John Jennings drove us from Kenmare, Ireland, on the southwest coast through the Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, Lakes of Killarney, to Kinsale, Ardmore, Cobh, Blarney, and up to Dublin on the east coast.
A retired 6-foot Waterford police detective with bushy gray eyebrows overhanging piercing olive eyes, he showed up the first morning in a biker's jacket that matched his eyes. A trimmed gray mustache gave his squared face a rugged Sean Connery look. I could picture him in an interrogation, never taking his eyes off a suspect. "Call me J.J.," he said.
I asked him where he was from. "I'm from Waterford," he said, "but I spent last night in a B&B over the mountains. It's only about fifteen minutes from where I picked you up." We proceeded to retrace the exact route through the mountain passes that J.J. had traversed to meet us. It took us thirty minutes.
"Why didn't you stay closer?" I said.
"There was a gym in one of the hotels near where I booked, and I like to stay in shape. But the gym wasn't open. Besides, B&B's in Kenmare, where you stayed, are too dear (pricey)."
"What else do you do for excitement?" I asked.
"I climbed St. Patrick's Mountain to the shrine three times on my hands and knees in rock and gravel," he said.
"You must feel very blessed," I said.
I sat in the rear directly behind J.J., whose driver's seat was on the right but who was, of course, driving on the left side of the road. His gray hair was sheared to a stubble, police-style, surrounding his bald 60-year-old dome. A half-inch tentacle from his beard sprouted untended to the left.
J.J.'s right hand never strayed from the wheel, while the long fingers and soft flesh of his left hand gestured in the air to emphasize his constant tales. Strawberry-blond wisps of hair escaped the cuffs of his jacket. His hands belied his avocation as a rugby player throughout his thirties.
While maneuvering through fog on the Dingle Peninsula, weaving around banks of peat and through stone tunnels in the mountainous Killarney National Park, passing lorries and bikers on roads wide enough for a single car approaching Kinsale, and circling round-abouts outside Cork, J.J.'s left hand would scrunch together, supplicating for understanding, or jump up and down to imitate the actions he was describing. We learned of Gaelic Games in his youth on a pitch longer and wider than a soccer field, where'd he had to change afterward on the embankment into rained-out clothes to bike home; of his All-Ireland basketball championship game in the 60's representing County Mayo; of the farm his father owned, whose horses competed in local Sunday jumping competitions.
Since J.J. was so tall as a youth, he couldn't jump in competition on his own horse. "Dad told me to tend another horse while my best friend did the jumpin' in the ring on mine," he said. "My friend was shorter than me.
"'And whatever you do,' Dad said, 'don't let him eat the grass. It will give him a stomach ache.'
"For three hours I pulled that horse's neck up off the turf every time he tried to eat. Ohh, my arm was achin'.
"Meanwhile, my best friend won first prize. He brought my Rory out to me and Dad said, 'Since you trained him, why don't you ride him to pick up the trophy?'
"I did just that. I rode up to the judge and took hold of that silver urn and turned Rory around to head out. Everyone was cheering like crazy. That's when Rory decided to buck and I went flying forward and landed on my arse. Managed to hold onto the trophy, though. I still have it.
"Now when we get to Blarney Castle, Pamela and Charles, the Stone is 100 steps up inside. You must go to the top and lean backwards while you hang over the wall to kiss the Stone. You'll be given the gift of eloquent speech." He turned in his seat to face us with the smile of a leprechaun.
Seems J.J. had been multiply blessed - three times by St. Patrick, and once by the Blarney Stone!