Just a Little Bit Closer, Now
Why we did it, I’ll never know, but habits are like that. One keeps repeating, falling into them, even the bad ones; especially the bad ones. Since the directions that we had printed out back home in the US didn’t serve their purpose well almost as soon as we arrived over here in Ireland, the first thing that we did was follow them after leaving the M-I motorway from Dublin and striking out for Abbeyleix. It really wasn’t too hard, anyway, since we had a map from the car rental agency, accurate at scales no less than several dozen parsecs, and, truth to tell, little more than a wild guess at any scale if my experiences with Irish maps meant anything. There wasn’t much at all to bother with, anyway, since the first signpost we saw pointed to Abbeyleix being straight ahead; oh, and slightly left.
So off we went, more or less headed in the right direction. Within several minutes we did indeed enter the outskirts of the town. I felt relieved, safe and close to sure we were where we were supposed to be. Better than that it seemed that everything else was where it was supposed to be.
Waiting to turn from the wee path of road we were on into the slightly larger path leading to Abbeyleix we watched several garishly done up cars dash by going in our direction. Odd that they seemed, the costumes worn by drivers and passengers were even more odd. At a break in traffic we jumped into the flow of traffic just behind a little car driven by a Wookie.
You Can’t Get There From Here
We were about three miles from the town of Abbeyleix now, headed south. As we drew closer we encountered groups, little knots of people, lining the road looking north in the direction from which we had come. Some held cameras. There were adults and children as well; standing, waiting. The sideline got more crowded the closer we got to town, so that as we entered there were several places where the crowd stood two or three deep. It’s not a big town, Abbeyleix. There’s one cross road running through the center of the place. I’ll bet a sandwich that there aren’t more than three or four thousand people in the whole place. Most of them had to have been on the side of the main road leading in. At the cross, the one intersection, was a traffic light with, so help me God, not one but two traffic cops and a Garda cruiser parked at the curb, its blue light blinking. Up and down the road young ladies were carrying buckets begging change for some charity from the passers by, the spectators, the cars parked in line waiting for the light to change.
Change it did before the buckets reached us and we moved on. The directions from the States said we would see the hotel on our right as we entered the town. We would know we had gone too far, however,…the directions told us…if we passed the intersection we had just passed. Odd as this may sound, we saw no hotel at all either on our right or on our left before the intersection. But, we did spot a hotel coming up on the right a few dozen slow moving feet in front of us.
It was shuttered, out of business, a victim of the Irish economic slowdown. Mariellen, still driving in the crowd of whacky cars, pulled off the road and turned the wheel over to me about a quarter of a mile past the dead hotel right by a gas station. Thinking we might have been given the wrong side of the road to look on, I turned and retraced our steps, weaving in an out of young ladies with buckets, oddly decorated cars and crowds of happy, and getting happier, Irish people in the early afternoon. Our search for a hotel on the other side of the street produced nothing but wonder and question. Wonder at the wildness taking place, and question about the Irish and their capacity for whimsy and mayhem, because I began to believe that someone, somewhere had purposely screwed up the directions and was now in a pub with a few other direction makers having a few and laughing themselves silly imagining the wild goose chases taking place all over the country.
We repeated the exercise twice more before I got tired of doing it that way. The old Kingston Trio song, “The Man Who Never Returned” began running thru my mind. We might ride forever on this road to nowhere. So, the next time we were stopped at the light, I asked the young Gard at the intersection, the one who was beginning to follow with his eyes our slow and constant cruises up and down (were we terrorists, or tourists?), where in heaven’s name was this hotel?
“Oh, yah. Ye need to turn around,” he said. “It is just beyond the petrol station about a mile down the road; the big yellow building on your left.” I thanked him, turned right into the road at the intersection and reversed direction where it was quiet. I’d have had to drive to Belfast, I thought, before I could turn around on the evermore crowded-with-funny-cars-and- funnier -passengers traffic now on the main road. So I did, smiling at the young cop as I reentered the stream of craziness. Soon enough we passed the “petrol” station, the same one we had turned off the road to enter a small lane when I took the wheel from Mariellen. Not ten yards beyond it was our destination. The golden hotel at the end of the road. It could have been an outhouse and we wouldn’t have been at all surprised, or less relieved. No pun intended.
We Found It
There were a number of men in uniforms, cars of all shapes and description, fellows in sashes and jackets, and weirdly costumed men and women, as well as scores of kids and grownups swarming all over like ants on the cake at a picnic.
Some fellow in a brilliant yellow crossing guard’s vest put up his hand as I turned to enter the very over-crowded parking lot. “You can’t come in here,” he said, worry and exasperation creasing his brow, fear in his eyes. “I can and I will,” I answered. “We have reservations here tonight.” Down came the barrier on the entrance way. “You can park in the back until they all leave,” he said as I passed. “It’ll all be over by 3:00 o’clock.” I nodded and we drove on, maneuvering by, through and around cars and crowds and costumed weirdness following a deeply rutted unpaved road…more like a cow path…around to the rear of the hotel, the unglamorous business end of the place. There we stopped, next to the dumpsters and trash, unloaded our luggage, and while Mariellen and Carolyn went in search of the lobby to register, I went to park the car.
I found a reasonably level spot between a puddle and some weeds, every other space being taken up by weird cars and weirder people; including an ambulance driven by two scantily clad young ladies whose costume would affect the pulse and blood pressure of any patient, perhaps not at all therapeutically. As I was locking the car and turning to walk to the lobby one of the “medical staff” bent over in front of me and while I am not sure, I would bet that one could have had a clear glimpse of her tonsils. I practiced custody of the eyes as I hurried on to the lobby.
The girls had already completed the process of getting us a room. So, we went to the rear “lobby” and grabbed out luggage. I learned where the name Luggage came from. That is exactly what we did up two flights and down a long hall to the room which we opened with a key that would not have looked out of place opening a dungeon in the Tower of London. When I put it in my pocket I leaned to whichever side it was on. All that can be said in favor of the room was that we fit in it, and that we didn’t need to remain standing to do it. But, it had enough in the way of beds, and tea service, and indoor plumbing to satisfy even the most discerning 19th Century traveler.
We washed up and went back downstairs to see about getting some lunch in the restaurant; crowded with the folks from town, The Gawkers, and the weird car folks, The Gawked At. We found a snug little corner, a perch from which to do our own gawking at everyone else, ordered some sandwiches, and our first Smithwick’s of the trip and began to relax. Carolyn had herself a Heinekin’s shandy, a mix of orangeade and beer, a special for the ladies. Reviewing the crazy directions we had used, excuse me, I mean not used, to get to the hotel we figured out that they had been somehow turned upside down, putting the hotel on the north side of town, on the west side of the road, when it was really south and east. As if we needed any more evidence of the cruelly capricious nature of road maps and directions in Ireland. All it did was lend more credence to our belief that the Irish Ordinance office was filled with practical jokers, and that they had allies in Google Maps.
Any foe trying an invasion of the place would very soon find itself, probably, in downtown London.
Anyway, while lunch was in progress the bar was doing a bang up business, and the parking lot was thronged. I took a couple of photos, of course, and I’ll allow you to wonder what the rest looked like.
After lunch we visited the front desk again and asked what we might do to pass the time, other than ogle oddly dressed people and weirdly decorated cars. The nice lady told us to go to Heywood Gardens, not too far away in Ballinakill one town over. She had a sincere and open face, so we took a chance on the directions she gave us and set out on what was to be the most difficult part, getting to our car and leaving the place. Oh, yes, for those who may be wondering, she also told us what in the name of Big Mac was happening. It was something called The Cannonball Run, a recently organized annual event where folks who have nothing better to do play dress up and drive all over the country to raise money for some charity. Well, it keeps them out of the pubs…not exactly.
In The Garden of Good
We made our way through the lobby rats to the back door, through the maze of trash cans and dumpsters, around the ruts and puddles in the road back of the hotel to the spot where I’d parked our tiny auto; pausing briefly while Carolyn stopped to feed some of the stray cats with most of her lunch. They, at least looked normal. The afternoon was moving along. It was after three. The parking lot was emptying, loud cars, horns and the occasional siren screamed by on the road as the Cannonball Run continued south for God knows where. We waited a few minutes until most of the revelers had gone and then crept out, unnoticed, ourselves.
Our guide at the desk had given us pretty clear directions, and assured us the trip wouldn’t take long at all, only a few minutes. And, I believed her. She had an honest face. It turned out that she was right, but I began to doubt after the odometer had passed the 5k mark. At one point my eagerness to be there led me on a sort of wild goose chase, up a short drive to come to a stop at an unfinished half built home, deserted. No doubt it was a casualty of the burst speculative bubble over here that’s left about a half million similar unfinished ruins all over. This in a country of about six million people.
No doubt they had good intentions, and I don’t think the number of imprisoned speculators and lenders is near the number of the same here in the United States; which isn’t any at all.
In any event we found the entrance to Heywood Gardens betimes, passing through the intricately carved large iron gates and up a steep curving road to the top of a hill, a good half mile from the gate. It had been the estate of a successful lawyer a century or more ago, who’d come up against his expenses. He died. His house burned to the ground, and the place became a Catholic girl’s school. Where the mansion stood at the hilltop now stood the gray buildings of the school and gravel parking lots. But, before the school, the hill gave way to a wonderful view to the south and west of rolling hills and little valleys, and knots of brown and white and red cows grazing in the late afternoon. Directly in front of us as we parked the car and got out was a tall hedge.
Where were the gardens? Beyond the school behind us? Past the barns and stables to our left? Behind the hedge? We had no idea.
There wasn’t a soul around. Well, this was Ireland.
We wandered over towards the hedge where there was a bike rack, a flagpole and some kind of sign; all not very helpful. But, right behind it, through another five yards or so of thick wet grass was a kind of opening in the tall hedge. Could that be they way in, a genuine “Shrubbery”? It could and it was. We passed through the opening into a kind of secret garden. Here were two large anterooms, almost empty places and a path leading down a bit from the level we had entered.
We followed the stone steps down through a doorway that opened into a sunken treasure; a round and walled garden set into the hill terraced with flowers and statues and windows in the wall to look out on the beauty all around and the dome of the sky above for a roof:
Mariellen and Carolyn Benched at Heywood Gardens
The Shrubbery Ante-Room
What A Surprise Awaits
The Way Back
The Fountain and Reflecting Pond
The World Beyond
Carolyn Capturing Memories
There Once Was An Ugly Duckling
And Now The Purple Dusk of Twilight Time
A Quiet Place
This was just the foyer. We spent the next couple of hours walking all around, and except for the delighted cries and brief sightings of some children whose parents were letting them run off a sugar high, we neither saw nor heard another person in a walk through and about an enchanted place. The only other living things were the silent swans on a little pond in a wild valley and the curious cows on the hillside pastures. As Mariellen has said, “It was one of the loveliest places we have been in Ireland.” If you know “Gardens”, this was a vest pocket Powerscourt.
But, we really had to get back. Evening was becoming night. Besides, Carolyn was still wearing her pink slippers. You can see them on her feet in the photo above beginning then just to get a little wet. By the end of our ramble, she could have wrung them out. And they locked the gates at 7:00pm, so said the sign.
But, we can’t leave Heywood Gardens without another sign, one that should be in every garden, I think. I would have liked to stop and have a chat with two people, whoever wrote the words below, and Mr. Heywood, the fellow who found them and put them in this lovely place:
The Setting Sun Now Dies Away
Carolyn Downs Gallaher is a kick in the head, a delightful mix of little child, daffy teenager and amazingly grown up woman; though the latter comes across most often as dry Dorothy Parkerish observations on the foibles and shortcomings of people from whom she has expected better. I’ve been telling my granddaughter for a couple of years she should keep a note book of those things and find a publisher some day. Anyway, it wasn’t this on display as we left the Heywood Gardens. No, we hadn’t gone far when Carolyn in the back seat lowered her window and held her wet socks out of the car to dry off as I drove back to the hotel. When I noticed it and asked her if she thought it was going to do any good, she blandly replied, “It might and it mightn’t.” Those are exactly the same words I heard a hundred times from her cousins over here, usually with a sly smile on their faces.
We lost the sock on the way back. I offered to turn around and look for it. “I have others,” she said, laughing. “I can mix and match, now.” No doubt.
We had asked the lady at the desk (you remember) where there might be a nice place to eat supper in town. She’d mentioned two spots, one a fancy looking restaurant with, probably, high prices and poor cooking. The other was what she called an “Autentic Oirish Pub”, just up the street from high price/poor grub. We decided to check it out on our drive back to the hotel since we wanted to take Carolyn to a real Irish pub on this trip.
And, there it was as we pulled into the main street, all dark wood fronting the street, a few dusty bottles in the window, a couple of beaten up tables on the sidewalk for the “al fresco” diners and “himself” sitting at one of them. He was a thin little squint, unshaven, watery eyed; in age anywhere between 50 and 70, with an empty pint glass at his elbow and the butt end of a cigarette between his tobacco yellowed fingers.
He eyed me as I pulled up at the curb and got out. Yes, we’d decided to take Carolyn to a pub and give her some real Irish pub grub, but I thought this might be too real, and wanted to see how “real” it was before coming back. Walking to the door I stopped and asked “your man” in front had they food to serve inside. “Of course they do,” his thin wheeze of a voice answered me, and his gap toothed smile shined, “as much as anyone would want.” So, in I went to see how right he was.
Inside was and wasn’t something I’d ever seen before. It was a pub all right. I’ve been in those before. It was a neighborhood dive, and I have certainly been in those before. This, though, was a strange combination of both, with “grace” notes of the 19th century and accents of dust and grime on the walls and windows and furniture, and on a few of the several or so customers scattered along the bar and at the tables. It was small and dark and smoke filled. There were dim lights high up in the ceiling doing not much more than letting you know they were there for as many of their photons as may have reached anything below. A wash of weak light seeped though the smoke grayed windows ending for the most part on the floor not far inside the door. For the rest a blue gray haze, a mist of tobacco smoke and the smells of stale beer and bad breath made up the “atmosphere” of authenticity.
Two or three ill kept men sat along a shelf below the windows in the front; movie extra ruffians they might have been or two bit crooks. More than likely, they were just laborers, or farmers from around the area. It didn’t matter. They could have been there from the Beginning it seemed, or at least since the age yellowed paint on the walls (where it was visible) first dried. One or two others, more denizens than customers, reading papers spread out on the bar, holding whispered conversations, coddling in their hands a patient pint, looked at me, alert to my entering like dogs over their food. As I walked the few steps from the entrance I listened to the silence, now, and knew I was the center of attention; probably the first new thing to happen to the place for several years. And I imagined conversations in there in the weeks ahead about the Yank who had wandered in from outside.
Reaching the bar I asked my question of the two sides of beef behind it, “Do you serve meals, here?” Behind them through an open door I could see the back of the place and knew my answer. “We don’t,” said Side #1, about 30 or 40 years younger than me and at least that many pounds heavier. “We serve only sandwiches. If it’s a meal you want, there’s a nice place down the road or the hotel.” He was pleasant enough, and authentic all right. But, an authentic what I cannot tell. I thanked him and turned to leave.
On the way out I kept my eyes open. Memory makes much more of things like this, of course. I wanted to fix the place in my memory, so odd was it, with its smoke stained walls and blear covered windows. It was such an odd place I wanted to keep it somewhere inside me, though I couldn’t have been there more than a minute.
The high walls behind the bar were covered with bottles on shelves, most of them had yellowed peeling labels that looked as if they’d been there since the place opened. The place was separated down the middle by a half wall at least six fee in height. The rear wall on the other side of this room divider, which once must have separated the bar customers from families, folks who merely wanted a sandwich or a cup of tea, this wall was lined with shelves of books punctuated with smoke darkened paintings, as was the side wall opposite the bar.
Approaching the door I turned and glanced into this “tuckaway”. Two or three rather well dressed men, fellows in business suits sat at the old tables beneath the old paintings and books. I did no more than glance at them, but the sight of them sitting quietly in the the haze passing the late afternoon hours in conversation or with a book or magazine almost caused me to stop and return to ask if they were hired to come in and sit. I didn’t.
I passed through and outside was motioned over by the little man. “It do be no good,” he said in a drink thickened Irish accent. Begging his pardon I asked him to repeat and bent to hear better; getting washed with a warm dousing of God alone knows how many days old smell of tobacco and drink on his breath. Pointing to two small children a few yards away he repeated himself, “It do be no good.” Then he added, “Only twelve years old and smoking. It’ll be bad for them.” I could only agree, and walked to the car a couple of yards away wondering what age he’d attained when he began to be bad.
It was the hotel for a meal, then for us. I had some salmon, always a good choice in Ireland. What Mariellen and Carolyn had I cannot recall. The cats out back, I figured, were to have most of Carolyn’s meal anyway. We dined on the enclosed porch of the restaurant, the only ones out there, and were served by our authentically Irish waitress from the Ukraine. When I told her , kiddingly, that she had a lovely Irish accent she smiled and said that she’d lived for nine years just up the road a bit. I smiled and kept quiet the rest of the meal.
True to my guess, Carolyn took her “leftovers” down to the cats as soon as we had gotten back to the room.
Carolyn Feeds the Cats
Mariellen read for a bit, and I simply slept. It had been a long day. Tomorrow we’ll go down to Killarney after a stop at The Rock of Cashel.
You come, too.