Finding Old Ireland Alive in Place, Words, and Song - Page 2
By Michael Shapiro

Dervla Murphy card

Dervla lovingly shows us some her vast collection of books, including volumes that had belonged to her grandfather. Then she picks up a greeting card someone sent her with the words: "Beer is proof that God loves us… and wants us to be happy."

No Crystal in Waterford, but Castles and Pubs Aplenty

The next day Mary, Immrama's director, takes time out on the eve of the festival to show Jackie and me a slice of County Waterford. The crystal factory had shut down recently but we found plenty to see. The highlight is Ardmore, believed to be the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland, dating to the 4th century. We saunter among the tombstones and ruins of St. Declan's church and gaze up at a round stone tower, almost 100 feet tall, that dates to the 12th century and was used to keep prized possessions out of the hands of marauding Vikings.

We walk a short segment of St Declan's Way, an old pilgrimage route that goes from Ardmore to Lismore and on to the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. We're enthralled by rolling emerald hills and sea views, but by foot it would be a long way to Tipperary. We opt for lunch at the Cliff House Hotel, which has a Michelin-star restaurant overlooking Ardmore Bay. The misty views make me want to recite a poem by Yeats, or break out into a Van Morrison song.

On the way back to Lismore, we stop into a shop to meet Bernard Leddy, the mayor of Lismore (pop. 1500). The bible was translated into Gaelic in Lismore, he says, noting that in the Middle Ages the village was one of Europe's top universities. Not only that, Marco Polo's life story was translated into Gaelic and found tucked away in the walls of Lismore Castle. And Walter Raleigh once took refuge in the castle. "The streams of history run very deep through Lismore," Leddy says.

Ardmore tower

Back in town, we pop into Blackwater Books on Chapel Street, a fine old shop with new and used volumes. We find the proprietor, Kevin Murphy, contentedly sitting on a stool, reading. "Lismore is where my heart is," he says, telling us he moved here years ago and has an outsider's appreciation for the place. Jackie, who works in marketing, pelts him with ideas about how to build his business. He looks at her in mild bemusement and thanks her for the suggestions. "I'll write them all down," he says, "and forget them."

That night Jackie and I head to The Classroom, a vintage Lismore pub. I order a Guinness and as I'm waiting for it to settle, local resident Eddie Hanley walks over and says to me: "A Guinness has to stand, and when a customer isn't a regular it has to stand longer." Then I meet an Irish Joe the Plumber—he's also the postman and tells me he carries his tools with him, fixing leaky faucets as he walks his mail route.

The band that Thursday night is an assemblage of guitars, Irish (Uilleann) pipes and an accordion. When they play the national anthem everyone stops drinking—including the young blokes playing poker—and rises to their feet. The bar's owner, Willie Roche, says some visitors of Irish origin become so emotional hearing traditional music that it makes him cry. An accordion player, Roche says anyone who can play is welcome to join the band.

"We give them the venue to express themselves; life is about being happy," he says, pint in hand. "This is our culture. The government comes down so hard on you if you sell drink, but they should promote something like this, then you'll remember Ireland for what it's worth." A glimmer in his eye, he adds: "You know the definition of a gentleman? Someone who can play the pipes … but doesn't."

Gliding Down the Blackwater with Pico Iyer

The next day Jackie and I join Pico Iyer and his wife Hiroko for a float down the Blackwater. We board a battered wooden boat "for a journey that goes back 300 or 400 years," says our poetic captain, Tony O'Gallagher. His first mate, a little dog called Pharaoh, hunkers down on top of the unused lifevests.

Tony O'Gallagher

We float by majestic towers and tumbledown buildings as the sun and clouds play a game of hide-and-seek. "I love it -- it's a privilege to find something like this," Tony says, relishing his job. "Better than fucking acting."

That night we're wowed by Iyer's talk, his observations stated so eloquently and rapidly that my mind races to stay with him. The next morning I awake to hear verses ringing out over the town square and floating through our open window. It's local poet Louis de Paor, who will later read to the accompaniment of Irish pipes, being broadcast for all to hear.

The rest of the festival is a whirlwind of serendipity. One night at dinner, Jackie and I end up at the same table as Jan Morris and her partner Elizabeth. On Sunday morning, we visit St. Carthage's Cathedral and hear the priest say: "He who sings twice, prays." How Irish.

Lady Louisa's Walk

Morris closes the festival in conversation with Iyer and Paul Clements, editor of a collection of tributes to the Welsh author called Around the World in Eighty Years. It's everything one expects from Morris: witty, insightful, provocative, and most of all, fun.

Jackie and I have one more day left in Lismore. We tour Lismore Castle and gardens, then stroll along Lady Louisa's Walk, which parallels the River Blackwater, verdant branches arching over our heads.

Overcome by the magic of the place but thoroughly unprepared, I ask Jackie to sit with me on a riverside bench. She comments on the birds, the trees, the yellow and purple wildflowers. I don't have a diamond, but I do have a hematite ring, an iron band I'd bought a month before for 79 cents while on assignment in Alaska. Tears welling in my eyes, I ask. She says yes, yes, yes, as fervently as Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses.

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Michael Shapiro

Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place and wrote the text for the pictorial book Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya featuring photographs by Kraig Lieb. His travel writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Way and Islands magazines, and the travel sections of the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times. His story about rafting down the Grand Canyon in the wake of John Wesley Powell appears in The Best Travel Writing 2011.

Photos by Michael Shapiro and Jacqueline Yau

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Modern Day Druids at the Hill of Tara in Ireland by Ian Middleton
Trapped beneath the Volcanic Ash Cloud by Rachel Dickinson
A Journey Through the Land of the Maya in Guatemala by Michael Shapiro

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