Thoughts On the Emerald Isle Part 2: Revenge of the Leprechauns

I’m just kidding.  There are no leprechauns in my story.  Leprechauns are a myth (like lumberjacks, or the “G-spot”).  I just wanted to see if I could draw in those readers who have midget fetishes.  Just kidding again.  I know my brother will never read my blog. 

Meanwhile, somewhere on a small island on the border of the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea, a young (kind of) man searched for his ancestry. 

“Chapelizod.  What is it you want in Chapelizod?”  That was the question that we got from everyone.  Apparently, it wasn’t a place many people came asking about.  I began to wonder if it was, perhaps, a dangerous place.  Maybe it was a complete ghetto.  Maybe it was full of blood-thirsty robots (I’m not sure if I ever really wondered this, but I might have, and I definitely will in the movie version).  What was it about Chapelizod that made people so adamantly banal about it?  I thought of the look I might give a charming Belgian family, cameras strapped around their necks: “Excuse me, sir.  We’re trying to find the place to which our family pilgrimaged.  Do you know how far we are from Richmond, California?” 

After asking us why on Earth we would want to go there, our hotel concierge showed us on a map where we actually wanted to go.  Prior to our trip, my mother had printed up a Mapquest map guiding us from our hotel to the church where my family was buried.  The map stated that it was approximately three and one-half miles distance.  We thought that was very walkable.  As it turns out, Mapquest doesn’t know shit about Ireland.  Our concierge said it was too far to walk; he recommended taking the bus. 

And so we stood in the snow, waiting for the bus.  The snow was due to Ireland being in the middle of its worst cold snap in thirty years.  Ireland is cold on any given day, I believe, but this was fuck cold.  For those of you who have never been to Ireland or the United Kingdom, both have a special, soggy form of cold; a cold that is emphasized by a feeling that your bones have been dipped in water.  

St. Stephen's Green, on the way to the bus stop.

Our bus driver summed up a feeling that I had about most of the Irish people we met on our trip.  There is a stoic, quiet cloak that they wrap themselves in as they go about their daily lives.  However, if you take just one step, one tiny little effort, they smile and they open their heart and their home to the most distant of strangers.  The bus driver glared at us as we entered the double-decker bus.  I fumbled through my pockets, pulled out a handful of alien coins and stared at them, expecting them to tell me what to do next.  “Where you tryin’ to go?”  The bus driver obviously had no patience for us.  I answered, “Phoenix Park.”  He grunted and closed the bus door behind us. “It’ll be one euro thirty for each of ye.”  The bus lurched forward before we found seats.  After several stops, I realized a problem.  None of the bus stops were marked, so we had no way of knowing when we had reached our final destination.  As our bus driver had just spent five minutes at the last stop arguing and shouting obscenities at a man with a thick African accent who didn’t have enough money to get to the next stop, I was not feeling overly fuzzy about approaching him and asking how far we were from our stop.  However, I knew that we had to come up with some sort of plan that would signal us to our arrival at Phoenix Park.  Racking my brain, I settled into my fall-back plan I use every time  I am too afraid to act: I convinced my wife to go talk to him.  She staggered to the front of the bus.  “Excuse me, sir.  We’re not too familiar with Dublin.  Do you think you could let us know when we reach the Phoenix Park stop?”  He grunted.  “Thank you so much.”  She smiled. With her smile, he seemed to visibly soften slightly. 

My wife has this skill.  Where I am completely inequipped for gab or small talk, or even respectable conversation, Kate is a master of charm.  She has this ability to make anyone feel comfortable n and welcome.  I envy this quality in her and, at the same time, I’m just glad she has it so that I don’t have to talk to people too much. 

As the stops continued, the bus began to empty.  Soon, we were only a handful of people left on the bus.  Two more stops, and we were the sole passengers.  Again, I wondered (maybe) if we were headed into the land of the blood-thirsty robot.  I’d seen Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later several times, I knew that this area of the world was ripe with zombies.  And the bus stopped.  I looked out the window; we were parked behind a line of several other buses.  The engine on the bus cut.  It was the end of the line.  The bus driver turned to us.  “I made sure to stop at Phoenix Park,” he flashed us an assholier-than-thou smirk. 

Phoenix Park

As we were stepping from the bus, he asked “Where ye from?” 

“California.” 

“Oh California.  Come back in where it’s warm.”  We stepped back inside, and he shut the bus doors.   The man immediately transformed before our eyes; he smiled.  He told us about how he had a brother who lives in Pasadena.  He’d never been to the states, but he planned on going someday.  “Ye folks going to the park today?”  You could hear in the tone of his voice that he felt it was a very odd choice to visit the park on a cold (did I mention how God-forsaken cold it was?) snowy day.  We told him we were going to Chapelizod.  “CHAPELIZOD?   Oh, You’ll NEYVER make it!”  Apparently our plan had even more flaws that we didn’t know about.  Could Mapquest have screwed us that much?  Just then, the bus doors opened, and a driver from one of the other buses entered.  

Our bus driver (as if bragging) shouted to the other driver, “Kevin, these folks are from America.  They’re going to walk to Chapelizod in this snow.”  Kevin looked at us like juggling monkeys.  “What the fuck er ye goin’ to Chapelizod fer?”  Our bus driver informed him of our family situation (my family being buried in the church cemetary).  Kevin continued to stare, “You’ll neyver make it.”  I asked them how far it is.  At this point, our bus driver actually called another bus driver on the intercom,and tittered the entire story.  At the end, he asked how far it would be.  John, the other bus driver on the intercom responded, “In this snow?  They’ll neyver make it.  It’s at least a twenty-minute walk.” 

Yes, folks.  A twenty-minute walk.  Apparently, the Irish aren’t very big on walking.   The twenty-minute walk, a walk that I take every morning as an excuse to get away from my desk, was a marathon to these people.  That being said, it was not a fun walk.  The two drivers on the bus with us, though obviously skeptical that we should make the journey, gave us specific directions on how to get to Chapelizod.  In the end, they were a little bit off.  I believe it took us a half-hour to make the full distance, and did I mention that it was the worst cold snap Ireland had experienced in thirty years.  One consolation for our walk was that we had the opportunity to witness a family of foxes darting through the bushes beside us. 

After a long walk, we entered Chapelizod.

And eventually we entered Chapelizod.  It didn’t seem so bad of a town at all (not a robot in sight).  In fact, it was a rather charming little place.  For those of you familiar with the legend of Tristan and Isolde, Chapelizod is believed to have been the home of Isolde; she is thought to be buried in the very cemetary that I was seeking.  For those of you who are not familiar with the legend of Tristan and Isolde, don’t worry, I’m sure you Business Communications degree got you the career of your dreams, right?  

To make a (really) long story short(er), here is the summary version of our search for St. Laurence Chapel, the place where James Strachan and other ancestors were buried.  As we walk through town: 

Me: Ooh!  There’s a pub across the street.  We should stop and get a whiskey on the way out. 

Katie: There’s a pretty old-looking church next to it too.  Maybe we should go see if that’s St. Laurance. 

Me: No, Mapquest says there will be a left-hand turn in the middle of town. Then we take the second right off of that.  There’s no way that can be it. 

We walked on.  And on.  And on.  There were no turns to the left, only the river Liffey mumbling next to us the entire way.  A sign appeared, announcing that we were now entering Findlay, the next town. 

Me: [shaking my fists at the heavens, or a satellite nestled somewhere inside of them] Damn you Mapquest! You don’t know shit about Ireland.  

We turned back, with plans of asking directions at the pub.  As we approached the pub, Katie decided it was worth a shot checking the church that was next door.  “St. Laurence Chapel,” she read from the gate.  I kept my mouth shut and, as she always does, she took the high road and didn’t gloat. 

On the outside, looking in.

I looked through the gates at the church.  It was nothing spectacular, it looked base compared to the newer and larger Gothic-spired cathedral at the entrance of town.  But it was definitely beautiful in its own way, and ancient.  Gravestones, old and unreadable , bent in all directions with the weight of time.   I pushed on the gate to enter.  I pushed again on the gate.  Same thing.  It wouldn’t open.  It was locked.  That’s right, folks.  After trekking out here in the snow, under ridicule of half the Celtic Public Transportation staff, the fucking gate was locked.  At this point, I wasn’t quite sure what to do; I just stood there in the snow, stunned.  

It was at this point that it began to really snow hard.  Throughout our time so far in Ireland, it had only softly snowed, like the meandering, fake snow they shoot out at Disneyland during Christmastime.  Now the snow rushed down everywhere like commuters on the Tube.  We ducked into the pub next door.  

The pub was called the Villager, and it was everything you could imagine in an Irish pub, dark and warm.   I did what anyone could do after traveling over six thousand miles to visit a locked gate.  I stomped up to the bar and ordered two or three whiskeys.  Katie got a beer.  As time passed, a couple of the locals came in for a drink. 

One has to stay warm somehow, right?

One of them reminded me of Begbie from Trainspotting, although he looked more like a very small man in a Sherlock Holmes costume (soak, folks, this is the closest thing you get to a leprechaun in this story).   His name was Fred.  His nose and his eyes were red, like he’d been drinking at home that morning prior to coming in.  He talked incessantly, though Katie and I could not understand one word that he said.  At first I thought he wasn’t really saying anything at all, but the bartenders and other patrons seemed to understand his every word.  Second, I thought he might be speaking Gaelic, but everyone answered him in English.  Eventually, I just decided I wasn’t equipped with the right shit-drunk decoder ring.  It was one thing for an American to understand the Irish accents when they were speaking normally (kind of).  It’s a whole new ballgame deciphering through the accent and a tongue layered with too much whiskey. 

Another man, Reg, told us that he knew the priest, he would go get him to let us into the churchyard.  Before we could protest, he went darting out into the snow.  This man, who had not yet spoken a word to us, was going out into the snow to help us.  This was the way of these people.  I tried to tell myself that people back home would do this, but I wasn’t very convinced.  Half an hour later, he returned, wet, and with no luck.  The priest wasn’t home.  So, it was finalized, I wasn’t going to be able to see the graves of my ancestors.  

We stayed in the pub for about two hours, drinking several whiskeys and chatting with Reg and Daragh, the bartender.  At some point, I came to realize that this was how this story was supposed to be.  Inside that pub, watching the sheet of snow outside was the Ireland that I had actually come looking for, not some words etched into headstones.  Reg, Fred and Daragh were the people I’d sought to meet, not James and Andrew Strachan (my great, great…grandfather).  Besides, two hundred years ago, when James and Andrew lived in this town, they surely spent more time in this very pub, drinking with the townsmen, than they did walking the grounds of the cemetary.  

The bartender (who refused to take any money for our drinks) suggested that we head back toward Dublin soon, for the weather was predicted to get worse.  They had declared the weather some sort of National Emergency, as they had no way to clear so much snow from the streets.  The airport had already been closed down, and city officials said the busses would stop running soon.  So, after saying our goodbyes, we were back in the snow, leaving Chapelizod behind.  

We hunched under our umbrella at the bus stop until we were convinced that the busses were, in fact, no longer running.  And then we started walking .  A driver, after sliding too far and jumping up onto the curb, pulled over and offered to drive us as far as he could.  His name was Joe; he was on his way to pick up his girlfriend’s daughter from school.   Though he wasn’t able to take us far, driving three or four blocks in Joe’s car gave us a few minutes out of the cold, and at least got us to the outskirts of Dublin proper.  

Back in the city it was chaotic.  Traffic was at a standstill, as crashes and ice had made it impossible for anyone to go anywhere.  The few cars that were moving slid through the streets like runaway Zamboni.  We slowly made our way back through the city, stopping every mile or so to duck into a pub and warm our bodies with a whiskey.  Eventually, I gave up on the pubs and bought a small bottle of Jameson for my coat pocket.  It was dark  and my socks were completely soaked through my shoes by the time we made it back to our hotel.  Although it was our last night in Dublin, Katie and I had no energy that night to go adventure through the city.  I put on dry socks and clothing, curled up in a chair with my Jameson and watched the snow and bedlam on the streets below our hotel window.  It seemed the only true way to end this vacation. 

In some strange sense, through the people who I had met in Ireland, I had found the piece of my history that I had been looking for.  I found where part of me came from.  Truth be told, Irish is actually one of the smaller factions that make up my ancestral meritage, I’m mostly German and Norwegian.  Nonetheless, I was proud that parts of my family had come from this island, from these people and these values.  While the German in my blood wants to get drunk and take over the world, and the Norwegian in my blood wants to get drunk and pillage the world, it’s good to know that there’s a portion of me that simply wants to get drunk.  Cheers!

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