Riding a Bike around Ireland

bikeagainstwallThe whole pattern of my life, with occasional flurries of enthusiasm for health and exercise against the general background of ageing, slackening and fattening, betrays a slothful indulgent core, more interested in pleasure than in work, happiest when work is enjoyable.

Malachi O’Doherty’s memoir of biking himself back into shape, On My Own Two Wheels: Back in the Saddle at 60, caught my eye when I was researching another author. I enjoy memoirs; I adore Ireland; I fight a family history of diabetes; and sixty is suddenly not such an ethereal concept. It was a soft sell.

What I found was an honest depiction of how he arrived at diabetes, and what he did to change his life. O’Doherty preaches peckishness, one of my new favorite words. [It means hunger.] In short: Love peckishness and trust it to go away.

Temptation had to be treated with contempt and abruptly. When Satan, masquerading as my own thoughts, said things like, ‘One more spud is hardly going to hurt you,’ I had to cast him from me, into the fiery pit. I needed my inner voice to be a disciplinarian, a real tub-thumper, fine-tuned to condemn sugar.

O’Doherty returned to bicycling. He had cycled around Ireland in his younger days as well as a means of commute, and just fell out of the habit. His trips aid in his fitness and bring out the philosopher in him. I followed along à la Google, reveling in the beauty of Achill Island, Kylemore Abbey, the tiny village of Doolin, and Donegal Bay. After some intense trips, he settles into tootling—relaxed cycling for the joy of it. Rain or no rain.

If you let the weather stop you, you’ll do nothing.

I enjoyed the story; I like most Irish literary voices, and this one was winsome with that self-deprecating charm.

Further discoveries: First, O’Doherty has an audio blog (archived, the last entry is in 2011) called Arts Talk that has two readings by Seamus Heaney. Ahhhh. Also, O’Doherty mentions an Irish traveller, Manchán Magan. I watched four episodes of a television show with the boyish-faced Magan about his quest to consume and use only Irish products. He explores transportation, food, clothing and entertainment. Most of the dialogue is in Irish with English subtitles. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it amused me.

A Green Journey


It has been six months since I’ve read Jon Hassler’s charming book, A Green Journey. I had never heard of Jon Hassler, nor of his Staggerford books, before I read the review my friend Hope wrote. I’m so thankful she placed A Green Journey in my view. I gulped it down in one sitting, but the people in the book lived with me long after I finished the last page.

Agatha McGee is 64, a sixth grade teacher at a Catholic school in Minnesota, an intelligent woman with drive and resourcefulness. Ah, yes: and she is a spinster. She has high standards, strong opinions, and a good heart. What she cares about the most are the holy traditions of her faith. It was not too much to say that Agatha loved the Church of her girlhood above everything else in the world. The Church had been her primary conveyance through life.   

Agatha’s neighbor Lillian Kite was honest, simplehearted and enviably placid. Nevertheless, it was a mind spongy with sentiment and empty of logic…. Agatha’s young friend, Janet Raft, a single mom, makes bad choices in men. It saddened [Agatha] to think of all the daughters of weak fathers she had known who hadn’t been satisfied until they became the wives of weak husbands.  [Sidenote: it wasn’t until this morning that the significance of Lillian’s and Janet’s last names struck me.] Dick Baker is Agatha’s bishop, a progressive churchman who values Agatha McGee even though they often land on opposing sides.

You should have seen our cathedral before [the bishop] went in with his wrecking tools. Granted, it was overdecorated, but now it looks like a warehouse. Without the wares. Absolutely unadorned. A Puritan meetinghouse. We’re witnessing the successful completion of the Reformation, James, five hundred years after Luther.

James, mentioned above, is a teacher in Ireland and Agatha’s correspondent. Agatha “met” James in the Letters column of The Fortress, a magazine for like-minded Catholics. The letters between James and Agatha are the jewels of the book. An ocean apart but kindred in heart, the two lonely friends expose their deepest feelings and thoughts. They write about their lives, the people around them, their loves, their fears.  It is not often that you can read a love story between two older people who have never before known love.

An opportunity to travel to Ireland comes; Agatha goes, wanting to meet James. Although she flies with a local tour group, once in Ireland she makes her way on her own. To be honest, Lillian, I’ve always wanted more out of life than is given to groups. James is a real person, and the time they share together is precious. Will they get married?

Staggerford—like Mitford, Lake Wobegon, and Port William—is a place worth exploring. In A Green Journey you get a bit of County Kildare as a bonus.



In the Company of Others



There’s never any privacy, really, in keeping an inn,
even when one lies in one’s own bed.
Personal life and possessions are so blended into the business,
there’s no telling where one stops and the other begins.
One is ever in the company of others.
But it’s what we love, of course, and one pays a price always for what is loved.


In Jan Karon’s second Father Tim novel, In the Company of Others, Tim and Cynthia Kavanagh take a long-anticipated trip to County Sligo, Ireland. Cynthia’s fractured ankle is re-injured in Ireland; instead of touring the country, they explore people —relationships— as they remain ensconced at Broughadoon, a fishing lodge on the shores of Lough Arrow. The unexpected delay allows Father Tim and Cynthia — each in their unique way — to become connected in an intimate way to the cast of Irish characters.  In down times, they read the 1862 journal of a Philadelphia-trained doctor, Fintan O’Donnell. The journal provides a story within a story.

Karon two main themes are redemption and connection. Father Tim’s reluctance to leave home, for example:

He was not a man to part easily with home, from his dog,
from his now legally adopted son, Dooley, who was
twenty-one going on forty-five. Such things need
watchful tending, like a cook fire. One mustn’t go
long away from connections lest something fragile die out.
 One could not fetch that particular fire from neighbors. 19 

Mitford lovers will recognize Karon’s motifs: simple pleasures — reciting poetry, reading books, walks and jogs —; life with diabetes; tortured souls; cackling laughter; and reconciliation. There’s a bit of mystery too. I almost choked with laughter when Cynthia said, I wish I’d read more P.D. James.

Jan Karon’s prose reminds me of Celtic music: a lilting tune, an unexpected chord, some rhythmic change-ups. There is nothing quite so satisfying as the perfect word, a fluent phrase, a metaphor that makes you gape in admiration:

A goulash of gear… 68
gormless (= stupid, dull)
gobsmacked (= astounded)
In terms of never giving up, this was a very Churchillian dog. 83
Bella Flaherty was fenced by a thicket of nettles… 235
…the chiaroscuro of moldering plaster
…a hat rack of ball caps embalmed in dust
…took [dinner] in their room, withered as weeds

Cynthia sat reading amid a wave of books
washed onto the shore of the duvet. He was
stashed in the wing chair, imbibing his own pleasures. 213

The buzz of the bee marked the runes of his prayer. 323

I found Fintan O’Donnell’s journal tedious: more characters to keep straight, a parallel plot to track. My respect for Jan Karon kept me reading, though I was tempted to skip it. It was a good decision. Fintan’s story was tied together in a beautiful way that brought me to tears.

At the core, however, the relationship between Tim and Cynthia is what delights me. In Home to Holly Springs, the first Father Tim novel, because Tim takes a solitary journey to face his past, his marriage to Cynthia gets only brief mentions. Happily, the interplay in this happy marriage of two flawed individuals gets front seat in the Ireland book. When their travel plans are stalled, their perspective is refreshing:

We’ll never have this time again,
it’s come to us as a gift,
maybe we don’t know how to open it.

They are comfortable together, but comfortable apart, too.  I love Cynthia’s daily benediction to Tim, Go and be as the butterfly. Their mutual love, concern, as demonstrated in small ways, makes this a book worth reading. I’m still ruminating over a remark of Tim’s, A pet occupation of the Enemy is to distance us from intimacy.