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A Wee Taste of Sligo

A day in the Sligo mountains.

A day in the Sligo mountains.

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. 

Travel

Magical Musical Tour

Loop Head, County Clare

Loop Head, County Clare

If you can’t sit still when you hear Irish music, you may want to contact Marianne MacDonald. There are still a few seats left on her “Back to the West” tour to Ireland October 25-November 2 which, along with all the usual places, will take you to Loop Head in County Clare, voted the best vacation spot in Ireland by The Irish Times. It has spectacular rocky cliffs overlooking the sea, small pretty villages, a light house, and even a castellated turret built (in Kilhaba) so that Victorian ladies could enjoy the sea view. You can even do some dolphin watching.

But it’s the music that MacDonald, host of the WTMR-800 AM radio show, “Come West Along the Road,” focuses on—so much so that she’s bringing topnotch Galway singer and multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Donohue, who toured for three years with the Chieftains, as “our on-board entertainer,” says MacDonald, laughing.

In this 15th year of her tours, the New Jersey native will be traveling with a small group to “my three favorite areas in Ireland,” which includes Galway, Dingle, and Ennis. She promises “music day and night.”

“In my last trip we lined up Elle Marie O’Dwyer and she’s now really big in Ireland,” says MacDonald. “We’re going to have Don Stiffe at least one night, possibly two, and Noreen Lynch, who is very big in Ennis.”

The group may be meeting up with Kevin Crawford of Lunasa, and will be treated to a demonstration of sean nos, or old-time Irish dancing. There’s even a class available.

Accommodations at four-star hotels, breakfast every day, and four dinners are included in the land package for $1,889; airfare is $700 RT if you fly with the group.
You only have until next month to sign up. Contact Marianne at rinceseit@msn.com or Johanna at Mayfair Travel, 877-338-8181.

Travel

Irish Music Takes to the High Seas

Marianne MacDonald with a ceili dance student.

Marianne MacDonald with a ceili dance student.

 

By Marianne MacDonald

Take one irrepressible dynamo of a woman, 55 Irish musicians and performers, 400 plus pigment-challenged Irish and Irish-American folks from 7-92 years of age and what do you have? Joanie Madden’s Folk ‘N Irish Cruise, aka The Big Session on the High Seas, or in Donie Carroll’s words “a divil of a noise”! As the Northeast suffered through a week of freezing temperatures, gloomy skies, and sporadic precipitation ending with 30 inches of snow in Boston last winter, the flute and whistle player from Cherish the Ladies and her contingent cruised the Caribbean on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic, a floating city holding over 4000 passengers.

From the very first day out of Miami, to the bittersweet return to reality, dozens of dances were danced, hundreds of friendships were made, thousands of tunes were played and songs sung and thousands of buckets of beers were consumed.

Joanie has a knack for picking just the right combination of musicians, dancers and entertainers who will keep the wide age- and interest- range of her cruise audience fully immersed in their culture, heritage and history. Whether one’s interests lie in Irish ballads and song, traditional tunes on a variety of instruments, dancing of either ceili or sets, or just soaking it all up, there were dozens and dozens of options to choose from.

I was traveling as a ceili dance instructor and was thrilled to have a class with about 25 students, ranging from total beginner to intermediate level. I focused on some simple, but fun, two-hand dances along with two easy ceili dances and was totally chuffed that the class was able to learn a total of seven dances in all. I was doubly pleased to see them up and dancing at every opportunity! Of course, who could not dance to the music provided by such top-notch musicians as the Pride of Moyvane Ceili Band, Liz Carroll, Fr. Charlie Coen, Dylan Foley, Dan Gurney, Antoine McAbhann, Gabriel Donohue, Joanie herself, John Nolan, John Reynolds, Margie Mulvihill and many other trad players.

Talk about a wealth of riches. I had to make some really hard choices when it came to the concerts. Maura O’Connell is one of my very favorite women singers and I was fortunate enough to hear her in 3 concerts. Mary Black and the Black Family, including Frances, performed several times, as did Tommy Sands. Every one of them legends.

I was also thrilled to see Mickey Coleman, who has appeared in Philadelphia numerous times, currently living in New York, join the cruise and impress the audience with his self-penned “Culdaff.” Of course, Don Stiffe is one of my musical heroes and he sang his heart out several times over the week to the delight of the entire cruise. Donie Carroll, from Co. Cork, had a fabulous release of his new CD, featuring many songs from the 1920’s. During his release performance he had the entire audience singing along to such songs as “Love’s Old Sweet Song”, “Are You Right There, Michael” and “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”. I could never neglect to mention our very own Gabriel Donohue, the man who other performers fear having to go on after him. Singer, musician and entertainer, Gabriel, who comes from Galway and now lives in Philadelphia, is one huge bundle of talent and charm and makes everyone sound superb as he accompanies them. And he’s not too shabby on his own, either!

Supplement these highlights with acts such as Padraig Allen and McLean Avenue, TR Dallas, Harry O’Donoghue, Guaranteed Irish, Frank McCaffery, Brigid’s Cross, Stepdancers Donny Golden, Cara Butler, Michael Boyle and John Jennings, and of course, The Ladies Who We All Cherish and you have a week of unbridled Irish delight! Every night ended officially at about midnight or 1:00, but does that every stop the Irish from enjoying themselves when there is another song to be sung or tune to be played? Cagney’s Bar was the official after hours rendevous site to enjoy more craic until the wee hours (ummm…7:30 A.M.?)

As Friday rolled around and we all realized we were off home to our different cities across the U.S. and to Scotland and Ireland, we shed a few tears, donned our coats and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and wished everyone a “Safe home…and see you onboard next year!”

And you can hop on board next year. Joanie’s cruise is scheduled for February 2-9, 2014. For more information go to www.joaniemaddencruise.com. Prices start at $1,099.

All photos by Frank Rudiger.

Travel

Travel 2012: Ireland Off the Beaten Path

How would you like to eat your way through Ireland? Or get such an insider’s view of the countryside that you’re climbing over stone walls and pushing through hedges, maybe even with a famous Irish writer? Or dance every night away to some great Irish music—and maybe even do a little dancing while you’re still on the sightseeing bus?

If those trips sound appealing, you’re no ordinary tourist. And you’re going to love these off-the-beaten track tours that we’ve found. Click on the links to read about trips that will take you down back roads, through back gardens, and back behind the scenes.

Explore Sligo and Ireland’s West with the natives. Bring boots–you may be crossing farmer’s fields to find some hidden treasures. Read about Wild West Irish Tours. 

If you’re tone deaf, Trad Tours aren’t for you. A local Irish radio host knows where the best music in Ireland is. And sometimes, she brings it with her. Read about Trad Tours.

Imagine traveling to Ireland with an Irish cookbook author. You don’t have to imagine it. Taste the “Flavors of Ireland” with the author of more than six popular Irish “cookery books.” Read about the Flavors of Ireland tour.

Travel

Travel 2012: Go Wild West

You'll visit Ben Bulben--and some secret places thereabouts.

If Michael Waugh said to you, “How would you like to come with me to Ireland for 10 days to meet all my neighbors?” you might not jump at the chance. But the small groups who’ve traveled to Ireland’s West on Waugh’s “Wild West Irish Tours” have enjoyed every minute of his tours to his old ‘hood.

After all, one of Waugh’s neighbors is Dermot Healy, award-winning novelist, playwright and poet. They became such good friends that when Waugh took up residence in Sligo after retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard he would dog-sit for Healy when he was away.

Waugh and wife, Trish O’Donnell Jenkins, now divide their time between Virginia and Sligo, where they lead small groups—only 4-8 people—on tours of Ireland’s breathtaking west coast, including Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo and Donegal, and occasionally points south.

You’re not going to miss the best parts of Yeats Country. You can’t go to Sligo without visiting Ben Bulben, after all, and Waugh can arrange for a day of hill walking with a friend “who just likes doing it.” But Waugh also has unexpected treats in store for you.

“We pride ourselves in going places the Irish Tourist Board doesn’t know about,” says Waugh, a Bronx native whose family came from Clare and Derry.

That includes the mysterious fairy glen near Knocknarea, the burial spot of Queen Maeve. Most people make the arduous climb to the top of the cairn for the panoramic views. They don’t go to the fairy glen, because nobody but the locals knows about it. “I’ve taken many people here and they all react the same way—they become stunned and quiet,” Waugh told me when we met recently for coffee in Chestnut Hill. “I’ve had people from all faiths tells me they felt close to God or to nature. Everyone who goes there has a spiritual experience.”

He’s also pressed his friend, folklorist and author Joe McGowan, into leading tours of holy wells that are often hidden away on farms. “We have to tiptoe over the walls,” laughs Waugh. One of his groups insisted on stopping to watch a group of men tug a bullock out of a mud pit. Afterwards, the farmer invited them in for tea.

You’ll go to the local ceilis (“Not something put on for tourists”) and enjoy evenings at Ellen’s Pub with Healy and other locals who tell stories, recite poems, and punctuate the night with laughter. “We went to see Dermot at his cottage one day and when we were leaving, I noticed that one of the group wasn’t there,” recalls Waugh. “Then I see her in Dermot’s car and they’re driving to Ellen’s!”

A friend has border collies so he can arrange a live demonstration of sheepherding. And for a group he took at Halloween, he even found a local haunted house. “This house was occupied by poltergeists,” he says. “The people who own it are Protestant, but they brought in the Jesuits to say Mass for three months in a row.”

In fact, says Waugh, since his groups are so small, he can customize the tours to each individual. “What makes us work is the people,” he says. “No matter what you want to do, I can call up a friend who does it.”

Tour Dates for Wild West Irish Tours are April 19-29, May 3-13, May 17-27, June 7-17, July 5-15, July 26- August 4, August 16-26, September 2-12, September 19-29, October 4-14. The price, $1599 per person, doesn’t include airfare but covers the cost of mini-bus travel and accommodations at a family owned guest house with cottages on a scenic peninsula in West Sligo. For more information, call 571-236-9650 or email info@wildwestirishtours.com. Go to Waugh’s website  to read more about its “life-altering” vacations.

Travel

Travel 2012: Music Wherever You Go

Expect to attend loads of sessions with Trad Tours.

You don’t have to worry about finding great music when you go to Ireland with Marianne MacDonald. The host of the WTMR 800 AM Irish radio program, “Come West Along the Road,” not only knows dozens of musicians in Ireland, she usually has a few on her Trad Tours trips. That’s come in handy more than once

“On my trip to Donegal last year, we were at a ceili at Ardara and the ceili band didn’t show up so the musicians on my tour played the ceili,” she recalls, laughing.

On one trip to Crane’s, a famous pub in Galway owned by Mick Crehan, whose sister was a friend of MacDonald’s, the famed fiddler and singer Desi O’Halloran sauntered in to meet the tour group and sang for them. He comes in whenever he hears they’re there. “I made friends with him the first time after I began playing his music on my show,” explains MacDonald. “My group just loved him. The last time we were there, on the last night of the tour, the group did a Desi O’Halloran soundalike contest. They came up with it on their own and we had a lot of fun.”

A few times her tour members have had the “locked in” experience: Once Irish pubs are officially closed, the doors are locked until the next morning and whoever the publican allows to remain is attending a “private party”—actually, a way around closing time laws—where the beer still flows and the music can go on till the sun rises.

The highlight of another of her tours involved the late Tommy Moffit, a popular and well known musician from Roscommon who lived in Philadelphia where he had a long-running radio show. The same one MacDonald does now. “We had a ceili at the White House in Roscommon and Tommy played. His whole family from Roscommon came to see him and he was thrilled to be playing in his hometown. He was pretty sick at the time and this may have been his last trip to Ireland. It was wonderful to be there for it.”

In case you haven’t figured it out, MacDonald’s tours aren’t for the tone deaf or anyone who hates Irish traditional music. When she launched her first trip a few years ago, MacDonald knew exactly what she wanted to offer—music, music, and more music. “Because that’s my interest,” she says. “I have an Irish radio show and I was a dancer for years. I actually started them out as dance tours. I’ve maintained all these friendships in Ireland so I’m able to expose people to music they might not have an opportunity to hear otherwise.”

She’s led tours to all parts of Ireland, Cape Breton in Canada, as well as Boston and Nashville.

“As an Irish trad musician, having traveled on my own to Ireland several times, I can say that Marianne arranges visits to the best venues for hearing Irish trad music and experiencing the culture, the craic, and the dancing,” says local fiddler Mary Malone, who has gone on several of MacDonald’s tours including one the radio host arranged just for her family, who wanted to experience Bloomsday in Dublin. “Everyone still talks about it,” says Malone.

MacDonald’s 2012 journey (October 4-11) will take you from Philadelphia to the Beamish Cork Folk Festival in Cork City where some of Irish music’s leading lights are on the bill, including Lunasa, Cherish the Ladies, Kilfenora Ceili Band, Paddy Keenan, John Doyle, Karan Casey, Mundy, and Julie Felix. While in Cork, you’ll stay at The River Lee Hotel, a luxury, 4-star hotel within walking distance of the festival venues. In addition to the headliners, there will be some special musical guests playing just for the tour, including Noel Shine and Mary Greene and their daughter, Ellie, as well as Rory McCarthy whose music she plays on her show regularly. The tour, which costs $2,199 plus $195 tax, including airfare, will also explore the largely hidden gem of the Beara Peninsula. “It’s where my family came from and it’s beautiful,” says MacDonald.

You’ll spend some time in Dublin at the prestigious Burlington Hotel, accessible to Stephen’s Green, Trinity, and the pubs, shopping and session scene of Ireland’s capitol city. A side trip to Avoca (setting for the series, “Ballykissangel” and home of the Avoca Weavers), the magnificent gardens of Powerscourt, and County Wicklow, known as Ireland’s garden spot.

For more information, contact Marianne MacDonald at 856-236-2717, or rinceseit@msn.com. See her website for details.

Travel

Travel 2012: Edible Ireland

You'll stay and dine at Ballynahinch Castle.

Cookbook author Margaret M. Johnson has eaten her way across Ireland. Now, you can join this New Yorker at the table, in the kitchen, and even at the fishmonger’s and the cheesemakers when she goes on her “Flavors of Ireland” tour with Quinlan Tours of Cape May Courthouse, NJ.

Johnson, known as “The Irish Cook,” has written six books on the new Irish cuisine, rounding up recipes for mouthwatering dishes from home and personal chefs, from restaurants, hotels, and pub, all across Ireland. Her latest, not surprisingly titled, “Flavors of Ireland: Celebrating Grand Places & Glorious Food,” will debut in late February.

It’s her first tour and it all came about because she met Gerry Quinlan of Quinlan Tours in Ireland. “I said to him, ‘You should let me lead a ‘Flavors of Ireland’ tour and he said go ahead,” she said, laughing. “It’s like I was using the easy button from Staples.”

Johnson herself designed the tour that will take a group to many of the hotels where she knows a superlative meal awaits because they’ve all contributed recipes to her books. They include Ballnahinch Castle in County Clare, Lough Erne Resort in Fermanagh, The Merrion Hotel in Dublin, and Killarney Park Hotel in Kerry.

A luxury coach will take guests from one four- or five-star hotel to another, allowing a couple of days in each locale so Johnson can also show the group where the raw materials come from for the meals, including a local salmon smoker and farmers’ markets (with real farmers). There’s also an option for a round of golf at Doonbeg, Lough Erne, and Old Head of Kindsale, as well as visits to must-see spots like the Cliffs of Moher, Slieve League cliffs, the Rock of Cashel, and Blarney Castle.

“We’ll be doing touristy things like stopping at the Beleek Factory,” says Johnson. “And Catholic or not you want to see Our Lady of Knock in Mayo.”

The tour isn’t really designed just for foodies, she says. “It encompasses all the flavors of Ireland, including historical, cultural, the landscape and, of course, food.”

Ah, the food. You’ll enjoy three drinks receptions over the 13-day tour, as well as nine dinners, 11 full Irish breakfasts, as well as an opportunity to continue your education about Irish food by making something from Johnson’s “Flavors of Ireland” cookbook when you get home. Everyone on the tour gets an autographed copy. Noel McNeil, the chef at Lough Erne who has contributed recipes to Johnson’s book, will also give a cooking demonstration.

Don’t let any of the fancy surroundings scare you. “You don’t have to get dressed up every night,” says Johnson reassuringly. “We’re not going to any restaurant that requires a jacket. My husband vetoed that.”

Your only worry will be the calories.

The “Flavors of Ireland” tour costs $4,575 per person based on double accommodation and doesn’t include airfare. The trip, which leaves on May 5, can be booked through Quinlan Tours (800-2217-7887, or info@quinlantours.com). See their website  for more information and to view the full itinerary.

Travel

How to Be Irish In Boston?

More Irish than Philly?

It’s heresy to say it in Philly, but Boston may be even more Irish than we are. It is so Irish it has its own Boston Irish Tourism Association that promotes all things Irish in Beantown and an official Irish Heritage Trail that takes visitors to over 20 sites in a three-mile radius that reflect the city’s Celtic heritage.

Among them: The Irish Famine Memorial; the Commodore Barry Memorial; the Rose Kennedy Garden; the Boston Massacre Memorial (Irish patriot Patrick Carr was the last to die in this clash between colonists and the British); the Old Granary Burying Grounds (where you’ll find Carr; two signers of the Declaration of Independence, including one descended from the O’Neills of Tyrone and John Hancock, whose ancestors came from County Down); and Fenway Park (home of the Red Sox and built by an immigrant from County Derry).

So would you like to find out how to be Irish in Boston? New Jersey-based Trad Tours is offering a bus trip from Philadelphia to Irish Boston and Cape Cod October 21-24. The $799 price tag includes roundtrip motorcoach transportation to New England, three nights lodging, breakfast, two dinners, and guided tours of Boston’s Heritage Trail, the JFK Presidential Museum and Library and a harbor tour of Hyannisport, which takes you past the Kennedy compound.

Marianne MacDonald, who runs Trad Tours, says she decided to offer the trip because she was longing to see Boston again. “I was there on tour with [singer] Annemarie O’Riordan. We had such a good time in Boston I wanted to go back,” she says. “I’ve also found that people really like our bus trips.”

MacDonald takes music-minded tourists to Ireland, Nova Scotia, and, in recent years, to Nashville, usually bringing her own musicians for nightly dancing. There will probably be a few on this trip, she says, though there’s plenty of Irish music to be found in Boston and on Cape Cod.

In fact, she’s booked rooms at the Cape Cod Irish Village, which was founded by the late Mayo musician Noel Henry and his family (his “Noel Henry Band” is still a fixture in the Boston area, headed by his brother, Tommie). Of course, the hotel in Yarmouth has its own Irish pub with traditional Irish entertainment (including dancing). Lodging in Boston is at The Onyx, a boutique, eco-friendly hotel near Bunker Hill, Faneuil Hall, and the rest of Boston’s “Freedom Trail.”

“We’re also going to go to The Druid, “ says MacDonald, referring to a popular Irish watering hole in Cambridge which has two Irish sessions every week.

For more information about the trip, contact MacDonald at (856)236-2717 or via email at rinceseit@msn.com, or Johanna Green at Mayfair Travel, (877)338-8481 or Johanna@mayfairtravel.com.