“If you ever go across the sea to Ireland…” My sixteen-year-old alto voice harmonized with Celeste’s soaring soprano as we rehearsed Galway Bayfor the fiftieth time. The quartet I’d organized prepared for its singing debut at the Washington High Harvest Dance in October 1959. I’d been a Sacred Heart Shamrock in Miles City, Montana for the past three years. Now, in my senior year, I was a Washington Husky. I’d left a class of twenty-four and become one of 382 seniors. I would use my singing talent as a way to fit in at my new high school.
I swooned to Galway Bay’slilting lyrics, “…then maybe at the closing of your day you can sit and watch the moon rise over Claddah or watch the sun go down on Galway Bay…” though I had no idea in 1959 where Claddah or Galway Bay was. Fifty-nine years later, on a twenty-day excursion to Ireland, I found the meaning of both.
My husband, Walter, and I began our April trip with seven days in Northern Ireland. The streets of Belfast, lined by harsh, linear cement-like buildings, at first seemed dark and uninviting. But on day two, the sun shone through the stained-glass windows of Belfast’s white-stone City Hall and splattered green, blue and red across its variegated rust and white Italian marble pillars and floors. My spirits and opinion brightened. On a tour of the city building, I discovered that three elected women ran the local government. My admirations for this progressive place increased. In the hall’s museum, I donned an official red robe and Walter snapped a photo of me sitting in an ornate wood-carved magistrate’s chair. I felt regal.
Our next excursion proved more sobering. Our guide told us about the Troubles, the 1960-to-1998 civil conflict responsible for the deaths of 3,600 civilians and paramilitaries. Former Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, and former President Clinton were also in Belfast to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of The Good Friday Resolution, when the hostilities ceased. We didn’t run into them.
Our tour bus drove us past colorful paintings on the sides of buildings that display the faces of the heroes of both Nationalist Catholics and Unionist Protestants. Captions below the building-size murals praise those on both sides for their bravery. We continued on to the Peace Wall, put up in 1969 to keep the two warring sides apart. Statements by regular and world-renowned citizens, expressing a desire for peace, fill the three-mile long, sixteen-foot high stretch we saw. The wall has yet to be removed due to continue angry feelings between the two populations. Many still live in separate areas and their children attend segregated schools.
“Just to hear again the ripple of the trout stream. The women in the meadow makin’hay…” The second verse to the Galway Bay song ran through my mind as our tour bus drove north on the left side of narrow, hedge-lined roads. We passed verdant green fields dotted with fluffy, suckling newborn lambs. The homes looked like they’d recently been painted white. Rows of daffodils, tulips or well-arranged heather plants decorated their manicured yards. We crossed several clear trout streams but I saw no women making hay.
At the Giant’s Causeway at the top of the island country, Walter led me out onto some of the 40,000 flat, hexagonal, basalt rock formations. They stretch under the sea, from Northern Ireland to Scotland. Some 60 million years ago boiling lava erupted into the Irish Sea from an underground fissure and formed the honeycomb-like structures, some 130 feet high. But an Irish legend says that the Causeway was actually the work of Finn McCool who used it to escape the Scottish giant Benandonner. This is but one of many Irish legends we were told.
A guard stopped us from walking to the edge where the Atlantic Ocean crashes onto the rocks. Going out too far on the foot-wide steps could be treacherous, he explained. The day before he’d almost been washed into the tumultuous waters by a rogue wave.
“…orto sit beside a turf fire in a cabin and watch the barefoot gossoms as they play.”We sat in huts and castles where the acrid, grey smoke from turf fires burned my throat. Novels of Ireland speak of ancient peat moss bogs where the damp, spongy, rotted fuel is dug out in brick-form. After months drying upright teepee-style the bricks are ready to be burned.
Gossoms, or good obliging fellows who help when they can, describe every Irish person we met, though none were barefoot. Locals were always eager to give directions or walk us to the place we’d asked them about. I especially appreciated their help holding my feet so I didn’t fall 150 feet from the castle top when I bent over backwards to kiss the Blarney Stone. That feat is not designed to be accomplished by short people like me.
“Oh the breezes blowing o’re the sea from Ireland are perfumed by the heather as they blow. And the women in the uplands diggin’ praties speak a language that the strangers do not know.” Walter and I were blown horizontal by the strong winds at the Cliffs of Moher that tower 700 feet above the crashing ocean surf. We climbed along the muddy, unfenced path clinging to our winter coats, lest they be ripped from our shivering bodies. Spits of water from the Atlantic anointed our heads as we stood marveling at the precipitous rock formations. Luckily, the winds blew inward so we weren’t pushed toward the ocean. Even Ireland’s frequent rains held off during our entire visit. Praties, the Irish potato, sustained millions of poor labor-class families, until a fungus wiped out the crops between 1845 and 1849. Then, one million Irishmen died of hunger and another million immigrated, most to the United States. Walter and I ate either fried, mashed, baked or boiled potatoes at every meal. They were delicious.
“Oh the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways. They blamed us just for bein’ what we are, but they might as well go chasing after moonbeams or light a penny candle from a star…”verse four goes. Like many countries, Irish history is replete with battles, bloodshed, and heroes. England annexed, then lost Ireland many times between 1100 and 1921. At times they prohibited the Irish from speaking their Gaelic language, obtaining education and jobs, and intermarriage with the English. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, knocked down castles, destroyed entire towns, and beheaded any who rose against him.
The Irish independence agreement signed in 1921 left as part of the United Kingdom, six of the nine counties in the north. Three other northern counties were excluded because their slightly larger Catholic population would have outnumbered the Protestants, potentially resulting in electing mostly Catholic officials. The remaining twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties comprise The Republic of Ireland, which is part of the European Union. Citizens and leaders on both sides worry about how the long border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland will be affected by Britain’s split from the EU next year. Currently the border is free-flowing and open with no visible boundaries and no guards. They do not want to return to the heavily guarded checkpoints that existed during the Troubles.
Early in the trip, in Kilkenny, I had purchased a ring because it had a green stone. Upon arriving home, I was surprised when I looked at it closely. Two hands held the heart-shaped stone and a crown rested at the top. Then I remembered. At our final stop in Galway, the city was referred to as Claddagh because the ring is said to have originated there. The traditional ring is called a Claddagh. The heart represents love, the two hands, friendship and the crown, loyalty. I’d experienced all three on this trip and was delighted with my unintentional purchase.
And if there’s going to be a life hereafter and something tells me sure there’s going to be. I will ask my God to let me make my heaven in dear old land across the Irish Sea. Applause filled the Washington High auditorium that October evening in 1959, signaling the success of my quartet. The Irish tune had secured me an honorable place with my new senior class. Fifty-eight years later in 2018, I was happy to now comprehend the Galway Bay song, though it is no longer in my singing repertoire. But our young Irish guide, Mauve, sang it in her sweet soprano voice. The melody ushered me out of green, verdant and picturesque Ireland. I’m left with fond memories of a kind, fun-loving, interesting and musical people—my kind of heaven.
Evelyn LaTorre is a memoir writer living in Fremont, CA.