Meandering Through Ireland
by Alfred Scott
Shall I tell you about Ireland, from whence cometh my Falco, my ancestors, and endless accounts of political violence? With Kakee off to college and Sara in Nepal for the fall semester, Meredith and I now have an 'empty nest'. It is a time filled with mixed emotions, because I always enjoyed life with Meredith alone, and I never really liked the idea of having our world invaded by children. I just didn't understand, in advance, that they were going to be Sara and Kakee!
So it's back to traveling, Meredith's first love, and when she showed me a flyer for a walking tour of Ireland, I reflected that I'd spent far too much time saying 'no' to such ideas, and far too much time in the office. Time to start saying 'yes' again, and I did.
Our first stop was Dublin, and we immediately fell into the clutches of Neil Johnston and Gráinne Cronin, old friends from the earliest days of the Falco. Neil originally owned the Corporate Disgrace, and once proudly designed the paint scheme that has since attracted so much ridicule. I bought the Falco from him, and when we first took it to Oshkosh, Parke Smith and Neil took turns giving Falco builders rides and introducing them to the Falco's fabled handling. Neil would flip the Falco through an aileron roll, and then ask "Are we happy?"
Neil and Gráinne
For those of you who remember Neil and Gráinne, they are well and now have two daughters, 12 and 14. Both Neil and Gráinne are pilots with Aer Lingus, and Gráinne was Aer Lingus's first female pilot, and as a result she is rather famous in those parts. Neil is the same as ever, as quick-witted a devil as you're ever likely to find, and just plain fun to be around.
After dinner, we pass a pub. "One for the gutter?" asked Neil. He'll never change.
Then it was off to Galway, on Ireland's west coast, where a steady flow of damp air from the north Atlantic hits the coast and dumps a continuous trickle of rain on the desolate hills. Even in September, when it rains less than any other time of year, water is everywhere, in puddles on the road, and as you tromp over the peat bogs, you are endlessly hopping over streams and puddles. Logic would have it that water runs down-hill, but not in Ireland where there is as much water on the tops of hills as anywhere else.
The land was originally covered in a forest of pine trees, but 4000 years ago the earliest farmers cut down the trees and began cultivating the land. The rains quickly leached all the minerals out of the soil and left a barren landscape of rocks and clay. The clay was impermeable to water, so it would puddle and run off, rather than sinking into the soil. Every couple of years, the farmers would burn the fields as a way of creating nature's own fertilizer, and the ash would settle into the clay and make it more impermeable still.
Sphagnum moss flourished in this wet environment, and it soaked up water like a sponge and held it on the surface. The moss was acidic, and this prevented the normal biological processes of organic breakdown, so over time the grasses and moss built up a layer of water-laden grass leaves and old moss that never rotted. And over thousands of years, it built up in the thick layers of peat that covers the landscape.
This wet blanket of peat covers everything and has climbed to the tops of the small mountains and has drowned most of the trees that remained. It's as if the entire landscape were infected with moss disease and where the sloughs and bogs that you normally find only in flat river bottoms had launched an attack on the land. If this had happened in the piney woods of North Carolina in the past 20 years, we'd call it an environmental disaster. There would be class-action lawsuits, congressional hearings and the Army Corps of Engineering would be hard at work on a solution.
But in Ireland it is their heritage, and they make do with the situation as best they can. There seems to be only two things that the land is good for: raising sheep and cutting the peat for fuel. Lord knows it's cheap fuel. All you have to do is cut it into muddy logs and leave them in the sun to dry. But the peat only grows an inch in a hundred years, so there's a limited supply of this non-renewable resource.
Even so, it's a land of extraordinary beauty, of desolate solitude in mottled browns and greens rolling over the hills, of unkempt dogs, frazzled sheep and plodding farmers who had long since given up the dream that life would amount to much. They live in houses that seem to have been designed by a lone autistic architect who made them all square, off-white and with a tile roof.
It is a land that's seen thousands of years of hard scrabble poverty and unimaginable cruelty and hardship. The history of conflict between Protestants and Catholics, fueled by religions competing for power, is senseless beyond description, yet it has enslaved this part of the world to terrible violence and deep-seated hatreds.
And then in the mid-1800's there was the potato famine. All of rural Ireland lived on potatoes alone, and in a short period, all of the potatoes rotted in the ground from a fungus that swept through the country. There was literally nothing to eat, and the population was reduced to abject starvation. Hundreds of thousands died, and there was a mass emigration to America.
Today by comparison, things are peaceful in Ireland. In pubs people talk about 'the troubles in the north', and how Princess Di never visited Ireland even once because of the violence. It would seem, from published reports, to be a land of terrorists and street-fighters. However, in our two-week stay, we never saw a single policeman or police car, until the last day when, driving through Dublin, we saw two police cars.
And the violence in the north? Last year 20 people were killed in political violence in the whole of Northern Ireland. That happens every two weeks in our nation's capital, and every 10 weeks here in the heart of the old south. True, our problems are drugs and theirs are religious, but I saw a peaceful land inhabited by a people whose worst vice is a proclivity to drink a black, peat-bog beer for which they claim endless benefits.
Not all old Ireland was impoverished. Here and there, scattered throughout the country, are enormous houses and castles. We saw several, and on our last day we stopped in Wicklow, south of Dublin where I hoped to meet up with Michael Slazenger, who owns the sole remaining production Falco in Ireland. Michael is a doctor, and his family started the famous tennis-racket company of the same name. Neil Johnston had mentioned that Michael's family owned a large, 'stately home' south of Dublin. How large, or how stately, I hadn't a clue.
At first it appeared that we would miss getting together with Michael at all, and we settled into a 200-year-old inn run by a lady who bore a striking resemblance to Mrs. Doubtfire. But Michael called. "When are your leaving Ireland?" he asked. "Tomorrow morning," I said. "Well, you can't leave Ireland without seeing Powerscourt! I'll pick you up in 20 minutes."
Alfred Scott and Michael Slazenger
How was I-a farm boy from Virginia-to know that Powerscourt is one of the most famous castles in Ireland? Originally built in the 1700's by the Wingfield family, Powerscourt is an enormous house with a 50-acre garden. You've all seen it many times in movies, since they've regularly rented out the garden as a movie set.
Powerscourt burned 23 years ago, and the building has stood as a roofless open ruin for the years since. In the last year, however, Michael has sold off "a sand pit" as a development, built a golf course, golf club and restaurant, and he has finished the first phase of restoring the main house. There's a new roof, floors on the second and third floors, an elevator, and the first floor is largely occupied by a gift shop, a Waterford crystal shop and a restaurant. The gardens have been open for tourists for years, and they have several hundred thousand visitors each year.
Michael has a private airstrip for his Series IV Falco off through the woods on the side of the main house. But, after a tour of Powerscourt and its garden, even a nice Falco is a bit of a come-down.
The next morning we headed back to the Dublin airport for the flight back to the U.S. On the radio, Jerry -- Ireland's answer to Howard Stern -- was fielding the calls on the morning call-in show. Jerry can switch into every conceivable Irish and English accents. That morning's star was a woman who was going in for a Caesarean section. It was to be her second child, and she said how surprised she had been, after taking her own pregnancy test, to find that she was pregnant only three months after giving birth to her first child.
"He's been at you, has he? Coming up behind you?"
And then commiserating with her on the way women and childbearing are treated in the country, he slips into a deep country Irish accent: "Now woman, go in the other room, have your baby, and then wash yourself up and come make me my tea."