Kevin O’Hara’s journey of self-discovery begins as a mad lark: who in their right mind would try to circle the entire coastline of Ireland on foot—and with a donkey and cart no less?
But Kevin had promised his homesick Irish mother that he would explore the whole of the Old Country and bring back the sights and the stories to their home in Massachusetts. Determined to reach his grandmother’s village by Christmas Eve, Kevin and his stubborn but endearing donkey, Missie, set off on 1800-mile trek along the entire jagged coast of a divided Ireland.
Their rollicking adventure takes them over mountains and dales, through smoky cities and sleepy villages, and into the farmhouses and hearts of Ireland’s greatest resource—its people.
Along the way, Kevin would meet incredible characters, experience Ireland in all of its glory, and explore not only his Irish past, but find his future self.
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January 01, 2005
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Excerpt from Last of the Donkey Pilgrims by Kevin O'Hara
The Donkey Proposal
The Irish Midlands
It was at Rattigan's Pub in Kilrooskey, County Roscommon, that I first proposed traveling the coast of Ireland with a donkey and cart. The elderly patrons, biting at pipes and smelling of turf smoke, rolled in amusement.
"Ye're thinking of walking an ass about Ireland?" jawed Hugh Mannion from a high stool. "I have two at home that won't cross Derrane Bog!"
"Arragh, Hughie, now, be fair to your man," chimed Willie Cassidy from behind a hand of playing cards. "There'd only be the one ass that could circle the Ring of Ireland, and that'd be Johnny Rabbitt's jackass who swallowed the umbrella!"
I soothed my throat with a generous swallow of the black native Guinness, and sought refuge by the potbellied stove, flashing back to my inaugural pint here when I was seventeen. That long-ago summer, my younger brother Dermot and I were unwillingly sworn into the Celtic race in a drunken stupor. Now, on this cold winter night in 1979, thirteen years later, nothing had changed in this illustrious parish pub but the Harp calendar.
My uncle Vincent, to whom I had sketchily mentioned my plans, had warned that my "donkey proposal" would be greeted with ridicule by these age-old pensioners, who gathered every Friday evening at Rattigan's. But who else knew more about a donkey's strengths and limitations than themselves?
I took another gulp of the milk-warm stout, thinking back on that wondrous incident days earlier. Pedaling home to my grandmother's on the Knockcroghery Road, I was knocked off my bike like Saul from his horse when I saw a farmer smoothly tipping his donkey and cart down the road. "That's it," I gasped at the vision. "That's how I'm going to travel the whole of Ireland."
Now, taking a deep breath and another fortifying sip, I mustered the courage to speak above their merriment.
"But say, for instance, I was truly willing to go through with it. Could a donkey, a good one, travel the coast of Ireland? I'd take it easy, eight to ten miles a day, and I'd give myself eight months to travel the eighteen hundred miles."
Rheumy eyes glinted and glanced. The Yank wasn't having them on: he was dead serious. The house went silent. Playing cards were flattened. Miserable March rattled outside the panes. Pints were called for and collected as the old gentry of the parish circled their stools to gather their wisdom.
"A jackass, cut-jack, or a mare?" asked Mickey Owens, still eyeing me with suspicion.
"Never a jack," voiced Jack Rattigan, lifting the cap off his brow. "A jack would be braying sonnets in June, bugling day and night in August, and downright altogether mad in the snows of December."
"A cut-jack, then?" suggested Joe Hickey.
"A cut-jack is neither useful nor ornamental," mused Jim Tiernan. "A cut-jack has no heart. Nipped. Dry as polished glass. 'tis a mare the Yank would need, young and well-handled."
"The very thing," agreed the tall and scholarly Headmaster D'Alton. "A young mare sound of wind and limb, and a fine temperament. You wouldn't want her kicking the stars from the sky."
"A good mouth and square feet," added Hugh Mannion, "free of spavins, curbs, and sidebones. And she'd need to be well-shod with pony shoes and frost nails to cover those miles."
I stood among these wizened fellows--my mother's former schoolmates--nodding my head in agreement, but not having a blooming idea what they were on about.
"A double fistful of oats every morning would do her kindly," continued Willie Cassidy. "But don't go giving her a bucket of water after a good feed, or she'll cripple up and die with the gripe."
"Search Roscommon and Westmeath for your mare," offered Paddy Tiernan, "and don't go to any knackers or horse jobbers. With your Yankee accent, they'd sell you a mule without a tooth in its head."
"Better still," added Dan Madden, "if you're sincere in setting out on this caper, go see the horseman, Jimmy McDermott, in Kilteevan. If there's ever a mare that can circle Ireland, Jimmy Mac would be the one to find her."
"And keep a safe distance from the Spanish jacks," jabbed a smart aleck from the corner, "or your mare will be carrying extra baggage on the road home!"
The donkey seminar ended abruptly as the playing cards, itching in the hands of Willie Cassidy, were reshuffled and dealt again: the quarter-final round of "25" for an Easter turkey was at stake. Jim Tiernan, however, joined me by the stove. My grandmother's neighbor in the village of Ballincurry, he told me how his donkey could travel twenty Irish miles--twenty-five English miles--a day on a pinch of oats.
"An ass would go forever if you gave her her time," said old Jim, rubbing a plug of tobacco in his hands. "Pity is, too many farmers hurried and abused them. The only worry I see in you traipsing the world with a mare is that she could easily become homesick and lose heart. And when a mare loses heart, nothing will set her going again."
"What makes a mare lose heart?" I asked the affable man.
"'Tis easy enough, I'm afraid," he continued, packing his yellowed briar pipe with his thumb. "Mare asses worked a hard long day in Roscommon. But whether they were off to market with a sow, to the creamery with a can or two, to the bog for a cartload of turf, or to the fields to draw in the hay, they always knew they'd be home by nightfall to be fed and watered. Your mare won't have that luxury, for she'll be traveling the roads day after day, over mountain and bog, and at night be tethered in a different field or placed in some stinking byre. Nor will she be able to make any sense of your wanderings.
"I suppose a jack would be right for your journey if they weren't so ornery," he went on, lighting his pipe. "A jack is a common rogue, a rambler, but a mare likes her home. I heard a story years back of how a County Longford man sold his mare heavy in foal to a County Fermanagh man. The deal was settled over a jar of stout and the mare was boxed and carted up through Longford, Leitrim, and beyond the border town of Enniskillen. Fifty miles, if not more. Well, wouldn't you know, three days later this same Longford farmer was walking his fields, only to spot the sold mare feeding her downy foal. The poor creature had made good her escape and traveled fifty miles in two days to give birth on the third. Now, doesn't that give you some idea of their homing instincts?"
Of course, not everyone at Rattigan's was as helpful as Jim Tiernan. There was a scrum of old wags who brayed and whinnied throughout the seminar, asking one another if both my oars were cleaving the sea and other opprobrious remarks better left forgotten. But, all in all, it had been a fine evening. My proposed journey, however whimsical, now seemed at least plausible.
I sat on a wooden bench by the doorway, finishing my drink and tucking my pants into my socks for the bike ride home, when Hugh Mannion addressed the happy crowd, saying I'd be nothing short of a folk hero if I managed to circle Ireland with a donkey and cart.
"He'd be much like those wise men," he exclaimed, raising his bottle of barley wine, "who climbed Faerymount one clear night in June, all in hopes of catching the rising moon in a burlap bag!"
Everyone had a good laugh at that one, and they were still rolling when I left Rattigan's and mounted my bicycle for home.
On my three-mile spin back to Uncle Vincent's, I became so elated by visions of these donkey travels that I hopped off my bike and shouted up into the star-frosted night. But it was too early to go celebrating just yet. I hadn't a donkey yet nor the knowledge of what to do with one once I had it. And there were those donkeymen at Rattigan's, willing to wager their weekly pension check against any one ass completing the Ring of Ireland.
If this was true, would I have to set up relief stations along the coast--the proverbial Donkey Express? And was the distance of 1,800 miles--Boston to Amarillo in my country--fair for one donkey to travel?
Who was I trying to kid, anyway? I'm no Marco Polo. Not even a Cub Scout. I never toted tents on campouts or annual jamborees, never learned how to read a compass or light a fire with dry sticks. Neither Marlboro Man nor L.L. Bean mountaineer, I was not from that breed of men who tamed the American wilderness. Little wonder those cronies at Rattigan's enjoyed their chuckle, figuring I hadn't the strength to tie a double-knot in my sneakers, and then, to propose this preposterous expedition.
I hopped back on my bicycle, my wheels wobbling down the black country road. There were so many stones in my path: Could a donkey and cart handle the hills and water-crossings, navigate the cities, the Northern boundaries, elude the animal protection league, and avoid encounters with Tommies or the IRA? Would I be gunned down by some trigger-happy sectarian? But easy! Easy! No sense in becoming too anxious too soon.
I stopped to gather myself at the old millhouse in Cloonara where the stars gleamed in winter glory and the River Holywell grumbled through the quiet blackness. Was I really mad, as many at Rattigan's had thought? Who would ever know? But this one time in my life I wanted to leave all worldly concerns behind and embark on this journey with the dizzy abandon of an adventurous boy.
Or like the adolescent I'd been when I first came to Ireland with my parents in 1966, their first trip home since emigrating to America. They'd been in England till 1953, where I had been born, along with four siblings, and three more arrived after we moved to Massachusetts. "The Yanks," we called the latecomers.
Dermot and I had been the chosen pair for this long-awaited vacation, and when we arrived to our grandmother's at Ballincurry, our mother led us to the high-hedged fields of her old homestead. There, uncharacteristically, she took us each by the hand and spun us around, stopping to point out things with a trembling finger.
"There's the white stone where Mrs. Tiernan would sit and wait for us to come home from school with slices of rhubarb tart. Why, you've never tasted the like! And below, there, in the meadow of Coolrua, Aunt Bea kept her blue hens. Yes, blue hens! And look, boys, the fires smoldering in the bogs. Many a long, happy day I spent there gathering turf with your great-grandfather. And do you see Lough Ree? Headmaster Foley would tell us stories of how Vikings sailed their longships there on St. John's Eve a thousand years ago."
Dermot and I looked at her in awe. This wasn't the mom we knew back home in Pitts-field: a tired, worn mother of eight, living in a drafty duplex on Wilson Street. How sad to be brought up amongst the greenest fields, dotted with farmhouses of friends and kin, and to wind up hanging her laundry in a bare backyard where our landlord kept his collection of junked automobiles. Little wonder she was often blue, saving her dimes in a Skippy peanut-butter jar all those years for this short respite to Ireland.
"At your age, boys, I could gather two stacks of hay a day in Jamsie's Field," she continued, her face flushed, her voice young and vibrant. "And I'd deafen swarms of bees with a spoon and tin can in those trees beyond. Oh, and the call of the corncrake. How charming their chatter!"
She told us colorful stories that left us imagining what might have been if she had remained in Ireland and raised her family here, rather than leaving for England at age seventeen to commence her nurse's training there. And how different would we be? Would we have been great men with the cattle, Dermot and me? Would we handle horse and plow, and rest atop the headlands, breathing in the ethereal goodness of turned tillage?
As witness to my mother's awakening that summer of long ago, I felt a great unrest begin to stir in me. What homeland treasures lay buried, never to surface? What hidden springs were never tapped? What balm for the soul never unearthed?
Not that I hadn't been drawn to Ireland long before this first visit. When my mother had suffered low periods back in the States, she would often keep me home from grammar school. I'd do chores and watch the little ones, and then I'd play marbles on our braided rug in the front room while Mom sat sadly by the window, rereading letters from home. I'd beg her to share the contents, and in no time I knew all of Grannie Kelly's family and neighbors. After the letters were read, I was given the stamps from their envelopes--colorful stamps depicting a little stone hut named Gallarus, a seat of kings called "the Rock of Cashel," and a brown-cloaked monk penning a Psalter--which I'd carefully paste into my notebook.
When I asked my mother what she missed most about Ireland, she had said the people, because they were as wholesome as fresh linen on the line. I told her I was going to travel all of Ireland one day, and I'd know it as well as my marbles knew the frayed seams in our braided rug, and sometimes she would smile.
A few years later, Grannie Kelly herself came to America, and I was relieved of my duties. She stayed with us for eleven months, filling the house with lively chat, love and laughter. And stories, always stories. With the evening Rosary said and tea in her lap, she'd tell us tales with her lovely accent and mighty howl. "Aye, and poor Gummy Nertney coming off the mountain after a neighbor gave birth to triplets, you know, and Gummy saying, 'Have ye decided which one ye'll be keeping?'--as if talking about kittens, be God."
So here I was now, alone in the dark of an Irish night with a diadem of stars over my head, ready to reclaim my lost kingdom, determined to travel the roads in search of my heritage, to find some missing part of myself, to recapture an Irish childhood lost to emigration. Call me mad, but I had to embark on this crazy quest.
My cousin Noel Kelly was the only one awake at Uncle Vincent's when I walked the bicycle into the yard. Excitedly, I told him about my planned donkey tour, and how I had to see Jimmy McDermott the next evening in Kilteevan.
Noel, reading the paper at the kitchen table, looked up at me with one eye cocked. "How many pints did you have tonight?" he asked.
"Two pints of Guinness," he chuckled, carrying himself off to bed. "Two pints of Guinness and you're out of your flipping mind."