Travel-worn and weary, I stepped over the uneven threshold into Dan the Durd’s snug cottage and the years fell away from me. The place had not changed in five years and neither had Dan’s warmth and welcome. Last time I had been a nervous college co-ed, on the first wild adventure of my life. My friend Andrew and I were juniors at Notre Dame studying abroad in Dublin when, at the invitation of Joe Lindsley ’05, we had taken a train from Dublin to Killarney, then rented bicycles for a hair-raising journey up the N-71 through Killarney National Park to reach the little town of Kenmare, 26 miles away. I had never changed gears on a bike, let alone travelled such a distance through mountains and open pastures to visit a man I thought was a stranger, but instantly became an old friend.
Now I was 25, and that first adventure, which culminated with a broken arm on our cycle back to Killarney after two delightful days with Dan, had made me a seasoned adventurer. This time I was coming to Dan after a whirlwind four days of cycling around County Mayo, camping gear strapped to the back of my bicycle. I was sun-burned, wind-burned and starry-eyed after days of cycling up and down cliffs, over bogs, out to the islands, and after nights sleeping under the stars, unzipping my tent to find a rainbow hanging over me every bright morning.
As I entered Dan’s cottage from the cold drizzle, waves of warmth washed over me emanating from the fire burning brightly in the fireplace, piled high with logs and peat briquettes. I greeted Dan and then let my tired body collapse onto the couch by the fire, hot cup of tea in my hand, the newspapers folded by my side. This was the Irish hospitality I had come to depend upon, the hospitality that Dan had been the first to teach me.
The people I met in Mayo were incredulous that a young American girl would go to the back of beyond alone, cycling the West of Ireland with just her tent, sleeping bag and map, pitching camp wherever she found herself as the day began to darken. I was equally incredulous that they thought I could have any fear when everywhere I went I was met with such a warm welcome. Passing a farmhouse, I would ask the farmer or his wife if I could refill my empty water bottle, only to be invited in, made a cup of tea, given a sandwich or a plate of biscuits, and asked all about myself, how I found myself so far from home, how Ireland had become home. This happened over and over. I was given directions, weather predictions, advice. Sometimes I would pretend to be lost just for an excuse to talk to whomever I met on the road. At night I would find a pub and eat heaps of hot spuds, carrots, lamb stew and brown bread, washed down by a foamy Guinness. Yes, I was alone, but never lonely. The sun-drenched hillsides and wind-whipped cliffs spoke to me of the nearness of God, more eloquently than the book of psalms I had packed in my bag for the journey.
Now I had come to rest in the warm embrace of Dan’s home, an ancient little house snug in the green pastures of Ardea, outside Kenmare, County Kerry, where the green hills roll on until they run into the mountains, the mountains that plunge their roots into the sea, and the cliffs and the sandy coves outline our little speck of green in the great blue ocean. After days on the open road unwinding manywheres, I had come to rest here, where time stands nearly still.
Dan, resplendent octogenarian, hardly looked a day older than when I first met him. His mother’s cast iron skillet was still the only pan on the hob in the spidery kitchen. The electric candle still flickered in front of the oleograph of the Sacred Heart. His press of pictures and treasures was still painted a proud Kelly green, with shamrocks on a butter-cream field. The rain-dewed windows looked out over his fields towards the mountains, a thick fog curling around the foothills.
The past five years began to feel equally foggy and ephemeral, their heaviness passing away. I thought of all the other adventures this first adventure had led to, and the long roads that had brought me back to sit before this fire again — barefoot mountain climbing, teaching English in Ukraine, serving heroin addicts in inner city Dublin, walking across Spain on pilgrimage, cycling from South Bend to Chicago in a day for free Ben & Jerry’s, paddling 40 miles of the Pere Marquette River in a fleet of canoes with the rest of the South Bend Catholic Worker staff — those rivers and roads all lead back to Kenmare.
I had never undertaken anything like that first adventure before, never shown up at a stranger’s house to encounter the world from his perspective, never had to figure out how to get there (or answered that question with a bicycle), never realized before how very small my world was, how very narrow my perspective was, never realized how all that would change, would have to change, after this. Tonight, after all those adventures, I felt again the narrowness of my world, consumed as it had become with worrying over the plight of the urban poor, with graduate school, with life confined to the city limits of South Bend. The complexities of drug addiction, social welfare systems, nonprofit administration and navigating the haphazard public bus system seemed artificial compared to the simplicity and deep goodness of this place. Listening to Dan’s stories, his world of rural life in Ireland took on a reality and a substance that runs much deeper than my own.
Dan told me of walking three and a half miles to school up the mountain every day until he was 15, when his two-room schoolhouse education came to an end because the secondary school was nine miles away. He told me of glimpsing George Bernard Shaw from the door of his house when he was a small boy, as the Nobel Prize-winning writer rode past on his horse, on his way to Kenmare to buy tweed for his suits. He told me of his mother and his father, and all his brothers and sisters, scattered all over the world by the diaspora. He told me the life story and family connections of every person we encountered when we went into town to watch the Galway races and have a few pints in a few pubs. “I’ve never met a stranger,” Dan quipped. I believe it, because I’ve only ever known him to be a faithful friend.
One afternoon Dan sent me up the lane to the Ballroom of Romance for the pattern dance. I escaped without engaging myself to a bachelor farmer, but I did dance with my share of partners, and watched with rapt attention when they danced the Kenmare set. Every town has its own set dance with a pattern of steps particular to it. The set dances are like the Aran sweaters that fishermen wear out to sea, so that if they are lost to the waves, they can be identified by their family pattern when they wash up onto shore. To an outsider all the patterns look the same, an unintelligible tangle of complexity, but each has its distinct form and unique beauty if you can learn to really see it, to decode its pattern. The whole patchwork of Ireland is like that. On the surface of it, the language, the culture, the customs seem homogenous, but if you pay attention, you can learn to see the patterns and perceive the astounding variety of practice on this tiny island — diverse ecosystems, hundreds of accents and dialects, cultural norms that vary by county and even by town. I love the hidden diversity here like I love the set dances and Aran knits.
There is enough goodness and wholesome simplicity to Dan’s life to confound the grasping restlessness of our age. In a way, this is a story about a week in which nothing happened. We sat in front of the fire for hours on end, watching the 2012 Olympics together and reading the newspapers. Things were happening out there in the world, the papers said. Maeve Binchy died. World records were broken. The bloodhounds were baying for bankrupt Sean Quinn’s assets, as if that would resurrect the Celtic Tiger. And we simply piled another log on the fire and boiled another kettle for tea. If the constant drizzle let up for an hour, I would take a walk down the laneway, feasting my eyes on the rainbow effulgence of the peak of the summer growth: yellow furze, purple fuchsias (or as the Irish know them, Deora De, “God’s tears”), dappled foxgloves, prickly thistles, dark green holly, growing thick on the borders of the fields, where cows and horses grazed.
It goes on growing. They go on grazing. The world is passing away, and yet Dan the Durd O’Shea in the land of Ardea remains, keeping the fire burning, welcoming bedraggled travelers and turning strangers into friends.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.