All I wanted to do was see the castle, I thought to myself as I stepped out of the back of the van with a shoddy clutch, onto the Salthill Promenade behind another passenger and an older Irish gentleman who was driving. The past six hours had been strange.
Fully intending to procrastinate on this fine Sunday in Galway, I went for a walk to see the ruins of Menlo Castle. That’s what people do in Ireland, right? It seemed close enough, anyway. The walk on the west bank of the river from my apartment in Salthill is only about 25 minutes. I (wrongly) assumed that getting to the castle on the east bank would be about the same. An hour later, after being forced to squeeze around bog and marsh, I finally reached the remains of the castle gates. Before long, after nearly falling over the real gate used to keep cows and perhaps people out, I found myself wandering around the 16th-century castle grounds. Honestly, while it was cool, there wasn’t too much to see. A fire had destroyed the castle in 1910 (thank you, Google), and what was left was overgrown in ivy and elderberry. With a deep breath, I prepared for the walk home. Stumbling through a briar patch and over a stone wall (admittedly, not the brightest idea), I was suddenly struck by a distant yelling, as an older, gray-haired man came stomping towards me.
I braced myself for extreme social awkwardness, figuring I was about to incur the wrath of a local farmer. I tried to put on my best lost-and-confused-American face and think of a good reason as to why I might be wandering around in the middle of nowhere on presumably private property. I soon realized that the yelling was in Irish and the man in question was Pádraig, an acquaintance from Irish-language circles who lives in Menlo village. Far from angry, Pádraig seemed quite excited to see me and began bombarding me with questions about how I was keeping myself these past few weeks. Without delay, Pádraig decided to take me on a tour of the castle grounds, land which had belonged to his family until recently when the state forced a sale.
Suddenly, the same castle which had only half-impressed me a few moments earlier took on new life. Pádraig was very enthusiastic and led me along pointing to all the plants and explaining each one in rapid-fire Irish. He, despite his age and the consistent complaints of a bad back, leapt over the sidewall of the ruined formal garden, a garden which I had thought to be a derelict field. Pointing out some of the flower varieties that had run wild since the castle’s abandonment, Pádraig led me along through the former stables and up to the walls of the ruined castle. Circling around and around, Pádraig described everything about the castle in detail: when it was built, where long-forgotten walls and windows were, the people who had lived there. The castle’s history was very much real to him, and he thoroughly enjoyed his somewhat captive audience (really, where could I have gone?). After an hour or so, I had learned about the mysterious and unsolved murder of the groundskeeper in the 1920s (word is everyone in the village knows who did it), the tricks villagers used to play on the English landlords, and far too many new words in Irish. As we moved back to the road, I readied myself for home.
“But of course you’ll stay for a cup of tea,” said Pádraig. Ireland has taught me that cups of tea cannot be turned down, even after you politely try. Suddenly, I found myself on a tour of Menlo village, a village that was predominantly Irish-speaking until a generation or so ago. Before long, I’d been given a detailed summary of village politics: who was married to whom, who was no longer on speaking terms with whom (the two aren’t mutually exclusive), who had built what and why it mattered. Pádraig showed me the ruined Ogham standing stone which had been defaced, along with other rocks in the village, by a very zealous Catholic in exactly 1817 (the zealot in question was very precise with his graffiti). The more we talked, the more it became clear just how much Pádraig knew about his home. Every rock and bend in the road had a name and a story attached to it. We spent hours talking at his house, a well-worn home filled with Fifi the dog and who knows how many other people. A few hours later, as Pádraig drove me and another visitor (people just seem to show up in Menlo?) back towards the city, it struck me what a strange and wonderful day it had been.
So much of my time in Ireland has felt like today, like seeing a place once, and then needing someone to make sense of it for you, as if it were a riddle. People and places here have long memories and many stories, and if we’re lucky, we get to have people like Pádraig to share them with us.