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Final visit to Ireland

As usual, I planned for a window seat . Next to me was a gangly fellow, feet stretched to their fullest underneath the seat in front of us – head back, eyes closed, his profile not quite ruddy enough to be Irish – a blend of Irish and perhaps some other nationality – Italian, perhaps.    At one point early in the flight from Ireland to the US, I heard him stir. He opened his small bright eyes and gave the tired smile of a person coming out of a deep sleep.

He looked at his watch and said,“Greenland, then a bit more to Canada and then down to New York.” His voice was softly but definitely Irish. “I’ve made this trip before,” and without any proper introduction explained his reason for the flight – he, a student in his home town of Limerick,  studying mechanical engineering at the university there during each regular school year, and then, like so many other similar young men, would travel to New York for enough common labor to return in the fall with money sufficient to cover the trip and a full year’s tuition. 

I introduced myself as having taught at a technical university in Upper Michigan, having just enjoyed a few weeks in Ireland photographing for a book publisher, continued a polite conversation before dozing off for some hours and a promise made: if he were ever to get to Chicago, he’d be invited to see our university and the vast Lake Superior, while if I were ever to return to Ireland, he’d help me explore his Southwest coast . Neither of us were serious, but we exchanged addresses and corresponded with fair regularity into the fall when I  awakened him with a phone call for another opportunity to visit the Emerald Isle, and would he,Thomas (not Tom) McBride, care to keep his promise and show me his magnificent country more intimately?  “Sure,” he said, “and I’d be proud to introduce you to my family in Limerick – and my girlfriend, if you tink (sic) you’d like.” He would pick me up at Shannon airport early Friday morning.

Excited, I arrived at Shannon shortly before dawn, was met by Thomas and a pretty auburn-haired beauty whom he introduced as Ashley. We drove to his home to meet his family – Irish mother, a  “Jane Darwell” type, father originally from Croatia, and two younger brothers – and enjoy a hearty Irish breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausages and ham in profusion with heaps of whipped potatoes and steamed vegetables from the little garden behind their tidy row house in a Limerick suburb . I was stuffed, could barely complement it with Guinness stout, which generously flowed before and after the meal.

Charm, charm, charm! The home, the warm family atmosphere, the white row houses with rose gardens and white picket fences around each! I felt I was in Disneyland! 

Ashley had to leave for work, so Thomas picked up two of his school chums and the four of us drove North and by ferry across the mouth of the Shannon River (but not until, as promised earlier, I’d filled his gas tank, and paid for it with bills left over from my previous trip), and we were off along the West coast to Galway (second largest city in Ireland), experienced walking the downtown pedestrian streets and thrilling to the shops, the pubs, the Irish music that flowed from the pubs and then north into the rolling countryside which included a brief climb into the Burren – once glaciated miles of what seemed to be melted and hardened stone crossing the road to the ocean on one side and roiled into deep barren stone hills on the other above – so easy in which to get lost and, as Thomas put it, to die of thirst before being found.

Finally, as the day entered into early afternoon, we reached our destiny: the Cliffs of Moher – offering us a multi-faceted example of Ireland’s incredibly jagged coastline – as much an historical landmark as  a  geological wonder, now swarming with tourists. Again, camera in hand, I was shooting our group against the long craggy stretch of rock rising hundreds of feet above waves that pounded rhythmically at its base below.

On the return trip we stopped at Thomas’s favorite seafood restaurant high above the ocean to eat fish and clams until we were stuffed – topped of course (this was a drinking man’s country) with large mugs of Guinness dark, foamy brew. Only Thomas refused to drink; he was, according to Irish law, the required abstinent driver.

At the family’s insistence, I remained with them for the weekend, filling the daylight hours with drives around the open country below Limerick, exploring ancient stone skeletons of churches, artifacts which rose above the peat like mysterious relics of the past, through small villages where the thatched roofs were ubiquitous.

Finally, on my last last day, after Sunday Mass, a tour up the narrow roads into the northern part of the country near the still present English territory at its tip – again, rolling hills, covered with relatively new forest growths “The Brits cut down all our trees to build ships,” Thomas explained in rueful voice. “But we fought and won our freedom, Irish from town to town; statuary in every village, representing evert historical place where we beat the bloody jiggers out of them.”

And then a final feast of roasted vegetables and country ham at the McBride’s home – more Guinness stout, a final night on a soft straw-filled mattress, and I was ferreted back over the Atlantic in a final farewell to a country with which I’d fallen desperately in love and to which I’d be connected time and again by scrawled letters from Thomas. He graduated from Limerick University, married Ashley and settled into a contented life, teaching at the university. Eventually, the correspondents faded. But the memory – and photographs – live on.

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