One of the greatest things to hear before setting out on a spell of travel is “What’re you going there for?” It implies the strangeness and risk that makes discovery inevitable. They’re also the qualities of revival and rebirth, vital for a life in need of both.
That question (“Water yas gain dan dare fer?”) was put to me in a Dublin pub when I happened to mention that I would be travelling south the next day, down the Irish Sea coast, to Wexford County. I had friends in the area, but there was consensus over pints on Drury Street that Wexford is dull. Warnings of dullness can never be taken too seriously – not every place feels the need to broadcast its fun.
However, only just out of Dublin, I rather felt I was moving away from the expected. Gone were Dublin’s fussy snarls of traffic and concrete. The coastal trainline passed a seashore in places as steep and wild as the cliffs at Gaspé, in others as lush and bosky as the Great Bear Rainforest. After three hours, as we neared the town of Wexford, the land tempered and rolled into meadows and country lanes set with farms, a sign of the southeast’s considerable Arcadian setting.
Shortly after arriving, I was given a good summary of the place from a man on the street. “Not much goes on here,” he said, “but we give it a lash.”
That was a pretty good clue this little town in what the locals call “the model county” was good-natured and didn’t take itself too seriously. It was just what I needed: easy beauty and the bosom of friendship.
I’d become accustomed to a smooth ride in life, but there had been too much loss around me of late: the deaths of relatives, fatal diagnoses of friends, lost love. At a family meal the day before I left for Ireland, my grandfather pulled me to him and said, “It was very nice to see you, boyo, but unfortunately it won’t happen again because soon I’ll be dead.” Waking up at dawn each day at home to watch the light open the air of my room, I felt like I was receiving the message of life, but not the meaning.
For that, I needed change. Ireland could provide; it was new country to me, free from the baggage of memory. It came highly recommended: My aunt told me she loved visiting Ireland because, when walking along any street, she could hear people laughing. Public laughter is a balm and was just the lightness I was looking for.
Wexford had gone through its rough patches; it was no Elysian Plain. For all the grassy pastures and strawberry patches in the surrounding hills, it maintained an air of fortification, like a rock placed in a garden. The old, thick stone walls built by the Norse still held up a piece of the quay. The twin spires of the churches of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption rose into the sky like the blades of pikes, the weapon for which the city was famous. The streets of grey rowhouses were like austere ramparts ready for battle.
And no wonder: Almost touching the Welsh coast, and straight north of France, Wexford has historically been Ireland’s stubbed toe, spending centuries – millennia, really – bumping against the hard stumps of invaders. The Vikings and the Normans crashed through. Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army razed the town in the 17th century, and 150 years later, it was the centre of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and all the death and suffering that brought.
There’s much less turmoil in what is now a fishing and farming town – tractors rumble through the streets, horse-drawn wagons clatter on the backroads, and the most dangerous events are the weekend hurling matches. On the quay one morning, with the River Slaney pushing against the incoming tide, a group of men knelt before a statue of the Virgin before climbing on their trawler.
On the street were the sounds of yodelling buskers, and snatches of Ukrainian and Portuguese conversations, and signs advertising shows at the Arts Centre and the Opera House. On the pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the city centre, it could be as busy as a bazaar in Marrakesh. The feeling was fitting, as the weather was decidedly more Moroccan than Irish.
The days broke cool and rose to a wilting heat that remained until well after dark. Everyone commented on the heat. “A lovely day is a lucky day,” said a man tending his garden. For a jokey bunch, the Irish could be incredibly earnest. “Tanks for tat,” a man said after I complimented him on his coat, his sincerity untouched by irony. “Really. Tank you.”
I was beginning to feel sincerely lucky, Ireland’s sunny southeast lifting the yoke of darkness. Bicycling to Forth Mountain with my friends, the narrow roads – bucolic and empty one moment, the next filled with madcap drivers – were lined with blackberry brambles and rosehips.
Kayaking off Baginbun Head, we watched dolphins breach and hit the water with an almighty crash. Afterwards, we fell asleep lying side by side on the soft spread of sand at Curracloe Beach, the coastal air allaying the surprising heat of the sun. Things might fall apart, but there would always be light in a world with fresh strawberries, and new potatoes, and soft breezes and clean linen.
How often it seems that disparate sides of the world long for the other. It is one of the unexplained oddities of travel that you can turn a corner on the far side of the Earth and stumble over yourself, as though some part of you had been waiting there all along. Finally, like Don Quixote, I could settle, “for there are no birds this year in last year’s nests. I was mad, but I am sane now.”
Just when I felt ready to leave, I was asked the other great question one can hear during a spell of travel. “Oh, must you go? Don’t say you’re leaving. Tell me you’ll be staying longer.” And I did.
J.R. Patterson is from Gladstone, Man. His website is www.jrpatterson.ca