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Gimme Shelter: Memories of the old country

This column appeared in a slightly different form in March 2018.

The last time we went to Ireland, we decided to get a new long-term parking service at JFK — our old one went out of business — and hired a robot to give us directions for a 10 p.m. flight.

In her almost-pleasant voice, she gave us sensible directions until she slipped her moorings and went to Route #2, called “All the Way ’Round the Mulberry Bush.”

We toured, during rush hour, Garden City, Adelphi University and every street in Jamaica, directed to turn at every corner.

The new parking service was a pitch-black lot, defined by a hurricane fence. As some guy hopped in and drove our car away I wondered: Just call the insurance agent now? The bus taking us to the terminal — the word has never been more apt — had the same lighting as the lot. None.

It turned out our terminal wasn’t our terminal. The website booking service had screwed it up — so the airline told us — and we rushed to take a train to the new one.

Then it began to get truly grim.

I’ve defended the Transportation Security Administration officers in the past. They do an essential, difficult job and are usually professional about it. But even pros can get spooked when thousands upon thousands of people are herded into a 1.5 mile series of switchback corrals dragging luggage and children.

The din grew as TSA and airport personnel were shouting at us to keep moving. A large, wild-eyed dog leaping to escape a leash held by an officer was among us in the corrals. Once through security, we had, for some reason, to go through the whole thing again. Bars on the concourses had muted TVs with images of college football or the president at a rally. Customers were staring, stunned.

The airline had no seat assignment for me, and they had overbooked the flight. It took a while for airline personnel to sort it out that I had paid good money to ride on their plane.

Then, The Wizard of Oz effect — Dublin in the morning was in Technicolor after our long, black night. For the next two weeks, it was as if someone had turned down the audio. Ireland was soft, hospitable and quiet.

I always forget how beautiful it is, and a certain Irish sense of conversation and humor. One of the first people I spoke to, a young man at Dublin’s airport who helped us with our luggage, asked how the flight had gone.

“Kennedy was insane last night,” I said.

He took his time, his smile slowly growing: “My name is Kennedy. Brian Kennedy. How did you know what I was up to last night?”

Ireland is a modern European country, with all the benefits and ills that defines, but there are many opportunities to forget what modernity has wrought. Near where we had once lived in County Clare we had a simple, delicious evening meal in a quiet pub that was identical in atmosphere to decades ago. We sat near a farmer and his wife having their meal of fish and chips, he with a pint and she with a glass of wine, speaking softly with one another.

(Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

We noted how nothing had changed, except as we were leaving, we looked over and their weathered country faces were illuminated by their phones.

The West was the same — mostly. If you go, don’t go to “castles” to “feast” at “banquets” served by “maidens” in long medieval costumes serenaded by joyless harp music on replay. The maidens, you can be sure, chain-smoke on the way home to Limerick after work and turn their car radios to the sounds of Shame or Just Mustard.

Go to Clare, keeping the Atlantic off your left shoulder, following the towns north. Quilty, Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, Ennistymon, Lisdoonvarna, Kilfenora, Corofin, Doolin … their lovely names a soft, musical gateway to a landscape that will never leave you, no matter how much time and distance separates you from it.

Long-time friends, and people we had just met, would wait a bit in conversation, but all finally got around to the same polite question: What’s going on over there? Meaning the U.S.

At a country inn after dinner, a man asked me to explain America’s gun laws. I started to speak about the Second Amendment and the American frontier, when he interrupted me. “Assault weapons, mass shootings … It’s … baffling to us.”

There was nothing, I realized, that I could say to him to explain.

After we landed back at Kennedy (Hello, Brian) and for a week after, I thought I was home. But part of me was on a hill looking down through trees at sunlight dancing on the waters of a lake in County Donegal. The only sounds were wind in the branches and, far way, the distant quarreling of crows.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

(Credit: Ambrose Clancy)