Bill Nichols – A retreat into lovely, tragic Irish history

Bill Nichols was raised in Oregon and educated at Park College, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Missouri, and Yale University. For years he taught literature, writing, and environmental studies at Ohio’s Denison University. His publications include York’s Journal: A Novel (2005), an account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as told by York, the only slave to make the journey; Fleeing Ohio (2010), a novel about an improbable escape from a “supermax” prison, and Finding Fox Creek: An Oregon Pilgrimage (2015), a memoir. In retirement, he writes columns for the Valley News in New Hampshire.



For the Valley News – Saturday, July 13, 2019

My wife, Nancy Shea Nichols, and I recently joined old friends on a trip to celebrate the 50th birthday of their daughter, who lives in Clarinbridge, Ireland. We also planned a five-day retreat from politics in the moderately remote Renvyle House Hotel on Ireland’s west coast.

That brought us the guidance of Daniel Sammon, a charming, middle-aged driver who picked us up in the town of Letterfrack, a few miles from our hotel.

He began to talk enthusiastically about Ireland’s history, obviously proud of his memory for names and dates. In his cardigan sweater, white shirt and dark slacks, he could have been a professor in love with his subject, eager for his students to fall in love with it, too.

Letterfrack Industrial School Graveyard, photo taken by Nancy Shea Nichols

Sammon eased our move into the Irish past with a gift of his brief history, Renvyle House Hotel. I soon bought his memorably titled poetry collection, Take Your Ease & Rest Awhile: Enjoy Some Poetry from Renvyle (2011). And after we got to know him, he presented us with his book Croagh Patrick & Me (2015), an account of his overnight pilgrimage up the mountain made famous by Saint Patrick.

Our ride from Letterfrack to our hotel, along narrow roads between magnificent greenery and blooming rhododendrons, took us through the villages of Tully and Tully Cross and past a beach that appears on the cover of Take Your Ease & Rest Awhile. The cover shows Sammon taking his ease on a rock where he might have stopped to write a poem.

After Sammon learned our friends were from Ohio, where Nancy and I lived for many years, a 19th century murder ballad, The Banks of the Ohio, came over his car’s sound system on our next ride. The lyrics we heard in Sammon’s car put a knife in the hands of a woman, and this version somehow brought together the mix of sadness, laughter, love and violence we were to find in Irish history:

I held a knife against his breast

As into my arms he pressed.

He cried, “My love, don’t you murder me!

I’m not prepared for eternity.”

We knew a more misogynist version, but could sing along anyway, even harmonize with the radio, laughing grimly at how the lyrics pulled a gender switch for the murder. (Despite days mostly filled with rain and encounters with the many tragedies in Ireland’s history, we found ourselves laughing a lot in Renvyle.)

On our only sunny day, Sammon took us to Connemara National Park to walk on a trail the Irish probably call “lovely.” I thought of a young woman Nancy and I met in Wales a few years ago. She was backpacking along the Wales coastal trail and said a year earlier she’d been disappointed by the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts and Vermont because there was so little to see other than trees.

She had a point.

Letterfrack Industrial School Graveyard, photo taken by Nancy Shea Nichols

We Americans tend to think natural beauty is found mainly in the primeval forest, the wilderness. We’re not inclined to put hiking trails through farms, perhaps partly because we’ve come to assume humans debase nature. But the pastoral scenes we saw from the trail in Connemara National Park included houses, fences and domesticated ponies, donkeys, sheep and cattle. There is something deeply comforting about embracing landscapes that reveal how humans can live in harmony with the rest of nature.

Sammon encouraged us to consider something much less comforting when we visited Connemara.

In the woods near where we entered the park, he directed us to the Letterfrack Industrial School Graveyard. Run for nearly 100 years by monks from the Congregation of Christian Brothers, the school for boys, including some who had been in trouble with the law, closed in 1974. Tragically, 147 of the boys died, mainly from abuse and neglect. Sammon’s take on the story is suggested in two lines from his poem Monks in Letterfrack:

The monks are now all gone, far from Letterfrack

Pray God that the bastards will never come back.

But Sammon’s anger at those monks hasn’t separated him from his religious faith. Consider his dedication of Croagh Patrick & Me to pilgrims who have scaled “the most-climbed mountain in the world” over many centuries: “By their example and religious conviction they have left us a precious legacy, far more valuable than gold or silver.”

His account of his walk up Croagh Patrick and the night he spent on the summit, some of it in rain and fog, includes a mixture of deep sincerity and laughter. He tells, for example, of deciding to fast rather than feast on his pilgrimage, and then describes a television commercial in which “my late mother & my late father and also my brother Patrick” are relaxing atop Croagh Patrick while taking tea and sandwiches made with Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien bread — “or at least,” Sammon writes, “that’s what it said on the loaf wrapper.” He takes a single loaf to the mountain, which he shares with others along the way.

After completing his pilgrimage, Sammon asks his wife to weigh the “different bits and pieces,” mostly bedding, that he carried up and down the mountain. It comes to 64 pounds. He had no backpack, and the bedding, soaked with rain, gained weight during the night. It was an awkward, heavy load, and several pilgrims helped him with it on his way, both up and down Croagh Patrick.

Conversations with other pilgrims on the mountain were opportunities to talk of history. Joined by an American pilgrim from Virginia, Sammon tells him how Sir Walter Raleigh, who named the young man’s home state, played a violent role in the history of Ireland. Croagh Patrick & Me is full of such history.

But near the end, Sammon provides a conclusion that feels wonderfully Irish to me: “After my memorable and historic night sleeping all alone under the stars on the top of Croagh Patrick and my long descent with a heavy load I now acquired for myself a delicious ice-cream cone with a Cadbury’s flake on top for less than two euros.”

Daniel Sammon, I’ve concluded, is really a modern seanchai, an Irish storyteller. He would probably build a fine tale out of our departure from Shannon Airport, marked by unusual, high security. A troublesome, tweeting American with distinctively golden hair was about to arrive for a game at his own golf club — the ending to our short-lived retreat from politics.


Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu


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