If it’s true there’s always a story, then you can’t find a better reservoir than Ireland.
The villages are packed with fodder – situational and character. And long may it be so.
I came back to Westport, County Mayo, for the Music and Food Festival last weekend. It was a cracking success – blue skies and high spirits giving birth to many a yarn.
A few days later I’m in the pub made famous by Matt Malloy from the Chieftain’s, hatching a plan to sneak in the back door of a comedy gig that’s sold out. I rustle up behind a young man who seems to be well-acquainted with the doorman, and without thinking I push up behind him whispering “hey, if I stay close to you we might both get in”. Of course I haven’t stopped to register my superior assets are pressing tightly against his back, so his reply quickly puts me in fits: “sure, but you could at least buy me dinner first”.
And that’s how the night begins. With a witty Irishman called Kieran. It’s always good craic at Matt Malloy’s.
Observing this play in the pub yard are three American marines. Well, three military. One is a fully-fledged, combat-strong marine with a Viking heritage. (His friends think he’s bragging unnecessarily about this but, to be sure, he’s as broad-chested and serious-looking as you might imagine a Viking.) Rob is now technically civilian, working for the military on deployment in Europe, but his service credentials are clear enough. He even has the remains of a bullet in his jaw. Really he does. I touched it.
His buddy, Mike, is former-navy, still in the thick of military management at a base in Bavaria. And the third of the musketeers, Scott, is a NATO commander and pilot who must be very clever as he lands big planes on comparatively small ships.
Of course, curious soul that I am, I need to know how you prepare for such a task. I wonder if they go to Wellington, New Zealand, to make repeat attempts at her infamously short and windy runway? But it seems they find a big field or desert and artificially light/partition the ground in the shape and length of a boat, to practise on dry ground hundreds of times before risking sea landings. It’s a relief to know they don’t get all Top Gun until they’re ready. I wonder if they have similarly smart uniforms with shiny buttons, but after the boob-back-crush-affair I’m trying to be demure.
Now this particular evening I happen to be wearing a new shirt, decorated with stars and stripes. And it occurs to us I’m in it a day early – for tomorrow is the 4th July. When I ask the lads how they plan to celebrate American Independence Day they tell me they’re going to climb Croagh Patrick. Then I really get interested.
Croagh Patrick is Ireland’s holiest mountain, on account of the legend that Saint Patrick fasted for forty days on the summit in 441AD – no mean feat, I can tell you, when the mountain is infamously exposed to changeable and dramatic weather. I had been wanting to climb “the reek”, as it’s called, but lacked a companion; something necessary for safety as the rocky terrain is treacherous when it’s dry, let alone-wet. By the end of a pint we’ve agreed to meet at their hotel at 9.30am the following morning, ready to walk; rain, hail or shine. Famous last words.
I head off then to keep an appointment with a nice man – that’s another story – and it takes some doing for me to get to bed at 3am and still honour my pledge. But a good Aussie sheila keeps her word, so at 9.30am I approach the hotel already sloshing through rain. Unlike St Patrick, however, I have pockets filled with chocolate bars. I’m also wearing two pairs of socks, a fleece and water-proof jacket – which surprisingly, leaves me better equipped than the marines. They must be really tough; only shoes and muscles betraying their background.
When we park the car at the traditional pilgrim start, we can not only not see the 2,500 feet summit but, so thick is the fog, we can barely see six feet ahead of us. Geraldine’s welcome in the visitor’s centre says it all: “so you’re going to chance it are ye?” There are grumbles about the conditions but I am excited. Surely I can’t be better protected? I’m confident, anyway, they’ll form a solid wind-break.
So up we go. We now each have walking sticks, recommended for the steepest incline and slippery descent. And though I usually don’t like the interruption to ambience of sticks going “click, click, click” on a path, water is gushing so keenly across ravaged stones I barely notice. When we come to a sign which says “Do not proceed if windy or wet” we stare in silence. This is the west of Ireland. Rugged is a given. Nevertheless when the rain’s trajectory pierces sideways into our ears the smart-talking kicks up a gear - the boys’ humour as voluminous as the clouds and relentless as the howling wind. I enjoy the banter. I ignore the naughtiest jokes. I have the perfect excuse. But that only encourages them to engage me further. So I enjoy the attention. It’s all good fun. And a necessary distraction from the drudgery, the pressure to kick this mountain’s proverbial however challenging the conditions. I start to understand why there’s good reason to relax a feminist-PC sensibility in the armed forces. You need latitude with jokes when working under intense pressure. Though occasionally the boys go quiet when reminded this is a holy mountain and St Patrick is listening.
The strangest thing is that we really have no idea where we are. We can’t see. We could be climbing to heaven as likely as the white chapel hidden by mist on the summit. When Rob and I take the lead and look back about twenty metres to see how Mick and Scott are travelling, they are only the faintest of shadows. In space no-one can hear you scream. I move a bit closer to Rob, letting him carve out our path lunge by lunge. I’m tempted to ask him to carry me. Instead I scurry in his slipstream. When we get to a particular plateau the wind is so strong it threatens to throw me over the edge. I feel like a munchkin in a tornado. We huddle in a group and agree to persevere a little further before making a decision about the final ascent. The wind drops a bit on the flattest part of the mountain and this is a welcome reprieve. But it doesn’t last long. At our next drink break the gale mocks our resolve. If it were a ship we’d be under full sail travelling at thirty knots.
Mick, who’s climbed Croagh Patrick before, thinks it’s too dangerous to continue. Scott agrees. Rob teases them. I can tell they’re thinking of me, particularly with respect to the descent from the summit – where stacks of small rocks (known as scree) threaten to move like popcorn on a sloping tray. But we’re already drenched. I don’t want to stop. And the Viking offers to take me up and get me down safely if I want to continue. We agree breaking into pairs is the only other option to four of us staying together. So after some predictable banter and sledging, we say goodbye to Scott and Mike who find themselves on descent in the worst weather of the day. They get more wet than us and it’ll be over an hour before they get to the safety of Campbell’s Pub – the ultimate watering-hole and reward for Croagh Patrick pilgrims.
It’s now just the two of us on the mountain. Even the sheep have disappeared. If anyone else is climbing this morning we sure can’t see them. Anon I have a word with St Patrick about the wind, pleading with him to drop it back a few knots, and to our mutual delight he does. The back-side climb to the top of the infamous cone is doggedly steep, but the wind is less and this energises us. The Viking is a good mentor, helping me to use my sticks more strategically, and when we’re fifteen metres from the summit and he says “look, there’s the white chapel”... I can’t see it for some seconds... so thick is the fog. But after a few more twists and turns over the stones, pride in our achievement and the adrenalin of victory, rush at me at once. We’re there! There’s a sign to confirm it; which is just as well because there’s no view. There’s just the outline of a foggy chapel and my marine. And to thank him I push my superior assets into his huge torso as he wraps his protective biceps around me. Brilliant. I think we’re legends.
We don’t dally up there though. There’s no pub. And if this doesn’t deserve a Guinness I don’t know what does?
We take the descent slowly, carefully, not wanting to disrupt our joy with a silly injury. But once we’re down the worst of it we up our pace. Then the fog starts to lift. The sun is coming out. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve climbed, our journey having been cloaked so completely in white. When we start to see the path we are even more impressed with ourselves. Well, I am. He’s probably done many impressive feats of athleticism. And in the second half of the descent we stop to encourage climbers who’ve, sensibly, waited for better weather. The best part is that we can now see beautiful Clew Bay, miles and miles of green grass, interspersed with sparkling water. But it’s still a long way down.
As the sun really warms up even little children appear with their parents to climb. One little girl is exquisitely cute – with black plaits and a perfect number of freckles across her milky-white turned up nose – and she wants to know “what are you doing with those sticks?” I’m tempted to say I need them to beat my Viking when he misbehaves, because though our conversation has been delightfully various (affording an opportunity for me to learn all sorts of things about combat, training and weaponry), he is irascibly cheeky. Instead I just giggle at her cute little nose and adorable Irish accent and explain that her knees are in better shape than ours. She doesn’t understand this either, but clearly finds my accent silly and hides behind her Daddy’s leg.
Over the last rocky terrain we practise our jibes ready to tease the two Musketeers who proved to be Girls Blouses. Rob relishes the opportunity he’s been given to get on top in their relentless bouts of mutual mocking. Then once the glorious warmth of our first hot toddy works its magic, and we follow it up with a Jameson’s Irish Whiskey and the first of several rounds of Guinness and Seafood Chowder, there’s not a joke or a jibe that’s one too far. I surprise them, I think, with my ability to join the fray – later explaining I’ve been prepared for just such an occasion by my four brothers – and they declare me to be “an atomic sledger” and “an awesome sheila”.
It is hard to say goodbye when the boys drop me back into Westport, to drive on down to Galway. They invite me to join them, urge me even. But I figure a night in a hotel with them might be more dangerous than our treacherous mountain climb. Likely a lot of fun... but there’s only so many risks a girl can take in one day.
Then after a long bath, when I’m just about to eat dinner and go to bed for an early night, they sweetly call me from Galway to tell me they are “missing me already”. I like my three marines. I’ve had a great 4th July. I might meet the Viking on another mountain in another land... wherever he goes next to conquer. But even if I don’t, I doubt there’ll be another American-Irish 4th of July experience like it!