Writing Lessons From Ireland

JSB at the River Boyne

by James Scott Bell

The Bells were a turbulent Scottish clan that stopped throwing rocks at their enemies long enough to move to Ulster during the great Scot migration of the 1600s. After several generations in Ireland, one of us, William Bell of County Armagh, decided to give America a whirl, landing in Philadelphia in the mid-1700s. From this line your humble correspondent emerged in the far-off land known as Los Angeles.

A couple of weeks ago I went with my wife and daughter to Ireland, to see what I could see. I thought I’d share a bit about the trip, and how it relates to writing.

Take Risks

Since we really wanted to get to know the place, we decided to rent a car and drive around the island.

Which meant driving on the left side of the road.

Do you know how hard that is for an American? Especially on these twisting former bridle paths they have the temerity to call roads. My wife was constantly saying, “Too close!” as I consistently veered toward the shoulder. That’s because I was trying not to get hit by the oncoming vehicles, several of which were TOUR BUSES. These behemoths didn’t even slow down and took up every bit of space between lane line and whatever was on the other side: stone wall, grass, dirt, the occasional cow. Driving in Ireland feels like a 300-pound man going cave spelunking. I survived the ordeal through a combination of quick reflexes and sheer terror.

Which is how writing should feel sometimes, yes? If you’re never a bit scared of what you’re writing you’re not going far enough. And just like these automotive jaunts brought us to a new and wonderful location, so too will your risky writing take you to story stuff you would have missed otherwise.

Observe Intentionally

My favorite part about a research trip is walking around, listening, seeing, drinking it all in. Speaking of which, the pubs were a delight. Like at the wonderful Sin é in Cork. Here’s a bit of it:

Our barman, Tony, welcomed us with a big Irish smile and was more than happy to offer some tips on seeing Ireland. “Don’t do just the tourist stops. Stop in the little towns and villages and walk around during the day. Then go to the pubs.”

So when we walked around, I looked around. Some of the things I noticed:

Irish eyes really do smile. I saw some of the most gorgeous eyes on the lasses, and dancing eyes on the lads. There’s an old saying that a fellow has “the map of Ireland on his face,” and it holds true. There’s a distinctive Irish look, especially on the men—the kind of face you can imagine with a pipe, regaling you with a story about the banshee or the little people.

I found something else to be true: the Irish love to talk. There were a couple of occasions when we needed to get on the road. But an inn keeper here and a villager there kept up with friendly gab. We’d probably still be in Ireland if, on our last morning there, I hadn’t grabbed old Aidan’s hand (“I worked thirty-five years for Aer Lingus. Then was in Mozambique and oh, that was somethin’ all right …”) and said, “Thanks, but we’ve gotta run.”

We Americans always gotta run, which is the source of some amusement to the Irish.

Lesson: Lap up the sights, sounds, and smells on your research trips—and especially listen to the people.

Find the Gold in the Obstacles

My favorite encounter occurred by way of an inconvenience. Our rental car started acting funny, and the key card had a “low battery” warning. Luckily we were near the Kerry airport and went in for a word with the Hertz man. Who was not in his trailer. (Kerry airport is about the size of an elementary school playground.) So I went next door to see the Avis man, who told us the Hertz man should be back “in a bit.” It was more like three bits, but he finally arrived.

The Hertz man made a call and told us, “Go out the exit there and turn left and go to the top of the hill. Turn left again and go until you see a shop on the right. On the other side of the shop you’ll see a sign for Tom Murphy’s place. He’ll fix you up.”

Dutifully, we followed the directions and pulled into a dirt yard full of haphazard cars, piles of old tires, and a couple of trailers from a 1959 surplus sale.

No one was in either trailer. Then from an old house next door came the biggest Irishman I’ve ever seen. Think Hagrid from Harry Potter, only with a haircut. He also had the thickest Irish brogue this side of Barry Fitzgerald. And he talked fast. So after replacing the key battery and test driving the car he rat-a-tatted, “No worries about the motor andlikethatyasee? If there’s somethin’ wrong with the motor ye’ll see a yellow light andlikethat, yaknow? But if ya don’t see it it’s no worries andlikethat, okay?”

Okay! I wasn’t about to argue with the man.

Which is to say, the best part about research for me is finding something unexpected and delightful, which often happens when you meet an obstacle and are forced to push through it.

Times Are Always Tight For Poets

In Galway, we strolled along Shop Street, known for its (shockingly) shops. We really wanted to see the much-touted buskers, but I have to say the fare was, this day, disappointing. Several single acts (guitar, sax), and one fairly good trio. I was hoping for somebody like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now that’s a busker.

Anyway, toward the end of the street, we came upon a poet, with his little table and typewriter, offering to write a poem about anything upon request. Saw no one take him up on it, and then it began to spit rain. The poet had to gather up his things and run for cover.

Lesson: write poetry for fun, not profit, and bring an umbrella.


There is much more I could tell you about the trip, but I fear I’d end up like that friend who comes to dinner with 500 slides of his visit to Sri Lanka. Instead, I’ll leave you with one of those happy occurrences that come when you least expect it. It’s a title.

That car I told you about? Well, it went fritzy (yasee?) in the tiny car park in Galway (tiny car parks are all they have in Ireland. One false turn and you scrape off your side-view mirror). The car would not start. So I called Hertz, who called roadside assistance, who sent out a couple of fellas who arrived about forty minutes later. One was a squat, bald bloke who looked a bit like Michael Chiklis. He was chatty and charming, asked where I was from. I said, “Los Angeles,” and he said, “Oh, posh! Beverly Hills and all that!” I merely smiled, as I wanted him to get to work.

The other fellow was a tall red-headed lad in a rugby shirt. He was the serious one, told the chatty fellow to pop open the bonnet and try starting the car. It chugga-chugged but didn’t turn over. Rugby Lad fiddled with something and told the guy to try it again. It started. They stopped and started it one more time.

“Should be all right now,” Rugby Lad said. And with a wave and a smile from the jolly bald fellow, they were off.

I summoned my wife and daughter, who were waiting at a nearby restaurant. When they joined me my wife asked what had been the matter. I told her it was something about the injection system.

“Do you know what to do if it happens again?” my wife sensibly asked.

“Well,” I said, “I saw where he jiggled.”

To which my daughter, sitting in the back of the car, said, “Out of context, that sounds really strange.”

We laughed. But I did have my title: I Saw Where He Jiggled: My Trip to Ireland.

And … it’s good to be home!

So what’s a serendipitous event that occurred during one of your trips, research or otherwise?

32 thoughts on “Writing Lessons From Ireland

  1. Turns out I’m likely related to the Irish Porters, though I’d been hoping for the Scots Porters.

    Turns out there is in the history Fairfax, OK, on the then-extant Osage Indian Reservation, a Ruth Porter, also an Irish Porter.

    Turns out Ruth Porter married the owner of the local theater and the pool hall.

    Turns out Ruth Porter Tall Chief was the mother of the prima ballerina, Maria Tallchief.


  2. My mum’s great-grandfather came from Knockadoo Parish in County Tyrone. My parents went there once to see if they could learn anything. They met a couple distant relatives, and learned that my mum’s family had a bit of a reputation for being stubborn, and someone had concocted a bit of a poem about them:

    The McAdoos from Knockadoo. What they won’t do, we’ll make ’em do.

    Me, I’ve been working on the family history on my dad’s side, mostly, because my mum had a cousin who spent a long retirement (and earlier) working on their genealogy, as far back as the 1600s. I don’t think he managed to place where they came from in Scotland, though, but I haven’t seen his last research – he passed away a couple years ago. My mum has it, so I’ll have to check on that.

  3. Good morning, Jim. And Happy Father’s Day.

    Now we know where your “undisclosed” research was taking place. I loved the stories, especially the “andlikethat” Hagrid with the heavy brogue.

    My ancestors (Holleys and Troyers) arrived in America in 1750, also landing in Philadelphia. Within one generation, many of them had migrated to northern Ohio. When I made a trip there to do some research, I discovered that someone had mapped all the county cemeteries and published it. And I was able to find and visit the grave sites of the first four generations of Troyers. Then I had a chance to visit the writer and buy an autographed copy of another book he had written. After pictures and handshakes, he went back to his office and returned with an old leather-and-wood-covered book. It was a German copy of Martyrs Mirror, printed in 1748, and brought to America by the first Troyer. I felt like I had struck gold.

    Glad you had a great trip. If you found any Irish bog oak (or other wood), I would be happy to make you another pen.

    Happy Father’s Day!

    • Steve, that’s amazing. William Bell arrived in Philadelphia around that same time, and later my portion of the family moved to Ohio also. My great-grandfather, Harry Bell, set down roots in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

      There were certainly a lot of trees in Ireland. One of the most majestic was in an Abbey ruin which had been built around the tree in the 1400s.

  4. One of the progenitors of my family kissed him mother goodbye, married his Margaret, went to the Belfast docks, boarded a ship, and landed in Philadelphia as well. Their primary crop was sons who went west and a few turns later, an eldest daughter of a younger grandson ended up in California where she met a young man from Oregon and my branch of the family history began.

    But I can’t drive on the left. I tried it in Barbados, under very controlled conditions and discovered that my boundless talents do indeed have bounds and that is one of them.

    I get my people-watching chill on in Paris. I’m very comfortable there and was mistaken for French by wayward Americans more than once. Although, I did take the train to Chartes without noting which train went back to Paris. Since my French is, um, lacking, that was a bit of an adventure.

    I was sitting in Chartes cathedral on a marble bench, leaning against a marble pillar (as one does in France) watching the dust motes fly in the sunlight coming through the stained glass. A tour guide stopped his herd of Americans with their tour badges around their necks, all clutching the sweaters they’d been told to bring. I can understand just enough French, along with the disdain that only the French can put on their words, to get what he said about this bank of stained glass. Turns out these were the “new” windows, installed in the 1700s and scarcely worth noting. That moment taught me a lot about myself and my history (just how new we really are) and will most definitely find its way into my writing.

    It’s all fodder . . .


  5. My dad’s family on his father’s paternal side was from Argyll – Clan Lamont – across the way from Clan MacMillan. (I’m presuming that’s your clan.) Those ancestors arrived in America before the Revolution. On grandpa’s maternal side were the Andrews, from Clan Ross. At some point the Andrews jumped from Scotland to Ireland and landed in Tyrone. That group came here after the Revolution. My mother discovered all this during her genealogy research in the 1950s. Because she loved learning about family, my early years consisted of visiting cemeteries. Lots of cemeteries. For a kid from Kansas, spending summer vacations traipsing through Pennsylvania graveyards was not a dream come true. Now that I’m older, I can appreciate all the letter-writing and record-digging that she did.

    • That’s a great legacy from your mother. And speaking of graveyards, man, in Ireland they are abundant and go WAY back. I love the high (Celtic) crosses. Always have.

  6. Loved this post, and it brought back such fond memories.

    In 2000, Hubster had a meeting in Cork, and I opted to accompany him. Since I didn’t have a meeting in Cork, my days were free to roam a bit. I found everyone friendly and helpful, as my English was only “American”. I also discovered a love for Irish whiskey. However, since we were within walking distance of the university where the meetings were held, we didn’t rent a car. We took a cab from the airport, and upon entering the first roundabout, Hubster said, “We’d have bought it right there.” The cab driver recommended the local brew, Murphy’s, over Guinness and we gave it a try (very good). The pub food was hearty.

    I found Blarney Castle, great wool shops (although useless for the Floridian I was then), churches, a fantastic market where vendors were happy to explain what the heck went into their strange-named offerings (strangely?). Together we went to a farmhouse/restaurant where we were asked if we’d like to have a drink in the drawing room while we waiting for out table (who could say no?)

    One day I will have to get back, especially since my daughter now lives in Northern Ireland, which isn’t that far away. I mean, once you’ve crossed the pond, how far can anything be?

    • Terry, I think Cork was my favorite walking around place. We stayed in an AirBnB, a local artist type, very eclectic, right near the center of town. And yes, Irish whiskey, smooth and friendly.

  7. This was the best sort of travelogue, Jim. I could read about it all day. I felt like I was there along with you and your family! How funny that the Hertz guy sent you to the garage instead of giving you another car. You were very, very patient about the one you had.

    I gave my parents ancestry.com DNA kits for Christmas, and my mother was astonished to learn her DNA is over 40% Irish. We knew that a few of her ancestors were from Ireland, but she really got the genes. I’m only 7%.

    Back in 2012 we took a family trip to San Diego. I thought the big highlight for me would be Legoland (and it was, indeed, amazing), but it turned out to be the Whaley House Museum. I’d long wanted to write a haunted house book, and it was just starting to come together in my head. Despite the Whaley House being a tourist stop, I did feel like something was off there–just as I did in the Winchester House. And when I saw the upstairs theater where the Whaleys would bring in preachers and actors, I knew exactly what Bliss House would be like. I wrote 3 Bliss House books and one story. They would have been very different books without that trip.

    • That’s very cool about the San Diego trip, Laura. How the feel of it got to you, and that made all the difference. Serendipity!

      Yes, we were hoping the Hertz guy would just give us another car, but it all worked out for the good. We nicknamed our car “Casey” and felt quite close to him by the end, after all we went through together.

  8. Welcome back, Jim. My moment came on a trip to London when we got to talking to our room service waiter, Ahmed, who was from Turkey. He invited Don and I to dinner at his home in Brixton to meet his family. It was one of the highlights of our trip.

    • Wow, Elaine, an invite to dinner from a most unlikely source. That’s a great turn of events. One of the pleasures of travel and being open to things.

  9. Reading this post brought back memories. My cousin researched our family back to a tiny farming village in the Netherlands, in the 1600s. We rented a house for a week, complete with bicycles and a vegetable garden, and had a family reunion. Cousins arrived from The Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Lebanon. Most of us were musicians of some sort, there was a gormet cook in the mix and we got along like old friends, taking long walks and talking late into the night. We visited the manor house the family had owned before an uncle lost everything and saw the poor house our common ancestor lived in when her children all left the country. We stay in touch now on Facebook but I long to go back and do it again.

    • What great reunion, Nancy! Priceless.

      On a trip to England, we found the house where my wife’s mother grew up, in a little fishing town called Fleetwood. Best thing about that was the next door neighbor remembered the family and filled us in with a lot of information.

  10. 3 years home-ported in Gaeta, Italy, aboard USS Albany: wandering in Athens one day at lunchtime, unable to read menu in restaurant, owner took me into kitchen where I sampled each pot on stove and pointed at which ones to be served from. Later that same day, in my third country in ten days, I made a 10,000% mistake paying a cab fare. As the cab moved off in early evening crowded traffic in the next-to-center lane on a six lane street, I realized my mistake, ran across the barely moving traffic to the street centerline where I could keep an eye on the TAXI sign on the cab roof, and ran the two blocks necessary to overtake him. As I came up alongside the car, the driver stuck his hand out the window holding the exact change I was owed.

    While seeking a wedding gift for a sibling on a port visit to Israel, a transplanted former Detroit resident took me on an hour-long shopping tour w/history lesson inside a multi-story bazaar in Jerusalem where windows on the south side looked out onto a crowded section of Wailing Wall (I got a helluva deal on a hand-carved 12″ Menorah replica, then coffee with the vendor).***On a crowded sidewalk next to a street in Barcelona during a busy weekday evening rush hour, I waited for the light to turn green so I could cross an intersection. Two black four door sedans speeding the wrong direction in their lane opposite where I stood braked hard to a stop next to the stopped car with a male driver — no passengers — also waiting on the light, first in line directly across from where I stood.

    The passenger doors of both sedans opened, and six men in business suits rushed out and surrounded the stopped car. One guy opened the driver’s door while a couple more reached inside and dragged the resisting driver out onto the street. The opened door blocked much of my view, but I could see arms swinging downward alongside bobbing heads of the two (at least) punching down on the man. The beating was over almost as soon as it started, the beaten driver and five of the six suits back into both cars and hauling ass away, this time with mobile red lights attached to roofs and sirens wailing. The remaining man seated himself in the parked car, the light changed, and he drove it through the intersection, past where I stood, and on down the street. The cars behind his did not follow, all turning right instead. The whole thing took less than a minute, I think.

    My attention was zoom lens focused solely on the event, and I did not look elsewhere until the three cars involved were out of my vision. Only then did I notice that I was the only person remaining on sidewalks in my field of view which were crowded before the violent event. This was in 1978, and I was quite aware of current events Europe. I figured the driver who got the beatdown was ETA and nobody around me was interested in being identified as a witness to the event.

    As a young sailor on the loose in Med littoral port cities, I have quite a few more memories of unusual events I treasure.

    • Good gracious, Richard, those are amazing stories. It’s the “business suits” that get me in the Barcelona account. So many ideas rush in. That’s what this business of turning life into stories is about, no?

      Thanks for sharing those.

  11. Great Stuff Jim,
    Yes! Being an American in London for decades I know how harrowing the left hand side drive is for us. The first time I drove in London a mentor of mine had me drive his Bentley. Talk about crazy.

    Great-grandfather was from county Boyle, then to Providence RI.

    From a literary perspective the most serendipitous thing that ever happened to me happened in London. Too long to go into here. I’m certain you’ll meet her someday, if not in the flesh then on the page. Hopefully both.

    The Irish… wine, women, and song. Re-arrange the words as necessary.

    My people.

    George Glennon

  12. I loved researching in Ireland–though what I found was shocking! Went to Ballymena (Liam Neeson’s home). In the city museum was a third-floor display about the town founders: turns out, my husband’s family and mine founded it together–and were intermarried. My husband and I are cousins!

    Hope you drove through Adare, one of most beautiful villages in Ireland. Adare is a town, Adair is a person.

  13. What a wonderful trip, Jim! Thanks for sharing your experience. My wife and I have been to Ireland, too, a few years ago, and were utterly charmed by the land and the people. We didn’t rent a car, instead, we stitched together our travels around the country by rail and bus, getting to meet a number of Irish folks along the way.

    Our serendipitous encounters weren’t as significant as yours, but included saying hello to a group of folks smoking outside a small pub in Cashel, deciding to go inside, and discover that it was bingo night, and staying to play. The caller came by, introduced himself, asked me if I needed a “biro.” I was confused until my wife realized that was a brand of pen. This was not American charity bingo–this was the real deal, with a packed pub full of locals. At one point in the evening, things got real quiet, then the caller announced the next set of numbers, and a strained male voice nearby said “jay-zus!”, that broke the tension, and people began chatting each other up again.

    Another was meeting a pair of barristers at a music pub in Dublin who worked at the Four Courts there, and who bought us beers. One of the barristers played a mean fiddle.

    Can’t wait to go back! Thanks for bringing back so many wonderful memories!

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