Joe Fegan, left, was welcomed to Ireland by his friend and fellow author Campbell Armstrong. This picture dates from 1998.
By Joe Fegan
I was a bit woozy as I stepped off the plane at Shannon, but that was to be expected: I’d just traversed five time zones and hadn’t slept on the flight. Beyond that, I was slightly gobsmacked: This would be my first visit to Ireland, land of some of my ancestors, and I’d be staying with an old friend in his country manor to boot. I stumbled through customs, got my passport stamped, and found my way to the exit — and the smiling face of Campbell Black, whom I’d met two decades earlier when he was a writing professor and I a college student.
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It was the summer of 1993 and Campbell had become something of a literary lion, writing a string of bestselling thrillers under his own name and others, particularly Campbell Armstrong. Among his many hits had been the lucrative novelization of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He’d taken a teaching job in Arizona in the mid-1970s, and I’d visited him in Sedona in 1986. But despite his success his income had plummeted when the IRS code changed in that same year, and he’d been looking to limit the Tax Man’s take. A Glasgow native, he’d thought of moving back to Scotland but been discouraged by even-higher British tax rates. But then another writer had told him about Ireland — no tax on income from writing, and close to his native sod. Oh, and it was the homeland of Guinness stout, which he considered nectar of the gods. A paradise for writers, and particularly for him.
Campbell moved to Ireland in 1991, having bought Cangort House, a sprawling Georgian manor that he liked to call “the mother of all money pits” while, he confessed, up to the eyeballs in his favorite quaff. It was huge and as haunted as it was old. In fact, one of the upstairs bedrooms — there were about six of them — featured an odd wall right behind the window. You could see it from outside, looking like a reptile’s inner eyelid. It was called “the Devil’s room,” and of course it carried a tale.
But I knew nothing of these things at the moment Campbell grabbed my bag and guided me to his motor, as they say in what he called “the Bog.” Slightly disoriented, I was still game for a ramble through the sunny emerald countryside between Shannon, on the West Coast, and his home near Birr in the Midlands. Normally any drive with Campbell at the wheel was an adventure, but as it was early and the inevitable visit to his local pub wouldn’t happen till later, our odds of safe passage seemed reasonably high.
He did say, however, that he meant to kill the proverbial two birds on this trip. In addition to picking me up, he would be checking out a dog he was interested in buying at a remote farm. Fine with me, I said, wanting to see as much of this terra incognita as I could. So we careened out into the boondocks over so many narrow roads — paved-over paths, really — that I was flummoxed. Were we still on Earth, or had we entered some postcard reality that never quite revealed the farm we sought? Finally, as we pulled up to a small dwelling with a fenced-in yard, Campbell said, “This is the place. Do you want to look at the pup with me or wait in the car?”
I sallied forth, staggering slightly with jet lag, and we headed toward a grinning, dark-haired man who shook our hands before Campbell opened negotiations about the large, friendly dog that gamboled about the enclosure when he wasn’t nuzzling our private parts. But though I listened intently, I had no clue what either man was saying. I knew that in the West there were Irish-speaking areas known as “Gaeltacht.” Might we have crossed the unmarked boundary of a linguistic twilight zone? Strain as I might, I couldn’t understand a word.
Finally money and pup changed hands. Into the back compartment of Campbell’s venerable Range Rover the dog went, and as we started east I remarked: “I didn’t know you spoke Gaelic, CB.” He gave me a quizzical look. “I don’t.”
“What? I didn’t understand that palaver and assumed we’d gone native.”
He laughed. “We were speaking English the whole time.” Seeing my disbelief, and knowing he’d abused my trust with linguistic pranks many times, he assumed an earnest look. “Trust me,” he said. “That was English.” He added: “However, the Irish do put a twist on it.” He then expounded on “brogue,” or accent, which some thought derived from an Irish word for shoes and the English tendency to think the Irish spoke with foot in mouth.
My mind reeled — would I be able to talk with anyone but him and his American wife during my stay? Would the natives take offense if I had to ask for translation? He assured me I’d get the hang of the local patois and after a pause shifted to tales of his first year in Ireland. “Things are good but a bit different here,” he said, using this or that little linguistic or cultural surprise to illustrate. “Yoke,” for instance, which he said had to do with everything but eggs. As he spoke I thought of my Fegan ancestors who’d come from Dublin, which we were planning to visit. I wondered whether, if I chanced upon a relative, I’d be able to understand him or her. During a lull I looked back at the dog, whose Irish eyes weren’t exactly smiling as he intently returned my gaze. He barked, and that was something of a relief. I felt I understood him perfectly.
Read Part 2 here.
Joe Fegan is the pen name of Jeff Durstewitz, author of “The Devil’s Room” (thedevilsroom.com), an Irish gothic comedy available on Amazon.com. (He comes by his Irishness naturally; his greatuncle was named Joe Fegan.) He’s also the co-author under his own name of the award-winning dual memoir with Ruth Williams, “Younger Than That Now — A Shared Passage From the Sixties,” published by Bantam. Part 2