17 November 2012

At the Edge of the Ocean

It's easy to forget that the meeting of land and water isn't always gradual - that a coast isn't just beaches and harbors, docked boats and storehouse-lined bays.  You forget that the ocean is the most vast wilderness there is and that the people living on the edge of it feel governed by its every whim.  Even in the most remote mountain regions, you have a sense of the peak, of the beginning and the end.  But that's just not the case with the ocean.  We'd driven the Copper Coast with a setting sun in our eyes and no place to pull over.  We'd stayed in coastal Dungarvan, but tucked inland at Kilcannon House.  The Bay of Galway was a calmed pocket of coast without even the audible lapping of water.  So, our cliff walk in Ardmore was our first real encounter with the wild and woolly Irish coast.  Below this stone ruin, far down where seafoam marked the water level against the cliff, was the bent crane of a 1987 shipwreck.  A few minutes back, we'd found a notebook tacked to the outside of a simple wooden structure.  A whale watching station and logbook.  Five days ago, someone scribbled a report.  One minke whale spotted. 
With all the green, it's easy to forget about the blue.  But the blue is at the heart of the Irish identity, I think. "I feel for Greece," a fellow boarder in Kinsale named Michael told us.  "They're like us.  Most of its an island. And we're ancient civilizations, us and Greece.  We have our own pace.  We can't expect to be Germany with all its neighbors and its modernity."  He was talking, of course, about the economics and EU membership.  And though I understood his point about Greece, I immediately thought of Iceland - - and its No Thanks, EU! billboards.  For an island that has survived, by the skin of its teeth at times, self-sufficiency is key.  It's the exact thing that gets compromised when joining a coalition.  All of a sudden that precarious setting in the wild Atlantic doesn't just reap benefits for those willing to live on the brink of it.  Its bounty is available to trawlers just passing through.  Men spoke of the coastline like an alma mater, like other men talk about their college football team that's gone to hell.  Because as close as all Irishmen live to the Atlantic, there's also a huge number of them that have lived on the water itself.
"I miss the people.  The ones that take to the sea because they don't fit in anywhere else."  Pat Ormond was described as "the best sailor ever to come out of Dungarvan" to us by the town historian.  (A true historian, not just a guy with that nickname at the pub).  This was the first summer Pat hadn't spent on the water.  Money's dried up for a lot of the people who usually hire him out for the season.  So, he was around with the guests at Kilcannon House.  A lifelong transient among travelers.  We felt a kinship - often likening our own strange existence these past two years to living on a floating island, a deserted one with just Merlin and me.  Pat equipped us with hand drawn maps of the coastline in County Waterford and West Cork.  There were two rocks off the coast of Baltimore named Adam and Eve ("avoid Adam and hug Eve"), all the harbors were drawn in and the public restrooms on the dock, but no clear road to get there. "Oh, I've left those out haven't I?  I'm always looking at it from the sea!"
To borrow a term from Merlin, Ireland is "the breakwater of Europe," an island stationed in the thick of the Atlantic, after miles of unobstructed free rein.  The coast represents every obstacle and opportunity, and the dramatic shift between the two that life (and history) so often is.  Stories of the coast included boatloads of Irishmen setting off for America, pioneers of a sort, setting an Irish satellite in a far off land that still holds a deep connection.  News of hurricane Sandy played at a pub in Clonakilty, the waitress offered her condolences.  "If that'd been us, we'd just be gone.  8 million people in New York, there are only 6 in Ireland!  A storm like that would just swallow us whole."  The town had serious flooding earlier this year, more than once there was 2 feet of water in the pub's main room.  Storefronts had signs that said they'd be "closed indefinitely" due to the flooding.  Buildings still had sandbags at the base of their front doors. 
Clonakilty's claim to fame is its blood pudding, the best in Ireland, but what locals will tell you about first is the old carpet factory.  It supplied the Titanic, of course.  Titanic tourism is actually a thing.  For the Irish, death is just a part of a conversation.  You may describe what your grandmother looked like, they'll tell you how and when she died.  I can only think the coast has something to do with it (and the Roman Catholic beliefs about afterlife).  It doesn't really matter that the ocean took the Titanic, it left the land a majestic work of craftsmanship.  So, why not brag about a connection? A love leaving on a boat or leaving your love on land is the subject of 'lament' ballads.  The crown jewels of Irish sightseeing are on the coast. "You going to Kerry then?" Everyone asked when we said we were driving along the coast  Well, no, not this time...  Not going to County Kerry was a little like not having the dessert a restaurant is famous for because you're too full from the appetizer, entree, cheese and drinks that you enjoyed so immensely.  We have no regrets.
Kinsale would evoke dreamy emotion in everyone.   "Oh, you'll have to stop in at the Tap Bar," a man at the Ardmore craft shop told us.  Pat personally recommended The Spaniard pub, which wound up being one of our favorites of the trip.  A yellowed newspaper hung over the cash register shouted the news that the Lusitania had sunk only 11 miles offshore.  Their own claim to fame.  The bartender was an instant friend.  "Say hello to..." was a common addendum to a pub recommendation.  We wondered, often, how people choose their pub in Ireland.  The selection and prices are almost always the same - and in towns with more than one (and as many as ten) the regulars are loyal.  But we think it's about whose tending the bar more than the bar itself, what friend you can visit, whose ear you can bend.  On the coast this is especially important.  This is your time back on land to give confession or have a laugh; to flirt or learn or be silent with an old friend. 
But the dreamy sigh that would sound at the word "Kinsale" was almost always attached to one thing.  A quick facebook message from an Irish coworker of my father's had "Kinsale - the Irish Riviera - great chefs." Other people were more specific.  "You have to go to Fishy Fishy" - man in Ardmore.  "Now you're making me want to take the drive to Fishy Fishy!" - woman in Dungarvan.  "Of course, there's Fishy Fishy." - Pat.  The food scene in Kinsale is renowned and the mother of it all is Fishy Fishy, a seafood restaurant that's an institution in Ireland.  Their Surf & Turf is scallops and blood sausage.  Their daily specials outnumber the printed 'menu.  The monkfish and parsnip puree was an indelicate bulk of flavor, a sense of pub under the supervision of great chefs.  My sea bass came as a pile of three crispy skinned fillets, set atop a mound of mashed carrots and topped with fried leeks.  You have to go to Fishy Fishy.  And The Spaniard, while you're at it.

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