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DESTINATION: IRELAND

Skibbereen, on a wing and a prayer

A special blessing keeps life on an even keel when three families explore the Irish countryside in two full vans.

April 09, 2006|Colleen Dunn Bates | Special to The Times

We paddled while Kennedy told tall tales. (By now it was deep night, with light coming only from the stars. That's when the magic began. We were paddling through seaweedy water when dozens of Tinkerbells began dancing around each paddle. "Mom, look!" said Erin. "Totally awesome!" boomed Hayden, marveling at the dazzling display of phosphorescence.

The Tinkerbells followed us as we paddled back to home base. Halfway there, Kennedy stopped our flotilla. "I want you all to close your eyes and stay totally quiet for three minutes. Just listen."

We stayed quiet, no mean feat for the exuberant 11-year-olds. I heard a barn owl. Then a heron. A cow lowed, far in the distance. Suddenly a fish jumped.

Kennedy said softly, "Remember this, how you feel and what you hear. When you're back home and stressed, close your eyes and come back here."

The next day, while Michelle took three of the kids to the Model Railway Village in nearby Clonakilty, the rest of us rented bikes from Roycrofts Cycles and set out for the harbor village of Baltimore. We took a back-road route, getting lost only twice. It was longer and more difficult than we expected, but the payoffs were tremendous: flying downhill on a barely paved lane past walls of dripping red fuchsias; discovering a little shrine draped with beads and offerings, in the middle of nowhere (later we learned it was St. Brigid's Holy Well, a tiny natural spring long credited with curative powers); cresting a rise to discover the fishing boat-dotted bay of Baltimore sparkling below.

Skibbereen locals recommended a pub called the Paragon, so that evening the adults settled into a cozy nook with our pints and listened to the low-energy musicians. Thirty minutes later, emboldened by the Guinness, our friend Jim whispered in the ear of one of the two guitar players and then vanished, returning shortly with his accordion. Jim played with reserve and respect, adding richness to the guitar-and-pennywhistle tunes. But just the presence of a newcomer, an American no less, invigorated the room.

Over on the barstools, two mismatched companions who seemed to be regulars -- a massive young man who looked like a "Sopranos" goombah and a tiny, white-haired gent -- let it be known that they'd like to try a tune, and much to our amazement, the huge fellow sang a cappella in a wonderful, booming baritone. Then his elderly friend gave us a tune in such a sweet, pure tenor that all the women at my table started to cry.

Now the musicians really hit their stride. Jim sang a Mexican folk song; the little white-haired man led the entire pub in singing "The Galway Shawl," which is to sentimental Irish what "Danny Boy" is to sentimental Irish Americans. As the hour grew late, the musicians jammed, mixing jazz and Dylan and Irish riffs. It was the perfect Irish pub music night in the perfect Irish pub in the perfect Irish village, and I will keep it with me as long as I live.

*

Royal ruins

OUR route back to Dublin took us through Tipperary to the town of Cashel, home of the Rock of Cashel, a magnificent pile of 4th century church-fortress ruins on a hill overlooking miles of farmland. The Rock was home to kings and bishops, and St. Patrick is said to have baptized royalty here. I've seen my share of medieval stone piles, and this one is worth a considerable detour, much more rewarding than the schlocky Blarney Stone.

While the younger kids scrambled around the ruins and grounds, the adults and the older girls followed a tour guide with a gift for communicating his love and knowledge of the Rock. He showed us the finest Romanesque chapel in Ireland, pointing out the richness of detail in the faded frescoes. He brought the cold, ruined cathedral to life with his stories, and he showed us the evidence of rebuilding projects over the centuries, necessitated by repeated attacks from invading forces.

Cashel's other claim to fame is Bru Boru, a cultural center dedicated to preserving Irish music and dance. Seven of us decided to try the performance, put on nightly in summer in its theater.

Our hearts sank when we saw the tour buses out front. Jim said, "If the music is canned, I'm out of here." Our fears of Lucky Charms-style Irishness, however, proved unfounded. Vocalists sang a cappella, dancers displayed amazing skill, and musicians played only traditional Celtic instruments (flutes, pennywhistles, fiddles, bodhran drums, accordions and harps, but no guitars or mandolins).

After the show, we moved to a pub-style room, where the performers teach guests Irish dances. It was Nora's 12th birthday, so the whole place erupted in a rousing "Happy Birthday." Emily and I attempted a jig, a middle-aged man from Ohio sang "Danny Boy," an elderly couple from Michigan danced a polka, and Emily Muldoon, an American teenager who looked as though she should be in the cast of "The O.C.," stunned the room by playing a pennywhistle with incredible passion and talent.

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