“Do you want to go into Toin with me, Abigail?” Kim arches one eyebrow, grinning at me mischievously.
“Toin? What’s Toin?”
“Where is that?”
“Toin! Just doin the lane!”
“Yes! Toin!! I want to get toffee bon-bons. Also, Seamus said he’d make some broinies tonight!”
And that is how I find myself walking down a back-country lane in Ireland toward a gas station to buy candy with a ten-year-old.
After arriving in Dublin, I crash at a hostel on O’Connell Street. The next morning, I wake up early and catch the bus to Inishowen, the northern tip of Ireland, where I’m working in a hostel/organic farm for the next week (WWOOFing, for those who know what that is). The bus drops me right across from the hostel, and I meet Seamus and his daughter Cressida, the owners and managers of the hostel/farm. The whole crew is Seamus, Cressida, her boyfriend Chris, their five-year-old son Ashton, and ten-year-old cousin Kim. Oh, and then there are goats, rabbits, pigs, chickens, and geese, not to mention the vegetable and herb gardens. Seamus immediately offers me some Irish stew and a cup of tea with cookies. After the long bus ride, I am happy to accept.
After I finish eating, Kim bounds up to me. “Will ya sit and watch us doin by the stream? Cressida says we can’t play there without an adult. You’re an adult, right?” Kim asks. She says adult with the emphasis on the first syllable, like apple. She has taken an immediately liking to me, and I to her. She’s precocious, spunky, and quick-witted, and she’s just as beautiful and charming as can be, with twinkling blue eyes, long brown hair, and a roguish grin. So I grab a chair and a book of Seamus Heaney poetry (I am in Ireland, after all), and follow Kim and Ashton down to the stream, where I settle down to read on the stone bridge as they launch their raft into the water and imagine all sorts of adventures. Seamus Heaney, Nobel prize-winning poet, went to boarding school in Derry, only about 20 minutes from Inishowen. I savor “Death of a Naturalist” and “Blackberry Picking.”
I look up, and over the narrow stone bridge, there is little Kim, holding little Ashton’s hand and laughing as she kicks the water, and the water is flying and sparkling in the sunlight, and there are eleven different shades of green in the foliage surrounding the stream, and there beyond the children are smooth stones in the stream, and even further the stream winds through the eleven shades of green and out of sight. The two of them don’t notice the glory of it all – they don’t notice how the sunlight catches the water on fire; they’re too taken over by laughing. And this is all so beautiful, and I think, like John Ames, Ah, this life, this world.
A team of archeologists is staying at the hostel, and I introduce myself. We get to talking, and I find out that they’re excavating sites of old monasteries from the eighth century, one of which is located only five hundred meters from us. I am beside myself with excitement to see the place. “What are you doing tomorrow eve?” they ask. I have nothing planned, and I tell them this. “You’ve got to come with us to McGrory’s. Best pub in Inishowen, and great folk music. Try the bacon and potatoes.” I ask if they have a vehicle, which they do, and I promise to join. After saying goodbye, I walk back to the house and join Seamus, Cressida, Chris, Kim, and Ashton for a veritable feast of herring, cod, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, mushrooms, kale, and cabbage.
The next morning, “it’s blowin’ a gale, Abigail,” in the words of Kim. They call me Abigail, not Abbie, because our first correspondence was over email, and my name on my college email is Abigail. I love it. The name sounds so musical when they say it. It’s far too stormy to work outside, so I help Cressida with chores in the hostel, and we brave the rain to feed and take care of the animals. We make fresh lemonade before heading to Derry, where the kids play in a giant indoor playground as an end-of-summer treat. On the way back to Inishowen, Cressida drops me at McGrory’s.
On my travels thus far, I have avoided Irish pubs. They’re everywhere, but I’ve wanted to sample local cuisine, so I’ve eaten goulash in Hungary, crepes and croissants in France, and bratwurst in Germany. It seemed false to visit a touristy Irish pub in, say, the Czech Republic, when I knew I was going to Ireland. And the wait was so worth it.
McGrory’s could be The Green Dragon from the Lord of the Rings. The vibe is incredible. All stone inside, with crowded, candlelit wooden tables. In one corner, the bar, and in the other corner, a ring of about nine musicians: fiddle, guitar, harmonica, accordion, percussion, banjo. I find the archaeologists, and they order me a pint of Guinness and a bowl of stew. When in Ireland, you must drink Guinness. We enjoy the amazing traditional folk music until past midnight. The atmosphere of an authentic Irish pub is so wonderful – perhaps the best word to describe the place is merry. Everything feels light and jolly, and there’s no shortage of winking and laughing. I absolutely love the culture and music of Ireland. I may have saved the best for last on my travels, and it will be difficult for England to top this.
Oh, Ireland. It’s no wonder Celtic lore is full of faeries and elves. The beautiful little country seems to burst with enchantment, with mischief and lilting, dancing melody. It’s all that I dreamed it would be, and I dreamed hopefully.