In August 2022, I took an epic trip to Ireland full of adventure. The global pandemic had put a pause on my European adventure that I had planned for 2020, and so when I was ready to travel abroad again – I thought of my friend who had extended the invitation to visit Ireland.
The Emerald Isle has always been on my “to do” travel list. And it just so happens that a dear friend of mine who previously lived on St Croix had moved to Belfast as a teacher over a decade ago. Charlene and I met while performing many moons ago in various Caribbean Community Theatre productions and became fast friends sharing not only a love for musical theatre but our Irish Catholic heritage and Boston area roots.
If you ask anyone who really knows me, St Patrick’s Day has always been my favorite holiday (next to Christmas, of course) and my favorite band of all time is hands-down, U2. And, like millions of others across the globe, my family is part of the vast Irish diaspora. So, after a chat with my friend via Facebook Messenger it was settled. I was heading to Ireland!
How are the St Croix Seaplane and Ireland connected?
Over the years, many have asked me why St Croix has such a big St Patrick’s Day parade celebration and I’ve written about the complicated historical past here – St Croix’s Irish Connection. But, St Croix also has another more modern connection to Ireland – one of Éire’s favorite daughters, the famed fiery red-head and Hollywood starlet, Maureen O’Hara (1920-2015).
Maureen lived here on St Croix for many years with her third husband, United States Air Force Brigadier General Charles F. (Charlie) Blair, Jr. Charlie was an aviation pioneer and the founder of “Antilles Air Boats”, the predecessor of today’s seaplane operation in Christiansted & Charlotte Amalie Harbors. With $10,000 he bought a Gruman Goose (an amphibious plane), hired five employees and started what would become the largest seaplane airline in the world with a fleet of 27 planes. And he did it all right here on St Croix!
Maureen owned and edited the Virgin Islander travel magazine from 1976 to 1980 when she sold it to USA Today. Maureen and Charlie would often fly from St Croix to Ireland with multiple stop overs for fuel, including in Nova Scotia where they are remembered fondly. Though a highly honored and experienced pilot, Blair was killed when the Goose he was piloting crashed en route to St Thomas on September 2, 1978, killing him and three others aboard. You can still see Maureen and Charlie Blair’s home sitting high atop the hill above Christiansted. Over the years its fallen into some disrepair, but local rumor has it that it’s being renovated right now and will become a rental villa in the future.
St Croix was a Celebrity Hotspot
One of Maureen’s frequent leading men and one of her best friends was John Wayne. He visited her and Charlie on St Croix several times over the years. She entertained other Hollywood celebrities like Ginger Rogers, Jason Robards, Victor Borge, and Lauren Bacall. Maureen was well known for her hospitality and deep love of St Croix, referring to it often as her favorite island.
My personal favorite Maureen O’Hara story comes from my time as a wedding planner. About a decade or so ago, I planned the wedding of a truly lovely couple. The bride, Jenny, had been born on St Croix when her father worked for the Hess Oil Refinery. She only lived on the island for the first few years of her life, but it was still very special to her. During the wedding reception, her father got up and shared a touching story. When Jenny was a toddler, the family attended the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade and Maureen O’Hara was on one of the floats (this may have been the year that she was the Grand Marshall). Maureen saw little Jenny and handed her a lucky Irish penny. Over the years and several moves, unfortunately, the penny was misplaced by her parents. So, before the wedding, Jenny’s father wrote a letter to Maureen O’Hara sharing the story of the lost penny. Well, don’t you know that Maureen not only sent back a lovely letter, but a shiny new lucky Irish penny to gift Jenny at her wedding. (yep, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house and I’m a little teary now retelling it, lol)
My St Croix-Ireland Connections Begin
So that’s the back story. Fast forward to my 2022 Irish Adventure. I spent the first four days of my trip with my friend, Charlene, in Belfast (which I absolutely LOVED). My very first night included an outdoor Van Morrison concert in Belfast Square. Epic! For the first part of my trip, we visited many of the filming locations from Game of Thrones up along the breathtaking NorthEast coast of Ireland, the Game of Thrones Studio Tour on the outskirts of Belfast, and St Patricks Cathedrals in Armagh (more on all of at my new Travel website Exploranista.com )
Following my stay in Belfast, I rented a car and took off on my own adventure. I had plotted on my Google map the places in Ireland that my family emigrated from about 200 years ago. So, leaving Belfast, I headed out on my heritage trail. One of those was Sligo on the North West Coast of the Republic of Ireland. There, I spent some time exploring the Neolithic burial ground at Carrowmore and then drove down through the breathtaking Connemara mountains with a plan to head to Galway.
I have an Addiction to Photography
Well, my incessant need to stop every mile to take pictures of the insanely gorgeous landscape across Ireland got the best of me and I was just exhausted. But, I was still a couple hours out of Galway where I’d booked a hostel for the night. It was only $25/night so it wasn’t a big deal to be charged but not make it. I checked out a few hotels and bed and breakfasts along my way but everything was booked solid. I really wanted my own room that night so that I could get a good night’s sleep, but things weren’t looking promising.
So, I cranked up my U2 playlist, left the windows open to the cool air and sang my heart out as I drove through the valley and the misting rain. And then I saw the most vibrant rainbow that I’d EVER seen in my life! I thought it must be a sign. It was the golden hour and I also saw a couple more photo opportunities that I just couldn’t pass up. Because, when would I be right there again, ya know?!
I got back on the road and saw, I kid you not, three more incredibly vibrant rainbows. The last rainbow was in a town called Oughterard (pronounced OOK-ter-ard in Gaelic) and right there was the sign for a Bed & Breakfast. It was now around 8:30pm and I thought they would probably just laugh me out the door at that hour. But, instead they were the most warm and welcoming folks of my entire trip (besides my friends in Belfast, of course!).
A Warm Irish Welcome
They had just gotten a cancelation which worked out for us both. I had a wonderful, relaxing night of sleep after a hot bath and some tea and an incredible home-cooked breakfast the next morning. Over breakfast, I plotted my navigation plan for the day.
If you’re traveling through Ireland, I highly recommend a stay at the Carrowntober House B&B!
You see, I had plans later that afternoon to meet up with the sister of my St. Croix friend, Christine, who lived just North of Galway. Christine had suggested that if I was headed out her sister’s way , I should stop by so she could show me around some of the countryside that many visitors to Ireland miss. Prior to my trip, Cait and I connected on Facebook and made a plan to meet up. Ironically, it turned out that she was right across the lake from the Carrowntober House B&B where I was. I decided at breakfast to take a look at my Google Map to see if there was anything of interest nearby the area for me to explore quickly before I hit the open road. And I found a place right around the corner that I’d seen several signs for the day prior – “The Quiet Man Bridge” – so I figured I may as well check it out. And bonus, it was on my way!
The Quiet Man
That, my friends, is where the magical St Croix connection day started to occur. I’m sure that Irish fairies from behind the rainbows I saw were involved. Because, unbeknownst to me, “The Quiet Man” (1952) was an Academy Award winning film starring – wait for it – Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne! And it was just the beginning of the adventurous day ahead.
I drove over to the Bridge and pulled out my trusty Canon EOS 6D Mark II to capture this beautiful and iconic spot in the middle of the idyllic Irish countryside. There’s a wonderful sign on the bridge marking the point in the film where John Wayne sits on it and looks across the land during one of the opening scenes. (I watched the film after I returned and recognized the bridge, but the growth around the stream has changed quite a bit!)
After exploring the bridge, I headed on my merry way to drive down the Wild Atlantic Way and over to Headford to meet Cait. The plan was to meet her after lunchtime and I thought “what a fun coincidence to find that little bit of a St Croix connection along my way”. It really made me smile!
Of course, the trip took me a bit longer than planned due to the multiple photo stops I made along the way. Thankfully, Cait, was very understanding of my snails pace! Eventually, I made the decision to skip a brief stop in Galway (next trip for sure!) and headed directly to Headford. I had to drive South and then back North to get around Lough Corrib (one of the largest lakes in Ireland).
Kismet in the Irish Countryside
I finally made it around 3pm with a bit of that infamous Irish drizzle following me. Cait was delightful and showed me around her family’s country home complete with dwarf goats, chickens, and a couple of adorable pups (I felt right at home!).
Then we headed out to explore the historic and entirely cool ruins of the medieval Franciscan Ross Errilly Friary that was founded in 1351. I was thrilled to experience the drizzling rain of Ireland and was thankful I’d bought the perfect rain slicker in Belfast that kept me warm and dry.
Finishing up the tour of the Friary, Cait suggested we head up to the village of Cong, where she works. We had a little more time and there were a few of the sights and a pretty village square. We made our way, parked, and walked through the ruins of the medieval 12th-Century Cúnga Fheichín (Cong Abbey) that anchors the little hamlet.
Then, we popped over to the shop she works in as it was closing and headed back to the car park. (that’s a parking lot for you yanks) Right before it, we had to stop to snap a picture of the “famous statue”… of Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne! Don’t you just love coincidences like this?! This unplanned excursion was pure kismet. It was those fairies again, I tell ya!
It turns out that Cong was one of the main towns for filming where many building exteriors and pubs were featured. There’s even the local Quiet Man Museum with tours and a replica of the cottage from the film. I was so excited that this was the end of a day of exploration that started serendipitously with the Quiet Man Bridge! And Cait was thrilled to hear about the connection with St Croix where her sister now lives. The day was perfectly capped off with a scrumptious, locally caught salmon dinner at one of the nearby inns. (It was so delicious and I was so hungry that I actually forgot to take a picture!)
Everything about Ireland captured my heart. From the North Eastern shore near Murlough Bay that reminds me so much of St Croix’s South Shore to all of the St Croix connections along the way. It’s just another of the many things that I love about island life. No matter where you go in the world, you’re certain to find St Croix connections along the way, whether history or friends you’ve met on the island. Travel is a truly gift!
If you’re interested in following more of my travels abroad, pop over to Exploranista.com
Upon my return to St Croix, I decided I had to watch “The Quiet Man” so I did a quick search on my Amazon Prime. Wouldn’t you know it, the movie was showing the very next morning on one of my Sling TV channels. I recorded it and watched it the next night. I love classic old films and was surprised I’d never seen it before.
It was really fun to watch, but I will remind – especially the young ladies who may be reading this – it was released in 1952 and depicts the 20’s era in the Irish countryside. The Irish were (and to an extent still are) very conservative Catholics. So, there’s no need to find a marriage broker and ask your parents or your older brother where your dowry is. We’ve come a long way from those days baby!