“When I come out on the road of a morning, when I have had a night’s sleep and perhaps breakfast, and the sun lights a hill on the distance, a hill I know I shall walk across an hour or two thence, and it is green and silken to my eye, and the clouds have begun their slow, fat rolling journey across the sky, no land in the world can inspire such love in a common man.” from Ireland by Frank Delaney
With Frank Delaney’s words in mind, I have written myself out of Dublin and into Westport, County Mayo, the wild Atlantic Way, yet again. Westport – # this is living – is a planned town that was voted the best town to live in and also the tidiest town in Ireland. And it is, it really is. I was here six months and forty degrees colder ago. But today the town is stunning – it’s 77 degrees and sunny, and the five thousand or so locals are acting out their parts as if there really is a place where the flowers are always in bloom, all families are happy ones, and the pubs only serve Guinness direct from the wood.
I wander through the shops and galleries along James Street and Mill Street and Bridge Street. A young mom and dad and their three lads, ranging from ages seven to two, are eating ice cream cones in the creperie to celebrate the youngest brother’s birthday. He is trying to keep his silver paper hat on his head as he’s balancing his cone. As soon as they’re finished eating, the whole family crosses to the other side of Bridge Street to enter Matt Malloy’s pub, as family sometimes do in Ireland. I follow soon after. Malloy’s is the landmark pub owned by “himself”, the famous Irish musician from The Chieftains. (Matt Malloy began playing the flute as a child and by the time he was nineteen he had won the All-Ireland Flute Championship.) Irish music sessions happen nightly. Four older girlfriends sitting next to me in a small corner of the pub are enjoying the craic. In between sips, Mary says to me, “My husband has been spending a lot of time in the shed out back. I think he’s making my coffin. I asked my girls here if they would carry me into the church in it just in case he knows something I don’t. They said no, not until I lose two stone!” We all burst into laughter.
After a rest at Curry’s Cottage Tea Room, I wander anew. In her little shop, a woman is spinning wool into yarn. With their brushes plein air artists are trying to capture the elusive beauty of Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain nicknamed “The Reek” that presides in the background. An elderly woman in the antique shop tells me that there are no layers here – this is Westport. Tourists ask her to recommend other towns that compare, but she tells them that Westport has no equal.
I think I agree with her. The town is surrounded by Clew Bay and 365 remote islands, one for every day of the year. And just as Bray has Hozier and Howth has Larry Mullin Jr. as native sons, Dorinish, one of these serene islands, had John Lennon, if only for a short time as an adopted son. Lennon bought the island in 1967 for 1,700 pounds and it became a place of peace for him and his family. After Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono sold the island for nearly 30,000 pounds and donated the proceeds to an Irish orphanage. There’s a ninety-minute guided cruise that takes you around the bay and by John’s island. Only sheep live here now, but I try to imagine him still here and happy.
A short walk to the Murrisk Millennium Peace Park at the foot of Croagh Patrick reminds me that Westport was not always this idyllic place to stay or live. The National Famine Memorial Monument by sculptor John Behan commemorates the Great Famine of the 1840s. It is a bronze ship with skeletal figures that symbolizes the emigrants from the Irish famine who died in the appalling conditions aboard the “coffin ships” on which they left Ireland. It reminds me and millions like me that our ancestors had to leave this “terrible beauty” that is Ireland in order to start new lives in America. I think of my Kane ancestors who sailed to New York in 1847 on just such a ship. It seems unfathomable. During the famine, one million people emigrated and one million died from starvation, reducing the population of Ireland by more than twenty percent – from eight million in 1845 to approximately six million in 1850. And just like other tragic historical events, it takes a good novel to make this one seem more real. My favorite is Famine by Liam O’Flaherty.
And because so many Irish were compelled to leave their homeland, their diaspora was one of the biggest of any nation. The Irish scattered to places across the globe, spreading their culture as they went. (Thank goodness!) Today more than 36 million Americans claim Irish as their primary ethnicity, with yours truly included. And if as they scattered, the Irish who emerged from the ships, did indeed spread charm, humor, the gift of gab, and the love of art, music, and writing, then I will do my best to try to keep that Irish sensibility alive and well so many generations later.