Get Me to the Islands, Seanie
One of the many things that fascinated me about Ireland was its monastic history. And the site that fascinated me most was Skellig Michael. Beehive huts? Puffins? Big chunk o’ rock in the Atlantic? Sail on, child of Brendan!
While planning for our trip I had marked Skellig Michael on my tourist book map with a big “?” in orange hi-liter. That meant “love to see it, a bit expensive, we’ll see.” I was looking at it while my wife and son, per family agreement, packed up on our last morning in Kenmare. They packed and unpacked. I planned, drove, arranged, and guided. It worked out well.
As I stacked our bags by the front door of the Water’s Edge B&B (I did the heavy lifting, too), I spoke to the owner about our plans and mentioned Skellig Michael. What followed paints an excellent picture of the Irish people.
Mrs. O’Shea went on about what a good idea that was, how only so many can go each day, we’ll love it, and who did we make our reservations with? Um…well, see, there’s this big orange question mark here.
“The boats only hold about a dozen people,” she explained, “and there are only three or four boats that go each day.” Ah, well, I thought, it was only a possibility anyway. Then Mrs. O’Shea proved that in Ireland, yes, all things are local: “But I know one of the boat drivers, Seanie. I’ll give him a ring, maybe he’s got room for you.” Four boats a day from a distant port and my hostess knows one of them well enough to ring him up on short notice. Nice.
She came back from the kitchen. “Okay, Seanie said he’s got room, but they may not go out today due to the water being a bit rough. High waves, he said. But if you want to go, he’ll wait for you. You’ll have to leave now, it’s a bit of a drive.” She gave clear and precise directions through town to the Portmagee Road. Three turns later I was already confused and pulled over to ask a couple of workmen for directions. My wife and I discussed the exchange all the way to the port:
Me: “Excuse me, good morning, could you tell me which road to take for Portmagee?”
Workman #1: “Hello, hello. Portmagee?”
Workman #2: “Portmagee? Which way do you want to go?”
#1: “You’ll want this road to the left, but you can take the other, too.”
#2: “It depends on which way you want to go.”
Me: “Um…whichever will get me there faster.”
Both #1 and #2: “Oh, well in that case you’ll want the road on the left.”
Me: “How long is the drive?”
#2: “Oh, it’s a good hour and half, at least.”
#1: “At least.”
I looked at my watch. 9:30. The boat left at 10:30.
Me: “Well, shoot, that’s not good. We’re trying to catch a boat to Skellig Michael and it leaves in an hour.”
#1: “Oh, well in that case you can make it.”
#2: “Just take the road on the left.”
Me: “You think I can make it in an hour?”
#1: “If the boat leaves at 10:30, you can make it.”
In Ireland, as I discovered then and after, time and distance are often relative to one’s need. A 90-minute drive became an hour’s drive because two workmen didn’t want to disappoint a stranger. I thanked the men and pointed the rental car at the road on the left. As we pulled away, I could’ve sworn I heard one of the men call, “Tell Seanie we said hello!” But that may have just been my imagination.
We made the 90-minute drive in an hour, of course, despite my wife gasping every time we went around a bend. This was, for once, not due to my driving but to yet another incredible view. Tidal pools stretching out to our left, the deep browns contrasting with the lush greens of the banks. Dappled sunshine on hills and fields and sheep with red dots and sudden rain and cows and rock walls and stone cottage ruins and sheep with blue dots and horses and sudden sunshine and …
Suddenly we were in Portmagee, pulling right up to the concrete pier. A small boat gently rocked below iron rungs imbedded in the concrete. Someone obviously unfamiliar with the act was descending the rungs and was paused just above the boat as a man in full rain gear reached a hand up to help them. A few people sat in the boat, looking smug, while a few waited above, looking doubtful. This must be the place. I exchanged meeting plans with my wife and my son and I headed to the boat.
The group above the boat included another man in full rain gear. He looked quite relaxed, and I spoke to him. “Hi, I’m looking for Seanie.”
“Are you Gerry?” he asked.
“Ah, you made it, well done. I’m Seanie.” I shook his hand, which felt like steel wrapped in sandpaper. “In you get, then.”
In we got, then, my son scrambling down the rungs like he’d been doing it all his life and me just a bit less so. I declined the hand of the gent in the boat, thank you, sir, and managed to land without falling or pulling a hamstring, thank you, God.
Seanie boarded and handed us rain gear. “It’ll be a bit wet,” he said. “Put this on and sit down, we’ll be off in a minute.” He moved around the boat, casting off lines. We donned the cold, wet gear and sat on the bulkhead. I could feel the vibrations from the engine. The smell of diesel mixed with the damp air. The sun had disappeared and it was chilly.
Seanie stood before us. “Okay, could I have your attention for just a moment.” Ah, the safety briefing, I thought. In America, this is the part where the captain gives us the estimated travel time, tells us what to do in case of emergency, and demonstrates the proper use of a life jacket. In Ireland, this is the part where Seanie says, “It’s a bit rough out there today, so stay seated. You’ll be getting wet.” End of safety briefing. Seanie disappeared into the small cabin, opened the throttles, and off we went into gray Atlantic.
We watched the cove grow smaller as we cleared protected water. Then the waves got higher. Then it started to rain. Seawater sloshed over the deck and soaked our shoes. The rain came harder and the waves got higher. We were pelted by cold rain and freezing sea spray.
“You know,” I said over the roar of the engine to a couple from Seattle who were on their honeymoon, “if we were back home we’d be warm and dry in an enclosed cabin, getting hot chocolate and t-shirts from the snack bar.”
“I know,” replied the bride, “Isn’t this great?”
The groom added, “If we were back home we’d still be at the pier getting the safety briefing. I like this better.” Judging from the smiles of our fellow soaked travelers, so did they.
I won’t say more about the journey except that, when it was over, we were all wet, cold, tired, and absolutely exhilarated. It is an experience not to be missed.
And tell Seanie I said hello.