September 15, 2019
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The Irish are generous with their stories

It has been a week since I returned from Ireland, but a part of me is still lingering in Irish time, waking up in the pre-dawn light, sleepy by 8 or 9 in the evening. Ireland’s influence promises to linger much longer in other ways.

First, there was the transformative weeklong writing program in the seaside town of Howth, part of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing.

This was my fourth residency at Stonecoast, a program that requires attendance at intensive 10-day programs twice a year, interspersed with one-on-one mentored work throughout each semester. The Ireland program is an optional alternative for 10 students and two faculty members. It is a sharp contrast to the Maine-based residencies that are attended by more than a hundred people.

The beauty of the Ireland program is its intimacy. I was a bit apprehensive about having a roommate in the cozy little King Sitric hotel in Howth, but the fact that our group filled the place made it feel like home. I came to enjoy the familial companionship.

We wandered down the hall to breakfast in our slippers, shared pots of tea and French press coffee as we ate bread and homemade jam, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, the day’s fresh fish or a “full Irish” — multiple meats and sausages, beans and grilled vegetables. We’d watch the day come to full light through a bank of tall windows — quite late, as the sun wasn’t rising until after 8:30 — then we’d sit for our daily workshops and presentations right there in the dining room.

Each evening, we walked along the harbor to the Howth Yacht Club, where we listened to presentations and readings by Irish poets and writers. After the formal evening events, the writers would join us for a pint of Guinness or a hot whiskey in the pubs. The writing world becomes much more real and accessible when you’re chatting over a pint with highly published authors, discussing their work or telling them about yours.

It wasn’t just the visiting authors, though, who chatted so freely with us. The second thing that will stay with me for a good while is the warmth of the Irish people, who seem ever ready to welcome strangers into their sphere, even if only for a passing encounter. Everywhere I went, I found people genuinely interested in hearing our stories and in sharing theirs.

“Go into any pub and everybody’s writin’ a book. Sure, we love to tell our stories,” the cabbie who drove us to Howth said when he heard we were writers.

The director of the Stonecoast Ireland program, Ted Deppe, swam daily in the frigid Irish Sea. I joined him only once — my skin was on fire for half an hour — and was stunned to see several white-haired locals stripping down at the rocky beach in a brisk wind. Ted and his fellow swimmers struck up conversations, and several of them showed up for our evening events. On our final night, when we students read our own work, a local man asked to speak when we were done. He gave a heartfelt speech, singing our praises by invoking the great writers of Ireland’s past:

“If Mr. Yeats and Mr. Joyce were alive today and heard your work tonight, they’d be looking back over their shoulders, worried!”

I am hard-pressed to think of any unpleasant encounter. Servers, historic site workers, a group of student-teachers who taught us about the national sport of hurling, an elderly woman throwing a ball for her dog in a park — all of them went out of their way, not only to say hello but to befriend us. They might share a story — “We said no dog at our age, but my sister couldn’t care for him. And isn’t he the lively thing? Such joy he’s brought us.” Or they’d ask you to join in — “Want to give it a go?” they asked as they handed you a hurling stick. Or they’d insist on buying you a drink at a pub — “A half-pint, then,” you’d say. “It’s against my religion to buy a half-pint,” he said as he handed you a tall glass of Smithwick’s.

The encounter that sticks most in mind, though, took place when I had been in Ireland for only a few hours. I took a walk out onto Howth’s sweeping stone pier, which curves out from the shore, creating a protected harbor. Near the outermost end, on the seaside, I saw a man with a long-lens camera aimed toward the rocks at the water’s edge. I walked over to see what he was observing so intently and saw a small group of birds.

“Those are turnstones and purple sandpipers,” he said, keeping his eye at the camera. “If yeh look close, yeh can see the one has the yellow legs.”

I was newly arrived, jet-lagged and distracted by the charming local accent, so I was slow to discern the difference in birds, but he patiently laid out their distinctions. It seemed important to him that I recognize them. Then we stood in silence for a while, watching the birds flit and splash.

“There are three to four hundred species of birds in Ireland,” the man said. “I have pictures of two hundred of them, but I never saw a purple sandpiper until today.”

“Oh!” I said. “Well, congratulations!”

I marveled at the chance encounter, how I casually had stumbled upon someone else’s momentous occasion. But it was more than that. I only knew about his moment because he chose to share it with me, a passing stranger.

Ireland will stick in my mind as a place of shared stories. It will linger as a reminder to pay attention and say hello. You never know when you might stumble upon a pivotal moment in the book of someone else’s life or maybe a pivotal moment in your own.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com

 

Correction: A previous version of this story contained a spelling error on a well-known author’s name. The name is correctly spelled Mr. Yeats.


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