(This is the third part of my Ireland travel diary. See Dublin here and Day One in the country here.) It is a bright and quiet Sunday morning in Galway, and a RailTours Ireland guide comes to our hotel to ensure we get on the right bus for the last leg of the tour. Our new guide is also the driver, a man who hails from the heart of a Gaelic-speaking community, and is a bit quieter than Norman. When he says his name, I write down Mauritan at first, and then I realize he said Martin drawn out into three syllables. We are now leaving the tourist town of Galway, traveling up the west coast and will be listening to music by the High Kings over the shuttle bus speakers until we come to our first “photostop.”
In the meantime, I quietly note each passing impression: The bright winter sun, which Martin has said offers the best light of the year. Daisies, foxglove, hydrangeas. Horses grazing between houses. A red lacquered gate across a driveway. Hedges and brambles overgrowing rock walls that outline each property. Piles of rocks in yards and stacked inside stone ruins. Pristinely white washed cottages with shiny roofs right next to those ruined structures. Houses that soon give way to bodies of water, lolling mountains, and sheep. Shaggy, marked (i.e. doomed) Connemara sheep.
The next town we pass through after Galway is Ochterhard, in summer a very popular fishing village not far from the famous Quiet Man (or Leam) Bridge. The Quiet Man (1952) is an award-winning, romantic, nostalgic comedy starring John Wayne and directed by native Irishman John Ford in this area. I’ve since seen it and found the landscape more charming than John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara combined by about a hundredfold. Martin says the area is popular for making films, another word to which he adds an extra syllable, and that we’ll be going to a bar that boasts a claim to a more recent Hollywood fillim.
The dark Maamturk Mountains and peat bogs bring us along to Kilary Fjord, where a lone boat seem to float upon its mirror opposite and mussel farms form long dotted lines in the still water. In my head I sing Molly Malone’s famous “cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!” Martin stops for a man alongside the road, and when we reach Gaynor’s Bar, they are just opening for us tourists, our guide, and one country hitchhiker. Martin hides in the back, and a man sits in the corner eating a sandwich. I ask if I can take a picture, and he tells me it’ll cost me a tea, and says the man pictured above the fireplace lording over him is The Field’s main character played by Richard Harris. Sharon’s Irish Coffee comes topped with a half inch of cream foam and she asks the bartender for a spoon to stir it. The woman stares wide-eyed and shakes her head slowly. “I can’t let you do that,” she says with utmost sincerity. So that’s how you drink, and don’t drink, an Irish Coffee.
While we end up spending the majority of our day driving through scenic Connemara Bay and other landscapes, the main attraction is clearly intended to be Kylemore Abbey (and its Victorian walled garden, if we had come two weeks earlier). This abbey is only about 150 years old, and while there are still 14 Benedictine nuns living there, the girls boarding school closed about five years ago. Martin tells us Madonna had just checked it out and decided it was the only place on Earth to send her kids, before it closed due to low enrollment and aging nuns. There are a lot of purportedly haunted Irish castles, but it seems this is the only one haunted by the spirit of a living pop icon. The lake is beautiful, the actual castle is stunning, and somewhere in it they run a small chocolate factory. I have a hard time understanding why people don’t just become nuns so they can live here, regardless of religious calling. I think I can almost find it in me, but I remember that boat has sailed, and anyway, I love my husband. And, yes, that is the order in which these thoughts occur to me.
The story of Kylemore is rather tragic, as it was built by the admirable Mitchell Henry for his beloved wife. They did have time for nine children, but she got dysentery while on vacation in Egypt and died by age 45. Henry built her a mausoleum next to a pretty little Gothic “cathedral in miniature,” and he lived another 35 years before joining her there. The Benedictine nuns from over the years are also buried near the church in a small graveyard. But enough of graveyards and churches, and back to the spirits that may or may not haunt them.
About 1-1/2 miles before reaching the sunset fishing village of Costelo, a Gaelic-speaking community with a Gaelic-language radio station, I think I see a ghost. If not a ghost, then a woman who is a living relic of the past. I even describe her to Martin, and he says people like this may be seen on the rural Aran Islands across the bay, but not around these parts. Not anymore and not for a long time. In my best sketch as we bump along on the darkening roads, I try to convey a figure perfectly framed in an 1800s stone house to the right of a larger, modern cottage. Hands at her sides, she has a pink scarf on her head, gray shawl and dark skirt. In “reality” she is heftier than here, but her eyes are exactly so: dark, peering straight out at the road she faces where I ride by and gasp at her immediately piercing attention.
I try to take pictures of similar houses, and this one comes very close, with its simple stone structure next to a modern white-washed home. The sun was setting over the bay, and our final photostop is in Costelo, which happens to be not too far from Ochterhard, the fishing village we passed on our way up to Connemara Bay.
Martin wants us to see a real Gaelic, thatched-roof pub. Everywhere else we’ve gone, signs are in Gaelic and English, but this one is just Gaelic: Tigh pheadair mhoir ceol ol seol. Sounds like a play on words, and I’ll just have to hope I learn what it means someday. I’ve seen so much and asked so many questions by now, some of the most obvious ones escape me. (Later, thanks to the good ol’ Internet, I find that ceol=music and seol=sail. Cool.)
Our tour ends at the rail station in Galway, and we have to get out a few blocks down from it because of a Sunday evening traffic jam. Sharon and I wheel our suitcases in the streets and wait until our final tourguide comes to ride the train with us. The service from Railtours Ireland is impressive. Our day was even more so. We come back to a new hotel near the station in Dublin, have a little something to eat down the block at ubercharming Ryan’s Victorian Pub, and resolve to wrap up an ideal first trip to the emerald isle that lives up to every bit of legend and lore I’ve ever heard, and so much more. ~
(This is the continuation of my Ireland travel journal. See Part 1 here.)
I grew up in the “Midwest” (really the Great Plains) so when we leave Dublin for the weekend to travel west in a broad smile across the middle of Ireland’s legendary countryside, I kind of feel like I’ve done this before. (I haven’t.) Eventually we are to land on the west coast in iconic county Galway, a place where poems, songs, and films, along with real salt of the earth people, are made.
We start the trip at Heuston, Dublin’s main (and dare I say charming) Victorian railway station, after a cab ride with a well dressed, white-haired Irishman who had obviously been there for some time. “They don’t mind waiting,” the hotel clerk had told us the night before, as we stared, wondering if we could have heard him right. Apparently, we did. We arrive early at Heuston after a short 15-Euro fare. Already, two men are standing in the bright yellow jackets we’re supposed to seek out.
We get our tickets and wait for our first train. Our group is composed of west coast overnighters and Limerick day-trippers, so it starts larger and gets much smaller. We west-coasters spend the day with Norman, a 78-year old native of Limerick about whom no one we meet can say enough glowing, admiring things. Aside from the view on the plane, this is where we get our first look at the countryside. It still looks to me like a giant green Monarch wing, but close up now, with dark stone walls and hedges outlining the random shapes of smallish farms. It seems every other farm has its own ruins, or if not, every small townland has some crumbled ancient site in its midst.
Our first stop is Bunratty Castle and Folk Village. The castle, restored from its own crumbling condition in the 1950s, comes with its own tour guide who tells us it took 25 years to construct this fourth structure on this site of an old Norman stronghold circa 925. I lose track in the history lesson involving lots of names like Clare (as in County Clare), O’Brien and McNamara, but I take note when he mentions the castle falling under rule of “the neighboring island.” (Is it impolite to say British when talking about historical conflict?)
We stand in a large room where we’re told soldiers ate, slept, and kept a lit fire day and night, possibly for their whole lives. My mind is littered with filmic images of ironclad men ripping meat from turkey legs and brawling about where they sleep, all whilst gesturing wildly with a mug full of grog. Irish people, I swear I haven’t seen Braveheart. It’s all the other movies. Okay, and Game of Thrones.
Our guide points out the several built-in defenses, such as trapdoors in the floor, a dungeon down a dark winding stair that ends in a 15-foot drop, and all the steep staircases with the railing to the right so right-handed invaders had trouble using swords as they stormed up. I can almost hear the banging and echoing armor that must have filled these spaces, not necessarily in battle but just from walking from point A to point B. Even I can barely fit through some of these narrow, squat doorways in my armor-free condition.
The folk park, on the other hand, is as peaceful, open, and quaint as can be as we wander through the village’s main street and step inside thatched-roof stone huts. Norman says the smell of burning peat and its characteristic blue smoke bring him back to the 40s, when his family spent weeks in such huts during summer vacation.
Our little group is done early and we board our small, comfy shuttle bus and stare out the window as we change counties and the landscape becomes darker and rockier. I’m so tired again, this time from getting not one minute of sleep the night before, for no apparent reason. I can never doze for long, not wanting to miss anything, and also because of the regular hard bumps in the road. A couple of time we stop to see something alongside the road, such as a Famine Graveyard that represents people nearby who died in the famine of the mid-1800s. Once, Norman stops by a small green field and tells us that this is where the fairies come out at night to dance.
Soon we’re in County Clare, just six of us, and we pass as close as we’re going to get to Killaloe, a little town where the Powers-Glasheen line of our family tree originates. Norman pronounces it Killaloo, but I think this is his particular Limerick accent because a Dubliner said it Killalow as I did. He says it’s a nice little fishing village on the River Shannon and then gets distracted by his cell phone. He’s either talking to someone about his schedule, or trying to get hold of someone about our next stop.
We continue for some time through the area known as The Burren, the characteristic dark rocks reaching from the sea to the hills. Dry rock walls become more prominent the further west we go, and after some discussion with the driver and another cell phone call, Norman reveals that we have time for an unscheduled stop at the ruins of a mysterious and isolated abbey. We leave the main road and approach Corcomroe Abbey.
Corcomroe Abbey is said to have been built late in the 12th century by Donal Mór Ua Briain, who built other religious houses including St. Flannans Cathedral in Killaloe – yes, that Killaloe, the birthplace of Anna (Powers) Glasheen, our maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother. It is perfectly blustery and drizzly as we approach, and the plaintive wooOOOooo through the dry stone walls is appropriately haunting. I’m not one who finds graveyards spooky. On the contrary, to me they’re charming outdoor museums. The earliest grave is from the late 1600s. The latest I see is from 2011, which includes not one but two epitaphs: “Deeds, not words,” and “The greatest sin of all is to think that life is not good.” The words echo in my mind the rest of the day.
We even find another grave of a young man who died at 20 in 1896 and whose site is freshly decorated with gifts. Then I see a Farrell grave. Our Farrells were from Northern Ireland, but I’m told they hail originally from somewhere in the heart of Ireland. I’ll admit, even if I can’t prove it, I don’t mind holding onto this romantic notion that my ancestral homeland goes back to somewhere in the very Celtic heart of this very serene place.
I’m tickled when I find we’re stopping at a pub in Doolin, the place my cousin’s daughter recommended from her Ireland trip earlier this year. The light seems different here, maybe as it reflects off the ocean in huge crashing waves onto the rising cliffs. In the pub, the walls are lined with pictures of travelers like us. I leave another homemade bookmark on the wall, this one of great-grandpa Farrell, his three daughters, and Mom as a kid. Now they’re in Ireland.
We head further west and climb up, up, up, not far from Doolin, and spend over two hours at the top at the Cliffs of Moher. It’s windy and rainy but we eventually get sun and calm on this late November coastal day. A man plays flute on the pathway and when I see them for sale, I can’t resist buying one from this dog.
Okay, from this dog’s person, the shop owner. I then have lots more time to go around taking pictures from all angles. I find a meditation room on one end of the lot. From the other end, I watch from safe perches as others climb off the path in what looks to me like sheer inches from sudden death to take their pictures. I guess if you’re going to plunge to your untimely death, this would be the place to do it.
We’re on our way to the city of Galway now, and the cows have turned into sheep. (Not literally.) We end the day in Galway at a beautiful hotel, Norman heads back to Dublin after a Guinness with a tour guide friend, and Sharon finds the Claddagh ring she’s been looking for. There’s a rugby game on in every pub, Ireland v. Australia, and people seem rather, uh, invested. We have dinner in a quiet hotel restaurant and call it a night. Tomorrow is another day on the coast and Connemara Bay to the north of Galway, and the main attraction of Kylemore Abbey. To be continued soon inIreland’s Mid/west: Day Two. . .
My third grade Irish music teacher once taught us the traditional tune Molly Malone, and I never forgot it. I’ve since visited her native land and even saw the statue of “Ireland’s favorite working girl,” and at first it was all I could do not to sing: In Dublin’s fair city where the girls are so pretty…” But it sure helped to shut me up when the city tour bus driver pointed out Molly on the street as the statue of that “tart with the cart.” Some say she was indeed a “working girl” rather than a fishmonger, while others say she never existed. Okay, so she isn’t the fair maiden of Ireland, and she certainly isn’t enshrouded in deep historical meaning.
Needless to say, I learned a lot more than that in my week in a country that is nonetheless enshrouded in its own historical depth. It’s true not many visitors flock to Ireland mid-November, but cousin Sharon and I weren’t alone. There were multiple tour busses and shuttles leaving the center daily for the city and countryside. We were excited and ready to see our ancestors’ homeland at any time of year. We had already planned some days in the city and a weekend trip to the west, but we wanted to take a second trip, preferably a day tour out of Dublin. On our first day, we asked a green-clad tour guide to recommend a good company. His reply was short, quick and thickly accented.
Him: Go with the Oiled Ear.
Me: Say what, now?
Him: Oiled Ear. They do a good one. Belfast.
Me: (He can’t be saying what I’m hearing. I find a pen and crumpled slip of paper.) Can you spell that?
Him: Double-u. (I write a ‘w.’) Oye. ( . . .I offer the pen and he just looks at me and repeats himself. ) Oye.
Me: (Pen still poised above paper) . . . What letter is ‘oye’?
Him: (Staring blankly. I start to write an ‘o.’) Oye. OYE. (He takes the pen and writes an ‘i’ over my ‘o.’) Ell. Dee. (I write ‘ld.’ ) Reever.
Me: (A bulb lights over my head.) Wild River!! (I feel like I just solved Wheel of Fortune.)
Me: (Lightbulb slowly going dim.)
Him: Reever. REE-VER. You know, woof woof?
Me: (Quietly) Rover. You’re saying Wild Rover. Not Oiled Ear.
Him: (Staring sideways.) Are you sure you’re from the States?
Once at our hotel, I enjoy one of the best buffet breakfasts of my life – the kind that is late, unexpected and comes after a sleepless airplane night. The whole of Dublin’s sights to choose from, we decide to walk down to Trinity. We walk around the 450-year-old college and visit the 1200-year-old Book of Kells, which you can’t photograph. I’m more impressed by the Long Hall, however, the oldest surviving building (abt 1730) and part of the library that houses 4+ million books. The Long Room has over 200,000 of them. We sit there and take in the silence and smell of old books and oiled wood.
The National Gallery is highly recommended, so we head toward it and find a picket line. Some people are standing across the street but obviously are not planning to cross. We wait, hear unintelligible chanting across the parking lot, and see a sign that says something about water. We go in and ask about the protesters, and are told by one man they are “socialists” who don’t like the government’s new Water Fee. We find a room of installations that include a video of a woman staring out at you from a bathtub. It’s weird that, no matter where you stand, she’s always looking at you. Noting our fascination, a fit and kindly gray-haired guard says, “I’m looking at her all day long.” I say, “She’s looking at you all day long,” and he seems to consider it. We chat a little about the water protesters, and I suddenly realize I’m so tired, I start to fall asleep every time I close my eyes. I go to the café for coffee and remember I’m in the land of tea drinkers, so I have tea instead.
After a short hotel respite, we brave the rain and a foggy- windowed bus ride to a pub on the Victorian central park and shopping area of Stephen’s green. O’Donohue’s Pub was not so much recommended as it was merely mentioned by a – well, let’s be honest – drunk Irishman on the plane. We figured if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us. There are knots of people crowded into a narrow room lined with pictures, their labels worn blank with age. I’ve since learned this is the pub where the folk group The Dubliners got their start in the 1960s. I think I’m wise to order “two stouts” but the bartender asks humorlessly, “Guinness?” As if it were necessary to provide further evidence of my tourist status, I ask if there is a menu. “There’s smoked fish,” he says warily. Just as warily, I do not take him up on his quasi-genuine offer. A white-haired man across from us is dressed in tweeds and sitting very still, a prim grin plastered on his red face, as we down not one but two Guinnesses apiece. I imagine he approves.
The next day we use the city self-guided tour bus to stop at main attractions. We have “early bird” tickets for the Guinness Brewery, so we head there first. Everyone drinks before noon in Dublin, right? Wrong. Again, we’re not entirely alone as tourists but we do take advantage of short lines to the Guinness pouring certification room. Because we learned to count 119.5 seconds, we get certified in pulling a perfect pint. There are seven floors of the brewery, and no one is kidding when they say the view from 7th floor Gravity Bar is worth the price of admission. For a tourist, anyway.
The unexpectedly fascinating Kilmainam Jail is next. We get a discounted ticket because the famous center gallery is closed, but our dramatic tour guide makes up for it with stories about revolutionaries executed for leading the Easter Uprising of 1916. This was the one tour you could actually see people shedding a tear. Here, children were actually imprisoned during the great famine of 1845-52. It was known for great prison reform, such as requiring each prisoner to have his own cell. But because of the famine, when people might want to be caught stealing bread so they could be fed in prison, there were so many prisoners that each cell housed several people. We go into the great stone yard and look at the walls against which dozens of revolutionaries were shot, one as young as 18. We’re told when we exit to look up above the front door at the balcony, which used to be a trap door above which people were hanged for public viewing. Not everyone was executed, though. Some revolutionaries for example received stays of execution and were shipped off to Australia instead, the British ensuring only that they got on the boat without enough money to return.
Because it’s next in line, not because we’re that thirsty, we take the Jameson Distillery tour, discovering on the way that Powers Whiskey is another contender for our taste. Our maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother was Anna Powers, so we decide we’re especially entitled to have a Jameson and a Powers and practically required to take a bottle back home where it is allegedly unobtainable. (Is any consumer good unobtainable anymore?) We learn later at the iconic (and tourist-packed) Temple Bar pub that Powers is the whiskey used for Irish Coffee. Bartender, another one, please. We’re family, you know. Is there a family discount?
On Day Three, we start with a little genealogy at the National Library. I ask the genealogist seated in the corner of a little room the most succinct question I can think of: how I can start to narrow down a particular line of Catholic Farrells in Northern Ireland. “Oh, you don’t want to get mixed up with those Farrells,” he says with a straight face. “Why?” I ask solemnly, fearing I’ve blundered just by mentioning the North and Catholicism. I’ve ruined his librarianesque stab at humor, so he replies sincerely, “I just wanted to see what your reaction would be.” He ensures to use absolutely no humor when directing me to four microfilms I might find useful. I start with one, and it’s full of several books, many pages of which are too light or illegible. I realize I could spend days – no, months – trying to find one of several bits of information that may or may not even be here. I chalk it up to pure experience: at least now I know how to load a microfilm projector.
We cross the parking lot (no protesters today) back to the National Gallery because we missed the Bog People – well-preserved ancient bodies discovered over the years during the excavation of bogs for peat, a common fuel. The preservation is so good that scientists can see the fibers of clothing, hairstyles and jewelry worn, and even determine what the person ate before death. The bodies are not pleasant to behold, some of them cut in half or beheaded, either from the peat-screening machines or from the manner of death. If you dare to look closely, you can see stubble on the chin of Clonycavan man, who wore his hair long on top and shaved underneath, ate a plant-based diet, and was both axed to death and disemboweled circa 300 BCE. Gruesome and awesome. We also go to see an exhibit of paintings about which Irish authors have written a commissioned piece. I stare at a shadowy Vermeer and in one of the books I leave a bookmark I made out of an old photo of my mom and her three sisters. Now they’re in Ireland.
It ends up being a whole afternoon of cathedrals, but just two of them, and we discover that both are Anglican churches – even St. Patrick’s. Christ Church cathedral goes back to the 13th century, but the current building is more 16th and 17th century structure. The tiles are beautiful, and I’m amazed that these centuries-old churches are still in use daily. We take a guided tour of St. Patrick’s, and learn that the Catholics use a “pro Cathedral,” meaning a temporary seat of a Catholic diocese. In other words, as our tour guide puts it, “the Catholics haven’t relinquished their claim on St. Patrick’s.” Also at St. Patrick’s we learn about eighteenth century Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathon Swift, who served as “dean” (preacher, I guess) and was known for giving four-hour sermons to standing crowds, because there were no seats installed in churches at that time. He had wheels installed on his pulpit so he could be whisked over to any section he felt was dozing. If you’d like to know more precisely how he felt about the subject, you can read his longwinded essay entitled, “On Sleeping in Church.” Spoiler alert: he remains heavily against it.
After a weekend in the countryside and a short visit to neolithic Newgrange, we return to Dublin to tour huge Glasnevin Cemetery and, later, the oldest pub in the city. Our guide drops us right off at Glasnevin, where there are more people buried than are living in Dublin. The two most memorable characters are represented by the intricate cross carvings of James Pearce, father of the 1916 executed revolution leader, Padraig Pearce, and the high tower over the tomb of Ireland’s Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. It’s the most interesting to learn about O’Connell, the cemetery’s founder, whose vision it was to have a burial place for people of “any religion, or no religion.” Quite a revolutionary thought for the times. Our fast-talking guide tells us of the burial of another Irish hero, Charles Parnell, founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party and sort of a pre-revolutionary whose bent toward independence paved a way for the reality of the republic. It sounds like Irish poetic license when our guide says that, at the moment his casket was lowered into the ground, a flash of light streaked across the dark Dublin sky, but (so he says) it was known that a comet had actually crossed Earth’s path that very night, and quite believably at that very moment.
We have some trouble with directions after this and walk quite a ways to find the Brazenhead Pub, which dates back to the year 1198. It seems Irish people don’t use a lot of lefts and rights in their directions. We keep asking, and keep getting directions like, “Go that way down the hill after a hundred meters,” and, “When you see the church, head toward the river.” Confusing. At one point I look down an alley and see nothing but this pony, no saddle or reins, just standing there. It was dark, so by the time I got a picture, some guy had stepped into my otherwise timeless shot. We also pass a chunk of the original wall that surrounded Dublin. It sits on a corner looking thick and useless, ancient and well respected.
The Brazen Head is probably as full of American tourists as we’ve seen anywhere up to this point. The food is thankfully phenomenal – they actually had a menu! – and I snarf my “traditional fish cake” like a battle-starved Viking. It seems small but busy, and despite the obvious tourism, several locals belly-up to the bar. I know, because I speak to one at length about where to find our next pub. We have a lot easier time finding that one, which had been recommended by our last tour guide, but ultimately we are unimpressed (again, no menu) and go back to the hotel.
Because it is our last night, I want to check out the charming Victorian Pub down the block again, so we go for one last drink at Ryan’s Pub. It’s near the American Embassy, so they’re also known for being visited by two American presidents – Clinton for sure being one of them. The bartenders have trouble recalling whether the other one was Bush, Sr. or Reagan, but do remember that the secret service visited and told everyone at the bar that (whichever president) was coming and they could leave, but once the President was there, they would have to stay until he was done. If that wasn’t enough information, they added, “Drinks are on the house,” which helped everyone make the only logical decision. One bartender pulls this bottle down from a top shelf that has an innocuous little brown tag attached saying, “Do not sell.” He says they’re still waiting for Obama, because he wasn’t able to stick around as scheduled when an ashcloud from Iceland’s volcano eruption cut his Ireland trip short. I think they should break out a better whiskey. A nice 12-year Powers Gold Label, perhaps.
So that’s the city part. More from County Clare, Galway, Connemara, and the rest of the West, coming soon to a blog near you. Now, it’s time for a refreshment, or two . . .
William Farrell, pictured above, was the son of James Farrell, born 1822 in Drumard, (London)Derry. Going backward, that’s the end of documented facts known to us, so I freely admit from here on backward there is some assumption involved. For one, Drumard is the name of more than one place in the county. And two, as we narrow down possibilities to the most likely township and parish of origin, we still find a scant handful of households to which our James might have belonged. So when it comes to the Magherafelt riot and arson of 1830 , we can say it’s very likely that our James Farrell was involved when the house of a James Farrell was set on fire the night of July 12th during a riot. And we can say it’s possible (I’d back that horse) that he was the young son referred to in the 1835 Parliamentary Papers called to testify on the dramatic “prisoner rescue” following the already high drama of the riot itself.
Pictured here is the town of Maghera, the center of the area where about 1500 people, Catholics and Protestants, took part in the 1830 riot, one of multiple similar incidents in Maghera and in the greater area of Northern Ireland. The first parade commemorating the Battle of the Boyne – a.k.a. Orange marches/walks or Twelfth celebrations – took place in 1796. There was one on Drumard hill in 1829 (the year of Catholic Emancipation), another near Belfast in 1986 which also culminated in the burning of Catholic houses, and you’ll see an even more recent one below.
The tragedy of violence aside (not that all Orange marches end in violence, because most don’t), I’m writing this strictly out of interest in family history. No insult is intended to either “side.” In fact, I’ll start with the fact that in early July 1830, one Catholic and one Protestant together approached the chief of police to warn of impending conflict. The Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command1835 states they told the chief that “the Ribbonmen [a semi-secret society of Catholics] meant to collect at Drumard on the 12th July to oppose the walking of the Orangemen [Protestants loyal to British Union],” and further that they recommended “measures to be taken to prevent the meeting of either party.” And, attempts were most certainly made.
The “walking” and “commemoration” to which they refer was a fairly common practice, especially in the north, in which Protestants commemorated the victory of King William III over the Catholic King James II in 1690, marking the beginning of Protestant rule that continued for well over two centuries (whether it continues today, I’m not qualified to say). Waving orange flags and beating drums, they made a point of parading through known Catholic areas to celebrate Catholic defeat.
On this particular July 12, 1830, the Orangemen were assembled in Knockloughrim, 2 miles from the Catholic area of Drumard, where they planned to march. They were armed with various weapons, ready to “display their colors” and fire shots into the air. In preparation (and many of them already in their neighborhood), the Catholic Ribbonmen were gathered on Drumard hill for the purpose of opposing or meeting the Orangemen with their own display.
Remember that our James Farrell gave his place of origin as Drumard. There are four “Farrell” households in Drumard in the 1831 census, two of them headed by a James Farrell, all of them living side by side (suggesting a family unit). In the very near vicinity are three more distinct households named “Farrel,” which could conceivably contain our James, but the variation in spelling on the same census in close proximity of one another suggests the spellings were deliberate. In any case, none of these heads of household would be our James Farrell, who was 9 at the time of this census, but the James who is our earliest known Irish ancestor was almost certainly among these households, all of which were in one area of Drumard, the townland we know was targeted during the 1830 riot.
To continue with the order of events on that July 12th, the resident (Protestant) James Knox and the military of Castledawson (also Protestant – Catholics then were primarily acceptable as laborers) tried all day to prevent the riot by riding back and forth between the two assemblies ordering them to disburse. But the Orangemen, according to the Parliamentary Papers account, were “stripped to their shirts, covered with smoke and powder,” “so disgraceful to the character of men and of Protestants . . . so savage, so lawless,” and “entirely composed of idle tradesmen, loose disorderly farmers, servants, and a few licensed publicans of bad character.” They were beyond determined. They were riled up. Most women and children had fled the area, and the marchers quickly disbursed the crowd, causing men to flee or hide and hope for some opportunity to protect their homes. They were in fact outnumbered, out-armed, and outdone by these Orangemen’s intoxicated outrage.
I’m getting to purportedly our James Farrell, but first is the testimony given by the senior James Farrell, called among other things to identify those who went into his home, set fire to the furniture, then threw it out to continue burning in the yard. He was not the only one whose house burned, but he was the only one to provide identifying information, and his was the only house completely consumed. This James was hiding in his garden as the Orangemen came and heard them as they called out for “King William” from inside. Three different parties came over time, possibly because his house was accessible, adjacent to the field where the Ribbonmen had assembled to oppose the Orangemen. He also heard the men from inside say that his house was “too long standing, and should have been burnt sooner.” James testified to having nothing to do with the Ribbonmen, except in the morning when he went out of curiosity to see their gathering and find out why the Reverend Knox was there (Knox was literally reading them the riot act). He, like each of many of his neighbors who also testified (but identified no one), was alone when the Orange came upon his home.
According to the “Assizes” report on the court proceedings in several newspapers, only one person was convicted in the entire set of charges surrounding this march and riot (that person was Catholic). It was reported also in the Parliamentary Papers that a similar result happened after the prior year’s Maghera riot. Among the rather poetic charges against 13 Protestant men was, “together with divers[e] other evil-disposed persons . . . being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil . . . willfully, maliciously, unlawfully and feloniously did set fire to and burn a certain dwelling house of one James Farrell, against the peace of our said Lord, the King, his Crown and dignity.”
The defense was said to have called no witnesses, thinking the evidence was so strong on the side of prosecution; however, in the end the judge addressed the jury and stressed that James Farrell, the only identifying witness, did not identify the men who burned his house when first prompted to do so. Even though he claims to have identified them and that their names were crossed out by the magistrate who took them, and despite his ensuing testimony naming two of the men, there was no conviction. All men were acquitted.
We may never know what happened after that, but James Farrell, along with at least 5 neighbors who also gave testimony about that night of July 12th, were listed in the 1831 census. Two of those giving testimony were no longer to be found in Drumard by 1831. Perhaps they left for a more peaceable life. We may also never know whether the named “James Farrell, Junior,” who testified on the related prisoner rescue on July 22 (forced mob release of the indicted Orangemen), was the 8-year-old James Farrell of our family tree. According to the Papers, both JF’s were at the courthouse that day, so it is possible that one of them was a young son accompanying his father.
It may just be an incorrect assumption that our James Farrell’s father was also named James Farrell. It might be only a story that we are connected that closely. But it is not a story that the riot and arson of July 12, 1830, really happened. And it is not a story or wild assumption that some family connection is likely. The definite truth is that our family heritage, like many, goes back to the Ireland that lost almost 2 million people between 1841-1851, due to the blight and famine, or due to the quality of life for a Catholic in the north of Ireland in the mid 1800s, in which he could not vote, sit in parliament, or own land. Among these things, and the fact that they had to pay a tithe to the Protestant church, we can see the evidence that our James Farrell, as most of our Catholic ancestors, was very, very poor. By age 25, he had left Ireland behind.
It’s sad, not just because of the circumstances. It’s also because Ireland is a beautiful place and the people are at least as charming as the landscape. It can be and often is a peaceful place now. I can’t help but think, as I research many lines of our family history (three of which go back to 1800s Ireland) that there were other forks in the road for those ancestors, and that one (or more) of those forks had them staying in Ireland. Would they have died in the famine? Fallen to an epidemic of the 1850s like cholera? Been killed during a riot? Or would they have stayed and lived through some of the exciting changes that eventually would lead to the current relative peace of Ireland today?
I’m posting this letter for some reason. I guess it’s something about perspective, or maybe it’s simply that letters used to be so vital to life and now they’re so not. In fact I think if I wrote a letter to someone, they’d wonder just what on Earth is wrong with me. (“Geez, why doesn’t she just text/iMessage/follow me on Facebook?”)
Well, I will, probably. Eventually. In the meantime, for what it’s worth, here’s a letter I didn’t write to you, or anyone. It was written with a pen and inkwell on U.S. Sanitary Commission “stationery” in 1864 from a Civil War camp in Pennsylvania.
In 1864 a stamp cost 3 cents, but it seems a soldier’s letters were delivered with or without it. Among my paternal family research files was this letter sent from a “Camp near Petersburgh” on September 7th to Molly Glick, from her cousin, a soldier named Monroe Glick, both of whom are relatives I haven’t yet been able to place in the family tree. Except for some opening pleasantries, the contents of the letter are transcribed entirely below. I kept the original spelling, but due to the different line breaks, what you won’t see carried over is how Monroe capitalized the first letter of each line like a poem, the letters each written in elaborate cursive script like you’d seen on the first page of a storybook. On the other hand, he wrote the pronoun ‘i’ in lowercase pretty much throughout:
“…I love to get letters and also to answer them for it is a lonely life is a soldiers life and there is a great deal of enjoyment in receiving and answering letters from our dear friends at home. And therefore Cousin I would kindly advise you to answer all letters written by our Braves in the field for the people at home have not the least idea how many hardships we have to undergo for our country. But we do them willingly … in good spirits. We have had some hard fighting here since I wrote to you and have gained some important points here and grant does not mean to abandon these lines unless he moves onward towards Richmond. Hhe is having a railroad built the length of our lines[.] it will run within two hundred yards of our Reserve Ammunition Transfer. The road is staked out already and will soon be done. Since I wrote to you we have moved our Ammunition trains about 5 miles farther to the left of our lines. We now lie in the rear of our Corps in an open field and I have not got our old house to sleep in as I had when I last wrote to you. But have to sleep on the ground in our tests. We had a very rough night of it last night for it rained very near all night. I am not as well this morning as I have ben for some time.” [Here he stopped writing and continued the next day – spelling and punctuation become worse, and the size of the writing is smaller]
“September 7th I did not finish my letter yesterday and I will finish it now. I was sick all night and have been all day until this evening. I feel very bad now but I will try and finish it. We have had good news from Shermans army in Atlanta and night before last there was cheering all along our lines. I have written one or two letters to cousin Philip Snyders and have got no answer from them yet[.] I want you if you see them tell [them] to write to me for I don’t know just how to write to them and I want Philip to make me a pair of Boots for this winter as soon as we are paid off[,] for I can’t stand to wear shoes this winter and I know that he will make me a pair of good Boots. I want a pair of Kipp Boots[.] tell him that he must write soon for [next?] I to get paid of this month or next. since I got your letter I have received a letter from my sister and our folks are all well. you speak of the old grove at Pleasant Valley [Ohio] and how well we enjoyed [—]. It will be a long time I fear before we can enjoy ourselves again as we did then. You ask where Jenny is[,] she is still at the same place was but I have not had a letter from for some time Well I will have to close for this time and will write a longer letter the next time give my love to all enquiring friends yours truly so named at present From your cousin Monroe Glick
Co. I. [or J.] 60th Regt. O.V.I.[Ohio Volunteer Infantry] 2nd Brig 3rd Division 9th Corps
Miss Molly Glick
[on the back] This is my picture don’t laugh at it”
I am not a big reader. Never have been. I read inside my head with drama, word by word, line by line, like Morgan Freeman is in there narrating.
It takes me a hyperbolic year to get through a book I really like. I guess that’s why I’m short on fiction and long on non. These non-fics pictured are all books I really like and haven’t finished, in some cases for so long that I must really, really like them. Is autumn a good season for finishing things? I feel like it is, and it isn’t. Like anything, it probably depends on what you’re talking about.
I have heard that, right now, up to this very moment, it is a good time to start things: a new moon, a new season, and a new hue colors the very air and the rest of my surroundings. But when it comes to finishing things – like these books, for example – I am inspired by the very air to tackle them one by one. The timing seems right for the ethereal subject matter prevailing in all of them.
Is it just me, or is the elusive “thinning veil” of lore making all the sunsets look cool to the touch? Is the slower vibration of atoms allowing me to not only to see but to think more clearly? I’ve been through a few autumns in my life, but when they finally roll around after summer and change things, it always feels like I’m pondering these changes, and maybe everything, for the first time. So maybe autumn is a season of both old and new? (Hmm, I never thought of it that way. . .)
In a thoughtful (thought-fall?) mood, I guess I naturally turn to the spiritual-philosophical books on my shelf. I’m a psychological counselor by training, but even that sounds too, I don’t know, touchy feely for these moments. I’d rather seek wisdom, and drink in the kind of musings scholars and poets used to have when walking along paths winding through trees on the outskirts of town – what the Germans called philosophenweg.
Autumn makes me pretty unoriginal. I wear more orange, crave pumpkin spice, bake sweets (and eat them, gain 5 pounds, and never lose it). I made a pumpkin cream cheese torte yesterday. It’s almost gone, so now I want candy corns. It’s the color and honey sweetness I like most, and the heart-palpitating sugar rush I like least. It’s bad enough to keep me from buying a bag (because, clearly, I have little self-control and will eat the whole bag). I guess I do have some self-control, then.
In this ever-digitalized age, I’ve begun (see? something new again) a practice of reading daily from a real book – you know, with pages you can turn down and words you can highlight with an ink pen. I’ve heard it helps you retain focus, concentration, and your basic feeling of contentedness. Because I wax philosophical in the fall, especially just before Halloween, I have spirit and magic and immortality on the brain. In light of that, these books are my current calling.
I’ve delved the least into Will Storr vs. The Supernatural: One Man’s Search for the Truth About Ghosts, but since I’ve already started it, this may be a good time to get back into it. Will Storr’s writing style is a little journalistic for me, though, so it takes a certain objective mood. Besides, I get the feeling he’s always about to say something snarky, and I’m not in the mood for that. I’ll save it for tomorrow’s real-book reading.
Today I read about FWH Meyers, a Victorian Age cofounder of the Society for Psychical Research, and all his rich, elitist, sciencey friends at Cambridge, Trinity, and Harvard who used scientific method to prove or disprove spirit phenomena, mesmerism, thought transference, and psychic abilities. A lot of people know about the origins of the Spiritualist movement, the prevalence of charlatans, and the “real ghost hunters.” But a lot more people don’t know that the hunt for ghosts began not only out of curiosity and desire for meaning (which the Civil War, Darwin and AR Wallace had just squashed to some degree), but – for scientists, at least – also as a kind of public service to shield the gullible Everyman and Everywoman from paying a month’s salary on a fake psychic reading with their fake dearly departed granddad.
One of my favorite of these original ghost hunters is William James, the proclaimed “father of American psychology” and the first president of the American Society of Psychical Research. To read James’s writing can be rather snoozy and even enraging if you don’t like lofty treatises on the varieties of religious experience or how and why to vivisect a cat, but to read about him is enthralling. From his depressive romance with life to his mix of scientific bent with philosophical yearning to prove something as ethereal and immaterial as life after death, if nothing else, you have to admit the man aimed high.
Of course I have to balance out all that man-centered history with woman power, and Victoria Woodhull embodies this. In Other Powers, I learned she was the first woman to run for U.S. President, one of the first successful women stock brokers, and a proponent of free love who ran brothels and often worked in them. On top of that, she was actually a pretty good psychic. Cornelius Vanderbilt, railroad financier and one-time richest man in America, employed Victoria as his spiritual advisor, or more like his spirit-communicating advisor. She advised him based on psychic and/or predictive messages, which sometimes directly led him to expand his empire and wealth. He wasn’t shy about admitting it. When someone asked him the million-dollar question, “How did you do it?” (i.e. make all that money) he replied: I consult the spirits. “Okay, Mr. Crazypants,” I’m sure was a retort at some point, but the man literally burned money in his fireplace, so. There’s that.
Talk about talking to the dead, there’s not just a psychic here and a psychic there in a little town called Lily Dale Assembly. In Lily Dale: The True Story of The Town that Talks to the Dead, it does take a village . . . to talk to the dead. (In case there’s ever a movie made: tagline c. 2014 Lisa Borja) Journalist Christine Wicker visited Lily Dale community to interview many of the inhabitants of what is actually more of an unincorporated community that started (in Victoria Woodhull’s day) as the Camp at Cassadaga Lake in New York state. Whether they’re all really good psychics is not for me to say, but I found it fascinating to read about the history and how many famous people have been there (and still go).
Ah, the magic of – well, of magic. I can’t spend this whole magical season of rust-colored leaves and cool sunsets reading about history. I still need one more point of balance, and for that there’s Harry Potter. Harry Potter books started a literary non-realism craze we’re still in, to some extent, but nothing in my opinion has done it with such a popular focus on pure imagination for its own sake – not to prove anything to anyone except that magical thinking (when not a function of a mental health disorder) is kind of fun. Even though I am still, after upteen years, in the middle of the series (shhhh!), I have as recently as days ago dreamed of trying to enter a kind of 9-and-three-quarters-platform dimension just by running at it head first. So, judge me or don’t – a snob or two of the Society for Psychical Research probably would – but like I said, it’s all about balance. Balance, and inspiration.
That said, it’s a beautiful autumn day, and I haven’t done my real-book reading yet. Or, maybe this would be a good time to start something new – right now, in this very moment. I hope I do, but considering the height of my still-unread pile in front of me, maybe just not a book. How about baking?
Pie. No – pumpkin spice muffins. Pumpkin spice something.
He has a guitar named Josephine and a zest for life. Some say he sorely needs a belt; others complain that he’s “creepy.” Still others took the time on Facebook to compliment his new haircut. He lives in Berlin and he’s kind of famous in certain circles – or Kreise – like Germany’s GZSZ, a long-running daily soap opera to which German fans often entreat him to return.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not talking about David Hasselhoff (“The Hoff,” pictured here in all his hairy 80’s glory). I’m talking about Tim Williams. Yes, the Tim Wi—
What? You don’t know who Tim Williams is? Alright, I guess that’s understandable. Either you don’t watch television, don’t live in the U.S. or Germany, or you’ve seen the commercial and you just haven’t cared enough yet to cry out: What is up with the Trivago guy???
This was exactly my reaction when I saw the commercial on TV but especially on Hulu, where it is played umpteen times per show – and trust me, there are many, many shows that feature it. This is also exactly how I found out everything I’m ever going to know about Tim Williams, a.k.a. The Trivago Guy, which is saying a lot, since all I knew about him before was whatever I could glean in one minute of confused viewing. That is, one minute of commercial time, repeated over, and over, and over. I became so impassioned with the mystery of this unusually unkempt actor that, one night while bingeing on season six of The X Files, I grabbed my phone, googled “Trivago guy,” and got three definitive hits in this order: 1) Mommies-in-orbit.com’s “What is up with the Trivago guy?” 2) Tim Williams “official” Facebook page, and 3) Southernplainsphotography.com’s “The Disheveled Trivago Guy.”
It was clear I had my man.
I’ve included the commercial for those who don’t know the man with deep forehead wrinkles and a Miami Vice five o’clock shadow:
Sean Ramsey of Southern Plains Photography used his blog to air peculiarly strong feelings about The Trivago Guy: “so that I can move on with my life. [He] looks like he’s been on a three day party binge, or at least been sitting at a bar with a glass of whiskey two weeks after his wife left him.”
A reader making one of about 250 comments on the site expresses a similar imaginative scenario: “He looks like he just walked onto the set after a night at the strip club; his clothes don’t fit quite right and he was in such a hurry to get there that he forgot his belt, hoping he makes it to the shoot in time so he can pay for his next hit and whiskey bottles he needs to keep up the rugged carefree lifestyle he leads and hopes he can hang on to.”
And hopes he can hang on to?
Another baffled commenter lays it right out there, mincing not one word: “What is this dirty-looking man doing?”
Indeed. A better question might be this: What is it about this “dirty-looking man” that has inspired so many people to write a kind of impromptu, free-verse, not-a-fan fiction so creative and passion-driven that you might hear it on slam poetry open mike night?
Before we get into that, let’s be fair. Not all of us have vilified Tim Williams, a.k.a. The Trivago Guy, a.k.a. The Disheveled Trivago Guy. While, for some of us repeatedly exposed to the commercial, he conjured images of white powdery lines on glass coffee tables and Jack Daniels-fueled rock-bottom benders, others were more satisfied with his appearance. Someone with the Germanic-sounding name J Ehrmantraut commented: “I think he looks like a real person, not a model made up to please everyone. He is also very good looking.”
There were many colorful descriptions running the gamut from “hot and sexy” to “arrogant and ugly,” and ideas proliferated about things one might wish to but can’t possibly know from the commercial, such as whether he has “third-stage gum disease,” bedbugs, or “has just been on a plane for six hours (after being on a three-day bender).” Needless to say, opinions hugely varied. (On a side note, a substantial fraction of self-identified gay-male commenters seemed to be quite smitten with the unshaven jeans-wearing discount-slinger.)
Actually, let’s be really fair. This guy has been called creepy, ugly, arrogant, dirty, sickly, and freakish, among other unnecessarily mean descriptives. Mommies-in-orbit.com suggested he is someone “to keep your daughter far away from” and offered a link for readers to check out “his definitely creepy Facebook page.” So I did, fully prepared to deepen my distaste two- or threefold at least.
I couldn’t. I didn’t see one (not obvious, anyway) prostitute, stripper, whiskey bottle, shot glass, 8-ball, horse whip, crack pipe, or creep. He doesn’t even seem to have creepy friends. (For what it’s worth, in response to one assumedly German person who complained that assumedly American commenters are obsessed with the word “creepy,” I agree – but I’m just quoting the stated facts.) Instead, I saw a proud white-haired man’s son; a man with his own smiling teenage son or nephew; a 48-year-old ex-pat in love with music, Berlin, his guitar . . . and life, man.
Yes, I also saw a guy who posts before-and-after photos of his haircuts and how awesome the number of “likes” on his page is. Yes, I saw lots of selfies from every angle imaginable, and no, he does not look good in a wife-beater. (Sorry, Tim, but not from that angle.) Just like I can’t claim really to know anything about this guy from a one-minute commercial, I still can’t say I know a whole lot from looking on his Facebook page. And I’m probably not going to.
But that’s okay, because I can say this: The commercial used to really bother me, and now it doesn’t. At all.
So, what is it about this guy? Nothing. Again, a better question might be: What is it about those of us who are so bothered by something different, and by a brand ambassador whose appearance is nonhomogeneous to the impossible standard we have been given and come to expect?
I don’t have an answer, except maybe to look deeper. Just, look deeper.
The facts remain. He didn’t have a belt. He was wearing a weirdly colored, too casual ensemble for a TV spokesman, especially for a product that pretty much exists ten times over (think TripAdvisor, Expedia, Hotels.com, Yelp, Orbitz, etc.) I thought they didn’t put enough effort into the commercial, and I was sure he didn’t put enough effort into playing the part of The Trivago Guy. I even made up a backstory of my own: his great uncle left him a small trust fund and, consulting no one, he used it to jump on the Dot Com startup bandwagon fifteen years after it had already left the barn, been spooked by a rattlesnake and run off a cliff.
I, too, thought he was creepy. And for that, I am sorry.
But more than that, I have wonderful news.
Just today, I saw two things that let me know there is indeed hope in the world. First, and most shocking: THERE IS A NEW TRIVAGO COMMERCIAL. And guess what . . . he’s wearing a belt!!!
Aaand . . . check this out, if you’re one of the – let’s face it, folks – select American Hulu series-bingers like me confused enough to ask, “What is up with the Trivago Guy?” and actually look for the answer. (Trust me, just check it out. And no, it’s not p-o-r-n.)
It turns out those Germans were right: there’s a LOT more to The Trivago Guy than his questionably designed commercial. He even wears guyliner. So move over, David Hasselhoff, because your day as Germany’s favorite weirdly charming, musically cheeseballish, American B-list (ok C-list) actor is OVER.
As for Tim Williams, who will never read this because I’m fairly certain I know him well enough to say he doesn’t google himself, but just in case: Gruess dich, mein Freund, Der Trivago Typ. Ich wuensche dir, Alles Gute zum Leben. ~
In the case of Cass Elliot, fiction is stranger than truth. She didn’t die from choking on a sandwich, but rather of “natural causes.” I can’t help it that her urban legend lives on any more than I can make myself stop thinking about the idea of choking as a possible cause of death. The end will come somehow, and it’s not inconceivable that something I do more than three times a day might once go terribly, freakishly awry. Is it? Remember the guy who was killed by a flying toilet seat? (That was real, wasn’t it?)
While in the long run it might actually make me feel better, it wouldn’t be all that nice of you to point out how ridiculous it is to be concerned about choking to death. I can’t call my “problem” by the literal term pseudodysphagia because my anxiety in no way affects me as an eating disorder, which I just learned is a thing – so please, any sufferers out there, know that I am not talking about you or making fun of something that really causes trouble eating.
I have no trouble eating. In fact, in an ironic coincidence that is likely no coincidence at all, I am eating potato chips and watermelon right now. Just think about it: If I were to choke on anything, it’s going to be one of those two items. And what’s more, I’m alone in the house so there’s no one here to save me. I’d have to choke slowly while running out the door, down the stairs, down the driveway and possibly across the street before I might find someone to help.
Clearly I don’t have problems using my imagination. I really don’t need to imagine what it feels like at all to be alone and have my airway suddenly partially blocked, to struggle for breath for what seems like minutes as my face turns into an overripe tomato. It’s happened – at fairly longish intervals throughout my life, but still. The suddenly impaired ability to breathe is a memorable, albeit brief, moment of terror that I have experienced several times in my life.
It happened a few days ago, and I wasn’t even eating. I just attempted to inhale and it didn’t pan out. Oh, the things we take for granted. I think I had finished a bowl of Allegedly Seedless Watermelon (a label I’d prefer they put on all such watermelons), so there might have been a seed hiding in the back of my throat. My husband watched for the international sign of “I’m choking” and later said he was 2 seconds away from Heimlich-ing his way to breaking my xiphoid process (a collateral fear and likely result of performing said maneuver, but that’s beside the point).
It also happened once long, long ago as I watched a favorite movie with friends on a cool summer night in the safety of my own home. I started to laugh (another famously safe activity) and something briefly caught in my throat. I panicked and felt my heart skip a beat – or maybe a moment of dizziness, I can no longer remember – and the scary, trippy thoughts I had as a kid of “I could die at any moment” returned to me for the first time in years.
I was okay, of course, but I wasn’t “okay.” For months, many times a day I would experience the same feeling of physical insecurity, even if I was just going to sleep or walking outside. I got over it, but I never forgot what it was like to live like that. I’m slightly more mature now, twenty years later, to the point that I can simultaneously be aware of mortality and feel content or happy for days at a time. I don’t actually think I’ll get out of the personal death experience, or that anyone else will, but I can say that and not spiral immediately into existential crisis.
I sometimes even have a sense of humor about it. Sort of. I mean, part of me recognizes the delicious mystery it might inspire were I to suddenly die by choking while writing a blog about choking to death. Let me reiterate that this is not my idea of a great way to go, and that I’m totally cool with it not being today or even soonish.
Another part of me says that, like air travel, the likelihood of choking to death increases as time goes on – only in the case of choking, part of the supposed uptick may also concern aging in general and loss of muscle tone in particular, and not just from a total number of choking opportunities.
Thankfully, my saving grace is a third part of me, which does indeed recognize that any activity causing me to seriously use the phrase “total number of choking opportunities” is probably not one I need to drag on endlessly, or ever again. After all, the only good thing to come of thanatopsis is to remember that life is too short – for everyone, regardless of when and how it ends – to waste time worrying.
Apparently things have improved since the first commercial flights, such as the 1941 flying closet pictured here, but it doesn’t mean air travel is any easier for a person like me: practical, grounded, ever-evaluating potential danger in the immediate surroundings, always having Jerry Seinfeld-like thoughts about how accepting we are of the absurdly unnatural situations into which we put ourselves.
I’d say flying for hours in a giant winged cigar thirty thousand feet above ground with a probably overworked pilot guided by tired air traffic controllers qualifies as an unnatural situation. Point your finger and laugh, but any time I am asked to trust people I won’t even see to operate 100,000 pounds of machinery into which I am securely strapped, I tend to feel anxious.
Even if my flight pilots and controllers all dream of marshmallows and puppies tonight and eat good breakfasts, I doubt that we strangers – my fellow passengers and I – will get along naturally as we sit in drastically confined spaces, share a quart of air and two tiny bathrooms, and give nary a thought about each other’s well-being until required by law. Yes, I’m watching you, exit row hogs: It’s not what you say when the flight attendant asks if, in the unlikely event of a water landing, you’re up to the task of guiding us calmly through the emergency exits before you yourselves hit the rubber slide (down to frigid and/or shark infested waters). It’s how you say it.
My biggest problem is not fear of flying, it’s the lack of realistic alternatives and choices. First of all, yes, I could drive or take a train – if I had 6-10 extra days to travel. Yes, I could just stay home in front of the television or computer watching other people live interesting lives. Maybe I could be happy vicariously wandering the globe through Rick Steeves and go-getting participants of “The Amazing Race.” But even a guy like Rick is not going to pick up any souvenirs from Chile for me or bring chips to the Memorial Day barbecue with my relatives. I have to push myself to do some things on my own.
I can easily get myself onto the plane, but once I’m there and the doors have shut, I don’t like how I’m committed to fully accept anything that happens next: the mechanical noises that are louder than I remember, the weightless takeoff feeling in my stomach that mimics physical panic and fear, the constant turbulence, the passengers who are screeching, barfing, or invading my personal space. The God-knows-what that I can only imagine too well from the enactment of dangers on several hundred movies and television series readily available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
Because I don’t enjoy air travel and it’s not often that I do it, I treat it like a monumental tic on the timeline of my life. It’s right up there with various weddings, graduations, new jobs, birthdays, funerals, and once-in-a-lifetime vacations. My subconscious gets ready for a life-altering event, not from the reason for travel but from the plane ride itself. For some reason, I’ve always thought of takeoff as a mini-death, or the moment I leave a piece of myself behind forever as I speed forth into an unknown future.
It may be a colorful way of thinking about it, but even I know it sounds way too dramatic. I’m not exactly flying into the unknown. When I booked my flight, there wasn’t an option in the destination field for “Oh, I don’t know, you decide.” I know where I’m going. It’s really quite common and simple: I’m flying to Minnesota where I’ll visit people and do stuff and return to Oregon five days later.
If all goes well, my Sadistic Inner Voice chimes in. I hate that voice. I guess I’m doing alright, because I continue to fly despite my anxiety. I don’t listen to the Sadistic Inner Voice, even if it’s telling me the more flights I’m on, the more chance there is that something will go wrong. What if I win that lottery – the one where I’m on that one-in-a-million flight that crashes, or one-in-several-million that gets hijacked or goes missing?
Well, if I do win that lottery, I’d like my memorial bench to be placed on Mount Pisgah with a gold plate reading (ironically): You Create Your Reality, a nice donation to go to Project Beagle Rescue in California, and I’d like everyone who knows me to know I did the best I could. I wanted to write more than this, but if this is all there is, so be it. Play Let it be at my funeral.
Of course I’ll feel stupid and regret the wasted energy of worrying when it’s all over and I’m safely home with my objets de confort (husband, pets, bed, house, car). Of course, I made up that phrase and my French is terrible. Of course, I probably will fly again, and be just as anxious and see portents of doom everywhere in the days before I leave. Why are the dogs acting funny – do they know something I don’t? Is that cloud shaped like a hooded figured holding a scythe? Why do I feel compelled to watch Castaway again?
But I’ve made my choice, I’m getting on that plane quite literally if it kills me, and (if all goes well) I’m going to be very, very happy to come home and gather with my family around the television and watch people doing interesting things while I eat popcorn in my pajamas.