Let me tell you a story.
This may ramble a bit because it goes both into the ancient past (well, my ancient past) and into places far away. But it begins with Ms Lynn Shepherd, she of the infamous “JK Rowling should get out of the way so no-talent hacks like me have a chance,” HuffPo journalistic fart.
I never told you, but for a very short time, I was a magazine editor. I mean a very short time. We quickly ran out of ways to praise the airline whose magazine it was and the CEO lost interest.
But in the moments it lived, it took fiction submissions. And paid decently for them. Even then, fiction was dying out in magazines. Had been for decades. The golden days with golden pays of the 1920s-40s were long gone. Nobody wanted made-up stuff anymore. They wanted relevance. But we took fiction submissions.
Boy, did we ever. After our birth announcement appeared in a major writers’-market magazine, we took nothin’ but. Two-foot-tall heaps of it.
That stuff broke my heart. It freakin’ broke my heart in ways I’ll never forget.
Ninety-seven percent of everthing that came in was unalloyed crap. I didn’t even have to finish the first paragraph to tell that the person who created it should be ordered to carefully step away from the keyboard before somebody gets hurt.
Something less than one percent was fabulous. I wanted to hug the authors of these stories. I wanted to dance around the room. I wanted to be in the places they described (or not, depending on how they described them).
But that was a problem, because even one percent was more than we could buy. So I’d write long letters, pouring my heart out, telling the authors how wonderful their work was, but. And I knew knew exactly how they’d feel, getting those notes. Heartbreaking.
Then there was that final two percent. These stories and their authors … had something. It was there. You could feel it. But you could feel it only as a distant drumbeat under the sense of something missing. Characters almost came to life, but couldn’t quite escape being stereotypes. Some brilliant premise would be waiting in the first paragraph … but would take a wrong turn on page 6. And break my heart.
Even though I was a snotty little b***h in those days who would sometimes read the worst stories aloud to my boss and office mates in contempt, even though I envied the great ones even as I loved them, I wanted to help those few in-betweeners. I wanted to reach them and teach them and help them arise from the pods and cells of their own limitations.
As an aside, I’ll say before I forget that Ms Shepherd’s writing (now that I’ve taken a quick peek) falls into that two percent. The bottom of that two percent. But still — a person who had “something there” if she possessed the humility, the hard work, and perhaps a dose of the good luck to find it.
A long diversion
This isn’t actually a diversion; it’s just going to feel like one. It’s part of the heart of the story, though. Really. So trust me and come along. We’ll get where we’re supposed to go. I promise.
Shortly before all this, I had gone to Ireland. Three weeks. Solo trip. Driving a backwards car down backwards roads. In the middle of nowhere.
I’d hoped to find my roots. I’d always thought I wanted to travel. I found nothing — except a growing conviction that I really, truly hated to travel.
Before I even got on the endless flight from San Francisco to London (and then onward to Shannon, never mind that it’s going backwards), some married guy had spotted the lone female adventurer and was oozing all over me.
My hotel in London had a radiator you could remove from the wall and carry across the room because it wasn’t attached to anything. The plumbing didn’t work. It didn’t work in spectacular fashion, actually.
In Ireland, the friendly ever-smiling Irish of the brochures were shy and silent. The hosts at my B&Bs were strange or rude and ran establishments that I later learned met none of the standards of the Bord Failte (I have to check that spelling), the Board of Welcomes. Gory Catholic pictures (not to mention images of John Kennedy) glared down at me from the bedroom walls. Sheets and blankets were damp and rooms odorous with moisture.
I have to mention the famous archaeological sites, though after that I promise to get on with it, I really do. But the famous archaeological sites were the “highlight” of the debacle. I’d drive hours into the middle of nowhere to see the site of some famous battle or the finding of some national treasure. Only to find a cowfield and a sign that said something like, “If you were an archaeologist, you’d recognize instantly and be very impressed that the slight muddy rise Bossy is standing on over there is the site of a Pre-Medievalist, Proto-post-modernist, Druidic, Arthurian, Anglo-Saxon-pre-Norman hill fort.”
What can I say? Ireland was a very poor country. And I was a California girl used to museums and monuments worthy of the name. (By golly, if one of our famous Missions had had the nerve to fall down, we’d have rebuilt it. Out of concrete.)
I was not impressed.
Sometimes I wouldn’t make it to the famous archaeological sites at all. And there I resume my story. (Or rather, resume this particular apparent diversion. Which actually is the story. But doesn’t look like it at the moment. Are you folling me?)
In these days before the “Celtic Tiger” and eventual EU bailouts, young men in rural Ireland had nothing to do. Leaving was still the best option. The smart ones, the ones with spark, got out.
The rest stayed, drank, and got up to pranks. A favorite prank, for reasons my feeble brain still fails to grasp, was turning the road signs around. So the unwary would think they were going to Kilkenny and would end up on a one-lane (and when I say one lane, I mean one — not one in each direction) gravel path in the middle of nowhere, hemmed in by stone walls so you couldn’t even turn around.
And besides that, there’d be herd of sheep in front of you.
Well, one day I fell for it. I drove hours into nowhereness.
I was spared the one-lane track this time, but instead of ending up where I was trying to get, I ended up in …
Well, I’m not going to tell you that. Not one of you would have heard of it, unless you’d grown up in the neighborhood.
Call it Glocca Morra.
Now one of the other disappointments of Ireland was that there were these fabulous monuments everywhere. Every town, no matter how small, had them. Pillars rising up in the town square, topped with trumpeting angels and garlanded with wreaths.
And at first I’d get out to see what giant event they commemorated. Because if your famous archaeological sites are cow pastures, something really, really impressive must have happened to inspire trumpeting angels.
But no. They were always just commemorating whatever local boys lost their lives in whatever local skirmishes had struck them during Ireland’s sad centuries of losing rebellions. Touching. But.
So I ended up in Glocca Morra, a town of absolutely no distinction whatsoever. There was no reason on earth to go there. But they did, naturally, have some pillar or another, topped with some heavenly thing or another. So I got out and looked. Usual.
But as I’m getting into my Ford Escort, this ancient man comes hobble-running up to me.
“Miss? Oh, miss?”
He’s wearing a well-pressed black suit and matching black fedora-type hat. All the old guys in the country did, then. Made them look like over-the-hill bankers when they were really just farmers and pub-keeper.
It was a pub-keeper whose attention I’d drawn. Retired keeper, that is, of the pub that had been in his family for generations. Maurice (which in Ireland, is pronounced “Morris”) Daneher of Daneher’s Pub.
And speaking of civic attractions — I was the biggest one this village had had since … well, who could remember? Not just a lone young American woman — but from storied California! I was magical.
Mr. Daneher marched me all over town. He introduced me to every retired gent on every bench. He took me into the stores (but not the pub, for which I was glad). He carried me metaphorically atop his shouders into the village’s shiny new creamery, where he and the pleased-as-punch workers showed me the very modern, stainless-steel way they were separating cream from milk and making butter. (And Ireland does make the world’s best butter. If you’ve never tried Kerrygold, you have a treat ahead of you.)
This was the first pleasant human contact I’d had in a week, so I really appreciated it. But I had a feeling there was more. I’d been kind of poking and prodding my new friend Maurice to see what part this little place might have played in some sad old rebellion. Because there was something. Everywhere. Always. There was that pillar right there in the town center.
But no, Maurice assured me, nothing had ever happened here. Wasn’t the creamery grand, though?
I’d poke some more. Nothing.
We were wending our way back to car when I asked about a ruined stone house on a nearly hill. Ruined stone houses are as common as ruined stoned castles in Ireland — and those are very common (Thank you, Mr. Cromwell). I’d have paid no attention. Except you could see that this house had been a prominent one in its day.
“Oh, when I was a boy, that was the house of the local gentry,” Morris recalled. The gentry in this case would have been English. Or at least of English ancestry.
“Was it bombed or something?” Its ruins looked more scattered than I’d expect from mere decades of time.
“No, no. After they left, it just slowly fell down.”
“Were they forced to leave? Was it during the uprising or the civil war?”
“Oh, sure they didn’t feel comfortable then, but that’s not why they left. Nothing like that ever happened here.”
We walked on. Even the chatty Maurice seemed to have run out of conversation. I was about to insert myself back into the Escort and try to find my way to my next B&B. We paused. I took one last look around and promised to send Maurice a copy of the picture I’d taken of him.
I’d opened the car door when he spoke. “See that wall over there?”
It was another low stone wall. If you stretched all the stone walls in Ireland end on end, they’d reach the Moon and back. This one stood above the road in a patch of weeds, a few healthy trees behind it. Like every other wall.
“One night when I was just a boy, my brother and me and some of the boys spent a night behind that wall. Right there in that spot. Not knowin’ whether we were going to live or die.”
“Somebody had set fire to the local barracks.”
“English soldiers’ barracks?”
“Black and Tans.”
Now Ireland has lots of hatreds and lots of reasons for them. But few things are more hated than the Black and Tans. They came in the guise of soldiers, but they were really the lowest of low-life thugs recruited by the “civilized” British to terrorize and intimidate the Irish. And they did that job well. After centuries of oppression, genocide, and famine, the Black and Tans were the insult England added to the injury.
“Somebody had the nerve to burn out the Black and Tans? Who? You and your brother and your friends?”
“No, no. I’m not saying we did it, mind you. Nobody knows to this day who did it. But they thought we did. And they really didn’t care who had, as long as some young boys paid.
“So they were after us that night, and that’s where we stayed, all night in the cold. Right there while they searched and searched. Not knowin’ if we’d live to see the morning. In the morning we were able to make a run for it and get away from town.”
I shook Mr. Daneher’s hand and I left Glocca Morra. And the rest of the trip got better after that. Later, I even got to kiss the Blarney Stone. And I never forgot Maurice Daneher or Glocca Morra.
I’ll finish this up tomorrow. It has to do with writers, it really does. It has to do with one specific writer who was somewhere near the top of that almost-wonderful two percent. But whew. Later, okay? These are things I haven’t recalled in years.