International intrigue with a touch of Irish luck
During my college career I was fortunate to have an opportunity to study abroad on an exchange program through Plattsburgh State.
The year was 1976 and the cooperating school was Chester College, a small institution known for its School of Outdoor Pursuits and Physical Education. The program offered regular outings for trekking, paddling, climbing and more.
Due to the ease of access afforded by the River Dee in Chester and the River Mersey near Liverpool, the paddling routes included the North Sea and tidal estuaries that connect an intriguing network of old canals, rivers and streams that crisscross the English countryside.
While kayaks were often the conveyance of choice, there was also a stash of battered old aluminum 22-foot canoes that could carry a ton. Unfortunately, they also weighed about a ton.
During our outings on the canals, we were often invited by local residents to join them for dinner or breakfast, depending on our progress.
However, the true adventure of my travels occurred when l joined up to travel across Ireland in the company of a fellow student who was in his last year at the school. We were repeatedly warned about the dangers posed by “the troubles” with the IRA, which was still very active at the time.
In fact, the college faculty was so set against our travel plans, they insisted on assisting us with contacts along the way.
Despite the potential for trouble, we set off on the night ferry from Liverpool to Dublin, and arrived in Dublin full of enthusiasm. We decided to leave our packs in a locker at the train station while we explored the city.
However, when we passed our packs to the porters, they immediately stepped behind a heavy barrier and demanded that we open the pack to prove it was just a clock. After assuring them it was a clock, we watched as they wrote ‘clock’ all over the pack with yellow grease. Paint.
When l complained, the porter explained it was necessary, otherwise the pack would be tossed out in the street to be detonated.
“Welcome to Ireland,” l mumbled under my breath as the porter greased up my trusty old Kelty backpack.
With the help of students from Trinity College in Dublin, we soon connected with a caravan of a half dozen vehicles that were on the way to Trinity College in Galway. There was a lot of talk about the troubles, and British soldiers were everywhere, as evidenced by the regular roadblocks.
We got on well with our hosts and set off to an off-campus party with them about 10 in the evening. It is true the Irish enjoy their drink, and l am proud of my Irish roots, so I went out of my way to prove my blood was indeed green.
Unfortunately, l nearly had to prove it again later in the evening when the local police and British soldiers crashed a party we were attending, hot on the trail of potential lRA sympathizers. After being released at 4 a.m. in a city that was a potential war zone, we decided to take the first bus out of town.
As luck would have it, the bus broke down and we ended up stuck in a small village waiting for the only bus of the day, which was scheduled to arrive in about 12 hours.
After lamenting our bad luck, we walked to the far edge of the city to catch a bus. We stopped for coffee at a small cafe, in an effort to chase some of the booze out of my system. That was when l noticed a small, painted sign.
The sign read, “Castle Hackett.”
I was hungry, hungover, disheveled and in need of sleep, but there actually was a Castle Hackett somewhere down the line. I had read about the castle, which was located somewhere between Headford and Tuam. It was described as nothing more than a pile of old stones off the side of the road.
Just for hell of it, l asked the waitress if she knew where the old castle could be found.
“It is a bit of a walk,” she explained, before offering to drive us out that way later in the day.
At the appointed time, she pulled up and opened the car door.
“l can’t be gone long, hop in!”
And off we went. We arrived at the appointed destination, and as it had been been described, it was nothing more than a pile of rubble, overgrown with scrubby vegetation. However, located just a short distance beyond, was a large Manor House.
With over eight hours to kill before the bus was scheduled to arrive in town, we agreed to go and check the place out. We walked up a long drive that took us to the back of the compound, and rather brazenly, knocked on the door.
I was surprised by a pleasant young lady dressed in full maid dress. We exchanged pleasantries, and as we were speaking, l heard a gentlemen instruct her to invite us in. It was the first time l had ever seen a maid in my life.
The Hall was huge and hung with old tapestries and magnificent paintings. The owner was kind to ask us in, and he offered up a full history of the property. It was incredible.
Regrettably, l did not have a camera, but the experience was unforgettable. We sat at a massive table, where he tugged on a braided rope to call the maids to service.
A decade and a half later, we returned to Ireland for our honeymoon. We stopped to visit the old Manor, and discovered the previously meticulously maintained property was in absolute shambles. There were sheep grazing on the overgrown lawn and tenants had settled in the grand old hall, which was being used as a community laundromat.
As l later learned, many of the old, vested estates have since been appropriated by the government, and when that happened the squatters simply went wild. We were sad to see such great castles plunged into this state, but will always have the memories of them during their splendor.