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            My heart is starting to get a little heavy. Tonight will be my last night with the Morris clan. We’ve decided to keep it light—Chinese food and a couple of beers. It’s too soon to be reflecting on my whole trip because there’s still a little leg of it to go but I am going to miss these people. That’s all on that for now. This all deserves more focus and time to say what I want to say.

            What I will say is that yesterday was easy. I started in Galway. First, I spent a little time on the Salt Hill Promenade. The Galway bay was misty and I could look across it and see the mountains in a smoky haze. It was a unique way to experience a beach atmosphere. For nearly my whole life, I’ve looked off into the vast horizons across the Atlantic and seen no end to it. Everywhere you go in Ireland, there’s bits of land and jagged rock showing itself off-shore. To think—I could have been imagining what was going on in that mountain range when I was little instead of imagining there were lands out beyond my sight. A lot of perspective is heavily dependent.

            When I got back to Mountmellick, it was business as usual. That’s part of what makes it hard to think about when I realize I’m leaving for now. We took Annette’s kids over to Siobhan’s and Jai’s. Then we came back to the house, Annette left and Dave and I had some dinner. Then it was a movie and some beers. It’s around then that I realized I finally had acclimated to the life around me. I’ll still tease people when things hit the ear wrong but the accent, for the most part, has lost its novelty. For the first time since I left, I could take a breath and say, “I am in Ireland.”

            And, like I said, for the first time it didn’t feel like a foreign or abstract thought.

            Today, we did some shopping and kept it easy again. Annette took me out to pick elderflowers off the side of the road to make a little drink. Again, it was one of those Irish experiences that felt about as authentic as it can get. As we were picking them, she looked up and said, “I think that’s my cousin’s house.”

            We both died laughing. I was happy, too. To be able to get the full context for that joke would easily take someone the month that I’ve stayed here. And then I felt like I don’t know—either I’ve given this place a piece of me or vice versa or both.

            I’m so happy and so sad to spend this last night—for this trip—here.

            Let’s go get drunk,

            Big Cat

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            I feel blessed right now. I never have something to write on when I’m in this state of mind. I have things to say, man. Right now, though, I happen to be in my room in Galway. I just came back from having some lamb stew and a Smithwicks Pale Ale at a restaurant I couldn’t tell you the name of. I walked around, killing time in a despondent fashion until I came upon a book store. I walked in, bought ‘The Five People You Meet In Heaven’ and a Claire Keegan collection of short stories (I need to stop buying books). On my way back to the car, someone recognized Testudo on my shirt and asked if I went to the University of Maryland. It was three young girls on a study abroad in Galway from Maryland. We chatted, I told them I worked at Bentley’s and we planned to meet at nine at the King’s Head. I’m not going. I never planned to. They’re cute (sorry Nikki!) but they’re young and dopey and I got blitzed last night so I’ve no desire to go.

            However, I stopped at an Off License (beer store) and got three tall boy Bud Lights and started reading these books. I made plans to go hear some live music at a pub nearby and I’m still going to go, I feel obligated in a way. But tonight, I can feel in my fucking bones how badly I want to be a good great writer. When I started ‘five people’ and read a story in the Keegan book, I wanted to call it a night and stay in and keep reading. To have the ability to make people see more value in staying in to look at black ink on white paper when they’re thousands of miles from home in a vacation paradise is unbelievable to me. I want that for myself. I need to take people there. Literature is a spectacular little beast.

            The day I realized I enjoyed reading I was a few months past my twenty-fourth birthday. Not too long ago. Perhaps there’s something about growing up that makes the escape into a ready-made fantasy so appealing. You realize that your dreams are beginning to outrun you and that you’ve squandered the limitless possibilities the world has simply by making choices. You have trouble fitting into the pants that you wore when you led the world’s most important rock group since the Beatles. The hat you donned as the world’s premiere treasure hunter is crumpled in the back of your closet. The weight of reality fractures your imaginative bone and you come to accept reality. It sounds cynical yet I was still happy. Yes, maybe I wouldn’t be President, but there seems to be no limit in sight for my dreams in this path I’ve chosen. I want to keep you in on vacation someday.

            And Claire Keegan—my god. She writes the Irish experience so well that I feel like I’m experiencing it more by reading this story than having a night in Galway. Someday I’m going to see her speak on a book tour through America. She’s a writer so I guarantee she’ll be weird. This little fantasy I’ve cooked up in my head where she’s the pinnacle of all my imaginings will be shattered. But I’m excited for that day as I write this. It’s like the first time I saw a Tim O’Brien video on youtube and heard how whiny his voice was. It becomes very real and you see that mortals can still have something to say. Again, I want to do that to someone else someday. I want them to imagine me into something I’m not but still be moved when I talk about the craft. Also, I feel like I shatter expectations frequently anyways.

            There’s too much more to say. I’ll cut it all down to this: I hunger for it.

            Oh, and I’m a little tipsy—yikes,

            Big Cat

               

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On The Road To Connemara

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            Today I went into town, had a lunch while I read my book and saw the Galway Museum. The museum was pretty fantastic, especially because it had a huge section on the 1916 uprising. That’s something I’m particularly interested in. But, other than that, I’ve taken it easy and worked on some writing because I fought hard through the weather yesterday. Besides, I got in a little late last night. Speaking of last night…

            Well, I’ve felt guilty about holding out this older story but I’m glad I waited to tell it. Let me start with yesterday evening:

            The early evening was warmer than usual and the rain had held off for the better part of the late afternoon. I knew my evening plans at the King’s Head pub and decided to get a local paper and head into town for a sandwich beforehand. It was about a fifteen minute walk into the city center from Lower Salthill and I decided I’d make the walk; not driving would allow me to have my fill at the pub later on. I was at the halfway point when it started pouring buckets on me. I ran into a Supervalu (a big chain grocer here) and got lucky and hopped in with a passing cab. Even though the show at the pub wasn’t due to begin until 9:30, I hurried through my dinner—excited for Irish music and dancing.

            I arrived at the pub about an hour before the show was due to start and I met some locals at the bar. I did the whole background on the trip and all that goes with it and in a snap, found my drinking buddies for the night. Before I knew it, Jameson and Guinness were flowing and the music was in full swing. The dancers arrived late but they took the stage and brought the house down. The audience was clapping loud and I was enjoying myself. Pretty soon, though, I realized that traditional Irish music has a shelf life of about an hour. There’s variation but it’s not varied enough and pretty soon the only redeeming factors were the dances that went with them. Also, the guys playing were young and didn’t seem to have a lot of chemistry. That’s when I realized it. I’d seen better ‘trad’ music during my trip here. It was in County Cork; Kinsale to be more specific.

            Well, I don’t know if I mentioned it but I had a big night out in Kinsale. I met a group at a place called Folkhouse and we were getting wild and having a blast. The end of the night rolled around and all the guys and girls were heading back to the apartment for a music session (this may be why I think everyone here is a musician of sorts). So we make it back up the hill to the residential area and I walk in the door to the apartment. Instantly, I’m hit with an unmistakable smell and the sound of ‘trad’ music.

            If we were to measure the ‘hippie-ness’ of the atmosphere in terms of granola, it would have been an eight on the crunchy scale. Leading the session on guitar was a sixty year old woman, a portly Asian guy with a fu manchu on the drum, a girl with dreadlocks playing tin whistle, and various others playing different instruments around the room. They were all smiling, all connected, nodding their heads and playing pretty fantastic music. I felt a little like a stranger in a strange place but in retrospect, I got to hear something pretty good that night. Soon after, they finished the traditional stuff and played what I now believe is Ireland’s favorite song: ‘Wagon wheel’. I don’t know what it is about that song but it connects with the people around here.

            The session ended and the hippie jam band headed out, maybe back to the commune. I awkwardly told the Asian guy that they played really well and he just nodded his head and smiled. He definitely was in too different of a place to understand what I was saying but he knew it was a positive. The singer hung back for a while to have a beer and I joked to him that the Irish were pronouncing ‘Roanoke’ wrong every time I’ve heard ‘Wagon wheel’ here. He had a good laugh about it and told me I was hearing the Cork version.

            As quickly as the group popped into my journey through Ireland, they were gone. On the way back up to Laois the next day I was laughing about the weird little world I jumped into. It’s happened a few times in my life, especially when I used to work in bars. Some nights were amazing, others strange and even a few times where I was a little nervous. But it’s those nights, the ones that take you out of your comfort zone, where you learn a lot about yourself. There’s different ways that people live their lives out there. The main thing is the simplest thing: be kind, the golden rule will keep you safe and happy.

           So yes, to boil it all down, I heard better and more cohesive traditional music. If I had gotten over myself a little more, I would have gotten to fully enjoy a great moment as it occurred instead of in hind sight.

           Thank you, you dirty, dirty, good-music-playing hippies,

           Big Cat

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Into the Abyss… (Mt. Errigal)

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            The clouds in Westport looked threatening as I rolled out of town for Connemara National Park. After a short drive, I arrived at my first trailhead and made my way onto the path. The skies made good on the threat and I was hiking in some of what I now believe is standard Irish weather. But, if I let that dictate my plans, I’d spend most of my time indoors. So I continued on and checked out the two other hikes I wanted to see. I’m not so jaded but after seeing places like Barley Lake in Cork and Mount Errigal in Donegal, Connemara in the rain had too much to live up to. It was a very nice hike but one that would have relied on better weather.

            I had been filled with anticipation all morning because today was the day I’d finally arrive in Galway. Between the Steve Earle song and all the buzz I had heard about the city, I was ready to get there and see it for myself. Now, sitting in my room on Lower Salthill Road, I can say that I see what all the hype is about. I started out at McDonagh’s Seafood est. 1902. As I waited in line, I saw a picture of Terry O’Quinn from ‘Lost’. I decided if it was good enough for John Locke, it was good enough for the Big Cat. I had a proper Irish meal of salmon-fish and chips with curry sauce and a coke with no ice. Delicious.

            Now, before I went in for lunch, it was a bright and sunny day. I decided to leave the ol’ “Long Walk” from the Steve Earle song for after lunch. Here’s a rule: When in Ireland, never put outdoor plans on hold if you luck upon some good weather. By the time I walked out of McDonagh’s, it was pissing rain. Again, not to let the weather dictate my plans, I put on my rain coat, got my umbrella, walked to the Spanish arches at the start and took the ol’ Long Walk on a not very fine or soft day-ai-a-ai-a.

            After I had finished, naturally, the weather came around again. I walked into the city center. There was music playing, people singing and I could feel that I was in a great little city. It’s not often you get that feeling. I’ll begrudgingly admit that you can experience it on Broadway in New York. You definitely get it in Washington D.C. in parts, the French quarter in New Orleans and downtown Denver, too. But, as there aren’t a lot of full-on cities in Ireland, it was the first chance I’ve had to experience it over here. I don’t know how to explain it other than you can feel a unique and exciting culture. The city is visually pleasing and organic, not artificial. It’s Irish without demanding you to recognize it and there’s real life moving amongst the tourists. It’s nice here.

            Tonight, I’m going to the King’s Head Pub for some traditional Irish music and I think possibly dancing, too. I’m not sure. I saw it as I was walking around the city earlier and it said it was established in the sixteenth century, so maybe they’ll have mead. Should be great; I’ll be mingling and seeing if I can’t get in with some Irish folks. It’s not hard to do.

            “‘Cause his coat is white and his eyes are blue”,

            Big Cat

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"Look at these two asses." -Either us or the donkeys— you decide.

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            Donegal holds a place in one of the most special parts of my trip. The sites were lovely but it was Shirlie’s brother, Luke that added heavily to their impact. I suppose I’ll just take it from the top.

            I arrived in County Donegal, more specifically in Letterkenny at around ‘half three’ as they say here (3:30). Soon after, I met up with Luke at the Tesco (European Walmart-ish place). We went back to his apartment and we were chatting away. In no time we were discussing art; my writing and his surrealist drawing and painting. He showed me his portfolio and I just don’t possess the words to say how inspired and amazing the different pieces were.

            After a quick pint, we were off to the Beltany Stone Circle. This circular rock structure was said to have been created between 1400 and 800 B.C., so yeah, it’s been there awhile. Like most of the things I’ve seen on my trip, it felt strange just parking next to a farm and walking up a hill to the site. I feel like any of the major things I’ve seen in America have always had ticket counters and mobs of people. Here, it was just me and Luke and two sets of couples on their way back down from the circle. When we got out to the field, it was just us and this ancient Pagan monument with, as Luke put it, “…a big question mark sitting over the top of it.”

            I could go into all of the feelings I had, like not even being able to conceptualize the people that could have put the thing together and them practicing their religion where I was standing,  but those type of thoughts are just a cobweb of confusion I’ll need years to work out. The best I can do is say that it felt right, being in the Pagan circle. It felt like something closer to any God I’ve ever known. It was connected wholly to nature—the place where I always imagine God to exist. But I won’t get too spiritual. That’s not my bag. Plus, I can hear that evil nun with the glasses and bad teeth, who used to yell at us for throwing snow balls outside St. Marks after Catholic school, spitting and snarling at the heavens as I write this.

            After that, Luke drove me up to Malin Head. It’s the Northern-most point in Ireland. The site was gorgeous. It held an old tower that was used by the early I.R.A. and then again in World War II as a lookout for German boats. It was a great experience. But, I suppose I have to go into something kind of meaningful that occurred along the way. Sunday was Father’s Day, and as we drove to Malin Head, we drove through ‘Amazing Grace Country’— Inishowen, Donegal. I looked it up and the story goes that the man who wrote the song, John Newton was inspired to write it when his ship wrecked and he landed on those shores. Without going too much into it for many of my own reasons, it was a special little way to pay some respects. It was a place my Dad would have loved to see—I know Donegal would have been his favorite. There was a fish sculpture in the town and it had the only street that I’ve seen marked in all of Ireland and it happened to be Church Street. Make of it what you will.

            The next day we woke up as ‘men with a mission’. Luke and I piled into his car and went over to climb Mount Errigal, a nearly 2,500 foot elevation overlooking some beautiful country. When we arrived at the head of our trail, it was rainy and the top of the mountain was covered by clouds. In the interests of brevity, I’ll say a few things quickly that I found amazing:

·         The terrain changed once every twenty minutes; we’d be in bog (that I sunk one of my boots into at one point) then rock, then soft heather, then jagged mountain.

·         At a certain elevation, we could only see twenty feet in all directions due to the cloud cover

·         As we discussed our spirituality, I said my thoughts on God and Nature and turned around to find a religious-looking bracelet on an otherwise bare mountain. I think I’m onto something.

·         On the way up, we lost the trail and took an extremely challenging route (way more fun).

            Yeah, that about covers it. So we finally reach the peak and there’s a huge (man-made?) rock formation that looks like a dragon’s nest. Nearby there were big rock piles as well. We sat down and took our lunch. As I ate my sandwich, I turned around and the cloud cover opened up like a curtain and there was a view of Donegal that struck me in the heart. I have no qualms about heights but to have it revealed so suddenly was exhilarating. We walked over to the second peak (the two peaks kind of formed horns at the top) and the clouds gave us infrequent views of the world below. We hung out there and chatted and enjoyed our time on the mountain.

            On the way back down, the clouds dissipated and we got to see it all on our leisurely walk down the path. In many ways I could connect the hike to my own life. There was a rocky climb, vision-obscuring clouds and a little bit of clarity when I finally pushed for higher ground. On the way back down, it felt a little easier. Then some rain came down hard but I just put on a poncho and pressed on knowing that it would pass. You just need to give it time, I guess. That’s life—I think?

            After that, we saw Eddie the boat, checked out a church that I saw from the mountain and walked back up Errigal again because we thought we saw a cave (not a cave).

            With my feet soaked and both of our legs like jelly, we decided to head over and see something that didn’t require hiking. Luke took me over to St. Columbo’s church and then to the farm where he was born. I think it reaffirmed something inside me, that you have to remember that these saints were just people like us. On the way to his birthplace, there were two donkeys and me and Luke stopped and gave them a pet for a while. For me, that experience meant more than seeing a place where a holy figure was born. And I’m not saying Columbo was a bad guy, hell, he might have been a really nice and wonderful saint. I hope he was but it doesn’t make him any bigger to me then say a great guy like Luke for example.

            And I mean that. I think Luke and I are kindred spirits. There’s just a way about him that makes it immediately apparent that he’s a warm and thoughtful man. Sometimes he has a look like he’s carrying the world on his shoulders but then he’ll crack a joke and put the warmth of the sun in your heart with his fantastic smile. My whole time with him he was telling me about Ireland and showing me all the sites and continuously wishing he could have had more time to show me more. That type of person; an artist—someone who gives of himself. He’s aces in my book.

            We had some beers and he showed me some of Letterkenny. This morning we parted ways and I took to the road like before. I listened to American songs and they started working on me, making me feel a little longing for home. Luckily, the Emerald Isle brought me through Sligo, home of my great-great grandmother Bridget Clancy and then to Westport, home of her husband and my great-great grandfather, John Walsh. So maybe I’m in a small little piece of home for the night. Tomorrow it’s beach and town and then the road to Galway.

            Goddamn right,

            Big Cat

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Eddie the Boat in Bunbeg, Donegal

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            Saturday and Sunday were great days, I’m exhausted. It started out on Saturday at Granny Morris’ cottage where I met some more of the Morris clan and had some tea. Granny herself would be too much to cover in this little blog suffice to say she’s the Irish version of my own grandmother; kind, sweet and sharp as a tack. Just in our brief meeting, I could tell that she was a special woman. By the end of it, the extended family at the cottage was trying to count all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I didn’t get a definitive number which just goes to show you how many lives this one strong woman impacted.

            Saturday evening, however, was slightly less wholesome. I know it was me, Ciaran and his best friend, Adrian at Turley’s and E. Lalor’s. I also know that we went to some place called Egan’s that made everyone we mentioned our plans to cringe before the journey over (Imagine: Bentley’s in College Park on steroids). But, it’s at this point where the story starts becoming a bit mythical. I’m going to make a heavy assertion here and I think I have the evidence to back it up: The entire Turner family is a figment of my drunken imagination. Now, hold on. Listen to me. You see, the first time I met Shirlie’s cousin Dave Turner, it was St. Patty’s day in America. I was drunk. Then, I came to Ireland and met his dad, his mom, and his sister; again, all those times, I was drunk either then or soon after. Then, I went up to Athlone about a week ago and saw Dave again and lo and behold, I was drunk. So this past Saturday rolls around and who’s driving us to the bar in Portlaois? Dave’s Uncle James. And at the bar, who do I meet? Dave’s younger sister.

            So I’ve concluded that every time I take a drink in Ireland, a new Turner appears and poor Dave (if he’s real) gets an overly-excited text message that I’ve just encountered a member of his family. I think that this theory is holding water. I’m like the character Russell Crowe plays in ‘A Beautiful Mind’—with the addition of five to ten pints in each scene.

            I could go on with pieces and fragments of Saturday night but nobody likes listening to ‘when I was drinking’ stories. I will say that Sunday came crashing down on me and my alarm clock was beeping for three hours and I could not for the life of me figure out what was making noise next to my head. I finally made it out and on the road to Letterkenny in County Donegal to see Shirlie’s brother, Luke.

            The Irish road carried me along and I got into that syrupy, light place where it’s me and the road and the music that moves me. While I was in that special place, my mind did what it always does when I’m alone on the road; it drove. It drove into all the places that hold the things I want to say and put out into the world. I thought about the way language is used here in Eire. I thought about home and the things that I view differently now. But most of all, I just kept thinking about how easy or hard things can be for me, depending on how I look at them (Oh my god, I’m sounding like Annette! Eh, maybe that’s not a bad thing). But, it’s amazing what the road does to me. It’s therapeutic almost. Everything I feel is amplified by this mish-mosh of forward movement, music and thought. I don’t know. It’s nice is all. And don’t worry, I’m paying attention to the road.

            Now, I’ll wrap this one up by saying that I loved County Cork. County Clare was beautiful as well but Cork outranked it. But on Sunday, I found the most beautiful scenery in Ireland; Donegal. Oh and I mean strictly scenery because everyone knows the best Irish reside in or come from County Laois.

            May the Turners be with you,

            Big Cat

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            In Donegal. I’ll be back updating on Tuesday.

            Big Cat

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Jake & Rorí— or Picasso & Matisse? You decide.

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                The Irish music scene is huge here. Last night, Dave Keane and I went into Portlaois to check out the ‘Barn Dance’. It was a whole bunch of bands taking the stage in the outdoor section of a pub and jamming out for a few songs each. Frank, a buddy of Dave’s, plays with three different bands and all of them were present for the gig. Let me tell you, when this guy start shredding on the bass, he gets into it. It made me wish I’d stuck with the guitar when I was little. To hold that kind of stage presence and have the whole crowd feeling your music like that has to be quite a feeling. It was great to see it with a few pints.

            Today, I got back to my roots. It was hide-and-seek, playing with cars, building castles and drawing pictures with Dave and Annette’s kids, Rorí and Kila. It helped me to remember how real your imagination can be when you’re little. Rorí kept calling out during hide-and-seek whether I was hot or cold, totally believing I was inept enough not to find him when he was making that much noise—I guess he was half-right. Connecting with and believing your imagination was probably one of the most special things about childhood. Today, as adults, we chase that cathartic experience of being a superstar athlete or a famous rocker in videogames or in books or by painting or what-have-you (sometimes even with some amateur short fiction). But it’s sad that we can’t just rely on the endless capacity of our own minds and believe our wildest dreams.  Kids are lucky in that sense.

            Of course, I can stay up until 3:00am tonight with a gallon of ice cream and a handful of R-rated movies. So it’s not all bad being an ‘adult’.

            It did make me wonder about my life when I have kids of my own—in twenty years.

            Tonight, it’s pints in town with Ciaran. Tomorrow, I go north to Donegal to see Shirlie’s other brother, Luke. I hear he’s very artistic so I’m excited to hear about his work and bounce around his stomping grounds. During the week I’ll be seeing the hometowns of my great-great grandparents, John Walsh and Bridget (Clancy) Walsh. I hope I can get a sense of the world they came from, though I think they were born near the famine so they may not have been here long. Maybe I’ll just pretend they lived there.

            Say a prayer for my liver tonight,

            Big Cat

               

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The Owl Whisperer

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            It was just an afterthought when Shirlie’s sister, Annette told me about Killaloe. I had finished my week in County Clare and was heading back to Mountmellick this morning. It was a rainy day and I almost went straight back to County Laois. In fact, I almost did several times. I kept turning off at the wrong places or missing turns because I had the music up loud for the drive. At one point, I ended up in the middle of Limerick (Stab City) and I was getting fed up. But, with my head in the clouds, I decided to nonchalantly press on.

            It was a pretty town when I arrived; prettier than some I’d seen, not as pretty as others. There was a river running through the middle of it and I decided to cross the bridge because I saw a pretty church. Sometimes I’m drawn to architecture like that. I got out, snapped some pictures and walked around to get the name of the church. Before I could check it, my stomach started growling and I walked into a supermarket to get a sandwich and a (fresh and refrigerated) milk. I headed back toward the car and a light rain started up again so I was fully prepared to pound asphalt and get back to the highway.

            I walked half a block past the church on the way back and happened to look up at a sign. Déjà vu. On the sign, it read, “Palliser House (In 1830 an Inn) Temporary Home of Anthony Trollope”

            It blew me away. Here I was again, in a random town, finding a connection to an author that I studied intensely in my 19th Century Literature course. Now, I hated ‘The Warden’ but the experience had the same effect on me. As an aspiring writer, to happen upon two writers who you are quite familiar with—it’s a crazy little world. I sat in the rain and ate my lunch behind ol’ Tony T’s house.

            I said before in a post that the world can be cruel and arbitrary. What I failed to mention is how beautifully arbitrary it can sometimes be. There are magical things that go on every day that deserve more attention and recognition. There are the great people, places and circumstances that make the sufferings in life that much easier to bear. There are the moments that you can’t capture with anything but your soul. It makes me consider those special moments, when people share something deep within themselves without realizing it. Or when you realize halfway through a night out that it’s one of the ones you’ll remember. Penzance and Killaloe; who would have thought they’d make the cut with everything else I’ve seen.

            I’m back in Mountmellick for the weekend. The Morris/Keane clan is taking good care of me. This trip had taken me places I never expected. I’m coming along on the learning curve with travel and with myself in many respects.

            ‘The Warden’ still sucked,

            Big Cat