Kate Abbott: Finding Ireland in the Berkshire hills


This afternoon, in Ireland, the sun is shining. Met éireann, the Irish weather service, tells me it's dry and warm, about 50 degrees. Within a week or two, orchids will bud in the burren, the stony stretch of County Clare near the Atlantic Coast.

I have walked in the burren and seen one of the neolithic stone tomb sites it's known for. My family visited Ireland more than a dozen years ago now. We rode horses on the beach at Ballyvaughan and drove slowly along the Ring of Beara coast road and walked in the hills. At a living history museum, in a thatched cottage, talked with a woman, who had been raised in the same kind of small country house.

We rented bikes on the Isle of Aran and rode across the island. Aran has flat, wide roads and no cars -- it's a joy to bike, even for a wombly beginner like me, spinning down quiet roads with pastures on either side, to the sea.

Once, years ago, I rented bikes here at the Mountain Goat with two friends, and we took them to the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail. On that wide and gentle surface, we rode slowly along Cheshire Lake. Without traffic to avoid, I relaxed, and I felt as free as I had that sunny afternoon on Aran.

Looking out at the hills here today, near St. Patrick's Day, I'm thinking how much like Irish hills they are. We have snow, while Ireland almost never freezes, and their stone walls look tumbled together compared with ours, because they don't have frost heaves to knock the stones over. Our cleared hills have returned to trees (and deer), where Irish hills are often green with grasses. But our counties have a lot in common.

If I wanted to invoke Ireland on Monday, I might make soda bread or scones with dried fruit and eat them with sweet butter and a cup of strong tea. I might make a savory lentil and vegetable soup with golden dried peas, like the pottages we found for lunch at cafes in small towns.

In honor of St. Patrick, I might visit a sheep farm. St. Patrick lived for years as a shepherd. According to Thomas Cahill, he was born "Patricus," a Romanized Briton, and kidnapped as a boy by slave traders. (If you know other sources, please let me know. I would willingly learn more about him.) He stayed alone with his flock, in the hills, and lived as a slave for years before he escaped back to Britain.

And when he returned to Ireland, as a priest, he helped to end the slave trade and to unite Ireland's network of battling kingdoms.

So I might eat sheep cheese from Old Chatham or wear a wool sweater, find a knitting circle, look for locally spun yarn at Sweetbrook Farm in Williamstown or Colorful Stitches in Lenox. Lambing season is coming. I could ask around about the kinds of sheep grazing here, the colors of their wool, its softness an warmth.

Thinking of the Irish families who came here to work in the mills, I might ask the North Adams Museum of History and Science to tell me about their photographs and stories of children sweeping the floors and oiling the machines and climbing barefoot on the heavy equipment to re-attach thread to the bobbins on the looms.

I could learn a new knitting pattern with scalloped waves. And while I counted stitches I might listen to music -- Danú at the Troy Music Hall, Celtic Crossroads at the Iron Horse, Wintergreen at the Berkshire Music School on Saturday afternoon. INISH will dance to Celtic music at Williams College, and the Lenox contra dance on Saturday night and the weekly dances at the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield will invite people to join in.

Irish music calls out to you to dance. I'd keep putting down my knitting to get up and waltz, and even more to get up and play a waltz and dance with a tenor recorder. When I can get it right (I'm out of practice), playing a simple melody and moving to it feels like floating. The music buoys you and pulls you along.

And you know what moves me? The music the locals play together to relax at the fiddle jam at Mass MoCA on Saturday mornings is the same music penny whistlers play on the cliffs of Moher and in the pub in Doolin.

Musicians I know have traveled from the Berkshires to Ireland and found themselves in a pub in the small hours trading songs with the local fiddlers. A local musician once told me she'd played in a jam like that. She played one of the first contra dance tunes I ever learned in the band where I met her, a jig we called "Irishman's heart to the ladies."

"They all said, that's not what it's called!" she told me. But they all knew it and played it with her.


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