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My experience in Ireland

From the air, Ireland looked like a teddy bear, it’s arms and legs reaching out over the Atlantic Ocean toward America – a symbolic gesture since, indeed, after the tragic potato famine, Irish people fled to our country, settled in easily, and contributed more to us than most of us realize, having given us Barry Fitzgerald, Irish stew, Guinness stout, and thousands of other reminders.

The other sight from the air, as we progressed to the Shannon Airport is the River Shannon – a broad band cutting through the country from North to South like our Mississipp -and from there, as we flew closer, the reputed 42 shades of green that covered the Irish open fields. A group of us had been sent to spread out and photograph; the purpose, to publish in a centennial book on the country,

What did I find to love about the country? The land itself, of course, with its variations from one end to the other, rolling with hills, plains, rough terrain, thatched roofs (good for 100 years) and historic ruins everywhere – so fresh to the visitor and so inviting. The people, too, famed for their friendliness; wherever would a stranger be met with, “And may I help you?” For someone as inquisitive as I, that opened doors and permitted photographs for me almost to excess.

Every traveler heads straight to the lofty Cliffs of Mohrer or the winding Ring of Kerry – each stunning in its own way, but only scraping the surface.

We drove to Dublin, avoiding the tourist traps – no need to accompany throngs south to kiss the Blarney Stone; instead of routing through the Ring, we settled on staying overnight in a quaint village, Dingle – our first experience in a foreign B&B.

We selected the place for its inviting exterior – rose bushes in a spacious garden out front, and inviting appearance of an old country homestead beyond. We were met by the lady of the house, charming, unassuming woman with two pre-teen sons aiding her in settling us in – the three of us in one room with a double and a single bed. Since it was my plan to sneak away and photograph the village and its fishing seaport early in the morning, I selected the single, awoke before dawn, drove dangerously (barely avoiding cattle and geese, to the port to see fishing boats going out and returning with crates dripping – was given ample opportunity to shoot close-ups of the fishermen who enjoyed being a focus of attention.

I returned in time to share what was to be a typical B&B breakfast: huge quantity of oatmeal, thick slices of home-made bread, jams and jellies, and a sweet tart. Before leaving, I called Sean and Patrick to help bring our bags to the car, but first asked them to take off their shirts. Puzzled, they obeyed and I surprised them with two tee shirts with Michigan prints on them – something of a habit I continued with on future trips, a way of thanking hosts They were so pleased it embarrassed me; but then they ran out, proudly showing off their gifts to envious friends.

Their mother had phoned ahead to Dublin to find suitable quarters for us, telling us that the city was crammed with women to run a race for charity the next day. With some coaxing, she found a place on the north side of the city’s center; we thanked her and left.

Finding our way to the city itself was a chore – highways signs optionally displaying distances in miles, kilometers, neither or both. When we asked a passerby why the discrepancy, he shrugged and said, “Don’t matter; we all know where we’re going,” Well, with good guesses we made it into the city, then to our destination – a large three-storied home – filled with women for the next day’s race. And that race was an experience: people crammed along a winding street on both sides, enjoying themselves with food and drink – some with face painting in the Irish flag colors.

We waited as the racers followed men in kilts, bag-pipes blaring, with everyone cheering as the women raced by, closing out – with huge applause – one in a wheel chair, grandly waving her flag, being pushed by a panting fellow in kilts.

The next day I stopped at a school behind our B&B; curious for the screaming and shouting, the youngsters dressed in colors to match their age level, surrounded me, like any youngsters, leaping to be photographed. I shot plenty until a nun came out, clapped hands, and suddenly silent, they lined up and strode in. The photographs proved a remarkable collection – freckled faces, red-haired, and – well – just kids with an Irish brogue.

But this was also James Joyce Day, a grand annual celebration dedicated to Ireland’s famed author.

We headed for the tree-lined boulevard through City Center, finding volunteer “readers” who, with book in hand, read the author’s city descriptions from “Ulysses” as we walked among the shops still unchanged, exactly as described. I was choking up, and it didn’t help when we arrived at one street with a pub that proudly housed a shrine-like room, the actual door of the author’s home – a glint SEVEN on its heavy wooden front, lit on both sides by gas-lamps. I honored it appropriately, but abruptly was drawn by excited noise out on the street, to see a man standing in front of a clothing shop (now closed, like all others on that special day). Someone cried, “There’s James Joyce!” And indeed there he was, white starched suit, string tie, patch over one eye, leaning on his cane and watching us in amusement. Of course we knew he had died years previously, but there he was!

I pulled out my camera, but was beaten by a young student, asking, “Mr. Joyce, what did you mean in “Finnegan’s Wake“? I couldn’t underwent any of it.” Joyce cocked his head, smiled and said simply, “Well – it was perfectly clear to me.”

As I put my camera to my eye to shoot – Joyce was gone, vanished. Where had he gone? Was he a spirit, only briefly present? I never found out.

But Ireland was like that – grand and open yet somehow never fully revealing itself to us. My slides turned out as well as I’d hoped; when they were sent to the publisher, I learned that he used more of my photos than any from the others on the trip – grand memories of the terrain, the people, the cities, the hazy mornings and brilliant sunsets – were to grace the book. I never received a copy, but no matter; those slides remain in my memory and always will.

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