We were full-on domestically blissed out one Sunday evening, all snuggled up on the couch, half mesmerized, half mortified, watching Adán y Eva ¹, when I got a text message from Fionn.
“Yank, are you in Plasencia tomorrow?”
This was pretty unusual since I hadn’t heard from Fionn in 8 or 9 years, plus the fact that he lives in Ireland.
“We’ll be here.” I responded.
“See you in the square tomorrow night for a couple of cañas. Ya bollocks!”
“What is he doing in Spain? Where is he staying?”
I shrugged, “You know Fionn…”
The next evening he came strolling across the square with a road-stained backpack slung over one shoulder and that trademark bashful grin plastered all over his unshaven face.
“Jaysus. Ya haven’t changed a bit, ya langor.”
“How was the flight?”
“Yerrah, feck it, sure, it was grand. I’ve got a fierce thirst on me. What’s going on with those beers?”
He didn’t miss a beat. It was like we’d seen him yesterday.
“So what the hell have you been doing with yourself these past 8 or 9 years?”
He modestly mumbled his way through a series of adventures most people would kill to experience – surfing in New Zealand, mountain climbing in South America, riding a motorcycle halfway across China – and then, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, and I just got my PhD in architecture.”
Lola half gasped, half snorted, and a trickle of red wine drizzled out of her left nostril. I nearly swallowed a chunk of fried pig face whole. Snout and all.
The Fionn we knew and loved was never much for school.
I was 24 years old when I arrived in Ireland in February of 1999. After a few days of exploring Dublin I heard about a workcamp taking place in County Cork over the weekend, planting trees for peace. It sounded a bit hippy dippy, but I was trying to turn over a new leaf, trying to stop being so closed-minded and cynical.
So I hopped on a bus and when I got down to Cork City the organizer, Colm, picked me and a couple of French New Age traveller types up at the bus station in his ancient, rusted out Land Rover. He drove like a complete maniac on the tightest, windiest, little back roads I had ever experienced (in thick fog, no less) until we reached the farm, an hour outside the city.
I met Fionn the next morning. He stumbled into the kitchen with an overflowing 5 gallon metal milk can swinging between his legs. I helped him lift it up onto the table. He picked a couple of hairs out of the warm milk with his dirty fingers.
“Elsa’s got hairy nipples. Other than that, she’s a lovely old yoke.” He spooned some yellow cream off the top and tasted it. “That’s the stuff, boy. Straight from the source.” Fionn was 16 years old at the time.
The weekend was miserable. A half a dozen of us volunteers planted trees in the rain all day Friday and Saturday. Up to our ankles in mud. The dampness seeping into our bones. Rob, an Australian volunteer, pulled out his battered old fiddle whenever there was a brief respite from the downpour and played Irish folk songs to keep up morale.
The evenings were better. We slogged through the mud, lurching our way across Colm’s 250 acres of fields and forest, staying as close as possible to the person wielding the flashlight until we reached our destination, “the Pink Pub,” so-called because it was painted bright pink.
The area was called Bealnamorrive which means “Mouth of the Dead” in Gaelic. Festive. It was as close to the middle of nowhere as you could possibly get. Directly across the road from the pub was a tiny one-room shop, a small church, and a terrifying, horror movie graveyard, complete with ancient, crumbling headstones and moss covered Celtic crosses. (Maybe it just seemed terrifying because we only went down there after dark.)
The Pink Pub was a welcome sight as it was the only splash of proper color around for miles, other than the ever-present brown mud and the endless, rolling (dare I say, monotonous) green countryside. In the evenings the pub was filled with paunchy, balding old farmers, their ghostly white elbows poking out of the torn sleeves of their “woolly jumpers.” They smoked John Players, drank pints of Beamish² (rotten stuff, that Beamish), and apparently spoke English.
A couple of guys were playing snooker one night and I asked Fionn, “Is that Gaelic?”
“Is what Gaelic?”
“Those two old guys. Are they speaking Gaelic?”
“What’re ya on about? They’re speaking fucking English.”
We both sat there listening for a moment, then Fionn said, “Can you not understand what they’re sayin’?”
“Not a word.”
“Did I hear you say you just finished up at university?”
“Lot of good them books did ya, eh?”
The barmaid, Mary, also ran the shop across the road. If somebody needed something when Mary was pulling pints they’d have to stop in for a chat (and usually a drink, too). After five minutes of discussing the weather, they’d mention in passing that, by the way, they needed rashers for the Sunday fry-up, and Ribena for the kids. Mary would stroll across the road, leaving the pub unattended, unlock the shop, and close the sale.
Mary always poured some Murphy’s (not Guinness – we’re in Cork, not Dublin) into an ashtray and placed it on the floor for Wolf, Colm’s Border Collie. She’d lap it up before thawing herself out in front of the turf fire.
On Sunday morning, our bodies aching from all the digging, our heads pounding from all the pints, we piled into the Land Rover and drove south to Castlefreke where we seriously pressed our luck and our limbs goofing around exploring a ruined castle. The bravest among us went for a swim in the frigid February sea. The sanest among us (that would be me and the Australian fiddle player) stood on the beach drinking beer (the hair of the dog), wondering how on earth we would save them if they all got dragged out to sea by a brutal, merciless riptide.
In the afternoon, as the other volunteers were saying their goodbyes, Fionn and Colm pulled me into the apple orchard for a quick word.
“You’re a hard worker, Yank. Feel free to stay as long as you want,” Colm said.
“Yeah, ya bollocks. You’re good craic for a Yank.” Fionn said. “I’ll teach you how to drive the tractor tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Don’t you have school?”
“School’s a load of shite. Gave up last year.”
Colm shook his head. “You’re going back to school next year! That’s the deal! Look at Yank, he’s got a college degree.”
“And look where it’s gotten him! Tomorrow we’ll be down at the slats, feckin’ silage in to them manky cows! The two of us, side by side, stinkin’ o’ shit!”
I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about, but I soon found out. It was the hardest, dirtiest work I had ever done. Slopping pigs, milking cows, chopping firewood, building stone walls, demaggoting sheep… I loved every minute of it. (Well, almost. If I never see another sheep’s arsehole crawling with fly larvae again, it’ll be too soon.) It was quite a drastic change after four years at university. A complete about-face. It was like I had climbed into a spaceship and landed on another planet. I stayed nearly three years.
to be continued…
1: Adán y Eva (Adam and Eve) : We got tipped off that the owner of a bar in our little extremeñan town of Plasencia was going to be on a reality show so we tuned in. The premise: two people are sent to an island where they go on a blind date completely naked. The difference between this crappy reality show and all the others: Adán y Eva shows full-on completely uncensored male and female nudity. Nothing gets blurred out.
The male contestant attempted to woo the girl with a tone-deaf rendition of Como el Agua while she desperately tried not to glance down at his completely shaved frank and beans. Then he tried to impress her with his cooking skills, but good god man, put on an apron before you do some irreparable damage. It’s like a cross between reality tv and soft porn. After the couple gets to know each other a bit, a third person is introduced into the mix to create tension. That’s when shit gets real. Shouting, hair pulling, throwing drinks in each other’s faces. Not being fans of reality tv, Lola and I were fairly traumatized by the experience.
“I’m never turning on the television again.”
“I’m not comfortable going to that guy’s bar anymore… now that I’ve seen his penis.”
2: A crusty old mechanic from the nearby town of Macroom told me this joke one day when I was helping him fix a flat (or, as he would say, a puncture) on one of the massive tractor tires: “What do a priest and a pint of Beamish have in common? If you get a bad one, it’ll tear the arse right out of you!”