Hitching in Ireland with Mom
By Irish America Staff
August / September 2002
In this land of fiercely independent people, who value their poets as highly as their warriors, our strategy was to be road-warriors by day and elegant country houseguests in the evening…
In 1922, my grandfather, James O’Sullivan, a captain in the fight for Ireland’s independence, emigrated from Ireland to the United States via Canada — one year after the partition of Ireland and simultaneously with the death of his associate Michael Collins. He traveled west, laying Canadian rails, cowboy ranched in Montana, then hitchhiked to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he opened the popular O’Sullivan’s Chophouse — in a neighborhood of Irish bars — and stayed for 35 years. Shortly after he established himself in New York, his wife-to-be also emigrated from Ireland.
When he passed away and the gravediggers began unearthing his plot they found several coffins already down there because he saw to it that a few of his impoverished customers were respectfully interred.
Mom and I decided to visit southwest Ireland last October — where James was born and raised — to see if the Irish would reciprocate the hospitality he enjoyed while hitchhiking in 1925 America.
In this land of fiercely independent people, who value their poets as highly as their warriors, our strategy was to be road-warriors by day and elegant country house-guests in the evening.
And so on a sunny mid-October morning we headed for a jet-lag nap at the Carnelly House, a homey, lived-in country estate at the end of a long, tree-lined short drive from Shannon Airport. The resident owners are masters of hospitality and edibles and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay but adventure beckoned.
At first, Mom waved at cars to request a lift, but the drivers only waved back. So I crafted four cardboard appeals: “Mom,” “Angel,” “Innocent,” and “Pub,” which worked best at small town intersections.
A few days into our journey — Mom is now attuned to the vagaries of life on the road — we stood by a lightly traveled roadside for 15 minutes wondering if our luck had run out. At that moment a car piloted by an elderly woman (85 as it turns out) pulled over. We rode on narrow, stonewalled roads past thatched cottages, castles, fortresses, churches, and other noble dwellings, as a prime-time radio talk show host mused about gardens and the comings and goings of birds in the yard.
“In the last fifty years it’s been fashionable to sneer at tubris begonias.”…”Magpie birdhouse raids scaring off other birds.”…”The tits will come along quickly.” Out of the blue Mom reports, “Dad won’t put out bird seed. He thinks it’s welfare.”
The rain comes again and our driver comments: “The rain is fond of Ireland.”
One of the many highlights of the trip was riding around the Lakes of Killarney, where the mountains meet the water and the color green in every variation is touched by reds, yellow and orange. Mom took a sprig of heather to be pressed and kept, as she did for her own mother on a trip 15 years earlier.
“I made a memory book for her with pictures, and although she is not with us, I still have the book,” she tells Kevin who has given us a lift on this day. “She loved returning to her birthplace with me and I am fortunate to be able to do the same thing with my son.”
Kevin, who described himself as a self-taught sculptor, filled us in on the history of Ireland.
“The succession of invaders included Celtic warriors, Vikings, traders, hunters, Cistercian monks, Anglo-Norman noblemen and English kings, and now ye’re here,” he commented good-naturedly.
Mom also enjoyed listening to classical music while being driven around the rim of the Beara Peninsula and gave top marks to the small coastal town of Glendora, where we discover that the hitching percentage increased when she donned her Irish motoring cap.
We stayed in four different glorious country home hotels. And in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we found peace talking into the night as we lay in adjacent beds under billowing down comforters.
One consistent theme was mammoth bathtubs. These nightly tub rituals marked the first time I’d bath-tubbed with mom in the next room since childhood. It had also been quite a stretch since I’d heard “Don’t go outside with wet hair!”
Part of our evening routine was a glass of wine before dinner — usually in our suite, wearing our white bathrobes. These inspired, sunset discussions ranged in emotion like the variation of Irish characters. Topics included the survival of my bachelor status, and when a special woman would conclude it? My convoluted reply doesn’t answer Mom’s question but it does inspire another one. “Is that your blend of Yankee wisdom with Irish blarney?”
“You know, Mom, I fear that if I get married my wild side will evaporate.” To which Mom replies, “Raising you was wild (pause) and I didn’t evaporate.”
One of six daughters of Irish immigrants, Mom left the Manhattan fashion scene to marry my nature-loving Dad. Second nature to her was defusing the agenda of neighborhood bullies with lunch invites and transporting disabled seniors and outpatients to and from the hospital in her car. The maxim she lives by is that it is far better to give than to receive.
Dad and I once walked 225 miles coast-to-coast across northern England. As mom and I toured Ireland, contrarieties emerged: Dad had noticed every birdsong, flower, shrub and tree. We’d hiked between 10 and 25 miles per day, sometimes not seeing anyone, acquainting ourselves with villages forgotten by modern highways and high-speed trains. It was two buddies on a hike.
In Ireland I became reacquainted with Mom’s many traits — unconditional love and kindness — and I was introduced to others: She snores like a house on fire! But as the youngest son, who battled for Mom’s attention growing up, I finally had accomplished my goal of having her all to myself!
On our last evening we are dropped off at a pub, even though we were picked up using the “Angel” sign. We ease into the social glue of pub life with a Guinness. Mom sits closer to a band playing music by the fireplace. Foot tapping gives way to knee slapping; soon she is dancing.
“Wherever they may in the distance roam, this country is never forgotten by its born,” the barman says, looking over at my mother doing the Irish jig.
It dawns on me that the sign which best represents my mom is “Love.” ♦