In June of this year Writers Workshops International organizers, Barbara Euser and Connie Burke took yet another group of writers out on an amazing travel writing adventure. This time the participants journeyed through County Cork, Ireland. Writers Linda Watanabe McFerrin and Joanna Biggar directed workshops in between the far-ranging peregrinations. This, again, is some serious “Roadwork.” The anthology containing all of their stories will be out in December, distributed nationally by Travelers’ Tales. Meanwhile here are some excerpts from a few of their delightful stories…
Fritz wasn’t the best-looking guy in the seaside village of Myrtleville, but he was the first one I met. He gazed at us from the lawn of the Bellevue B&B as we pulled up. Friendly yet cautious, he approached and greeted our group of writers in a rather perfunctory manner. He avoided making direct eye contact with me, though it was obvious that he sized up each one of us before returning to his post at the edge of the lawn beside the inn’s lovely dining veranda.
Fritz wore his reddish brown hair short. Relatively young, there were telltale flecks of white in his eyelashes and beard indicating that he’d been around the block a few times. He also appeared to be a bit scraggly, but in that way that the Irish can work unkempt to their advantage. Despite his stern demeanor and rather short stature, I immediately found him attractive.
“What’s his story?” I asked Benny and Gaby Neff, the husband and wife proprietors of this charming County Cork inn. Benny was the first to answer, and he did so with a sigh and a shake of his head.
“That’s Fritz,” he said. “He’s from Crosshaven, about two miles down the road. He hangs about more than we like, but he’s okay.”
I didn’t understand, and continued my probe. “You say he hangs about your property?”
“Yes. He’s in love with our Daisy,” Benny replied, “but she’s not the least bit interested in him. I guess he’s not her type.”
“What’s Daisy’s type?” I asked, my curiosity having been tweaked.
“The big guys,” Benny confided, “Labrador retrievers, mostly.”
Photo by Mary Jean Pramik
The fabled conviviality of Irish pubs was about to become a reality for me on that bone-wet night in Myrtleville, County Cork, Ireland. Several years ago I’d had a great personal loss followed by many lonely nights and I’d longed for gatherings around a big round kitchen table. Now, bright blue eyes stared at me as I pushed open the rough-hewn door of the Pine Lodge pub. I was cold and the luminescent swinging “Murphy” sign had beckoned me as I’d abruptly left my walking companions. I must have been a sight, with my wind-blown platinum hair and my cheeks freshly pinked atop my shimmering ruby red raincoat. Fifteen men looked at me as if I were a phenomenon they were going to thoroughly enjoy.
“Well, well, come in,” called the red-haired man perched on the bar stool nearest the doorway. “Sit down.”
I didn’t yet know that any unfamiliar face in this neighborhood would be looked at with concerted interest, or as I came to call it, gleeful scrutiny.
Photo by Connie Burke
That is the first time I hear Cobh described as The Holy Ground, but after he explains it to me, I hear it everywhere. I find an old sea chanty in an Irish folk song book called “The Holy Ground.” When I ask Michael, our taxi driver, about Cobh, “Oh, the Holy Ground,” is his answer, a response I will hear time and again. Everyone I ask about Cobh gives me the same answer, and they never utter the words without going deep within to a pool that is their past and their hope for the return of loved ones – loved ones who seldom returned home. Each inward gaze, disconnected from whatever liveliness surrounds them – a pub, taxi, restaurant – is like an empty chair left waiting at their kitchen table.
A few days later on the bus touring southern Ireland, I talk with Sister Eily, and begin to fully understand how those departed never faded to mere memory. Sister Eily is a feisty, red-haired Irish Catholic nun. She sits in front of me and tells stories about her family, whispering her last story to me, a memory of the final days with her aging mother. There were tears in her mother’s eyes, as she lay in bed resting, and Sister Eily asked her mother if she was uncomfortable or needed something.
“No,” her mother answered in a voice frayed and worn. “I’m thinking of the day Gulann (her younger sister) went to go to Cobh and I made her that gray coat.”
Photo by Connie Burke
Mary Jean Pramik
The open frame bodhran sets the heartbeat of Irish music. A large circle of wood, capped at one end by a smooth sheath of sheepskin, the drummer cradles the bodhran under his or her arm and hugs it tight against the body while sensually massaging the taut skin from the inside. With the other hand, the musician twiddles the double-headed beater or tipper against the outside surface.
A skilled bodhran player is a prized find for traditional Irish music groups. This frame drum is an exciting instrument in the right hands, layering a subtle sound to Irish folk music. To the untrained ear, the bodhran appears to be an easy path into a band and free pub ale. Not so, since the bodhran player works to match the tune and the melody.
One of Josef’s music teachers explained it: “The drummer does not keep the rhythm. The drummer paints, he fills in the spaces of absence.”
Photo by Connie Burke
For more information about Writers Workshops International and upcoming travel/writing opportunities, write to: Leftcoastwriters@aol.com.