Okay, I'm going to get mystical about this, and that's all there is to it. The Voice of the Irish echoed in my mind. It really did, and what it said was: "We ask you, boy, come and walk amongst us." I felt goose flesh crawl up my arms and back.
Here I was, in County Mayo, Ireland, in a place called Westport, where, in the center of town, there is a statue of Saint Patrick set upon an octagonal base. Patrick looks vaguely Roman in this depiction, which is as it should be, for the historical Patrick was born in Britain—a Britain that had adapted Roman ways at that time, about the year 400. As a boy, Patrick was kidnapped by Celtic sea raiders and brought back to what is now Ireland, as a slave. He tended sheep and spent his time in religious meditation. Patrick was a Romanized Christian amid a pagan population. In time Patrick escaped and somehow made his way back to England. But his stay among the savage Celts weighed on his mind. In his "Confessions" Patrick writes that he heard the Voice of the Irish in his mind and it said, "We ask you, boy, come and walk once more among us." Those words were chiseled at the base of the statue, and I felt as if they were speaking directly to me.
Perhaps Patrick's words might mean little to others, but frankly, I felt a little shaken. As a travel writer I'd been to well over 100 countries but—shame on me—I'd never visited Ireland, even though I am of Irish descent. Generally, I travel in remote and sometimes dangerous areas, most often while walking with a pack on my back: adventure stuff. I'd wanted to walk Ireland for decades, but it just wasn't nasty enough for my editors. And then one day a few months ago, I thought, "Why are you waiting for someone else to tell you to go? Just do it. Now!"
I stared at the words inscribed on the base of the statue: "Come and walk amongst us."
So there I was, sitting with my wife, Linnea, in Ireland, finally ready to begin a week of walking. I stared at the words inscribed on the base of the statue: "Come and walk amongst us." Why did that move me so much? The subject of Irish roots was seldom contemplated around our family table. I had a relative who was a popular singer in New York City in the early 1900s and another who was port commissioner in San Francisco. That's about as far back as anyone ever took the family history.
I assume my branch of the family arrived in America in the mid-19th century, and further assume, given my family's reticence in the matter, that we were probably asked to leave Ireland, perhaps chased out with pitchforks and torches. (The name Cahill, I was to learn, though, means "brave in battle" or "valor." Take your pick. It's okay with me.)
I'd booked my walking tour with Cross Country International tours and was anxious to see who my ambling companions for the next week would be. Most stayed at the B&B in our guide's home. Gerry Greensmyth's house was set just below the great conical mountain called Croagh Patrick, or as it is known locally, the Reek (which, surprisingly, does not mean "rock," but "mound"). The house, only a few miles out of Westport, was a large, rambling, relatively new two-story affair, sheltered from the road by a low wall covered over in neatly tended hedges and flowers. There were apple trees in the backyard, where a cat and two dogs raced merrily about in the luxurious green grass. The guest rooms were mostly set in a long addition next to the family house.
There was a good range of ages among the nine guests assembled in Gerry's driveway that morning. Most of us were somewhere in our 40s to our 60s. (Linnea is 54, and I am 61.) Niall, the lone Irishman of the group, was 32. A successful businessman from Dublin, and a member of a generation that has seen the biggest boom in the Irish economy since the Bronze Age, he dressed in a natty manner and would have been perfectly at home among any group of young executives in New York or Los Angeles. He was taking a vacation in the tranquil west of Ireland because, he said, compared with the bustle of Dublin, "it's like a whole different country."
We all piled into one of the several large vans in Gerry's driveway and drove about 45 minutes to the mountains of Connemara. This is an Ireland where Gaelic is the spoken language and poteen (moonshine) is made and where peat fires in the homes color the air with a fragrance that smells to me a little like incense in church. People needed their fires on this day. It was raining without surcease, and occasional gusts of wind drove the rain horizontally into our faces. For all of that, it was a warm rain and a warm wind. Gerry said it was "a soft old day." I think he meant to assure us that the walking wouldn't be totally unbearable.
Gerry, 51, was a sturdy, dark-haired man who often, even in the rain, wore shorts that revealed a mountain climber's bulging calves. There were, Gerry said, great views of two different mountain ranges here, the Maumturks and the Twelve Bens, though I couldn't see more than a few hundred feet through the rain. "Alleged mountains," I wrote in my notebook, ever the dutiful journalist. Gerry, as it turned out, had always loved what is called "hill climbing" in Ireland. He'd even come to America to climb some of our hills, notably the 14,000-foot-high peaks in Colorado.
"I went in October," Gerry said.
"Bad move," I said. "Snow."
"I know that now," Gerry said.
Fifteen years ago, when Gerry started his walking tours, his clients climbed some of the more challenging hills around. Gerry found that most people would take on the Reek, the big 2,500-foot-high holy mountain behind his house, but mostly they liked to amble through the countryside. So he had learned to accommodate his guests, to tailor the walks to their tastes, and now generally avoided the steepest of hills, unless people requested a more strenuous ramble. For the past number of years, he had been booking all his North American clients through Cross Country International.