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Tripping: Ireland

Scaling Skellig Michael with my 84-year-old mum Add to ...

At the end of our second day in Ireland, my mother and I peeled off sodden socks, slacks and underwear, wrung them out in the bathroom sink, and pitched them in the garbage. Oil stains splattered Mum's white duffle coat and the cuffs of her corduroys. Blue dye from my jacket dripped down the cream cables of my Irish knit sweater. A gritty film of salt licked our faces, our hair and our clothes and creased the corners of our lips. On our third day in Ireland, my salty sneakers stiffened and curled at the toes.

Frannie, my 84-year-old mother, wanted to travel to Ireland. Some of our Irish ancestors left county Sligo for Quebec City in 1825 and some stayed behind in a little stone shack. Frannie wanted to go to Ireland to see that shack. She wanted to go to Ireland for adventure, and she wanted to go with me.

We landed at Shannon Airport, rented a beat-up Toyota, and drove to Glanleam Gardens Guest House, where Meta, the manager asked us if we planned to climb Skellig Michael, a rock face off the coast of County Kerry. She said it was weather-dependent, and she would have to call Seanie.

At half-10 the next morning, we crouched on Sean Murphy's 12-metre fishing boat and crossed from Valentia Bay to Skellig Michael. The boat sailed with four Germans, two Frenchman, two Celts, two Brits, one Scot and two Irish Canadians.

Waves curled over the bow of Seanie's boat and slapped us in the face. My mother hugged her slicker tight to her body and tucked herself into a ball. I pulled the hood of my oilskin over my eyebrows and turned so that the water hit my back. For 45 minutes, Seanie skippered the Seaquest toward two specks of land, 12 kilometres out to sea. For 45 minutes, water splashed down our necks and up our sleeves.

The Seaquest bucked angry swells at Blind Man's Cove and shimmied closer to the only landing spot on the island. Seanie gripped the iron ladder screwed to the 217-metre rock face, and one by one Seanie's mate, Tommy, danced us up three iron rungs to a small plateau of moss and shale. "Back at half-two," he said.

My mother and I followed the two Frenchmen up 600 stone stairs carved by sixth-century monks. "If you get to the top," they told us en français, "you will receive the monk's blessing." We climbed. Wind whipped around the ragged grey rock and spit seawater at dozens of gannets gathered on stone shelves. "What do you think they meant about the monk's blessing?" Mum shouted into the wind. We climbed, sometimes on hands and knees, our sodden slacks hanging in folds between our legs.

A thick mist smothered Skellig Michael and people disappeared in fuzzy features and floated up the mountain like ghosts. I called over my shoulder. "Mum, you okay?"

"The going up isn't so bad, dear. It's the going down part I'm worried about. I may be fit, but my balance ain't what it used to be."

I stopped on a narrow sliver of slate and crowded my mother on the inside edge. "Sit here a moment, Mum, and I'll check if there's another way down."

I climbed. Fulmars spread stiff wings and floated on air currents. I climbed with my hands as well as my feet. I looked back for Mum, but fog swirled and hugged the staircase, blurring the birds, the rocks and the sea. Kittiwakes cried. I sunk to my knees. Jeez! This is unbelievable.

I eased down steep stairs one step at a time. I felt for the next step with my right foot, my left foot, my right hand, my left hand… My mother waved.

I shook my head. "We better skip the blessing, Mum, and go down the way we came up."

I sidled along the slate and snuggled against my mother. I warmed her wet muddy arthritic hands in mine and looked out to sea. The Atlantic smashed and frothed against the rocks. "Whoa, we might need that blessing," Mum said. "There's no way I'm walking down this cliff. One slip, I'll be gone, that'll be it."

My mother and I clung to the buggiflooer, a green ground cover. We crab-walked down 400 stone steps, slid down a moss-covered mound and scrambled scree near the base of the staircase. Delicate white petals, also known as Dead Man's Bells, grew out of water-laden leaves. We paused near the lighthouse and saw Seanie's boat, a dot in the distance.

When we got back to the guest house, Mum scrubbed her jacket with a bar of Irish soap. "I don't think this jacket's going to be any good," she said. A tiny smile creased her face. "Imagine. I climbed the Skellig. Wait till I tell them at dinner."

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