You know you’re deep into the western Irish countryside when you find yourself squinting as you try to understand someone who’s speaking to you in English.
Well sort-of-English. But how could anyone not love the brogue, with its softened t’s, the prolonged r’s, saying ‘like’ at the end of every sentence? It’s surely the happiest of accents, the most sonorous speech among all the vast, vague voices of what amounts to English. Next time you’re in Ireland, pay attention to the first conversation you have — it’s bound to be a gem. Ours went something like this (I’m paraphrasing of course, and it’ll take a few moments to set the scene, so bear with me, please).
We had rented a cottage in the foothills of the Connemara mountains, a few kilometers from the tiny village of Leenane. As we turned onto the unnamed (literally, it has no name) road that leads to the house, we were greeted by the neighbouring farmer, who doubles as caretaker for the cottage, and his dog Rex. He was in the middle of feeding some lambs from a baby’s milk bottle (the lambs’ mother died, we later found out, and the farmer took on her offspring as pets). He’s a man of, I’d guess, seventy, but looks a sprightly fifty-eight — such is the boon of those who spend a lifetime walking green fields in fresh, cool, misty mountain air. He’s a man with a kind face, a pleasant demeanour, a rich, vibrant accent, and a fast dog. Rex was far ahead of the farmer on the approach, and before the words “c’mere boy” were fully formed in my mouth, Rex’s muddy paws were on my shoulders and we were doing that inter-species please-don’t-make-me-any-more-muddy-than-you-already-have salsa dance routine that large dogs always seem to force me into. “Down, Rex! Come away now like,” shouted the farmer. And poor Rex went off to sulk.
While Meg and I exchanged pleasantries with the farmer, the whole where-are-you-from and how-long-have-you-lived-here ritual, I was constantly aware of a strange yelping/scratching/crunching sound coming from behind me. Maintaining eye contact with the wonderfully garrulous, western-Irish-to-the-core farmer as he segued from yesterday’s weather to what’s been going on in the past fifty years or so in the valley (not much), the noise behind me grew louder and stranger still, until I couldn’t help but turn around to see what Rex’s sulk consisted of. There he was, poor scolded wretch, hind haunches up in the air, front legs at ground level, snout in the mud, looking for stones. Yelping as he searched, squealing when he found one, he would grab the stone in his mouth and chomp and chew on it till it fell out, then start again. And then the following conversation unfolded.
Me: His poor teeth must be all, like, worn down by now.
Farmer: Aye. ‘es an eejit that shite; bin aytin’ stownes since ‘e was a toiny pup like, ya’know. Most dags’ll do it a toiny bit when they’re a pup, ya’know, stertin’ six months like, and be givin’ that shite up by t’ time they’re two, two-and-a-half like. But Rex, he’s nine, nine-and-a-half, stupid shite, aren’t ya, Rex, c’mere Rexy, come show ‘em yer teeth like.
[Rex comes over and lets me open his mouth to inspect his toothnubs while I pat him gently on the shoulders.]
Farmer (cont.): Aye, ya pet him once yer’ve a friend for loif there like. These collies. Good dags like. See that? All his teeth, all worn down ti nothin’. Come on now Rex, yer crazy ol’ bastard. Therrre’s a boy.
The farmer let us in, gave us the keys, and showed us around. The cottage — a stone home with wooden floors, wooden wall panelling, a fireplace, and a living room where books, board games and jigsaw puzzles (and not the TV) take pride of place — was exactly what we’d come to this corner of Ireland looking for. It was perfect. It was, however, one of those country homes that’s part roof over your head, part living organism — the kind of house that has valves and cranks and wells and gauges and immersion heating switches and electricity timers and life-of-their-own thermostats, and comes with an entire folder of laminated instruction pages that make varying degrees of sense. It required some of the most acute attention I’ve ever paid in my life simply to understand how to switch the house on. I half expected to have to buy it dinner. In fairness to us, we’d been in Dubrovnik just that morning, had flown into Dublin and driven many hours, across the entire country as it were, from the Irish Sea all the way to the farthest reaches of the rural Atlantic coast, and now I had farmer Pat’s sanguine jowls producing a lullaby of instructions as he explained which switches to flick in which order and which dials to turn to what settings, and what was controlled by a thermostat and what was best left off and the you-don’t-want-to-be-touching-that buttons and so on. All a bit daunting for people who have lived in New York apartments for the preceding ten years. Thankfully, it being the first day, our beloved farmer went through the motions on our behalf, and the house, the organism, rumbled and creaked and moaned and woke up, came to life, began heating its water for our showers.
The living cottage
View from our front door
Next morning we drove into the village of Leenane for supplies. Words like cute and quaint can do it no justice, no justice at all. It’s a wonderfully typical small Irish village. A word, then, on small Irish villages. Small-town Ireland is a world all its own; to visit a little village here is to take a step into a different world and only in a good way — a world where customers and shopkeepers know each other, where people stop by for a chat: to comment on the weather, the fishing conditions, or anything, then gather up their woolens and their dog/s (everyone here owns at least one collie) and continue on about their day (which, presumably, involves a few more chat stops on the way to whatever it is they’re actually doing). It’s a world also, we discovered, where, should you need to, you can have photocopies done for 15 cents (or 10 for €1), ask about our fax prices at the lottery counter. Sometimes it seems made up.
All such towns cater handsomely to the needs of travelers — there’s always more than one pub to choose from (and even if there are but two pubs you’re still spoiled for choice — the Guinness is heavenly everywhere); always an array of B&Bs to choose from, either in the village or just outside, and the people in the village will happily point you to the ones outside the village. I suppose residents might drive out a bit farther to larger supermarket arenas once in a while to stock up, but, for the most part, these villages are more than adequate for subsistence. And as a pass-through or only-here-for-a-week kind of visit, the villages are invariably just the right distance apart from each other and always, always, seem to have an exquisitely perfect blend of the aesthetic and the utilitarian — there’s also always at least one little food store with a remarkably well-balanced selection of fresh, frozen, tinned, dairy, bakery, and snacks.
The buildings — the B&Bs, pubs, fish ‘n chips shops, souvenir kiosks and the like — are seldom more than two storeys tall, and no two adjacent buildings are the same colour. Ever. One can imagine the town planners getting together once a decade when it’s time to repaint, and O’Malley (the leader of the pack) saying, “Right, gentlemen. Murphy, your pub is mustard yellow this time. O’Hara, your barber’s is going to be a dusty blue. Finnian, your chippie is the light burnt orange, and Flaherty, let’s see what we have here, Flaherty, your knitwear facade is going to be this rather fetching pastel mauve.”
“Ah, shaysus,” cries Flaherty, “not the pastel mauve! Just because I sell knitwear is it?” In the end, they find some leftover cans of wheatgrass green, enough for Flaherty’s frontage, and everyone’s happy for another ten years.
Multi-coloured scenes from provincial life
Leenane is a bit like this. It’s a single street of colourful storefronts never more than two storeys tall, a street along which two compact cars can barely, paint-scrapingly pass by one another. If I’m not mistaken the entire town is comprised of six retail operations, two of which, of course, are pubs.
Hamilton’s is the place for supplies. It’s not simply the best place, it’s the only place. It’s a tiny food store, and also one of two pubs in town. The building is comprised of two distinct wings — one a mini food store, the other a decently-sized pub. The bar-back area facing into the pub and the cashier desk facing into the food store are back-to-back, connected by a small archway. It’s a cheerful wonder of small-town life that — at a physical stretch — someone could be pulling a pint of Guinness in a licensed establishment with their right hand, while simultaneously weighing a head of lettuce in a grocery store with their left.
But Hamilton’s doesn’t stop there when it comes to multitasking. Not by a long shot. For all I could tell the adjoining post office is run by Hamilton’s. And it’s also a filling station. One diesel pump, one petrol pump on the side of the road — for help, just ask inside the pub — or the store — and they’ll switch on the pump for you. The on/off switch for the gas station is controlled in the pub. Now as it happens, fuelling up was a convenience we did need to avail ourselves of, along with buying a few tinned goods and some fruit and milk at the food-store part of the setup. (Anointing our stomachs with Guinness from the pub part of the setup would have to wait until later.) So let’s recap, so far we’re at food store, pub, filling station, and possibly post office.
But it doesn’t end there. While we did use Hamilton’s food store, and the petrol pump, and the pub eventually, though not the post office, we also did not, at this time, find ourselves needing to wire money overseas, so we did not find ourselves making use of the burglar-barred, ultra-thick-glass international money-transfer window at the back of the store — a store which (at a generous guess) occupies, including the wire transfer spot, a total floor space of some three hundred square feet. Who, out of Leenane’s tiny sprinkling of residents, patronizes the service enough to keep it relevant is beyond me. Yet the money transfer facility at the back was no white elephant — it was indeed manned, manned by a (somewhat bored-looking) man indeed.
The Hamilton’s Mega Complex
Verdant rolling hills, rough oceanscapes, teeming rivers, looming mountains, great people with the best accent of all time, ruins everywhere, a rich and deep history… There are many, many things that have kept me perennially in love with Ireland since my first visit in 2001– but small curiosities in tiny villages like these are somewhere near the forefront.
Back at the house, it was time to start exploring the countryside.