First, a confession: After my wife, Suzanne, and I signed up for the Clare-Galway-Connemara — Wild Atlantic Coast Tour, I seriously began to question why a physically disabled person such as myself would choose a tour that enables one to, “Experience the lush green hills of Clare; its majestic cliffs and rugged islands, to the rustic and stunning beauty of the Connemara mountains, to the Irish-speaking towns of County Galway, visiting the gorgeous lakes, castles, monastery ruins, and early settlements of this ancient Irish Province of Munster in the Wild West of Ireland.”
Tour organizers Michael Regan-Waugh and Trish O’Donnell-Jenkins seemed to capture the essence of the tour, and I could easily imagine their evocative imagery stirring the blood of virtually anyone in search of the soul of Ireland. As for myself, a stroke survivor with significant left-side mobility challenges, the prose was a thinly veiled taunt: “You will hike until you drop, only to lie stranded and helpless until some rugged fisherman stumbles upon you.”
Seeking reassurance, I contacted Trish by phone, who reassured me that the tour was structured so that I could experience it at my own pace. She seemed to take it all in stride, which was in sharp contrast to all the administrative concerns for my “safety” at the high school where I had happily taught until I
recently announced my retirement.
So my wife and I threw caution to the wind and booked the tour, at which point, the jitters associated with my initial concerns about the tour were seamlessly supplanted by those forebodings of doom characteristic of one contemplating a flight overseas.
As if my stress wasn’t already through the roof, the first leg of our flight, from Chicago to Newark, N.J., was delayed thanks to a wholly unanticipated, fast-moving storm front that compelled our pilot to fly circles around Newark’s congested airport as he awaited his turn to land — that is, until he announced the plane was running out of gas! Two hours later, after refueling in Harrisburg, P.A., we were finally back in the air — about the same time that our connecting flight to Shannon Airport was lifting off.
I contacted our tour guide, Derek James Browne, with what I assumed was the worst possible news: We would not be in Shannon to hook up with our tour at the appointed time,
Not to worry, Derek reassured me.
Sure enough, when we arrived at Shannon Airport fully a day later than scheduled, Derek was there, along with fellow toward member, Cynthia Owens, to greet us. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Derek knew what he was getting himself into when I realized I could not even lift my foot high enough to step into the tour van. This is when Derek first demonstrated his knack for creative problem solving. He looked at me, and then at my stroke-paralyzed left leg, and then back at me. I could almost see the cog wheels turning in his brain.
“Lift your right foot and see if you can get it on the first step,” he suggested.
It took a little effort, but I could do it.
“Now, lift your left foot.”
Before I could say, “That’s a no go,” Derek had lifted my left foot and placed it next to my right foot.
“Suzanne, do you mind if your husband falls on you?”
Looking bemused; Suzanne, who was already in the van, said, “Why not? “
“Now, Tom, say a little Irish prayer and let go of the door grip.”
I took a leap of faith and let go. Gravity took over from there, and I dropped gently onto Suzanne’s lap as Derek simultaneously coaxed my feet up over a small second steps so that both were resting over the floor of the van. At that point, it was easy to assume a sitting position where I was meant to be — beside my wife.
We actually got quite good at that maneuver, always in good humor, and with Derek bestowing upon me the lion’s share of credit,
Derek and I hit it off quickly because we both shared a well-honed, self-deprecating sense of humor. Although, if I had been a more dour sort of fellow, I’m sure Derek would have responded accordingly.
One of the items on the trip itinerary that most worried me was the Burren guided tour. Retired School principal and naturalist extraordinaire, Pius Murray, had been contracted by Wild West Irish tours to take us on a hike of several kilometers through the starkly beautiful, rock-strewn National Park.
Upon arrival at the Burren – after Suzanne and Cynthia stepped out of the van to stretch their legs, Derek turned to me and said, “We are going to have our own fun.”
What a relief! Given that I am a hard-core nature nut, I knew I couldn’t have hiked more than ten or so meters into the park
When Pius pulled up to the parking area, Derek announced, “While you are taking the ladies on the hike, Tom and I are going to find a pub and catch the rugby championship.”
Sure enough, within 20 minutes, Derek and I were comfortably seated at the Champions Pub, soft drinks in hand, watching the Irish National Men’s Rugby team overtake the favored Australian team 20-16.
Amidst the raucous cheering of the crowd, Derek turned to me and said, “You just watched history in the making. That is the first time Ireland has beaten Australia on their soil since 1976. “
I should note that I had asked Trish and Michael prior to our trip if they could possibly arrange a fishing excursion for me at some point during the tour. They were only to willing to accommodate me. So they contacted Derrick, who in turn contacted noted fishing guide, or “gilly, Bartosz Schoen, who promised to take me out to stalk the outsized northern pike for which Ireland is known. Fully appreciative of the anglers’ knack for embellishment, I offer this proof of how the trip went:
As invaluable as Derek was to me, I would do him a disservice if I did not acknowledge that he was equally accommodating to Suzanne and Cynthia. I am convinced that each of us believed that we were Derek’s favorite. Indeed, Derek was greeted with warmth and affection by people everywhere he turned up, be it at some remote Galway Cove or at a Clare County folk music club, where the owner caught the essence of the esteem in which Derek is held by exclaiming, “What a wonderful man! And a brilliant man too! “
So Trish and Michael, there is no doubt in my mind that people who contract with tour guides of Derek’s caliber, are people who seek out only the best. Having said that, I proclaim that Wild West Irish Tours is decidedly disability friendly!