Shoulder muscles straining with low-speed clutch work, I disgorged the motorbike out of the ferry’s maw down slippy metal gantries.
Stadium-sized sodium lights highlighted steady drizzle- Rosslare docks at dawn- our first sight of Ireland.
The ferry had left Wales at 2:15am, and the passage across had been like a giant sleepover. Adults drugged by driving and children snug in onesies sprawled across sofas, armchairs and on the carpet, snoring, snoozing, or getting up to stagger sidelong into walls towards the toilets, gently rocked by the Irish sea.
We breakfasted at Wexford, opposite the statue of John Barry. The town had a quaint, forgotten air, looking out on a choppy little bay with a single fishing boat. Several spiegeltents decorated the front beside the empty railway line.
Heading northward, we crossed the bridge at Enniscorthy. The River Slaney followed alongside us, brilliant and fast flowing. We stopped at Carlow, our tired eyes arrested by the bricked-up windows of many of the stone cottages lining the approach road.
The high street was more depressing. It was a greyish morning, but the uniform grimness of cheap bars, betting shops, 1Euro shops and Polski Skleps seemed relentless and mean.
Three restorative cups of tea drunk, we headed out and north again, stopping briefly to stretch out under a wind-bowed hawthorn among psilocybe semilanceata on a hill by Ballintlea. The Wicklow Mountains, blue-tinted like a stage backdrop, reared up in the distance, far beyond the agricultural plateau formed of County Laois, County Kildare and County Wicklow.
We continued through dull Portloaise and the cynical architecture of Tullamore (admittedly skirting the town centres) until we finally reached our log cabin near Rathconrath. We had travelled 657km in 20 hours. Tea, and oatcakes with peanut butter sent us plummeting into unconsciousness within minutes of arrival. When we woke, hours later, the sky was already dimming. We roller-coastered along the swooping R392 into Mullingar for supplies, promising ourselves our first real Irish Guinness at the unassuming looking petrol station/grocers/bar we passed.
Top-box loaded with wine, cheese, potato farls and bread, we side-stood the motorbike and went into Gunnings at about 6:30 pm. The door opened into a plain little shop. There were several customers with their groceries, and each nursed a pint of Guinness on the shop counter. Facing us, was an ecclesiastical-looking wooden screen with a frosted glass door. We walked through, and found the bar.
It’s hard to properly describe Gunnings’ rugged simplicity and worn charm. Every surface bears some evidence of age and long usage. Each element seems to have achieved balance with its neighbour- the stone floor, the wooden parquet ceiling.
The battle-scarred dartboard,
and its accompanying scoreboard, almost worn through.
The first, nourishing Guinness,
The skew-whiff leatherette sofa behind.
All things felt right and, despite being still fully leather-clad, we felt we were now actually somewhere else. There were only three other people in the bar, the young barmaid, and two men in earnest discussion on bespoke log-hewn bar stools.
One and a half Guinnesses in, I went over and asked the nearest man about Irish roads. To the newcomer, it’s not obvious what the broken yellow line on the fast N-roads denotes (it’s a hard-shoulder). The question was reciprocated; I explained where we’d come from, where we were staying. He knew our host. I called J over and we introduced ourselves properly. John introduced Anthony, and explained that they’d been at a wake most of the day. Somehow, within minutes, John had invited us along on a drive to another bar. We had meant to head home, cook dinner and rest up (we were due at a dance festival in the early hours the next night, we had been travelling for 20 hours), that was the sensible thing to do, the responsible choice.
Obviously, we said yes.
John had soon threaded us deep into a knotted network of lanes that we had no chance of remembering. It was somehow like becoming children; aided by fatigue, excited by chance, we absolved ourselves of responsibility. I rediscovered a treasured, long forgotten word my old landlord from Tipperary had taught me: yoke. It means thingamajig.
I videoed a fragment of the journey, talking about Gunnings:
We arrived at The Beech Tree at Streamstown, and found a warm welcome. The landlady lent us plates to make our own sandwiches on, and John and Anthony let us be awhile. Another Guinness in, and we felt ready to mix and were introduced around the bar.
We had another Guinness and a half (known as a lady – worth having as it comes in that corset-shaped glass), said our farewells and headed back out.
John suggested we went back to Gunnings. Why not?
But now, it was different and charged with life. The modest space was filled with people, movement and music, talking, clamour, folk airs on aeolian pipes, melodeons, a whistle, a guitar, singing. We had flowed automatically into the bar and now, immersed deep in the throng, we took in the array of glad, open faces. John introduced us to many, most of whom were farmers, or former farmers of beef cattle. We were given snuff, more Guinness, I was given a lesson on the melodeon, discussed the styles of music played (the waltz, the horn-pipe, the jigs, the reels)…
More Guinness, more music and more talk until, 7 Guinnesses and a lady down, we finally had to rest. Martin, cheerfully sober, sustained by the snuff he’d shared, drove us to our cabin and bid us a goodnight. It was, it had been, and it won’t be forgotten.
Generous, honest, warm, hospitable people, all gathered together, embracing us easily into their midst.
How can it be that something so clearly natural felt utterly unfamiliar?