I woke on January 1, 2020, three thousand miles from home with none of my normal enthusiasm for a new year.
Back in the US the circus was well and truly in town and Donald Trump was cracking the whip in the White House.
But at least I was an ocean away in Ireland and I knew I had a lot to be thankful for.
I’ve ventured across the Atlantic to visit Ireland more than two dozen times since the mid-80s, and I’m not even Irish. Ireland has always delivered what I’ve needed — a laid-back pace, amazing beaches, rolling green fields, but above all friendship and laughter. And I love long stays in small towns and villages where it’s easy to peel back the layers of a place, and return home with a new friends and a fresh perspective on life.
Back in 2013, my home for two months was a beautifully restored apartment in Connemara. Roundstone’s summer crowds had long gone. B&Bs, restaurants, and a weekly farmer’s market were closed until spring. When my old friend Mickey MacNamara promised the keys to “an Irish penthouse overlooking the harbour,” I could not say yes fast enough. Only Ferron’s tiny grocery shop and O’Dowd’s pub remained open. Mickey was more than an occasional drop-in at the rustic wood-paneled pub which has been serving pints since 1840. He was born only a few doors up the road in his grandparents’ pub, which is sadly long gone. I first met Mickey in the winter of 1984 in nearby Clifden where he suckered me and my Bostonian friend, Paula, into cleaning his coffee shop and later encouraged me to come back in summer.
‘The hills will be covered with heather and orchids, and salmon will jump from the stream into your arms,’ he promised.
I’ve returned to Roundstone many times since and Mickey has always offered a reason why it wasn’t just quite right for catching flying salmon — ‘not a chance in winter,’ he laughed when I came back one blustery October day a year later.
Locals must have wondered when I showed up in winter seven years ago, if I had lost my sanity, but I had come to hunker down and write. I found solitude and the internal calm I needed, plus delightful companions. Within a week, I’d met the most colorful characters in the village — lovers of Guinness, families that have lived in and around Roundstone for five generations, a large landowner whose Connemara ponies were treated like family, flamboyant storytellers, and fishermen who told their own tall tales about the ones that got away.
My new friends taught me how to avoid cabin fever — the Wednesday morning Bus Éireann ride to Galway that allowed enough time to eat lunch and buy groceries before the evening return, and a cheap round trip on the Sunday bus between Roundstone and Clifden, a blessing for those without cars or too old to drive. They called it the Happy Bus. I climbed aboard with passengers who behaved like they were on the way to summer camp and the joy was contagious.
During the last 36 years I’ve managed to see much of Ireland, not just Dublin and other well-known cities and towns on the well-trodden tourist trails but also remote places like Tory Island out in the Atlantic off the northwest coast of Donegal.
When our ferry arrived at the pier I was greeted by the legendary King of Tory, Patsy Dan Rodgers, a world-renowned painter and accordion player who met every arriving ferry until he passed away in 2018.
‘If you stand on the roof of my house you can almost see the Statue of Liberty,’ he said.
On the country’s largest island, Achill, a ninety-eight-year-old man found me lost on the road in front of his house, gave me directions, and asked me to send him a birthday card from America two years later.
Another isle that fascinated me was Coney Island off the coast of Rosses Point, a small fishing village a few miles outside Sligo Town. I had heard that Coney Island in New York was named after its Irish ancestor and I wanted to see the place for myself.
On my first visit to Rosses Point I had hoped to reach Coney by boat and hunt for the legendary Wishing Chair. Some say St. Patrick used to pray there, and that anyone who sits on the throne-shaped rock will be granted one wish.
But I hadn’t wished for better weather.
Kieran Devaney advised me to come back in spring when the weather would be fine and the sea not so rough.
‘Of course you can drive over at low tide from across the bay at Strandhill,’ he said.
My second attempt a year later was slightly more successful. It was still too rough to go by boat, so I drove.
But I couldn’t find the Wishing Chair.
And when the tide started coming back in, soaked by torrential rain, I tried desperately to charge across a muddy field but quickly sunk up to my knees in the quagmire. Not wanting to dirty the rental car, I peeled off my jeans, turned them inside out, and stuffed them into a plastic bag I just happened to have in the trunk. You could say it was a miracle I made it back to my room at the Yeats Country Hotel without being spotted in my undies, the lower part of my body only partially covered by a sweatshirt tied backwards around my waist and a daypack hiding my modesty.
On my third try, before the existence of Google Maps, I found that legendary rock using a hand-drawn map and made a request that could not fail — I wished for many return trips to Ireland.
Wish granted. In October 2019 I arrived in Roundstone for another winter.
Mickey found me a great three-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a fireplace and a garden. My downstairs neighbor was another old friend, Philip Corley, a fine Irish painter who had returned to Ireland for creative inspiration in Connemara after living more than 40 years in the US. It was there I spent the only Christmas when I’ve been away from my daughters and it became one of the most memorable. I was feeling a wee bit mopey on the morning of December 24, until my landlords knocked on the door bearing flowers, chocolates, and an invitation to join their family for Christmas dinner.
My 90 days for a visa-less stay in Ireland ran out in mid-January this year, and I left the country just as a coronavirus was sweeping through China and the first US case had been confirmed. During the next couple of months, I travelled through Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Slovenia, and Germany, crossing borders pursued by the virus which had been renamed COVID-19.
While I was in Marrakech the virus was already marching towards Italy.
My daughter ruled out meeting me in Bologna for my 70th birthday and stayed home. I made new plans. By the time I reached Prague, the Czech president had banned flights to and from Northern Italy where the COVID was already raging. There were three cases confirmed in Prague on the day I left for Hamburg, and the epidemic was growing in the US at a much faster rate. I couldn’t find masks or sanitizers in any of the places I’d been. I was fearful about flying again, but my family and friends begged me to return home while I still could.
I arrived at JFK Airport the night of my milestone birthday. I flew without a mask, as did plenty of others on my flight. Many fellow passengers had endured multiple flights and long delays in airports on the way to New York. Bedraggled travellers waiting around the luggage carousel looked shell-shocked, but there was worse to come.
Ten days later, New York, my home and America’s largest city was on total lockdown. Schools, bars, restaurants, and all non-essential businesses closed, and the numbers of the sick, the dying and the dead rose higher every day. Outside in the danger zone Manhattan’s busiest streets became empty and silent apart from the wailing of ambulance sirens. Even after a 14-day quarantine, I mostly stayed inside for four months, watching the TV news of escalating political upheaval, ridiculous conspiracy theories, heartbreaking racial injustices, police abuse, riots and looting . . . and a President called Donald Trump.
It was time to escape the nightmare.
I’m now back in Rosses Point. Remarkably, there hasn’t been a single case of the virus in the village, and that won’t change because of me. After a negative COVID-19 test, I’m still wearing a plastic face shield, professional lab goggles, and a cotton mask.
I was lucky to land a small seafront cottage that looks out on Sligo Bay and the grass-covered Oyster Island, which is speckled with grazing sheep, dry-stone walls, white-washed cottages, and beyond Oyster to Coney Island where I made my wish all those years ago.
A cozy leaded-glass porch on the front of the cottage — I call it my cubby — is where you will find me every day, stretched between a swiveled armchair and a pink-velvet ottoman, writing, reading, waving back at locals, and opening the door only when Kieran drops off groceries or a seafood dinner from Austies. That’s right, I’m in lockdown again but on the other side of the Atlantic.
I can smell the sea air.
I’m feeling calm and at home.
But I’ll be back in the US in time to vote.
Gail Harrington is a New Yorker whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Departures, National Geographic Traveler, and The New York Times. Diverse assignments have led her to transect a Fijian rainforest with machete in hand, trek to Rainbow Mountain in the Peruvian Andes, and help restore a 11th century dry stone wall in Scotland.