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Traveling In Style : An Irish Oath

October 18, 1987|Joseph Wambaugh | Wambaugh's latest best-selling book, "Echoes in the Darkness," will be dramatized by CBS in a mini-series this fall

In the real Ireland--not the one of myth--visitors may never find what they think they'll find. But all visitors can, if they listen patiently--and have an ear for words--experience a peculiarly Irish moment. And this one is mine.

Ireland is not the quaint old place romanticized by John Ford in "The Quiet Man." Oh, it can look like that, some of it, but the land of saints and scholars is not peopled by the simple folk of American myth and legend. The Irish are a complicated, often-tormented lot, and it's understandable that many of the greatest Irish writers found their voices only after leaving their native soil. Not surprisingly, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" was written by an American. No Irishman could have penned it and no Irishman will sing it unless he's bribed with a "jar" or two by a patronizing Yank.

Shortly after the troubles in Belfast started, a young militant urged the murder of British soldiers and she was elected handily to public office. When this unmarried woman got pregnant, she was indignantly voted out of office. That's Ireland. Believe the caustic and gloomy Brendan Behan, not John Ford.

A cop from Galway once asked me what I made of the fact that in every place on Earth where a Celtic tongue is spoken (by the Irish, Bretons, Scottish Highlanders and the Welsh), the people harbor separatist sentiments at least, or are violent revolutionaries at worst. Does the ancient pagan language incite rebellion?, the Irish cop wondered.

My first trip to Ireland, in 1978, carried with it certain family obligations. Although my paternal grandfather was a Pennsylvania German, my paternal grandmother was an Irish woman from County Mayo. And both of my maternal grandparents were bogtrotters from a rural area called Ros Muc, near Galway City, in the heart of the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht .

In any case, I was obliged to visit a cousin in Ros Muc to say hello on behalf of my mother.

During the trip we had decent weather for the several days that we motored around the superb countryside. Yeats' famous epitaph on behalf of the executed rebels of 1916 came home to me again and again: The beauty of Ireland and its people is "a terrible beauty." It's one of the poorest and surely the most religious country in Europe, and a Yank, especially a Yank with Irish roots, should not try to understand Ireland too quickly.

We discovered that the saloons are usually seedy, with little of the charm and beauty of English pubs. And Irish pub grub is often inedible, but the Guinness is splendid. It's probably true that it can't retain its spirit when bottled and sent from its birthplace. Apparently, the Irish soul travels better than the Irish beer. The people are, almost without exception, helpful and friendly to foreigners. And the pub conversation can be inspired.

It was with mixed emotions that we finally arrived at a spot in the road called Ros Muc and began looking for the farm described by my mother. Her cousin had come to Pennsylvania and made his "fortune" working in the steel mills, then returned to the land of his birth to become a country squire, much like John Wayne in the Ford movie. Whenever I used to ask relatives how this cousin could have become rich enough to be a gentleman farmer after doing common labor in a Pittsburgh steel mill, the answer was always the same: "Ah, but didn't he horde every penny he ever made?"

After some inquiries at a local pub (where else?), I found my cousin, the squire. First of all, if he was doing much farming, he harvested rocks. The Galway coast has a wild foreboding loveliness all its own, but gentle and fertile it is not. The Atlantic punishes the people of the west. "To hell or Connacht!" Oliver Cromwell vowed, when he drove the rebels into the savage west, beyond the pale.

Our cousin lived in a humble little house, sturdy enough to withstand the gales blowing in from the Aran Islands. His wife, whom my mother had never met, was stunned when we turned up at her door, and after seating us in the kitchen (the parlor is for priests), she ran to fetch her husband from the garden.

He was an old man, even older than my mother, and when he entered in his muddy Wellingtons, his wife almost expired from shame at his dirty tweed cap. She snatched the cap off his head, called him an "ould divil" and replaced it with another dirty tweed cap.

Well, he'd returned to the Gaeltacht four decades earlier, and he was old, and having been surprised by these strangers at his door, he was having a bit of trouble gathering his thoughts and remembering his English. In fact, whenever he tried to make conversation, he'd get his tongue tangled in a Gaelic-English patois that resembled a gargle.

All he could clearly utter in response to my blather was an apologetic oath: "Joey ... ah, son of a bitch!"

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