Getting a taste of the luck of the Irish

IT’S DUSK IN IRELAND, and I’m looking out over the River Shannon. The steel gray waters that Frank McCourt called “a killer” in his heart-wrenching book “Angela’s Ashes” run clear now through Limerick City. There’s still a hard edge to this industrial port, but swans float on a Shannon once strewn with garbage. Flowers cascade from boxes in the windows of the old brick row houses.

“We were plenty mad when McCourt wrote his book,” said a policeman as we chatted on the walk from the bus station to my room at the Jury’s Inn. “We all had that kind of childhood back then. You get over it and move on,” he said in an Irish brogue that ran thick like honey.

McCourt’s memoirs may not have helped the image of Ireland’s fourth-largest city, but it is bringing tourists, who are eager to share in the sorrow of a town that was down on its luck for so long. It brought me here, to see the pub where McCourt’s pa drank away his government assistance, the national school where teachers regularly “knocked sense” into their young students and the dreaded River Shannon, which McCourt blamed for the tuberculosis that killed two of his siblings.

How times have changed, not just in Limerick, but all over Ireland. The country is shining these days with the glint of millions of Euros being spent by tourists and locals alike. But to be accurate about Ireland today, I need to go back to my arrival on these dew-kissed shores on the weekend of July Fourth.

I flew into Shannon and boarded the 9:30 bus a.m. to Galway. Mark Dunn and the “Irish contingency” at Montclair’s Colonial Donut Shop told me not to miss this west coast town. One of Europe’s fastest growing cities, Galway is known for its music and vibrant nightlife. It was perfect for me, as my flute was in tow and I planned to join in a few Irish jams (or sessions, as they call them).

But before I played one note, I needed a nap. Settling into my room at the Salt Hill Hotel, I fell fast asleep till a rumbling sound shook me out of my covers. Screaming past my window over Galway Bay were dozens of military jets from Ireland, the U.K. and America, practicing for a huge air show the next day.

“We love Americans,” a ruddy-faced local said later in a seaside pub. “We were all in shock over 9/11, and we know you did what you had to do in Iraq,” he added with a seriousness that waned with each Guinness he poured. Soon enough, I found myself playing the flute. Tommy Hayes and the boys were singing songs from our shores and someone shouted “let the lass play her flute.”

I sifted through the musical scores of dozens of Elvis and John Denver songs and chose “Green, Green Grass of Home.” I played with every ounce of passion and vibrato I could muster, seeing tears on the faces of more than a few men and women that night. When I finished, through the smoke of a 100 burning cigarettes, I could see the pints lined up on my table. It was their way of showing appreciation for a girl who had crossed the Atlantic to play her flute.

I arose the next morning to my first Irish meal — poached eggs and bacon and fresh fruit scones. There was something, too, called black and white pudding — little muffin-shaped sausage patties that tasted better when I dipped them in catsup.

I was starting to see the extraordinary hospitality of the Irish, in their smile and in what they were willing to do for my comfort. I wanted to see if the fish were the same way, a fairly ridiculous notion, but I had a theory. So, I walked down the seaside promenade to the National Aquarium of Ireland.

Sure enough, the petting pool was full of Thornback Rays who were craving a human massage. A freshly-scrubbed lad who worked at the place even picked up a Bull Huss Shark and turned it on its back for a good rubdown. The shark had its eyes half closed with this look of pure bliss on its face. My suspicions were confirmed. If Ireland wasn’t heaven — I was just outside the door.

Getting out of Salt Hill wasn’t easy. A great crowd was starting to amass for the giant air show and the All-Irish Gaelic games, which were just down the street. The main roads in and out of town were all closed. Blessedly, a young man at the Salt Hill Hotel offered to drive me on country back roads to the bus station. I thanked him profusely and boarded the No. 10 for Dublin.

This brings me to the real purpose of my trip: To meet three women, only one of whom I knew, under the old clock in the corner of the bar at the Shelbourne Hotel. We were coming thousands of miles to honor Jillian Quist, my writer friend who once lived in the Oakland hills and has strong Irish roots. She was turning 50.

Arriving in Dublin, my next task was to wheel my suitcases up Grafton Street to St. Stephen’s Green. This was no easy task, navigating my way through the hoards of people who were shopping and meandering on this famous cobbled walkway. The lack of sleep and the strangeness of hearing dozens of different languages made the mile long-trek so surreal. But I arrived just in time for my heralded meeting.

The energy in the air seemed to crackle as, one by one, the gals arrived. We were under the clock, the most prestigious place in the bar, drinking martinis at the Shelbourne. We were completely untethered from husband or child — as the Irish began to come out in us.

Jillian was the birthday girl, for whom turning 50 had become an event of international proportions. Having once hailed from the Emerald Isle, she had planned for us a most interesting odyssey.

In my column next week, I’ll pick up the story. I’ll tell you how Ireland has changed and how Dublin-area home prices now rival those in the Bay Area. I’ll take you through the brilliant pubs of the Temple Bar neighborhood, through the magnificent monasteries and castles built centuries ago, and through the gardens and greenery of County Wicklow — where we galloped on horseback in the hills above the sparkling Atlantic.

But first, it’s time for a rest. Not just for my weary body, but for my wagging tongue — which tried its best, all week, to match wits with the Irish. The cleverest people on earth.


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