~ Submitted by Andrea Cleghorn
My companion and I set out on the left side of the road on a sunny summer morning in Waterford, the crystal county, not knowing exactly where we were going in Kilkenny, the breadbasket of Ireland. We planned to just ask for help when we got there, but needed it sooner rather than later.
Click this link for Andrea Cleghorn’s Lost and Eventually Found photo essay
“You’re never really lost in Ireland because someone is always there to help you,” the small man said, out standing in his field holding a black pony by the halter.
Our mission was to see if we could find the site of my paternal grandfather’s home. We knew it was in a townland, which meant it was rural, without street numbers, possibly even streets, near Paulstown. We were very close, as it turned out, but the directions were a bit complicated. He introduced himself, Paddy, and Bubbles, pronounced “Boobles,” to my American friend Eileen and me.
Is it true there are five Irish faces? Am not sure five’s the right number, but Paddy certainly had one of them, the long thin one that always looks a bit sad-eyed. He and Bubbles were a matched set in that regard.
Paddy told us he acquired the pony to cut the grass, but Bubbles had disappointed him, as he never got into the groove, apparently preferring to wait for a homemade lunch delivered in a trough.
But luckily Paddy knew the way to the Tobin land, and pointed down a narrow lane even narrower than the one we were on. The property had long since been sold to the Dwyers, probably the 1950s. We ran into a member of the Dwyer clan that day as he rode by on a tractor and we had a bit of a chat. The Tobin cottage was gone, but Mr. Dwyer pointed out where the building had been. It is all pasture now, but we could see the outline of a foundation of a home for a family of 13. I could imagine my grandfather as a young man, leaving that spot in the early years of the last century and ending up in Albany with an Irish bride and eventually six children.
Pre-pandemic, or what seems a hundred or so years ago, I was in the west of Ireland—Kenmare, the kingdom of Kerry—for a few weeks on the lookout for subjects for my occasional Bedford TV series, “Dispatches From Ireland.” Leads can come from anywhere, but let’s be honest, often from pub conversations involving someone that knows someone who might be thatching a roof over on the Old Butter Road. Details can be drowned out by mighty voices joining in on “As I was goin’ over the far famed Kerry mountains…” from “Whiskey in the Jar.”
But this particular year, the year before Covid, I had heard about John Fitzgerald, aka the Seaweed Guy, from Carmel Flynn, a visitor to Boston introduced to me by someone at Tourism Ireland. She is with one of the old wonderful hotels on the Ring of Kerry, the Parnasilla in Sneem. Carmel told me John harvests seaweed, takes people out to the beach to learn about native varieties, giving them the chance to handle them, taste them, how to differentiate between dead and live specimens. His wife Kerryann creates seaweed-based menus and hosts dinners at the Blind Piper Pub in Derrynane. All seaweed, all the time.
I got in touch by phone, and John invited me to join a group on White Strand Beach the following Saturday morning. Was I familiar with Derrynane, the ancestral home of Daniel “The Liberator” O’Connell? I was indeed. And how about Abbey Island? Fer sure. I had actually been to the graveyard there to scatter some ashes for an O’Sullivan friend, and been back for other family members.
“Oh, good. It’s right there,” he said. “See you around 10.” It was a soft old day, dewy and darkish, but the forecast was promising and I set out from the town of Kenmare in my rented car, allowing time to spare.
I was heading west, marveling that even on a weekend there was little traffic. I was going to be there quite early, I thought, and I had been on the Ring many times. So when I saw a sign for an alternate route, I took it. Why not?
The grass growing down the middle of the road should have been my first clue. It wasn’t the road less traveled, it looked more like the road hardly ever traveled. I wasn’t concerned; I love a scenic detour.
So I kept on it and drove, and drove, and drove some more.
Enjoying talk radio, I wasn’t worried, but planned to stop and get some help when I spotted `the sign for the CIimbers’ Inn. What I pictured was a bunch of jovial hikers about to set off for the day, all with opinions on the best way to get there from here. What I got was a grumpy woman with a mop.
“Hi, good morning. Can I get a cup of coffee?”
“No coffee yet,” said the woman with the mop. It was too early for pizza, and she had no suggestions for me, so I got back on the road.
Down the road a bit I hit upon a lodge near a beautiful arched bridge cascading water. There were a few people, all speaking German. Had I crossed into Bavaria without knowing? It seemed like it. Researching it later, I found out it was Blackstones Bridge, road unnamed. But that day I kept going, thinking I would have to run into the coast eventually.
Where was everyone? It was a July weekend. My phone had no bars, my car had no map. I knocked on the door of a lone farmhouse, but no one appeared.
There was a sign for Cahersiveen. That sounded familiar, so I took that fork in the road. There were hills around, and hills behind more hills. There were signs for the Kerry Way pointing both right and left. I didn’t even know if it was possible to drive; I knew you could hike it. I really needed that coffee.
The “road” I took was on the incline. It was narrow, it was bumpy, winding, and there was no way out. There was a sign for Ballaghbeama Gap. Note to self: Watch out for anything with “pass” or “gap” in the title. The road was getting steeper and was barely one lane wide, with caution signs for the steep grade. Eventually the road hit a point where it was level and I was looking down into a valley with mountains all around and a lake. It immediately started heading downward I could see for miles. On the lake was a small campervan. There was not a living soul in sight, but I wasn’t going back. The road led me down across to a bridge across a small creek. I crossed that bridge when I came to it, drove to the bank of the lake – Cloon Lough — and stopped the car.
With no phone, no map, I was in a panic. I pictured John Fitzgerald on the elusive White Strand Beach, thinking he was doing me a favor and where was I?
The scene in front of me was amazing, but I was too rattled to take a picture. I knew I was heading deep into the mountains of County Kerry, toward Carrauntoohil, at 3,408 feet the tallest peak in the country. There was not a living soul in that valley, with mountains all around. I saw a single camper van. I was in a panic, especially when I looked at the car clock. I had John’s number but couldn’t call him. The road I was on was a path at this point, and appeared to peter out just ahead. I stopped the car. Suddenly a man in an Indiana Jones hat heaved into view, coming toward me with two walking sticks.
I thought chances were good that he was safe, but how did I know that? As he came closer, he greeted me. He asked me if I was lost.
“Actually, yes.” Might as well be honest. Besides, otherwise he might ask me to direct him to the Carrauntoohil.
“How did ya get here?” I couldn’t really say, except that I made a few turns on very small roads that became lanes.
“I’m Brian and I came over from Cork.” He pronounced it as “Cark,” but I knew then he had come from the south and I wanted to go either west or north. He told me he had come to spend a few days fishing because his wife was supposed to organize a trip, failed to do it, and his fallback was fishing Cloon Lough.
I was happy and apprehensive at running into another person. I took a second to consider whether he looked capable of murder. He sounded vaguely disgruntled about the wife falling short on her tour guide duties, but in a rage enough to kill a complete stranger? No, but I did do the next prudent thing, just to be safe.
I took his picture. The logic was if anything happened, his face would be on my phone. I explained that I was doing a story for Bedford TV on seaweed and supposed to be meeting up with a group at White Strand Beach.
As with anything else, it led to a conversation. What else was I doing that summer? I told him about my trip to Island Cottage, a wonderful place on Hare – or Heir Island, take your pick – one of the inhabited islands in Roaring Water Bay. Did he know it? There are only 100 residents on that little place in Roaring Water Bay, but course he did. He knew it well. He worked with someone who had a cottage there and had office parties every summer.
I was still in a panic, though, and not about Brian and being in this isolated spot. I was already hours late to meet John Fitzgerald.
Brian pointed out the road I was on before the lake – he said I should get to the other side of the bridge and go until there was an intersection and turn left.
I definitely didn’t want to go back to the mountain road, not with all the danger signs. I was lucky I made it one way and didn’t care to try for two.
But I took his suggestion and after not too many minutes ended at a T intersection. I stopped and sat there.
A Honda pulled up behind me and a tall gentleman got out. I took a picture of his license plate.
“Are you lost?”
“Where are you trying to go?”
“White Strand Beach.”
He knew where it was, and during the conversation when Ned told me his full name I realized we had friends in common. Once again, I fell into a conversation. He offered to let me follow him. I protested.
“That’s out of your way, fact it’s the opposite direction!”
“What else would I be doing,” he asked. Why was I trying to talk him out of it?
So I followed him. There were a few more cars on the road now. I was distracted by checking my phone every 30 seconds to see if I could call The Seaweed Guy. Still no reception.
At one point I was surprised when Ned’s car turned into a petrol station/convenience store. I followed him, of course.
A young woman got out of the passenger side. A young man got out the right side…of a Volvo. What happened to nice Ned? Nowhere to be seen. Crazy.
But there was a sign for White Strand Beach. I drove to the parking lot where a bunch of middle-schoolers were doing some kind of science project at the beach. I asked the adults if they knew The Seaweed Guy. No. Did they know John Fitzgerald? Of course they did, but not this one. I was on a bluff and could see the length of the beach. No one else was there.
John Fitzgerald. I was looking for John Fitzgerald. I scanned the beach. No one there.
I went back to the convenience store told my sad story to the friendly clerk who let me use her phone, which for some reason did have signal.
“Where ARE you?” John asked, clearly flabbergasted.
“I’m at White Strand Beach. Where are you?”
“Oh, we’re not there anymore. We waited and waited and I finally took the group off to have lunch. I live very close to the beach, so why don’t you meet me at my house. Do you see the white building across the road? Cross over to that, follow the road for a mile, take a right and another at the third boheen. I’ll be there.”
I didn’t see any white house from my vantage point, but was sure I would. I didn’t.
I went back to the convenience store and hashed it out with the lovely young woman. The mystery was solved. It was a different White Strand Beach. She told me that I was in Cahersiveen and he was in Caherdaniel. It’s no excuse, but caher in ancient English translates to stone fort. I later found out there are beaches of that name in Donegal, Mayo, Clare, and probably every county in the country except the landlocked ones. Too many stone forts, too many White Strand Beaches.
I finally got the phone working and called him again to explain. He was screaming but not in an angry way, more in disbelief that I could spend so many hours and cover so few kilometers. He told me to meet him at the Blind Piper Pub in Caherdaniel. After an hour of my waiting, his co-worker, a tour guide, picked me up with instructions, I’m sure, to not let me out of her sight. She took me to see a stone fort.
John Fitzgerald and I ended up having a pint and a lamb sandwich late afternoon. He sent me off with an enormous bushel of seaweed to the restaurant around the corner from my house, which I lugged into the Tom Crean Food and Wine kitchen at prime time on a busy Saturday night.
I actually went back to join another of John’s groups the following day, but that is a story for another time. I learned a lot, but that is a story for another time. I asked him if he had any photos from Saturday. He looked at me. “Isn’t that your job?” I’m sure he’ll never forget me, because he got quite a laugh at my expense.
Brian from Cork left me a comment on one of my Bedford TV “Dispatches From Ireland” saying he hoped I got home safely; I saw it a year later.
A couple of lessons learned: you can take a pony to your lawn but you can’t make him eat it, and Ireland is a sleepy country so don’t expect restaurant coffee before 10 a.m.
More important is that asking for help and giving directions are ways of finding common ground. As Ned said, “What would we be doing otherwise?” Hospitality is a cultural norm, right along with the hardships. Millions of us Americans have Irish blood, many more than the current population of that small country. Of course there are connections, coincidences encouraging the sharing of stories.
Talking to visitors is often a passport to determining six degrees of separation or less, as in “Oh, you’re from Boston! My cousin lives in Quincy/Weymouth/Braintree, let’s ring him on my mobile.”