quotation: "Hot mockturtle vapour and
steam of new baked jam puffs roly poly poured out from Harrison's."
When I left Dublin at last for the North, I took with me this fresh intention to look for the particular, to find
the bits that make the whole. I knew I would not produce a Joycean result, but I might begin a deliberately
new way of seeing — even as I have lately started to wear my reading glasses when I shave.
June is a good month to go to Ireland, by the way, because the strawberries are in season (the new potatoes,
too) and youngsters line the roadsides everywhere with their scarlet pickings, blood of spring, displayed in
eye-catching arrangements; their hand-lettered signs offer three pints of berries for an Irish pound (about
60 cents a box).
After crossing the border between the Irish Republic and Britain's province of Ulster (where the young
soldiers' helmets and binoculars and assault rifles all have, close up, that work-worn, knocked-about, hard-daily-use look of a professional photographer's cameras or a fudge-maker's kettle) — after this crossing,
which was uneventful, we drove on into County Down.
Yes, the mailboxes and the telephone booths do turn from green to red here — but the old gentlemen riding
their black bicycles on the country roads have the same stately posture north and south: backs straight, arms
stiff, legs pumping slowly, trousers flapping. And the polished-black ravens strutting in fields of golden
stubble, and the calico cattle grazing on vivid green fields, know nothing of boundaries.
In Annalong, by the Irish Sea, flat and hard today as a slate floor, a homey
lodge called Glassdrumman sits afoot the misty Mourne Mountains, surrounded
by fields dotted with sheep marked in their wool with bright identifying
dyes, luminous daubs of red and green, punks-of-the-pasture sporting their
Irish opera tonight at 18th-century Castle Ward, a dreamy, summery evening,
French horns echoing within the four-square stone walls of a graveled
stableyard and, at intermission, a picnic — oh, such a picnic! —
for two hundred local people and tourists mixing alike, in a tent draped
in white marquisette, lighted by chandeliers above and by pink candles
on tables dressed in Irish linen and sparkling with Tyrone crystal. Gentlemen
in black tie and ladies in gold lame and cobalt silk and peach tulle make
a chatty babble as corks pop and alcohol lamps sputter under chafing dishes
of Mediterranean fish soup and a memorable trifle, rich in jams and cream
and almonds and brandy, is served for dessert.
It is Longest Day, shortest night, the sky a bright silver at midnight. In the lee of the mountains, a cool,
gusty wind off the sea buffets the country house and rattles the surrounding trees, shaking their branches
like leafy mops. The black silhouette of Slieve Binnian rises against the backlight of sky while blankets of
sooty clouds race along, shredded by the wind. It will be a good night for sleeping! (And there will be fresh
strawberries with the full Irish breakfast tomorrow!)
We called him Oyster Man, the proprietor of the Dundrum Bay Oyster Fishery.
Mr. Robert Graham is his proper name and we met him by the great drained-out,
low-tide bay one morning just as he returned from his high-and-dry shellfish
racks with a new batch of ugly but choice Pacific oysters which he raises
from seed and supplies to the best hotels. Cockles and mussels, too, heaped
all shiny wet and smelling of the sea on a wooden bench. Mr. Graham's
one-man business is on the quai; he has no boat, doesn't need one, he
said, because he harvests at low tide and can travel across the reeking
flats on a small tractor. There is not much to it, he admits modestly;
he buys baby oysters and raises them to market size in about two patient
years. We pried open some Pacific's then and slurped them down and thanked
the Oyster Man for letting us intrude. I think he wondered why we were
interested in him, but he was humbly accommodating to our arrival and
our questions. (If you wonder: I don't really look forward to raw oysters
in the morning, at least not without brandy to wash them down, but Mr.
Graham was so nice, it seemed impolite to refuse.)
On the way north: Strangford is the Viking name for "violent fjord," an inlet, a "sea lough" in Irish, which is
18 miles long and fills and empties with every turn of the tide, flushing 350 million tons of seawater, some
say more, through a half-mile-wide strait four times a day. This produces almost unnavigable currents of up
to eight knots at the mouth of the lough and makes the work of ferry pilots precarious.
John Herlihy, a tall and gentle man, runs the small Portaferry Hotel just across the narrows, buys his fish
on the pier, follows U.S. politics with well-informed interest (America! Ireland's overseas parish!) and likes
to help his guests find local antiques. Portaferry has its ruined castle on the hill and a population of about
two thousand. Houses facing the narrows are built right to the shore road's edge and display small domestic
treasures on front-parlor windowsills for passersby to see and admire: African violets, white plastic swans,
lusterware pitchers, seashells collected in old blue-glass Mason jars, more than one faded picture of John
Fitzgerald Kennedy cut from a Sunday newspaper.
In Belfast, at lunch, I asked Hugh O'Neill, a third-generation member of the Irish parliament, about the
Troubles. (One feels embarrassed yet obliged to raise the question, albeit knowing the answer, as when we
inquire about the health of an old fiend who battles a seemingly incurable condition.)
O'Neill responded almost cheerily, "Well, at least O.D.C. is down!"
"Yes. What the police call ordinary, decent crime. It's down in Belfast, I'm happy to say. Of course the other
war goes on . . . ."
One would not know about any war at Roscoff's on Shaftesbury Square,
a trendy, California-style restaurant which has earned the distinction
of being the first eatery in all of Northern Ireland to be awarded a Michelin
star. This not-inconsiderable honor has done something for Belfast pride,
Irish restaurants often being better known for homestyle cooking than
nouvelle cuisine. (There is but one other one-star restaurant on the whole
Irish island.) Roscoff's honor is taken in stride by its young owner-chef,
a Belfast boy named Paul Rankin — who comes from the kitchen to
greet us wearing an L.A. Raiders cap. (I ordered the flakey hake. Quite
Some say Belfast's war with terrorism provides a certain fascination for visitors, that tingle of danger some
of us enjoy. (When I was a tingle-seeking kid, I used to pull on rubber boots, then hold onto the bare
electric wires that powered the well pump.) The security zones with their flak-jacketed police, private guards
in retail stores, frequent roadblocks and ever-present patrols of British army vehicles, machineguns pointing
left and right, make a tourist feel like a participant in a historic drama.
We sightsee in Belfast without apprehension after our one-star lunch and laugh at first (and then are
sobered) when we see big white lettering on a store window, "BOMB SALE." But we are glad we are here — why come to Ireland and not see it all-all? Besides, like most tourists, we are blissful — we know nothing
can happen to us.
I could not pass along the beautiful north coast of County Antrim without
stopping once again at Bushmills, the oldest distillery in the world,
the first to make Uisge Beatha, the water of life, nearly four centuries
ago. (Yes, the Irish invented whiskey.) Along with Giant's Causeway, that
strange geological curiosity nearby, Bushmills is one of the most visited
tourist sites in Ireland. We said hello again to old friends; noted nostalgically
that the distillery's pet geese were still happy on their pond; breathed
deeply of glorious, spirituous vapors that are the Chanel of booze; then
went our way "dry," as a designated driver should be.
I had time to visit another old friend who owns a fine old mansion and many acres in Maghera, the former
estate of a linen manufacturer, empty and abandoned for years, now being brought back to life, its sixteen
marble fireplaces restored, its conservatory growing green things again, a welcome sign that all is not just
ring forts and castle ruins in Ireland. Great old country houses are being turned into high class hotels and
The prose and poetry of William Butler Yeats have always appealed to me, most
particularly when he wrote, in a homesick mood, " . . .I longed for a
sod of earth from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my
hand." (How many sods have I not longed for?)
Now I was traveling alone and Sligo was just down the road.
My son, Patrick, had given me a book of Yeats' work as I left home for Ireland. I stopped near Donegal to
open the pages, to prepare to look for some particulars.
I found windswept Rosses Point "where the disused pilot-house looks out to sea through two round
windows like eyes . . . ." and I drove on to Drumcliff where, just off the main road, a sign points to "Yeats'
Grave." I found the church, churchyard and well-tended cemetery under big trees. The gray headstone is in
a prominent place; visitors need only a moment to find it and another moment to read the inscription in
Yeats' own words: "Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death./Horseman, pass by!"
There is a small café and gift shop nearby where a very busy young woman serves tea and cakes all alone
and sells a variety of Yeats books, postcards and souvenirs. I tried to chat her up about the great man,
wondering if she might surprise me with some local tale, some favorite couplet. All the harassed lass would
say was — puffing her bangs up out of her eyes with an audible gust of breath directed by her lower lip —
"Good thing e's 'ere, I guess. Makes people stop."
Not every grave in Ireland is so well attended. In the churchyards of countless ruined, roofless abbeys,
graves by the hundreds sleep under seas of grass, with only an occasional Celtic cross to say, Someone lies
here. Seen from across a treeless landscape, gilded by a setting sun, the old churches' stony, pointed gables
remind me of hands held steepled in prayer.
At Ballina I lost my way momentarily and stopped at a small garage to ask directions. The owner came out
from the dark, oil-scented interior, wiping his hands on a paper towel, pleased it seemed to be interrupted by
this American in need of help. I pointed on my map to where I sought to go.
"Oh, that's the road to Killala," he said, but the way he said it was like a musical phrase, a fragment of a
song, Kee la la. "You'll be goin' on to Ballycastle, too, I suppose, 'way out, to Benwee Head, that's the way
you should go . . ." he was tracing the route on my map with a stubby finger . . . ." 'way out is best, the sea
comes right to the edge of the road in some places." He smiled then and shook his head as if recalling some
beautiful private memory.
We talked about driving on the left side of the road and I said I was adjusted to it now, but sheep could be a
problem at times.
"I'll tell you something about the sheep that most tourists don't know," he said, as if sharing a family secret.
"The sheep we have now are no risk a'tall, they're the result of selective breeding . . . ." (At this point, I saw the
Irish twinkle and I knew I was being put on.) "You see, all the stupid Irish sheep were killed by you Yanks
long ago. The one's we have left are smart enough to get out of the way."
I drove off to Kee la la.
Sometimes, in the west of Ireland, on a lonely road, a single, whitewashed cottage will appear against a dark
landscape in the far distance, a tiny habitation crouching in a vast space, its one center door and two front
windows looking like a nose and eyes and its two chimneys sticking up like ears — a white rabbit.
A stop for petrol at Belmullet. Raining. The attendant is a young girl, her red hair wet and windblown, her
hands stained with the grime of her work, her face tired but pretty. While the pump runs and the totals
mount, I ask how far it is to the next large town. I'm not sure, she says, taking her eyes from the rolling
numbers, I've never been there. Nor I, I say. Well, there you are, she replies, we're just the blind leading the
blind aren't we? And with that, she turns to me and smiles at her own remark and it is such a smile that the
sun bursts forth and the rain stops, or so it seems — and I wish I could ask her to stay and fill the tank
The main streets of small Irish towns are a happy palette of colorful shop signs, always looking freshly
painted in their pinks and greens and lavenders and orange, the names of the establishments carefully
lettered in gold — butchers, spirits shops, victualers, news dealers, pubs, laundries — as if some rule of pride
required that every business make this pleasingly uniform yet individualistic contribution to civic order.
In such particulars, was I finding the universal?
Charles DeGaulle took a long vacation in Ireland once and he stayed at Cashel House, on Cashel Bay, in
Connemara, where it was necessary to have a special bed built for the very tall general. There is, in the front
hall, a photograph of Monsieur et Madame walking on a windy Irish beach, plus a copy of his signature on
the bill with the comment that service here was good. (The staff must have said Amen! after two tense
weeks.) Of all the many Irish "country houses," (grander than B&Bs) no two are alike and no one can be
said to be typical. Homey Cashel House, surrounded by extraordinary gardens, keeps fires burning in
several fireplaces, has ponies to ride and encourages fishing guests to bring their catch back to be prepared
By whatever route one travels from Cashel to Galway, the scenery is fabled Connemara, an unfinished
Creation, a disordered land of rocks and hummocks and lakes and sea loughs that looks tortured and
hostile even to a New Englander's eye. Fishermen's cottages — a rare few still with thatched roofs — hunker
down against the wind, plumes of bluish peat smoke drawn from their chimneys — a row of old men all
smoking their pipes.
Someday, ages from now, Ireland may burn the last of its ages-old "turf" and what a pity that will be, for
there is no more beautiful incense in this world ("Chanel-of-Erin?") than the smell of peat smoke driven by
a sea breeze. It contains the memory of ancient forests, of heather and moss and centuries gone, back when
everything was sweeter, I think, and much easier to understand.
Ireland's ruined, abandoned farm buildings, family cottages, rural abbeys and medieval towers — a
community of ghosts — are rarely converted to other uses, I observe, seldom dismantled for the salvage of
their stones, almost never desecrated by graffiti or advertising, not used as public urinals (as the ruins of,
say, Rome) and only occasionally occupied by a cow seeking shelter. They stand roofless, open to the sky,
mute and melancholy monuments to a national history of famine and strife and poverty and gritty heroism
— a social cemetery which the present owners preserve with respect.
I keep two favorite maps on the wall of my study at home. One is of the Western Pacific, with all its
associations and all its mysteries, the other is of the Burren — the boireann, in Gaelic — the "rocky place," a
limestone tableland of at least a hundred square miles in County Clare which I never cease to explore in
Joyce, an urban person I think, would have hated the Burren I believe, but Yeats was moved by it and wrote
a verse play, The Dreaming of the Bones, with its setting in the ruins of Corcomroe Abbey, a skeleton of
gray stone camouflaged against the same-stone Burren hills.
Geologically, the Burren resembles a lunar plateau with no surface water,
but many caves and underground rivers; for botanists it is a hothouse
for a great variety of wildflowers of both Arctic and Mediterranean origins
— but it is Man, from prehistory to the present, who has put the
most irresistible notations on my map: Hoofmarks of ice-age . . . cow
. . . two slab shrines triple cliff fort . . .site of ancient racecourse
. . .deserted village cairn . . .dolmen . . . well water that cures hangover
. . . and magical horses that live in a cave (I was told in Fanore) and
can breed with none but members of their own herd . . . .
Oh, the fascinating particulars of Ireland!
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