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In a yellow house on sparkling Dublin Bay, I stay until I belong


Funny thing about Ireland. Lots of people go there. And go again and again. The island is small -- about one-third the size of Kansas. But there’s lots to see, and you can’t see it all in a week or two. That wasn’t what I wanted to do anyway.

I wanted to stay somewhere until I felt I was part of the place. Some may think that sounds as much fun as watching paint dry, but it was what I wanted.

On my only other trip to Ireland 10 years ago -- a time when I did circle the island in a week -- I had spent a night at a bed and breakfast in a little town south of Dublin on the bay.

This time I would be traveling alone after reporting on a meeting at University College Dublin in Belfield, a Dublin suburb. I wanted to go back to something a little bit familiar -- the comfy beds and hearty breakfasts at Idrone House. I wanted to go into Dublin on the DART, the nifty little commuter train that skims along the edge of Dublin Bay with stops at all the little towns that were once seaside villages and are becoming hometowns for Dublin’s bright young people. I wanted to walk along Dublin Bay and let its sparkle seep into my eyes.

When the taxi dropped me at Idrone House, I could smell the fresh and slightly fishy scent of the bay a block away. Bernie Potter, who was just starting out in the bed and breakfast business 10 years ago, welcomed me with tea and chocolate biscuits. She and her husband, Pat, who ran a nearby pub last time I was there, now share the work of the bed and breakfast with alternate time off for golf. (Idrone, also the name of a street that runs above the edge of the bay, is the name of an ancient barony in what is now County Carlow, south of Dublin.)

Idrone House is a sturdy 150-year-old house on a corner facing Newtown Avenue, which was probably new when the house was built. The house, which can accommodate nine guests, is made of cut granite blocks painted a sunny yellow with white trim around the big windows. The front door is bright blue. Only two of the house’s three stories show from the street. The land falls away at the back, allowing for the big back windows of the Potter’s first floor apartment. I would stay here a week and then fly home.

Pat had scaffolding out behind and was painting the house, which didn’t seem to need it. “Houses near the sea need a lot of painting,” he told me.

My room was small, white, fresh and at the front of the house. Its big window looked across the street to the back of the Church of St. John the Baptist. The church was also 150 years old and made of cut granite blocks, but these, unpainted, were dark gray, making the church seem even more massive and, despite the airy steeples, ponderous.

A source of wonder

That church was a source of wonder to me. I visited it at least once a day and on Sunday attended a Mass in Irish. How could the Irish build a church this massive on this side of Ireland, I wondered, when my great-grandfather on the other side of the island had to flee the country after a run-in with an English soldier who jumped him on his way to Mass? He hid the soldier’s sword in the thatched roof of his cottage, the story goes, took his two sons, left his wife and daughter and went to southern Minnesota. The wife and daughter came later.

Mrs. Potter had two answers to my wonderment: Catholics always built big churches throughout the island. And: A lot of people got away with murder in those days.

I had never thought of it that way.

On my first day in Blackrock, I went to the big church about 1:25 p.m. A few older people lingered. I asked a woman, “Did you have a noon Mass?”

“It’s at 1:05 every day,” she answered.

“The 20-minute Mass lives!” I thought. “These Irish pray fast.”

That wasn’t the whole story. One day Doreen Hackett, whom I had met at the church, stepped forward to lead the rosary after Mass.

Before each Our Father, she said, “Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those who have most need of thy mercy.”

I knew that prayer.

After the rosary Doreen led us in “Hail Holy Queen” and “St. Michael, defend us in battle ... ” I can keep up with this woman, I thought. Then she began a prayer that opened with “Mercy, my Jesus,” and asked forgiveness for a vast panoply of sins. I decided she was way out of my class. Doreen later told me that was “the rosary and the trimmings.”

Idrone House, the big church, the string of row houses that face the bay across Idrone Terrace, the big, old, down-at-the-heel Carnegie Library and the buildings that house a couple of blocks of shops and eateries along Main Street are the old part of Blackrock, the part called “the village.” All around it are tall new office and apartment buildings and more being built.

“That old Celtic Tiger!” Doreen exclaimed. “I think we could do with a bit less of the boom, because there’s cranes and building all over.” She lives in one of the well-kept row houses down the street from the church. It is the home she moved to with her parents when she was a girl.

Plenty o’ progress

A block or two away a wrecking ball suspended from a crane seemed about to demolish a small church that had once been a part of a Franciscan convent, but a man told me, “It’s just an auld building they’re tearin’ down. The church is being left. I think it’s a listed buildin’, ya’ know.”

An electrician heading to a job told me, “There’s plenty o’ progress.”

Young businessmen in dark suits walk two by two along Idrone Terrace above the bay during lunch hour. A few young women in dark suits and chunky high heels walk along Main Street. Every third person is talking on a cell phone. Everyone has an umbrella. ATMs are everywhere, often with a string of young people in line. Lots of people smoke in Ireland -- two of the three people at the next table when I stopped for coffee and a scone.

Double-decker buses whip down Newtown Avenue and turn to cross Main Street and head into Dublin. At busy corners, stoplights click slowly as you wait and fast when it’s time to cross. Otherwise, Blackrock would be a good place to get run down by a Mazda or a BMW.

A postman rushed along Main Street with mailbags strapped to his bicycle. He ducked into a shop to leave mail and hurried on. He wore a New York baseball cap.

I walked a lot, took lots of photos. It was early July, and roses bloomed in every front yard. Like California with rain.

One of my favorite photos shows a tall, reserved man who played the accordion on Main Street. When I photographed him he was in front of Blackrock Center, which seemed to be just another storefront until I entered, and magically there appeared two stories of shops that included a sprawling supermarket called the Superquin, a flower shop, child care area, a book store, other stores and a luggage shop.

On Sunday I discovered Blackrock Market, a little alley off Main Street where I found lots of vendors offering all manner of stuff -- only on Saturday and Sunday. My find was a collection of hand-tinted and matted photo postcards from the turn of the century. One shows the church and one a steam locomotive chugging along the tracks where today’s DART runs, not carrying commuters but Dublin day-trippers to and from the seaside.

A good place to find

I took the DART into Dublin twice. Once just to see if I could find Trinity College, which is several blocks from Tara Station. Trinity is a good place to find. In addition to the ancient, beautifully illustrated Book of Kells, Trinity has a new, spacious visitors center with public restrooms and a place to pick up lunch. Across a busy street from Trinity’s entrance a street vender was selling jewelry, and an artist was sketching chalk pictures on canvas taped to the sidewalk.

Heading back to Tara Station, I got lost. I asked someone for directions, but he was also a tourist. A couple said, “That’s where we’re going. Come along.” They were Rose and Owen MacHugh who had come by train from County Mayo on the west of the country. They had been shopping and Rose had bought a new coat. They had some time to spend so they decided to ride to Howth, at the north end of the DART line. I rode with them. My grandfather, Dan, one of the boys who made a hurried exit from the country, was from Mayo. Meeting Rose and Owen felt like finding some of my roots. The journey to Howth was quick. We got off there, the train turned around and we got back on and zipped back to Dublin. I said goodbye to the MacHughs and they headed for their cross-country train. I caught the DART south to Blackrock.

My next trip to Dublin was to see a Saturday matinee at the Abbey Theatre, “Big Maggie” by John B. Keane, a contemporary Irish playwright. I caught a late morning train to Tara Station, walked to my landmark, Trinity College, although it was out of the way. I crossed the Liffey, the river that flows through Dublin, at the Ha’penny Bridge, a pedestrian bridge. Built in 1816, it originally cost a halfpenny to cross. I was then on Abbey Street and knew the theater was not far, but couldn’t find it. I asked several artsy-looking people for directions. One said this way; another pointed that way. This is the national theater we’re talking about! I spot a newsstand. Surely the man who operates the stand will know. And he does.

A short way from the theater, a thin young man approached me. He said he was homeless and said, “I haven’t had a t’ing all day. That’s how bad it’s got in Ireland.” He said he could get a good meal for 3 pounds at a place that serves homeless people. I gave him three big, beautiful silver pound coins with an Irish harp on one side and a sharp-beaked bird in flight on the other. He kissed my cheek and said, “Take care nobody robs you. There’s t’ieves all over.”

The set for “Big Maggie” had a graveyard with gravestone at the one side. The counter and shelves of a small shop took up the rest of the stage. All were washed in gloomy gray. A sparse audience waited. A woman near me studied the set and whispered to her husband, “This isn’t a comedy.”

“Big Maggie,” a widow, alienates her adult children as she attempts to manage the small shop her husband has left. Not a comedy.

Heading back to Blackrock, I found hundreds of young people crowding the platform waiting for the DART. Robbie Williams, an English rock star would perform that night and the next night at Landsdowne Stadium, between Dublin and Blackrock. We crowded into the green train car and stood, packed and happy. Almost everyone but me got off at Landsdown.

Two days later as I walked along Idrone Terrace, an older couple greeted me with smiles. We had passed each other on this walk before. The woman said, “Lovely evening, thank God.” I felt I belonged there. I thought, “Now I can go home.”

Patty McCarty, NCR’s copyeditor, is a frequent contributor to the newspaper.

Related Web sites
The Abbey Theatre

Blackrock Market

County Dublin Tourism


Trinity College

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002