I’ve visited Ireland more than two dozen times since the mid-80s, and I’m not even Irish. What keeps me coming back are stays in small towns and villages where it’s easy to peel back the layers of a place and return home with life-changing insights. For that, you must come with an open mind, not a list of sights to see, stay off the sidelines and live life like a local.
In 2013, I rented a beautiful harbor side apartment for two months in Roundstone, a tiny West Coast village, 48 miles northwest of Galway. The summer crowds had long gone. B&Bs, restaurants and the Sunday farmer’s market were closed until spring. Only a tiny grocery named Ferron’s and the town’s best pub/restaurant, O’Dowd’s, remained open daily.
I didn’t have a rental car but shouldn’t have worried. The Irish showed me how to find love and light in what some might see as a dismal situation. Within a week, I knew the most colorful characters in the village — lovers of Guinness, families that have lived in Roundstone for five generations, flamboyant storytellers (which was pretty much everyone) and fishermen who told their own big tales and worked rain or shine. Every morning at my dining table, I looked out on the harbor and saw fishermen checking their traps for crabs, like Dickie O’Toole, who got a law degree before deciding he’d be much happier as a small village fisherman than a lawyer in Dublin.
In O’Dowd’s Pub, Mary the barmaid taught me how to do a proper pour of Guinness, and a small table next to a peat fire was like the village water cooler for gleeful gossip and highly embellished yarns. I had to show up early every day to claim that cozy spot as my desk. It was there that I lunched on seafood chowder, vegetable soup or, sometimes, grilled fish, and gave iPad lessons to Joe Cadmus Sr., an 84-year-old gentleman who was eager to learn. An engineer who had raised his family in the U.S., Joe brought his wife back to Roundstone after his retirement to live where she had grown up and still had family.
An occasional drop-in at O’Dowd’s, Mickey MacNamara had been born in Roundstone in his grandparents’ pub. I first met this character long ago, seven miles away in Clifden where he suckered me and another young woman into cleaning his restaurant when his night person got sick. He later tried to convince me that if I came back in summer, the hills would be covered with heather and orchids, and salmon would jump from the streams and into my arms.
Twenty-nine years later, Mickey helped me find a place to live overlooking Roundstone’s harbor — a restored fourth-floor light-filled apartment he referred to as an Irish penthouse. On my first day there, Mickey stopped by to see how I liked my digs. Already people were wondering about the stranger in town, he told me, and how he knew her.
To my surprise, villagers quickly accepted this off-season outsider as a member of the clan and showed me how to avoid cabin fever. I tagged along with them on the Wednesday morning Bus Éireann ride to Galway that allowed me just enough time to get my laundry done, eat lunch and buy groceries before the return. On those rides, I sometimes sat with Philip Corley, an Irish painter who had lived in the U.S. for many years and recently returned to Ireland to take inspiration from Connemara’s rugged landscapes and harbor scenes. One day in Galway he invited me for dinner at his house in Roundstone where I would see several large canvases and realize that my new friend was a very fine painter — last year Philip donated his 6-foot by 7-foot painting “Coming Home” (appraised at $126,000) to the new National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.
Philip and Dickie tipped me off about the Sunday bus to Clifden, a larger town with pubs, restaurants and shops open year-round. The driver of a school bus that would otherwise be parked all weekend charged three Euros round-trip, just enough to pay for fuel and his time, a real blessing for those without cars or too old to drive. Locals called it the Happy Bus, and the joy was contagious. Passengers behaved as if they were on their way to summer camp. I couldn’t help but overhear fascinating gossip about other riders like one fellow who always boarded just outside of town beyond Gurteen Beach and Dog’s Bay — I heard he’s a fisherman who won the Irish Lottery and has two girlfriends.
O’Dowd’s, Main Street and the Happy Bus were also places to observe social dynamics between people who have known each other all their lives, supporting each other in good times and bad. There’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately — how living in Roundstone made me part of a larger community beyond my family, friends and professional contacts.
I’m sure that one day, I will return and I’ll be welcomed like I have come home again.