One of the greatest things to hear before you go on a trip is “What are you going to the for?” It involves the strangeness and risk that make discovery inevitable. It is also the qualities of renewal and rebirth, vital to a life that needs both.
That question (“Yas gain water and dare iron? ) was offered to me in a Dublin pub when I mentioned that I would be traveling south the next day along the Irish Sea coast to County Wexford. I had friends in the area, but there was a consensus around Drury Street pints that Wexford is boring. Boredom warnings can never be taken too seriously – not all places feel the need to broadcast their fun.
However, having just left Dublin, I rather felt like I was getting away from what was expected. Gone are the harsh rumbles of Dublin traffic and concrete. The coastal rail line skirted the coastline in places as steep and wild as the cliffs of Gaspé, in others as lush and wooded as the Great Bear Rainforest. After three hours, as we approached the town of Wexford, the land temperate and rolled in meadows and country lanes bordered by farms, a sign of the considerable Arcadian setting of the southeast.
Shortly after arriving, a man on the street gave me a good summary of the place. “There’s not much going on here,” he said, “but we’re giving it a boost.”
It was a pretty good clue to this little town of what locals call “the model county” was good-natured and didn’t take itself too seriously. It was exactly what I needed: easy beauty and the bosom of friendship.
I had grown accustomed to a quiet life, but there had been too much loss around me lately: the death of parents, deadly diagnoses of friends, lost love. During a family meal the day before I left for Ireland, my grandfather drew me to him and said: “It was very nice to see you, my boy, but unfortunately it won’t happen again because I’m going to die soon. Waking up at dawn each day at home to watch the light open the air in my bedroom, I felt like I was getting the message of life, but not the meaning.
For that, I needed change. Ireland could provide; it was a new country for me, free from the baggage of memory. It was highly recommended: My aunt told me she loves visiting Ireland because when she walks down any street she can hear people laughing. Public laughter is a balm and it was just the levity I was looking for.
Wexford had been through its tough times; it was not the Elysian plain. For all the grassy pastures and strawberry plants in the surrounding hills, it retained an air of fortification, like a rock placed in a garden. The old, thick stone walls built by the Scandinavians still supported part of the wharf. The twin spiers of the Churches of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption rose skyward like the blades of pikes, the weapon that the city was famous for. The streets with the gray houses looked like austere ramparts ready for battle.
And it’s no wonder: Almost touching the Welsh coast, and straight north of France, Wexford has always been Ireland’s stump toe, spending centuries – millennia, really – bumping into each other against hard strains of invaders. Vikings and Normans crashed. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army razed the town in the 17th century, and 150 years later it was the center of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and all the death and suffering that resulted.
There’s far less commotion in what is now a fishing and farming town – tractors rumble through the streets, horse-drawn wagons slam down side roads, and the most dangerous events are the games of weekend howling. On the quay one morning, with the River Slaney pushing against the rising tide, a group of men knelt before a statue of the Virgin before climbing onto their trawler.
In the street there were the sounds of yodeling buskers, snatches of Ukrainian and Portuguese conversations, and billboards for shows at the Center des Arts and the Opera. On the pedestrian artery that crosses the city center, it could be as lively as a bazaar in Marrakech. The sentiment was appropriate, as the weather was decidedly more Moroccan than Irish.
The days cooled off and reached sweltering heat that stayed well after dark. Everyone commented on the heat. “A beautiful day is a lucky day,” said a man tending his garden. For a bunch of jokers, the Irish could be incredibly serious. “Tanks for tat,” one man said after I complimented him on his coat, his sincerity untainted by the irony. “Really, thank you.”
I was beginning to feel genuinely lucky, the sunny south-east of Ireland lifting the yoke of darkness. Cycling up Forth Mountain with my friends, the narrow roads – bucolic and empty one moment, the next filled with crazed drivers – were lined with brambles and rosehips.
Kayaking off Baginbun Head, we watched dolphins smash through and hit the water with an almighty crash. Then we fell asleep lying side by side on the soft stretch of sand at Curracloe Beach, the coastal air soothing the surprising warmth of the sun. Things might fall apart, but there would always be light in a world with fresh strawberries, new potatoes, gentle breezes and clean laundry.
How often it seems that disparate sides of the world yearn for each other. It’s one of the unexplained quirks of the journey that you can turn a corner on the other side of the Earth and trip over yourself, as if a part of you had been waiting there all along. Finally, like Don Quixote, I was able to settle in, “because there are no birds this year in last year’s nests. I was crazy, but I’m sane now.
Just when I felt like I was ready to go, I was asked the other big question you can hear on a trip. “Oh, do you have to go? Don’t say you’re leaving. Tell me you’ll stay longer. And I did.
JR Patterson is from Gladstone, Man. His website is www.jrpatterson.ca