07 August 2014

Sneem: A Picture Postcard

Tonight I am in a little town in County Kerry called Sneem. It sounds like a dwarf's name, and perhaps Sneem was the eighth dwarf but got lost on the way to the diamond mine one day and ended up by the sea here in Ireland.

Settling in, he found that he liked the fresh sea air, the touch of rain every day, and not being just another face in the crowd of short, hardworking men. Away from Grumpy, he became increasingly more cheerful, and far from Doc, he started to look like the smart one. People were drawn to his smart cheerfulness, and the town grew up around him and so they decided to name the town after him. Sneem.

I could see why my mythical Sneem the Dwarf liked this place when I biked into town this afternoon. It was the first day of my three-day Ring of Kerry bike tour, and I'd made it to Sneem by 5pm after a day of seeing scenery so achingly beautiful, I couldn't stop smiling. At one point, I found myself humming "How Great Thou Art," a song that came unbidden but that was right for those bright green hills, the mountains rising, the sheep gathered by huge boulders. The works Thy hands have made, indeed.

The bike tour company had given very clear directions for this self-guided tour, and as I descended into Sneem {thinking about how I'd need to ascend that hill tomorrow}, I read the directions to get to the Sneem Hotel: Turn left at the one stop sign in town.

The one stop sign—this was going to be my kind of town.

The stop sign was at a corner of the South Square. Sneem is cut in two by a river—the River Sneem, in fact—and on each bank, there is a square. It's as if the town wanted to pretend that it was bigger than it really is, what with their North Square and their South Square. Each square has a church, so in my mind, one side was for the Catholics and one side was for the Protestants, but even such a divided country as Ireland, I don't think that was the case in little Sneem.

Sneem is called An tSnaidhm in Irish, which translates to "The Knot." It's been called the Knot in the Ring of Kerry, a romantic and charming idea for a town that gets its lifeblood from the tourist trade—from all those tourists pouring in busload after busload during the summer to see Ireland as it was.

I'm just as guilty of that, even if I didn't come on a bus. I came to Ireland to see a slower paced life, one that still feels tied to the earth and to the traditions of centuries. The first thing I thought when I biked into Sneem was, "I'm sure this village hasn't changed into years upon years," a rather unfair thought to aim at a town that's simply trying its best to keep tourists and residents alike happy.

But looking at the tidy green in the center of the South Square, I could see little boys in knee britches chasing each other and women in sensible shoes and warm coats gossiping—because I wanted to see this place as stuck in the past, as a slice of Ireland that's just as it was in some mythical past out of Brigadoon.

Without even needing to try, I insinuated myself in the midst of it all, imagining what it'd be like to grow up in this town of colorful houses and slate roofs. The fair would be the most exciting thing to happen every summer, and I'd have a job waiting tables at the pub D O'Shea's, the one that's painted bright pink in the North Square.

It's not hard for me to make up a whole new life in a place that feels as familiar as Sneem, a place that seems set up to make you want to stay. At the pub tonight—I went to D O'Shea's—I sat on a wooden bench next to a fireplace, and it wasn't hard to believe that people had been sitting on that bench for more than a hundred years, meeting neighbors and ignoring enemies. The waitress called me "love," and told me that I'd made a very good decision in ordering the Irish bacon with colcannon {mashed potatoes and cabbage}.

Everything about this town feels like a memory you'd forgotten about, one that you've only just remembered and now get that long, slow delight of reliving something that was so special to you once.

Sneem. What a name. What a town.

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