“I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.” from James Joyce’s Dubliners
An adventure can be defined as an exciting or remarkable experience, but at its essence is the new and the unknown. Throw in a cross-country train ride and an adventure is practically guaranteed. With that vision in mind, I messaged my friend Ray to ask him if he had any exhibitions coming up, and as luck would have it, he was curating a show at the Clew Bay Hotel in Westport on Friday, February 5.
I was so excited – the show was the perfect excuse to get out of Dublin for the weekend and head to the wild, wild West coast, county Mayo, Ireland. Westport is something to see by all accounts – the town has won the Irish Tidy Towns Competition three times and it has also won the Best Place to Live in Ireland competition run by The Irish Times. (You can’t make this stuff up!)
My direct train from Dublin to Westport pulls out of Heuston Station at 7:30 in the morning, and I realize that it is kind of romantic to start an adventure while it’s still dark outside. The train is clean and modern – my name is flashing above my reserved seat. A very nice man with a food cart comes down the aisle, stops, and makes me a cup of tea. We quickly leave the yawning city behind, and as the sun and the train are on the same trajectory, the fields, farms, and sheep seem to awaken to the day at our approach. In just three and a half hours, the train has made its way across the entire midsection of Ireland. Upon arrival, two young women from Hong Kong and I share a four-minute taxi ride into town. (Westport’s population is only 6,000, but every year more than a million tourists visit.) Westport is right out of an old Irish movie, and even though the day is cold, gray, and rainy, it’s idyllic and beautiful. A river runs through the middle of the town; it’s contained by low stone walls and crossed with stone bridges. Because it’s still early and I can’t check into my hotel room, I stop for vegetable soup, brown bread, and tea at the little bakery across the street from the hotel. Older ladies are having lunch together. A mother comes in with two small children. A middle-aged man sits in the corner reading the paper and drinking tea. Everyone addresses each other by name. It all makes me want to live here for a month or maybe two.
I walk from store to store through the town, but because the weather is so bad, I finally give up and have a short nap in my very nice room at the Clew Bay Hotel. Now it’s late afternoon, and I go down to the lobby to check out the exhibit. The space and the art draw me in for a closer look. There are four artists in all in the exhibit called “Shanks Mare Draws Breadth” which runs for the rest of February. Ray is part of a group of locally based “plein air” or open-air painters. In an article about the show, Ray wrote, “It was our mutual interest in plein-air painting as an activity, as a method of understanding the nature of light and atmosphere as well as the physical and mental sport of it that brought us together, and me to some sweet locations. We think the West is a stunning place to experience in this interactive way. Often the wilder the weather the better the painting (and the colder the bones!) It’s largely about calming down and being present.” All of that sounds like fun and adventure to me.
I step into the hotel restaurant and have the famous Clew Bay seafood chowder and then the apple pie with creme anglaise and fresh cream. And then Ray comes in and sees me and stops over for a bit for a Guinness and a chat. The people arrive shortly thereafter, and I’m amazed by the turn out. Waiters pass glasses of red and white wine for several hours. The lighting, the sounds of animated conversations, the art of the western landscape – it’s really a well-planned party. And like everything else in Westport, it’s both simple and sophisticated.
I love all of Ray’s work, so it takes a while for me to decide which one I like best. I ask for advice and opinions from anyone who will listen. An Irish woman named Deirdre points me in the direction of Ray’s vision of Croagh Patrick. Croagh Patrick means St. Patrick’s Stack – it’s the 2,507 foot mountain that looms just six miles west of Westport. It forms the southern part of a U-shaped valley which was created by a glacier flowing into Clew Bay in the last Ice Age. Since 3,000 B.C. it had been a site of pagan pilgrimages to celebrate the summer solstice. These climbs continued as Christian missions, especially on the last Sunday in July, to commemorate St. Patrick who fasted on the summit for forty days in the fifth century A.D. (I’m always awed by Ireland’s long history. People have been living here for more than 10,000 years.) Ray tells me that he did the trek many times as a boy and that most began at four in the morning in appalling weather, but because I’m American it all sounds very exotic, and I want to come back in the summer to try it. I think my father would like this painting the best, so I tell Ray that I want it, and he puts a little red dot next to it for me. And a few minutes later, I choose one for myself. It’s the one with a house – I have a thing for Ray’s paintings of houses.
I already have a few at home. I could describe them, but like all of the best things in life, they can only really be appreciated by experiencing them personally. I’ll just say that I love everything about them, and each time I look at them I’m startled.
The next morning I have a breakfast of deep-fried French toast at the hotel. I wander over to the bar only to find that it’s been overrun by men. Within a few moments a young man wearing a short curly blonde wig, a blue flowered dress, and a pink cardigan comes in and joins the group. He looks pretty. The guys catch me staring and invite me over. When I ask, “What is the occasion?” they answer in unison, “Stag!” They’re gulping down pints of Guinness; it’s not quite noon. “Your man,” as the Irish might say, is getting married in June, and this is the beginning of their day of celebrating that. Soon a small bus pulls up outside to collect them, and they’re gone – off to other pubs in the wild West. In Ireland there are many different kinds of adventures.