I once had a roadside chat with a leprechaun in Ireland - even though I don’t really believe in such creatures and was not on any sort of hallucinogenic substance at the time, at least to my knowledge.
It was the 1980s and were bicycling, my friend Eric and I, all the way around the island of Eire. Leaving Paris, I’d ridden all the way down the Seine to the coast, meeting him there and taking the big overnight ferry across, rolling through the massive swells of the English Channel all night, lying in sleeping bags on deck chairs. We embarked on the south coast packed up and saddled up and headed West along the coast. It was summer and the sun was consistently shining, so much so that many fair locals were getting serious sunburns. But perfect climate for us California bicyclists.
Other than a quick touristic stop to see the fabled Blarney Stone - where we were told that drunken locals liked to pee on it late at night in anticipation of unsuspecting tourists then kissing it - I don’t recall much of the south coast. But when we hit the southwestern corner of the island I was strongly struck at how much it resembled western Mendocino, Sonoma, Marin - deep green hills and cliffs and crashing waves, and narrow old crumbling roads between small villages, with very little automobile traffic. It was utterly lovely and superb biking terrain, although likely considerably less inviting for that in the winter. Famed locals like the towering coastal Cliffs of Moher were unforgettable.
We would ride just as far as we felt, stop in a town late in the day, find the most appealing-looking pub that was open, and begin the ritual ordering of the pint. Most places seemed to have but three beers in the 1980s: Guinness, Murphy’s, and Harp, going from dark to light. They were all fine but the prolonged three-part proper drawing of the Guinness pint was the standard order. You wanted your mustache to leave a distinct imprint in the foam on your first sip.
The other appeal of west Ireland was in it's timelessness. We met rural folks who still spoke Gaelic, a largely incomprehensible tongue to us. Each county seemed to have its own loyal identity, and thought they were mostly no bigger than our own north coast ones, you could hear an old man say “Ah yes, County Clare - I was up there 30 years ago....” - whereas we would be there by dinnertime on our bikes. Traditional music was expertly played in seemingly every pub on fiddles, guitars, sometimes and accordion. Many sang along, and most were very good indeed. Regulars at the bar would be cajoled with a shot and/or pint into singing a local tune, and I can still hear a little old fellow concluding his ballad “... and I can't forget my little shack, I lived on Dingle bay...”, with real tears in his eyes. It was music festival time too and there seemed to be one in each county, with artists showing up in the pubs at night - Van Morrison, for example. In that regard we were in heaven.
There as darkness too of course, although we were mostly blissfully unaware of it. Ireland in the 1980s was still almost feudal in some regards, especially with respect to the Catholic church's hold on the culture. Birth control was barely legal and hard to get, with condoms requiring a medical prescription, and frowned upon even then. As was later revealed, the “Magdalene Laundries” maintained by the church were sites of virtual slavery, mass cruelty, and murder of unwanted “fallen” young women and babies. Poverty and malnutrition were common. But one didn't talk about such things much - yet. The movement for women’s rights in Ireland was only belated brewing, and in some ways still is.
What some did talk about was 'the troubles' - the heightened violence and protest against British rule that just a few years before had seen prisoners such as Bobby Sands starve themselves to death in protest. It was a vastly complex and bitter sectarian struggle, killing over 3,500 over decades. When we reached Northern Ireland the contrast with the bucolic west was glaring - barbed wire, police everywhere, heightened tension. In a pub there, once we were accepted as OK, we took a poll of the large crowd inside and learned every single man was unemployed and on the dole. And they were seemingly spending it all on beer - a headline had just trumpeted “PINT BREAKS POUND BARRIER,” probably as good an economic indicator as anything - and who could blame them? And while we were at least smart enough not to raise the issue of the troubles and the IRA, more than once a local would say something like 'Oh yar, we all say we deplore the violence and such, but get a couple of pints in us and it's “Up the IRA!”.
In any event, although I am likely something like 10% Irish at most, within a couple weeks there that “blood” had taken over and I unwittingly had the accent, the loyalties, the tastes in music and beer and literature - I had a beatup copy of Joyce's “Dubliners” in my saddlebag and read some every day, deciding forever that the concluding epic story “The Dead” was immortal. I “passed” as Irish more than once, and was proud of that.
Eric and I split up at times, by default or by choice, for whatever reasons, simply knowing that if we kept on the one coast road clockwise around the island, and hit the right pubs, we'd meetup again. And we did. We found each other at the bars or music halls or even just on the roadside, keeping eyes out for each other's bikes. I don't recall seeing anybody else riding long-distance as we did - the craze for bike touring, and Ireland's overall surge of tourism, was still a bit ahead.
So, on one of those misty mornings were I'd awoken alone in a field, after a bit too much Guinness in the last village the evening before and a wobbly ride in the dark out of town to find a place to bed down, I groggily packed up my light sleeping bag, strapped it to the bide rack on back, and tottered slowly onward. My wrinkled map showed the next town just a few miles up the road, where I could splurge on some pub grub and coffee. Bedeviled by little biting bugs all night, I hadn't slept much and very much looked forward to that.
At one point I was pedaling slowly up a gentle slope, a rickety wooden fence on the right side of the road, and I spotted a lone figure perched on the fence ahead. This was the proverbial middle of nowhere, miles from any building so far as I could tell. As I rolled up, I slowed to at least say a hello to whomever it might be. But when I drew up something made me pull to a full stop, and plant my feet on the road.
The figure there was small, maybe five feet tall, sitting on the old fencepost. His clothes were ragged, in fact, the collar on his shirt had rotted away, leaving just a neck hole, where a frayed tie was wrapped around. He had an equally decayed cap on. But what pulled m up short were his eyes. The Beatles lyric “Kaleidoscope eyes” came to me. His eyes were like mesmerizing searchlights, whatever color they might be, and he was smiling, flashing heavily decayed teeth. It took me maybe a full minute of staring to finally venture to say something.
”Good morning sir” was all I could muster.
”And to you! And how are you today?” he replied, enthusiastically.
I was still literally dumbfounded by his image, but then managed “Well, I am actually still quite sleepy, you know. I slept in a field and the little midges were biting me all night, so I was awake most of the night I think.”
He nodded knowingly. “Ah yes, the midges. Bless them.” A pause. “But, you know, one hour of cosmic sleep is at least as good as ten hours of the regular kind!”
I didn't know what to say to that. He was still staring and smiling. After another pause, I just lamely said, “Well, yes, and, um, thank you, and I'll be rolling on...”. So, with a nod, I mounted up and pedaled slowly away up the slope, marveling at what or who I'd just encountered. But about ten yards up, something made me look back to wave goodbye - and he was gone. I pulled up abruptly, laid my bike down, and walked back, fearing maybe he had fallen off the fence into a ditch or something. But there was no ditch, just flat hard earth, and no nearby tree or bush or anywhere within a kilometer he could have gone in the few seconds I had been turned away. He had simply, truly vanished.
I stood there, looking all round, astonished. I don't believe in this stuff, I thought to myself. But I had no doubt, not one iota, that I'd just seen and talked with somebody or something right then. I called out “hello?” a couple of times; nothing. After a few minutes there was nothing but to walk back up to my bike and ride onward.
In that next pub an hour or less later, the only customer up so early, I ordered up eggs and toast and coffee. “You care for a pint with that?” the affable bartender inquired.
”Er, ugh, thanks but I don’t think so - I’m still recovering from all those last night,” I replied.
”Ah, lad, think of it this way - it’s just a nice glass of cereal, you know?”
I laughed and said, “OK, true, I will if you will join me, deal?”
He agreed without argument and set off to place my food order and pull the pints. As he expertly performed that delicate operation, I gently ventured to tell him of my roadside encounter just an hour before. I didn’t want him to think me a total flake, from California no less, but I couldn’t help but wonder what his take on it might be. As I finished the story, he brought our pints over, all creamy foam on top, and raised his to mine. ”Probably a leprechaun,” he speculated matter-of-factly, as if we were talking about a species of bird or something. “Who knows? But here’s to whoever that was, long may he live,” he said. ”And to you, a lucky traveler who now has a story to last you the rest of your days, and maybe more.”
We drank to that.