Yesterday’s post was the introduction to a poem that has given me so much to be grateful for. Today, we’ll travel over to the Emerald Isle and meet, for the first time, the physical manifestation of all that gratitude. I hope you enjoy, and come back tomorrow for the final chapter (thus far).
It was raining when I arrived at the Shannon Airport. Water clouded the windows and made the idea of leaving the airport’s shelter anything but appealing. Gathering my bags and zipping up my light jacket, I stepped through the automatic doors and into the misty rain. The puddles in the parking lot soaked my jeans as I hunted for the bus that would take me to Galway. I finally found it and climbed into its warm, dry interior. I was in Ireland and I had no idea where to start my search for the Flaggy Shore.
“And some time, make the time to drive out west,
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore…”
Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Postscript” had lured me away from sunny Spain where I was studying, to the cold, damp Emerald Isle. I had been in Europe a month, attending a Spanish language school and struggling with the difficulties of being a foreign exchange student. Before leaving the U.S., I booked my ticket to Ireland with only a vague idea of what I would do once I got there. It was now the end of September and I was doing my best to make the time, as the poem suggested, to go west to County Clare and find the Flaggy Shore where I was promised I would discover a wild, glittering ocean, swans flocking to quiet lakes, and have an experience that would catch my heart off guard and blow it open. In short, I was looking to be inspired. Instead, I was soaked with rainwater and wondering what I was doing in this place that was foreign to me in every sense of the word.
After reaching my hostel in Galway, I found a map and examined every crevice of the country, searching for a sign of the Flaggy Shore. I came up with nothing. Sighing, I contemplated my options. I could either hope that the Flaggy Shore magically appeared on its own, or I could go looking for it, via a tour bus that would take me along the coast of County Clare. I figured that somewhere along the day tour I would run into the elusive piece of shoreline I had followed to Ireland. I booked my trip that same day and awoke early the next morning to catch the bus.
One of our first stops along the tour was at the Burren, or “rocky place.” In admiring the Burren, I saw a different version of what Heaney wrote about. Rather than the wind and light working off one another, I saw rocks and plants doing the same thing, making the landscape more beautiful by its opposing elements blended so harmoniously. Thankfully, though, I did find one piece of the poem’s picture of the Flaggy Shore: the grey lakes created by the stones. The Burren provided the perfect setting for small ponds to form after heavy Irish rains.
But my reliving of the poem ended there. By the day’s end, I had moved on to resignation. Maybe the Flaggy Shore and the essence of “Postscript” would forever escape me.
I tried to put my energies into focusing on the positive aspects of the trip: I was experiencing a new country, I was drinking Guinness in its homeland, I was meeting interesting people, I was being an independent woman, traveling by myself for the first time in my life. Still, I was feeling disappointed and filled my new journal with what I considered to be superficial travel notes. I viewed the absence of the Flaggy Shore in the leather-bound pages as a failure.
The next day I booked a hostel in Kinvara, a small village located in County Clare, a half hour’s drive south of Galway. I figured I might as well see a little more of the country while I was there.
Kinvara from across the bay
The bus pulled into its stop in Kinvara and I descended. Not seeing the hostel on the main street, I asked a woman sweeping the sidewalk in front of one of the many pubs if she knew where it was. She told me the only hostel she knew of was about three miles up the road. I glanced at the heavy overnight bag uncomfortably slung across my shoulder, and inwardly groaned at the idea of hauling it more than a block or two. I went to a café and sat drinking coffee, considering my options. I asked the two girls working there if they had any suggestions for me, and they recommended I go to the grocery store across the street and ask if anyone was going towards my destination. I followed their advice, and a man and his young daughter offered to take me all the way to the hostel.
In typical Irish fashion, the man immediately began talking and asking me questions. I told him I was from Montana and he guessed that, being from Montana, I liked to take walks. Translating “walks” to “hikes”, I said, yes, I liked to take walks very much. “Well then you should try to make it over to the Flaggy Shore,” he told me. “It’s only about seven miles from where you’re staying.” My breath caught in my throat and it took every ounce of self-control I had to keep myself from yelling with joy. As calmly as I possibly could, I told him why I had come to Ireland. “Oh Seamus Heaney, yes, I know him,” he replied. “I went to law school at Harvard while he was a professor there.” This time, an excited squeak escaped me. I could not believe it. After giving up any hope of reaching the Flaggy Shore, this man had given me directions straight to it, and had provided me with a story to tell. I thanked him profusely and jumped out of his SUV the second we reached the hostel’s doorstep. I spotted swans flocking to a bay across the field, and smiled.
I dropped my bag off at the hostel, grabbed my camera, and started walking. I walked and walked, until I ran upon a small grocery store. “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the Flaggy Shore, please?” I asked the old woman behind the counter. Her response, given in the thickest Irish accent I had heard yet, was nearly unintelligible. From what I understood, I had to go to the main road, then turn right. I did so, but after about another hour of walking, my anxiety over the doubtful directions and the darkening sky coaxed me to stick out my thumb. I had never hitchhiked before and was a bit hesitant at first. Luckily, a nice German woman picked me up and dropped me off about fifty yards from the shore. I shouted my thanks back to her and practically ran to the sign that read, “Flaggy Shore.”
I stood there for a moment, taking everything in. The grin on my face refused to go away as I strolled along the footpath. An elderly man and a dog were walking just behind me, and I started a conversation with the man. Giddy, I rattled off my entire story while he smiled and nodded along. He introduced the dog, Bingo, and told me Bingo loved to take walks with new people. The man walked ahead and Bingo became my fellow traveler along the Flaggy Shore. We stepped off the path and onto the rocks. I sat down to eat my lunch of Irish soda bread and Dublin cheese while Bingo sniffed around. I took in the stark landscape, rocky and gray. The glittering waves crashed against the rust-colored rocks and I scanned the pools for swans. Finally, my image of this stretch of coastline had a physical manifestation. It was subtler than I had imagined, with its colors hiding in the water and in the periodic rays of sunshine. There was no hint of the Irish green that had dominated the landscape up until this point. It was quietly barren, so different from everything else I had seen. This I realized, was why it deserved to be the subject of a great poem. Rather than creating yet another ode to the green Irish hillsides that would certainly be thrown in with all the other praises already sung to such a stereotypical landscape, Heaney had found the extraordinary, understated as it was. Sitting there, I felt the most content and complete I had ever felt in my life.
The following evening, I found myself once again at the Shannon Airport. My plane was not scheduled to leave until the following morning, but, due to a college student’s traveling budget, I had planned on sleeping in the airport. Curled up in a hard, metal seat, I reflected on how I had changed since my last visit, just six days earlier, to this same spot. It was nothing glaringly obvious. No life-altering decisions had been made. But I had changed, undoubtedly so. I burrowed under my blanket and dozed off with the sound of an Irish breeze and glittering waves playing in my mind, lulling me to sleep.