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The Art Of The Wake

taotwThe essential elements of the Irish wake are simple–the body of the deceased and mourners to grieve. Since it was once rare in Ireland for anyone to die in a hospital, death occurred more naturally at home. Lacking the financial means for expensive funeral preparations (or the American invention of the neighborhood funeral parlor), the Irish washed and dressed the bodies of loved ones at home. It was common practice for the deceased to be laid out in his own bed, dressed in his shroud or in the distinctive lay habit of a religious order. Beside the body, candles of blessed beeswax would illuminate a crucifix and give a soft yellow glow to the room.

Rosary beads, often worn from a lifetime of devotion, were wrapped around the fingers of the deceased. With none of today’s more common cosmetic touches, the face of the corpse often reflected a more stark expression. As the wake began, assorted relations, neighbors, and members of the clergy made their way along the country lanes and boreens to the home of the deceased to sit in faith and friendship, supported by prayer, broad talk, high humor, and the comfort of laughter.

Amid the familiar surroundings of farmhouse or cottage, the remains of the dead were viewed, condolences offered (“Sorry for your troubles!”), and the appropriate prayers–rosaries and litanies–were said. Since visitors often came great distances, food was provided and drink taken–lashes of spirits (poteen and porter) as well as strong pots of tea.

Mingled with the mumbling mantra of devotions were mixed the wide talk and old stories that were compass points of family lore and tribal roots. Beside the warmth of a pungent turf fire and beneath the wafting tobacco-stained air, the melancholic realism of the Irish character demonstrated a cherished devotion for the dead.

Traditions and customs in Ireland often changed from one community to the next. The use of keeners–professional women mourners hired to wail and sob for the dead –is one tradition that has long since disappeared. But old-timers in some of the more remote regions of the country can still recall the keener’s mournful bale. Their chilling cries were as distinctive as the somber black cloaks they wore.

Out of this traditional Irish tribal reverence, our more contemporary observances have their roots. Although the traditional Irish wake faced inevitable changes in urban America, its essential character remained intact.

taotw1More than 80 years ago, a Chicago policeman named T.J. O’Donnell provided a marvelous image of the Irish wake in “Bring Out the Lace Curtains.” In it, O’Donnell refers to Thomas McInerney & Sons, a funeral parlor that began serving Canaryville, the large Irish community in Chicago’s south side, in 1873.

Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney; I’m nearing the end of my
life’s pleasant journey.

Send quick for the priest, just tell him I’m dying My last minutes on earth
so swiftly are flying.

Tell dear Father Dorney I’m meeting my Maker (He’s losing his old
collection up taker)

Then pull down the shades and light up the candles Call in the O’Briens,
the Caseys and Randalls

The Murphys, the Burkes, the Bradys and all Tell them your darlin’ has
answered God’s call.

Call Schultz the fat Butcher and order meat, Let watchers who sit through
the night have a treat.

There’s good Mrs. Smith who is sure to bring cake, Please ask her advice in
conducting my wake.

Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney I’m nearing the end of my
life’s pleasant journey.

So natural and important were traditions like the wake that they were easily transported wherever the Irish went. In America, in the neighborhoods and parishes of rish pre-eminence, the social importance of such big gatherings like the wake helped to keep intact the bonds of blood and politics from home. They helped the Irish immigrant community to display its loyalties and religious pride. They maintained the intricate threads of family connections and served as a binding force with neighbors and relations. Wakes might be gatherings of Kerry folk or Sligo friends, or Clan na Gael fraternal bonds–geographic by village, townland, or county. When children became assimilated into the new culture and the old ways were threatened, the wake was a timely, convenient event to stabilize the threads of tribe and kin.

In America, the gatherings developed their own energy and enhanced social power. Some of the conveniences of American living and the prosperity that many immigrants found provided a great opportunity for expanding the ensuing hospitality that went along with the protocols of the Irish wake. Undoubtedly, there were times when all of the ingredients were present for spontaneous combustion.

A humorous song from the turn of the century, entitled “Steve O’Donnell’s Wake,” provides some interesting clues as to the celebratory character that became associated with the Irish wake in the U.S. To the familiar religious and cultural layers of significance was added the political dimension to which the Irish quickly acclimated themselves. Within the working-class immigrant community, which struggled in difficult and often dangerous occupations, the wake remained a treasured social outing, an important part of community life, as sacred and obligatory as Sunday Mass. Here, the song’s amusing chorus catalogs the record of attendance of those present for Mr. O’Donnell’s wake, as well as the high quality of the hospitality provided:

There were fighters and biters and Irish dynamiters, There was beer, gin,
whiskey, wine, and cake. There were men of high position, There were Irish
politicians, And they all got drunk at Stew’ O’Donnell’s wake.

Perhaps the boisterous and curious festive character of the Irish way of death appeared foreign and at times frightening to the more staid members of American culture.

Undoubtedly, the regal excess of Irish devotions might be justly criticized in some instances. But with an almost medieval fatalism, the Irish have always challenged

the eternal good-byes attached to the parting of death. The poetic character of the Irish is too romantic and too mystical not to greet death with its own peculiar

irony. The twin perspectives of ancient roots, both pagan and Christian, each account for manners and loyalties that make the Irish seem almost madcap and help to

trace the way in which they see death–or better yet, revel in death. It is they that help to fashion this most mystical of farewells.

Today, assimilation, economic success, and social ascendancy have each helped to curtail some of the ancient connections and graceful obligations. I still attend many wakes only after being reminded by my sister, “They were at your mother’s wake.”

Not long ago a very successful Irish-American businessman died in Chicago. His adult children stood beside his casket greeting mourners, who were waiting in line for the opportunity to say a prayer and offer sympathies to the family. The deceased’s eldest daughter, who had flown in for the wake from her home in Palm Springs, spotted a familiar face from the old neighborhood. After greeting her friend she asked, “Margaret, how’s your sister Eileen?” Looking somewhat perplexed, Margaret said, “Didn’t you know? Eileen’s dead.” This was big news to the deceased’s daughter, who was genuinely saddened. “Oh my God,” she said. “No one ever told me,” she noted apologetically. “I miss so much news living in California.” About 20 minutes later the deceased’s daughter was startled to discover none other than Eileen walking into the wake. She immediately sought out her friend and asked of her, “Margaret, how in the name of God could you have told me Eileen was dead? I just saw her and she looked fine.”

“Well,” said Margaret rather sheepishly, “I’d rather have you think my sister was dead than she’d miss your father’s wake.”

With wide irony, in death the Irish are always at their best, reverencing still the arcane protocols and loyalties, touching the heart of darkness with a common civility as ancient as the wet soil from which we sprang. Perhaps in the faithful obligations of such loyalty to others, demonstrated in the Irish wake, we ensure a t of loyalty for ourselves. For as writer Myles na gCopaleen once said, “I do not believe that there will ever be the like of me again.”

Irish Opportunities On The Rise

eurEconomic slowdown in southeast Asia, the banking crisis in Japan, ecopolitical upheaval in Russia, and Latin America’s debt time bomb may not directly affect the daily lives of Irish people, but their contagion effect on global investment sentiment is felt in Dublin’s capital markets, as elsewhere.

Dublin’s immediate problem is a lack of natural buyers. Yes, private investors have piled into the market in search of bargains since the fall started. But the financial institutions have stayed on the sidelines and are, if anything, sellers.

Economic, inflationary, and political trends in the U.K., mainland Western Europe, and the U.S. are just as closely monitored in Ireland as they are in London,

Frankfurt, and in cities across the U.S. Overseas institutions have stepped back from buying equities abroad, naturally looking to their own backyards. The big worry for American funds must be that as it dawns on private investors that they are no longer as wealthy as they thought, the flow of new investment money will slow. Just to exacerbate the problem for the Dublin market, local institutions have been selling Irish shares for months, using the screen of strong overseas demand to quietly reduce their exposure to Irish shares.

There’s a technical explanation at work here: the introduction of the European single currency (the euro) takes place in January 1999 and Ireland has embraced this change with gusto. Leading the pack are Irish fund managers, who have been warming to the absence of exchange risks by repositioning their portfolios to include a higher proportion of non-Irish stock.

SMALL BUT ACTIVE

The Irish Stock Exchange is tiny in terms of the Wall Streets of this world. The 80 or so listed companies have a collective capitalization of about 37 billion [pounds sterling] ($56 billion), although this figure had been hovering around the 50 billion [pounds sterling] ($75 billion) mark prior to the July quake in share values. But despite its age (See “Market History,”), the ISE is a modern exchange. It retains a trading floor, where call-over dealings are completed twice daily, Monday through

Friday. But, as with most other stock markets around the world, the vast bulk of business is transacted by telephone, over the Internet, or broker to broker.

Growth in the number of companies being listed has been restricted to some extent by the rush of new high-technology issues to the American-based NASDAQ, their natural home. Companies like CBT and Esat Telephone have slipped through the net, but can be expected to list in Dublin in the future. Ryanair, the fastgrowing Irish budget airline, made its debut in the U.S., but is now listed in both Dublin and London.

Privatizations of state-controlled assets and utilities, a natural feed into many of the world’s exchanges, have been slow to develop in Ireland, but the next few years promise a more exciting flow of debutees from this quarter.

Next year, the country’s national telephone network, Telecom Eireann, is coming to the market in what will be the ISE’s biggest-ever flotation. Aer Rianta, the national airports authority, its sister airline operator, Aer Lingus, and others are stacking for takeoff in the years ahead.

The market is also well served by financial institutions (with 8 companies accounting for 45 percent of market capitalization), 7 food companies (accounting for 8 percent), and a plethora of mainly small exploration companies. But it also includes heavyweight industrials like Elan (bio-pharmaceuticals), CRH (building materials),

Jefferson Smurfit (packaging/ paper), and Waterford-Wedgwood (crystal and china).

The market is, however, light on utilities and companies with a heavy involvement in the local economy. Telecom and other flotations will help correct this imbalance.

Outside of the top 20 or so stocks, liquidity tends to be tight. In a low-interest-rate environment, Irish companies have been relying on borrowed funds to finance all but the bigger acquisitions.

The late-summer hiccup in the world’s financial markets notwithstanding, the really dynamic growth has been achieved over the past four years. It was during this time that Dublin enjoyed its strongest bull market to date. An investment of $10,000 in the index midway through 1994 would today be showing a gain of $67,000, again before dividends.

WHAT OF THE FUTURE?

wefWe only have the fundamentals to guide our investment-planning strategies. No doubt, the short-term will be marked by volatility as the market waits to see the full impact of recent upheavals on corporate earnings.

Only a tiny number of Irish-listed companies have any exposure to problems in Asia, Russia, or Latin America, but that may not save them if, as is likely, these problems impact the growth and well-being of the global economy.

Dublin’s equity market pales into insignificance in comparison to the bond market, which is dominated by government bonds.

Prices have risen by more than 20 percent this year. Initially, the expectation of falling interest rates as the European Union came closer to the euro’s debut was the driving force, but more recently it has been a flight to quality–out of equities and into bonds. Ten-year yields have now come down to 4.3 percent, with the five-year equivalents at less than 4 percent.

The Irish bond market has become an institutional zone in the 1990s. Private investors can directly invest in a limited number of stocks, although it is not encouraged by the authorities.

Regardless of what the next cycle brings, it is sure to be a challenging–and interesting–year for investors.

Some Great Irish Restaurants

ISLAND COTTAGE RESTAURANT

sgirTo get to John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton’s Island Cottage Restaurant you must drive to the ends of West Cork, get into a little motorboat, and cross to Heir Island, then walk for a mile up a winding path to this single-room establishment.

The menu offers no choices other than what is cooked that night, and the capacity of the restaurant is about 20 persons all told.

And it is unforgettable, perhaps the greatest experience in Irish dining. Desmond’s cooking is so precise and defined–he prepares duck as well as any French or

Chinese chef ever could–and the sheer unlikelihood of the evening is nothing less than bewitching. Eating at Island Cottage is a fairy story made real, a wonderland for all the senses.

Island Cottage Restaurant Heir Island Skibbereen, County Cork Tel: 011-353-28-38102

IVORY TOWER RESTAURANT

If you value certainty and correctness in a restaurant, then Seamus O’Connell’s Ivory Tower is not the place for you.

If, on the other hand, you like a walk on the culinary wild side, and seek out improvisation, inspiration, and wizardry, then this man is the chef of your dreams.

No one in Ireland cooks like Seamus O’Connell, and no one else could even dream of what he does. Rabbit with Beamish, prunes, and spice. Sea urchin sushi. Roast snipeen feuillet with dark chocolate sauce. Pineapple tarte tatin with lemon-geranium ice cream.

This is wild, inspired cooking by a wild, inspired chef, who turns dreams into culinary reality, a cook whose instinct is utterly exact. A visit to the Ivory Tower is an event you won’t forget.

The Ivory Tower, 35 Princes Street Cork, County Cork Tel: 011-353-21-274-665

LETTERCOLLUM HOUSE

Ambitions are often compromised in restaurants, but years ago Con McLaughlin and Karen Austin set in motion their ambition to create a restaurant where backpackers could sit alongside BMW drivers at dinner, and everyone would be having the time of their lives.

They achieved their dream and have sustained it through the years. Young and old, rich and poor, locals and visitors all come to Lettercollum House, a fine former convent just on the edge of the village of Timoleague, in West Cork. Patrons get just what they want at Lettercollum: delicious food and terrific value. Highlights include herb-roasted chicken; rack of lamb with radish tzatziki; and Courtmacsherry salmon with sorrel sauce. Sunday lunch at Lettercollum, by the way, is one of the great delights of Irish food.

Lettercollum House Timoleague, County Cork Tel: 011-353-23-46251

LISS ARD LAKE LODGE

lallBoth the design and the cooking of Liss Ard Lake Lodge, just outside Skibbereen in West Cork, are challenging and atypical.

The house mixes a restrained simplicity with acute modernism in the rooms and bedrooms, achieved to outstanding effect. Claudia Turske’s cooking, meanwhile, mixes the composed balance of Japanese food with a purity and lushness inspired by the Mediterranean, an achievement aided by the; fact that no animal fats are used in the kitchen.

There may be miso bread, miso soup, and buckwheat noodles on offer, but also local pork with an etuvee of sweet peas and new potatoes with tapenade, or monkfish tails with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The flavors can achieve a transcendence that borders on the spiritual.

Liss Ard Lake Lodge Skibbereen, County Cork Tel: 011-353-28-22365

LONGUEVILLE HOUSE

William O’Callaghan is a dazzlingly gifted cook, and he is blessed, in the lovely Longueville House in North Cork, with an estate that produces almost all the ingredients he needs.

Longueville pork. Longueville lamb. Blackwater river salmon. Garden fruits and vegetables. Wild woodland mushrooms. Even a small collation of grapes, made into a small volume of white wine in benign years.

O’Callaghan then takes this pristine bounty and transforms it into dishes of the most extraordinary excitement and invention: Longueville lamb in a potato and herb crust. Blackwater salmon with sauce gribiche. Farmyard duck with a ginger-and-coriander sauce and straw-potato cake. The flavors of the locality, captured by the man from the locality, all in the locality–in the most elegant and darling house.

Longueville House Mallow, County Cork Tel: 011-353-22-47156

THE OYSTERCATCHER

Bill Patterson has spent not just years, but decades, at the stove, and his enthusiasm and appetite for the business of cooking remains undimmed. He is still ever excited by the performance of the evening in the beautiful Oystercatcher restaurant, a romantic, low-slung cottage at the apex of the roads in Oysterhaven, a few miles from Kinsale.

With Sylvia Patterson taking care of the front of the house, they make a spirited team, and the volubility of their personalities is evident in the food.

Patterson calls his starters “The Seducers,” and resistance is futile: the famous seafood sausage with saffron sauce; rock oysters baked with garlic, almond, and parsley; Ummera smoked salmon on blinis with leek sauce–dynamic and delightful food. Everything he cooks is informed by a wisdom that gives it balance and appropriateness: lobster charlotte with a basil-scented sauce; filet mignon with a ragout of wild mushrooms; a brilliant creme brulee and lush Calvados ice cream. The classic and the modern are all dignified by his skills.

The Oystercatcher Oysterhaven, County Cork Tel: 011-353-21-770-822

COUNTY DONEGAL

CASTLEMURRAY HOUSE

You can take a Frenchman out of France, but it seems you can’t take the Frenchness out of a Frenchman’s cooking. In the wilds of Donegal, in a little multiroomed restaurant, Thierry Delcros creates an oasis of French cuisine every evening. The menu is a simple grammar of terms and doesn’t hint at the fabulous flavors that Delcros can conjure up using his skill and good Donegal ingredients.

Duck pate salad; profiteroles stuffed with crabmeat and a spicy tomato confit; crisp lobster in a pillow of phyllo pastry; stuffed chicks with pommes boulangere and crisp red cabbage–all of these amount to a virtuoso demonstration of how Irish foods and French skills are perfect platefellows.

The dining room has one of the most entrancing views you will find anywhere, and Sunday lunch, which lasts all day, is a local legend.

Castlemurray House Dunkineely, County Donegal Tel: 011-353-73-37022

COUNTY DUBLIN

CAVISTON’S

Caviston’s may be the simplest idea for a restaurant ever found in Ireland.

The fish, which can be purchased fresh in the family’s fish shop next door, can also be bought cooked in the adjoining restaurant. The synergy between the two operations is wholly logical and spiffingly delicious, and chef Noel Cusack simply allows the flavors of the fish to do all the work, with minimal culinary intervention: char-grilled shark with fresh tomatoes and a hint of cumin; seared scallops matched with spring onions and chilies; a little scattering of sea salt and a wedge of lime is all some lemon sole needs to be its perfect best. Nothing fancy, nothing fussy.

Cusack understands that, with fresh fish from Irish waters, all a chef needs to do is to unlock the flavor of the fish by simple cooking. He does that and no more, and the result is some of the most impressive cooking to be found in and around the capital. The only problem is getting a table!

Caviston’s, 59 Glasthule Road Sandycove, County Dublin Tel: 011-353-1-280-9120

THE CLARENCE HOTEL: THE TEA ROOMS

Located in Dublin’s Temple Bar, The Tea Rooms at The Clarence is arguably the most romantic venue in town, the best place for a dinner date. Start with one of their dry martinis, perfectly made and poured–just the fillip to kick off the evening–and then proceed to enjoy Michael Martin’s lovely cooking.

He is confident enough to offer simple roast corn-fed chicken with a morel and tarragon cream, or grilled rump of beef with a balsamic-infused jus. Confit of duck gets a bacon cream, while roast leg of lamb has a stew of onions and lentils and a turnip mash. Very logical, very delicious, very cleverly imagined and executed.

Best of all, this is very relaxed cooking, with none of the tortured pyrotechnics other chefs waste time on, and it is relaxing to eat Martin’s food, both at dinner and at lunch.

The Tea Rooms at The Clarence 6-8 Wellington Quay Dublin 2, County Dublin Tel: 011-353-1-670-9000

COOKE’S CAFE

Some cooks become famous for doing certain dishes as well as they can be done, and the success of John Cooke’s Cafe has been founded on understanding this simple fact.

You could eat here often, have nothing but the Caesar salad and follow it with the dry-aged sirloin of beef, and you would be happy. There is a striving for definitive tatus when Cooke and his team make these dishes that is wholly admirable. Great cooking, simple as that. The creation of the Rhino Room, upstairs from the Cafe, has afforded Cooke the chance to offer a more streamlined style of food–black bean soup with lime; chili-hot beef arragui with roasted garlic; lobster with a citrus dressing–and the food is as good as any you will find in Dublin, rendered with precision and the determination that it be as good as it can possibly be.

Cooke’s Card/The Rhino Room 14 South William Street Dublin 2, County Dublin Tel: 011-353-1-679-0536

L’ECRIVAIN

Derry Clarke has been the most significant and successful Dublin restaurateur of the past few years. His restaurant, acclaimed for its cuisine, is sought after by the hip-and-powerful crowd who pack it day after day, and admire the restaurant for its sublime service. His cooking has an unassailable logic to it, a vivid, focused statement of Clarke’s open, engaging personality.

He likes to alternate between modern touches and age-old classics: pan-flared bluefin tuna with saffron and coriander risotto and a soy and sherry dressing will be on he dinner menu alongside confit of duck leg with choucroute paysanne. Rock oysters with smoked bacon and cabbage and a Guinness hollandaise will be offered alongside fillet of gurnard with a gateau of char-grilled vegetables and Boilie cheese. All of it is faultlessly executed by Clarke’s team, and L’Ecrivain is a mighty, inspired restaurant, riding the crest of the wave.

L’Ecrivain 109 Lower Baggot Street Dublin 2, County Dublin Tel: 011-353-1-661-1919

Drumcoura Is A Place Of Great Beauty

diapogbAs I walked the carefree grounds of the ranch, I considered the story of Drumcoura’s founder, an Austrian horseman and real-estate investor. It wasn’t long before I met Michael Hehle, and I was not the least bit surprised to find him dressed casually in worn jeans and a cowboy hat. He looked more horseman than investor, which was, I suppose, as it should be.

Raised on a farm, Hehle was fascinated by cowboy stories as a boy. Early on he dreamed of one day building his own western town and surrounding himself with the images of the Old West. Proud of his accomplishments some 50 years later, Hehle takes pleasure watching others enjoy the rustic surroundings. “I always wanted to build a true western town,” he said. “We imported the lumber we needed from Finland and purchased several quarter horses from America. We also have a real covered wagon,” he boasted, as he pointed in the direction of a vehicle that looked as if it had just come off the Oregon Trail. “Everything is designed to be as authentic as possible.”

In addition to the 1,500-acre riding academy, Hehle also owns separate parcels of grazing land that are scattered throughout Ireland. (In the midst of the current Irish property boom, obtaining one large pasture was impossible.) After scouting out various properties, Hehle chose the rich farmland on the banks of Drumcoura Lake. Apart from its raw beauty and comfortable seclusion, as a midland county, Leitrim has some of the least expensive property presently on offer in Europe. The availability of an inexpensive tract of land was a crucial factor in making Drumcoura a reality. Before long, what was originally “supposed to be a ranch with a few horses,” according to Hehle’s wife, Christine, had taken on a life all its own.

In 1989, with his 100-strong herd of American quarter horses, Connemara ponies, Irish draft horses, and thoroughbreds, Hehle set down the path of no return. With his family in tow, all of whom presently contribute to the business in one way or another, Hehle opened Drumcoura City in July 1995. Providing weekend packages ranging from 149 [pound sterling] to 290 [pound sterling] ($225 to $450), depending on the season and the amount of riding the visitor does, Drumcoura also offers lessons in both western- and English-style riding to locals, seasonal timeshares, weekend Wild West shows, and nightly entertainment.

gbThe venue for both the Wild West shows and the lessons is the riding arena, a huge covered ring that serves as the nerve center of Drumcoura. I visited the arena just as a steer-roping lesson was about to begin. The stable’s “wranglers” hung from the corral walls, their attention focused within the arena; mid-sized cattle were lined up in a chute at one end of the ring; and three riders waited calmly atop their anxious mounts, ready for the sharp “clank” as the chute door opened and out shot a charged-up steer.

Two of the riders–one of whom was an 11-year-old local boy–darted after the steer, swinging their lassoes toward the fleeing prize. In a split second, I witnessed the heart-pounding tradition that has enriched the lives of cowboys on the western frontier since American settlers first crossed the Mississippi. After all of that excitement, the riders and I were ready to greet that most important part of any day on the range–the chuck wagon.

I sat down to lunch with the Drumcoura staff, which included two American cowboys as well as wranglers from Germany and Holland. The international theme continued, as our meal was an Irish feast prepared by an Austrian cook. Although the menu offered a variety of Southern dishes (cowboy cutlets, TexMex pizza, and steak and potatoes), Drumcoura City’s temporary chef, Christine Hehle, employed a culinary flair of her own. Somehow I found it hard to believe that the original cowboys ever had it so good as we feasted on lasagna dripping with various cheeses; chicken curry over rice; or succulent, marinated lamb chops. Among the appetizers were Cajun mushroom caps and prawn cocktails. Heaping side dishes of potatoes au gratin and sauteed cabbage ensured that no one left the table hungry. I was saddened to learn, however, that Christine is simply “filling in” until the new chef arrives from Austria. Once relieved of her cooking responsibilities, she will turn her attention to a small Irish cottage on the resort’s grounds that she has transformed into an arts-and-crafts studio.

If the arena is Drumcoura’s nerve center, then the adjacent saloon, where all the dining and social recreation takes place, is the heart of the town. A classic swinging double door opens to an interior decorated with bridles and saddles hanging from the rafters. The saloon–right down to the black barrels that serve as tables–looks like it came straight out of a John Wayne movie. But the decor was not nearly as authentic as some of the patrons. On one night during my visit, what can only be described as a wild-eyed “mountain man” was perched at the corner of the bar, and I almost believed that he was imported for effect. Despite being so far removed from the setting that inspired its creation, very little in Drumcoura feels out of place.

After lunch, I decided to take a trek through the hills surrounding the ranch with the head horse trainer, American Randy Lewis. Having worked with horses all of his life, Lewis, 33, left his job as an auctioneer and arrived in Leitrim this past May with fellow cowboy Chris David, 21. With his whimsical Cheshire cat grin, Lewis is fondly referred to by the locals as “Colorada” and lives seasonally between his homes there and in Arizona. In between breaking Drumcoura’s horses and teaching the art of western riding, Lewis is a spectacle in his own right. On a good night, the lucky visitor will hear him in full auctioneer mode, and although he is not of Irish descent, Lewis has certainly been blessed with a silver tongue. His ringside demeanor and tall tales left me wondering one afternoon if he was simply pulling my leg or if Drumcoura’s swans really do attack innocent riders.

After a refresher lesson on the essentials of western riding–I hadn’t ridden cowboy-style since I was 6–we set out on our trek. Our first stop was the hillside just above and behind the riding academy–where I was treated to another spellbinding view of Drumcoura Lake.

In addition to morning and afternoon sojourns through the fields and farmlands of rural Ballinamore, Lewis and David lead overnight treks to the nearby Yellow River, and plans are afoot for week-long horse-riding adventures to Lough Erne on the border of County Cavan to the north, where Hehle is currently developing a second riding academy and resort get-away. Participants will have endless options for custom-designed vacations, which can commence on horseback at Drumcoura and continue with a boat trip to the Lough Erne ranch for riding or for fishing on the river Erne. Alternately, with a shuttle ride into Dublin, vacationers can substitute pastures for links at Turvey Golf, another recreational retreat owned by Hehle’s Shamrock Resorts Club, Drumcoura City’s parent company.

As my first day at Drumcoura wound to a close and the horses were put down for the night, the “city” gained her second wind. All action moved to the saloon, where Guinness and good times flowed hand-in-hand. One special crowd pleaser was Hehle himself, on the accordion, while other musical guests added a bit of Southern style with country classics like “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Leaving on a Jetplane.” Caught up in the moment, one couple took the occasion to announce their engagement and were treated the following morning to a special “pre-nuptial” horse ride with Lewis, who inscribed their helmets: “Almost Married.” The unexpected is always the order of the day at Drumcoura.

As the weekend progressed, I found time to mingle with the staff, and discovered that there is far more to the Drumcoura experience than horseplay. One of Drumcoura’s many surprises is 23-year-old Marlene Rutten, a sound-engineering student residing in Dublin, who gets away to the ranch every weekend. Born in Holland, Rutten–like all of the resort staff–followed her heart to Drumcoura City.

I got the chance to catch her act at the weekly Wild West show, an event held every Sunday, where Rutten–outfitted in a clown costume and full makeup–is one of the show’s star attractions. Slapstick humor and cowboy camaraderie provide an entertaining show for the local children, who come streaming into Drumcoura with their parents every weekend to watch the performance.

The highlights of the show include barrel racing and roping, with champion riders Lewis and David literally showing spectators the ropes. Each event is prefaced with an explanation of the training and preparation involved in the shows–for both horse and cattle–stressing that no animals are harmed; in fact, the lassoes used at the ranch are designed to be instantly detachable with the flick of a rider’s wrist.

As the show came to a close, music from the saloon drew the audience from the arena like the Pied Piper of Hameln. Suddenly, music and people were everywhere and, as if on cue, the Ballinamore locals poured into the saloon. To my surprise, the night’s featured entertainment was none other than Rutten–out of her clown get-up, playing guitar, and singing with her musician-boyfriend, Declan. Their band, Something So Right, played until sundown, accompanying at various times local characters urged to sing by the applauding crowd. It was truly a show-stopper.

As I settled in for the evening on my last night at Drumcoura, with the sound of an Irish ballad echoing in my ears, I reflected upon my experiences. Did I really feel as if I had journeyed to the Old West? Actually, no. In the end, it was something else entirely.

The Beauty Of Compassion

tbocThe Irish were gathering to pray for the victims of Omagh, when Ben McDonald was at the Glencree Reconciliation Centre, bringing his message of good will.

McDonald told those present–including British Ambassador to Ireland, Mrs. V. E. Sutherland–that “God continuously forgives us as only He can. We have to develop and maintain the capacity to imitate His forgiveness, for deep in our hearts we know that, lacking forgiveness, we lack the power to love.”

It was a theme that echoed throughout his trip, beginning on August 20, when he met with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. McDonald was warmly welcomed by the prime minister, who praised him for his courage and “for bringing his message to Ireland.” Ahern continued, “The life of Steven McDonald is a tribute to the power of forgiveness.”

Ahern’s words alluded to McDonald’s incredible act of forgiving Shavod Jones, the teenager who shot him on July 12, 1986, while McDonald was on routine patrol in New York’s Central Park. (See “The Super Irish,” Summer 1998.) A dozen years later the beauty of McDonald’s forgiveness lives on as he goes to schools throughout New York City, speaking to children about the power of compassion and the need to turn away from violence.

McDonald told The World of Hibernia, “Some of the children say the peace pledge that I’ve taught them, after the Pledge of Allegiance; and students who have graduated from high school and who heard my message in grade school tell me that it made a profound impact on them.”

McDonald’s words played as well in Ireland as they have in New York. At Glencree, McDonald prayed, “God, united with our family in Omagh, we beg Your forgiveness, plead for Your love, ask for total respect for each other so that we may begin again to walk in Your presence and put aside our hate for our neighbors.” Said McDonald of that visit, “The meeting with the people of Glencree was one of the highlights of my trip.”

McDonald arrived in Belfast shortly thereafter and shared his belief in rapprochement during interviews with Ulster Television and the BBC. Among those his message reached included homeless people in Flag Staff Park in Belfast and disabled officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Many of the RUC officers with whom McDonald spoke had been shot or injured by land mines or explosions during the 30 years of the Troubles in Ulster. The New Yorker shared his own experience as a wounded police officer and told the RUC members how he had pardoned Jones, and how powerful the ideal of humanitarianism is in his own life.

tboc1McDonald then visited the notorious Long Kesh prison in Belfast, where he met with IRA member Joe Doherty. McDonald first met Doherty when the latter was held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. “My family and I visited with Joe twice in New York, and we were very impressed with him,” McDonald said.

The meeting at Long Kesh had all the appearances of a family reunion. Doherty hugged McDonald and his wife and tousled Conor’s hair, eagerly listening to the young boy’s story about how he was going to play American football instead of soccer at school.

Doherty also spoke with McDonald about the importance of supporting the peace accord, saying “There are those who claim that if hunger striker Bobby Sands were alive today, he wouldn’t support the peace agreements; I know better. I have spoken to all of Bobby’s friends, [people] who survived the hunger strikes, and they have told me that they support the agreements. This is the only way to a new future for Ireland.

“That future needs the message that you are bringing to us, Steve,” Doherty added. He then told McDonald that he is nearly finished with his degree from Queens University, and that many of the Nationalist prisoners in Long Kesh are working on their college degrees as well. During his visit to Long Kesh, McDonald expressed the desire to meet with a Protestant political prisoner, but regrettably the necessary arrangements could not be made on such short notice.

Following his meeting with Doherty, McDonald spent time with Chief Constable of the RUC, Ronnie Flanagan, and Irish officers of the International Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

Sinn Fein chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, joined McDonald at Belfast’s Europa Hotel, after a meeting with British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. McGuinness, too, had praise for McDonald and his mission, calling his efforts “more important than ever as we move forward with the peace agreement.”

After leaving Belfast, McDonald traveled to Omagh, where he attended a prayer service in front of the courthouse that was the intended site of the blast. The service was led by New York City Fire Department chaplain Mychal Judge, a friend and confessor of McDonald’s. Fr. Judge and McDonald were joined by many Omagh residents as well as by parish priest Fr. Kevin Mullan, who was present immediately after the Omagh explosion and who had been working with the victims and their families for the previous 10 days.

Along with Frs. Judge and Mullan, McDonald went down Market Street to the site of the bombing, stopping to speak to people who had seen him on Ulster Television, or who had read about the “hero police officer” and had come to hear his words in person. The shops were crowded with floral tributes to the dead and injured, and as McDonald passed the storefronts, those who had lost friends and family came out to share with him a private word about their suffering.

McDonald returned to Dublin on August 27, where, on the last full day of his trip, he met Dublin Archbishop Desmond Connell. “I am deeply moved by your message and by your great courage,” the archbishop said, indicating that John Cardinal O’Connor of New York had briefed him on McDonald’s mission.

McDonald moved from his appointment with the archbishop to Glasnevin Cemetery, where he was joined by Michael Collins, nephew of the first commander-in-chief of the Irish Republican Army. Collins took McDonald to his uncle’s grave and told him the story of how the so-called “Big Fellow” was buried; he also shared Collins family tales of the struggle for Irish independence and freedom.

McDonald spent a full hour at Collins’s grave and later visited the graves of Daniel O’Connell, Eamon de Valera, and Charles Stuart Parnell. These visits held great importance for McDonald, who explained, “I’ve been studying Irish history for many years, but to be in Ireland and to meet Michael Collins–and everyone else I’ve met–has been a dream fulfilled.” By the end of his journey, McDonald said he was pleased to have been “a small part” of the healing process after one of the most tragic events in the history of the Troubles.

It was a fitting role for a man who maintains the details of his lineage close at hand at all times. The highly decorated officer counts a wealth of Irish surnames on his family tree, including Prendergasts, Scullys, Meehans, Hessions, Tuohys, McNamaras, Slatterys, Greeleys, Boylans, Monahans, Solans, Conways, O’Briens, and Larkins. “To be Irish is to recognize where we’ve come from, in a historical sense,” said McDonald. “I hope that my interest and pride in being Irish will inspire other Irish who were not brought up with any focus on their heritage to learn about our people and our history–in Ireland and in America.”

The culmination of a decades-long dream, Steven McDonald’s trip to Ireland was “everything I expected it to be,” said the officer. Ironically, he may have brought more to the healing process in 10 days than what many politicians have contributed in three decades.