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  • Saturday, August 23, 2014

    Duleek Fair Days 2: The Bonny Baby Contest

    Diffused red light filled the room. I woke up on Regina and Fernando’s sofa with red curtains closed over the window. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and walked toward the voices in the dining room.

    “Good morning,” I said to Joan and Fernando having tea. Joan got up to make me a cup of coffee.

    Hangover, coffee, cute baby contest. That would be my day, in that order. It was sure to be a memorable one.

    Fernando and Regina went back to town to help with Fair Day, so Joan and I talked most of the morning. So long in fact, that we talked through the church ceremony she planned on attending.

    Before heading back home, she walked me up the road to the ruins of St Cianan’s Church, the first stone church built in Ireland.

    "This church is where Duleek gets its name," she said. "In Gaelic, it means, house of stones."Before we parted, she invited me to stay with her family in Northern Ireland who lives very close to where I'd be walking. She wrote her address and phone number on a piece of yellow paper then we said our goodbyes.

    I found Regina and Fernando in town, working the Candy Floss booth (Cotton Candy to us Americans). The wind was making the process difficult. I asked if there was anything I could do to help, but Regina only insisted on me judging the Bonny Baby contest.

    “I have to admit, I’m feeling a little weird about that,” I said. “I’m this unshaven stranger who just walked into town and now I’m going to judge your babies.”

    Regardless of how true all of that is, I knew I had to do it. You can’t have your life’s mission statement be, "Live for the anecdote," and choose to not be the judge of an infant beauty pageant in a small village in Ireland.

    I walked around the fair until the time came to make enemies out of all but one of the mothers of Duleek. I used this time to replenish some lost calories. My pants are starting to slip down my waist, before long I’ll have to make a belt for myself. I ate a nine-inch pizza, but not before eating the cheeseburger and the vanilla ice cream cone.

    I walked aimlessly around the fair. I saw vintage cars, watched a magic show, and listened to live local bands, including the girl who played in the pub last night and a decent high school band who played classic rock covers and a few original songs.

    When the time for the contest neared, I found Regina and Gearoid to find out exactly what I would be doing.

    “You just go around get their names, learn a little bit about them, and pick the one you like best,” they said.

    I asked Regina to be my co-judge, but it became clear to me that the reason they grabbed the foreigner in town was because I didn’t have to live here. I could be hated by all but one of the mothers in Duleek, then walk away. They didn’t have that luxury.

    I asked Regina how many babies there would be.

    (Photo: Regina with her father)
    “Last year we had 42,” she said.

    “Oh god. That’s a lot of moms,” I thought.

    Moments before the contest started, Gearoid brought over another foreigner he found visiting the fair. An older woman with a kind grandmotherly face. “Oh thank God,” I thought. She would offset the fact that I hadn’t shaved for weeks and was wearing all black clothes and a baseball cap, which wouldn’t ordinarily be creepy, but as baby pageant judge, it suddenly felt extraordinarily creepy.

    Luckily, there were far fewer contestants this year. Only about ten showed up. They sat in a circle with me and my co-host standing before them in judgment.

    Everyone introduced their infant son, daughter, or grandchild, giving their name and age. Immediately, one ginger baby stood out because he looked exactly like a miniature Glen Hansard, my favorite Irish singer-songwriter. I also like that he looked confused, because if nothing else, we at least had something in common.

    At this point, you can already see that I have no business doing this, but it was too late to turn back now.

    “This is Cooper,” a proud mother said while looking into her baby’s eyes. He had a round head and massive cheeks. Admittedly, I thought Cooper was hands down the ugliest baby of the group, but before you go judging me, remember that it was my job to judge these babies. Nobody asked you to judge me!

    Anyway, let me finish. When Cooper’s mom said his name, his face lit up. He gave everyone a huge smile. I thought his fat cheeks would have been too fat to allow such a thing, but there it was.

    Okay, he's a contender.

    At the end of the line, the final woman introduced her granddaughter, an adorable little girl with two pony tails sticking out the top of her head, which contrasted the sullen look on her face. She didn’t want to be judged any more than I wanted to judge.

    I knelt down beside her and asked, “So, if you were to win the Bonny Baby contest, how would you change the world?”

    She stared at me stoically and thoroughly unimpressed.

    “She would end all war,” her grandmother said. That scored her some big points, I have to admit.

    Gearoid told me and the other judge to go convene out of earshot and decide who would get our votes. She didn’t even have to discuss it. Her mind was set on Cooper since the moment he smiled that impossible smile.

    I had to agree. Not because he was the cutest. No, he was definitively the ugliest, even if in an adorable way, but I felt like Best Smile was the least creepy characteristic by which to judge two week to twelve month old babies.

    “Alright,” I said to Gearoid. “I think it needs to be unanimous. I second that.”

    And just like that, Little Cooper was the victor and I walked away with another anecdote.

    When the 2014 Duleek Fair Day came to a close, I helped put away tables, speakers, and gathered up garbage. Afterwards, Regina, Fernando, and I went back to their house to have dinner. Fernando made spaghetti topped with his amazing homemade sauce. Regina, while spreading butter onto baguettes asked, “Do you like garlic bread?”

    (Photo: A shop in Duleek. Together at least.)
    “I love garlic bread,” I said.

    “This man isn’t from America," Fernando said. "I think he’s Irish. His favorite beer is Guinness and he loves garlic bread.”

    “I didn’t know garlic bread was an Irish thing,” I said. “I thought it was Italian.”

    “No, in Italy,” Fernando said. “We bake it with garlic in it, but we don’t put it on top with butter.”

    I still have so much to learn about the world. And since that authentic Mexican restaurant in Dublin seems to be the only one in all of Ireland and the United Kingdom, my solution to terrible Irish food is now to seek out authentic Italian food.

    I monopolized the conversation at the dinner table, telling them stories from backpacking and hitchhiking around the U.S. That evening, we went back to town where other volunteers would be meeting at the pub.

    The place was packed. We all squeezed together in the back corner. A man best described as an Irish Johnny Cash played guitar and sang both traditional Irish folk songs and American songs by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and others.

    We all talked, laughed, and drank all night. I didn't have to buy any of my drinks, since Fernando kept bringing them over. Gearoid told everyone that I was walking around the entire world. This started conversations that I never would have had given my incredible shyness in rooms packed with so many people. I had a long and wonderful conversation, with an artist who sold all four of her paintings in the Art Expo, about what we've discovered are the most important things in life.

    A group of eighteen year olds, who were celebrating reaching the legal age to drink, pulled me aside and said they told them to ask what I was doing in Ireland. I showed them the overview map of my cross-country hike and what I had planned afterwards. Their mouths hung open with disbelief. It made me feel great.

    When that group of kids left, one of them was repeatedly tapping the end of his nose with his index finger while looking at Gearoid. I didn’t think much of it, since I see lots of things I’m not used to here.

    “I told them to ask you what you were doing in Ireland,” Gearoid said. “If they thought you seemed absolutely normal I told them to tap their nose once. If they thought you seemed a little crazy tap twice. And if you seemed completely mad tap three times.

    I thought about how enthusiastically the boy was tapping his nose. And so there it is. Proof that the Irish, who according to Gearoid don’t walk, think I’m beyond mad.

    I sat back with my third Guinness, looked around at all the laughing, dancing and singing, and absolutely fell in love with the town of Duleek, a town with little more than a grocery store and a couple of restaurants, but with such wonderful people who possess such a contagious friendliness and sense of community.

    “I’m going to be sad to leave this place,” I told Gearoid once nearly everyone had gone home.

    “Stop right there,” He said. “The Irish don’t do sentimentalities.” He turned to the only other person in earshot. “Listen to him, talking about sad.”

    “Seriously,” I said. “This has been the best two days on my trip.

    I know I’ve said before that I’m not looking for anything on this trip, and that remains to be true, but that is in no way preventing things from finding me.

    I walked back to Reginia and Fernando’s a little less wobbly than the night before, but not for a lack of drinking. Maybe I’ve finally been in Ireland long enough to keep up.

    Friday, August 22, 2014

    Duleek Fair Days

    Had I been allowed to simply pass through the village of Duleek, once voted the friendliest town in Ireland, I would have made it to my next destination before nightfall. As it happens, due to a man named Gearoid and my new mission statement in life, I couldn't leave.

    At the town center, I passed a sign that read, “Duleek Fair Day On the Green.” It wasn't until then that I noticed the stage and all the tarps setup for exhibits. I paused and considered having a longer look around, but decided I better get moving.

    "Hello,” said a man who had been talking to someone in an orange T-shirt, the uniform for Fair Day volunteers. Later, I'd learn that his name is Gearoid, pronounced Gare-owed. He said a few more words to the man then turned back to me. “Where you from?" he asked. He had gray hair, but didn't seem that much older than me.

    "Indiana, in the U.S." I said. “A couple hours from Chicago.” I’ve started mentioning Chicago to people after finding out that not everyone in Ireland is familiar with the geographic location of Indiana. Not too surprising since I've talked to people in the western United States who weren't exactly sure either.

     "Where you headed?” he said.

    “I'm walking across Ireland," I said. "But I'm headed to Newgrange tonight." Newgrange is a prehistoric passage tomb about 6 miles north of Duleek, and one of the oldest buildings in the world, 500 years older than the pyramids.

    "Walking across Ireland, really?" he said. "Will you be staying in town?"

    “Uh, no. I’m going to try to get as close to Newgrange as possible, so I can see it first thing in the morning."

    “Well before you leave, come sign our Visitor Book."

    He led me to an old courthouse, the temporary home of the Fair Day Art Expo. A car stopped next to us with a man in an orange t-shirt behind the wheel. "Just one second," Gearoid said and walked to the passenger window, "This is Ryan, from Illinois. He's walking across Ireland."

    I waved and waited while they talked Fair Day business.  "Sorry about that," he said.

    "No problem." I said and we went inside the old courthouse. Paintings, drawings, and photography hung from a maze of partitions throughout the room. The plaster walls of the old courthouse were cracked and crumbling in parts, making the room look better, not worse. Beside the doorway, the visitor book sat opened on a podium.

    "Can I set down my pack in here to have a look around?" I asked. "Tell you what, sign the visitor book, then I'll take you to the Fair Day office. You can set your pack in there and they'll get you a cup of tea."

    I couldn't argue with that. Actually, of course I could have, but I'm trying hard to stick to my life's new mission statement. When presented with a fork in the road, I'll choose the path that will most likely lead to the best anecdote. I believe this will lead to a more interesting, and possibly more fulfilling, life. And if nothing else, we should all live for the anecdote, because we're all just anecdotes in the end.

    I signed the book then noticed he went back outside to talk to volunteers. "Did you sign the book?" he asked.

    "Yes I did."

    “Alright, good man. I’ll take you over to the office and get you that tea.”

    As we crossed the street, he turned and said, "We have to have a certain amount of foreigners in town to..." He waved it off as though it would take too long to explain or maybe he decided the middle of a busy street was not the best place to explain something.

    The office was full of volunteers. Most were just returning from a rubber duck race on the river. They filed in and sat in chairs lined up against the walls. We stood in the middle of the room, in front of a wooden cow with rubber utters used for a cow milking competition.

    “You can set your pack anywhere,” he said. I put it on the floor out of the way. "Can we get this man a cup of tea?”

    "This is Ryan," he said to a woman in orange. He turned back to me, “From Idaho, is it?” His smile made me wonder if he was getting it wrong on purpose.

    “Indiana,” I said.

    "He's walking across Ireland,"

    "Hi, I’m Regina. Are you staying in town for the fair?"

    "If you can show me a place where I'm allowed to camp tonight, then I'll stay."

    (Photo: Regina's place
    "You can camp in my garden," Gearoid said. I've learned that garden in Ireland is what Americans would call a yard.

    "Or you can sleep on my sofa if you want," Regina said.

    As much as I love camping, Regina won. Gearoid left and a few minutes later I was sipping a steaming hot cup of tea with the weight of my pack off my shoulders. The volunteers in the room fielded me with questions, offered me chips and sausages and refills on tea. As usual, I was glad I took the path of the anecdote.

    I asked Regina if there was anything I could do to help out. “Umm," she thought. "Well, you could judge the Bonny Baby contest tomorrow if you want."

    “What’s that?” I asked.

    “The Bonny Baby contest. The mothers bring out their babies and you just have to choose which one is the cutest,’ she said.

    So yeah, being the path which would most likely lead to an anecdote, that happened, but I’ll save it for my next post.

    Later, Regina introduced me to her partner Fernando, who recently moved here from Italy. Two years ago, he didn’t know any English, but on the short drive to their home, I had no problems understanding him. When we walked into his front door a woman was there to greet us.

    “Hello, I’m Joan,” she said. Joan was Regina’s friend from school, who now resides in Northern Ireland. She was staying in their guest room while in town for the Duleek School reunion for pupils who attended the school during the 60’s and 70’s.

    (Photo: Fernando, Regina, and a shiny-cheeked me)
    Fernando showed me where I could leave my stuff, where I would sleep, and where I could take a shower if I wanted to. If I wanted to feel comfortable in their home, a shower needed to come first.

    After cleaning up, I joined them in the dining room. Regina poured me a Guinness and soon after, a glass of whiskey.

    “Who was that man who introduced us earlier?” I asked. I suspected he could have been the town’s mayor by how involved he was with the Fair, and I wanted to get it right on the blog.

    “That was Gearoid,” she said. “That’s the Gaelic version of the name, Jared, is it? Or Gerard? He’s one of the fair organizers,” Later, he'd tell me he was also a local schoolteacher.

    Regina and Joan left for the reunion and Fernando went back into town. They left me with a key and permission to eat and drink anything I wanted in the kitchen and use of their laptop and Internet access.

    (Photo: The local pub)
    “Everyone will probably be at the pub tonight if you want to join us,” Fernando said before heading out. “You don’t have to, but if you want, that’s where we’ll be.”

    I sipped on my Guinness while updating the blog on their laptop and sending out a few emails and instant messages. When I got up to leave, I realized I forgot to drink my whiskey. I knocked it back in one shot. It warmed my throat. “Bwaaaaah. Wow. That’s really strong whiskey,” I said to the empty house then locked up and walked downtown.

    When I crossed the street, I could hear the muffled sounds of the busy pub. Upon opening the door, sound burst into the streets like it had been dying to get out. A woman with a guitar was on a stage singing an American country song. People crowded up next the bar, drinking, laughing, and talking loudly into each other’s ears, so they could be heard over the music

    I ordered a pint and took a seat at one of the empty tables near the stage. I scanned the room for familiar faces, but didn’t see any until halfway through my Guinness. Fernando and Gearoid walked in, ordered drinks, and sat at my table.

    “I knew he was a foreigner," Gearoid said to Fernando. He had to lean toward him and yell to be heard. "So I wouldn't let him leave town until he signed our visitor book." He leaned toward me and said, "If we can draw at least twenty foreigners into town each year, we can qualify for this thousand Euro grant,” he smiled. “So there was a fifty euro bounty on your head!”

    "How'd you know I was a foreigner?" I asked.

    "You were walking," he said. "The Irish don't walk."

    When our beer glasses were empty, Fernando bought us another round. We talked all night, actually we yelled into each other’s ears to be heard over the music all night.

    “So Ryan, do you have any Irish roots?” Gearoid said.

    “I think so, but it was so long ago that I don’t really know anything about them. My grandmother’s maiden name is Mahaney, which if you go back far enough in my family tree, came from Mahoney or the O’Mahoney family, which I’m told most likely came from Cork.”

    “No," he shook his head. "You didn’t come from ‘Ma-HO-ney. Don’t tell anyone else that.”

    I was confused, but so unsure about my Irish ancestry that I didn't have a good argument.

    “Do you have a pen?” he asked.

    I gave him one. He took a cardboard coaster from the table and wrote, “Póg Mo Thóin.”

    “This is a Gaelic phrase, pronounced Pōg Mah Hone. It means—” He spoke the translation as he wrote it below Póg Mo Thóin on the coaster. “Kiss… my… ass.” He turned the coaster to face me. “So you can’t go tellin’ people you come from Mo-Hone-ee. You’re telling them you come from your ass!

    (Photo: Gearoid and Frenando. Sláinte!)
    “Alright, well how should I say it?”

    “It’s MA-huh-nee,” he said. “Now say it back to me.”

    “MA-huh-nee,” we said in unison.

    Fernando bought us another round before I even realized I was getting low. Gearoid slid his new full pint over to me, not wanting the town to see their local schoolteacher “getting pissed in the pub.”

    Afterwards, Fernando and I walked back to the house. More accurately, we stumbled back. Without turning on any lights, he went upstairs to go to sleep. In the living room, the decorative couch pillows had been pulled onto the floor and a quilt was spread out on top. A big fluffy white pillow sat on the far end. It may seem like a small detail, but it’s not every day that I get the privilege of a pillow.

    I crashed into it and slept like I hadn’t slept for days.

    Malahide Castle

    This is Malahide Castle

    It wasn't on my way exactly...

    But a slight detour meant it could be. 

    I went there more to celebrate my freedom to detour, than to see the castle.

    Next, I went through a town called Swords, which happened to be home to Swords Castle.

    I found a spot to camp next to a golf course, but there were golfers who might spot me, so I waited until sunset...

    Then setup my tent