It’s a universal truth that the older you get the more friends you lose. Sadly, I’m currently in a maelstrom of loss.
My latest blow came last month from across the Atlantic. It was more crushing than some others because this one came out of the blue. His name was Joseph Clancy, 77, who hailed from County Limerick, Ireland.
I first met Joe in May 2013 after Don and Maureen Anderson of The Cruise Store in East Longmeadow asked if I’d lead a group tour to Ireland on the strength of my first book, “Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man’s Journey Through Ireland.” I jumped at the chance, although I had serious doubts of being able to entertain a busload of Berkshire County folks around the Emerald Isle. But Maureen assured me that I’d be teamed up with a veteran bus driver/tour operator through C.I.E. Tours in Dublin.
Despite Maureen’s assurances, I figured my assigned driver would be a short-tempered, Ralph Kramden-from-The-Honeymooners type. But my anxiety evaporated as soon as I met Mr. Clancy at Shannon Airport that first morning. Joe was a proper gent who looked more like the company’s CEO than their bus driver. Joe later confessed he shared the same trepidation about me. He feared that I’d be a snobbish professor who’d be reciting Yeats and Wilde throughout our nine-day, 800-mile journey. Oh, really?
In spite of both our assumptions being dead wrong, we still had a rocky road at the start. Joe was accustomed to well-traveled routes, but I requested a few out-of-the-way places, which were highlights during my donkey travels in 1979. When Joe found his 40-foot-long coach stuck at a hairpin turn on the Glengesh Pass in Donegal, he turned to me and said, “Look at the fine mess you’ve got me into.” He next addressed our nervous troops. “Don’t get a rush of blood, but a few prayers won’t hurt us any.” Loud applause followed as soon as Joe’s remarkable driving skills pulled us out of that near-impossible jam.
However, when I broached the subject of venturing to Northern Ireland to visit Belfast and Derry, surprisingly Joe didn’t bat an eye. “The more the Ulster people see of us, the less division there’ll be.”
Since he’d worked for C.I.E. for 40 years, I nicknamed him C.I. Joe. In turn, Joe dubbed me his “cabin boy,” and my wife, Belita, “The Countess,” as she was relegated to count our passengers each morning.
As we traveled from post to post, Joe would expound on the history of the island, and quote many of its writers and poets. He’d next sing a medley of songs befitting a cabaret at Jury’s Hotel, followed by a spate of hilarious “Kerryman” jokes and limericks.
“As I sat beneath an apple tree/A birdie sent his love to me/And as I wiped it from my eye/I said, Thank goodness that cows can’t fly!”
Following his humorous skits, he’d announce over the bus mike, “This is fantastic stuff. I’d love to be sitting at the back of the bus listening to all of this.”
Compliments would pour from our lively gang: “Why, Joe is a walking Irish encyclopedia!” Joe had mentioned that he’d graduated from Carmelite College in Castlemartyr, Co. Cork. “I couldn’t handle office work,” he admitted, “because the open road kept nudging at me.”
Along our scenic routes, he never failed to bring everyone’s attention to a donkey in a field. “Look,” he’d announce with mischievous delight, “there’s one of Kevin’s ladies-in-waiting!” When he spotted a motorist making a foolish move, he’d shout in “Amadan mor.” (In Irish: “You big eejit!”)
Joe also embodied the centuries-old tradition of Irish hospitality. After he learned how one elderly passenger had dropped her thermostat three degrees for three winters to save for our trip, he instructed the “cabin boy” to return the generous tip she had given him. On another occasion, after learning that one of our gang was battling cancer, Joe made sure he was crowned King during our medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle.
Our upcoming trip this May was to be Joe’s last before his retirement. Shortly after he passed, C.I.E. sent their sincere condolences and promised me another top-notch tour operator. Even so, I’m sure to well up a time or two when I think back on my dear companion with whom I traveled side-by-side over 10,000 rollicking miles.
Yes, I’ll never forget C.I. Joe, especially at day’s close. There he’d be, tapping his fingers on the wheel while humming an old Irish ditty, looking forward to our evening pint that always capped the end of our wondrous road. A road, I’m sad to say, that wasn’t quite long enough in the end.
In closing, I kindly ask the hundreds of Berkshire County residents who had the pleasure of knowing Joe to lift a solemn glass in his memory. That, and a heartfelt prayer to his lovely wife, Roisin, of whom he always spoke so fondly.