Hear the Heartbeat

Hear the Heartbeat

Intro

Where Sophia’s ear is

Shortly after I got back from Ireland last summer I discovered an event at Troon Country Club called the Hawk Talk was scheduled for November 18th. I signed up for it right away. I was hoping it would be interesting like my experience several years ago at the Burren Birds of Prey Centre that I visited with Kevin’s family in County Clare. I wrote a story about it: “Hear the Heartbeat.” 

The Troon CC Hawk Talk was conducted by Master Falconer, Tiffany White, with Sonoran Desert Falconry. Along with her colleague, Sally Knight (a General Falconer and the co-founder of Sonoran Desert Falconry) they dazzled us with birds in their care like Dracarys, the Harris’ hawk. They introduced us to Uno the Kestrel and Zeke the Peregrine falcon. But it was Sophie the Barn owl that stole my heart.

 

 

The Hawk Walk

Kevin’s daughter, Nicola McGrath, and her husband, David Boyle, came down from Dublin to Clare for a visit with their two boys, Adam and Simon.

David drove us to the Burren by way of Corkscrew Hill. The narrow road was just like it sounds. 

The Bateleur eagle with his handler | the Burren Birds of Prey Centre, Ireland

We reached the aviary where they house the Birds of Prey, which include eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures and owls from all over the world. We continued to the grass arena with the magnificent hills of The Burren in the background. We watched the handler perform with “Batty” the Bateleur eagle. We were told she could fly up to 200 miles a day, but could only sustain a wing beat for two to three minutes. Bateleur is French for “tight-rope walker,” describing the bird’s characteristic habit of tipping its wings when it flies. She was a magnificent, very large and quite fluffy bird, predominantly black with a gorgeous streak of red plumage down her back. 

A couple of other birds did perform, one being an American owl who although he looked quite large, only weighed 2 lbs. He was “built for stealth — very quiet.” All the birds put on quite a show, but did “not fly for fun.” Their handler quipped, “This is a business relationship! We make the most of their laziness and they make the most of our generosity,” as he fed them little morsels of food throughout their performance.

With the demonstration over, it is now time for our Hawk Walk. There was a tinge of trepidation when I learned that Nicola and David had designated me as the one to ‘fly the hawk.’ “Are you sure David shouldn’t be the one to do this?” “No, Taba, it’s going to be you.”

Our instructor and hawk handler, Jamie, appeared with Eric the Harris’ hawk. As I slipped the elbow length glove over my left hand, Jamie untied Eric from his glove and transferred the raptor over to me. Then he tied a falconry knot entirely with his right hand only, informing us, “You must be able to do everything with one hand and it’s always the right hand.” “Why is that?” we all asked in unison. “So you can draw your sword if you have to!”

The hour walk through the Hazel woodland was full of wondrous facts, starting with the sport of falconry. Jamie told us the Chinese and Japanese have been hunting with birds of prey for some 3,000 years, but the Harris’ hawk was only recently introduced in the late 60’s.

Taba with Eric the Harris hawk

After a few minutes, I got comfortable with Eric, who perched on my glove, just so. It was amazing to be eyeball to eyeball with this beautiful creature. He would often fly away and be “called back” with a little bit of meat placed on my glove. Eric would always fly to a branch high in a tree and swoop down in a second or two, making a perfect landing every time.

At first I kept my eyes closed when I saw him coming, as his wing span was easily three feet and I wasn’t sure where those wing tips would wind up! Eric would tuck his feathers in precisely at the last possible second so they never touched my face. I relaxed and got more confident, and stared right at his intense eyes, while he zeroed in on his “reward” that Jamie placed on my glove.

 

Eyes Like a Hawk

I will forever have new respect for the phrase, “Eyes like a hawk.” They are small, but penetrating. Brown just like mine. Maybe that’s why I bonded so well with this bird. It turns out that southern Arizona is part of their natural habitat. They even nest in saguaro cactus, which explains why coyotes would be their most feared predators when they are on the ground.

The top of the beak is bright yellow with little nostrils, becoming a dark grey color and then white at the sharp tip. The legs were equally yellow, each with four powerful talons. His feathers are mostly brown, with a reddish color blending in where the wings attach, and then his tail feathers are tipped with white.

Adam asked Jamie lots of very intelligent questions, like “What do they eat?” “Rabbits, mice and other small animals,” said Jamie. “Would they eat other birds?” Adam wondered. “Yes they would,” affirmed Jamie.

Harris hawk with a handler | the Burren Birds of Prey Centre, Ireland

David followed the line of questioning, “When they are in the wild, do they hunt cooperatively?” “Yes they do,” explained Jamie, “one or more might scout the prey and another swoops in to attack.” (Note: Tiffany told us it is the female “that closes the deal.”)

“These Harris’ hawks are very social,” informed Jamie, “and very easygoing around people.” Eric did seem perfectly happy in his well-learned role to fly away and back to us as we followed a path through the woods…often varied to avoid predictability.  Every now and then, he made a short, high-pitched sound, as if to let us know where he was. 

“When he flies up high in the tree, is he looking for something to eat? Will he leave and never come back,” queried Adam. “Yes, although he really couldn’t survive in the wild, he has never lost his instincts. Every now and then he does catch something!” 

We learned that all the little bits of food, in this case chicken, were stored in a pouch to be eaten later. Sure enough, as the walk progressed, we could see the bulging pouch. “He only eats raw food, never cooked food,” Jamie clarified. Adam worked it out, “That would be chicken sushi.” 

 

Hear the Heartbeat

Jamie also told us, “The hawk can see much better than us but doesn’t have peripheral vision, which means he has to turn his head if he wants to see something not straight ahead.” Adam wondered, “Does he hear much better than us, like an owl?” “Hawks hear very well, but the owl has much more acute hearing. Owls actually have one ear higher than the other and they find their prey by hearing, not by seeing. In fact, even though they have big eyes, they can’t see well up close. If a mouse was right under an owl, the owl wouldn’t see him.”

Adam wanted to know, “Couldn’t the owl smell the mouse?” “No, but he could hear the heartbeat.” Hear the heartbeat.  Now that was amazing. 

The owl could hear the heartbeat of its pray

Finally we headed to the Birds of Prey Center to join up with Nicola and Simon, who was now getting his second wind. Back to the arena we went.

This time we got to see the handlers fly two Harris’ hawks together, a brother and sister, the female being about one third larger. Again, we were told that they are very social and easygoing, completely different from the falcons, which are much more high-strung. They are hooded to calm them down. The largest of the falcons, the Peregrine, is the fastest animal on earth, achieving speeds of 200 mph. (Note: Tiffany told us a Peregrine has been clocked at 220 mph.)

White-backed Vulture with its handler | the Burren Birds of Prey Centre, Ireland

Our flying display concluded with a pair of massive White-backed Vultures, which were surprisingly beautiful. The pair were named Henry and Dyson, after two models of the Hoover vacuum cleaner! Their names are funny, but their endangered status is not. Members of the Gyps family, they are suffering from an extremely rapid population decline.

After such a special day of many wondrous things, David guided our flock back to our nest in Liscannor, electing not to return by the Corkscrew road, and instead taking another scenic road which hugged the coast for part of the journey.  

I was securely wedged between the two boys, who promptly fell asleep in their car seats. Not a peep out of either one of them as we wove our way through the Burren landscape. They are so sweet and peaceful. I think I can just about hear their heartbeat.

Tipping Point

Tipping Point

St Patrick’s on the Edge of the Picturesque Sheephaven Bay

In 2018, when my partner, Kevin McGrath, and I were in France we heard rumors about a new golf course that Tom Doak was designing in Ireland. Kevin and I were part of the festivities at the course Tom had designed for the Mourgue D’Algue family in Bordeaux called Grand Saint-Emilionnais Golf Club.

There was talk floating around about Tom going to Ireland in the air. Our antennae were up because we live in Ireland (near Lahinch) so we were very keen to keep tabs on it.

Now it has actually opened, a couple of months ago. This is the third course at Rosapenna, located on the edge of the picturesque Sheephaven Bay.

The First Course – the Old Tom Morris Links

Tom Morris statue overlooking the course

The first course, known as the Old Tom Morris Links, opened in 1893. Old Tom had been a guest of Lord Leitrim at his estate in 1891, and while enjoying the Donegal scenery he noticed a fine stretch of inviting coastline. Before returning to St Andrews, Old Tom staked out the first Rosapenna Links over the undulating terrain of the dunes. Harry Vardon and James Braid added length and more detailed bunkering in 1906. Further changes were made by Harry Colt in 1911. In 2009, the new Strand Nine opened at Rosapenna to replace the original back nine that had you playing across the main road on a number of holes.

 

The Second Course – Sandy Hills Links at Rosapenna

Pat Ruddy, golf course architect

The second course, Sandy Hills Links at Rosapenna, opened for play in June 2003. The Irish golf architect, Pat Ruddy, in collaboration with Rosapenna owner, Frank Casey Sr., created one of Ireland’s finest modern links courses. Pat’s design is both bold and seductive. He designs for the serious golf enthusiast. While the course stretches to over 7,200 yards, with sensational views of mountains and sea, it blends sympathetically with the Old Tom Morris Links.

 

 

The Third Course – St Patrick’s Links at Rosapenna

Our day to play St Patrick’s Links (course #3) at Rosapenna, dawned with cloudy skies. Not a whisper of wind…until we got to the course, that is.

Sound the horns. We’re off. And what an adventure it was. Captivating… Check. Memorable… Check. Muscular… Check. Has that I-Want-To-Go-Play-It-Again factor… Check.

This newest Tom Doak course is laid out over land that had been a 36-hole facility developed by the Walsh family of Carrigart. It was known as The Maheramagorgan Links, designed by Irish architect Eddie Hackett, and the Trá Mór Links were designed by PGA Professional Joanne O’Haire. Both courses opened for play in the mid-1990s.

Tom Doak, golf course architect

The Rosapenna Golf Resort acquired the land in 2012. Discussions with Tom Doak ensued, and with his lead associate, Eric Iverson, the layout was finalized in March 2013. Construction began in April 2018, with all of the greens completed in 2019.

Behind the big project for #3 course is a group of founding members including Frank & John Casey of the Rosapenna Hotel & Golf Resort and architect Tom Doak who had funded the construction of the new 18-hole course in a partnership between The Casey Family who have owned and operated Rosapenna since 1981, along with Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design.

 

St Patrick’s – A Must-Play Heroic Course!

It is cleverly laid out as two loops of nine, returning to a temporary Links House where you check in and get a scorecard. The St Patrick’s logo is distinctive and ultra cool. Be sure to pick up a cap, putter cover, or towel to add to your collection.

I was impressed when I discovered there is a Forward Scorecard. Playing from the Claret tee markers, the overall yardage was a testing 5,136. On the not-so-puny-par-3s, where I had the best chance to par the hole, I needed to hit a driver into the wind, or at least a 7-wood. Total yardage of the par-72 course is 6,826 yards.

On all the par-4s and par-5s the landing areas are very generous. But when the wind whips up, as it often does, it can grab your ball and send it rolling faster over the undulating links land. The fairways need a bit of maturing; but all the quirk that we links lovers crave is part of the excitement of playing over centuries-old dunes.

St Patrick’s Links (course #3) at Rosapenna – a must play heroic course!

Upon arriving on the first tee, you’ll see a sign indicating the club length you’re allowed to move your ball to a more-grassy lie. The turf and green surfaces have a way to go before they mature; but even before they do, there is no doubt that Ireland now has another must-play course that will top all the lists. This one is heroic.

Our first go-around, the course was absolutely intoxicating and we’re dying to come back soon.

A Tipping Point

We’ve reached a tipping point. It’s official now, as if it wasn’t already, this northwest corner of Ireland is a bona fide golf destination unto itself. A perfect itinerary includes Ballyliffin, St Patrick’s, County Sligo (Rosses Point), Narin & Portnoo, Donegal Golf Club (Murvagh), Carne and Enniscrone. An enchanting week in pure golf heaven.

Perfect Peninsula

Perfect Peninsula

Discovering the Perfect Peninsula

The Dublin part of our journey with the panelists concluded at Portmarnock Golf Club. Although formally “founded” in 1894, the book entitled A Centenary History by T.M. Healy, published in 1994 reveals:

W.C. Pickeman

“On Christmas Eve of 1893 a Scottish Insurance broker named W.C. Pickeman and his friend George Ross rowed over from Sutton to the peninsula of Portmarnock to scout out the land as a possible golf links. They liked what they found.”

Indeed they did, and so did we on yet another glorious day of sunshine.

But in fact, the ground had been in use for golf as early as 1858 by the Jameson family who built their own private course, starting by their home, to the present 15th green. The Jamesons, of Scottish origin, established the Jameson Whiskey Distillery in 1780, and brought their favorite pastime with them. Eventually, the Jamesons leased the land to Portmarnock with John Jameson becoming the first President of the Club, George Ross the first Captain, and Pickeman being the first Honorary Secretary.

 

Laying out the first nine holes

Apparently Pickeman, laid out the first nine holes, with his countryman, Mungo Park, winner of the Open Championship in 1874, “consulting” on the greens in addition to his role as the Club’s first professional.

A second nine was added two years later with the involvement of another Scot, George Coburn, who hailed from East Lothian. A skillful player, Coburn, at just nineteen years of age, was engaged to replace Mungo Park as the Club professional. He had gained valuable greenkeeping experience with Old Tom Morris, and is even thought to have assisted Old Tom with the New Course at St Andrews when he designed it in 1895.

Coburn’s tenure at the Club lasted ten years, after which he participated in a number of Open Championships at St. Andrews, Sandwich, Muirfield and Prestwick and he eventually moved to the United States in 1912, where he carried on his career.

 

The rich history of championships at Portmarnock

Harry Bradshaw, the Club professional for 40 years

Portmarnock carried on impressively too, as the home of many famous professionals including Willy Nolan, who set the St Andrews Old Course record of 67 in 1933, Eddie Hackett who went on to become Ireland’s premier course architect, and Harry Bradshaw, who in addition to many tournament wins, continued on as the Club professional for 40 years. He was succeeded by Peter Townsend, who was both a Walker Cup (1965) and Ryder Cup player (1969 and 1971).

When Townsend left in 1991, Joey Purcell, who had been an Irish Amateur International in 1973, came on board to follow in the footsteps of this esteemed group of men. Upon Purcell’s retirement in 2019, Francis Howley was appointed the Club Professional.

Padraig Harrington

Then there’s the championships hosted at this venerable Club, which include the Irish Open Championships, The Amateur Championships, The Irish Close Championship, the British Amateur Championship in 1949 and 2019, the only two times it was played outside the United Kingdom, The Canada Cup (now the World Cup), won by the team of Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead. The Walker Cup in 1991 hosted by Portmarnock concluded with an American victory with a team led by Phil Mickelson and David Duval, playing against some of Ireland’s top amateurs including Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Garth McGimpsey.

 

Having great time on the Perfect Peninsula

So on this perfect peninsula, full of sandy soil, with such a rich history and tradition and a membership consisting of the who’s who of Ireland (that would include Top 100 panelists Kevin McGrath, and Adrian Morrow who were also joining us today—and Peter Webster who was with his family celebrating a biggish birthday with and “0” in it) it is fair to say that we were all looking forward to our golf round on such hallowed dew-swept ground.

Portmarnock 18th green

Anticipating our visit, the officers of Portmarnock organized a match for us. Kevin and I were paired with Gary Johnstone, the golf course superintendent, whose ball striking was as good as any professional on tour, and Shane Browne, a member who had just come off a win with his partner in the annual, prestigious Elm Park Mixed Foursomes event the previous day.

Too bad I couldn’t reincarnate as a competitive golfer successfully or often enough — Kevin and I lost our match on the 15th hole, but we never lost our enjoyment of being on the legendary links. This would be Kevin’s home course for decades, along with Lahinch in Co. Clare, where we live in the summer—when we’re home, that is.

After our “match,” there was a festive air in the bar, with Brian Dunnion ordering a glass of sauvignon blanc for me. One after another, the officers of the Club all appeared, many in coat and tie. At one stage, a tall, muscular man with a shock of white hair and dazzling smile entered the bar. I said to Brian, “what famous actor does this man remind me of?”

Brian said, “Why don’t you ask him yourself,” and then tapped the gentleman on the shoulder.

“What actor do you remind me of with your dazzling movie-star good looks?”

With a characteristic kind of drawl and squint of the eye, he answered, “Would it be John Wayne?”

A big laugh erupted that would have broken any iceberg, but there were none in the genial waters of our bonhomie. The entire room full of officers—John Wayne’s real name being Barry Doyle (the Honorary Secretary – or Hon Sec)—were as warm as the welcome sunshine.

When we drifted into the member’s inner sanctum of the Pickeman Room, John Power, the Captain, pointed to the only open window and said, “You know Gary Player, the famous golfer?”

“Sure I do,” I replied, nodding my head.

“Well standing on the first tee right out there, he drove his ball right through this window!”

The vision absolutely cracked me up—a pull hook like that if there were no building in the way would have landed behind him!

During our grand lunch with a lovely lamb entree, the wine and the laughter flowed. Finally some of the panelists took the opportunity to ask Gary questions about the presentation and maintenance of the course.

When he was asked about how he kept control of the meadow grasses, he told us how every stalk of grass produced 10,000 seed heads each season. This certainly boggled my mind.

Having been born in Scotland, not far from Aberdeen, Gary has now followed in the footsteps of the Scottish founders, the early professionals and greenkeepers, whose hands and minds have shaped the links. He is keenly aware of the significance of being a good steward of the all the land — including the wild areas — to maintain the natural character as much as possible.

Johnstone relishes his role to tend to the land that has seen hundreds, if not thousands of famous people and golfers.

Like so many seeds of grass, famous or not, guardians of the links land, members and visitors alike, have contributed to the impressive lore of this ever-perfect peninsula.

Portmarnock, 6th hole and lilies pond

Monkey Puzzle Tree

Monkey Puzzle Tree

The Vandeleur Walled Garden

At long last we are going to the Vandeleur Walled Garden. We see the signs for it when passing through Kilrush (Cill Rois, meaning “Church of the Woods”) on the way to the Killimer-Tarbert Car Ferry. Crossing the River Shannon shaves off about an hour and a half when traveling to Ballybunion in County Kerry.

Our objective has always been to get to our golf destination — never to sightsee along the way. But today was meant to be a day off from golf to do something different!

Kevin knows the roads like the back of his hand, so getting there is a doddle.

The Vandeleur Walled Garden was once the private garden of Kilrush House, ancestral home of the Dutch Vandeleur family in the early 19th century. The house was completely destroyed by fire in 1897 and was eventually demolished. The garden underwent restoration in 1997 and is a wonderland of exotic plants and charming pathways. We practically had it to ourselves on this lovely dry afternoon.

Before we left the house I searched online to make sure Vandeleur was open. I also read it had an exceptional collection of trees from oak and mountain ash to the quirky monkey puzzle tree.

Now this I was very keen to see! I had come across this tree before when we were staying at the ultra posh Eden Mansion outside of St Andrews several years ago. They also had a lovely walled garden on the property and as I was leaving I noticed these gigantic, remarkable trees that I had missed on the way in. They can grow to a height of 150 feet!

I was totally enraptured by the bark in particular. When I did some research about them back then, I learned they are native to Chile and Argentina and had become quite fashionable to British horticulture lovers in the 1800s.

 

Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’

Everything about the monkey puzzle tree is exotic. The botanical name is Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’. They only produce top cover when over fifty years old and female cones can take three years to ripen. The cones grow to the size of a human head and contain over 200 seeds.

I learned online that the species has lived for more than 1,300 years but their numbers are now dwindling at such a rate that the Chilean government has designated them as national monuments. For the Pehuenche Indians of southern Chile the monkey puzzle tree is a sacred way of life. The seeds form a staple of their diet and that of their livestock.

I approached a lady who was kneeling and digging holes for small plants, arranging them in a star pattern. She had short curly red hair and was wearing a neon green vest, like three other men I noticed doing various landscaping tasks.

“Sorry to bother you but could you tell me where is the monkey puzzle tree?”

“There,” she said.

I followed where she was pointing but couldn’t figure out which tree she meant. She stood up and we took several steps together. Then she pointed to a most unusual tree, but not what I was expecting.

We moved closer and I accidentally touched the pointy end of a branch.

“Oh, it’s so sharp,” I exclaimed, taking a step back, as if it bit me!

The sensation immediately conjured up a vision of prickly pears and multitudinous variety of spiny cacti we have in Scottsdale.

“I live in Arizona,” I ventured. “Everything in the desert is prickly,”

We stood there admiring this exotic specimen and my landscape guide told me, “A man came to Vandeleur and wanted to buy this tree.”

He offered an exorbitant sum. “Money is no object,” he said.

Curly red head recounted the story, “It’s not for sale at any price.”

“How long would it take to get this tall?” I asked.

“About twenty years to get as big as it is now and it would have been planted when it was about knee high.”

Also sometimes referred to as Chilean Pine, one theory about how it got its common name is because it “would puzzle a monkey to climb that tree.”

I thanked my companion, “Sorry to interrupt your work.”

Smiling, she said, “Oh, you’ve saved my back!”

 

Just vanilla ice cream!

Kevin had disappeared and may have gone back to get a second ice cream cone near the entrance. Sure enough, I found him sitting at a little round table near the concession stand, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

Kevin has two addictions. One is golf and the other is the delicious soft ice-cream cones like you would get at Dairy Queen in the U.S.

No amount of purple, red, yellow or orange flowers can upstage the creamy white vanilla-topped cone for Kevin. He is happy to go anywhere if there might be ice cream in the offing. Nothing more exotic needs be on the agenda — just vanilla ice cream!

 

More images from the trip to Vandeleur Walled Garden can be seen HERE:

Roses Galore

Roses Galore

Sunday Morning in Liscannor

There are few things nicer than to get out for a walk on a Sunday morning in brilliant sunshine before Liscannor fills up with church-goers. In fact, with very few people in view, I satisfied my curiosity about a strange-looking bush that had been clipped into the shape of E.T. Or so it seemed. At first I thought it was meant to represent a parishioner, wearing a hooded cloak, kneeling as if asking forgiveness? I later learned it is a simplified nativity scene with kneeling Mary and standing Joseph and the baby Jesus in a crib!

I rounded the corner where the church sits on Main Street and approached the area of the village that will forever amuse me. Yesterday afternoon, I’d told our friends Bev and Steve (an American couple that built a house in Lahinch), that Mark Cronin, the new GM of the Cliffs of Moher Hotel, deemed this block-long beehive of activity in little Liscannor “The Strip”. I could see the wheels whirring in Steve’s head as images of Las Vegas enveloped his imagination, comparing it to this quaint collection of hotels, restaurants and pubs.

Steve laughed and replied, “It does take some getting used to here in County Clare.”

I kept to the church side of Main Street, anticipating the new bakery, located in what used to be Patrick Egan’s Books + Wine shop. That is where I first met Patrick, appearing to him as just one of thousands of American tourists passing through. This was back in 2010, my first full summer living in Ireland. And it is living in Ireland vs. visiting Ireland, which initially inspired me to start writing short stories. I wanted to focus my attention on what made Ireland different and special, having immediately recognized there was an ample number of sights and sounds that were wondrous. I strived to capture them, forcing myself to be more observant, since it is so easy to take all this beauty, and even the quirkiness, for granted.

The Sea Salt artisan bakery is a very enticing place indeed. At 10 AM it was doing a brisk business, with a line starting to form out the door. You only have to poke your head in to see why. I did that very thing a couple of days ago in my initial reconnaissance to survey what was going on in our little fishing village.

The sunshine and near-balmy air brings out the surfers, golfers, dog-walkers, beach-goers, and mothers pushing their babies in prams, along with people like me just strolling along, admiring the profusion of myriad flowering shrubs with their riotous display of yellow, pink and lavender blossoms.

When I reached the end of the block, I crossed over Main Street and noticed a couple of older gents sitting on benches outside the Anchor Inn. I figured I must look ridiculous to them, since there was just enough chill in the air for me to be wearing my lavender zip-up jacket. No matter that it was ultra-lightweight and is the perfect windbreaker for this kind of breezy weather. They’d be thinking the same thing this burly grizzled guy said to me during my first recon a couple of days ago, when I ambled into McHugh’s Pub…

He deadpanned, “Where’s your earmuffs and mittens?”

I took the bait. “I live in Arizona, so this feels a little chilly to me.”

Along with looking like an alien, it’s as if I was speaking Swahili. I teased him along with, “Have you ever heard of the Grand Canyon?”

This was met with a tepid nod of the head and a swig of his drink.

“Well, I live in the desert—in the same state as the Grand Canyon—and it is often quite warm there.”

“You mean hot like it is here? Jaysus, it’s roasting!” yer man on the barstool declared.

“Are you kidding me? This isn’t hot. This is only about 72 degrees. That would be about 21 celsius,” I said with a cheerful smile, engaging in a bit of barroom banter.

“Could you convert that for me?”

Was the public house patron pulling my leg?

“I just did. Twenty-one celsius is actually 71 Fahrenheit. That’s how I remember it,” I replied rather matter-of-factly, rebutting what I hoped was his tongue-in-cheek question.

He lifted an eyebrow. “What are you? A schoolteacher?”

We were both laughing when I said, while shaking my finger at him, “No, I’m not, but I should have been!”

Figuring that was a good time to wrap up our short repartee, I said goodbye and was on my way.

J.P. Holland Centre

Back to today’s walkabout. I wanted to see if the new J.P. Holland Centre was open on the corner close to what used to be called The Tides shop. I noticed some refurbishment going on there last summer and figured The Tides should be open for business by now. Maybe not this early on a Sunday morning, but at least open to take advantage of this being the high season in County Clare.

The Tides was still completely closed; but to my surprise and delight, the front door of J. P. Holland Centre was propped wide open. Before I entered, I noticed a small plaque affixed to a waist-high tree stump:

Fulacht Fiadh

Bronze Age circa 2500 BC

Just beyond it in the courtyard was an odd collection of stone slabs, creating a squarish tub. The plaque told the story of how water was poured into the tub, then brought to a boil. Meat was cooked in the water, which was thought to have remained hot for as much as three hours. Alternative uses for the Fulacht Fiadh could have been bathing, dyeing, or even brewing! Not all at once, mind you.

Once through the outer doors I was in a tiny vestibule. I was amazed to see some yellowed newspaper clippings about the “Submarine Boat Inventor” during the days when Holland was a resident of Patterson, New Jersey. On the opposing wall of the entry hall was a framed reprint of John P. Holland’s Six Submarines, 1878 – 1900, listing their various names, where they were built, and where they were launched.

Along with Holland No. 1, the Fenian Ram, and the Zalinski Boat, another was named Plunger. It was launched 7 August 1897. Place: Baltimore, MD. The builder was William Malster’s Columbian Iron Works. Plunger weighed 168 tons and was armed with: Two Torpedo Tubes; Five Torpedoes.

Two more steps and I found myself in a spacious gift shop. Along with postcards, an array of scarfs, sweaters, and knick knacks, there was a counter along one wall with a coffee machine and a few chairs.

Display cases arranged in a big square in the middle of the room provided both shelving for souvenirs and the pay point for a cashier/shop minder. To the young lady behind the counter, I declared, “I had no idea that J.P. Holland designed six submarines!”

“Not many people know that,” she replied with a charming smile.

A stack of books sat prominently on the counter to her left, looking very much to be the definitive story of the self-trained inventor-engineer, J.P.Holland (1841 – 1914). The cover of one featured the often-reproduced photo of the mustachioed man, emerging from his submarine, wearing wire rim spectacles and black bowler hat.

“I didn’t bring any money with me, so I’ll have to come back for this book,” I said to the pretty lass, whose thick blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail.

I wandered over to the entrance of the museum and could see that the big bronze sculpture of Holland that used to be positioned in front of what is now the Cliffs of Moher Hotel, looked like it had finally found a permanent home.

I came back to the counter to note the author of the book. His name was Richard Knowles Morris.

“Were you here a couple of years ago when there was a dedication ceremony for Holland down by the harbor? It was the 100th anniversary of his death,” I asked, curious how familiar she’d be with Holland.

“No, I wasn’t there that day,” she said, rather amazed that I knew about this momentous event.

“It was a really big deal. A huge ship from the Irish Naval fleet anchored in the bay and the captain came ashore for the ceremony. And the captain was a woman!” I blurted out with admiration for this exalted lady officer. “She was so impressive in her dark blue uniform. She had on a skirt and was wearing some very smart looking shoes with a block high heel.”

My pony-tailed audience seemed enraptured, so I went on.

“There was also a highly-decorated American Naval officer,” I said, unable to remember his exact rank, but I did recall there was a chest-full of ribbons, badges and medals on his starched dress blue uniform. I don’t know what it is about men in uniform, but there is some kind of mystique. Do men think the same thing about women in uniform? Somehow, I rather doubt it.

“And there was even a guy from the Japanese Cultural Office in Dublin,” I offered. “He said he had come to represent Japan, since the Ambassador was unable to attend himself.”

With this, the cute freckle-faced young lady was able to help me out. “Oh yeah, I remember reading that the Japanese used his design too.”

Then I ventured, “I wonder if the author of this book is the same guy who gave a speech about Holland during the ceremony? He seemed to be quite an authority.”

Her blue eyes lit up. “That was probably Tony Duggan. He was here a lot helping to put the museum together. He’s from Cork.”

I appreciated her genuine friendliness. “Where are you from? Clare?”

“Miltown Malbay. Not too far away,” she replied, flashing her pearly white smile again.

I was thoroughly enjoying her effervescent sweetness. “What is your name?”

“Grace.”

“Oh my,” I gasped. “A couple nights ago, I was watching a webcast, and a lady was talking about a book she had written called The Grace Trail. Have you ever heard of it?”

“No,” she said with a shake of her ponytail.

“It was all about finding a state of grace, especially when you have lost your footing—your emotionally footing—like if your child died, or something tragic like that.” I tried to further explain as best I could, having been pretty jet-lagged at the time, and fighting mightily to stay up until midnight to watch this program, airing at 7 PM eastern time in the U.S. “The author talked about The Grace Trail being something she created after she learned about war veterans, probably Vietnam Veterans, who were walking the Appalachian Trail. Have you heard of it?”

“Oh yes,” darling Grace said emphatically.

“It goes something like 2,000 miles I think—all the way from Maine to Tennessee maybe,” I fumbled, vaguely remembering it included the Smoky Mountains. At that moment, I realized I didn’t know much about it, other than what I read in Bill Bryson’s hilarious book, A Walk in the Woods. It was so laugh-out-loud funny, I can see why somebody would want to make a movie out of it, but even with Robert Redford playing the lead role, it fell completely flat and I couldn’t finish watching it!

“Some people set out to walk the entire trail over—I don’t know—over how many months. Other people hike it a chunk at a time. But the author, Anne Jolles is her name, said the vets were ‘walking off the war.’”

I was proud that I could recall this much, given I was barely able to keep awake. “So anyway, the author created her own Grace Trail, where people could walk, and at regular intervals there’d be a little message on a post, to help them contemplate and heal. She said GRACE was also an acronym for the five steps to finding your way back to firmer footing. G for gratitude. R for release. A… could have been for acceptance?” I struggled to remember.

Grace chimed in, “Maybe C was for clarity?”

That gave me goose bumps, because I think she surmised correctly. And if that wasn’t right, it was so perceptive.

“That’s awesome, Grace. That may be exactly what C was for. And E, I think, was embrace. Embrace where you are. Embrace who you are.”

Our intimate moment evaporated when another lady came in and headed straight over to the coffee machine. Apparently getting it to produce a cup of coffee posed a bit of a struggle, and Grace had to come around the counter and help her sort it out.

I said goodbye as I headed for the door, hoping to come back soon with money in my pocket. I was planning to buy the book and learn once and for all if J.P. Holland was born in Liscannor, as most people, including Grace, are inclined to believe.

On my way home, I decided to take another look at Holland’s Cottage, identified by the stone sign affixed to the left of the green front door, with the funny looking torpedo-shaped Fenian Ram also etched into the stone.

To the right of the door was a rose bush that obviously has been lovingly pruned for many years, and was climbing nearly to the slate roof. It bore the most luxurious salmony-pink flowers, each perfect petal a delicate declaration that summer is here.

Right here on this door step.

Whether or not this is Holland’s actual birthplace, or he ever lived in this house, there are roses galore to greet whoever is lucky enough to grace this doorway now.

A lot changed since the pandemic…

Sadly, the bakery that brought new and always fresh products to Liscannor, was short-lived. The owner was French and was a true artisan.

So many small businesses suffered during the COVID pandemic and have never been able to recover. Like the J.P. Holland Centre, a museum experience, devoted to the most famous son of Liscannor, who invented the submarine. Another lovely shop called The Woolen Market, that sold items made only in Ireland, has closed permanently. Along with my friend from Australia, Jane Franklin, we were the very first to cross the threshold on their opening day of “trading” as they call it over here. The beautiful plaid scarf I bought there is still my favorite. Apparently that building is now being converted to apartments.

Interestingly, the real estate market is hot now, especially in places like Liscannor, where people are buying and updating small holiday homes. Signs have gone up for sites for sale, where new houses are also springing up — some quite substantial.

Now that indoor dining has finally been allowed, many establishments are booked solid, since the summer season can represent 70 – 80% of the annual business they may do.

The owner of the Cliffs of Moher Hotel, Ronan Garvey and his operations manager, Olan O’Connor, envisioned back in February during the lockdown, the construction of an attractive, enclosed seating area for the restaurant/bar on Main Street. It is chock-a-block day and night, serving breakfast through dinner, under the very inviting bright red roof. Here is resiliency and optimism at its very best.

But the most important aspect is that people can enjoy being together again — to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions — or just celebrate life.

Slieve League Cliffs

Slieve League Cliffs

In the league of their own 

My editor always said don’t use a cliché like “breathtaking” to describe anything unless it truly took your breath away!

My first sight of the Slieve League Cliffs set my heart pounding, I had to step back after just a few seconds to keep my balance. Even now while writing about it, I feel as though I could be swept away in the swirling wind.

These are the highest cliffs in all of Ireland. Although one of Ireland’s best kept secrets, they rise almost three times higher than the Cliffs of Moher — nearly 2000 feet. I had never heard of them. Astonishing.

As we were leaving Lough Eske Castle, I asked Shea, the affable fellow who had just given me a private history tour of the Castle, “What about these cliffs?”

Shea said, “ You must go see them. They make the Cliffs of Moher look like they are miniature.” And so they did. No superlative would be an exaggeration.

Although the Cliffs of Moher are the most popular visitor attraction (probably still true for the Republic, The Titanic Experience in Belfast may have eclipsed that statistic, in Northern Ireland), Slieve League (Irish: Sliabh Liag), are nothing short of remarkable. Their height, their color, their texture, filled me with awe.

The Secret Garden of Slieve Russell

Our first destination was County Cavan so that Kevin could play in the Ulster Seniors Golf Championship. The 2020 venue was Slieve Russell Hotel Golf & Country Club on their fine parkland course. We had a sumptuous room with a view of the rose garden and 18th green. To make everything more delightful, we had warm sunshine. Perfect weather and great camaraderie, unfortunately did not add up to a winning score for Kevin. In spite of those 3-putts on the tricky greens, we both thoroughly enjoyed the luxurious experience.

While Kevin was playing his second round, I discovered The Secret Garden, and an enchanting walking path that passed through mature ash and sycamore trees. As the path turned toward the edge of the 17th hole, it weaves through spruce, mature beech and Scots pine. Up and down and around you go in a perfect 2 mile loop.

I even wound up walking for a bit with a very energetic lady named Jacqui McGrath! Not only did she share the McGrath name (but unrelated to Kevin’s family), her parents used to own a house in Lahinch, where she learned her golf.

But it was the amazing prehistoric monument hiding in the Secret Garden that absolutely blew me away. It is called the Aughrim Wedge Tomb. It was originally located on the slopes of the Slieve Rushen mountain. The Quinn Group, who built the hotel, were quarrying there when it was unearthed. They engaged Mr. John Channing, Archeologist, to oversee the excavation in 1992. It was then carefully reconstructed on the grounds of the hotel rather than have it disappear forever. To some, it may be sacrilegious to move what the local folklore call “The Giant’s Grave”, but the trade off is, many more people will see it and have a peek at the ancient past of this part of Ireland.

The tomb is circular and is thought to date to the late Neolithic early Bronze Age (circa 4,000 years ago). There are standing stones in the center of the circle and it fits a category of megalithic monument known as “Wedge Tomb”. It is nestled into a large, meandering garden that was created by award-winner designer Paul Martin.

The entire hotel property is situated about 85 miles northwest of Dublin. Many would regard it as the middle of nowhere. Our antiquated GPS took us on a network of single track roads. The grass growing down the middle, shall we say, tickled the bottom of our low-slung BMW sedan. By the time we reached the Slieve Russell Hotel, for us, it did feel like it was light years away from anything resembling a city. In other words, purely idyllic.

Lough Eske Castle

It was only easy to leave because we were heading to Lough Eske Castle. We were very excited about it because the photos of this 5-star hotel online completely capture your imagination. We will also be staying here during our Golf & Music Tour to Ireland in July of 2021.

Knowing that Kevin and I are the leaders of this group, the hotel management put us in a magnificent suite. We were barely in the door of our luxurious light-filled cocoon, when we spotted the chocolate covered strawberries. After quickly stashing our suitcases, we smuggled the strawberries over to The Gallery Bar, where we sat outside in the glorious sunshine and enjoyed them with a lovely glass of perfectly chilled Prosecco. Well, I did. I think Kevin had a shandy.

Kevin was content to rest before our dinner, which was booked for 7.15 PM, but as usual, I felt compelled to roam around with my camera. I took photos of several life-size figurative bronze sculptures artfully placed around the grounds. Subjects ranged from the magnificent giant salmon soaring skyward out of a fountain, that greet you at the entrance of the castle, to a magical dragon on the front lawn as you drive in.

But once again, I was in for a fantastic surprise when I discovered the Father Browne Bar. This sprawling space is below the main entry level. From the deep green painted walls, to the tasteful recessed lighting, the extensive collection of framed black and white photographs are set off with perfect placement. I would know, having done this kind of installation over many years of being in the art business.

I may know fine art, fine framing and expert placement of a large photographic collection, but I was completely humbled by not having a clue to who is this artist. Although Father Francis Browne, a Jesuit priest, had died in relative obscurity in 1960, when his work was discovered, one critic compared him to the famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Cartier-Bresson was considered a master of candid photography and thought to have pioneered the genre of street photography. He very much captured a decisive moment, as did Father Browne, when he was aboard the Titanic in 1912.

A generous uncle had given him a first-class ticket on the Titanic as a gift, with passage from Southampton, England to Cork, Ireland. The ship’s itinerary was from Southampton to Cherbourg, France, to Queenstown, Ireland, then on to the final port of call in New York City. Father Browne had befriended an American couple who so enjoyed his company, they wanted to pay for his fare to New York. He telegraphed a message to his superior to ask for permission and got a curt reply: GET OFF THAT SHIP —PROVINCIAL. Father Browne disembarked in Cobh, probably saving him from a watery grave. His photographs of life onboard Titanic were splashed on the front pages of newspapers around the world and remain historically important to this day.

I was thrilled to be able to show Father Browne’s Bar to Kevin before our dinner. While doing our site visit the next morning with Stephen Bell, the Sales Manager of the hotel, he also showed us an elegant room tucked away off the main part of the bar where we can have a private Welcome Dinner for our guests in July 2021. Then we also have the perfect venue for our musicians to entertain everybody back out in the bar area, while the pints are flowing.

Like other staggeringly magnificent sights around the world, getting there was not exactly easy. In a way, I’m glad I was so ignorant of Slieve League. It made seeing the cliffs that much more of an adventure. And in this COVID environment, they were not overrun with hoards of people.

The adventure gets stormy

We packed a lot into our five-day trip to Cavan and Donegal — two counties in Ulster. (Ulster is one of four provinces of Ireland. The remaining three are Leinster to the east, Munster to the south and Connacht to the west.) We live in Liscannor near Lahinch, in County Clare. This is Munster. So it was great to see another part of Ireland. It was almost like going to another country.

While we were up there, we went to play Narin & Portnoo. We have this course on our Golf & Music Tour 2021 itinerary, so we were very keen to play it ourselves. It’s a gem. Pure links. Quite quirky. Some spectacular views, especially on the back nine. I’ll be excited to go back next summer.

Once home in Liscannor, we had the usual rain and wind, on and off. Then we heard the news about Storm Ellen heading our way. She made landfall last night and was she ever ferocious. We were watching for her and around 8 PM the sea turned an effervescent pink. It was serene. Quite literally, the calm before the storm.

When she did arrive in the dark of the night she brought the entire percussion section of a hundred orchestras with her. Drums of heroic dimensions. Timpani yes, but modest bodhrán, no. Ellen seemed to be trying to find a way to the center of the Earth. She pummeled the whole house, as if we alone stood in her way to the deep underground cave she was seeking.

The booming symphony created by the wind drowned out the gurgling river of water rushing in the downspouts. It was an epic storm. Trees down and power outages all over the country. The next day, you could see white caps in the puddles!

A storm as a metaphor for life?  Hitting you the hardest in a place called home.

You can see many more photos from this wonderful trip on Photos page.