Put On Some Shew - Travel Stories From Ireland Pt. 1

I find so many memories from our trip to Ireland wanting to come out as words rather than photos. So I thought I'd share photos alongside the writing and bit by bit make my way through some of the people and places and foods we experienced! I always love to hear the stories behind distant travels, and I hope you do too!

The airport bus deposited us (my brother, sister, sister-in-law, and me) onto the rain-slick slates of Dublin’s Cornmarket. At five in the morning very little stirred, even in busy old, cobbled old Dublin. Nevertheless, out the streaming bus windows we spied Mona Moore. She stood on the curb in a shiny rain jacket looking rather more like a suggestion than a reality in the quavering mist.
We’d not yet met Mona in the flesh.
She was a friend’s Irish grandmother and we’d kept her waiting for an hour longer than supposed in that pre-dawn cold because we couldn’t find our luggage on the carousel and the bus wouldn’t arrive.
Mona, however, seemed to mind neither our strangeness nor the fact that we were so late.

“Are you Abigail?” she inquired of my sister.
My sister-in-law, the Abigail in question, stepped forward to claim the title and was embraced by the short, reproachful-looking woman.
“Ryan and Chelsea’ll have been telling me all about ya,” she announced. “Now then - home. Whose suitcase can I take?”
Tired as we were after the long flight from D.C to Dublin, no one wanted to let a seventy-eight year old woman take her suitcase and trek with it who knows how far into Dublin before the sun had even risen. My siblings pushed me forward. Though we’d known Mona but five minutes, I’d seen enough to know that contradicting her was not in anyone’s best interest; certainly not in mine. I surrendered the suitcase to Mona’s sure grip. Without further deliberation she stalked off down the glossy pavement opposite Christ Church.
“I’m hard of hearing!” she bawled over her shoulder. “So if you want to talk to me you’ll have to look right at me and make sure I’m reading your lips.”
Ryan, Mona’s grandson and a good friend of our family’s, had told us all about his fierce Irish grandmother whom he’d arranged to have pick us up from the bus-stop at this ungodly hour. We’d heard that she liked whom she liked and hadn’t much use for the others; that she was as independent and lively as she was deaf; that she was wholly wonderful and unlike anybody else’s grandmother.
“Ye aren’t goin’ to fit in me flat,” she announced, by way of conversation.
As we trundled downhill toward Trinity Church and tried to keep our footing on the wet stones and steer intractable suitcases around the uneven places, an honest and keen admiration for Mona sprouted in my heart. Anyone who would extend such generosity to strangers as to wait for God knows how long at a bus stop well before sunrise (in the rain no less) must be a very rare and fine sort of person.

Above us, copper light flowed from window-panes as the early risers in this bit of Dublin began to awaken. The sky above Trinity Church held the thought of a glow. Busses hissed as they passed and everything shimmered - half rain, half exhaustion - before our bleary eyes. I felt an odd disconnect from my own limbs: the arms holding various luggage, the legs tired of walking and weary of standing, the hands which kept feeling to be sure of passport and wallet. And yet very awake was I to the thrill of being in Dublin of all places, after all this time.
“Here we are!” Mona warbled as she paused at a bright blue door midway down the hill, between a florist’s and a sandwich shop. A code punched into the keypad let us pass into the pale hall of an ancient apartment building. Wan blue flowers squinted from the glaze of the wall’s pink and white tiles, as if put-out to be rousted so early from their slumber.
“The place was built a hundred years ago. It’s been redone,” Mona explained as she fumbled with the keys, “but they left the original tiles. Pretty, aren’t they?”
At first it was difficult to know how to respond to someone who could not hear your response and had not turned around to witness it...to say nothing seemed rude. To say a lot seemed useless. I settled for an appreciative murmur and filed myself away behind the other three as the door finally gave in.
“It’ll be a squish!” Mona said. “I warned Ryan it’d be hard to fit even two of you into it, and here you are four of ya, which he sprang on me last minute. ‘Oh, Nana,’ he said, ‘it’s four of my friends now, not two.’ And he knew all along it was goin’ to be four of you. That’s Ryan for you. Now: I suppose we can cram the suitcases into the bathroom.”
With this pronouncement, our hostess bustled into the most comically narrow hall I had ever seen. Her sense of decorating was familial in the extreme: every inch of the old wallpaper covered in framed photos of ancestors and progeny through the decades. Black and white daguerreotypes of frankly miserable women and pedantic-looking men. Film photos, and digital prints. One could read the entire history of Mona’s life - even her country - in the photos on these walls, I thought. There was not much time to wonder about either, however, for the official house-tour was happening now and the flat being so small, was almost over as soon as it had begun.
Two miniscule rooms ran off the hall which could not be even a meter wide. One, the bathroom which somehow swallowed suitcase after suitcase and did not spit a single one back out at us; the other, Mona’s bedroom with its brass frame, prim duvet, and a surprising nightdress folded neatly on the bed.
“Right through’s the kitchen and sittin’ room.”
No sooner had she told us, then the hall ended and all five of us stood in a room approximately the size of a sugar cube. An ambitious person with slightly longer-than-usual arms could have touched both walls at the same time, it seemed to me. To Mona as well.
Oh, I hoped she liked us - how I hoped it. Both my own grandmothers had died a matter of months before, and now here was a perfectly marvelous someone else’s grandmother in the most ridiculous little flat you ever did see and I needed her to like us. I thought maybe nothing would ever be right again if Ryan Moore’s grandmother didn’t at least more than tolerate us...and yet so exhausted I felt that it seemed impossible to spare the effort to be sure she did.

She ran a hand through cropped, reddish curls with an expression midway between aggravation and pride. “Two of you’s on that couch, two of you’s on that one (hang on, let me clear the packages I’m puttin’ together - I go to the post office once a week and I’m always putting together packages), and I’ll sit on the table.”
We begged her to take the comfortable seats. Certainly we couldn’t let her sit on the table while we took the only real chairs. It wouldn’t be kind, nor fair. But Mona would have none of it and pretended not to hear us - or, rather, she chose not to read our lips which was effectively the same. After a few moments of silence, in which time it was easy enough to get the measure of so small a space - kitchen running into couch, gas heater in the fireplace, bookshelf a hapless combination of romance novels and world religions - Mona leaped up to make tea.
For someone who had a hearing disability, Mona liked to keep up a constant conversation. It did not much matter to her whether we answered or not, whether she could or could not hear us answer if we did. She had, of necessity, placed a miniature whiteboard and dry erase marker on the stamp-sized coffee table. But even when we did write responses fast enough to keep up with her discussion (cantering from famous celebrities she’d coerced into photos, to cunning plans for fish and chips, and back again), Mona admitted she had misplaced her glasses again and could not read what was written on the board.

Dawn crept over Dublin, as a deeper sleepiness crept over us in the oven-warm flat. Mona’s electric tea-kettle boiled once, twice, snicked off three times before she had stopped chattering long enough to check on it. Tea. I have always loved tea, but I don’t think I’d properly met tea before emerging from the drowse of overnight travel into the even drowsier drowse of anticipating strong Irish tea before sunrise.
Mona passed tiny, frail cups around with her tiny, strikingly not-frail hands. Nothing about Mona was frail. Not her voice, not her person, not the silk poinsettias sprouting improbably from the mantelpiece, not her tea, not the way she talked about stopping Blake Lively and Jackie Chan for autographs and photos. Frailty, thy name is not Mona Moore.
If you wanted cream with your tea, you could have that; if you wanted sugar you were out of luck - Mona was diabetic. Which did not, however, seem to keep her from plotting to devour the entire box of unfrosted pop-tarts we’d managed to cart across the Atlantic, courtesy of the infamous Ryan, whose antics we knew by personal experience.
Mona was immensely pleased with the Pop-Tarts. “I’ll eat em all while you’re out sight-seein’!” she boasted, and this seemed no idle threat. “I don’t share my Pop-Tarts. Now, would ya like some toast? Or an egg.”
She seemed to parse out her questions like that, consideringly. One piece at a time as if we ought to very carefully weigh our answers. Toast. Or an egg. Toast. Or an egg?
Her cool, blue eyes surveyed us seriously. I tried not to squirm under that candid and unblinking visage. Suppose she thought of accepting toast as a badge of honor - we weren’t all the way sure it wasn’t. Should we or shouldn’t we? Would it be worse manners to accept the toast and put her through the trouble of making toast for four at six in the morning, or to refuse it? Nothing seemed more vital than being perfectly certain in these crucial moments wherein Mona would, or would not like us, that we ended up on the right side of that reckoning.
No, thank her, none of us were hungry at present. I wanted to be hungry because Irish toast seemed almost as wonderful as Irish tea, but you’ll likely be familiar with what an airplane does to one’s appetite.
“More tea?”
Yes, we’d all like more tea. I had lost count, by now, how many cups of strong tea I’d downed so far. It kicked you across the tongue and the inside of your cheeks. Tannic and bracing and courageous somehow. Just the sort of thing you wanted when you’d left your gumption somewhere behind Customs when you’d had to explain - again - what, by all the saints, you wanted to go to driving all the way to Donegal for.
By the time the tea-pot found bottom, so had our energy. We’d come to Dublin to see things, yet the only thing I truly wanted to see was a clean bed with my name on it. If we didn’t get up and walk a bit I thought we’d grow like rather pale, fatigued mushrooms into the red sofa. We weren’t allowed to check into our own lodgings for hours yet, but Mona was kind enough to allow us to leave our suitcases blocking up her bathroom in the meanwhile. How she intended to use her bathroom with a small herd of suitcases grazing across the linoleum was beyond me..yet somehow I bet the kind of woman who could convince a bookshop owner to let her meet a famous author hours before the other guests got to, could likely handle much dicier problems.
“I tell ya what I’ll do,” Mona said, breaking me out of this rather pointless reverie.  “I think I’ll walk to the shops while you’re out and make a nice shew.”
In our sleepless stupidity we could not decipher what she meant.
“Sun’ll be out but it’ll be a cold day and I’m sure you’ll be wantin’ something to eat after seein’ the sights and walkin’ all day. I’ll go to the shops and make a shew and when you come back to get your luggage, it’ll be ready to warm ya.”
Stew. She meant stew. Well, she must like us if she’d go through the trouble of a stew.
By and by, we dislodged ourselves from the sofa and benches and various corners of the too-warm kitchen. From the wreckage of our independence we shed layers, then added layers, stashed anything that could possibly be stashed, double-checked passports and wallets yet again. Mona insisted on fishing out a handful of coins and handing them to my brother, in case we needed to ride the bus.
“They take exact cash only,” she repeated, and glared at him owlishly when he protested.
I tugged on his arm to indicate that he better not jeopardize our standing in Mona’s eyes by picking a fight over a few well-meant coins. We squeezed as a group past disconsolate-looking ancestors and pictures of infant-Ryan. Next out out the tiled stairway onto the pavement outside.
Dublin had awakened in our absence. The morning commute - by foot, by bus, by bicycle - was in full swing and Mona’s mischievous smile followed us out as she poked her head through the doorway.
“I won’t be hearin’ if you ring the doorbell,” she said. “Here, you’d better take the key and let yourselves in. You’ll be back around four, four-thirty? Good. I’ll have the shew on. Enjoy yourselves! Be safe. Keep your eye out for gangs. They prefer to use knives these days."
She pressed a key into my brother’s hand and shut the great door behind us without further ado. It was a wall again. And we were out in actual Dublin with actual sunlight and our appetites reviving.
Christ Church gleamed uphill, and Trinity Church down.
So here we were, I guess. And wanting breakfast. And Mona Moore had given us keys to her house.

I suppose we’d passed muster; you don’t go makin’ shew for just anybody, that's certain.


  1. You have such a way with words, I felt like I was there!

  2. this is glorious. I'm excited to read more!

  3. I hungrily devoured every word, and now want shew.