And now of course I must back up and fill in some stories that I skipped. From Doolin, we drove through Lahinch south to Listowel. We did not know--we were ignorant, traveling completely blind--but Listowel was home to a couple of wonderful writers. John B. Keane, whose books are so fun, ran a pub there for many years (and many years later, Doug and John and Ann and I happened to be there the very day that John B. Keane died). And poet Bryan McMahon lived there, too, and even had his own booth at the Horseshoe Pub.
Lila and I knew none of that. We were young and stupid and not terribly well-read. We had done little research before this trip; we just wandered where the roads took us, and half the time had no idea what we were looking at.
Shortly after the hike to the Cliffs of Moher, we meandered our way to Listowel, and to this grand and drafty bed and breakfast. It was called Gustenard House; I wonder if it's still there? It had a grand curving main staircase, with a yellow and blue stained glass window at the landing.
Our room was very cold, with religious pictures above the beds, and the vivid and gory Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging out in the hallway. This was nothing like the b&bs you find in Ireland now, all central heating and coffee makers in your room and en suite. This was bathroom down the hall, breakfast downstairs in the morning, and an elderly, cranky landlady. It really was just a room in somebody's house.
And it was cold, so cold. Apparently it was the habit at Gustenard House to turn off the heat on the first of April, no matter the weather. We were there on the second or third of the month, and we were so cold we had to pile all our clothes on top of the bed to stay warm in our sleep.
We didn't care. We were young and strong and in Ireland for the first time, and despite our big city-small town differences, we were having a wonderful time.
That evening, we walked down to the river. On our way, we passed a big stone house near the church; the yard was fenced with a tall wrought-iron fence, and penned inside were two thin dogs--whippets, maybe.
They were eerie dogs, thin and gray-brown and absolutely silent, but they were friendly; they came up to the fence and allowed Lila to pet them. And then we walked on down to river.
Two middle aged men were walking along the path toward us; one had bright red fly-away hair and almost no teeth; the other looked more sophisticated, with a beak nose and silver hair and a nice raincoat. They stopped to chat. The silver-haired man asked if we were from America, and we allowed that we were. He wondered if we were tracing our roots; he said that I looked Irish, and I told him that my grandmother was Irish but I wasn't entirely sure where she was from. I told him the story about how, as a child, I sat by her side with a map of Ireland and she pointed out the town.
It was a very long name; Bally something or other, I said. It was too long for me to remember, but I figured it would be easy to find again, a funny name like Bally. And then years later I looked at a map and saw that half the towns in Ireland started with the word Bally.
The man laughed and explained that Bally was the Gaelic word for town. He asked my grandmother's name. Monaghan, I said, and he frowned and said he wasn't sure which part of Ireland that name was from.
The men walked on, but a few moments later the red-haired man came running back. D'ye know who that was? he said breathlessly, and we shook our heads. It's Bryan McMahon! The poet!
I hope that our blank looks did not reveal the truth, that we had no idea who Bryan McMahon was.
We headed back into town, and stopped by the stone house with the whippets. Somehow, in our absence, they had magically turned into horses.
Lila and I looked at each other and laughed. This trip was just getting better and better.
That night, we went to the Horseshoe Pub for dinner. It was a big place, busy and bustling, and we slid into the only unoccupied booth. It was in a corner, in the back. Framed newspaper clippings hung on the wall, and I, a news junkie, stood up to read them.
Oh my God, Lila, I said. Do you know where we're sitting? This is Bryan McMahon's booth!
And so it was. Just a little more of the magic that was Listowel.
By Bryan McMahon
Oh, Puck may be famous and Galway be grand,
And the praise of Tramore echo down through the land,
But I'll sing you a ballad and beauty extol,
As I found it long'go in the Town of Listowel.
I've been to Bundoran, I've rambled to Bray
I've footed it to Bantry with beautiful Bay,
But I'd barter their charms, I would 'pon me soul,
For the week of the Races in lovely Listowel.
There were Bookies and Bagmen and Bankers and all,
Biddy Mulligan was there with a green-coloured shawl,
And a cute little boy pitching pence in a bowl,
Took me down for a crown in the Town of Listowel.
Beyond on the course there was silk flashing past,
The unfortunate horse that I backed he came last,
When he ran the wrong way sure I lost my control,
And I prayed for his trainer and Lovely Listowel.
On, night time, how are you - the night sure 'twas day,
And the stars in the sky they looked down in dismay,
And they sez to the moon then in accents so droll,
"You're done, for the sun shines tonight on Listowel."
They came from Castleisland, they came from Tralee,
And a black lookin devil came from Figi,
We'd a Dutchman, a German, a Swede and a Pole,
Sure 'twas more like Geneva than Lovely Listowel.
My rhyming is over, God bless those who heard,
So I'll take to the road like a migratin' bird,
But before I depart, well you all must pay toll,
So three cheers for the Races and Lovely Listowel.