Each Thursday, I post some thoughts or bits of books or poetry I am working on.
—I call them “thunks.”
I’d like to bleat every detail of my trip, but I’m too tired. Upon my return to U.S. soil two weeks ago, my days transformed from seeing sheep on every hillside to nights spent counting them in a desperate attempt to adjust to the time difference.
Because nine in the evening in New York (9 pm was the latest I could keep my eyes open the first few days back) is 2 am in Ireland, I presumed that I would wake up at 3 or 4 am New York time for perhaps the first few days. Nope. Instead, two weeks later, my body clock is still waking up at 7 am Irish time, 2 am EST. Thus, the need for sheep. And sleep. [Update: I slept from 9 pm to 4 am last night—that is a win!]
I am not exaggerating, by the way, when I say that sheep dot nearly every hillside and field in Ireland. Much has changed since I was last on Irish soil in 2001, but, thankfully, the idyllic fields of sheep, cattle, and horses are still the norm.
It’s a bit ironic to have had my face glued to car windows this trip; as a kid, my nose was busy in a book on long drives through the Irish countryside. Those drives were tedious, and novels like The Secret Seven, Mallory Towers, and Jean Plaidy’s The Young Elizabeth helped pass the time. My reading in lieu of sightseeing deeply irritated my grandmother who no doubt despaired of this young Yank ever appreciating the sights.
I would love to tell her (she died in 2001) that as I crisscrossed the country during this trip (east to west and back again twice), I did not read a novel once during hours of drives (though I did have one tucked in my backpack “just in case.” If you are much of a reader, you understand). I also watched no television and spent very little time on social media. My sister Ann and I averaged between 15 and 19 thousand steps a day, walking the streets and sights of Dublin and the beaches and roads in Howth and Connemara.
I also wish I could share with my grandmother something I am not sure I ever told her: that two memories are burned in my brain from my first trip in 1974. The first is when I slid open the window shade (or was it a curtain?) beside my seat as the airplane approached Shannon Airport. This being my first flight, I had never seen any ground from 15,000 feet, but I knew instinctively that America had nothing like the patchwork of green fields below.
The second memory is when the car, packed with us four American kids ages four to eleven, a harried mother, and I assume a lot of luggage, pulled up to my grandmother’s home in Athenry—a semi-detached two-story stucco where my mother and her ten siblings were born.
Across the road lay a grassy field bordered by a high stone wall and an ancient tower; sheep grazed and bleated. It was as if an illustration from a history book had come to life. (I soon found out that on the other side of the wall was a slice of modern life and Irish obsession: Kenny Park, the home of the Galway hurling team.)
That view has not changed. The walls and tower are still there (Athenry has many of its ancient walls intact, as well as a castle and abbey), as are the sheep (and the hurlers and footballers—my Uncle Mick was thrilled to attend a football match—aka soccer—the weekend of our family reunion).
It was strange and satisfying to see that in a world so different decades later, one thing remains unchanged. Sheep are ubiquitous and a definite theme in the old sod. Wool production is huge there, but even the images of sheep adorn coasters, tee shirts, tea towels, paintings, purses, and scarves (I bought most of them—beware of a Yank bearing gifts!).
On several walkabouts, I had encounters with the animal kingdom and not just the wooly ones. One afternoon, my mother, my aunt, and I walked the cemetery grounds to visit the family plot. A field was behind it, and as we wandered by, a beautiful horse appeared, trotting up to us (like Gandalf’s horse did in The Lord of the Rings, I kid you not). We must have disappointed him with no apple or treats in hand.
On another day, a less idyllic situation happened at another aunt’s home in Cloughbrack. A field lined with stone walls (are you catching the theme here?) stretches from the house down to Lough Mask, and a few cows from a neighboring farm were in said field. They seemed harmless enough. I wanted to see the shoreline up close, so I pulled on my wellies, pushed through the gate, and walked toward the lake.
A brown cow across the field to my left looked up. She stared at me as if she’d never seen a Yank before and began complaining—more of a yell than a moo. About a hundred yards ahead of me, the most enormous white bull lifted his head toward his complaining spouse. I stopped dead, decided my husband would not be happy if his wife was trampled by a bull on her holiday, and made a hasty retreat.
I never did make it down to the shore. Pity.
Lest I sound like a naïve city kid, I need to say I grew up next door to cows and horses (and several annoying roosters who awakened us way too early every day), and my sister Lois had horses for many years. I was chased by a cow (or was it a bull?), watched a horse give birth, annoyed by roosters, and nearly bucked off a pony—aptly, his name was Bucky—who decided to run for the hills with me on his back after my “friend” slapped his behind like a wannabe cowgirl.
It’s been a while since those days, and it was sweet to be immersed in rural life again (as well as in the very different cities of Dublin and Galway). But though I like to look at sheep, I do not romanticize them. Unlike roosters, they are not dangerous, but like roosters, they can be annoying.
The summer before eighth grade, I was back in Ireland with my siblings for eight weeks. We would often help out at my aunt and uncle’s restaurant, “The Mart,” which sat above the place where sheep, cattle, and horses were auctioned, which was also known as The Mart.
I dreaded Tuesdays, which was sheep day. Farmers would traipse in for their breakfast or lunch, their boots often covered in sheep dung. Sheep dung is the worst. As I remember it, the excrement was easily scattered, smeared, and difficult to clean up.
In a restaurant.
Sheep belong in a field, where they can do their business and not bother teenage girls unused to cleaning much of anything, never mind after Irish farmers with incomprehensible accents and dirty boots.
During this trip, I breathed a prayer of thanks each day for being back in the country that, when I was coming of age, greatly expanded my thinking, my sense of family, and my understanding that a wider world exists beyond the United States.
I also thanked God that my days of cleaning up sheep dung are long gone (I had another stint at The Mart after college).
But I do bless the sheep farmers and wool manufacturers and knitters—the fruit of their labors filled my luggage upon my return to the U.S.