A Writer’s Travel Report

A Writer’s Travel Report

A Craicing Good Time

A unique (and very detailed!) account of author James FitzGerald’s tour experience

Some background information on the author

James FitzGerald is a Canadian writer from Toronto, who won the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2010 for his book “What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the Past.”. James was so kind to provide us with a wonderfully detailed and entertaining account of his experience in 2019 travelling around Ireland on a private tour with Desmond Phelan of Desmond Tours.

A Craicing Good Time

“He who returns has never left.”  Pablo Neruda

When my younger brother Michael and I decided to hire a private driver to conduct us on a week-long tour of Northern Ireland in May 2019, we knew we were taking a risk.

I am a Toronto-born writer well-versed in Irish history, but ever keen to learn more. This was my sixth odyssey to the emerald isle, but my previous trips were mostly confined to the Republican south. Although I’m confident driving on the left side, dodging death-by-sheep on the twisting rural roads, this time we resolved, at ages 67 and 68, to cough up the extra moolah for a fret-free, chauffeured experience.  

But as we lined up seven days of sight-seeing, a pleasing mix of nature and culture, planned and impromptu, we wondered: what if we were held hostage by a well-meaning mediocrity?

No such worry. Landing in Dublin airport, we spotted a handsome, beaming middle-aged man, spiffy in tie and jacket, holding up a sign bearing our names. Whisking us off in a black Audi, Desmond Phelan appeared a cheerful, accommodating character, radiating archetypal Irish charm.

When I announced that our father’s middle name was Desmond, we were off to the races. Surely we were blood brothers, sprung from the loins of the medieval Earls of Desmond? Shaking off the jet lag, we three fell into an easy rhythm of playful banter. Did the Irish invent irony?

Des revealed he was a resident of Kilkenny and a dedicated student of Irish history. But no dry academic was he; more like a seventh member of Monty Python. In fact, he has actually rubbed shoulders with my hero John Cleese, not to mention the likes of Mick Jagger, Sigourney Weaver and Tiger Woods.

And now us.

Risking sounding like an insufferable snob, I told Des that our family, the FitzGeralds, numbered among first wave of Norman knights who invaded Ireland in 1169, intermarrying with the barefooted, green-eyed, red-headed Gaelic lasses and becoming “more Irish than the Irish.” (I mean, who wouldn’t?)

Des nodded sagely – I should try telling him something he didn’t know.

His Gaelic name of Phelan was, of course, more Irish than ours, and we allowed that our ancestors likely indulged in the odd sword fight.

Then I could not resist recounting my own recent brush with celebrity when I met the writer Roddy Doyle at a Toronto literary event. We started chatting about the most popular Irish surnames, and Doyle offered that his stood sixth and Murphy first.

“Have you heard,” I asked, “the Irish virgin’s prayer?”

He hadn’t.

“Lord have Murphy on me.”

Direct hit. Within our first hour, Des has passed the audition with flying colours. Green and orange.

Our first stop was the Battle of the Boyne Centre near Drogheda. Our ancestor and my namesake, James FitzGerald, a Catholic officer who fought for the losing side in the pivotal 1690 punch-up, converted to Protestantism to skirt the harsh Penal Laws, and settled in Ulster. In 1824, our branch of the family emigrated to Canada, our Irishness gradually slipping underground.

By the 1960s, our brutish, colonial all-boys’ private school was turning my brother and me more British than the British, until we were rescued by the counterculture and joyful Pythonesque absurdity. (“Who rubbed linseed oil on the school cormorant?”) Ever since, I have been vigourously excavating, like many identity-seeking English Canadians, my buried strands of Irish DNA.  

As we circled the old cannons, Des dished a fascinating assortment of stories and factoids. Did I know that Protestant landlords built thatched cottages with low doors to force Catholics tenants to bow their heads in fealty to their overseers? As the repartee flew, we felt like affectionately dueling button-pushers on Jeopardy, but Mike and I soon realized that we couldn’t hold a candle to our guide’s bursts of erudition, and why should we?  We were neck-deep in good “craic”, the lively, rambling conversations, the finishing off of each other’s sentences, that the Irish uniquely own. Who minds if fact sometimes blurs into blarney? The energy is its own reward.

Moving on to the St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, we absorbed a five screen diorama on the legendary sixth century Christian missionary. “The snakes,” Des reassured us, “are just a metaphor.” The Strangford Loch car ferry carried us over to our quaint boutique hotel in Portaferry. I was plagued by a hacking cough, and Des kindly rushed to the nearest pharmacy to buy me a remedy. I gave him a signed copy of my family memoir, “What Disturbs Our Blood” (a line from a W.B. Yeats poem), and in turn he lent me his current reading, “The Story of Ireland”, a chronicle of the endless mayhem, resilience and “terrible beauty” that has marked the island for centuries.

In Belfast, Des dropped us off downtown to take the Black Taxi Tour. Our guide, Jim, was born in 1968 when “The Troubles” exploded, so he grew up in a war zone. Showing subtle signs of PTSD, he delivered a visceral, 90 minute soliloquy, part history, part autobiography, starting in the Protestant enclave of Shankill Road, then threading us through the now-open wall to the Catholic side of Falls Road.

On both sides, multiple murals memorialized the victims of the 30 year old civil war — mirror images of deeply rooted, still-unhealed trauma. When Mike asked about the intervention of the British army during The Troubles, Jim shot back: “WE are the Brits!” Although the violence ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Jim predicted that another generation must pass for true peace to take hold.

Later recounting the experience with Des, I unfurled one of my favourite quotes: “The Irish don’t know what they want in life but they will fight to the death to get it.”

Next up was The Titanic Museum and its powerfully evocative exhibits. As we stood on the 1912 launch site in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, I was quietly moved by thoughts of the tragedy. Then that sudden mood shift into black Irish humour when, in the gift shop, my eyes fell on a T-shirt that read: “The Titanic – Built by Irishmen, Sunk by an Englishman.”

Des dropped us off at the Galgorm Resort and Spa, a high end, lushly gardened enclave teeming with affluent young techies. The historically ascetic Irish, rebounding from the 2008 crash, were discovering luxury, and we went with the flow, grabbing a more-or-less guilt-free swim, sauna, and hot tub.

The next morning, we strolled down to the spectacular Giant’s Causeway, stepping over the mysterious hexagonal basalt columns, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, that sloped into the sea. When our headsets malfunctioned, Des’ voice filled the vacuum with the Celtic myth of the giant Finn McCool. In Ballintoy Harbour, site of a “Game of Thrones” episode, we breathed in the faintly sulphurous air, united in our pity for people who fail to appreciate real history. On a tour of the 1608 Old Bushmills Distillery, we inhaled a new smell — barley — and Mike sipped a sample of the famed whiskey; I ordered a hot toddy for my ravaged throat. Des, as it turned out, was Irish in every way but one: alcohol has never passed his lips.

Winding over to the sun-drenched ruins of the 16th century Dunluce Castle perched on the edge the sea, Des enthused about the ancient graffiti scratched on the stone walls, and I could almost hear the echoes of the havoc inflicted by the murderous English Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Never been a big fan.

For the next two nights, we installed ourselves in a Derry hotel, overlooking the River Foyle and Peace Bridge. My brother reminded me that in 1944, our father, a surgeon-lieutenant on the Canadian frigate HMCS Annan, dropped off dozens of German U-boat prisoners in Derry. Des piped up that 45 U-boats surrendered here at war’s end and were scuttled at sea. Who knew?

When our planned group walking tour of Derry hit a glitch, the ever-resourceful Des rustled up an articulate young guide who gave us a private tour. He related the story of how 7,000 citizens starved to death during the siege of 1689, but the city walls were never breached: “Never Surrender!” From atop the walls, we looked down on the Catholic section of Bogside and the “Bloody Sunday” memorials marking the massacre of 13 unarmed Catholic civilians by the British Army in 1972.  I will always love Ireland, but I felt lucky to be Canadian.

It was time to surrender to a drink at Peadar O’Donnell’s pub. As I pulled out my camera, we were accosted by a local citizen, deep in his cups, who offered to take our picture.

I was wearing my red “Canada” cap, and I risked cracking my latest Trump joke:

“Make America Great Britain Again!”

He laughed, and returned his own jibe:

“What’s the difference between an American and a Canadian?”

No clue.

“A Canadian steps out of the shower to take a piss.”

My first thought: What’s so funny?

Quitting Derry for Donegal, we crossed the soft border of north and south, as if passing through Ontario into Quebec. The looming political crisis of Brexit was threatening to force the construction of a hard border, risking a return to tribal hostilities. But for the moment the passage felt seamless.

On foot, we passed a farmer cutting turf with a spade, and Des explained its traditional use as a slow-burning fuel. On a windy promontory we absorbed the spectacular 2,000 foot cliffs of Slieve League, known for its “Devil’s Table and Chair” rock formations jutting out of the Atlantic foam. Deciding against joining the winding line of hikers heading for the top, we pressed on to the medieval town square of Donegal and checked into the Abbey Hotel. At a nearby tweed shop, I bought a scarf for my partner Katy; served a complementary Irish coffee beside an antique loom, we learned about the craft of the local fifth generation weavers, now an endangered species.

Then Des guided us through the partially intact Donegal Castle, holding forth on the O’Donnell clan who ruled locally from 1200 to 1600. The three of us meandered through the graveyard down by the river, then enjoyed another round of good “craic” over dinner. Moving over to The Reel Inn for a set of traditional Irish music in a crammed back room, I felt as Irish as I ever have.  What is it about the old sod, I wondered, that churns out scads of dreamers, poets, subversives, jokesters, storytellers and quick-witted outsiders, not unlike the Jews, blacks, and gays? Is it the centuries of oppression? Or just that we’re slow to grow up?

For the final leg of the trip, we headed south to Clones, County Monaghan, our ancestral town of 1,700, situated one mile south of the border. When I first visited the place in 1991 as part of my genealogical researches for my memoir, I discovered that 10 generations of the family lived here until the 1970s, when the main Irish line died out.

Des taught me the Gaelic name for Clones – Chluain Eois, pronounced Cluer-lis – meaning “island retreat”, as the town, dating back to the sixth century, was once surrounded by water. Ever working beyond the call of duty, he organized a spontaneous “Let’s Welcome the FitzGeralds” charm offensive, chatting up local officials like a Good Will Ambassador. He found a genealogist working out of the town library, and she showed me our family records, now captured on digitized files. I shook hands with charismatic young Sinn Fein candidate, and promised to vote for him. Meandering through an untended cemetery rife with stinging nettles, Des spotted unusual headstones engraved with skulls and crossbones, known as “mortality stones.” His omnivorous delight in knowledge and discovery

— whether flowers, trees, rocks, music, food, history, geography, or architecture – was infectious.

I introduced Des to George, a local historian who I had met on my last visit to Clones in 2013. Des gently picked his brain of local lore as fodder for future tours. George unlocked the gate to St. Tigernach’s Protestant church, its steeple dominating the town’s Diamond, and we communed with our family ghosts. Built for a congregation of 700, the church’s attendance had dwindled so dramatically that the place will likely close within 10 years; undaunted, Des suggested cheap and effective restoration techniques. As we mingled with our ancestral headstones, he informed us that the stands of yew trees were poisonous to animals. Two more points for Des; I had long since given up pushing my imaginary Jeopardy buzzer.

Returning to our hotel, we passed a man named McMahon, descendant of a Gaelic chieftain, and George introduced us as the FitzGerald brothers visiting from Canada. McMahon quipped: “I thought we ran you out of town!” To which I retorted, “We’re back!”

The next day, Des escorted us southward to the Grand Hotel in Malahide, fronting a strand overlooking the Irish Sea; the following morning, we would be cabbing to nearby Dublin airport for the flight home. Des was due in Galway later that same day, set to spend a week guiding a gaggle of American tourists, so we bid our goodbyes.

None of us are saints, but still, I bowed my head in fealty to the irrepressible Des. We thanked him for the expertly choreographed jig-and-reel through the land of our forefathers, a trip that he had somehow, magically, rendered rainfall-free. Exchanging embraces, our mutual flashes of Irish melancholy mixed with the happy conviction that we had gained a soul brother.

As Des drove away, Mike and I felt the spell snap. Sated by a magnificent feast in a once-famished land, we were simultaneously overcome by an uncanny feeling of timelessness; one short, packed week felt like a month, a year, a lifetime. A dream.

We shall return.

James FitzGerald, Toronto, 2019

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