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Mike Stevens

Mike Stevens Shooting the Breeze an interview with a multi-talented Pennsylvania Journalist

Shooting the Breeze

Travel Stories from the Road

Mike Stevens and I met a few years ago when I interviewed him for a newspaper feature story I was working on. Our interview at WNEP-TV was an exciting moment for two reasons. I’d watched Mike for years interview interesting people from all walks of life as he did what comes naturally to him. He loves to “shoot the breeze.” He’s also such an unpretentious, easy-going person. The podcast episode was my second interview with Mike Stevens. Scroll down to read the digital version of our podcast episode.

Mike Stevens Shooting the Breeze is an entertaining and enlightening journey into broadcast journalism with Mike Stevens, a well-known Pennsylvania journalist.

Introduction

Joan: My guest today is a fellow journalist whom I admire and respect for many reasons. He’s best known as the host of “On the Pennsylvania Road,” a long-running segment on WNEP-TV. He’s also an author, educator, and storyteller and he also shares my love for interviewing people from all walks of life.

Mike Stevens Shooting the Breeze and Sharing Stories from the Pennsylvania road.

Welcome, Mike Stevens.

INTERVIEW

And thank you for meeting me today a Keystone College. How are you, Mike?

Mike: Well, I’m good. I’m good, Joan. I’m kind of retired and sort of working on different things here and there and you know, it’s fun to get together and shoot the breeze.

Joan: For my listeners who don’t know you I would say you are the ideal person to share your experiences as an itinerant traveler, and that’s what I’d like to do today.

Joan: Also, I’d like you to tell me about your life now and what you’re doing. What are you working on?

Mike: Oh, well, I’m doing a podcast occasionally for “16” and I do a blog so I try to write every week or so when I have the opportunity and something strikes my fancy. and that’s about it. I’m thinking about going for a ride somewhere pretty soon. And that’s about it so far and goofing off most of the time.

Joan: When you were the host of on the road how many towns throughout the state do you estimate you visited?

Mike: Oh, you know, I’ve never given that number any thought because I don’t think I could come up with a reasonable answer. I was doing this since 1978. I started the Pennsylvania road pieces.

I came into the office one day and the news director said we want you to go out and do this thing called On the Pennsylvania Road. And I said, okay, but what is it I’m supposed to do? He said, “Well, we don’t know for sure because it’s a new thing but we want you to do it three times a week. So here I am stuck looking for stories and I literally went door-to-door looking for stories that I could tell that would fit the situation.

Joan: Didn’t they give you any guidelines? I mean, they didn’t tell you that you’re going to the Harrisburg area one day and then you’ll be in the Philadelphia area. What was your region or did they just sort of throw you out there?

Mike: That was basically it. It was Northeastern and Central PA, which was our coverage area and it still is although I haven’t checked for a long time. They said you know go out and do your thing and we’ll look for the first story in a couple of weeks. And so that’s what I did. I went out and traveled around from town to town. You know you go to diner somewhere in some town.

Joan: So you just walked into and a diner or wherever – a supermarket.

Mike: And then you just sit around, and you listen and after a while, you get the hang for it. You get an idea of what you’re looking for and which person in that crowd might fit into that story. You kind of zero in on them and listen a little bit and see where they’re going. You can tell if the person has that kind of laid-back personality that you can work with and have some fun with. And if they do something really neat, that’s good, too.

Joan: Was it the opportunity to travel or the opportunity to meet interesting people who told interesting stories that initially interested you?

Mike: I think it was a little bit of both but I think it had more to do with the individuals involved. This is a fascinating world I think and we don’t get a look at most of it. We see what’s on the news.

We look at the politicians and we look at the town officials and so forth, but I’ve always felt that what really drives America, what really makes America tick, Pennsylvania included, are the people who live on the back roads. They’re the people who go to work every day – seven days a week sometimes. They raise their families to the best of their ability. They live to whatever comfort level they can get to in the world and they’re decent people.

If you call them up at two o’clock in the morning and say I’m stuck down in a ditch at the bottom of your hill, well, the guy will come out and he might not like it but he’ll do it and come down and help you pull your vehicle out of whatever mud hole you’ve managed to get it into. Even though it is two o’clock in the morning and he’s got to go to work the next day. I think those are the kinds of people that make America great.

It’s not the people who lead our country, so to speak. It’s the average John Q. Citizen who’s really the backbone of our country and those are the people that I have been privileged to meet. And I say privileged because a lot of them were really one and done. You know I’d go in and meet them and talk to them and be fascinated by their abilities and their travels and their attitudes and their personalities. Then I’d move on to the next individual who kind of fit the same mold. I was privileged to meet individuals who would open up about what they did and we would sit and just shoot the breeze. That’s what we did. No interview per se, we’d just sit and talk and I’d tell the guy or girl forget the camera. He (the camera-man) is not here. He doesn’t work with me anymore. They would take sometimes two or three minutes to get into the interview but eventually, they’d forget the photographer behind me and we would just sit and shoot the breeze. In there somewhere is the nut of the story.

Joan: What did you typically interview about? Was it anything that came into your mind at the moment or was there a purpose to the interviews? Was there always a reason?

Mike: No, other than the fact that you generally needed the interview but you didn’t need the whole interview. You needed three or four seconds here and 10 to 15 seconds there. That’s what you needed. And when we got them both a photographer and I knew that we were done. It wasn’t going to get any better than that. We had this guy locked in. His sound was in there. So let’s just say the individual was doing something to I don’t want to write, you know get that miscarried but

If the individual were doing something, we would then go and have them do it. And then they might say something while we’re shooting the story. But if they didn’t that was alright, too. Most of them would forget that the camera was there and they would just shoot the breeze. And so would I. We would talk about this and talk about that and in there somewhere is another sound bite that you know is going to fit. And after you’ve done this for several years you kind of get the idea.

That’s how we set up a story. There were very few times that we actually did an interview like we’re doing here – one-on-one. It was more like well, let’s sit down and talk and let’s see if something happens…

Joan: And you knew, right then, the direction you were going?

Mike: Yeah, we knew the guy or girl did something. We knew people who did crocheting and you know painting and all kinds of things.

Joan: So would you call yourself a traveling journalist?

Mike: Well, it’s a good title and I like that title. I’ve never used the title before but I guess so. I would go into a town and we’d record individuals and essentially make it into a journal. Although we called it “On the Pennsylvania Road,” it was really a journal of everyday life with individuals who had some unique talent. And some didn’t have a unique talent. Some were just fun to be with.

The very first story we did was a guy who told me he could forecast the weather by the number of times a cricket chirped per minute. So we sat on his front porch and those were the days when we were shooting film and the film was very expensive. I mean, relatively speaking. So the photographer is loaded up, and he’s rolling, and I said how do you do this weather forecasting thing? It was a dumb, dumb question. I never should have asked it. He said, well, I just count the chirps of the cricket.

He said, for example, there’s one underneath the porch that’s chirped 14 times in the last minute. He said, watch, he’ll do it again. Let’s listen. So we’re sitting there while the photographer’s running through the film, at some unimaginable rate and my whole life is passing before me. The guy says at the end of a minute, okay, that cricket chirped 14 times in the last minute. Now, how he knew that I don’t know because, in the summertime, there were a thousand crickets underneath the porch, but I said to the guy, so what does that mean? What do you get out of that? And he said well, it’s going to rain tomorrow night. And I said, well, how do you know that? He said well, I don’t know for sure but it’s happened often enough Gotta be some truth to it. He was just a fun guy to be with and that’s the way that very first story kind of set the groundwork for all the other stories that came after. It was whatever suited our fancy. Whatever I found that I thought was interesting and those are the kinds of people I’ve dealt with throughout my career.

Joan: What are a few of the places you visited that you would recommend to people – since this is about travel and you’ve obviously been to a lot of different towns and cities? Where would you recommend travelers go to find Pennsylvania at its finest?

Mike: New Hope…That’s a good spot. There’s a lot of arts and crafts and there are a lot of good people who do their thing every day. I like Sullivan County for getting around. I like scenic shots. I do some photography and Sullivan County has a lot of scenery. You know, Bradford County is a good one. We took one of my favorite drives, Route 6…

Joan: Yes, we’re definitely going to discuss that (route)…

Mike: Yes, we took that one. You wind up out in Ohio actually, eventually, but you get on the way out there you get to Erie.

Joan: So you really did go a distance. So you really weren’t in only in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Mike: A lot of Pennsylvania – let me put it that way. We didn’t do the big cities. We never bothered with the big cities because they didn’t attract us. The small towns like the one that has the Jimmy Stewart Museum. I don’t remember the town but there is a Jimmy Stewart Museum. Don’t put me on the spot.

Joan: I know you’ve been to a lot of places and it’s obviously difficult to remember (all the places you’ve been).

Mike: I must tell you this though that we found all these stories by simply researching it. So if you really want to see what Pennsylvania is like you can do the research and the materials are out there. There’s the Zippo lighter company out in Bradford, (County). It’s a very interesting company.

Joan: I’ve never heard of the Zippo Factory. So this is great. I’m learning a lot.

Mike: Yeah, they make the Zippo lighters. You may not be familiar with them, but they had a closed top.

Joan: I remember you flipped them.

Mike: There was a little wheel on it with a flint and that was long before the Bic lighters came along. But yeah, they made them out there and they made the commemorative cigarette lighters. And there was a museum that you could tour and go around and see what they had and learn how long they had been around.

Up in that area, too, there’s oil a lot of oil exploration, which is another part of history. But again, these are all things that we found just by looking. The Slinky Factory…

Joan: That one I’ve heard of.

Mike: Yeah, and an interesting place with a lot of history there. I think that’s what drew us to these things, too, because they had such a great background and everybody could relate to them. See, you know, Slinky.

Joan: Yes.

Mike: You know the Zippo lighter.

Joan: Now I do.

Mike: But those were all things that are in Pennsylvania. You know, and they’re all out there. All you have to do is look for them and then go visit them. That’s where we were coming from.

Joan: Many people travel for business purposes. Yours is sort of a mix of business and you also enjoyed it. It was really a mix of… and some obviously do it for leisure vacations. Breaking out of our region, and staying in the region and learning everything Pennsylvania offers is obviously beneficial. What would you say are some of the benefits of taking a journey into unknown territory or uncharted territory?

Mike: Because there is always a surprise at the end. It may not be the kind of surprise that you want. But there will be a surprise of some kind.

Joan: And excuse me for one minute. I don’t mean only in our state. I’m talking about regionally and nationally. What are the benefits of doing that – of breaking out?

Mike: Oh, yeah, I agree with it a hundred percent. There are a lot of things you can learn about an area. Let’s say Pennsylvania. There are a lot of things you can learn about Pennsylvania as I did by doing the research going into the published pieces that come out. But if you go by yourself or with your family, and you take a ride out to I don’t know, Oil City, (for example) and you look around there, there’s no telling what you’re going to find and that surprised us. That’s what made us keep going because the predictable was always there. We knew that. What made it really, really interesting was what you came across and that’s what made the trip intriguing. Now if you have two or three kids, that’s another ballgame.

Joan: That’s another kettle of fish.

Mike: Yeah, you might need to plan a trip differently. But if you’re there with your wife or husband and you’re out traveling around, you’re saying well gee, let’s go down that road for a while. Where does it go? Well, I don’t know, but it looks like it’s going to go someplace. So why don’t we take that road and see what happens?

Joan: I do that, but you know my kids do not enjoy it in the least.

Mike: Well, no, they won’t appreciate it until later on. But with me, that was always our key. When we had time we could do it. We would go on a road somewhere that looked interesting. It looked interesting. So that to me is the best part – the surprise.

Joan: And there always is a surprise. It doesn’t matter where you go.

Mike: No, and again it may be something you don’t like.

Joan: It may not always be a very good surprise.

Mike: No, but it’s going to be the kind of thing that will keep people entertained around the dinner table.

Joan: Yes, (I agree). Give us an overview…give my listeners an overview of some of the areas and what they can expect to find as tourists in Pennsylvania, and also the people who live in the state who may not know as much about it as they should. Give them some ideas of what they’ll find in the different regions.

Mike: Okay. Well to the best of my ability, I’ve forgotten a lot of them. In Williamsport, there’s the Riverboat, of course. South on the Susquehanna (River), and I can’t remember the name of the town but there is a ferry boat that goes across one side to the other. I think it takes two cars, maybe three and their people, and it chugs along out through the Susquehanna from one side to the other. It’s on a map. You’ve got to look for it on the map. The guy who used to be the captain of that, a guy by the name of Jack Dillman, went on to become the captain of a ferry boat down in Harrisburg, which you could also travel on. And while you’re in Harrisburg you should take a look at the state capitol building.

Joan: Yes, that is a splendid architectural (gem).

Mike: An extraordinary accomplishment…Then on the way back up you come up on the easterly side of the Susquehanna because you’ve already seen the Westerly side and you drive up that way to get into Schuylkill County and just a whole bunch of little towns on the way up. I don’t have favorites, per se, because I try not to pick favorites. I think that’s a good thing because it rules everybody else out. But, you know, we travel through a town and you inevitably find something that was amusing or entertaining or just you know, a museum in Pottsville, where they keep cars – old cars. Those kinds of things. And so up in the Northeastern section maple syrup making is starting. Yes. In fact, it’s already started. I tried tracking a guy down the other day in the Moscow area who was making 250 gallons of sap. He had boiled on a Saturday afternoon and I wanted to go up and see that but I couldn’t find him.

Joan: Are you writing articles about this or are you doing any live broadcast work right now? You mentioned the maple syrup. Is this work-related?

Mike: Well, it’s kind of a mix. I’m trying to develop my own little system that I can use my own just for the fun of it and I do some things for 16. As far as a podcast or a blog, you know, it’s all like just fool with it and see if something works. I’ve gotten through life doing that and so you say to yourself, well, gee, maybe that’ll work. Maybe it won’t.

Joan: Much like we’re doing right now.

Mike: Yeah, we’re seeing how this works. We don’t know how it’s going to work. We’re going to sit here and shoot the breeze and talk about things and see how it goes. And that’s basically what I’m doing.

Joan: I would also like my listeners to know that this is not our first interview – that I interviewed you a couple of years ago. We both love to talk. And so this is a great opportunity.

Mike: Well, you were working in newspapers at the time.

Joan: Yes.

Mike: And yes, and that’s another thing that I lament. I must say, you know, there’s a lot of newspapers that have gone bankrupt across the country because of the internet and digital and I really find that to be sad. Now, locally, we’ve got a couple that are still doing okay and I hope that continues. I really do because you don’t find out about the pancake suppers all the time from the big metro papers. You got to go to these little places and find what’s going on in town. That’s where you find it, you know, and for the local newspaper, that’s the treasure. They really are.

Joan: There’s something about opening a book or opening a newspaper and reading it that you don’t get from digital publications. I’m not obviously putting them down but there’s just something (about them). Maybe it’s because we grew up with newspapers that we appreciate them so much, so much more. Well, one of the questions that I want to talk to you about is during our conversation about a week ago, you mentioned a trip you’d like to take. Where would you like to venture? Tell me more about the cross-country trek – what you’d like to see.

Mike: I’d like to do on the Pennsylvania Road in every state where Route 6 travels through. And Route 6, for those of you who are not close to the area, Route 6 goes east to west or west to east depending on how you look at it, but it goes coast to coast.

Joan: Where does it actually begin, if that’s not a ridiculous question? I have no idea where it begins, but I know where it ends.

Mike: Yeah, well it begins in the Atlantic Ocean.

Joan: Ok, so it was sort of a silly question.

Mike: Well, no, because it varies. It used to go coast-to-coast, specifically, but then what I found out is, California changed its highway numbering system several decades ago. And so that kind of cut off Route 6 before it hit the water in California. You can still go that route, per se, but I want to do what I’ve done in Pennsylvania all across the country. I just think when you go on an interstate, you have one intent in mind. That’s to get from point A to point B as fast as humanly possible and that the speed limit…

Joan: And avoid any kind of traffic or jams.

Mike: Yeah, but my goal on traveling Route 6 is to just travel it. The signs are easy to follow. I have a GPS in my vehicle, you know, which will take me from one point to the next and it’s what you find along the way. Charlie Bennett’s old fishing lure store or something.

Joan: Now when you do this, are you going to stop and talk to everyone or talk to certain people? Or is it more of a visual journey? Or do you anticipate you’ll actually do interviews, maybe not for a particular publication, but would you say that you’re going to do interviews or you just want to talk to people?

Mike: It’s a little bit of both. It depends on what actually develops. But again, it’s wanting to see America and not from the view of an interstate, where everything is bypassed at 75 miles an hour or more if you can get away with it.

Joan: Some places, right?

Mike: Yes, but I want to take Route 6 where the speed limit sometimes goes down to 35 miles an hour. Oh my goodness, we’ll never get there. That’s the point. Who cares? You can drive all the way across and if you see something, a covered bridge… There’s one out on Route 6 in Bradford County off to the right-hand side of the road. (It’s a) Beautiful covered bridge. I shot three dozen pictures there one afternoon just for the fun of it. But that’s the kind of stuff you find – the fairgrounds out in Bradford County. If they’re having a fair, you stop at the fair. Say hello. How are you doing? Shoot the breeze for a while and see what happens. Maybe you’ll run across the 800-pound pig or something.

That’s the way to see America in my mind. And that’s my goal. That’s my bucket list goal I think – one of my bucket list things.

Joan: Is to be able to see all of America east to west on Route 6?

Mike: Yes.

Joan: Do you have any idea when you might do this and is your wife ready for this, also?

Mike: Well, she’s kind of on the edge with it but I thought we’d warm up a little bit by going up to the New England coast on Route 6. Just to see what happens.

Joan: Say, “Honey, this is Route 6.”

Mike: Yeah, we’re going to go from here to I don’t know, Butte Montana, on Route 6. I don’t know where we’re going. But I think that to me is something I really want to do.

Joan: Well on that note, it has been an absolute pleasure interviewing you again, and I really appreciate that you’ve joined me at Keystone today. I want to give Keystone a huge thank you for allowing me to do this podcast in their recording studio.

Mike: It’s a nice Studio.

Joan: It is a wonderful studio and very comfortable. Yeah, and so again, thank you.

Mike: You’re welcome.

Joan: Best wishes with your trek across the country.

Mike: Thanks, Joan.

Joan: You’re welcome.

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Take Me Home to Ireland

Carden Family descendants

Tóg Mé Bhaile go Éirinn (Translation)

Paul Kostiak, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, is a retired Regulatory Compliance Analyst who now spends his time traveling and writing. As an approved United Nations international expert/lecturer, Paul has extensive experience visiting other countries and experiencing their cultures. He’s co-owner of the Ireland-based “Take Me Home Ireland” tours, a company that provides individualized Ireland tours.

Paul Kostiak takes in the surroundings at Moyne Abbey, County Mayo, a national monument and what’s considered to be one of the most impressive ecclesiastical ruins in Mayo. Photo by Lee Shaffer.

By: Paul Kostiak

The first time I traveled to Ireland I was only mildly excited.

After all, I had flown over a million miles during my professional career, much of it internationally. This was a pleasure trip. A chance to explore the Emerald Isle from which three of my four maternal great grandparents had emigrated.

I had been somewhat of an amateur genealogist for a number of years and this was possibly my first chance to make some interesting discoveries in situ. Little did I know this flight from Newark to Dublin was the first step toward what would become an obsession, with multiple return trips every year. As a genealogist, I would find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and as a person, I would come to fall in love with a country and its people.

Oddly, this would not be my first glimpse of Ireland. I had seen it before from 35,000 feet in the air on a flight from Newark to Amsterdam. Our flight path took us directly over and as I glanced out of the window on a rare clear day, I saw green – nothing but green.

“That has to be Ireland,’ I muttered to myself. A few years later I would be wheels-down on that green.”

Some who know me casually had questioned my interest in Ireland. My Ukrainian surname belies all the Irish blood within me. Tis on me mam’s side. Three of my mother’s grandparents had been born there before emigrating to Northeastern Pennsylvania. Through my cursory genealogical research, I had been able to identify their names and in some cases, their parent’s names as well as their approximate dates of birth.

Carden Family descendants
Carden descendants at the site of Sarah Carden’s birth, Ballyderg, County Mayo
Front – Paul Kostiak Second row – Julie Shaffer Klotz, Ann Kostiak Shaffer Third row – Lee Shaffer, John Boone
Photo by Vicki Kostiak

Some of it was easy. My grandmother, Katie Allen Boone, passed away when my mother was only 10 months old and because of this, she was raised by her Irish grandmother, Mary Mullarkey Allen, and her mother’s sister, Mary. Her other Irish grandmother Sarah Carden Boone lived next door. There is no doubt the Irish raised her. This gave me three Irish lines to explore – Mullarkey, Allen, and Carden.

Discovering great-great grandparent’s David and Margaret Carden grave, Tuam, County Galway
From left, Lee Shaffer and Paul Kostiak. Photo by Tony Traglia

Armed with this limited information, I had a glimmer of hope that I might be fortunate enough to find just a wee bit more about them, but that was a secondary purpose. My primary purpose was even more personal. As a gift to my mother, I was taking her along for the ride to the homeland of those incredibly strong Irish women who had formed her into the strong woman she is. At 85-years-old, she, who had never ventured farther from Avoca, Pennsylvania than the Jersey shore, would board her first airplane and soar across the pond. My sister, Ann, accompanied and her son, Lee, who had been there several times before and would act as our guide. We were taking Grandma on one helluva road trip.

Gloria Kostiak’s first plane trip. Front to back – Ann Kostiak Shaffer, Gloria Kostiak, and Lee Shaffer

We touched down in Dublin early in the morning after flying all night on the red-eye. After collecting our bags and navigating my newly minted world traveler mother through immigration and customs, we waited outside for the car hire shuttle. As she stood in the early morning sunrise, she looked up and saw the tri-color green, white and orange flag gently waving in the breeze.

I heard her repeating, more to herself than anyone, “I can’t believe I’m here.”

If you’ve ever been to Ireland you’ll know what an adventure just maneuvering can be. Driving on the left side of the road from the right side of the car (and automatic transmissions are virtually unheard of), negotiating your way through the seemingly endless roundabouts, all while deciphering road signs written in both English and Irish Gaelic, can be somewhat intimidating. Best leave the driving to Nephew Lee who’s had experience, as my own was limited to riding left-sided shotgun in Japan.

Our plan was to experience the entire island, which is about the size of Indiana, in seven days. We would travel from Dublin, down the east coast across the south, up the west coast to the north, and then back to Dublin for the flight home. A tad ambitious, especially while traveling with an octogenarian, but certainly doable.

Avoca Mill Ireland Paul Kostiak Ireland travel story
Avoca Mill, County Wicklow
Avoca Mills produces the bulk of Irish wool and is the oldest continually operating business in Ireland.

We spent the first day exploring Dublin, Ireland’s capital, and largest city. While there is a lot of Irish culture, it is a large city and filled with the typical tourist destinations, Trinity College and St. James Gate where Guinness is brewed. We spent the night at the four-star Croke Park Hotel, rose the next morning for a “full Irish” breakfast and we were on our way south to see the real Ireland. Our first stop on the list was a small village in County Wicklow called Avoca. I was raised in a similar small town in Avoca, Pennsylvania, and Mom, Ann, and Lee still live there. For a true Avocan, no trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to Avoca, County Wicklow, and the world-famous Avoca Mills where the iconic Irish wool is woven into the plaids and tweeds that we all know. Avoca Mills produces the bulk of these fabrics and is the oldest continually operating business in Ireland. Of course, a pop into Fitzgerald’s Pub, the only pub in town, for Mom’s first pint o’ the Black Stuff (Guinness) was mandatory as well.

Next on the itinerary was County Cork, and Cork Town, the second-largest city in Ireland. Of the Irish who emigrated to Northeastern Pennsylvania, beginning during the Great Hunger (mistakenly called the Potato Famine by unknowing Americans), County Cork was home to the second-largest contingent.  Although it’s a rather large city, Cork Town is much more quaint than Dublin with its pristine parks, traditional pubs, and the beautiful River Lee.

We spent the night at the four-star River Lee Hotel and of course, my nephew just had to take a dip in his namesake frigid river before we left. We decided against the obligatory stop at the Blarney Stone in County Cork. The prospect of standing in a long line (queue) of bus riding tourists only to climb rickety wooden stairs, lie on our backs over the edge, and kiss the stone that millions of others have done before seemed rather unappealing. Rumor has it, the local lads relieve themselves on (the stone) after the tourists leave.

From Cork, we set out for Mizen Head, the southernmost point in Ireland, and often the last glimpse of Europe passengers aboard transatlantic ships from England would see on their way to America. A “head” in Ireland is what we would call a peninsula. If you were to look at a map of Ireland you’d see a group of these heads jutting out from the southern coast like fingers. The tip of Mizen Head is the southernmost point of all of them. It’s also one of the windiest places I’ve ever been to.

The weather in Ireland is enigmatic. Although it lies farther north than Newfoundland, Canada, the island has a somewhat temperate climate.

“Be prepared to see palm trees, yes, palm trees.”

Ireland has a similar reputation to England, namely rain every day. It may be cloudy most of the time but my experience over multiple trips has been that rain showers are frequent but short-lived and snow is a rare occurrence. It’s not unusual to see umbrella vending machines along the streets. We were there in September so the weather was relatively mild. But nothing could have prepared us for what Mizen Head had to offer.

 I have been in windy conditions before. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Chicago. I lived in Center City Philadelphia in the winter and am thoroughly familiar with the streets of New York during a storm. I’ve walked snow-covered Gero Mountains in Japan in June and I’ve sailed the open waters of the Rio Plata between Argentina and Uruguay. I’ve lived through countless hurricanes. I’ve never experienced clear weather winds the likes of which we found at Mizen.

The car park at the very tip of Mizen Head is a few hundred yards from the actual tip. To get there entails a long walk on a ground-level wooden boardwalk over the rocky shore. The scenery is breathtaking. The ground can only be described as moonlike and in the distance, the roaring waves of the North Atlantic continually pound the shore. Have I mentioned that the wind was unbearable? The four of us made our way along the boardwalk struggling with each step, being slammed in the face with the North Atlantic wind all the way.

Being the good son that I am, I lagged back with Mom while Ann and Lee paced ahead. Finally, about halfway to the end, Mom had had enough. She turned to me and asked if she could go back to the car. I was never so relieved to grant her a wish as I was then. We retreated to the warmth of the car and waited for the other two to tell us how “awesome” it was.

And so it was time to start heading north toward Galway for our next overnight stay. Along the way, we passed through County Clare, home to the famous Cliffs of Moher. But first, we had to traverse the narrowest country roads that exist on Earth. Bushes along either side of the roads were literally brushing against the side view mirrors. Occasionally we would drive over a knoll only to be confronted by an oncoming farmer’s tractor or a herd of sheep.

“They’re not walking on our road. We’re driving through their field.”

An Unspoken Irish Rule

After roughly fifty miles of this, we finally reached a paved road and eventually the motorway.

Our intention was to visit the Cliffs of Moher but the fog was rolling in from the west coast by the time we got to County Clare and visibility was most assuredly minimal. The wind had abated somewhat but after our experience at Mizen Head, we decided to forgo that stop. As it turns out the Cliffs are an extremely popular tourist destination. Long queues of tourists once again. Much better and less “touristy” cliffs lie ahead, Lee assured us.

Like many counties of Ireland, the largest city is often named the same – County Galway and Galway Town. Along the west coast, the cities are actually a cross between a city and the countless small villages you’ll pass through. We settled in for the night at the Imperial Hotel in the middle of Galway Town. It was somewhat older than other hotels where we had been staying but quite comfortable nonetheless. It was here that I finally had some time to myself to relax and also where I enjoyed one of the most Irish experiences of my short time there and since.

After the long day of travel, the others were beginning to succumb to jet lag. Because I spent the majority of my career traveling I am somewhat immune to it. And so, when in Ireland do as the Irish do. I hit the hotel pub.

It was late afternoon, around half five as they say, and so I was the only customer there. The barmaid was a lovely lass appropriately named Colleen who was thankfully blessed with the Irish gift of gab. We discussed my family ties to Ireland, which tourist sites to avoid, Gaelic sports (that’s a story for another time), all while she continued to politely ask if I fancied another pint o’ the Black. Sure, it was quite the craic. (The craic – pronounced crack – is the Irish way of saying fun or a good time).

Eventually, her shift relief walked behind the bar. He was a young man. Very young. He looked to be 12-years-old. I knew the legal drinking age in Ireland is 18 but this barman seemed to be more of a barboy. His name is Danny King. I only mention this because one of my favorite bartenders here at home is a fine Irish-American lad named Danny King.  As it turned out this was young Danny’s first night behind the bar and it fell to the lovely Colleen to train him.

Kostiak and his family found Danny King learning to bar tend.
Barman, Danny King, first night behind the bar, and Ann Shaffer, Galway

Pouring a proper Guinness is both a science and an art and must be done correctly to avoid the wrath of the customers. First, it must absolutely be served in a genuine Guinness pint glass. They take this seriously. These glasses have a CE mark on them which indicates that they have been certified for use within the European Union and that they hold exactly 16 ounces. In America, a “pint” glass is actually 14 ounces. Contrary to popular belief the Irish do NOT drink their beer warm. That’s the British. Cold temperature is monitored as closely as the volume of the glasses. Also. there is a distinct difference in taste between the Guinness we get in America and what you’ll find in Ireland even though it’s all brewed in Dublin. It doesn’t “travel well” I’m told. The proper pouring technique is to tip the glass to a 45-degree angle and pour until the glass is precisely three-quarters filled. Then it’s set down to rest for a few minutes. Guinness is not carbonated as most beers are, nitrogen is used to create the head and create its distinct creamy texture – think chocolate milk. Because of this, foam accumulates but eventually settles down. Once it has settled the glass is filled and served. Not before. To do so is a mortal sin I would imagine punishable by the ire of the whole of Ireland.

Back to young Danny. Yer man (boy?) was struggling to acquire the skill of a proper Irish barman. With each pour, the overseeing eye of Colleen gently critiqued him and promptly passed his mistakes onto me, the only soul at the bar – on the house. Quite the craic indeed. Eventually, young Danny triumphed and was able to pour the perfect Guinness and alas my stint as Guinness Quality Control inspector came to an end.

Belleek Castle, Ballina County Mayo
Belleek Castle, Ballina County Mayo

The next morning we left on the final leg of our tour. We were headed to County Mayo and the lovely town of Ballina. I mentioned earlier that Cork was the home of the second-largest contingent of Irish immigrants in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The Province of Connacht is by far the largest contributor, 85 percent by some estimates.

The Republic of Ireland is composed of four provinces, Connacht, Munster, Leinster, and Ulster. The three southern provinces include 25 of the 26 counties of the Republic while Ulster consists of the 26th Republican county (County Donegal) as well as the six counties of Northern Ireland. Provinces were originally small kingdoms and today they don’t really have any significance other than a geographic description, much like we might say of New England and its six states. The Province of Connacht includes the counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, and Roscommon and is located in the northwest corner of the Republic. Our visit took us to Mayo, where Lee had made friends during his previous trips.

The largest city in County Mayo is Ballina, whose population is slightly more than 10,000. Interestingly, Ballina is Sister Cities with Scranton, Pennsylvania, a testament to the large number of Irish-Americans in Northeastern Pennsylvania who can trace their roots to County Mayo. We would spend three days there to give us time to meet and socialize with Lee’s friends and explore the county, in my opinion, the most beautiful in Ireland.

Scranton Tree is found in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland, a Scranton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. sister-city.
The Scranton Tree, County Mayo, Ireland, symbolizes the large number of Northeastern Pennsylvania Irish-Americans who can trace their roots to County Mayo.

For our stay, we selected the Great National Hotel, another very comfortable and clean accommodation.

Ballina is the sort of town that instantly makes you feel comfortable, much more than any of the other towns we visited. Even before I had met any friends there was something about it that made me feel at home. Lee told me that he felt the same the first time he visited. We would later find out the reason why.

The beautiful River Moy winds its way through the center of Ballina northward to Killala Bay on the Atlantic. It is known as the Salmon Capital of Ireland, and on any given day fly fishermen and women can be seen plying their skills in hopes of landing the evening’s dinner. Visitors can try their hand at it or enjoy it in one of the many fine restaurants in town. Just one of many reasons to visit.

Like any respectable Irish town, Ballina is not without its share of pubs. Each one is as welcoming as the others. On any given night the craic is bursting the walls in each one, complete with live traditional Irish music and plenty of adult beverages flowing from the taps. It’s a given that one of the locals will strike up a conversation with you, especially when they hear our accent. You’ll be engaged in hours of long conversation.

“There are no strangers in Ireland, only friends you haven’t met.”

An Irish Adage

At the risk of slighting all of the other pubs, I’ll have to pick one as my personal favorite.

 “An Aulde Shebeen is one of a kind. The name means The Old Shebeen.”

A shebeen (she-BEAN) is what we might call a speakeasy. Under British rule, there was a set of laws called the Penal Laws which restricted the rights of Catholics. Among other things, Catholics were forbidden to gather together or to drink alcohol and have the craic. As a result, they came up with their own version of still made grain moonshine called poitín (po-CHEEN). They would secretly come together in an inconspicuous place, usually, someone’s home, to drink. Such places were called shebeens.  In today’s pubs the restrictions obviously no longer apply, but The Shebeen carries on the spirit of the day.

Scranton Tree in County Mayo Ireland honors its sister city - Scranton Pennsylvania.
The tree marker in County Mayo, Ireland, bears the names of former Scranton mayors, Jimmy Connors and Chris Doherty. The Scranton Tree represents a kinship between the two cities.

Ballina is also home to the Cathedral of St. Muredach (MOOR-a-dock), the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Killala. I mention this only because of its historical significance. Muredach was a follower of St. Patrick himself in the early sixth century and Patrick instructed him to establish a church in nearby Killala, with Muredach as its first bishop. Remains of the old cathedral can still be seen adjacent to the present cathedral. A well still exists in Killala where it is said that St. Patrick himself baptized his converts of the area.

Continuing on the religious theme, a short 30-minute car ride from Ballina is the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock. Catholic tradition holds that in 1879 several peasant farmers and their families witnessed the appearance of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist on the site of the shrine. Today the Shrine of our Lady of Knock takes its place among the shortlist of apparition sites which includes Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe. The site has been visited by five popes as well as St. Mother Teresa and is visited by hundreds of thousands of faithful pilgrims each year. Of course, we had to get Mom there to attend Mass, purchase rosaries, and have them blessed with holy water from the shrine. This holy place is memorialized in the beautiful Irish song Lady of Knock.

Within a short five minute drive, you’ll find the beautiful Belleek Forest as well as Belleek Castle. The castle is an early 19th-century replacement for a 13th-century one built on the banks of the River Moy. Although we haven’t stayed overnight there (yet!!) the castle functions as an operating hotel. Its Library Restaurant was where we enjoyed a fine dining meal to mark our last evening in Mayo before heading home.

“Mom’s review? “I feel like a queen!”

Another nearby attraction we had a difficult time tearing Mom away from is the Foxford Woolen Mills – a shopper’s dream. They offer the beautiful Irish woolen goods such as flat caps, scarves, and the iconic woolen Aran sweaters. Fortunately for Mom, they offer to ship her purchases back home so she didn’t have to haul her entire Christmas gift cache on the plane with her.

Mayo is also the location of many fascinating geologic and archeologic sites which were must-dos on our list. In less than an hour, you can be at Downpatrick Head. This amazing place is a geological wonder with its rolling green hills, amazing cliffs. Yes, much more awe-inspiring than the Cliffs of Moher as Lee had promised. The indescribable Dún Briste sea stack ( dun=fort, briste=broken, think our Dun-more), is a 150-foot high piece of the cliffs that broke away from the mainland 350 million years ago. St. Patrick also established a church here and some of the remains can still be seen.

Dun Briste in Ireland
The Dún Briste sea stack and the cliffs were formed in the Lower Carboniferous period, a geological term that refers to a time 350 million years ago when the sea temperatures in and around Ireland were much higher than today.

Next on our list was another magical place. Ten minutes from Downpatrick Head we found Céide Fields (KY-duh meaning “flat-topped hill”). This Neolithic site is the oldest known agricultural field system in the world, dating back to 3500 BC, older than the pyramids of Egypt. The museum and the walking tour were followed up by afternoon tea in the café which certainly put a smile on Mom’s face.

 As you might have guessed Mayo is steeped in religious history. Centuries-old ruins of religious abbeys litter the landscape and it is one of these, in particular, that lead me to make a significant genealogical discovery and the spark which united my urge to return again and again. While exploring the ruins of nearby Moyne Abbey, I noticed an old stone plaque on the wall. The abbey was constructed in 1460, almost 40 years before Columbus sailed from Spain to the New World. On this plaque, I was barely able to make out the name “Carden.” If you recall my great grandmother’s maiden name was Sarah Carden. I immediately wondered if there were a connection and became determined to find out.

I really didn’t have an idea where my recent ancestors came from in Ireland. I knew that most likely they came from Connacht as this is where the majority of the NEPA Irish had come from. But I had no information to support it. That would soon change immensely.

“I wondered if that was the reason I felt so at home in that particular corner of the beautiful island of Erin. Is there something in my DNA that draws me back?”

As our time in Mayo drew to a close during the drive to Dublin for our flight home, I was already planning my return. I’ve since learned that’s not an uncommon phenomenon. Our mission this time had been completed, we had given Mom the opportunity to walk on the auld sod where her grandmothers and grandfathers did. She prayed on her Knock rosaries on the flight home and I couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t saying a prayer for them.

That initial visit with Mom was just the beginning of what became a passionate obsession.

“I became more determined than ever to put faces and places to our family story. I began what still would today remain several true friendships.”

One in particular, is my dear friend Brendan Farrell. Lee met Brendan on his first trip a few years before and he introduced me to him. Brendan, born in Killala and now living with his lovely family in Ballina, became my tour guide, historian, folklorist, a supporter of my geneaology (he’s a wealth of local knowledge) and friend. A singer/songwriter of original Irish music, he also introduced me to Gaelic sports! We eventually became business partners in a custom-designed small tour company, Take Me Home Ireland tours, so named because we both share the same idea that no matter where we are born, we are born with Ireland in our hearts.

Take me home to Ireland also mentioned Scranton PA, a County Mayo sister-city known for its annual St. Patrick's Day parade
Take Me Home to Ireland offers plenty of stories but Paul Kostiak and Brendon Farrell also celebrated Irish culture in Scranton, PA, U.S.A. at the city’s celebrated annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

When Brendan wrote his original stage show of storytelling and his rich Irish music “Take Me Home Colleen,” (sensing a theme here?) he trusted me to produce his American premiere at The Theater at North in Scranton. The story of a 19th-century Irish man who left his beloved Colleen back in Ireland while he traveled to NEPA to seek his future. One of his original songs in the show is “Scranton Railroad Lines,” a nod to his friends back here. Most importantly he is the first one to give us a hug and say, “Welcome home,” whenever we return. Such is the value of friendships. There are no strangers in Ireland, only friends you haven’t met.

Kostiak and Lee Paul and Lee discuss the next trip while taking in the beauty. Phot credit - Ann Shaffer
Paul Kostiak and Lee Shaffer plan their next Ireland trip while taking in Ireland’s lush greenery. Photo by Ann Shaffer

That first trip turned into many, on average twice a year. On subsequent trips, we have been able to establish that indeed we hail from Mayo. It must be in the DNA after all. With the help of the North Mayo Family Heritage Centre’s resident professional genealogist, we have greatly expanded our Irish family tree to more generations. On one such trip, I was able to find the remains of the simple stone cottage where Sarah Carden was born and the well in the middle of the field where her father, my great-great-grandfather worked as a shepherd, in which Sarah was likely baptized. We also found the remains of the church where my great-great-grandparents were married, and the grave in County Galway where they rest today. This past September I was able to take Ann, Lee, Ann’s daughter Julie and another great-great-grandson, my cousin John Boone, to these sacred sites.

Unfortunately, Mom was unable to make that trip due to some temporary health issues. I was heartbroken that she wasn’t able to make it. I wanted her to be able to walk in the very footsteps they did and to say a prayer over the grave of those who had the courage to put their eldest daughter on a ship to the new world in 1872. A daughter who would come to raise my Mom.

As a postscript, Mom’s health steadily improved we made a plan to take her in her 89th year to those sacred sites in May 2020. But Nature has a way of changing things. With the help of God, we’ll all get through this pandemic that affects the whole world, including our beloved County Mayo. Until then we can only hope that one day soon we’ll again be on a plane across the pond saying, Tóg Mé Bhaile go Éirinn – Take Me Home to Ireland.

You can reach out to Paul on Facebook at Take Me Home – Irish VIP Tours or via email.

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Read a companion story about Neil Patel’s idea of the perfect getaway.

The Everything, Everywhere, Travel Guest Series is a gift to the world community as we struggle to find “normal” and “familiar” in our lives. Our travel stories allow my guest travel writers and readers to stay focused on the future and remember the past moments that made us smile. As we shelter-in-place and wait for the green light to resume our lives, these stories will prey on your optimism. Contact me if you’d like to share your story.

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