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The Island: First Warning

Now for the island: we left early on a fine day intending to drive from Clonmacnoise, at the center of Ireland, to Galway, on the west coast.

We rode once again through Shannonbridge, and crossed the Shannon there. It was not a long trip to Galway, and there we found a travel agency specializing in trips to the Aran Islands. The agents were all very busy, and after waiting some time, we grabbed some brochures and left.

There are three Aran islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer. Inisheer is the smallest of the three, and reputedly the prettiest. Also, its inhabitants are said to be friendlier than the natives of the other two islands.

There were two ways we could get there: by plane from Galway or by boat from Spiddal. We decided on the boat, and took off for Spiddal.

It was still morning at that point. I think the boat was scheduled for eleven something, and we did wander around Galway for a bit, so we were doing very well with regard to time. In fact, we would have spent more time in Galway if it hadn't begun to rain.


A sailor knows what rain is. He knows what wind is, too, and better than you or me. He has stood on deck while the boat is bucking and heaving, diving and climbing through waves and rough sea. Probably a sailor would have remembered that the woman in Glencolmcille said, "The tail end of a hurricane...." He would have remembered the good weather in Clonmacnoise and seen the rain falling on our car as we headed further west, and said, "I don't think this is a day for a boat ride, folks."

But landlubbers, what do they know?

A Digression on Irish Placenames

At last we arrived at the outskirts of Spiddal. The ignorant may laugh, as I did, at the name, but in my own defense I must say that I tried to discover its meaning.

No one could tell me, though.

While we were still at the outermost edge of Spiddal, we stopped to buy tickets for the boat to Inisheer. There was still an hour and a half until the boat left, so I asked, "Is there a pub within walking distance of the dock?"

"There are three," the woman replied. She named the first two - names I promptly forgot - but my eyes lit up when she told me the third: "Cruiskeen Lawn." And I will tell you why.

On Cruiskeen Lawn was the title of a daily column that appeared in the Irish Times from 1939 until 1966. It was written by Myles na Gopaleen, one of the best humorists in our language. Many years ago my brother Tom recommended the selection Best of Myles, which is available as a Penguin paperback. I will not bore you by trying to describe Myles' humor - I only recommend the book.

I assumed that the pub was named after the famous column, or that at least there was a connection, and hoped to find some Myles memorabilia at the place.

There was, however, no connection at all. The name of the pub was An Cruiscin Lan - obviously an Irish name, and pronounced the same as "On Cruiskeen Lawn." I asked a bartender the meaning of the name, and was told "a jugful."

And a light broke upon me, as the poet says. I realized what a great joke it is, as if there were a lawn in a place called Cruiskeen. What makes it even better is that this is exactly how most placenames in Ireland have been generated.

At some time in Ireland's past, the British government sent teams of surveyors to properly chart and map the entire island. Brian Friel's play Translations is set in that era, and centers on one of the survey crew who "goes native," so to speak, and becomes interested in the Irish language and the meaning of the names, and of course falls in love with an Irish girl who speaks not a word of English. Friel's man nearly has a mystical experience as he turns over the Irish names on his tongue and records some English equivalent on the map. The play is quite moving. You should see it.

What the actual surveyors did, was to write something in English letters that sounded roughly like the Irish. And so, the English name usually has no meaning, and no association to the Irish. Spiddal, which is named after a hospital once on the spot, is a rare case - and even there the connection to hosspiddal is not plain. There are a good number of placenames that start with "Kill" or "Knock" - these may sound like words of combat, but really mean "hill" and "church."

And so, Myles na Gopaleen give a silly little joke, "On Cruiskeen Lawn" - a jugful - yet it is a joke with historical and cultural overtones.

And though the pub was not connected with the man, it was a nice pub all the same.

While we were in Dublin, at both the beginning and the end of our trip, I searched in bookstores for more of Myles' books, but I was out of luck. I hoped to find them second-hand for next to nothing. Instead, I only found them new and high-priced. There were two reasons for this: First, it was the end of the season, and the second-hand places were already well harvested. The second was that 1989, the year of our visit, was his anniversary year, and consequently there was a tremendous interest in the man. In fact, a dramatization of one of his books, The Poor Mouth, began in Dublin a week after we left.

Warned and Warned Again

We went to the dock, and were told that the boat wasn't going to run, on account of the weather. Another boat was scheduled at 5 p.m.

Couldn't we have understood right then? Why didn't the thought appear: "If it's hard to get to the island, it will be hard to come back"? But the possibility never occurred to us.

There was little to do except to drive through the lonely, desolate beauty of the Connemara hills. We walked through a peat bog. As my foot sank in the springy wetness, I thanked God there are no snakes in Ireland. When I pulled my foot back out, I was thankful to see my shoe still on my foot, and still reasonably clean. From the bog we stepped onto a boulder from which we watched the whitecaps in Galway Bay.

The boat didn't run at five o'clock, either. We found a bed and breakfast, a sturdy stone house, and we sat for a while listening to rain and wind beat against the walls outside. After a bit of that, we went back to the pub for some "Irish music," which was once again a mixture of reels and country/western.

St. Augustine Diagnoses a Blockage

That night I dreamt that I was lying on my side in a peat bog, and that my naked body was supported by the springy undergrowth. My stomach, where all my extra weight goes, extended a fair way ahead of me.

I looked across the bog toward the sea, and saw two men walking in my direction. They seemed to have no difficulty in crossing the bog. One of them was using a bishop's crosier to help him along.

The other man was dressed in ordinary clothes, but the man with the staff was wearing the full regalia of a bishop, and with that strange instantaneous knowledge that we sometimes have in dreams, I recognized the bishop as none other than St. Augustine.

He walked up and poked me in the belly with the end of his staff. Then, speaking over his shoulder to the other man, he said (referring to the contents of my abdomen), "Awww... it's nothing but dried-up cowpats in there." Then he moved on.

When I awoke, I remembered the dream, and its meaning was immediately clear. After so many pints of Guinness and so many Full Irish Breakfasts, my system was a little clogged, if you understand my meaning.

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