Authors: Matthew Morris
“Meg, my mom and dad were immigrants from Ireland and I lived on an island that resembled their country
in many ways, so, from an early age I studied anything and everything Irish. I learned the history, the language, and the culture, and was very proud to be an Irish woman. For me, it became a mantle I could put on to overcome my shyness and small size.”
“You’re not shy
“I used to be
. And growing up an only child on an island didn’t help. But as I learned about Ireland and the Irish, I found I could relate to other kids often by just talking about where my parents came from. I love Ireland. When I was a teenager I even spent a summer here with a cultural program that immersed American students in everything Irish, and I traveled the whole country.” Shay’s face grew sullen. “It makes me a little sad to think about that now. Had I known I had a grandfather, I could have met him when I was here last.” She drifted off for a second, pondering the thought. “But you can’t change the past, can you, Meg? Let’s finish up and get down to the docks to see the kind of boat we will be sailing up the coast.”
They ate the last of their pizza and walked back down
the hill through the other side of Eyre Square towards the water. They passed a fountain with a sculpture of rust-colored triangles that looked kind of like sails. It moved her in a way no piece of sculpture had before. It was as though she knew what it represented, even though it was just a bunch of rusty, red triangles.
What kind of boat did you charter for us, Mom?”
“There is nothing better for these waters than a
“A Galway hooker?” said Meg
“Get over the name
, honey. They are traditional sailing vessels in these parts, kind of like my ‘New Haven Sharpie’
. Up until the age of powerboats, the hooker was the main kind of boat for carrying cargo on the west coast of Ireland. They fell out of use and were nearly lost to history until some dedicated sailors brought them back. I was lucky enough to find one to charter, but the owner is very protective of it, so we have to sail him out to the Aran Islands to prove we are capable before he’ll allow us to take it on our own.”
“Sounds like a challenge, but it’s nothing the ferocious O’Flahertys can’t handle
. I wonder, though, why we are ferocious,” Meg said with a laugh. Together, they made their way towards the shore.
It was just after noon when Meg and her mother reached the docks where they were meeting Paddy Mullen, owner of the
Cailín Mo Chroí
coleen mo kree
). The harbor was filled with many boats and Meg tried to figure out which one they would be taking. At the entrance to the pier they saw a rotund man leaning on a metal fence puffing away on a pipe.
“Paddy?” asked Shay
“Aren’t we all over here
?” came the reply from the man, not even looking up from his pipe.
was a derogatory term for an Irishman.
. I’m looking for Paddy Mullen.”
.” He looked up with a smile and a nod, “Well, you’ve found him, haven’t ya?”
Paddy Mullen was a middle
-aged man with graying hair showing from under his tweed cap. He was overweight and had a ruddy, red complexion.
. I’m Shay Murphy. We spoke on the phone yesterday.”
, that’s grand. And who’s the lovely girl?”
“This is my daughter Meg.”
He looked at Shay and Meg and furrowed his brow while puffing on his pipe “So, I’m asking myself why two Yank ladies are looking to hire my boat for a week, on this chilly October day.”
“We are sailing up to Inishbofin Island to arrange for my
grandfather’s funeral,” Shay replied.
“I’m sorry about your grandfather
… Inishbofin…” He raised his eyebrow before continuing. “You know, it is the twenty-first century. There’s a fine ferry service that goes out of Cleggan twice daily to Bofin Island. You can drive up the lovely Connemara coast to get there.”
“We are not interested in taking a ferry
. I’m a captain and my family has sailed these waters as far back as any. Meg and I want to see the Connemara coastline from the only perspective fitting for O’Flaherty women—from the tiller of a boat.” Shay seemed a little bugged by the man’s attitude.
“O’Flahertys,” he said as he drew another puff of smoke from his pipe
. “Why didn’t you say so? I should know better than to cross an O’Flaherty. Please, please get on board,” he said, pointing to a black sailboat tied up to the pier.
Cailín Mo Chroí
, which Paddy later told them meant
girl of my heart
, was about twenty-feet long with a hull as black as night. The black color came from the fact that it was covered in pitch, or tar, which was the traditional way to waterproof a boat in Ireland. She had a single mast and an upswept prow with a long bowsprit to which two foresails were attached. When they hoisted the sails Meg was surprised to see that they were a dark red instead of the usual white. The rusty-red triangles in the fountain in Eyre Square made a lot more sense to her now.
“Why are the sails red
, Paddy?” Meg asked.
-brown sails go back to the calico sails that were used at the time these boats were originally made. T’would’nt be a hooker without the red sails. In fact, the only Galway hooker that is allowed to use white sails around here belongs to the King of Claddagh.”
Claddagh? Like the rings?” said Meg. She was referring to the traditional Irish ring that was formed by two hands rounded to clasp a crowned heart.
Claddagh’s the small fishing village just across the river from the Spanish Arch in Galway City. Sure, it’s famous for the ring now, but it has always been a fishing village. The fishermen of Claddagh elect a King to lead ‘em and make the big decisions, ya know. He sails a hooker with white sails. We may see him on the way out.”
“What are the rules on
Claddagh rings again, Mom?”
“If you wear
the ring on your right hand with the heart pointing out, it means you are looking for love. If it is on your right hand with the heart pointing in, you are in a relationship, and if worn on the left hand with the heart pointing in, it means you are married.”
“It’s like an old
-fashioned relationship status indicator,” Meg said, looking down at Paddy’s left hand. She saw that it bore a gold Claddagh with the heart turned in.
Paddy gave the girls a lesson in the boat
’s design and rigging and told them that traditionally there were four classes of Galway hooker: the
(big boat), the
(half boat), the
, and the
. The first two were larger and used for hauling cargo, mostly turf. The last two were used for fishing. The
Cailín Mo Chroí
was a small
that had been outfitted with a cabin to be used as a pleasure boat. Paddy was a successful businessman and had commissioned her to be built by young, formerly unemployed, Irish-speaking boat builders who were keeping the tradition of Galway boat building alive. Paddy had her christened the
Cailín Mo Chroí
after the pet name he called his wife.
Meg and Shay impressed Paddy with how quickly they learned the boat. They sailed west out of Galway
Harbour under the watchful eye of Paddy, who sat in the bow looking back at them while puffing away on his pipe. Following the coast of Connemara, in Galway Bay made famous by song, they saw more fields of green in between the stone walls that seemed to be everywhere in Ireland. The coastline was much rockier than Connecticut’s and the conditions more challenging than Meg had imagined they would be. The wind was blowing hard and they had to stay extra alert to the sea and how the boat handled it.
Things were tense. Paddy sitting in the front of the boat not saying a word wasn’t helping matters. Meg could tell her mom was a little nervous
. She barked orders as if Meg didn’t know what she was doing. It didn’t bother Meg. Her mom was the captain, and when they were on the water she wasn’t her daughter, she was the first mate. The pressure of performing well on an unfamiliar sailboat in a heavy wind and choppy sea was turning this short October sail into something more like work, not like the typical fall sailing they do at home.
on Long Island Sound in October was the best time of year. There were fewer boats out and the water was still very warm from the summer sun. The water on the Irish side of the Atlantic was a little cooler than they were used to; it was around fifty degrees. But like home, the fall here also saw much less boat traffic than in the busy summer. Although Meg kept her eyes peeled for the white sails of the King of Claddagh’s sailboat, the only boat they saw was the ferry heading in the same direction as they were, to the Aran Islands.
When the grey islands rose on the horizon
, Paddy turned his head forward, easing the tension and allowing the girls to enjoy the sail.
Three Aran Islands lie just outside of Galway Bay in the Atlantic Ocean: Inisheer, Inishmaan, and Inishmore, named in size from smallest to largest. Shay said that they are populated by hardy people who have kept the Irish language as their primary language, and who have made their living by fishing the waters of the Atlantic along with growing crops on the land. Meg, Shay, and Paddy were headed to Inishmore, the big island, to spend the night and, if they passed the test of seamanship, hopefully to drop off Paddy.
The trip would usually take about an hour by sail, but Paddy demanded that they
first do a few maneuvers in the bay and he then had them go around the Atlantic side of the island to see how they handled the boat in rough waters. Nanny wasn’t kidding when she talked about learning to sail on the harsh west coast of Ireland. Along with the dreary weather, the wind was very hard and the waves rough.
Inishmore is basically a big rock, as are its sister islands. On the Atlantic side of the island
, sheer limestone cliffs are battered by endless waves. Meg did her best to not stop and stare at the sight of the looming walls of stone as they sailed past. The bluffs of Block Island back home in America were the only things Meg could compare to the cliffs of Inishmore, but the Mohegan Bluffs rose up gradually where these cliffs shot straight up from the ocean and there was no beach at the bottom.
The ocean waves rolled and crashed around them and the wind blew in a steady gale, but the girls handled the boat expertly the whole trip. As they pulled into the sheltered harbor on the opposite side of the island, Paddy got up from his seat in the bow and joined them, again
, saying nothing. But his smile showed he was seemingly satisfied of their ability to take care of his boat.
It was late afternoon and jet lag started to set in on Meg as they
tied up to the pier and gathered their bags. She let out a big yawn.
“Don’t fall asleep
, honey. If you take a nap now you will never adjust to the time difference,” Shay commanded.
“We’ll have to stay busy until nightfall to
hold off on falling asleep too early.”
On their way
up from the docks Paddy led them past a beautifully carved Celtic cross, to a place called The American Bar. It was a yellow, two-story building with a mural that showed New York City and the Statue of Liberty with a Galway hooker sailing by. Meg loved the mural, especially the touch of the Galway hooker. Paddy told them that a local man fell in love with an American girl and never left the spot where he said goodbye to her. He eventually built a bar and restaurant named after the place where his lost love came from. They walked into a dark bar and everyone in the pub looked up when they entered.
Shay walked up to the bar and ordered two pints of Guinness
, one for herself and one for Paddy, and a soda for Meg. Although the pub was busy it was not packed, and there were two musicians playing Irish music in the corner of the room.
“It’s nice here at this time of year,” Paddy said. “Most of the tourists are gone and
ya can actually find a seat in the pub. I wouldn’t come here normally, but I wanted ye Yanks to feel at home.”
“We know all about tourists
. We live in a popular tourist destination in America. Thanks for the gesture, but we didn’t come this far to be in an American bar,” said Shay.
“Sorry about that
, Mrs. Murphy,” Paddy said, a bit taken aback by Shay’s words. He took a sip from his drink then looked at Meg and Shay with a twinkle in his eye. “I have to say, you are definitely O’Flaherty girls by the way you handled me boat. I was a little nervous when we met on the dock, seeing as you were two wee lasses, but I’d say you can handle her better than meself. You’re fine sailors, the both of ya.”
“My mother learned how to sail as a child on Inishbofin and taught me everything she knows.”
“Me too” proudly added Meg, with a big yawn.
“Stay with me
, Meg,” Shay said, patting her on the shoulder as a reminder to stay awake.
“I have charts in the cabin for the whole west coast, but
ya probably don’t need ‘em, do ya? Bein’ O’Flahertys and all.”
“We are not magicians, just good sailors
, and we will definitely use the charts. Does this mean we can have her?”
“She’s yours for the week.”
While Paddy and Shay exchanged details of the boat charter, Meg diverted her attention to the people around her. She could always pick out the tourists with their backpacks and cameras back home, and there were only a few here.
Seated next to where Meg, Shay, and Paddy were sitting
two old men, hunched over their Guinnesses and deep in conversation. Meg tried to listen in, but they were speaking in Irish, which sounded like no language Meg had ever heard. Other than a few words here and there, she had never actually heard Irish spoken. There were a lot of throaty, hocking sounds in the language. The men also talked in very hushed tones, almost mumbling, and barely cracking their lips open to talk. The strange thing was that even though they were speaking with words she did not know, Meg recognized the intonations and rhythm of the way they spoke. Her Nanny talked the exact same way, and Paddy did, too. His mumbled English, which Meg sometimes had a hard time understanding on the boat ride over, had the same cadence of the two old men speaking in Irish.
After his drink was finished
, Paddy stood up and shook Shay’s hand. “Well, good day to ya, and take good care of my girl.” He nodded towards the boat tied up to the pier. “I’ll see ya’s in a week.” The two old men Meg had been listening to looked up when Paddy spoke. They gave him a nod in recognition, and on his way out, Paddy gave each a pat on the back. “I’m tired, Mom. When can we go to sleep?” Meg said with a big yawn.
. We have to wait until it’s night. I have an idea, Meg. Let’s figure out what time sunset is.”
“Why don’t we just ask someone?”
“I have an even better idea. Hand me the compendium.”
Meg reached into her backpack, pulled out
the compendium, and handed it to her mom. Up until this point, Meg had sort of forgotten about it. Shay opened it to the instrument with the dials and engravings.
one is called a
. It’s a tool that allows us to figure out how long daytime is based upon the date and our latitude. We first need our coordinates which are on this leaf,” she said flipping to the next tool in the compendium and pointing to the list of words with numbers, “These are names of ports with their latitudes and longitudes.”
She pointed to
on the list.
,” Meg said.
, Meg! So, we turn this dial to the latitude,” Shay said, turning one disc, “this dial to the longitude,” turning another, “and now we can move this dial to the middle of Scorpio because today’s date is October 28.” She turned the dial to one of the marks of the Zodiac engraved in the brass. “Now, if we look at the sun,” she said, pointing to an engraved sun, “we see that today it rises at around eight.” Shay indicated a pointer on top of the sun pointing to an inscribed numeral
. On the flip side she showed a moon that had a pointer directed at a numeral
. “And it sets around six. So we have a couple hours to sightsee before we’ll finally be able to get some sleep.”
Meg nodded but
, because she was so tired, she was not fully following all the movements her mom made on the compendium. Shay folded the compendium back up and handed it to Meg, who put it back away in her backpack. They walked out of the pub and back out onto the road just outside. Just coming out of the dark pub helped Meg wake up. They looked around and saw bikes for rent. They also saw vans for hire and horse and buggy rides available. They decided on a horse and trap, as it is called in Ireland, to go up the large hill to the Neolithic fort of Dun Aengus. The trap driver was an old man who welcomed them by saying, “
Fáilte roimh chách, mo chairde, go Inis Mór
. Welcome, my friends, to Inishmore. My name is Thomas, and your tour guide today will be the beautiful Aran pony, Johnny Cash.” Meg and her mom both giggled at the joke, and the pony was soon clip-clopping its way up the narrow road.
, as it is spelled in Irish, is perched high up on one of the cliffs they had sailed past earlier that day. The fort was built of loose stones piled one on top of another. They formed concentric walls that were almost twelve feet thick in places, and that ended abruptly at the edge of the cliff. It was if the walls were full circles at some point in the past, and half of them had fallen into the ocean. They were allowed to walk right up to the edge of the cliff, and they did. Three hundred feet below them they saw the waves of the Atlantic crashing into the cliff. The view was both dizzying and commanding at the same time—it was truly awesome. As they stood at the edge, the wind was whipping them. They soon backed off because it was a little scary. Meg and Shay also spent some time looking at the ruins and a while later returned to the horse and trap for the ride back down the hill.
All around them they saw tiny parcels of farmland divided by stone walls. The fields
here were just like the ones they had been seeing all day on the mainland, only much smaller. The trap driver explained to them how the islanders had converted the inhospitable rock of the island into farmland by layering sand and seaweed to make fertile beds for growing crops. Meg was astounded that people could create farmland out of rock to survive. After just a short time on Inishmore, Meg could see that the Aran Islands were an amazing place.
her first day in Ireland, Meg had traveled by bus, boat, and horse and trap, and she had seen in this one day more wonderful things than she had seen in her whole life. The wind blew her hair as she looked out to her surroundings.
This is where I came from and this is where I belong
, she thought. The cold air kept her awake, but she could feel all the hours they lost flying over the ocean creeping up on her like a warm blanket.
By the time they
sat down to dinner, Meg was so exhausted that, a couple of times, her mother had to save her from falling asleep into her plate of food. After dinner, they finally checked into a small bed and breakfast hotel. They were shown their room, and within minutes Meg blissfully fell asleep.