2021-03-17-OHARACOLUMNPIC

After the crossing: Missie the donkey, Michael Long (with stick in hand) and passing admirers.

Over these dreary winter months, I’ve had time to organize photos taken during my travels in Ireland with my donkey, Missie, back in 1979.

Some of these images hold a unique quality of drawing me back to the exact moments when I clicked my old Nikon. One such picture is of Michael Long, a noted horseman, who came to our rescue on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.

It was a Saturday, Midsummer’s Eve, and the charming seaside town of Dingle was bustling with merriment. I had given Missie a well-deserved day off, and eagerly joined the festivities. My first stop was Dick Mack’s Pub, where its patrons congratulated me on Missie’s ascent over Conor Pass the day before — a grueling, five-mile, seven-hour climb over the spine of the Slieve Mish range.

However, some wizened men were quick to warn me that another hazard lay ahead on the scenic Slea Head Drive: the Devil’s Elbow — a rushing stream of water that crosses the road at a tight bend. Foolishly, I paid little heed to their sage advice. After all, my donkey had just conquered a spiraling mountain track, so how threatening could a dribbling stream be?

During the day’s revels, I had met Michael Long, an engaging horseman from nearby Ventry. He was eager to lay eyes on my celebrated mare, so we walked the short distance to where I had corralled my highway queen. There, Michael gave her a nine-point inspection and found her in topping health.

In no hurry to leave, he pulled a tomato from his coat pocket and handed it to me. After my first tasty bite, he pulled a salt shaker from his other pocket and sprinkled the fruit, while extolling its nutritional benefits. Of course, my snuffling mare wanted a share of the fare, and boldly went sniffing Michael’s pockets. Not one to disappoint, Michael produced another succulent tomato that my long-eared mistress promptly mistook for a crisp apple. Consequently, her slashing bite sent a splattering of seeds running down her chin. “Ah, that’s surely a tomato pie to the face!” laughed the horseman.

Two days later, Missie and I finally set out on the Slea Head Drive for the Irish-speaking village of Dunquin, located on the western fringes of the Dingle Peninsula. The narrow, winding road clung like a high shelf above the crashing North Atlantic, offering majestic views of serrated cliffs, patchwork fields, and dramatic headlands. No wonder National Geographic had called this spot “the most beautiful place on earth.”

Suddenly we came to a swift-flowing stream that cascaded off a steep mountainside, and tumbled straight across a cobbled section of the road.

Yikes, the Devil’s Elbow!

Yet, upon further inspection, the ankle-high water seemed little more than a minor inconvenience. Missie, however, jibbed and bucked before the lively flow, and after one mighty tug of war, she had positioned herself directly across the hairpin turn. She then fell into one of her classic stupors, in which neither promise of apple nor taste of stick would coax her across. Nope, she just stood there, as lifeless as a stuffed pheasant in an Irish parlor.

Meanwhile, motorcars traveling east and west began to gather in lengthening queues. A few drivers were amused, but others leaned on their horns and sang out obscenities. Three strapping bucks jumped from their car and tried to yank Missie across the torrent. Good luck, fellas! To compound matters, a tour bus of Yankee Doodle Dandies came knee-hobbling to the scene, taking snap after snap of the hapless tinker and his pigheaded donkey.

Just when I sensed that this murderous mob was ready to toss Missie and me into the churning sea below, who comes traipsing around the bend but Michael Long, sporting a grin wider than Dingle Bay.

“I was thinking she might go troubling you here,” he chuckled. Without hesitation, he positioned himself in front of Missie, took a firm grip of her ears, and led her across the rivulet as easy as you please. Oh, how the motorists enjoyed a hearty laugh at my expense. Even the Dutch couple with the porcelain faces managed to crack a smile.

After Michael had cleared the bottleneck, he instructed me, “Whenever your ass stalls before oil slicks, metal plates or bubbling streams, just wring her lugs like washcloths and, believe me, she’ll follow you through the Gates of Hell. You’ll remember that now, won’t you?”

“I will, Michael Long, and thank you.”

With that, he handed me two ripe tomatoes, and made his way back toward Ventry, promising to keep tabs on our travels. I, in turn, rewarded my no-worse-for-wear damsel with her second tomato that, once again, she mistook for a Red Pippin. After I wiped her wispy chin clean from its seedy explosion, I resumed our journey around the enchanted isle — a humbled but slightly wiser donkeyman.

Kevin O’Hara, a regular Eagle contributor,

is author of “Last of the Donkey Pilgrims:

A Man’s Journey Through Ireland.”