At the Well

Pam Newton:

I’m walking with my new boyfriend down the streets—or I should say street, since there is really only one—of a coastal village in County Waterford, Ireland. A grey-haired villager with a stiff gait wends up the road toward us.

 All of a sudden, the man throws his hands in the air. “Willy! Willy, you’re home!” (Willy? Back in New York City, my boyfriend is Will.) “When did you get home, lad?” he asks in a thick brogue as we approach, clasping a strong, knotty hand around Will’s upper arm.

“Just this morning, Johnny!” Will answers, enfolding the man in an embrace.

“Good to see you, boy! Heard it on the radio you were back. Have you got any gigs lined up, then?”

“Tomorrow night at the Tobar,” Will answers, and Johnny shuffles off with a promise to see him there tomorrow night. (What is a tubber? I wonder. Are we still speaking English?)

Tree+Canopy

Will is not a celebrity, but every summer, when he makes his way back to Ardmore, a 500-person town in southeast Ireland, they announce his arrival on the radio. I want to get him a t-shirt that says, “I’m big in Ardmore.”

I heard about Ardmore on my very first date with Will, as we walked across Central Park. It is a story I’ve heard him tell many times since, and will continue to hear him tell into the future. It happened about 20 years ago. Will was playing a solo gig as a singer and guitarist at a bar in New Jersey, when a very friendly, slightly inebriated Irishman approached him during his set break. The man’s accent was so thick that it took Will several minutes to understand what he was saying, but it gradually emerged that his name was Mike, he was from Ireland, and he was loving the gig. They chatted for a while, and Mike wrote down his phone number on a scrap of paper. If Will ever wanted to come to Ireland, he said, he knew a music-loving town that would welcome him with open arms.

In his mid-20s, with no real career yet to speak of, Will decided to take Mike up on his offer that summer. He was half-Irish, with a good Irish last name, and he had never been to his ancestral homeland. Why not now? He showed up in July with his guitar on his back. Mike helped him get settled at a B&B about a mile outside of the village and introduced him to a friend who owned a pub called Paddy Mac’s, which later became the Tobar when it changed hands. Will stayed for 6 weeks. By the end of his visit, he had weekly residencies at three local pubs, including Paddy Mac’s, and was cooking his own breakfast at the B&B.

It was clear to me on that first date that Ardmore was one of the great loves of Will’s life, and it became clearer as we got more serious that part of my initiation into Will’s world would be my introduction to this place and these people who had become like family to him.

Round+tower

When I went with him to Ardmore, 8 months into our relationship, I was ready to fall in love with the town, too. Will now had a corporate job with finite vacation days, so he could usually come for only a week or two, but he hadn’t missed a summer in 11 years. His August gigs became local events, drawing what seemed like the entire village into the pubs to hear him play covers of rock, Americana, and “trad” (traditional Irish songs).

Even though I had seen Will’s eyes light up whenever he talked about Ardmore, I was still surprised to find myself in such a gorgeous gem of a town, with a quaint village center encircling a giant, horseshoe-shaped beach. How lucky for Will, I thought, that the drunk man in the bar was from this place of all places. The natural setting of Ardmore does not have the high drama of Ireland’s most famous sites—the Ring of Kerry, the cliffs of Moher, the Skellig Islands, where a grizzled Luke Skywalker recently trained Rey in the ways of the Jedi. Part of the town is indeed built along a cliff, which drops precipitously to a blue sea. But Ardmore’s beauty has a gentler touch: green and yellow meadows, grazing horses, and trees twisted by the sea wind, covering the roads like a canopy.

The main street through the village dead-ends at the beach, and is lined with colorful houses, restaurants, pubs, and local art galleries. Around the periphery are medieval ruins from the days of the early Christians, including one perfectly preserved and mysterious stone “round tower,” a giant phallic structure with a pointed top, which rises precipitously from a crumbling cemetery on a hillside overlooking the town and the ocean.

In Ardmore, I watched Will croon the same songs he had played in bars back home—Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Marvin Gaye—but here the fans went wild. In his weekly Thursday night gig at a Hoboken steakhouse, I had often been the only one clapping at the end of the song. Large men with cigars and their dressed-up dates would cut into their steaks, laugh loudly, and regard the man with the guitar as wallpaper—something pretty in the background. In Ardmore, the crowds overflowed from the windows and doors of the pubs, singing along, and clamoring for just one more song at the end of the gig. One! More! Song!

tobar-public-house-11019

The question was why I wasn’t having more fun, and why I kept crying. I was enchanted by the town—by the “cliff walk,” a gorgeous trail that hugs the cliff’s edge; by the Sunday farmer’s market with fresh carrots from nearby farms; by all the art and pottery (I loved the paintings of local cows, turned into coasters and serving trays)—but I felt socially alienated. Most of Will’s friends were men over 50, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The combination of the brogue, the smatterings of Gaelic, the references to Irish sports, and the man-centric humor—lots of knowing laughter and winks—left me bewildered. I smiled and nodded, and no one asked me a single question.

At gigs, Will was treated like Bruce Springsteen, while I sat staring into a pint of cider, pushed to the edges of a crowd who knew all the words and had known each other all their lives. A night out at the bar has never really been my thing, but here the whole social life of the town revolved around the pubs, so we went to the pubs. Besides, I had no choice—that was my boyfriend up there with the mic.

Everyone was friendly, but I was decidedly on the outside, and no one really seemed to be inviting me in, including Will. Our relationship was still young, so I found myself thinking, Do I really know this person? And does he really know me?

One night we went out to hear an Irish singer-songwriter, and I sat there while Will caroused with his friends, each one taking a turn buying the next round. Will got drunker and louder; I kept nursing the same drink, even as new pints showed up on the table beside me. During the set break, I said I wanted to go home, and we walked silently “out the road” a mile (Will still stays at the house that used to be the B&B; the family closed the B&B years ago, but by that point they were friends). When we got back to our room, I got teary. Will tried to comfort me, but he was disappointed that we hadn’t stayed till the end of the gig, which only made me feel worse.

 

Will played a few gigs that week at The Tobar, actually called An Tobar, which means “the well” in Gaelic. It’s named for St. Declan’s well, a medieval relic just up the road from the pub, whose water, still feebly running, supposedly has healing properties. St. Declan is said to have alighted in Ardmore when he first came to Ireland as a missionary in the 5th century. The pub is on what you might call the main square of the village—though this implies there are other squares—right where the road meets the beach. When Ardmore holds its annual July cultural festival in honor of St. Declan, this square is where the big concerts take place.

An Tobar is not much more than two tiny, adjoining ramshackle rooms. The men on the bar stools look like they’ve been sitting there all their lives. They order another Guinness with a nod at the barmaid, who also looks like she’s been standing back there all her life. If you look closely, you see the walls are half-timbered—a suggestion that this is an old building, maybe even a historic one—but the timber beams are obscured by a television for watching hurling matches and a speaker system, roughly installed and propped up by various wooden contrivances.

I spent several nights at the Tobar, standing awkwardly in a huge crowd that encircled Will while he played, walling him in with their sweaty bodies, spilling drinks, and off-key full-throttle singing. The gigs went on for hours and had the air of a celebration—of Will, who had alighted in Ardmore a bit like St. Declan and kept returning like the Prodigal Son; of music; of togetherness.

At the end of a show, Will might close with “Wild Mountain Thyme,” a traditional ballad. Everyone in the room puts their arms around each other and sways as they sing, their full Irish hearts suffusing every word with longing. But they’re still not satisfied; they want one more. He puts down his guitar and sings the Irish national anthem—in Gaelic—which he’s memorized phonetically. They still don’t want him to go, but he insists—it is 2 in the morning. Several of the locals stay after closing for what they call a “singsong,” singing trad songs a capella in the shuttered bar until the sun starts to rise. Will and I take the long walk home.

On our last night, we went to An Tobar to have some drinks and say goodbye. Two women were there who I had only met briefly before. They were both in their 30s, like me, and one was a teacher, like me. She had spent her summers during college working in East Hampton, and she had been to New York City many times. I clicked with them instantly. We spent hours at the bar, talking about men, about dating, about Irish and American culture. Some of the older blokes joined us and were suddenly more intelligible to me than they had been all week. We kept talking and laughing and nodding at the barmaid for another. The conversation and the drinks both felt like sustenance. After last call, we all stayed for the singsong.

Will and I left for Dublin the next morning, bleary-eyed, and I cried again on the plane, this time because I felt silly that I’d marred my week in such a magical place with all that crying.

I’ve been with Will for 7 years, we’re married now, and I’ve gone to Ardmore with him most of those Augusts. I skipped the first two after the summer of my initiation and then started going back. He still hasn’t missed a summer. It took only a couple of hours in Ardmore for me to understand the appeal of the town, but it took a couple of visits before I really got it, before the locals started greeting me with, “Hey, when did you get home?”

 


BIO: Pam Newton wrote, “I live in Brooklyn and work as a freelance writer and college writing teacher, currently teaching at Yale University and Cooper Union. I’ve published essays on arts and culture, personal history, wellness, and politics in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, National Book Review, American Theatre, and others. I have been a theatre critic for Time Out New York, a book critic for O the Oprah Magazine, and a blogger for The Huffington Post, and I wrote one of the monologues in Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron’s play, Love, Loss, and What I Wore.”

Cemetery+dusk

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