The Pleasantest Bus Driver I’ve Ever Met

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – We left Logan Airport around seven on a spring evening, still before sunset, rose above the clouds, and flew east into darkness. The cabin crew let us get settled, brought us a snack and a drink, and dimmed the cabin lights for the night. I began my perennial struggle with a space too small for my frame, with my (prosthetic) knees jammed against the seat before me and the metal armrest digging into my elbow. Could I stand this all night, short though it might be? At that moment, as if in answer, my new and still untamed Apple watch buzzed on my wrist and asked me to meditate. “Think about something that was really fun,” it urged. Heaven knows I tried.

First thing upon landing and collecting our bags, we tackled an ATM that dispensed Euros, and I had my usual tussle with electronics; folks behind me in line must have been going nuts. Then I figured out you didn’t poke the number on the screen, but instead the invisible button beside it. Finally emerging, blinking and flush with cash, into the morning sunshine of western Ireland, we met our three companions for the week: our tour director, Charlotte; Gerry, a genial, soft-spoken, portly Irishman whose hat bespoke a sense of humor; and the pleasantest bus driver I’ve ever met, one Pat O’Connor, who looked as though he’d put in some happy years on the pitch. The bus was immense. especially noticeable on the narrow roads without shoulders just off the main highways, but Pat was clearly dedicated to getting it back to the barn without a blemish.

Conventional wisdom would suggest a nice rest at a hotel after such a flight. But there’s no checking in to hotels till mid-afternoon. So off we went, to a 15th-century Norman tower house, Bunratty Castle, and our group scattered.

One of the joys of adult tour groups, as opposed to kids’ groups, is that you can give them a time to be at such-and-such a place – like back at the bus – and be pretty sure they’ll be there. Some of our group never got beyond the coffee-and-scones shop, or the gift shop. Others disappeared to tour the castle, which has been preserved pretty much as it was in the Norman days. Some wandered through the recreated 19th-century Bunratty village and came back marveling at the huge Irish wolfhounds. I checked out a tarred canvas currach lying upside down beside the path. In its day, it was essentially an ocean-going canoe, manned by very daring and very tough cookies.

We checked into the Killarney Plaza, freshened up, and according to the tour schedule I’m looking at, had an introductory dinner of which I have no recollection. But next day we traveled out onto the Dingle Peninsula, a beautiful sea-girt range of small mountains that are the bit of Europe closest to the United States. Legend has it that, if you look hard enough and want badly enough to emigrate, you can see from the cliffs the towers of Manhattan on the horizon. The all-but-abandoned Great Blasket Island is just offshore. On our last trip here, we landed on the island by Zodiac; and I can still see Mother, inspired by the books written by the island folks, tromping firmly up the steep slope above the landing, determined to check out the now-roofless stone houses. This time we just motored by in a cruise boat – we couldn’t have landed, anyway, in the sea that was running – and dealt as cheerfully as possible with a few green and wave-splashed faces.

Pat, the bus driver – you can’t believe what a sweetheart he was – had heard me mention somewhat longingly the South Pole Inn. It was established by one of the toughest cookies ever: Tom Crean, a stalwart survivor of Scott’s expeditions to Antarctica who was also with Shackleton on his incredible small-boat voyage across the Drake Passage. Pat made sure we got to stop at Tom’s Inn in Anascaul for a half-pint. Last day of the trip he gave me a copy of Crean’s biography.

The Irish seem to have about them the same easy conversational style I’ve noticed at the old men’s morning coffee gatherings at McDonald’s, or at a Red Sox game. I could always get something going by asking any small gathering, “What are you lot up to?” The answer was always the same: No good. Can I join you? And we were into a chat.

There’s a deeper, darker theme running all through the Irish consciousness, but that’ll keep for another week. For now, spring lambs in green pastures and yellow gorse blossoms will do.