By Suzanne Van Atten
Bone tired and drunk on whiskey, I was wedged in the corner of a booth at Gus O’Connor’s Pub in the small seaside town of Doolin, Ireland. I watched my three girlfriends chat up an international coterie of men who had flocked to our table, drawn to the trio of boozed-up beauties. A decade older than my friends and more plain, I was excluded from the sexual energy that emanated from their flirtatious repartee, and I turned my attention to the musicians who filled the air with the sometimes jaunty, sometimes mournful sounds of their guitars, fiddles, and accordion. I recently had grown accustomed to my place in the periphery of my friends’ mating dance.
For years I had been a suburban divorced mom, occupied by working as an arts editor for the local newspaper and raising two sons mostly on my own. But that all changed when my youngest son left home for college. I decided my life needed a shakeup, so I broke up with my boyfriend of twelve years and moved into the city. Although a mere ten miles separated my former home (a ’60s ranch house in a working-class neighborhood) from my new abode (a shabby Victorian duplex in the shadow of glass-and-steel high-rises), they were worlds apart.
The moving van had barely pulled away from the curb when I found myself thrust into a lifestyle more like that of a college freshman than a divorced mom in her late-forties. A simple invitation to a colleague’s house party was my entrée into a lively social circle of mostly thirtysomething journalists and publicists who threw raucous parties, went to clubs to hear bands, and closed down bars three and four nights a week. Seemingly overnight, my phone was ringing with invitations to meet my new friends for drinks, dinner, and more. I soon developed an impressive tolerance for alcohol consumption and a constant quest for the perfect concealer to hide the permanent dark circles beneath my eyes.
One night after work, I met my friend Shelly for a beer at our favorite neighborhood bar. A flirtatious redhead with a penchant for floral print sundresses and red lipstick, Shelly is the most extroverted of my friends and the ringleader of our social activities. Her perpetually cranky boyfriend had recently moved out of the duplex they’d shared for six years and taken up with an art school student nineteen years his junior. Since her breakup, we occasionally lamented our single status. We missed having someone to share our beds, to kill our bugs, to carry out our trash; lately what we missed most was our traveling companions. That’s when we came upon the idea of taking a trip together. I had been dreaming of Ireland, and that suited Shelly, so we decided to book a trip in March.
We invited two friends to join us: Amy, the marketing director for the newspaper where I worked, a short, curvy blonde with an infectious giggle and dimples to match, and Scottie, an advertising executive at a global marketing firm, a tall, willowy, strawberry blonde. Amy recently had broken up with her boyfriend, a cute bald-headed boy and utilities trader who had become so obsessed with online gambling he no longer left his apartment. Scottie had been on her own for years, having yet to recover from the day she returned to her elegant, antiques-and-art-filled home to find her trust fund-baby boyfriend of seven years in bed with another woman.
Over a round of drinks one night, we raised our glasses to toast the fact that we were independent women with disposable income who didn’t need men by our sides to see the world.
Our journey began in Dublin, where we spent our days touring the usual sights—museums, churches and shops—and our nights were spent in the pubs where I often found myself shuttled to the side as men elbowed their way in to chat up the girls. Sometimes I would return to the table from a visit to the restroom to find my chair taken by another potential suitor. There was a time when I would have been in that game, I thought, but it appeared that time had passed.
But then, I’d look at these men—overgrown boys really—with their drunken swagger and imbecilic conversations laced with crude double entendres, and I’d wonder why my friends bothered. Especially knowing the night would end on a sour note when the pub closed and the men realized my friends were just having a bit of fun and were going home alone.
After a couple of days in Dublin, we planned to spend the rest of our stay in Galway, but first was the leg of our trip I had anticipated most. I was leading the charge on a 250-mile roundtrip driving tour south of Galway through the picturesque Dingle Peninsula and back north again to spend the night in Doolin, a tiny seaside town famous for its pubs and the local musicians who gather there to play traditional Irish music.
The day of our journey, we woke up early and went to the hotel dining room for breakfast where I scanned the morning paper over a plate of bacon and eggs. “Listen to this,” I said, as I relayed the lead story. A man convicted of raping a divorced mother of three had been set free on probation, and his victim, Mary Shannon, had gone public to renounce the light sentence. Activists were rallying around her, and a protest march was planned in her hometown of Ennis. We studied the photograph of Mary Shannon, her long brown hair framing a face etched with anger.
“Unbelievable!” I said. “He was found guilty!”
“I guess you can get away with rape in Ireland,” said Shelly.
We finished our breakfast and the girls sipped a round of mimosas in the hotel lobby while I negotiated the terms with the car rental agent, a blustery, red-faced man straight out of central casting whose brogue was so thick, I barely understood a word he said. After his interminable lecture on the car’s operating systems, we took our positions—me behind the wheel, Shelly in the passenger seat with a map on her lap, and Amy and Scottie in the back seat. Off we set.
“Stay left, stay left!” “Watch the curb!” were Shelly’s constant refrains the first hour or so of our drive. Any other time I would have been annoyed, but mastering the art of driving on the left was no easy task and I welcomed her warnings. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful, sunny day, despite the March chill, and we admired the lovely green countryside, the low-slung stone walls and the charming little towns we passed as we headed south. But traversing the narrow, winding roads proved more time consuming than we had imagined, and three hours into our journey we found ourselves in a quandary. Our progress had been slow and time was passing; we began to wonder if we could cover all the ground we had hoped to in one day.
We stopped in the village of Camp, the northern gateway to Dingle Peninsula, and studied the map. It indicated a coastal road that looped around the land mass and a cut-through that dissected it called Conor Pass, at the end of which was the village of Dingle. If we drove the circumference of the peninsula, could we get to Doolin in time to make it to the pubs?
“Well, we’ve made it to Dingle Peninsula. We could just turn around and go back now,” said Shelly.
“The point was not to just come here,” I protested. “I want to actually see it. Maybe we could just drive along the northern route a bit, then turn around and head back.”
As precious minutes ticked by, Shelly and I debated our options and studied the map while Amy and Scottie sat quietly in the back seat. The more laid-back half of our quartet had been content so far to let the two alpha-chicks in the front seat call the shots. But we had reached in impasse.
“We’ve come this far. I think we should at least drive through Conor Pass,” Scottie said.
So we all agreed and proceeded along the northern route of Dingle Peninsula, speeding as fast as the narrow road would allow and climbing dramatically in altitude. Before long we noticed there was not another car in sight, not a house, not a road marker, not a sign of civilization anywhere.
“Look behind us!” Amy shouted, and we all looked back at the sunny, grassy, low-lying plains rimmed by the sea now far below us. It was a splendid sight, but it did not prepare us for what was to come. No sooner did we fix our eyes back on the road ahead that we rounded a sharp curve that revealed a vastly different vista.
Like some sort of eerie, lunar landscape, Conor Pass lay before us: a rollercoaster of massive stone mountains as far as the eyes could see. One after another, they rolled toward the horizon, all gray and rounded and rocky. We wound our way through the mountains, around enormous boulders that looked poised to roll over on us at any moment. Along the way were wide spots in the road where we pulled over to get out of the car and run up and down natural stepping-stones that led toward barren mountaintops. We rubbed our fingertips over thick carpets of fuzzy mosses and teal-colored lichen that grew in nooks and crevices around the rocks. We wet our hands in natural spigots of rushing cold water that splashed out of holes in the mountain, creating small pools and streams.
The wind grew fierce atop Conor Pass, so we pulled out every coat, scarf and cap we could find in the trunk to bundle up, and we ran around in circles like little kids to warm up, snapping pictures in every direction. The bitter cold and bizarre beauty made me feel drunk and giddy, and I was struck by the sensation that we were alone in the universe, plunked down in a place completely otherworldly and wholly our own.
Back in the car, we descended down the road, and the landscape gave way once again to lush green pastures and views of the southern coastline on the horizon. We stopped in the town of Dingle, where we shared a round of pints at Dick Mack’s Pub before starting along the peninsula’s southern route. That was when hunger pangs grabbed hold, reminding us that our breakfast had been so many hours ago.
As we approached the end of Dingle Peninsula, we entered the town of Annascaul and spotted The South Pole Inn. It was a ramshackle, two-story pub with fires burning in the hearth and walls lined with vintage photographs and newspaper clippings chronicling the South Pole expeditions of local explorer Tom Crean. Several photographs depicted the big strapping adventurer dressed in parka and pelts standing on a stark, vast landscape as seemingly unworldly as that which we had just left behind on Conor Pass.
Mindful of the time, we ordered our food to go—four toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a single pile of fried chips. As we sped down the road, we perched the box of potatoes on the console between the front seats and devoured the warm, mushy triangles of meat and cheese.
The sun was no longer visible in the sky but daylight clung on, and I sped as fast as I could, hoping the light would last until we made the River Shannon, where we had to catch a car ferry.
“Um,” Amy uttered from the backseat. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her nose buried in the ferry schedule. “Yeah,” she said solemnly. “The last ferry is at 7:30 p.m.”
“What?” I cried. “It can’t be! The schedule says there’s one at 8:30 and 9:30, too!” But I was wrong. I had misread the timetable, mistaking the summer schedule for the shorter off-season one. I looked at the dashboard clock while my toasted ham and cheese sandwich tumbled uncomfortably in my stomach.
“It’s 6:30 now.” I said. “There’s no way we’ll make it.”
I was answered by silence.
“We can make it!” Shelly finally said with forced cheer. She studied the map for a few minutes. “Yeah, we can do it.”
If we missed the ferry, it would add ninety minutes to our drive over unfamiliar roads in the dark and would mean missing out on the pubs in Doolin, which closed promptly at midnight. We had no choice but to fly as fast as we could. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and said a silent prayer: “Please don’t let us die trying.”
Between towns we zoomed past slow-moving vehicles and straddled the middle of the road on straight-aways at a fast clip. Outside Tralee, we came upon a moving roadblock. Despite our haste, we delighted at the sight of it: a man and his two children herding a trio of black-and-white cows down the road to a fresh pasture.
The clock read 6:43.
Our progress was slowed as we passed through the tiny towns along the way—Tralee and Listowel and Tarbert. We navigated our way around the confusing roundabouts. In Listowel we exited on the wrong road, but realized our error and backtracked through the traffic circle and headed the right way.
It was 7:12.
The last glint of light left the sky as we passed though Tarbert and headed down the final stretch to the ferry docks — a long, narrow, winding road with hairpin turns along the way. Everyone was silent and tense with concentration as though we could propel ourselves there by the combined force of our will. The clock read an impossible 7:24. The road was thickly wooded and our high-beams cut a swath through the darkness as I took curve after curve. My arms and shoulders were as tense as steel rods as I gripped the wheel and negotiated the tight turns.
“Maybe they’ll see our lights coming and wait,” I offered hopefully.
As we came around the last curve, the woods gave way, and we spotted the brightly lit station where the ferry waited, idling quietly at the dock. I shouted with joy as I zoomed on board and eased on the brakes, slipping into our space in the orderly row of cars and trucks calmly waiting to cross to the other side.
It was 7:31.
I rolled down the glass as the ticket-taker briskly approached my window, and I started to fumble with my purse to find my pre-purchased ticket.
“May I take your pulse, please?” he said with a wink.
We piled out of the car to stretch our cramped limbs. While the girls ran off to the restroom, I braved the fierce wind to climb up the steps to the viewing deck and watched the lights of the ferry dock fade into the night as we motored toward the north shore. My heart was still racing from the harrowing drive and my nose and fingers were numb with cold, but I relished the few minutes alone. I could barely believe we had made it. It was just a ferry crossing, but it felt like something more—like a test or a challenge, and I had won. Age may be robbing me of whatever grace and beauty I might have once had, I thought as I stood in the middle of the dark river, but I had guts and drive to spare, damn it. And that counted for something; in fact, it counted for a lot. For the first time I had the freedom and capacity to live a life of my own design, and I was just now realizing what an immense gift that was.
The tension that had chased us to the River Shannon had lessened somewhat, but we were still fighting the clock. The pubs closed at midnight and it would take us at least two hours to get to Doolin. Luckily, the roadways were nearly empty, and I straddled the middle line to avoid the low-slung rock walls that lined the streets and threatened to stop us, literally, dead in our tracks.
Driving as fast as I could, we passed through the dairy lands of County Clare in dark silence. But when we entered the last town before our final trek along the isolated back roads to Doolin, our progress was stopped cold at the town’s main crossroads. My intent was to turn right, but if I had, we would have been thrust headlong into an approaching procession of women and children slowly marching toward us carrying lit candles in their hands. Flanked by two women carrying a banner that read, “Stop domestic abuse,” I could just make out the unmistakable figure of a tall thin woman with long brown hair leading the way.
“My God, it’s Mary Shannon,” I said.
Struck by the solemn dignity of the women’s flame-lit faces as they silently approached, I was overcome by a sense of solidarity. I shared their outrage and admired them for claiming their right to be heard. And I identified with their desire for safety. I was suddenly aware that we were a group of women traveling alone in a foreign land, tempting danger as we sped through the night over unfamiliar roads and chatted up strangers over one too many pints. Our concerns were focused on making sure our money held out and cramming in everything we wanted to do before our time was up—not just in Ireland but in our lives back home, too.
We were city girls who lived in sketchy neighborhoods where panhandlers, car break-ins, and unwanted attention were daily occurrences. We patronized convenience stores buttressed with bulletproof glass to withdraw twenties from ATMs so we could go to dive bars where we stayed out too late. Afterward, we walked to our cars alone in the dark, returning to our burglar-barred homes, where we slept soundly in our beds, secure—however falsely—in the notion that we were safe.
“Quick, turn left,” Shelly said. “We’ve got to get around them.”
I followed her commands as she directed me around the women and back on our route north. Soon Mary Shannon and her band of supporters were far behind, along with the fears they embodied—of physical harm, vulnerability, financial instability, loneliness—the fears so many single women suppress everyday without even thinking about it in order to get through the day.
Eventually we began to descend into the tiny coastal town of Doolin. It was not difficult to find the Sea View B&B; there were only three streets in town. When we spotted the little dormered house stuck in the side of a hill, I couldn’t park the car and empty the trunk fast enough. Being the most eager to hit Gus O’Connor’s Pub—happily visible just across the creek not 100 yards away—I was the first one to clamber up the steps of the house and drop the brass knocker on the wooden door.
A post I’d read on a blog back home about a traveler being turned away from the Sea View for arriving too late flickered in the back of mind.
Again I dropped the knocker.
I heard rustling inside and a stomp or two, then the door flung open to reveal a very angry proprietress, wearing a thin floral bathrobe cinched tight to her waist with one hand, her blonde wiry curls bunched wildly in tufts on her head.
“You might have called,” she barked.
I apologized profusely as the others trundled in behind me, heavy with bags and fatigue.
“You’ll be heading to the pubs I guess,” she said.
We dropped our bags in our ruffled, rose-print bedrooms, ran combs through our hair and flew out the door, down the steep steps, over the stone bridge and into Gus O’Connor’s Pub. Finally! The time had come to toast our adventure and hear some Irish tunes.
The tightly packed bar was teeming with people, young and old, who were not just looking for a good time but had clearly found it. A fire burned in a hearth in the corner of the anteroom, and on the walls were scores of photographs of musicians and instruments.
We stepped into the large, main room, lined on one side by a long bar on the left. On the right, the space was filled with small tables and chairs, every one occupied. In the center of the room seated on chairs and benches were five musicians playing guitars, fiddles, flutes, and an accordion. We lingered by the bar with our first round, soaking in the music, before grabbing a booth just as a large group left.
We weren’t there long before we were joined by a revolving cast of young men, all travelers from various parts of the world. There was much talk about an upcoming rugby match they were eager to see the next day. We chatted and laughed, stepped outside to share cigarettes, and drank rounds of Guinness and whiskey. The muscles in my shoulders burned a bit as they slowly began to unfurl, releasing the tension that had gripped them all day. The whiskey was warm and soothing in my belly.
My mind soon wandered from the boys and their brash talk about where they were from and where they were going. I turned my attention to the music and grew fascinated by the deep red accordion as it wheezed and moaned its sad, lovely songs. A young woman smitten with its player had convinced him to let her fondle the instrument between songs. I had a powerful desire to wrap my hands around the mysterious contraption, to finger the small knobs and gently pump its lung as it wheezed. I wanted so badly to join them so I, too, could get a turn to touch the buttons and curious folds. Instead I just watched them from afar as they manipulated the instrument and felt my throat thicken with longing.
When the band was done for the night, I turned back toward my friends. Scottie was deep in quiet conversation with a beautiful, dark-eyed Italian, their heads so close together they nearly touched. Amy giggled as two animated Brits told her an elaborate story that required frantic hand gestures. Shelly, her eyes bright and her lips awash in a swipe of red, was snuggled up to a very tall Irish man with a goofy mustache. So I drained my glass, pulled on my coat and walked back to the Sea View alone in the dark.
SUZANNE VAN ATTEN is a features editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a creative writing instructor, and a travel book author. Her essays have been published in the Gettysburg Review and The Chattahoochee Review, among other outlets. She is working on a collection of essays called Everything Is Temporary.