To feel the true heart of Ireland, I believe one must go to a country pub in a village you’ve never heard of and have a conversation and a Guinness with an old guy in a tweed cap. Fortunately for me, every country pub I visited in Ireland automatically came with an average of three tweedy guys sitting at the bar, like part of the décor. I spoke to many, but selected three to write about. Not because they were extraordinary in any way, they were just, well, really Irish.
MEET JOE MULLIGAN
As it was, we were sitting in a pub in the highest village in Ireland (Roundwood, County Wicklow) having a pint when we met Joe Mulligan. He had neat white hair under a worn tweed cap, a weathered face made younger by sky blue eyes and rough, square hands. He was dressed in a shrunken wool suit with forearms exposed, and sported an ancient faded tie. I’m pretty sure it was the same suit his mother made him buy in case of funerals when he was young.
“Can I buy you a pint,” I asked, explaining we were visiting from the States. “No, the first is on me, I insist”, he said, “because you’ve traveled the farthest. And what relatives would you be visiting?” I told him we had no Irish ancestors. “Well, then why would you come all this way?” “To meet you,” I told him.
Joe Mulligan has been a sheep farmer living on the same farm since the age of 17. He has tended his flock of several hundred every single day of his life. When shearing time arrives, he can do 100 sheep a day by hand, 200 with a machine. “One time, four years ago, I entered a sheep-shearing contest,” he told us, “and I lost to an Australian who did 60 sheep in an hours time. Never seen anything like it.” To this day, he still loves to see the babies being born and it breaks his heart when one gets sick. Joe described his life as this: “See, I never married, just wasn’t anyone around to marry, so it’s just me. I wake up with the sun, eat my eggs and bacon and take care of my sheep. I have dinner, usually stew. Then I clean up and walk into town for a few pints. That’s my life. It’s simple but I like it. I’m 68 years old, I’ve never done anyone any harm and I’ve got no enemies on this earth.”
MEET MALACHY O’DOLEN
It was raining heartily. When we dashed into the only pub in an unnamed village in County Fermenagh, Northern Ireland, Malachy O’Dolen was there, right on cue. He was a sturdy fellow with great posture, watery green eyes and gray hair slicked down like a schoolboy’s. He was paved in brown tweed: tweed overcoat, tweed sportcoat, tweed trousers, tweed vest, tweed tie, tweed scarf and tweed cap. Within minutes, we learned that since his wife died ten years ago and his grown kids had moved away and were into “all that high tech fancy stuff” which he wanted no part of, and since he was 75 and just an old horse trainer anyway, what was left in life for him?
Travel, we suggested. “Oh, I’ve traveled before,” he said. “One time in 1932 I went to Dublin by train. Took eight hours. I went to a zoo and talked to a parrot. Then I came home.”
Then Malachy O’Dolen told us of his past. “My father broke horses, so I broke horses. Irish Draft horses. Sometimes we trained horses and were paid in potatoes, oats and rye. The best horse I ever had was Thedy. I bought him in 1946 for 17 pounds and smuggled him in from Southern Ireland. I had to swim him across a river. He understood my language. Had Thedy for 12 years and ended up giving him to a neighbor so he could live out his life without being slaughtered.”
Then, Malachy went back to being melancholy about his future and how there was probably nobody left who even knew how to talk to a horse. Suddenly, in a Guinness-inspired thought, he said, “Maybe before I die, I’ll take a trip to Russia. I hear it’s very artistic there.”
MEET PATRICK NEVER-DID-CATCH-HIS-LAST-NAME
He was perched at the bar in a lively pub in Kenmare, on the Ring of Kerry. His head was as round as Charlie Brown’s and very red, as if his collar was too tight. A tiny tweed cap sat atop his head like a cartoon and it seemed apparent he enjoyed hearty fare. And if there were ever a thicker Irish brogue in all of Ireland, well I’d like to hear it. Patrick never moved his lips when he spoke and yet loud, Irish-sounding noises continually poured from his mouth. We only understood every tenth word or so and were forced to occasionally nod and remark, “Well I’ll be darned.”
We brightened when (we think) we heard him say the word Cork, so we told him how we marveled at the mountains of West Cork. That’s when Patrick started singing instead of talking. “Take me-e-e-e to the gree-een mountains of Cork when I die-e-e-e…” The Cliffs of Mohor? He knew a song about that. You could tell him you’d seen a flower by the side of the road and he’d wail, “Oh-h-h-h, the flower by the side of the road, it’s the fairest one of them all-l-l-l-l-l…”.
Then, Patrick Never-Did-Catch-His-Last-Name passed us the microphone (a pint of Guinness) and asked us (I think) to sing of our homeland.
We sang ‘Way Down South in the Land of Cotton’ and three full versus of ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are.’