Don’t Turn Down the Boatman

I am not a flagrant rule breaker. Nor am I particularly spontaneous. But there is something about being on vacation that brings out the daring, something that paid off in leaps and bounds on our trip to Ireland. Neil and I hadn’t made plans past where we were staying each night; instead we relied on gut feelings and a handful of maps (with varying degrees of accuracy) to stumble our way into amazing scenery and experiences. Almost every day for a month it felt like we were put in exactly the right place at the right moment to come home with stories that don’t seem real even though we lived them. The day we spent driving the western edge of Killarney National Park remains one of my favorite days in a trip of amazing experiences.

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We’d spent the morning driving remote roads in MacGillicuddy’s Reeks, a ridge of cloud-topped mountains running through County Kerry containing the highest peaks in Ireland. They are surrounded by the heavily-traveled Ring of Kerry road where busloads of foreigners are instructed by cheery tour guides to gaze out upon them from their internet and bathroom equipped luxury. The dark mountains rear up from land thick with heather covered bog, sparkling streams and mirror-still lakes edged in bright orange tipped grasses. The narrow local roads that weave through them were built to carry sheep farmers and locals more interested in stillness than the amenities of civilization. Tiny rental cars containing eager Americans exploring Ireland without a GPS were a rare sight, even if it had been the height of the tourist season.

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Gap of Dungloe
Gap of Dungloe

Earlier, at the urging of our local host, we’d sped past the group of pony cart drivers frantically waving us away from the road they much preferred we traveled in their traps. The Gap of Dungloe cuts a path right through the east end of the mountain range. Its blind curves are sharp enough to be impossible in a larger vehicle than our Ford Fiesta as it climbs into a layer of clouds that probably doesn’t often completely lift. It is a place filled with magic. When I stepped from the car early that morning, the stillness of the heavy-misted air made me feel as if I’d been transported directly into an ancient church, reverent and awestruck. It felt like an invasion of privacy to take photos, even knowing that what my iphone camera captured would never come close to exposing the totality of the landscapes stark, rapturous beauty. I can honestly say I’d never seen anything so heart achingly dazzling as those mauve colored hills dotted with sheep and edged in clear lakes and gentle waterfalls. The memory of them still moves me to tears.

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IMG_3691As we’d driven, we’d seen a couple walkers enjoying the silence broken only by the bleating of sheep. Several groups of motorcycles leisurely leaned into the turns and passed us, but only one or two other cars had braved the wrath of the pony-trap men. This wasn’t technically a road anyone wanted tourists on. Our previous night’s host, whose home clung to the flanks of Carrauntoohil, the largest of the mountains in Ireland and the King of this range, had told us driving it wasn’t illegal, just discouraged. I understood the desire to keep the road uncluttered by vehicles and tourists, but it was early morning and my need to see Ireland in my way outweighed the off-season tourism industry’s need for my cash. I didn’t want to do things the way tourists did, even if I was technically a foreigner. I wanted to see Ireland raw—uncluttered by preconception. I wanted to disappear into the landscape and reemerge with my story, my experience and understanding of the land I’d fallen in love with a year ago, the land that was stitched deep in my ancestral bones.

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My back ached a bit from having to singlehandedly push the Fiesta out of a steep grass turn-out after Neil backed a good quarter of a mile down a road too narrow to allow the only car we saw in an hour to pass us. A walk and a toilet seemed like a good idea, even if it meant stopping at the only ubiquitously brown signed “place of interest” we’d seen in hours: Lord Brandon’s Cottage.

After giving some lost Irish (!) tourists instructions on how to find the main road, we walked through the impressive stone and wrought iron gates that lead across a long stone bridge and up a gravel drive under a canopy of moss and ancient oaks just now dropping their leaves. An old man wearing a jaunty wool cap, zipped-front coveralls and shiny laced black loafers, stood in the middle of the drive, leaning heavily on a walking stick. His voice, with its Irish accent soft and thick as the bog, reached out to me. “Sorry?” I said, thinking perhaps he too was lost. I was taken slightly aback when he looked at me – or when I thought he looked at me. Under the brim of his cap, one clear blue eye was pinned to the heavens, the other seemingly stuck deep in the socket’s outside corner.

“D’ya want to go for a ride on the lakes?” I assumed he was asking on behalf of someone else. Perhaps he’d been a boatman once, and now that his eyesight was gone, his job was to drum up sales for a son.

I glanced at Neil, who shook his head. We’d dawdled long enough that morning and had to be many miles away by evening, and who knew how long it would take to get to our destination. But, knowing we would be coming back this direction in another week, I asked how long it would take and how much it would cost, just in case.

“I’d have you out but an hour or so, at 20€ each.” His eyes suddenly came into sharp centered focus on my face as his soft voice dipped and rose, still coated in a thick brogue that made him nearly impossible to understand. He’d have us out? Now, I was curious. But we did have places to be so I said, no, thank you, and we parted ways.

We didn’t see much of Lord Brandon’s “cottage”, apart from a tower that was now home to a pair of donkeys daintily chomping grass. Instead we walked through the reeds and tall grass along the boggy shoreline, where the snake twists of Riverowenreagh dump into the maze of linked pools that make up the Upper Killarney Lakes before they empty into the lower, much larger, Loch Leane. The sun had finally shoved aside the morning clouds and the clear blue sky was duplicated on the still surface of the water. But I couldn’t forget the boatman.

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There were several places along the shore where we could see where the bows of the boats nuzzled in and tethered to a wooden post for the night, but all the slips were all empty except one. A bright blue, 30ft wooden boat rode close to the water held in by shrubbery, in what seemed to be a place of privilege away from the thick mud and uncertain footing of the shore we walked. It could only have been the boat belonging to the old man.

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I was distracted from the scenery by trying to do some very rough travel time computations in my head. Planning for the time it takes to get anywhere on Irish roads was a puzzle I hadn’t yet cracked. I had an evening appointment, so keeping track of time was strictly a problem of mine. But I couldn’t let the boat ride go. It seemed like this was what was supposed to be done. I told Neil if we should go.

The boatman was getting a coffee when we found him. “Excuse me,” I said in my best ‘I want to be pleasing and still get my way’ girly American voice, “If you still are available, we’d like to go out on the boat.” He turned part way towards me and muttered something incomprehensible, but seemingly in agreement. “Sorry?” I said, feeling stupid for not being able to understand. He repeated himself, with slightly more words I couldn’t catch due to his quiet tone and accent. However, he finished with a wave that left no confusion – I was meant to sit and wait while he had his coffee. “What did he say?” Neil asked. “I have no idea, but we are going,” I replied.

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Michael was his name, and after his coffee he waved to us to follow him. He leaned heavily on his walking stick with one hand while the other lugged a grocery bag of something. His feet were sure on the soft ground studded with tufts of short grass. We reached the blue boat we’d seen from the other side of the shore and he tossed the bag into the bow, indicating we should follow. We watched helplessly as he struggled to unhook the bow rope and get low enough on his stiff legs to swing himself into the boat. It was clear there were a limited number of boat rides in Michael’s future. Climbing unsteadily to the back, he gave the 15hp Yamaha outboard engine one soft pull and it purred to life. He settled himself on the wood seat and began to nudge the boat softly at the bank until it released us to the lake.

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The Lakes of Killarney begin at the foot of the MacGillicuddy Reeks with a large deep lake edged raggedly with rock and bog land. In some places a steep rocky bank showed a black high water line as much as four feet above its present depth. “Five hours of rain will fill this lake,” was Michael’s reply when I asked about it. Tiny humped islands dotted the lake and narrow, shallow passages moved us from the wide upper lake through smaller, twisty, rock-walled coves where swans floated and small brown trout jumped. Deer hid in the grasses of the shore, their variegated antlers blending perfectly with scrubby trees and reeds. It felt like I’d wandered into history, a time-traveling modern woman dressed in a down jacket and hiking boots drifting silently between stones.

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The sun shone warm on my face as I watched Michael steer the boat. He said his family had lived on the shores of the lake for 200 years, even when the English tried to take it away. He nodded his head as I mentioned that my father was also a boatman, and he asked what sort of boat my dad had. “Aluminum,” I relplied and he clicked his tongue. “Ah, those are good boats,” but his fingers stroked the worn gunwale of his vessel affectionately.

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At certain points on our voyage, as if a switch was flipped in him by some landmark or inner alarm, Michael relayed stories about the ancient O’Donoghue clan, the poet warrior Oisin, fierce mythological mother-in laws, and something about a rock throwing contest that resulted in the lake’s tiny islands. When he told these stories his English was clearer, but most of the life was gone in his voice. He’d obviously learned what made his customers happy and was willing to provide it. But it was when he was silent, squinting into the impossibly blue sky, that he was happy—and happy to allow us time to enjoy his lake on this rare brilliant, warm October day. We shared his silence blissfully, the flat-bottomed boat easily swinging around corners and through the shallows, its engine puttering softly and leaving no wake.

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We never saw another tour boat in the hour and a half we were out. We’d entered a space of magical time that was uninterrupted by anything that could diminish our sense of intimacy and exploration. Even the air seemed unreal—velvety and thick—despite the occasionally chilly breeze that ruffled our hair. Even Michael seemed only half in the world, an ancient guide summoned by our desire to really see something deeper than vistas and attractions behind brown signs.

When we reluctantly returned shore, we passed two other boats tied against the bank, ready to depart. Each was filled with tourists jabbering like jackdaws bedecked in bright orange personal flotation devices. They stared at our serene boat with us stretched out languidly on its benches unencumbered by the mildew-scented vests. The other boatmen tipped their hats to Michael as we passed.

As we returned to the car a man asked if we’d enjoyed out time on the lake. “Very much,” I replied, “We went out with Michael.” He looked pleased and touched the brim of his cap. “Ach, Michael, he’s a fine one. Best boatman around these parts. You’s been lucky!”

And we were.

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