A 16th-century Renaissance castle located in County Clare, Ireland, stands proudly in the early afternoon drizzle. I am waiting outside on a circular drive with my 86-year-old grandmother, Yvonne, and my mother, Lynne. We make up three generations of women, and we are staying at the historic hotel, Dromoland, on Mother's Day. My Irish-American grandmother -- one of 70 million people around the world who claim Irish ancestry -- has Alzheimer's Disease, and this is the trip of her life.
We paid for a pony and trap ride around Dromoland's gothic gardens. Our jarvey, Sean, soon arrives and guides the horse and trap next to us. He hops down from the horse and offers his hand. We accept it and climb in. We shuffle around and try to distribute our weight and Sean welcomes us with a thick Irish brogue. My grandmother’s forehead creases.
"Are you sure the carriage can hold this much weight?" Grandma Yvonne has always loved animals, and even her mental condition does not trump her nature.
Sean reaches for the reins and steadies the horse. He answers, "The horse can hold the weight."
He waits until we are settled, then huddles into the end of the trap through a small door. It is a modest, 18th-century buggy with two enormous wheels and seats running along both sides. It smells of horse and antiquity. Paddy is large in stature and chocolate in color, with patches of vintage-white covering his nose and feathered feet. Sean sports an ebony bowler hat and a striped sweater, with a solid avocado-green farmer's jacket covering it. A thick leather belt secures his tan pants.
Sitting across from Sean, I study his pronounced, yet not unpleasant, nose. He is handsome. I look away, brushing the thought away to a proper place. He raises the reins and Paddy gently leaps forward. Clop, the hooves beat upon the ground. The trap wheels turn around and around, and we move steadily to our first stop: a pond's sundial and a "Hermit's Cell."
"Do you see that sundial?” Sean points to the right and shuffles to produce a photo album. His hand then motions to the left. "Do you see those pillars?" We nod. Sean taps a photograph in his album and explains: "The pillars are standing throughout the entire Dromoland Estate. They have been placed so the sun will fall directly over the sundial, through the pillars. In the course of a few months, they will forecast the exact month and day."
We lean forward, fixated on his photographs, and he weaves a story of gossamer threads: a world of Celtic manors, ladies of the house, and pillars of light. Tales of the hidden hermit's cell follow as Sean directs our attention to a small, hallowed alcove built into a hillside. "Do you see that cave? It dates to AD 1041." The tone of Sean’s voice changes. "Wealthy, Irish landowners paid hermits to live on their land and pay penance for their sins. The practice was similar to the paid penances Martin Luther protested."
My mother tucks a blanket around my grandmother’s body. My grandmother wears an ivory wool sweater that we bought for her at Giant’s Causeway. It is hand-knitted with faux-leather buttons lining the front. My mother told me that my grandmother had always wanted an Irish sweater. She is proud of her heritage. In 1892, the first Ellis Island immigrant was an Irish woman named Annie Moore. She was fifteen when she led hundreds down the gangplank into New York. The Irish diaspora has resulted in an Irish genealogy center in every Irish county.
The sky clears and Sean shifts his body weight, leaning against the trap. I notice he is in pain, but he continues his story about the hermit's cell. "If no food was left outside by the landowner, then he knew his hermit was fasting because he had given him no food to eat. A fire at the back of the cave was lit for the hermit to keep warm. This activated the cave walls with shadows, which the hermit saw, getting rid of the demons of the landlord." Sean leans into a crooked wooden cane, supporting the weight of his body.
I can't resist and I ask, "What happened to your arm?"
In solemn tone, yet without complaint, he answers, "My usual horse was killed by a hit-and-run driver a few days ago. The driver hit my trap and my shoulder was dislocated."
"I'm so sorry,” my mother and I say in unison.
"Why are you not at the doctor?" I ask.
"I cannot afford private insurance, so I am on a waiting list. It will be a while before I am treated by a doctor.”
During the discussion on healthcare, my grandmother sits quietly. I hope she is warm. My grandmother is different now: innocent, frail, childlike. She calls my mom, "Mother" and I am "that woman." There are fleeting moments on our trip when she is lucid, and she will say, "Oh, Ingrid."
During some of my college years, I lived with my grandmother. She had been a strong woman with a mean streak if she disliked you, but was kind and warm if she liked you. She was always welcoming to my friends and me, and I believe that my active college schedule brought life to her everyday routine. My mother once told me the origin of my grandmother's sometimes unpleasant temperament. She was bullied as a child, causing lifelong self-esteem problems. Being larger than her petite sister, her peers would ask if she stole all the food from her. Now, on our trip, she was full of joy and laughter, all memories of bullying gone. All memories of Ireland would be kidnapped, too. It saddens me.
It is late afternoon and Sean jumps out of the trap, grabbing the reins, pulling the horse uphill. My grandmother asks, "Can I get out of the cart? Would that help the horse?"
We arrive near a second home located on the grounds. Sean reveals it once belonged to a famous actor, Richard Harris, who had starred in Camelot. He had the house built to overlook the estate. He was not the landowner but found pleasure in the grounds. I smile as I recognize the musical, and I turn to see Dromoland Castle resting in our view. I understand Richard Harris' obsession: King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table breathe throughout the stone structure and the gardens, awakening the Arthurian Legend.
During the end of our trap ride, my mother asks about the conflict between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Sean places his finger to his mouth. "We don't talk about that."
Around dinner time, the trap rounds its way to a stop; I want to stay seated forever with three generations of women on Mother's Day. My legs waver as we climb out, and I thank Sean, sliding a tip into his hand.
Later, I ask my mother her feelings about Dromoland. She says, "It was a culmination of a fairy-tale experience; staying in a castle and being treated like a queen.” It is my hope that one day my Irish-American grandmother will rediscover it.
Header photo by Brian Luke Seaward
All photos by author unless otherwise noted.