My Month in the Land of One Hundred Thousand Welcomes (Round 3)


My third and fourth weeks in Ireland were the “sightseeing by myself” portion of the trip. I made two separate treks during those weeks where I left most of my stuff at the Airbnb in Dublin, threw on my backpack, and took the train across the country to see new things.

The first trip was to Galway. I saw the gorgeous Cliffs of Moher, one of the country’s most-visited sights, and spent two nights in pubs listening to traditional Irish music. I really enjoyed my time there.

But it was in Kenmare, a small town in County Kerry, that I had some of my best days in Ireland. Along the way, I was reminded that sometimes the most memorable experiences can result from not having everything planned out ahead of time.

My natural inclination is to make sure things are in order. I make lists. My house and my classroom are organized down to the inch. I am most comfortable when I know exactly what to expect. I know this is connected with anxiety – controlling the circumstances and environments around me makes me feel calmer.

This presents obvious problems. It’s one thing to have a maniacally organized closet; it’s another to be thrown off when you’re not able to prearrange the details of every situation.

I kept a journal in Ireland, and as I reread the earlier entries last week, I was surprised at how many times I mentioned feeling unsettled that I didn’t know where I was going for the third and fourth weeks of the trip.

And yet, forcing myself to sit with a little bit of uncertainty paid off.

My original plan was to go to the writer’s retreat in Donegal, then spend one week in Dublin, one week in Galway, and one week in Cork. It would’ve been easy to map out my steps for each city before arriving in Ireland.

But then a friend suggested getting a place in Dublin for three weeks and using it as a home base for short trips to other cities instead of dragging all of my luggage around and moving each week. That sounded like a better idea.

I also decided it would be best to wait until I arrived in Ireland to determine where to go during the last two weeks. That would allow me to get a sense of what else I wanted to see besides Donegal and Dublin. It seemed logical at the time, but as the trip grew closer, I started to worry about it.

The night after I arrived in Ireland, I asked my new Irish friend Catriona and her husband Jim where they would suggest going, and both spoke highly of a town on the Ring of Kerry called Kenmare.

I was only vaguely familiar with the Ring of Kerry, a 110-mile route around the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwestern part of the country. I first learned of it last year while reading Dave Grohl’s memoir. I was intrigued to hear a shaggy-haired rock ‘n’ roll drummer call the place “a corner of the earth that I have always adored: a place of serenity and natural beauty.”

After hearing what Catriona, Jim, and Dave Grohl had to say about the area, I decided to spend four days there during the last week of my trip.

A common way to see the Ring of Kerry is to take an all-day bus tour. The weekend before traveling to Kenmare, I tried to line one up. I called a local bus company and spoke to a driver named Andy.

On their webpage, the company advertised tours of both the Ring of Kerry and the Ring of Beara. I had never heard of the Ring of Beara and asked what the difference was. He was covering the phones for the owner and couldn’t speak to availability, but was helpful in answering questions about the two peninsulas and suggested I call back on Monday.

If I couldn’t line up a tour, he told me, he could give me his number and he’d be happy to take me out to see either route on Tuesday or Wednesday evening. Because it stays light out until well after 10 p.m. in Ireland, timing would not be a problem.

I was hesitant. This guy was very friendly and knowledgeable, but would it be safe to be in a vehicle one on one with a man I had never met?

I called the owner Monday morning before my train left for County Kerry and there were no tours I was able to join. I had not been able to set up anything else with other local companies either.

I decided to call Andy back.

I was still unsure about trusting a stranger but decided to go with my gut feeling, which was that he was a driver for a well-established company in the area and it would be fine.

So Andy and I chatted and agreed to meet up on Tuesday night.

When he arrived in his Range Rover, we introduced ourselves and I hopped in. We had texted a bit about specifics, but we didn’t decide to go to the Ring of Beara until just before we pulled away.

After we crossed over from Kenmare onto the Beara Peninsula, the views were stunning.

Andy told me a lot about the area and pulled over anywhere there seemed to be a good place to take a picture. Since there were very few other cars around, we sometimes stopped in the middle of the road.

At one point we came across a bar and café and Andy suggested we could stop for a beer if I wanted. I was thinking it over, but felt we were getting a little short on time. He had to be back to another town by 9 p.m. to pick up some hikers, and we were a good distance from where he needed to drop me off.

“Or you can get a Guinness to go,” he said.

That sounded like a perfect idea, so I agreed, and he turned the vehicle around. As we walked into Helen’s Bar, I said, “You’re going to be the ambassador for this Guinness to go business, right?” He assured me he would.

Helen’s Bar

Andy knew Helen and introduced me. We talked with her for a while and then headed outside to hear a bit of the music “session” in progress (what we might call a “jam session”) before continuing on.

Several musicians and a three-legged dog were seated at table on the right for the “session.” The dog didn’t have an instrument, but several of the people did
Guinness in the wild
Final shot of the first evening
The iPhone map of photos gives an idea of the route we took on the Ring of Beara. The numbers indicate how many pictures I took at each spot

We ended up driving around for about 2 ½ hours, which was a perfect amount of time. When it was time to wrap things up, Andy offered to take me out again the next night so I could see parts of the Ring of Kerry, and I was happy I would get to see both routes.

Our first stop the following evening was the Blackwater Bridge. As I got out of the car to take pictures, Andy pointed out that he was in the poster on the side of the road.

Andy also works for an adventuring company. He is the second from left in the red helmet

The weather on the second night wasn’t as clear as it was the previous evening, but I still got to see the parts of the Ring of Kerry that were close to Kenmare.

I couldn’t believe how blue the water was.

We eventually turned around because the clouds were moving in and the visibility was poor. On the way back to Kenmare, we stopped into a pub that Catriona had mentioned.

I love the Guinness sign
The Ring of Kerry towns we drove through before turning around

Part of what was great about both nights was learning about the area. Andy was very knowledgeable about the history of Ireland and County Kerry in particular.

In addition to the spectacular views, doing the tours at night allowed me to explore Kenmare during the day. It ended up being one of my favorite places in Ireland.

The atmosphere of the town was relaxed and friendly and the triangular shape of downtown made everything walkable – restaurants, bakeries, pubs, and other shops. The Kenmare Stone Circle, Reenagross Park, and Kenmare Pier were also within easy walking distance.

This map captures the highlights
Looking down Henry Street — one of the three streets of the triangle
My Airbnb was the middle floor above the Purcell Gallery on Main Street. I was pleased when the owner of the gallery and the unit told me I had an “Irish face”
Kenmare Stone Circle
Kenmare Pier
Reenagross Park

An added bonus to the week was the fun night I had at O’Donnabhain’s Pub listening to music and yukking it up with a group of people I met from Donegal who were there on vacation.

My Kenmarian companions

Kenmare was the perfect place to close out my travels within Ireland. The pictures of both peninsulas speak for themselves, but even they don’t do the area justice. It was honestly the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen, and I would’ve missed it altogether if I had insisted on planning everything ahead of time.

I’ve had a blank wall for a long time in my “writing room” that I was hoping to fill with pictures from Ireland. Framing my favorite photos from my time in County Kerry seemed only fitting – an extended reminder of what can happen when I loosen my grip and allow things to unfold.

My Month in the Land of One Hundred Thousand Welcomes (Part Deux)

Week 2: Friends and Family

Each week of my month in Ireland felt like a different chapter. Chapter 2 began in the lobby of the Fleet Hotel in Dublin.

My friends Christine and Gwyn had flown over to join me for the Pride parade, an idea I had proposed in late March the night I got confirmation I would be going to the writer’s retreat.

They arrived the Wednesday before the parade and I met them at their hotel that afternoon. It was weird and wonderful to see them across the lobby, so far from our usual surroundings.

That was the beginning of five days of laughter and conversation. If the first week of my trip initially involved adjusting and being out of my comfort zone, the second week included a handful of days that felt a little lighter, where I could relax in the company of old friends.

Highlights of our time together:

Guinness Storehouse

The Guinness Storehouse is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland, and it was easy to see why. We joined the herd of visitors the first afternoon the ladies were in town.

The place is enormous. It’s also carefully laid out.

The tour of the Storehouse is mercifully a “self-guided experience.” Visitors walk up six stories without a rambling tour guide, so everyone can decide how interested they are in the details of milling, mashing, and boiling ingredients.

Along the way, there are plenty of opportunities to check out old Guinness advertising campaigns and pose for pictures.

The view from the top almost makes circling the building six times on the way up seem worth it. You can sample the “black stuff” while you admire the clear view of Dublin and its surrounding areas out the windows of the Gravity Bar.

On the way out of the building, you and the other mildly inebriated guests are funneled through a well-stocked retail store.

We participated in all of it, and I have to say it was a lot of fun. Hats off to the marketers at Guinness.

P.S. My dad and I enjoyed drinking out of his new beer glasses last weekend.

Gravity Bar view

Trinity College/Book of Kells

Thursday morning we walked around the campus of Ireland’s top-rated university, which is located in the middle of Dublin. The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the Bible, is housed on campus and is considered a national treasure.

We relaxed on the lawn in front of the Old Library while we waited for our entrance time to see the Book of Kells. That gave me time to recover from my harrowing trip to the men’s room. Long story, but as it turns out, “leithreas” does not mean “ladies,” as in “everything beyond this point is a ladies room.”

But anyway, back to the Bible.

Picture lifted from the internet — visitors are not allowed to photograph the book

The Book of Kells is kept in its own darkened room, like something out of a Dan Brown novel. I don’t know why, but I was surprised that we could only see two pages. (Did I think we’d be allowed to leaf through a book that was created in 800 A.D.?)

Hopefully it’s not sacrilege to say I was much more impressed by the library upstairs than I was by the famous book.

The Long Room was one of my favorite places in Ireland.

The Long Room – a working library

We did almost have a minor international incident in the Long Room.

Christine and Gwyn were ahead of me when one of their phones spontaneously started blaring the Indigo Girls. Loud lesbian folk music is generally not appreciated in a library built in the 1700s. It wasn’t clear which person’s phone was the source of the music, so angry accusations were exchanged through gritted teeth until it was determined whose phone was to blame.

Like a good friend, I kept my distance while that got sorted out.

Blitzkrieg Tour of Dublin on the Hop-on/Hop-off Bus

Because time was limited, the Hop-on/Hop-off Big Bus tour seemed like an efficient way for the Virginians to see as much of the city as possible. It did end up being a good choice, especially after our Trinity College/Book of Kells extravaganza. We kicked back on the upper deck of the bus and rode all around the city, hopping off only once to get some lunch.

(In fairness to them, the ladies did hop back on the next day to take in some additional sights while I relaxed at my Airbnb.)

The Big Bus gave us a chance to experience imposing views of cathedrals like this
Hop-off destination

Dublin Pride Parade

This picture captures the tone of the day

There’s a lot to be said about the Dublin Pride parade. It was colorful, well organized, relatively easy to navigate, free of protestors and commercial organizations, and generally well done.

But more important than the nuts and bolts of the event was the atmosphere. I would actually call it joyous. All three of us were taken with how friendly and supportive the crowd was. As Gwyn said, it seemed like the whole country was there and ready to celebrate.

There were rainbow flags all over Dublin, and the general sense of acceptance was really touching, especially when I think back to what things were like when I was in my teens and twenties. Being gay at that time was considered strange and embarrassing. Now it’s really not a big deal for most people.

The shift in public perception on this topic has been incredible to watch over the last 20+ years.

The parade was a lot of fun. We saw some of it from O’Connell Street and then moved to an establishment right on the parade route on the banks of the River Liffey.

The most photographed dog on O’Connell Street
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4023-1.jpg
A block-long flag
Bagpipes on Eden Quay along the river
Merrion Square post-parade concert, where Christine got us a loaf of sourdough bread at one of the concession stands.
Move over, corn dogs and funnel cakes

The day after the parade, the ladies’ last in Dublin, was relatively low-key. They toured an art museum and the Jameson Distillery and then I joined them in the late afternoon for dinner, swapping pictures, and rehashing our adventure.

What a great week it was. There’s something to be said for making memories with old friends in a new place far from home.

After the Virginians headed home, I took a day trip to Dalystown, about an hour west of Dublin, near where my great grandmother was born and where my grandmother spent some of her early childhood years.

My initial plan was to see if it was feasible to hire a driver from Dublin to bring me there and drive me around; when I couldn’t line that up, I decided to just get to Mullingar and figure it out.

Train to Mullingar

I took the train to Mullingar and then got a taxi to Dalystown, about seven miles away.

It did take the taxi driver a minute to understand what I was trying to do. I’m guessing he doesn’t get mumbling New Yorkers popping into his cab every day, looking to roam the area in search of old relatives.

Once he did understand, he knew exactly where to take me. First, we went to the pub where my parents visited in the late 1990s.

My mom and Mr. Wallace in the 1990s
A wider shot in front of the same building
The building today. The post office is gone and the façade is updated; otherwise, it’s basically the same after 25 years and is still surrounded by farmland. It seems to be the hub of the village

Next, the driver took me to Clonfad, my great grandmother’s birthplace. It was also farmland with no central village. He brought me to the only church in the area.

Church of the Sacred Heart, Meedin, built 1831

I got out and walked around. The only sound was the wind and the bleating of the sheep on the farm next to the church. It was incredibly peaceful.

Farmhouse next to the church
My great grandmother, Katherine Farrell

I thought about trying to find gravestones marked Farrell in the cemetery next to the church, but we had already been out for 30 minutes, and I sensed the driver was anxious to leave. The church was closed and the cemetery was large.

The only Catholic church in an area that small was most likely my great grandmother’s family parish, and that alone felt like a valuable discovery. I was happy to have come to the area.

The cemetery beside the church

This was the first of several experiences that worked out better because I didn’t have the details all mapped out ahead of time.

The taxi driver, James Farrell (a possible relative? I knew better than to ask), was from Mullingar and knew the area very well. A driver from another city wouldn’t have known the back roads or where to find the old Catholic church.

The second week of my trip was obviously a very mixed bag, with a nice balance of connecting with friends and time for exploration on my own.

I had deliberately left the remaining two weeks unplanned, and though that gave me a pit in my stomach heading into the third week, it proved to be the best approach.

My Month in the Land of One Hundred Thousand Welcomes

Week 1: Arrival and Retreat

I was more than 3,000 miles from home, at the writer’s retreat that had brought me to Ireland, when I heard a saying that stuck with me:

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine – We live in each other’s shadows.

Other translations or interpretations: Through the shelter of each other, people survive. We shade each other from the sun.

The takeaway: Humans rely on each other for support.

When I heard it, I was reminded of the importance of connection and the fact that the best times of my life have always been with other people. And yet, I had chosen to spend a month in a place where I didn’t know a single soul.

I had been in Ireland for five days and had already questioned my choice to travel alone. Quite a few of these unsettling moments came the morning I arrived. 

After an easy trip from Washington, D.C., to Dublin, I checked into my hotel in the early morning feeling good.  

“I’m doing this!” I congratulated myself, looking around the room confidently, “I’m in Ireland!”

Two hours later, after settling in for a needed nap, I woke up feeling nauseated and terribly anxious. 

The rest of the day was a struggle.

I was surprised at how familiar the feeling was. It was almost identical to how I felt the morning I arrived in Japan some 25 years ago – something just short of wanting to stay in bed all day and pull a blanket over my head. However, that time I was with my spouse, and he would be handling many of the details of our one-year stay because we were there for his job. This time I would be handling everything solo.

I tried to calm myself down by turning on the TV, but I kept finding channels where everyone was speaking with Irish accents. Worse yet, some were speaking Irish, a language I couldn’t comprehend at all. It served as a glaring reminder that I was in a foreign place.

I also had to figure out where I was going to eat. I had been told that breakfast was served at the hotel restaurant from “half 7” to 11 a.m. I didn’t know what “half 7” meant, but it didn’t matter. It was already 10:30.

Floors -1 and 0 threw me for a loop

My room was a weird distance from the lobby and I was wishing I had left bread crumbs to help navigate my way back through a series of hallways and two different elevators. 

Nevertheless, I persisted, and made my way towards the lobby. Just ahead of me around the last turn was a man in a skirt. 

“Wow,” I thought, “I’ve heard Ireland’s gotten very progressive. Well, OK! Well done, Ireland!”

Then I turned the corner and came across a pack of burly, tattooed men in skirts. Or, as I quickly realized, kilts. And matching navy blue jerseys.

Oh! Right. Sports fans. (Scottish soccer fans going to a game in Dublin that day, as it turned out.)

This specific guy wasn’t in the lobby of my hotel, but he could have been

I had to slip through the burly men and their matching ladies to get to the hotel restaurant. I was the only customer. 

It was 10:45 and the buffet had clearly been out for several hours. I was looking for something simple like eggs and toast. The eggs looked suspect.

This was hardly the time for food poisoning, so I took a couple of oddly curled pieces of meat (ham? bacon? I wasn’t sure) and the waitress brought me toast and tea. 

And that was my first meal in Ireland, sitting alone in an empty restaurant.

After I finished (six minutes later), I retreated to the safety of my room to lay down again and watch TV. I knew it was absurd that the Irish accents on Irish TV were throwing me off, but I couldn’t help it. My heart thawed when I came across a couple of channels showing American programs. 

I watched an episode of Friends (which I never liked in America, but now Joey and Chandler were really hitting the spot), then the movies Dirty Dancing (Baby, still not in a corner) and Beaches (which I hadn’t seen since 1989). 

Around 4 p.m., it was time to find food again and I decided I really did have to leave the hotel and walk around the area a little.

I stepped out onto O’Connell Street – a busy road with lots of shops, people, busses, and trams – and had some bright moments while heading towards the river. It was cool walking around in a new city, and I had an inkling that I would enjoy the place once I settled in. 

The sky cleared minutes before this photo

After crossing the bridge over the River Liffey, I walked through a touristy section called Temple Bar, which felt like a frat party on a city street. Enough of that! I crossed back over the river, and once again, seeking out familiar things, I ducked into a music store full of guitars. 

After about an hour I felt I could check the box that I had “explored” the neighborhood. On my way back to the hotel, I picked up another nutritious meal – a sandwich from the Subway inside a Circle K. 

On the way back to my hotel after my lengthy jaunt. I liked how all the lines intersected on this part of the street

Not surprisingly, the first day in the new place was challenging. I was exhausted from jet lag. I’m also a creature of habit, so having to get my bearings, make sense of new sights, navigate new streets, and forage for food, all alone, was tiresome. I just kept reminding myself that it was going to be worth it.

I was here to grow. 

I would need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

The tradeoff was this, I felt: Traveling solo would open possibilities and connections that wouldn’t happen if I were with a partner or a friend the whole time. 

And fortunately, the next day, things got much better.

I met up with my sister’s friend Catriona, who lives in Dublin and who had kindly offered to show me around. 

I was nervous to meet her, but she set me at ease right away. Chatty, warm, smart, and fun, she brought me to the Museum of Literature Ireland, which had a ton of interesting information about Irish writers, and then to her house for dinner.  

Though I had only been two days away from my own home, it was so nice to be in a house, with a family, having a home-cooked meal. Catriona and her husband Jim told me lots about Ireland and answered my many questions. I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon and evening.

On the way back to the hotel, Catriona drove past Dublin Bay and explained a bunch of other things about the city. I ended the day feeling much more comfortable about where I was. When I got back to the room, I ended my journal entry for the day with this simple note:

Grateful for today. 

The next morning, I flew to Donegal, where my writing retreat would take place.

In addition to my first-day nerves, I had felt plenty of anxiety about the retreat in the weeks leading up to the trip. I was happy to start my month in Ireland with a week where I would be interacting with other people rather than sightseeing by myself, but I was also unsure of who else would be there and what we would be doing each day. There were only ten participants, so I knew we would be in close quarters. 

I met most of the other participants after we had landed in Donegal. I introduced myself at the tiny baggage claim area and we loaded ourselves into a van to the hotel. 

This fancy photo slide shows where I landed — completely different terrain than in Dublin

It may sound corny to say “we came in as strangers, we left as friends,” but I believe that’s what happened. Even though we ranged in age from 30s – 70s and came from England, Ireland, Germany, and a wide variety of U.S. states, the group seemed to gel almost immediately. A workshop where people are writing about their lives lends itself to getting to know people well in a short span of time.

The retreat was thoughtfully organized. Starting with the first night, we got a writing assignment each evening. Mornings were spent sharing our work and giving each other feedback. From our first morning, I was so impressed with the writing of my classmates. Each day there were pieces that blew me away, and I felt I learned a lot just by hearing the writing of others and the feedback given by the group.

We also had instruction and discussions each day about specific aspects of writing – things like story arc, dialogue writing, and ways to make writing clearer. 

Class time
View from the van on the way to one of the field trips

On two of the afternoons we took trips to local places that highlighted the culture of the area. The first was to a thatched-roof cottage, the home of a traveler and author from the 1800s. We had a big lunch of Irish stew, brown bread, and scones and cream, followed by a lesson in the Irish language. 

The group outside and inside the old house
My notes from this session: “How were ppl not angry and irritable living in these damp conditions?”

The second afternoon we went to Dunfanaghy Workhouse, where we learned about life during the Irish Potato Famine. We walked through a narrated exhibit about a woman from that area who lived through the hardship of the famine. The museum was on the site of an actual workhouse, a place where people could go if they had no food. It was an enlightening and very somber afternoon. 

The replicas of people in this museum were haunting

After the Workhouse, we went to a castle in the area, which I found peaceful and interesting.

View looking out from Castle Doe onto some water

Evenings were spent at the pub in the hotel, which was not only a ton of fun – I really enjoyed getting to know this diverse group of people – but also served as my first view into how pubs seem to play an important role in communities. 

The awesome retreaters. Missing three people in this photo, unfortunately

Because the Teac Jack hotel was set in a rural area, it was clearly a gathering spot for people from the surrounding towns as well as hotel guests. And perhaps most importantly, it’s where I broke my strict allegiance to Coors Light and ventured on to Carlsberg and Guinness.

I didn’t think it was possible to supplant my CLs, but we all have to grow up sometime

During the first week, I was already getting a taste of the experiences that would tower in my memories of this trip: although I purposefully chose to travel alone, the best parts of this adventure were when I found connection with others.

The Irish are known for their culture of hospitality. You can go into any gift shop and find the saying Céad Míle Fáilte (One Hundred Thousand Welcomes) on a variety of plaques and cards. I don’t know how many Irish people walk around actually speaking these words, but the saying represents something I experienced firsthand, especially that first week.

I was left with the strong sense that I was genuinely welcomed and that people I had just met were looking out for me. What a great feeling to take with me as I began my solo journey.

May the Road Rise Up to Meet Me

… for all of us who travel, there are always two cities: the one we see in front of us, take notes on, and file copy for, and the one that exists in our mind’s eye, populated with childhood associations and memories of lost love, paved with streets whose names we whispered to ourselves as children.

Tara Isabella Burton, “The Countries We Think We See”

In her article on travel writing in The Paris Review, Tara Isabella Burton points out that travelers don’t only see what’s in front of them; they also see what they expect to find from a given place, especially one they’ve been thinking about long before they arrived. 

The place I’ve been thinking about for many years is Ireland. Next week, I’ll leave for a month-long trip to the island I first became aware of as a nine-year-old, when my grandmother gave me a book she had used as a schoolgirl outside of Dublin.

I was thrilled with the gift and took a shine to two of the pieces in particular: the poem “Try, Try Again,” and a Christmas story called “Little Jack.” In the story, Jack lives with a cruel aunt and gives one of his shoes to a child whose circumstances are even worse than his own. In the end, Jack’s generosity is rewarded by a kind stranger, and his aunt’s heart softens as she is overcome by the Christmas spirit.

This was the first time I remember wondering about Ireland. Thankfully, the stories I read in Blackie’s New Programme Reader didn’t entirely shape my view of the country. If they had, I would simply have viewed it as a place where people weren’t very good at things but tried really hard, over and over again; where kids lived a dreary life, some sleeping in doorways without shoes; where adults were heartless (aunts, specifically); and where children could only rely on Christmas to improve their lives. Sheesh. And this was reading instruction for five-year-olds!

My grandmother (left) and her older sister.

As I got older, I did more reading that was also dark at times but equally as intriguing. My favorite course in college was Irish Literature with Dr. Fitzgerald. She introduced me to the work of Edna O’Brien and Seamus Heaney, among others. I was really taken with both writers, whose work created an impression of the landscape (green and lush, with white washed buildings and lots of farms) and an impression of the people (smart, strong-willed, religious, understated).

I went to see both writers speak at different times after I graduated, Seamus Heaney a year after college in Upstate New York, and Edna O’Brien in 2016 at a synagogue in Washington, D.C. O’Brien was promoting her new novel at age 85 and the feisty spirit that I saw in her writing was on full display that night.

After college, I was introduced to Irish music during my time in the bars of downtown Boston. I quickly progressed beyond just shouting “No, Nay, Never!” with a bunch of sweaty post-college kids and discovered I really enjoyed The Chieftains and other bands. I grew to love a variety of Irish music and listen to it regularly. 

I came close to traveling to Ireland a couple of times. Before each of my marriages, my soon-to-be spouse asked if I’d like to go to Ireland for the honeymoon. Both times, I said I wanted to make that its own special trip.

Fast forward to a few months ago, when I had just dropped off my 20-year-old for his first semester away at college. A friend asked me what I was doing for myself and my own growth now that my son was living in another city.

I thought about it. I’m 53. Twice divorced. Transitioning out of my role as a caretaker. My son had said he might not be coming home for the summer. What would I really like to do?

The first thing that came to mind was to finally take a trip to Ireland. I quickly decided that I wanted to visit for an extended period of time so I could see the country in an authentic way, as I did when I studied abroad for five months in Spain and lived and worked in Japan for a year. Since English is spoken everywhere in Ireland (I think), I figured it would be feasible to travel there solo without too much trouble. 

I don’t expect that I’ll have the same kinds of language snafus in Ireland that I experienced in Spain and Japan, but I understand that I’ll come across different ways of expressing things and probably some big cultural differences. Like many Americans of Irish descent, I’ve always “identified” as Irish, if you will, but on the eve of my trip, I recognize that I’m fully American. 

In hopes of being slightly more informed before arrival, I got a copy of Irish History for Dummies, which in itself feels very American (just the Cliffs Notes version, please!). Actually, I picked it up because it was funny, with chapter headings like “I’m Irish – But Who Isn’t?” and “The Romans: They Came, They Saw, and They Didn’t Bother.”

Humor aside, I know there has been a tremendous amount of conflict in the country, especially within the last century, and I wanted to understand that better. I’ve only gleaned a superficial knowledge of what has transpired and why, and I will be interested to know more through my visit.

The great-great-grandparent column on Even a couple of the names marked “Unknown” are from Ireland

I also re-opened an account that I had set up for my dad several years ago and learned that 11 of 16 great-great-grandparents were from Ireland and came to the U.S. around the time of the Irish Potato Famine. My parents had told us that we were Irish, English, French, and Welsh, but I was surprised to find out just how many relatives came from Ireland. The one strand of the family that came from England is the one whose name we carry—Phillips. More prevalent were names like McQuiggan and Doherty.

It occurred to me that most of them likely left the country because of the famine. I wondered if, like many of the immigrant students I teach, my relatives felt a deep sadness about leaving behind family, friends, and home and did so only because circumstances had become unbearable. My parents visited Ireland in the 1990s, and my father told me recently that when he saw how beautiful the country was, he thought, “They left this?” 

I’ve planned my trip to take in as much as possible in the month I’ll be there without rushing around trying to see every single sight. 

Write up in The Guardian from a few years ago

The first week of my trip will be spent at a writer’s retreat in Donegal. The workshops will focus on creative nonfiction writing, but the week will also involve learning about Irish culture and language. 

For the remaining three weeks, I’ve rented a one-bedroom cottage in Dublin. Two close friends from Virginia will be meeting me for five days, timing their visit to coincide with the Dublin Pride parade at the end of June. We’ll also do some sightseeing in other parts of the country together.

122 will be my home base for three weeks

Other than that, my plan is to ask people at the writer’s retreat and elsewhere for recommendations of where to go and then just wander using public transport. I have never traveled solo with this much unstructured time, and right now it feels both exciting and terrifying. As someone who rarely plans to “wander” and who tends to have a good deal of anticipatory anxiety about anything unknown, I have lots of questions.

Several friends who have been to Ireland have said they felt at home there and assured me that I would find the same thing. Will I? 

Will I feel some affinity for family members who came before me, the Farrells, the McQuiggans, the Donnellys, the Dohertys? 

How will the real Ireland compare with the one that exists in my mind’s eye? 

I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

I wonder if my grandmother was working on recognizing vowels — the pencil marks are hers
My mom and a friendly pub owner in Dalystown, where her mother lived before she moved to the United States in the early 1900s

Ode to My Hometown

The village now known as Sleepy Hollow, New York, is an interesting place.  It was settled in the 1600s, but it was Washington Irving who put it on the map in 1820 when he made it the setting for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” his tale of a pumpkin-throwing headless horseman and a skittish schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane. 

Metal sculpture of the headless horseman and Ichabod C.

When I grew up there, it was called North Tarrytown.  In 1996, residents voted to change its name to Sleepy Hollow in an effort to drum up tourism and offset the loss of tax revenue brought on by the closure of the General Motors plant in town.

The rebranding effort seems to have worked – it has become a popular day trip destination for New Yorkers, with an estimated 100,000 visitors between September and November each year.  When you Google “Sleepy Hollow,” there are a number of websites and YouTube videos assuring you that the town is an actual place and encouraging you to visit. 

For $24.99, you can take a two-hour walking tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a Friday night and hear about the famous people buried there, including Washington Irving (of course), two of Alexander Hamilton’s kids (interesting!), Andrew Carnegie, and in the funnest of the fun facts, IMO, hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, one of Time magazine’s Top 10 Tax Dodgers, who fittingly used some of the little people’s money to erect a mausoleum complete with Roman columns and stained glass windows.  Talk about a home in the country.

Who knew this place could become a tourist trap?

When I hear the cemetery is now a tourist attraction, it makes me feel nostalgic.  “Aww!  That’s where I smoked cigarettes for the first time!”

All this newfound tourism does not exactly jibe with my memories of the place I still consider home, even though I haven’t lived there in more than 30 years.

There have been times when I’ve told people I’m from New York and they have assumed I’m talking about New York City, with its mass of people, noise, and excitement. The truth is that I’m from a small town measuring only five square miles. The tight-knit community that I was a part of when I was young was anything but bustling and impersonal; it was a place where I felt safe, included, and cared for, and it provided a foundation that has stayed with me all these years.

As a kid in the 1970s, I felt free to explore my neighborhood and have adventures without adult supervision.  One of my earliest memories is being allowed to walk more than a half mile with the “big kids” to the penny candy store just off of Route 9, a very busy road. 

Shirts were optional

We rode bikes all over our neighborhood and played down by the train tracks.  We would put coins on the tracks and let trains run over them, keeping the flattened versions as treasures after the trains had passed by.  Mercifully, no one I was with ever got stuck on the tracks or stepped on the wrong rail. 

There were endless games of kickball, stickball, and tackle and touch football.  We played Ding Dong Ditch (ring the doorbell and run like hell) and Hide and Seek, where people could be tucked into spots anywhere along the street.

Much of this unsupervised time with peers was not unique to a particular town.  It was part of the era to let kids out in the morning on summer and weekend days and call them back in only for lunch and dinner.  Still, there was something magical about spending so much unstructured play time outside with friends.  It is part of what I remember most fondly about my childhood.

Living in a small town also meant being able to participate in a variety of activities.  Before high school, there were town sports leagues like the North Tarrytown Girls Softball League (Honeybees rule!), and during high school, the sports teams and clubs were open to everyone for the most part. We were encouraged to try activities we thought we might like. I started playing field hockey in the fall.  In the spring, I played softball for two seasons, then switched to soccer as a junior.  I ran winter track during senior year.

The idea of picking up a sport in high school or changing sports during junior year would be very unusual now, especially at one of the bigger schools.  We didn’t have to choose one sport when we were 10 or 11 and excel at it in order to participate through the end of high school, and we didn’t have to play that one sport year round.      

Being able to try different activities was important for me. I discovered some interests that I wouldn’t have known about and learned that taking chances sometimes had a big payoff.

Perhaps the most important part about growing up in Sleepy Hollow was the sense of continuity and connection. When I look at my kindergarten picture, I realize that I ended up graduating from high school with the majority of those kids.  Many of the teachers stayed in the district for years as well.

This sign was a generous gift from the Class o’ 1986

The schools were small even though North Tarrytown (aka Sleepy Hollow) and Tarrytown were a combined school district, and many students from Pocantico and local parochial schools also came to the high school. Enrollment at Sleepy Hollow High School was somewhere around 800 students when I was there, and my class had about 160 students.

There has been a great deal of research about the academic and social benefits of small schools, and much of it has concluded that kids feel safer and happier when they feel seen and known, both by their peers and by the faculty. I know this was true for me.

Even though the schools and the town are small, the population is very diverse. The town website refers to the “vibrant mix of cultures that characterize Sleepy Hollow,” and this was one of the best things about growing up in this community.

There are also many shared memories with people when you go through school K-12 together. There were seasonal rituals in town, like skating at the Tarrytown Lakes when it was cold enough to freeze over, trips to Ice Cream Villa after sports games, Memorial Day parades through the center of town, and Saturday afternoon football games at the high school.

There were many local businesses that were around for years whose proprietors were well-known and well-liked throughout the community, like Fleetwood Pizza, Shanghai Inn, Mory’s Army & Navy store (where I got some of my first lesbian outfits without realizing it), and Uncle Jerry’s Deli.

One other aspect of Sleepy Hollow that I have always loved is the location on the Hudson River. I find myself drawn to water. Even now, when I go home to visit, I am struck by the beauty of the views and the sunsets.

There is a saying attributed to everyone from Jonas Salk to an anonymous “wise woman” about how the best things parents can provide are “roots and wings.”  My mom and dad certainly did; my hometown did too, and this is part of why I have such a deep appreciation and affection for the little village where I grew up. 

A very old church with an updated message
Drive by shot of Fleetwood on one of my trips home years ago
Pat! (Now closed, this picture was posted on Yelp by the most recent owner)
A look down Beekman Avenue — the main drag in town that leads to the river
This eagle was originally in Grand Central Station and moved north in 1910
Great place to catch a ride to NYC and also to flatten pennies
My old man and my young man talking things over in 2012
Unfiltered shot of the Hudson River
Leaving town on the new Cuomo bridge
A closing shot of the Tappan Zee Bridge back in the day

An American in Japan

Eight years after I went to Spain, another opportunity to live abroad came up – this time in Japan.  The thought of going that far away, both geographically and culturally, was definitely nerve-wracking, but instead of having to talk myself into it, I wanted to go.

I was in a much different place at 28 than I was at 19, and the circumstances of this trip were exponentially easier than those involved with my study abroad semester. I was married, and my (then) husband had an opportunity to work for a year in Hamamatsu, a coastal city of about 800,000 midway between Tokyo and Osaka. He had lived in Japan previously and was reasonably competent with the language, and his employer would essentially handle the details; all I had to do was agree to go. I had been teaching high school English for three years at that point, and the plan was for me to try to find a job at a language school.

So we did it — put all of our possessions in storage, sold our cars, and rented out our house. As I would have expected, the journey to Japan and the first couple of weeks were a little rocky, but as I noted in the journal that I kept that year, I understood that this early rough stage would not last forever.

(I had completely forgotten that I even kept a journal, and was ecstatic after unearthing it while doing research for this blog entry.  I had captured everyday moments like this: “Yesterday we set up the apartment and fought with the washing machine. It’s pretty hard to know what’s wrong when you can only read a small part of the manual.”)

Shortly after we arrived, I found work at the Four Seasons Language School teaching English in a variety of locations.  Some classes took place at the Four Seasons building, about 15 minutes from our apartment, while others required driving to a wide range of settings: a kindergarten housed at a Shinto temple 45 minutes outside the city, a junior high school about 30 minutes away, and several more local places, including an all-girls Catholic high school, a junior college, and two businesses. 

I got off to quite a start.  My first day I was asked to give a brief introductory speech to the students at the all-girls high school.  When I got there, I was given slippers to change into in the lobby (as is customary in homes, schools, and businesses), and then escorted to the gym, which was stifling hot and packed. 

The nun running the school spoke to the girls for a minute or two, several times mentioning “Susan-sensei.”  Then she motioned for me to come to the stage and said, “Berry clothes.” 

Hmm, I thought.  Berry clothes? 

Oh!  Very close!  As in, speak very close to the microphone. 

Then she said, “In the middle.” 


Oh!  She wants me to move. 

I shuffled to the middle of the stage in my slippers.  Thankfully I didn’t kick them off, as I had already done twice in the previous ten minutes.

I mumbled “Good morning,” then paused and looked at the microphone because I wasn’t sure I was speaking loud enough. 

The gym teacher in the front row must have thought I was waiting for a response because he shouted something harsh, and the next thing I knew, hundreds of girls were bowing to me in unison, saying, “Good morning, Susan-sensei!” I instinctively bowed back, which I’m sure was the wrong thing to do, and launched into my little prepared speech. 

There was no telling how many girls understood what I was saying because I was using words like “colleagues” and “unfortunately” (I’m not sure what I was talking about that was unfortunate, but this is what I wrote in my journal); in any case, I counted the event as a win because I finished without fainting or unknowingly throwing out insults, both of which seemed like real possibilities.

Driving was another intimidating task I faced at the beginning. 

Japanese road sign

My husband and I purchased a used car shortly after we got to Japan, as well as a scooter that I would use to get back and forth to Four Seasons.  I had been practicing driving on the left side of the road, but was far from confident.  I would be doing the driving for work in a car provided by the school, and I was worried about the street signs, most of which were written in a combination of English and three Japanese alphabets: I had mastered two of the three. Attempting to read street signs I had a two-thirds chance of understanding while overriding muscle memory to drive on the right side of the road was, well, exciting!

A few weeks into my teaching job, I got severely lost on my way to a class at a local company. Over the course of two hours, I stopped for directions three times (it was 1997, pre-Smartphones), landed on an expressway, where I accidentally barreled through the entry toll without taking a ticket, headed in the opposite direction from where I needed to go, was chastised by a toll collector, and called Four Seasons twice to get help, once from a payphone on the side of the road and once from the control room of the toll station — chaperoned by the disgusted toll collector. Needless to say, my class had to be cancelled.

Coworkers Rieko (striped shirt) and
Kanami (tan sweater) saved me from
disaster on the highway

Even in trying situations like this, it all just felt so much easier than when I was in Spain. I wasn’t living alone, and I had much more support from the amazing ladies at my school and from the circle of friends I developed there.  Being a little bit older also gave me perspective that any rough patches were temporary and occasionally even amusing. 

As a result, I was able to enjoy what I was seeing and learning, and the rewards of the trip were even greater than they had been in Spain.

I was able to get a window into Japan through my work.  My students ranged in age from five to eighty, and I was teaching mostly conversation classes, so we spent a lot of time just talking about life. We had many discussions about cultural differences between Japan and America that I found fascinating.  There was also a custom for students to throw welcome parties and goodbye parties for teachers, so I had an opportunity to go out to restaurants and even karaoke with my adult students on a number of occasions. 

Overall, the year worked out better than I ever could have hoped. I eventually learned how to speak Japanese well enough to communicate and to get around on my own. We were able to travel some within Japan and saw so many pretty things — rock gardens, temples, bridges, and gates, often times unexpected pockets of beauty in an otherwise dreary, cement landscape. I also found that I loved the simplicity of Japanese design, furnishings, and artwork. But what touched me most, and what stays with me as I look back, were the people. I developed some great friendships, several of which extended long beyond our time in Japan.

Many of the people I worked with, and especially a coworker who I recently learned passed away last fall, represented the best of Japan — they were patient, gracious, hard-working, kind, and soft spoken yet strong-willed. They were curious. They loved to laugh. More than 20 years later, these are the things that I remember and value most about this incredible experience. I can see that more than “kinda clearly.”

Teaching a kids class at Four Seasons with my coworker and friend Keiko
Dinner and karaoke with my evening class
The wonderful ladies in my Tuesday morning class
Kindergarten class at the Shinto temple
Welcome party with Yamaha businessmen
They called me Speed Racer
Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto
Floating torii gate in Miyajima, built in 1168, a mere 800 years before my birth
Visiting cherished Hamamatsu friends Kevin and Ingrid in Canada several years after we all returned from Japan
Keiko visiting us in Boston in fall of 2000
My favorite rock garden

An American in Spain

We were one hour from Seville when the program director walked up and down the aisles of the train, handing out index cards to each of us.  

“You will be living with a married couple with a student daughter,” he said to me.  I took the index card and wondered what my Spanish “family” would be like.  These were the people I would be living with during my study abroad program in southern Spain in the spring of my junior year of college.

I had arrived in Spain three days earlier and was trying to keep my anxiety at bay.  I was tired from the journey from New York to Madrid, trying to adjust to the time difference, and overwhelmed by the prospect of living on my own for four months with a family I had never met.  I also didn’t speak Spanish very well, and all of my classes would be taught in Spanish.

On the train ride from Madrid to Seville, I chatted nervously with the group of American students whom I had spent the previous days with sightseeing and acclimating. We were all embarking on the same “immersion” adventure. When we pulled into the station, I lugged my heavy suitcase off the train and waited for a cab.  This was the moment we would each have to make our own way. 

A little backstory: the truth is, I didn’t really want to go to Spain or Europe. I knew my school offered a study abroad program and was considering it, but concluded it would be too overwhelming.  Then I spoke with a friend of my sister’s who had just returned from Spain. He told me all about his experience and said, “Don’t think about it.  Just do it.” Even though I was young, immature, and hyper-resistant to change (and knew all of this about myself), I understood that this was a one-time chance that I would regret not taking if I let my anxiety do the deciding.  

Hence I found myself in a cab bringing me to the apartment building where I would be living.  After getting my bag out of the trunk, the driver started to leave; I somehow indicated that I needed his help getting in.  He obliged and buzzed up to the apartment number on the index card.

My Spanish home

“Quien?” (who is it?) a gruff woman asked into the box.

The cab driver looked at me.  All of the Spanish words I knew disappeared.  I shrugged my shoulders and gave him a blank look.  

“Quien?” the woman asked again, sounding more annoyed this time.

I finally remembered one helpful word — “estudiante” — and said it to the cab driver.

He said something to her.  She said something to him.  He said something else to her, and then he smiled at me and left.

An interminable ten minutes later, a short, sturdy-looking woman came down to the lobby where I was perseverating.  Angelita, my Spanish “mother,” briskly introduced herself, grabbed my bag, and brought me upstairs in the elevator.  


The apartment was a small two-bedroom place, with a galley kitchen, a formal living room that looked unused, and a little TV room.  

I met Esperanza, my 15-year-old “sister,” and was shown to my room.  Espe, as she was called, announced, in a manner that could never be confused with subtle, that I was taking over her room.  I wondered where her father was, and where she would be staying.

After getting my bags settled, we sat down for a meal.  Angelita served hot dogs, which completely surprised me. We eat hot dogs for a living in New York, I thought, but I had no idea they even had hot dogs in Spain! (Oh, Grasshopper, so much to discover …) I later found out that she had not been expecting me for another week and did not have much food in the refrigerator when I arrived.  That explained her tone when she answered the buzzer.

As the evening went on, I kept expecting my host father to come home from work.  Eventually I asked Angelita about him, and learned that he had been killed in a car accident the year before.  The family had lived in Pamplona, in northern Spain, and after the accident she and Espe had moved to Seville, Angelita’s hometown.

I slowly pieced together that she had portrayed her family as husband, wife, and daughter to my study abroad program, perhaps in order to ensure that they would place a student with her.  It was clear that she needed the stipend the program paid to host families.  In a conversation we had about a month later, she told me that she wanted to host a student to be able to put food on the table for her daughter, even though it meant that she and Espe would share a bedroom.

The hot dogs and the difficult family circumstances were just two of the eye-opening experiences I had that semester.  At 19, I had always lived in an enveloping cocoon of family and friends where there was always someone to turn to if a problem came up. Now, for the first time in my life, I was truly alone. My host family was cordial, but they were in a lot of pain themselves (I see now, looking back as an adult) and so they understandably tolerated more than embraced having me in their home.

La Giralda, the bell tower of the Seville Cathedral

Over the course of the next four months, I got better at being on my own. Because it was often uncomfortable to be in the apartment, and because I was determined not to cling to American friends from my program, I started to learn how to fill my own days, especially on the weekends. It was a struggle at first.

One Sunday in particular stands out, where I had no plans and felt terribly homesick and lonely. I walked to one of my favorite spots, the Seville Cathedral, sat in the back, and cried. After a while, I felt better, took a deep breath, left the cathedral, and went to see other things in the city. I remember that being a pivotal moment. I acknowledged that I was hurting, realized it wasn’t the end of the world, and kept moving.

In addition to being in a number of situations that forced me to grow up a little, there were many other benefits to my time in Spain. I learned much more about Spanish culture than I would have if I were just a tourist. I went home from school for dinner and a rest every day from 2 – 5 p.m., then returned to school for an evening class and socializing with friends from my program.  Many people joked that the pace of the siesta schedule was an indication of laziness, but I felt that the days and evenings unfolded in a way that allowed for a sweet balance between work and play. 

Hanging out at a cafe with friends

I obviously learned a lot about the Spanish language as well, at times by mixing up words. There was the time I told Angelita and Espe that I was pregnant when I was trying to say I was embarrassed.  Turns out you can’t just put a vowel on the end of an English word and Spanish-ize it.  Embarazada is not embarrassed. Another day I told them that my American friend was preparing a dinner of “polla” for her host family. When they keeled over laughing, I discovered an important distinction: “pollo” is chicken. “Polla” is slang for a part of the male anatomy that begins with d.  Vowels are so important.

A highlight of the trip was a visit from my parents and sister.  My dad and I still laugh about some of things that happened, like the time he and I were standing at a bar waiting for drinks and he helped himself to another man’s olives, thinking they were out for the taking like peanuts at an American bar.  That gave me a chance to practice my most deferential vocabulary words. (“My sincerest apologies! My American father did not understand that those were yours!”)

Another day we traveled to the city of Granada and discovered when we arrived that the hotel my father had booked was closed for renovations. My dad kept insisting that someone named Pepe had taken his reservation over the phone, and the cab driver kept telling me “esta cerrado” (it’s closed).  When we pulled up to the hotel, it was a pile of rubble.  On to Plan B.  My mom, whose only Spanish word was “hola,” wandered off while the rest of us were pulling our hair out and somehow got a recommendation for a hotel right down the street.

My mom and sister

I was talking with a friend the other day about my semester in Spain and she asked if it was fun. I told her that there were many fun times and I have lots of fond memories, but when I think back, it was more a time of growth than fun. I left Spain a little more mature, a little more aware of the world around me, and a little more humble, and that was a good thing.

When I got home, I put together a scrapbook. This was the final page.