I've never really had any direction in my own life, so I often find myself surprised at where I've ended up. This was certainly the case when I arrived in the little town of Glencollumcille in Donegal County, Ireland. I was not actually a member of the Celtic Club at UWM, but rather had decided to go to Ireland with them on a whim. I had with me only the bare essentials; clothes, toiletries, notebook, pen, and tape recorder (If you couldn't tell, I was one of those Journalism students who always had his tape recorder on him).
After getting situated in our rented cottage, we went out into the town to Biddy's, one of the local pubs. Very few things in life are exactly as one imagines them in one's head, but the Biddy's was an exception that proved the rule. Celtic symbols were carved into wooden signs that decorated the walls. In fact, most everything was made of wood, giving everything a rustic sense. The air was filled with chatting and laughing Irish accents, both unintelligible and intoxicating.
Our group went to a table and was served by an actual barmaid, young and beautiful. Her accent was light enough to make her understandable, but apparent enough to give her a quality of innocent mystery. I asked her if all Irish barmaids were as beautiful as her. To which she smiled and responded. "You'll find them more beautiful after a couple rounds."
We laughed as she retreated to the bar. One of the girls from our group left to use the pay phone stashed away in the corner. The barmaid brought us our drinks and we began to truly immerse ourselves in the culture. The girl returned and we all continued with our merry-making.
"Excuse me." A gruff, Irish voice intruded on the group and we turned to see an old, portly man. He had on a grey overcoat, green stocking hat, and a long straggly beard that covered most his features. He held up a purse and handed it to the girl who had made the phone call. "You left this in the booth."
She smiled appreciatively and took her purse. He returned the smile. All his focus was on the girl. "I'd stay to chat, but I don't think my girlfriend would appreciate it."
"Well what's she like?" The girl asked.
His smile turned to a grin. "We get on well, we like each other, but she's an ordained catholic priest and celibate." He looked over the whole group and let out a surprisingly jovial laugh. "Just me luck!"
We all laughed along with him. His manner and air made him difficult to dislike. One of the guys in our group suggested he come drink with us.
"No, no." He shook his head. "I've got a spot over there already."
"Please stay." The girl touched his arm, which he jerked away with such suddenness that it momentarily stunned me. He almost immediately calmed himself and smiled.
"No, but thank you for the offer." He immediately turned back to his table. Before I know exactly what I was doing, I leapt up from my chair and followed him. "Excuse me." I said.
He turned and examined me. "Yeah?"
I floundered for a second, unsure of what to say next. Why did I follow this man? I opened my mouth, hoping for something plausible to fall out. "I was wondering if I could interview you." Quick as a flash, I pulled my tape recorder out of my pocket.
He looked at it briefly, then at me. He stood for an uncomfortably long time, considering this. Finally, his beard lifted slightly and he smiled. "Well it's about bloody time someone did." He sat at his table and motioned at the seat across from him. "The name's Stan."
"Hold on." I said as I fumbled with the recorder. I cued the tape and set it on the table as I sat in the seat. I pressed the record button and leaned forward. "So, Stan, What do you do?"
He leaned back in his seat and looked pensively in the air. "I used to be a sailor, long time ago. Now I fix things that need fixing 'round the village here."
I opened my mouth to ask another question, but he cut me off. "D'you know I lived on an Indian reservation, in America, for three years."
I raised my eyebrows questioningly. "It's true." He said. "I traded with 'em and trapped with 'em. Pure bliss, it was."
"So…" I wasn't exactly sure what to ask him, but a question did come to me. "Why did you leave?"
"Y'see," Stan picked up his glass and took a large swig, leaving a healthy amount of foam to settle into his beard. "This particular tribe had a ritual where every five years or so, they burn down their huts so as they don't get attached to nothing material. I refused to burn me things, so they outcasted me from the tribe."
I thought about this story, wondering at its validity. "You said earlier that you used to be a sailor."
"Aye, best one I know at that."
"Why did you stop?"
His glass, which was halfway to his mouth, stopped in the air. He motioned to my tape player. "Shut that off, please."
I did, and watched as he leaned over the table to peer at me. "Just what are y'doing here anyways? Why are you in Ireland?"
I was slightly taken aback at this. "I… came with a language group. We're here studying the language."
He watched me very carefully before leaning back. "A hopeless exercise." He drained the glass and set it on the table. "The language is poetic. It's very circular, not something you can read or study, you just have to let it happen." He got up to leave. "Thanks for the interview, but I'll be leaving now."
"Wait!" I stood with him. "You're right, it's too noisy in here." I was desperate not to scare him off. "Maybe we can continue somewhere else?"
Again, he considered me, and I briefly wondered how much time he spent considering and examining people. Finally, he reached a decision. "Come to me house tomorrow 'round noon. We can talk there." He began to leave.
"How do I find the place?" I called after him.
"Just ask people where's Stan lives" He responded, and was out the door.
I returned to my group and relayed the stories Stan told me.
"You know," Someone said in a skeptical tone. "He drinks a lot…"
The next day I wandered around the village asking people on the street where Stan lived. Surprisingly, I found it easily. Stan seemed to be what passed for infamous in this tiny village.
I knocked on his door at the appointed hour and waited. The inner door opened and Stan peered at me through the screen. I switched on my tape recorder, feeling vaguely paparazzi-ish as I did so.
"Hey, Stan. We met at the pub last night, I came to continue the interview, remember?"
"I remember." Stan swung the screen door open and invited me in.
The house was small on the inside. Wood paneling lined the walls and years of smoke were trapped in the shag carpeting on the floor. I sat in a fuzzy plaid couch at Stan's behest and he sat in a chair opposite. My eyes wandered to an envelope framed on one of the walls.
"What's that?" I asked.
He looked at it and looked back to me. "A letter me daughter sent to me when she was six. She spelled me name wrong and put the wrong address, but it got here just the same."
I thought about this a second before asking "Were you married?"
"Look, son," He responded. "I'd love to do the interviewing and all, but I'm not sure if I'm feeling up to it today."
I had been expecting this, and immediately responded, "If you do the interview, I'll buy you a drink."
He lifted from his chair. "Let's go."
"Hold on." I cut him off and he settled his weight back down. "I was wondering if you could tell me again what you said yesterday about language." I gestured towards the tape recorder, which was still on.
He looked at it in confusion. "What'd I say?"
"You know, about it being poetic and stuff."
He squinted his eyes and looked up, trying to recall the night before. "Poetic genius belongs to those who are poetic. Genius is...is...is... something else. Genius is...is inert." He tapped the side of his head and I briefly wondered if he meant innate. "And yet at the same time, genius is...that which... one can't expand upon it at all."
He stopped, nodded, and lifted up from the chair again. "Let's go."
"I had a mate a while back who was a boxer. Got his eye punched clean out his head. Ended his career. Shame, too, he was a damn good fighter."
Stan and I were walking down the street back towards Biddy's. I could tell he was very anxious for a free drink. This thought sparked another question. "How do you support yourself, financially?"
He gave a shrug. "I do jobs 'round town. I carved all the signs in Biddy's, things of the like."
We walked on in silence for a little bit before I turned off the recorder to save tape.
"Hey, come here." He turned off the road down a dirt-paved alley. We continued down it a ways before coming to a grassy area with a large tree. He pointed to the base of the tree. "Look."
I moved in to take a look. Carved there was a very intricate Celtic design, beautifully done.
"That was me." Stan spoke up from behind.
"It's really good." I responded.
"Beauty, cannot be created, only found." He smiled genially at me. "Let's go get that drink."
We were surprisingly close to Biddy's given the detour, and we made it there in short fashion. Only after we were settled with a glass of beer each did I switch the recorder back on.
He took a deep pull on his beer and sighed contentedly. "Guinness is bloody good." I watched with fascination as he pulled out a tin containing loose tobacco and papers which he proceeded to make a cigarette out of. He then removed a box of matches from his pocket and lit it. It struck me particularly because I couldn't remember the last time I had ever seen someone light their cigarette with anything other then a lighter. He took a deep drag and said. "So, on with the interview, then."
I wasted no time, tact be damned. "Why did you stop being a sailor?"
He looked at me a long time, and I waited patiently. He could look at me all he wanted but I wanted an answer. This mystery had a strange grip on me that I hadn't noticed until just that moment, waiting for his response with baited breath.
He shrugged and took a puff on his cigarette. "I just got too old. We all have to retire, don't we?"
I shook my head. "Bullshit. What really happened?"
He gave a booming laugh and pulled his beer again. "You think that's a load of bullocks, aye?"
Again, my head shook. "No, I think it's bullshit. American brand. Something happened, didn't it?"
Still chuckling, he put out his cigarette on the table and scooped out the remaining tobacco, putting it back in the tin. "Alright. You'll have the answer no matter what, won't you?" He took another slow, pensive pull from his beer and grew suddenly sober in disposition. "I'll tell you then."
I didn't say anything, afraid to interrupt. He took another pause, as if summoning his own memory from a great distance before he began.
"I've been all over the world, son. Gone from Japan to the Great Lakes in the heart of your country. Commercial fishing is not the safest job, but t'was worth the risk to feel the ocean air about you.
"Well, the last time I went out was with a group I had sailed with before. Five of us were from Donegal, here, and one from County Down. We set out from Killybegs to bring in a haul, but our ship struck a rock ten miles from shore. Water was a 'pouring in and there was nothing for it but to but to jump into the icy sea and try swimmin' for shore.
"Well, I pulled myself up to find that none of me mates had made it along with me, and I cursed the sea and vowed to sail her never more."
He finished off his pint and set the empty glass down on the table. "I love the sea, and I respect the sea, but she takes no fucking prisoners."
Leaning back, he looked reflectively up at the ceiling. "After that I hit the drink hard. That's when me wife left me taking the lass with her, leaving behind the man you see before you." His eyebrows rose. "Does that answer your damned question?"
I nodded, floored. "I'm so sorry. Is there anything-"
"You can buy me another pint." He interjected quickly and smiled. "The freer the flow, that happier all are concerned."
I nodded, shut off the recorder, and took his empty and mine up to the bar. The bartender took them and started filling two new glasses.
"He's not lying, you know." The bartender said.
"What?" I asked, confused.
"He nodded towards Stan. "It's true, every word of it."
Later that evening, I lay in my bed at the rental cottage pondering the events of the day. Brian, one of the other students in our group, walked up to me.
"What's happening, dude."
So I began telling him Stan's stories, the boxer, the Indian reservation, and finally the story of the shipwreck.
"That's a song." He interrupted.
"What?" I asked, confused.
"That's a song." He repeated. "Donegal Danny, by The Dubliners" He grabbed his cd player off his bunk and tossed it to me. "Take a listen, track one."
Stunned, I slipped on the headphones and hit play. My incomprehension slowly turned to shock as the lyrics sounded in my ears,
"-One fateful night in the wind and the rain we set sail from Killybegs town
-There were five of us from sweet Donegal and one from County Down"
Something stirred deep within me as I continued to listen, now both shocked and amazed.
"-Then we struck a rock and holed the bow and all of us knew that she'd go down
-So we jumped right into the icy sea and prayed to God we wouldn't drown"
The feeling stirred again, and my shock slowly turned into something more unfathomable. Ever so gently, a smile spread on my face.
"-By Saint John's point in the early dawn I dragged myself on the shore
-And I cursed the sea for what she'd done and vowed to sail her never more"
By now I was belly laughing. Tears streamed from my eyes with merriment as the people in my group looked at me, concerned I might have gone mad. Still grinning, I let the song finish and leaned back into my bed.
I've never really had any direction in my life, and as such I often worry I'm not where I'm supposed to be. In that moment, however, I knew where I was. I was home.