One thing is for sure. No one needs another book about some dreamy-eyed Americans buying a fixer upper on an Irish hillside in an attempt to “connect with their roots” and “live life the old-fashioned way.” For one, it’s a trite concept, totally lacking the terrifying amount of work and frustration that comes along with an endeavor this daunting. Two, it also cannot begin to capture the nuances of the people and the land, two elements that seem as intertwined and unchanging as the tide and moon.
When we first felt the press of metal key into hungry palm and turned the locks on this house, years of disuse left behind an essence of abandonment. Even though it had only been vacant a handful of years and built a handful of years before that, the space had the sensation that it, like us, was holding its breath. Would we be kind owners, learning the cranky boiler and labyrinthine plumbing system, or would we fling money at the problems, hammering down walls and bulldozing stones to make our mark?
In the first few days we made a gentle truce. Tom coaxed the washer and dryer (dryer!) into submission after a thorough cleaning, and I disemboweled the refrigerator to de-ice and rebalance the system. Tom started caulking out the bottle flies by sealing each window, balanced on a rickety ladder in the mist and cold, and I scrubbed cabinet faces of their years of floating dust. Tom followed around the electrician, locally known as GerFuck for his colorful language, learning the wiring and quirks of the 240V system, and I followed around the alarm installer cum electrician cum plumber cum handyman, affectionately known as Mossy, as he poked into every system and explained every switch. When I protested that he had better things to do than help some clueless Americans, he smiled and said his date with his girl wasn’t until 9pm so he had some time to kill. The extra hours for which he didn’t charge us a cent.
The first week we only had a limited time to fly over, pick up the keys, and try to right the ship before Tom came back ahead of Clare and I in the summer to get the rest of the systems installed. We couldn’t figure out the heat, there wasn’t a stitch of furniture in the house, and we kept our parkas on as we combed through the rooms fixing odds and ends. Since the furniture was delivered four days after we got there, we spent the week at a B&B I found online which was only a mile from the house. As it turns out, this was a case of divine intervention on behalf of the internet gods, because this decision linked us up with Sinead and Dan Barry, the proprietors of deBarra’s Lodge. Never mind the fact that each has a wicked sense of humor sharp enough to crack corn, we found in them people willing to call up their friends and request help on our behalf.
Weeks before we left for the key retrieval, we had already had a taste of the Irish way of doing business. Which is very similar after all to the Italian way of doing business, if you exclude the rudeness and insert a nonchalant shoulder shrug. Nothing gets done in Ireland quickly unless you have a local on your side who knows somebody. Septic tank back up? The pump truck is tied up for four or five days and besides, they aren’t sure if they can make it through your driveway so it might be a waste of their time to try. But they will spend 20 minutes patiently explaining that to you as effluence seeps up into your grass. Call a local and they will find a local farmer with a slurry spreader to pump and dump or snake it through that same day. Your fridge/freezer is broken and it’s not a European brand? Well there’s one guy for the entire county and he’s booked out for weeks and won’t really return your call. Call a local and they will suggest you visit your local DID store and sort out a small emergency fridge to ride you through. Can’t dig into your stony hillside to set your clothesline and need a tool? Call your neighbor (who isn’t home but puts in a distress call to the next guy down the hill) who arrives within an hour with an assortment of rock breaking tools to help you set the sleeve into the stones.
It’s this contrast that’s so charming. The “sorry can’t help you yet” and “yer man called me and said yer in a right fix, now what can we do?” phrases that pepper our early days in this house are a thrilling ride of uncertainly contrasted with head-shaking disbelief at the generosity of folks. Our neighbor Peter Daly is in our local (pub) Nolan’s as often as we are, and every time he claps eyes on us it is as though he’s peeled back the lid on a new cake. Recently he invited us to Castle Salem, which has been in his family since 1895 and was built in 1470. Little more than the ruined keep with a rambling house attached, the Castle is legend in Rosscarbery, and instrumental in the relations between Ireland and America since William Penn stayed there in 1670, and reportedly wrote some of his Great Case of Liberty of Conscience Once More Briefly Debated and Defended at Castle Salem.
The evening began at 9pm and a motor coach full of older folks from Clonakilty came roaring up and deposited a nattily dressed group of revelers. No one was under the age of 55 except myself and Clare, and folks took us under their wings, making room for us as we crowded into the tiny room at the bottom of the keep after listening to a long speech about the lineage of the area. We were invited up for a tour of the three tiny floors (each with privy!) and we were chagrined that we had to leave before the music started at 11pm as we were knackered from having weeklong guests who had departed just that day. I had the sense that we missed sometime special, and we had. The next day we saw Peter in Nolan’s and he said the crowd had stayed, drinking beer and listening to music until 1am. I laughingly told Tom that the older folks of Clon had a better nightlife schedule than I did!
In the summers though, it seems that people never sleep. After long winters of darkness, in which the sun makes desultory appearances for a few hours a day, the endless light of the summer days is intoxicating. The sun will rise at 5am and finally dim at around 10:45pm, making for a dome of light that sits like a bubble above the green valleys, bouncing from puffy clouds, and even when it is cloudy, the light is poured like deep silver into the darkest copses. It has a buoyant quality that seeps into its people for those few bright months of the year. If they get more than two or three lovely days in a row, a phrase they trot out is “isn’t it another country out there?” and I think “No, this is the Ireland I know and love” because they never cease to be amazed at their good fortune when the sun spills down.