Published: March 2006
Tom O'Neill

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

I couldn't resist taking the Sally Gap Road south of Dublin, driving across the boggy heights of the Wicklow Hills to reach the emerald valley of Glendalough. Here in the cemetery of an old monastic site rests the headstone of my earliest known ancestor. I have probably walked through the high grass past the tilting lichen-spotted markers at least a dozen times over the years, and each time my heart soars when I find my stone across from the 11th-century ruins of St. Kevin's Church. There are the names, Patrick O'Neill, who died in 1858 at the age of 80, and Kate O'Neill, the daughter who erected the stone.

Patrick was a great-great uncle, according to my pruning of the family tree. As I looked at his name, a groundskeeper complimented me on the stone. I blushed. It shone like river boulder, cleaner and shinier than any of the decaying slabs around it. Five years before, seeing that Patrick's name had become almost illegible from the spread of lichen, I asked a local pharmacist how to clean it. "Pour tomato sauce all over," he said, "and wipe it off a couple hours later." So I did, dumping a bottle of ketchup over the stone. Incredibly, it worked. Wiping off the red sauce revealed a bright marble slate of names and dates. Once again, I mouthed the names—Patrick, Kate—and glowed like the stone.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I love taking ferry trips, the sense of crossing to a new land, the feel of waterborne wind, the company of fellow travelers. But I must admit that the memory of some of these trips on this assignment makes me wince more than smile.

For instance, the weather was horrendous—lashing rain, swollen seas—during the passage across Galway Bay to Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. By the time I stumbled off the boat, I was soaked and shaken.

I remember the short voyage across the Little Minch from Scotland's Island of Skye to Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Before we passengers could even leave the boat, boarding travelers rushed past us, frantically waving hands around their heads. That was a warning. As soon as I stepped ashore, swarms of midges—little, nasty, biting flies—settled around me and everyone else who followed. All of us ran for cover, flailing our arms. So much for dignified arrivals.

Consider the fancy ride on a high-speed ferry that took me across the North Channel between Stranraer, Scotland, and Belfast in Northern Ireland. The ferry was equipped with bistros, play areas, even a movie theater. But all modernity seemed to disappear as I drove off the ramp into the Belfast docklands around midnight. The whole city appeared black and shuttered. In the darkness, I couldn't read or even find street signs. For an hour I wandered as if spun around in a whirlpool. Totally lost. "Never take a middle-of-the-night ferry," I lectured myself. Finally, I found an idling taxi, paid him a few euros to lead me to my hotel, and chastened, fell asleep, glad to stay on land for a few days.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

In the halls of National Geographic, writers often joke about a mythic place called Quote Land. It's where, ideally, we could go to find the perfect character, scene, or remark to aid a story. Imagine my excitement, then, when I came across the village of Ros na Run in Ireland. So many Irish towns have lost their character due to development, but here was a perfect place, a village with a brightly painted pub, shops with flowers in the window boxes, a cheery bed-and-breakfast. People on the streets were more than eager to speak. And the stories they told: A policewoman was in town looking for a missing person, the local doctor. A codger described how he makes moonshine. Two ex-lovers bumped into each other and nervously shared a few secrets. Wow! This is unmediated real life. I can fill my notebook.

Cut. It's all too good to be true. Ros na Run is a soundstage, the setting for a soap opera broadcast on TG4, Ireland's Gaelic-language television station. I found it outside a real village—Spiddal—on Galway Bay. Spiddal was nice enough, but a big condo complex was going up, and the people on the streets were talking about the weather, not sex, lies, and liquor. Oh, well.