AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent writer Karen E. Bender on a spontaneous journey to Ireland.
So I would be going to an Irish wedding. First, though, there was a castle. Soon after landing at Shannon, in central Ireland, I strolled through Bunratty Castle. Right across the street from my hotel, it was one of those citadels with gray, reptilian, stone skin that just sit by the road in Ireland. Restored to the way it would have looked in the 15th century, Bunratty was full of tapestries, grand vaulted ceilings, and mounted antlers with the wingspans of pterodactyls. As I wandered through, I yearned to be a king, but I was also that much more thankful for the central heating we have at home. I asked a ticket taker at the castle what people in the town of Bunratty did for fun. “Go to a sing-along at Durty Nelly’s!￼ Tonight!” she said. A sing-along is not my idea of a good time. Instead, I fled to the Angsana Spa at the Bunratty Castle Hotel for a massage.
My masseuse, Jain Benja, was from Thailand. She had been in Ireland for a year, she said, and missed her homeland. She knew only one other Thai person in Shannon, and they both loved one particular Thai restaurant in nearby Limerick. After the massage, I sat in the spa’s “relaxation room” with Jain, sipping ginger tea. It had been 20 years since I last traveled abroad by myself. Marriage, motherhood, teaching, and the gargantuan expense of family travel had kept me close to home. I’d been nervous about the trip, but already I felt I’d made my first friend in Ireland. “Would you want to go get Thai food?” I asked Jain. Yes! And we were off.
We hired a cab for the 20-minute drive to Limerick and met Jain’s friend Joom Uraiwan, also a masseuse, at Thai Gourmet. Steve, the cabdriver, asked what time he should pick us up. “Midnight!” Jain and Joom exclaimed in unison. Inside the small restaurant, they also took care of the ordering: pad Thai, tom yum, and a seafood salad—“spicy!” The food was light and so hot it was dizzying. “The only proper Thai food in Limerick,” Jain decreed.
After dinner, they whisked me to a pub across the street, the Glen Tavern, where an “ambassador” for Beamish Irish Stout greeted us and made sure we got the local brew on the house. We sat in a wooden booth and talked about their lives in Ireland, and Jain said she would show me around her village if we ever met up in Thailand.
The next day, I headed to the wedding. When I had learned I’d be going to Ireland on 24 hours’ notice, I’d posted the news on Facebook. Within 40 minutes, one of my former writing students, Patrick Holloway, had invited me to his brother’s wedding in Crosshaven, County Cork. After a two-hour bus ride south, through a landscape featuring every conceivable shade of green, Patrick picked me up in Cork. He was out running prewedding errands.
We had stopped for coffee when his mother called. After talking to Patrick, she wanted to welcome me. He handed me the cell phone. “We’re so glad you can come! See you soon, love.” I like a country where, out of the blue, people call you “love.”
This was not going to be a traditional Irish wedding, Patrick explained: It was taking place at the Holloway home, not in a church; the bride was from Argentina; the couple had a 6-month-old daughter; and the ceremony would be performed by the best man’s best friend.
It was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. “What time will it end?” I asked. “Four or five in the morning,” Patrick said. My eyes widened. “But you could leave around midnight, if you want.”
When we got to the house, there was a basket of stones on which guests were supposed to write a wish for the new couple. I tried to scribble something as wise as possible. I was introduced as Patrick’s writing teacher and treated like a celebrity, hugged by everyone. “It’s going to be crazy,” advised Trev Moran, Patrick’s best friend. “Just go with the flow.”
We moved outside and the wedding began. The guests sat on chairs inside a large tent, most of them clutching glasses of champagne. I was on my second. I sat by the priest who didn’t perform the ceremony. He polished off a glass of wine. Whenever a man broke into tears, guests cheered. There was much cheering.
The ceremony continued with creative twists. An older woman in a white veil sang “Waiting at the Church.” Two other guests stood up in the audience and sang a duet. Another older woman, with legs like the ballerina Margot Fonteyn, performed an Irish dance, and a group of guests rose from their seats in a flash mob and joined in. Next came a tsunami of alcohol and food.
There was more champagne, wine, and beer. There were huge steel serving dishes of Irish stew and chicken curry, platters of salmon and shrimp, beet and potato salads, pâté and sandwiches, and, for dessert, profiteroles and trifle. Everyone got huggier and kissier as the night progressed. A man whose name I’d already forgotten grabbed my hand and suddenly we were doing the tango. More cheering. Go with the flow. I was swept into a sing-along, accompanied by piano and guitar. Here I did want to sing along. Perhaps it was all the hugs, or the three glasses of champagne—I felt related to everyone. I wanted to tell Robert, my husband, that we should renew our vows with an Irish wedding.
The next morning, I had planned to take a bus to Ennis, back up north and to the west of Shannon, in County Clare. At the bus station, the woman in the ticket booth took one look at me and kindly steered me toward a drugstore. I swallowed two Tylenol tablets—called paracetamol in Ireland—right at the counter, and my pounding headache gradually disappeared over the two-hour ride.
Kathleen Connelly, the sister of my friend Irene back home, met me in Ennis and drove me to meet her friend Trea Heapes, who runs Pure Camping on the wild and rural Loop Head Peninsula. In the car, I listened to Kathleen’s children, Alice, 12, and Senan, 10, explain to me how they helped take care of the family’s beehives, wearing special suits.
I was touched and impressed by their sense of responsibility. I suddenly missed my own children, Jonah and Maia; perhaps when I returned, they too could learn to tend a beehive. It would be good for them.
At Loop Head, I was going to do two nights of something called “glamping,”designed for people who don’t usually like to camp. The site overlooked the Shannon River, and the hills around it were blue with mist. After traipsing around the world, Trea and Kevin Heapes decided to create their own campground back home, near the coastal town of Kilkee. Their house was surrounded by fields green with hawthorn and blackthorn. Inside, their son was sitting at a computer playing Minecraft, with the same intent expression my son wears when he plays the game at home.
Trea drove me out to the Loop Head cliffs—black, jagged rocks rising high out of the roiling silver sea. Some had broken off into the ocean. The cliffs were so beautiful I wanted to inhale them.
The sky was heavy and ominous when Trea and Kevin took me to my tent. The wind whipped open its flaps. The interior resembled a little hotel room, furnished with rugs, a futon bed with a bright comforter, and a cast-iron stove. The temperature was going to drop into the 40s during the night, so Kevin helped me light a fire in the stove. After saying good-night and zipping up the tent, I crawled into bed.
And I realized: I was warm.
The wind rushed outside the tent, and a steady patter of rain started. I was in wildness, in nature, but I was also, happily, in a bed—it all felt deeply glamporous.
In the morning, I took a yoga class with Trea in the campground studio, where she keeps a rack of her late father’s ties that students can use in place of yoga belts to stretch their hamstrings. She had planned my day, which included a closer look at Loop Head Peninsula and an introduction to many members of her family: Her brother, Johnny, cooked at the Strand restaurant; her brother-in-law Cillian took me on a bike ride along those incredible cliffs; her sister Mary whisked me off to a dolphin-watching cruise in the Shannon Estuary. The boat plunged through the cold waves, and the tourists cried, “Oh!” every time they spotted a dolphin, as though a bride were entering the room. I ended my day back in the tent, listening to the rainfall.
After I woke to the cool, pink dawn, I went over to the Heapes’s house to say good-bye. As I walked in, I heard Trea tell her son, “No playing Minecraft before eight.” It was the same refrain sung in my living room in North Carolina. Now, Ireland felt completely like home.