The allure of learning something difficult

By Caitlin Kelly

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland
Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.

It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.

This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)

But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.

Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)
Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.

Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.

We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.

But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.

He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)

It’s a very male place.

But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!

We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.

The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)

I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.

I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.

I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.

I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.

The Luas -- which means
The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.

But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.

But it’s gorgeous to listen to.

What new skills are you learning these days?

What made you choose them?

Happy St. Patrick's Day! A taste of Ireland from an Irish great grand-daughter

Topography of Ireland
Image via Wikipedia

Slainte!

That’s “cheers” in Irish — pronounced slawn-tche. Hoping your day is full of craic — fun.

I’ve visited Ireland four times, and loved it, even once driving the entire circumference of the island with my Dad, chasing up and down its green hills and visiting Rathmullan, Co. Donegal — a seaside town on Lough Swilly where my great grandfather was the schoolteacher. Family lore had it that, after big storms, there’d be jellyfish on his front lawn. Yeah, right, I’d say — but there was only a narrow road between the seawall and his lawn. True.

We even visited his one-room schoolhouse and I saw his handwriting in the old ledgerbooks. The building was for sale and we fantasized, briefly, about buying it.

Landing in Shannon, Ireland’s western airport, means staring down at a patchwork quilt of every shade of green, tiny plots of land, each marked off with a stone wall. It’s magic. You drive on the left and the narrow, twisting roads, with high hedges and limited sightlines, is a real challenge, especially with jet lag. I went, alone, to follow two American women, one from San Antonio and one from D.C., at the annual September singles’ festival in Lisdoonvarna —  where men outnumber women about four to one — for The Washington Post, Ottawa Citizen and Dallas Morning News. It’s a hoot. I’ve never felt so alluring!

Dublin is terrific, but Galway City is fantastic — a college town with lots of great pubs, friendly and manageable. My Dad and I once spent an afternoon collecting mussels from Galway Bay, went home and made soup; for a while, he owned a house, built in 1789, just outside the town of Athenry — then, it cost barely more than my suburban New York apartment. I loved looking across the countryside through its wavy, 200-year-old windows.

Here are some of my Irish favorites:

Guinness. Yes! Dark, cool, creamy, distinctive, it’s probably Ireland’s best-known beer.

James Joyce. I am a faithless wretch, never having read his work, so he’s not technically one of my personal favorites — but you can’t leave him out! I have visited his home.

Luka Bloom, a singer-songwriter, I love his album The Acoustic Motorbike.

The Chieftains, founded in 1962, probably Ireland’s best-known band for traditional music.

The Aran Islands. The shaggy cows there are the exact shade of Guinness. There are three islands, reached by ferry from Galway, and filled with 15th. century churches and pre-historic ruins.

Colm Toibin. His latest, recent book, “Brooklyn: A Novel”, has received rave reviews. I’ve read his earlier work and loved it.

William Butler Yeats. You may already know some of his poetry’s lines off by heart — “Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams”.

Glen Hansard, winner of the 2008 Academy Award for “Falling Softly” his gorgeous song from the lovely 2007 film, shot in Dublin, “Once.” He also starred in one of my favorite films, The Commitments, from 1991, whose soundtrack is a must-own.

Films The Field, Waking Ned Devine, Ryan’s Daughter, which united the formidable talents of Robert Bolt and David Lean (who did Dr. Zhivago) and The Dead, set in Dublin in 1904, starring Angelica Huston and directed — his final film — by her father, from his wheelchair on oxygen, John Huston.

Grainne, (pronounced Grahn-ya), the lady pirate:

Grace O’Malley (also called Granuaile) was a famous pirate, seafarer, trader and chieftain in Ireland in the 1500’s. She was born in 1530 in County Mayo, Ireland and was the daughter of sea captain Owen O’Malley. As a young child, Grace always knew she wanted to be a sailor but as a female, she was discouraged repeatedly. Extremely upset when her father refused to take her on a sailing trip, legend has it Grace cut off all her hair and dressed in boy’s clothes to prove to her parents that she could handle the trip and live a seafarer’s life. Seeing this, her father and brother laughed aloud and nicknamed her “Grainne Mhaol” meaning “Bald Grace” (which is believed to have led to her nickname “Granuaile.”) Eventually, through her persistence, she was allowed to go to sea with her father and his fleet of ships.

As a child, Grace often sailed with her father on trading missions overseas. Once, upon returning from a trip to Spain, their ship was attacked by an English vessel. Grace she climbed up onto the sail rigging. Watching the battle from above, she noticed an English pirate sneaking up on her father, raising a dagger behind his back! The brave Granuaile leapt off of the rigging, through the air and onto the pirate’s back…. screaming all the while! The distraction this caused was enough for the O’Malleys to regain control of the ship and defeat the English pirates.

She spent her young life learning the ways of the sea and grew to be quite the sailor — eventually having her own fleet of ships. Her family had become wealthy mainly through fishing and trade, but in her later life, Grace took up piracy by taking on Turkish and Spanish pirate ships and even the English fleets. She grew her estate to include a fleet of ships as well as several islands and castles on the west coast of Ireland.

In her later years, Grace developed her reputation as a fearless leader through her efforts in battle along side her followers. Legend has it that Grace gave birth to one of her sons while out to sea. The very next day following the birth of the baby, the ship was attacked by Turkish pirates. Though exhausted from giving birth Grace grabbed a gun, went on deck and proceeded to rally her men against the Turks, forcing their retreat.

I’d love to hear some of yours…