Monday, September 07, 2015

The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Seventeenth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

In the summer of 1985, I was resting dockside in Le Havre, thinking about the meaning of life and craving draft Guinness, which I’d seldom had the chance to enjoy. This was about to change.

One night, long before this moment, in a drunken stupor of semi-religious ecstasy, my cousin Don had uttered an astute prophecy, foretelling of delicious and creamy Guinness pints, as served by impeccable barmen on the wonderful ships carrying budget travelers from France to Ireland.

Actually, we both were in our cups, and it was less of a bold vision than a recapitulation of his own previous travel experience. I was suitably enamored, and incorporated a line item for the inevitable splurge.

At 24, I was a beer neophyte, and Guinness was anything but ubiquitous in Louisville and Southern Indiana. The draft version was almost unheard of locally, and mythical in proportion to its rarity.

Then one of my pals returned home from college touting the bottled variety of Ireland’s national beverage, and seeing as Guinness Extra Stout could be found at better area package stores, it was a start. Even if this firmer recipe lacked the raw mystique of the elusive draft, it was a transformative introduction.

The heavily roasted flavor of Guinness Extra Stout was a bit much at first, so we began by mixing it “half and half” with any and all cheap lagers, from Red, White and Blue on up to Harp (somehow Irish-on-Irish seemed to make more conceptual sense). As time passed, I began weaning myself from the lager “filler,” and learned to drink the nectar straight.

Still, veteran travelers and the guidebooks agreed: Draft Guinness was best, and it never got any better than in Ireland. Why? Because it was fresh and unpasteurized, with a whole national culture revolving around it, uniting all classes in philosophy and knowledge over pints in classic pubs renowned as universities for poor men?

Perhaps. It also might have been the relative absence of draft Guinness closer to home, where we might have been able to compare, and soon become jaded by proximity.

As I am now, 30 years later.


As expected, my reticent shadow from the Le Havre train station walk was contemplating many of the same directional strategies. We converged at the ferry office, and exchanged pleasantries. It transpired that his name was Paul, from somewhere in New York. Paul had graduated from college and broken up with a girlfriend, and now he was using “Let’s Go: Europe” in order to find himself before returning stateside for graduate school.

For the next three days, we became bosom pals, and I’ve not seen him since. That’s just how it worked. Electronic networking had yet to be invented, and you took life on the road as it came, exchanging postal addresses and phone numbers, and then mostly forgetting about them.

Mine were recorded in a little blue (not black) book. It would be nice to go through it now, trying to associate names and details long submerged, except it was cruelly lost somewhere in Vienna in 1987.

As for the Irish ferry itself, the 1985 model of 1st Class Eurailpass came with three valuable seaborne options, with free deck passage on routes between Italy and Greece (I did it); Sweden and Finland (still ahead); and France and Ireland.

The Eurailpass was good for passage on the boat, offering nothing more than an overnight nesting place on the exposed upper deck, or in various out-of-the-way nooks inside. Either way, the night would be spent on the floor, and the importance of those pints of Guinness loomed even more critically.

There was a baggage check for storing my increasingly battered gym bag, and the quick dispatch of leftover bread and nibbles from Paris. The maritime Shamrock Bar didn’t open until the ship was a few miles out from the shore, in international waters. When the signal was given, we approached the bar and had the first of several pints.

They were better than I expected, and later, the floor wasn’t bad. I found a carpeted area to crash. Irish life looked to be okay, after all.


Coming into Rosslare Harbor late the following morning, the weather was spectacular. Paul lived near the ocean, but I was a Midwestern landlubber, albeit thankfully one without any propensity to sea sickness. I found something joyous and primeval about coming into harbor on a ship, producing a feeling of landfall that trumps planes routinely landing and rail cars coming to rest by their platforms. I enjoyed it immensely.

Walking from the ship, a scrubby, stubby bluff could be seen rising just behind the terminal buildings. Atop it was a billboard depicting pint glasses of Guinness, all in a line: “Welcome to Ireland.” It felt like patriotism.

At the time, the Rosslare port struck me as small and underdeveloped, and noteworthy primarily for the rail line to Dublin, where both of us had resolved to begin. Between my visits to Ireland in 1987 and 1989, Rosslare Harbor was dramatically upgraded, with a sleek ferry terminal built, and to be known henceforth as the Rosslare Europort.

Several hours later, Paul and I alighted in Dublin at Connolly Station. As we stood on the sidewalk plotting hostel strategies, we were approached by a middle-aged woman who asked us if we needed a room. The guidebooks noted the practice, and deemed it generally safe with the usual caveats, so we accepted.

It wasn’t just around the corner. We walked a bit, hopped a bus, and walked some more. All I can recall about it is that “Doreen” kept referring to my speaking voice as reminiscent of John Wayne, her greatest American hero (something about the Irish gift of gab, lady), but the arrangement was above board and a perfectly serviceable, and even included a fry-up for breakfast.

Another culinary first: Baked beans with coffee at 8:00 a.m.

Doreen’s house stood alone and unattached, though row houses were the norm in her neighborhood. She provided maps, showed us where amenities were located in the neighborhood, provided tips on public transportation and had bottles of Harp in the fridge – “just replace the ones you drink.” All the while, Irish history came spewing from her.

We’d neither slept for very long nor eaten much, and so a couple bottles of beer immeasurably enhanced the entertainment value of the lesson. It began with our gray-market innkeeper demanding to set one thing straight, immediately, using basketball as an example.


That’s right. Specifically, Doreen wanted to talk about the American professional basketball team located in Boston, Massachusetts, arguably the world capital of the Irish Diaspora.

“You mean the Celtics (SELL-tics),” said Paul.

Hook, meet fish: “Yes, I do, but it isn’t SELL-tics at all. It’s KELL-tics,” and so began a digression on the legacy of the Celts (properly pronounced “Kelts”), ancient tribal Europeans of the Iron Age, and ancestors of today’s Irish.

And how to remember the hard “k”? Doreen had a suggestion for this, too. Just fix an image of Bushmill’s or Jameson’s in your brain – “remember, it may be true that the Arabs invented distillation, but we Irish perfected it” – and always ask the bartender for a Belt of the Kelts … or even two.

True enough. Celtic cultures expanded into many European territories, but the advent of the Roman Empire gradually pushed them toward the continent’s western periphery, to remote islands and isolated coasts. In modern times, we think of the Celts as comprising Gaels (Irish, Scottish and Manx peoples), Welsh and Bretons.

It’s far more complicated than that, but for my purposes today, it’s enough to know that a few central elements of enjoyable living, including music, beer, conversation and food, are a stock in trade of the Celts, and that among Celts, the Irish stand out as visible and enthusiastic proponents of these virtues. Doreen was the first of many native examples, and I’m grateful for her giving nature in what otherwise was a business transaction.

Exhaustion had set in, and Paul and I had no desire to roam widely in an unfamiliar city, so we walked a couple of blocks to a diner of sorts, where I promptly devoured my first ever chicken curry. It had peas and carrots, and I didn’t know to be picky about authenticity. Replacement beers came from an off-license on the walk home.

Back at the house, I noticed Doreen had a sizeable collection of record albums. There was familiar pop music from the 1950s and 1960s, and also Irish folk music. Some of these names I recognized, because my own introduction to Irish history came through music, and as always, I had Doc Barry to thank.



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.

The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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