It’s not often that you get to hear one of Ireland’s foremost women writers singing “Frankie and Johnnie” at a shebeen-like pub tucked so deep in the countryside it would make a GPS sputter and give up.
But there we were, at Ellen’s Pub in Maugherow, County Sligo, for the Friday night sessions, having a beer and listening to 91-year-old Leland Bardwell, an acclaimed poet, novelist and playwright, belting out the old American folk tune like she was the female Elvis.
Elvis didn’t get quite so much murderous glee from the lines “Well, the story just goes to show you women that there ain’t no good in men” as Bardwell, who sang them twice, at the top of her lungs, accompanied by the handful of musicians who crowded in to the tiny, dark-as-a-mine pub.
(When I got home, I read Bardwell’s memoir, “A Restless Life.” She comes by her kinship to Frankie naturally: Married once, she gave birth to seven children fathered by several different men, many of whom, like Johnny, “done her wrong.” )
My husband Ed and I were spending a couple of days in Sligo at the invitation of my friend, Michael Waugh, who, with his wife, Trish, runs Wild West Irish Tours, a boutique-style, small-group tour service that touts that it takes visitors “to places only the locals know.”
Neither Ed nor I are “tour people.” We quake at the sight of tourists pouring from buses with their windbreakers and white walking shoes announcing them as Americans. We love to chart our own course and enjoy what my friend, Ned, calls “human moments,” those everyday encounters with total strangers whose lives touch yours for a short time. One of the highlights of our trip was the half hour of jokes and craic we had with the staff at Ennis Electric as they attempted to repair our portable transformer, which blew up the night before. And another was Leo.
Leo Leydon, a local farmer and archaeology enthusiast from nearby Cloghboley, took over tour guide duties from Michael who had to suddenly return to the States.
It was Leo who swung by our B&B in his van, his omnipresent companions, border collies Jeff and Rory, in the passenger seat, to lead us to the thatched-roof Ellen’s which, according to the painted bodhran over the bar, dates back to the 1600s. That made me marvel out loud. “Well,” said the clearly dubious Leo with a shrug, “it makes for a good story.”
That same van took us through the rain-drenched fields of Leo’s farm to a high pasture to see his pride and joy–a dolman, a megalithic tomb known as the Cloghcor Portal Tomb, more than eight feet tall and 11 feet wide at its widest point. One stone has fallen and the capstone on this altar-like monument has also dipped. Leo’s cattle graze contentedly in the lower pasture, oblivious to the startling 360 beauty that leaves us speechless, from the ocean as sparkly as a chest of silver coins to the Dartry Mountains, the most famous of which is Benbulben, the iconic landmark of Yeats Country.
There are 2,000 or more such monuments throughout Ireland, but most of them are in the North, said Leo. He inherited this one—it’s the family farm where he spent his childhood–and seems to have felt the proprietary responsibility to get to know it intimately. He points out that the edges of the supporting stones have been carved to mimic the mountains in the distance. And that the stones were chosen and situated such that the stone facing the sun when it comes up turns white when the light hits it, and the stone facing west burns fiery red with the sunset. He knows so much about Sligo, from its stones to its history, that guests on Wild West Irish Tours nicknamed him Leopedia.
Standing at the top of Leo’s pasture, we absorb the archeology lesson and more. Leo’s own personal history touches us. Seventeen years ago, he tells us, his young wife, pregnant with their second child, died suddenly, leaving him with a small daughter to raise. He struggled—with many things—but in the end the land saved him. “Serenity,” he told us, “is being right with yourself.”
Gracie Thorpe, a Philadelphia native who lives in Limerick, PA, took a Wild West Irish Tour last spring, traveling by herself. The small group—no more than about 8 people who tour by van, or more likely, on foot—is perfect for the solo traveler who, like Thorpe, doesn’t want “to kiss the Blarney stone or run into other tourists.”
“It really felt like family. I felt such close connections with the other tour members and Leo, Michael and J.J. (J.J. O’Hara, who owns Castleview B&B, which hosts tour members),” said Thorpe, who is a sean nos singer and traces her family back to Galway and Cork. “And it was an adventure. We kind of had an itinerary, but it wasn’t a rigid kind of thing. Every day I learned something new and did something I never thought I’d do, like climbing a mountain, horseback riding on the beach, climbing Slieve League [in nearby Donegal]. I saw a calf just being born—being a city girl, you don’t see that kind of thing. We were even invited into homes along the beach. We met a woman named Kathleen who made woolens who had us in for tea and sandwiches. It was very welcoming.”
You can’t plan for magical moments, but, says Michael Waugh, they seem to happen in a place where both Queen Maeve and Yeats are buried (she on top of Knocknarae, he in the graveyard of St. Columba’s Anglican Church in Drumcliff, in sight of Benbulben). “One of the things I learned is to let Ireland be Ireland,” says Waugh, an American who lived in Sligo for many years and now divides his time between Virginia and Ireland. “Some of the best things that have ever happened were totally unexpected.”
Like the encounter with writer Dermot Healy, his next-door neighbor, whom he asked to recite some poetry for a tour member who was scattering her father’s ashes in Ireland. “He was working on his drainage because he was worried about erosion and he said he would. He read his own poem and then read some Yeats. But first we had to pick up shovels and help him with his drainage. He started reciting poetry and scattering ashes and you know, he had tears in his eyes. Where would you ever get this on a tour?”
This little taste of Waugh’s unique tourist enterprise has changed my thinking about tours. I’d take this one. Even our tiny taste was magic.
Find out more about Wild West Irish Tours at their website.
See some of my photos here.
See Gracie Thorpe’s photos here.