On that first trip I met an elderly man named Tommy Ahern, who had been captain at the Lahinch Golf Club, a classic seaside links course. Tommy suggested I become an overseas lifetime member and offered to sponsor me into the club. Without a notion of ever returning to Ireland, I impulsively accepted.
That frivolous act has brought me more satisfaction over the decades than almost any practical thing I have ever done. When I’m nowhere near the links—or even Ireland—a passing recollection of my membership elicits in me a sense of belonging, which continues to enhance my connection to the country. (And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a hell of a golf course.)
On my second or third visit to Ireland I went to County Galway and discovered its Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region of Connemara (top photo), with rugged, almost tundra-like terrain and filigreed coastline. Memories of a flat tire on the “haunted” Bog Road outside Roundstone on a moonless night still elicit shivers. And at some point I made it out to the Aran Islands, those isolated, wind-battered outcrops in Galway Bay—where I have never endured such profound silence.
Eventually, I met a woman (it’s an age-old story) who would bring Ireland even further into my consciousness and change my life. A place where I had always felt at home suddenly became home. Soon there were children, in-laws, and a mortgage. I came to know more than the traveler’s tantalizing taste of Irish life.
Beneath the blarney, a darkness to the Irish character reveals itself over time. (Could the Irish have given the world Joyce and Wilde and Beckett without it?) But the rebellious, “stick-it-to-the-man” edge only made me love the place and its people more. After all, aren’t we all just the strength of our flaws, as the Irish might say?
Yet neither individuals nor countries get rich quick gracefully, and the Celtic Tiger of the early 21st century sapped much of that easy welcome the Irish had been famous for. Thanks to EU bolstering and tax incentives, the perpetual underdog was now feeling like a top dog. Helicopter rides across the country to Moran’s Oyster Cottage outside Galway supplanted a ham and cheese toasted at the local pub. Irish hospitality took on a distinctly Polish accent, and it became difficult to find any Irish in the service industry. For the first time, a generation grew up knowing only a wealthy homeland. The 2008 financial crisis brought all of that to a halt. The housing bubble burst, silencing the braggadocio.
“We had simply lost the run of ourselves, full stop,” my mother-in-law summed up with not a little relief when it all came crashing down.