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The Gathering

We walked down the side streets of Dublin, the kids and I. Liam and Olivia, fourteen and twelve, put up with window-shopping, for now. On side streets we walked only on the shady side looking in local stores’ windows, away from the midscale stores like Gap, Lush and Starbucks on tourist-bursting Grafton Street.

Down a quiet road we found a bakery, with plump, fresh meringues destined for melting in this rare and blistering summer heat, and a Woolens Shop, overflowing with loomed scarves and capes, sweaters and billed caps (or what the Irish call Tom Cruise hats since his character wore one during the film “Far and Away” which was shot here – A film known in Ireland as “Far and Away and the Further the Better”). Another store, O’Sullivan’s, had Irish souvenirs, of the claddagh ring variety, not T-shirts or Kiss Me I’m Irish beer mugs, but more traditional items, like antique Celtic knot jewelry and china tea pots with old Wexford patterns.

In this window propped next to a 9×13 photograph of Michael Collins, the hero of the Irish struggle for Independence, was a sign that said in large black letters: The Gathering. I skimmed it as we walked by, more interested, frankly, in the photograph. (I didn’t know that Michael Collins had been such a tall man. “Liam Neeson was born to play that role,” I thought. ) The plaque for The Gathering crossed my conscious only as a possible bit of signage for the shop owner who may have been having an O’Sullivan family reunion as far as I knew and showing her pride in the event.

It was the next day that our Dublin tour guide Chris talked about it. “The Gathering. Jesus, it’s a bit cringy isn’t it? I mean talk about just trying to get the tourist money in. They make it like it’s a big happy Irish dance and drink party here for anyone with Irish ancestry. All they want is the money. Yeah, a bit cringy in my estimation.”

We hadn’t heard anything about this big promotion. Later on our trip, I found a brochure laying on a pub table in Kinsale. It read,

“The Gathering Ireland is a year-long celebration of Ireland all that is great about this small but far reaching island. 2013 sees the Irish, and all those who call Ireland home, reaching out to our many millions of friends, family and loved-ones overseas…The Gathering Ireland is not just one big event, but hundreds of events, big and small, taking place throughout the country. Exciting gatherings have been planned across Ireland to celebrate and showcase what we are most proud of – our communities, families, sports clubs and businesses.”

The brochure was 10 pages of selling the point:
“Anyone can get involved – you don’t need permission!”

“Why not discover your natural heritage at the Irish Redhead Gathering in Cork…Or if you want to get off the beaten track why not consider some Bowling Round the Bog in Waterford or maybe you’d like to weave a little piece of history at Love in Loom in Foxford, Co. Mayo? …With so many people involved, no matter where you go in Ireland you’re sure to find a gathering to be part of.”

“With so many amazing gatherings taking place all over the country, as well as a packed calendar of sensational festivals and events, let 2013 be the year you keep that promise to yourself to let your hair down and have a good time.”

“The Gathering is organized in your honor and you are invited to be part of it. Now is the time to accept that invitation, make that trip and reconnect with Ireland.”

“The Gathering Ireland. Be a part of it.”

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a more poorly written promotional brochure. Saying the same thing over and over again on all ten of the richly photographed pages in the booklet, and telling the reader to be a part of something that she herself has to create:

“The Gathering Ireland is a people’s project, it’s all about you…planning special events that will highlight what is great about [your] community and Ireland as a whole.”

It was obvious to all three of us that the big promotion hadn’t taken root. In all my planning of the trip from America, I had never once heard of The Gathering. Nor, by the time I happened on this brochure, had we seen a single event in any of the towns we’d been in that had anything to do with the big reunion of people with Irish ancestry.

When we were in Dingle we talked to a man named Dennis Ryan about it. I mentioned the fact that our young Dublin tour guide had found it a bit “cringy.”

“I assume that means embarrassing,” I said. “I guess it’s to do with the fact that the Irish government is making such an obvious gesture towards getting the tourist dollar?”

“Well, it’s cringy all right, but not exactly for that reason,” said Dennis. “We Irish think it’s cringy because the one’s they’re callin’ home had to leave the feckin’ country they were born in and they left starving and crazed and penniless. The feckin’ government couldn’t support them! Maybe couldn’t stand up to the feckin English, maybe couldn’t make their own new government work – dependin’ on when they emigrated. That’s right. So the poor folk emigrate and now we’re sayin’, ‘Aw, come back sons and sons of sons! Come back, that’s right, be proud of yar heritage, and all. Bring yar family. And yar money.’ It’s the fact that the Irish HAD to leave. They HAD to. And now it’s a big party for them and their grandkids and great grandkids. Like nothin’ ever happened where they were starvin’ and broke. Ya see?”

I did see.

We left Dingle and headed up to County Clare to stay at Ashford Castle. Driving along I thought about what the country wanted from its visitors this summer. A reunion. An embrace. Some forgiveness perhaps. Definitely it wanted, in the most un-Irish of ways, to be intimate with us. I say un-Irish, from my own experience. My Irish Catholic relatives in Illinois are a band of merry makers, story-tellers, once-upon a time dairy farmers. But there is a code among them that has to do with not really letting someone all the way in, and in my trip research I discovered this is an Irish trait, not just a Graham family trait.

And yet, Ireland was calling its sons and daughters home to “connect.” I stared out into the farmland fields that surrounded the small motorway on which we were rumbling along on the “wrong” side of the road. Liam on the iphone in the back seat behind me, listening on headphones to his peculiar playlist of Kansas, AC/DC and Johnny Cash; Olivia next to me sleeping with her blonde ponytailed head propped against the window, the ipad fallen open in her lap with the WAZE map system kindly telling me in an English accent which direction to go at each roundabout.

Maybe for us, The Gathering had less to do with Ireland and more to do with the re-union of our trio. Me, Liam and Olivia. This was our second summer together as a threesome traveling with only one parent on board. It had started out rough and smoothed out with time. There were moments that we barely hung in there, just putting up with each other while gritting our teeth. During the intense 24/7 of being joined at the hip, including sleeping in the same hotel room, and often the same bed with my daughter, there had been many battles of two against one, one against two and three against three. There were differences of opinion and plenty of compromise.

Things like “Do you really have to be told to stop playing that video game and get your clothes on so we can go explore the town? LETS-GET-GOING!” was yelled several times. “Will you CHILL OUT MOM??” was yelled several others. And the bickering was often over smaller things than that.

There were times when I desperately wanted an adult companion to ease the journey, to share a beer with, or to enjoy the scenery together (something kids, even me – as I recall – can’t quite fully do). A companion to sit next to me and not scold me for singing “Wild Rover” aloud with the other adults in the pub. To not be the bane of someone’s existence, merely because that someone is 12 or 14 and has realized in their teenage wisdom that mothers are not cool, ever. A companion to understand the magic, and the stress, of the trip in the way that a child can’t.

For our Gathering, the moments of embrace came when we made each other laugh, when in spite of the heat and the wrong directions and missing opening hours, and pushing to get out and get going (or get to bed before midnight and get up before ten), and being homesick for friends, and the embarrassment of moms with teens and teens with moms, things happened that made us come together. When we enjoyed the same things at the same time, like the nighttime Ghost Tour in Kinsale, or tea and scones at the Shelbourne Hotel, or the afternoon boat ride to Inchagoill Island with Captain Patrick and ancient Martin the Accordion player. Or the conversation as we drove the long trek from Kinsale to Dingle:

“I feel so guilty, I’m the worst mother in the world!” I called out, breaking through their headsets.
“Why?” in tandem.
“Because here we are, driving through this beautiful countryside and you are both plugged into your screens and eating handfuls of that Irish Sweetshop candy, not even looking out the window! And I’m letting you!”
“Mom! Don’t you understand?” Liam laughed. “That means you’re the BEST mother in the world!”

I realized on the evening before our last, as we lay in one room together in Ashford Castle,an over-the-top and luxurious finale to our long journey, that this trip, in a very real way, may be the last time we will have this intimacy as a family, as a trio. Life will change very fast from here on out. Liam is going to be a High-Schooler after all. Olivia has already shown the beginnings of her break from me, the natural development she must go through and I must endure. It was important for all of us to embrace, forgive and relish in our experiences of the past three weeks. And to celebrate our little family.

Our Gathering, Irleand. I was glad to be part of it.

Tender Light

I walked up this morning along the slope from the east to the top of Sybil Head, where one comes out suddenly on the brow of a cliff with a straight fall of many hundreds of feet into the sea. It is a place of indescribable grandeur, where one can see Carrantuohill and the Skellings and Loop Head and the full sweep of the Atlantic, and over all, the wonderfully tender and searching light that is seen only in Kerry. One wonders in these places why there is anyone left in Dublin, or London, or Paris, when it would be better, one would think, to live in a tent or hut with this magnificent sea and sky, and to breathe this wonderful air, which is like wine in one’s teeth.

-John Millington Synge

The Road to Dingle


Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine and the moon’s delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The gray and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.

John Millington Synge- Irish poet and playwright

John Millington Synge wrote one of my favorite plays of all time, “Riders to the Sea,” though he is better known in America for “Playboy of the Western World.”Riders” captures the harsh realities of the lives of Irish fishermen at the turn of the last century. Synge’s language is full of Irish flavor and color, idiomatic. He captures the rain soaked harbors and the newly wet hillsides in green sunshine, and the quality of Ireland’s light, from dawn to twilight.

Our trip to Dingle, and later around the bend to Slea Head, was all one would need to find the magic of Ireland, Synge’s Ireland. With Irish traditional music abundant in every shop and pub and on every street corner of Dingle, with Gaelic being the first language spoken here, and with the sky full of sunshine and brilliant views of the sea and the rolling sheep-filled highlands, we were immersed in that magic.


Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle was not too far from the town we stayed in next, Kinsale. Kinsale itself was a bit like Carmel, California, my “hometown” (where I spent some of my high school and junior college days). Touristy, but for good reason. Kinsale was a quaint seaside town and instrumental in Ireland’s long centuries of desperate attempts at home rule. A thriving seaport, Kinsalians thought themselves to live at the very end of the world. Then the English and the Spanish Armada discovered their port. It became a shipwright’s paradise: groves of oak and alder nearby, hemp for rope making (streets were designed about 2 city blocks long in order to string out the hemp and twist it into rope laying long on the ground). Sailmaking was another new trade that took root here.

Now Kinsale is a gourmet paradise, arguably the first town in Ireland to start the gourmet revolution of Irish cooking in the 1990’s.

We stayed at an old Bed and Breakfast off the main street for three nights. On the second day we headed from this busy city to Blarney, 40 minutes away. By now I had the hang of the left hand side of the road driving. I made up a chant that the kids quickly latched onto.


This chant kept me from taking out any more cones or sideview mirrors.

As we got closer to the castle, we were excited to kiss that Blarney stone, embedded in the rock of the uppermost castle rampart. On arrival I was surprised by the castle grounds; impressive with lots of public artwork, cafes, gift shops etc. It’s not oppressive somehow, because the castle is still standing and it’s real, not Disneyland. There’s magic there and charm and it’s easy to overlook the fact that you and 100 other people are climbing the same narrow interior stone staircase inch by inch in order to hang upside down to touch lips to stone.

As we finally climbed to the top of the rampart, Liam was first to go. The crowds were patient and friendly, no pushing and shoving but there were so many people waiting. A castle worker was assigned to the kissing spot, there to hold your waist and make sure you held on to the saftey bars correctly. Liam easily lay down, bent backwards and arched his neck, kissing the rock.

Olivia was next and for some reason the keeper of the rock had her lay down so that her hips just skimmed the edge — she couldn’t reach the rock no matter how hard she tried. I saw the struggle in her face and knew that all was not well. I had my camera in hand and couldn’t quite manage the situation as I heard the guy say, “OK, is that all right? Good enough isn’t it? All right then.” And with that he pulled her up, even though her eyes were full of tears. I stopped the line and said, “Wait, honey, do you want to try again?” I knew she hadn’t kissed the stone, and I knew that THAT would be a splinter in her heart for the rest of the trip. Much had been made, by her mother, of the importance of kissing the Blarney Stone and how it was said to give you the gift of eloquence and story telling if you kissed it. I was building the lure of the trek to the castle.

Olivia shook her head and blushed deeply and just wanted to get out of there. I made it worse by saying again, “it’s OK, honey, it’s OK, you can go again, just try one more time.” She shook her head vehemently wanting, probably, to push me off the rampart herself. It was still my turn to kiss the bloody stone so I lowered myself, arched backwards and leaned backwards as far as I possibly could, but still couldn’t get my lips on the stone. I gave it an eskimo kiss I guess, as the man lurched me up to get on with the next guest. I laughed at the whole situation, trying to make light of it for my daughter, who gave me the death eye. We moms need to remember that it’s all our fault. Always.

So, as it stands, Liam has been granted the gift of gab and Olivia and I must struggle on, expressing ourselves in other ways to the world.

Waterford Castle and Crystal

Castle KeepOrla and Mike told us about Waterford Castle.  They had stayed there previously with their then very young boys. It’s situated on an island across from the city of Waterford.  Though there were rooms in the actual Castle Keep, none were available when I called.  A large wedding was going to be taking place and the guests had started to arrive, taking every available accommodation.

But there were modern lodges for let, nestled in the eight acres of woods surrounding the Castle.  So we stayed in one of them and ate at the Clubhouse Pub where the Sean the bartender buzzed from table to table making sure everyone was well taken care of.

On our last day, heading out of the city on our way to Kinsale, we stopped by the Waterford Crystal Factory.  The tour was grand; an hour in the factory itself watching the men blow, polish, cut, and polish again.

It takes eight years to apprentice to be a Waterford Crystal man. The first true test happens at year five. You have three attempts to cut an “Apprentice Bowl,” one which has a series of cuts that must be made perfectly. If you don’t succeed you can start your five years again or quit. They haven’t had an apprentice in 28 years. We met the last apprentice, who was machine etching. He started at 14 years old. He handed me a 3 foot tall crystal trophy that weighed over 25 pounds that he had cut. He gave it to me with one hand and I had to cradle it against my chest with both arms. Not for the faint of heart.

Yoga, He Said

I brought my Yoga Mat this time.  A friend laughed at me for this. But almost every night in London (and sometimes after tea in the morning) I practiced at  least 20 minutes.  Because my yoga teacher said, “When you’re on the road, 20 minutes a day is all it takes.”   But Ireland has been spottier.  “Aw Gawd and Janey Mac, I haven’t the time!” as the locals would say.  Amazing how only a few days off the mat and one’s body tightens up like a corset.  “Yoga,” he said.  He was right.

The Other Side


Dublin Airport.  We stood looking at our two options.  A rather large jet black midsize car or a rather larger jet black minivan.  It was blistering hot, 28 degrees Celcius, God knows how many degrees Farenheit, but all the silver cars were taken. We’d spent our four days in Dublin, enjoying every second.  Now we were on our way out of town to Waterford Castle.

We had two midsize bags and two carry ons and sundry totes so we couldn’t zip around in any of those smaller cars with odd brand names.  A large black car.  How American.  We loaded the bags in the trunk of the smaller of the two cars and felt the heat radiating off the surface.    I headed around to the left hand side, the “normal” driver’s side, but caught myself and kept walking around the hood until I reached the other side.  The car was broiling as I sat down into it and I  opened the windows as that instant sweat poured down my back.  I wasn’t actually sure if it was the heat or the fact that I was about to drive on the right side for the first time.

I adjusted the seat, the mirrors, the steering wheel.  How hard could this be?  But the kids were white knuckled as I pulled out of the airport parking lot, and I was damned if I wasn’t going to prove them wrong.

Within moments I was facing my first round-about exiting the Dublin Airport.  Because the gods sport with us like flies, there was also sewer construction going on and  men working around open pits and traffic cones and big machinery.   With seconds to make a decision about how to exit safely and then get on the proper motorway in that dizzying circular teacup, I missed the correct exit and went round again.

“Mom, Mom, Mom! Here, Here, this one!” the kids were yelling in the back seat as I slowly came back to the first exit on the circle.

“I know, I know!” I said as  I glided into the correct lane and onto the freeway.  I had this down.

But all my years of driving on the left hand side of the car has trained me to stay slightly left within a lane, hugging the line. Which is why I took down three large orange construction cones protecting the left margin as I hit the M9.

“Mom, Mom, Mom! You just…!!”

“I know! I know!” I  yelled back, slowing down, not wanting to look into my rear view mirror.

I drove down the M9 at a snail’s pace, my son following our route on the GPS.  Driving in a drunken sort of way, listing left and over correcting right, braking slightly as we read signs, we made our way towards Waterford Castle.

Classically, we missed the first turn off and had to go miles to turn around.

Classically, when we made our way into the port city of Waterford, the streets narrowed down to a needle’s eye and as I avoided a collision with a taxi cab that veered towards us while speeding on the other side of the street; I inward-slammed a parked car’s side view mirror on the left side of the street.

Classically, our GPS system took us not to the Waterford Castle Hotel, but to the Waterford Used Tire Company on an alley in the middle of town.

Classically, after re-typing the address we  followed the new GPS route down a two-lane highway and ended up at the  water reclamation center. After asking for directions from a police officer, I got in the wrong lane and just missed being hit by a truck.

Classically, when we finally got to the Waterford Castle Hotel, about 15 minutes later, I needed a Guinness.   And I believe, so did the kids.