Editor's note: Due to the circumstances surrounding the Sept.
11 terrorist attacks, the Insider column has been temporarily
suspended. In the meantime, here's an essay by Frank Kurtz, a
former Travel Weekly editor.
n the Irish afternoon and New
York morning of Sept. 11, 1:48 p.m. Irish time, 8:48 a.m. Eastern
time, I was waiting in the parking area of the beloved Cliffs of
Moher, on Ireland's west coast, to board a bus scheduled to leave
for points north at 1:50 p.m. (Pardon these recitations of the
simplest of matters, but in the circumstance, these times of day
have become to me almost iconic.)
I checked my watch as the bus actually departed, at bang 2
o'clock (9 a.m. ET), and chuckled, remembering recent Irish
acquaintances' comments about "Irish time" -- not only that things
don't happen on schedule, here in the "wild west" of Ireland, but
that no one seems to care, much -- and counted myself lucky I'd get
to Galway at near the appointed hour.
Oddly, earlier bus rides I'd taken on this trip, from Shannon to
Ennis to Kilkee, for example, played local radio on their sound
system -- Radio Clare, I think it was called, a soup of traditional
Irish ballads and reels mixed with John Denver, Neil Young and
Engelbert Humperdinck, punctuated by half-hourly local and
international news updates.
But the two-hour ride from the Cliffs of Moher, through the west
country's famous Burren and such sweet coastal farming villages as
Doolin and Lisdoonvarna, was saturated with piped-in Irish music
and no news from Radio Clare or any other outlet.
I gave it not a second thought, of course: I was immersed in the
countryside and, here and there, the newspaper, the daily Irish
Times, which was following, among other things, the latest travels
of the country's taosaich, Bertie Ahern (the
English-language papers in Ireland use the Irish word for prime
At the Galway Bus and Train Station, about 4 p.m. (11 a.m. ET),
I got a taxi to my hotel -- about two miles from the city center,
in a seaside neighborhood called Salthill. The cabbie could tell I
was a Yank, and he asked me what I thought about "the bombing at
"The what!?" I said, and he said he'd heard a bomb had gone off
in the Pentagon, and that "they think it might be a rogue
A few minutes later, when we got to the Salthill Hotel, the
cabbie followed me into the lobby and we stood there, staring at
the very-large-screen TV in the hotel's lobby lounge, and he said
to me, "Is the Pentagon near New York?"
Mind you, onscreen at the time was a chiaroscuro of gray-white
smoke and haze, with a faint hint of skyline beyond -- so faint
that not even I, who lived in downtown Manhattan for 15 years,
recognized it as New York. I said to the cabbie, "No, the Pentagon
is as far from New York as Dublin is from here. It's in Virginia,
near Washington D.C."
At that point, the smoke began to clear, literally, onscreen,
and figuratively: A waiter had overheard us new arrivals, and
pointed to the TV screen, and said to me, "Haven't you heard? They
flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center."
And almost on cue, the videotapes came on.
It's hard to remember much beyond that point: I hadn't even
checked in to the hotel yet, and though I had no immediate family
back home who were in need of my presence, I wanted -- for the
first time in my traveling life -- desperately to be back home.
But I knew, of course, that wasn't soon to be.
I was booked at the hotel through Thursday, Sept. 13, and when I
finally gathered myself up enough to check in, I asked if I could
extend my stay, and the desk clerk gave me a tentative yes.
There weren't many Americans staying at the 70-room hotel on
Sept. 11, as it turned out; it was mostly Brits and Germans, on
shoulder-season golfing holidays, but the hotel was pretty near
full up, and awaiting the arrival of a group tour of 40-some
Canadians, on their way from Edinburgh or someplace -- someplace
not in North America -- the next day.
But on that next day, Wednesday, Sept. 12, the hotel manager
sought me out at breakfast and told me they'd not only given me
"priority" but had upgraded my room to a bay-view double ("We want
you to be able to watch something other than the TV" was her lovely
comment) and assured me I needn't worry about paying for my extra
nights, meals, even "the odd Guinness," if money became a problem.
(It wasn't a problem, thank goodness.) It was the first of many
kindnesses thrown my way by Galwegians and other Irish over the
next five days.
For example, at a little restaurant in Quay Street -- Galway's
famous pedestrian mall -- on Wednesday, I ordered a light supper of
the region's excellent shellfish, and when the waitress asked me if
I was American, I said yes, from near New York. When I asked for
the bill, she said the manager wouldn't let me pay. I told her I
wasn't worried about running short of money, and she said he
wouldn't let me pay, either way.
Then, Thursday early evening, at a little Quay Street pub
featuring (what else?) Irish music, I dropped in for a
Guinness-and-chips before two of the three musicians had arrived
and inadvertently got into conversation with the guitar player -- a
middle-aged guy who was already a Guinness or two into the evening.
He said he knew I was a Yank as soon as I walked in (he'd given me
a thumbs-up when I sat down at a nearby table).
I noticed his guitar against the wall and asked if it was a
Martin, which it wasn't, and soon we fell into telling old lies
about our days as semiprofessional musicians.
When the other two musicians arrived -- two young women, a
fiddler and a banjo player -- they played a couple of reels and a
ballad, and then the guitar player turned to the bar and said there
was an "American guitar player from New York" among them, handed me
his guitar (I was seated at a table right next to the fiddler) and
told me -- not asked me, told me -- to sing an American song.
Though I was but half-a-Guinness and a bowl of Carrigaholt
mussels into the evening, I said I'd sing the verses of a song if
they'd try to learn the chorus. So I recited the chorus of "Night
Rider's Lament" -- the "definitive cowboy-campfire song," for any
of you Nanci Griffith fans out there -- and went ahead and played
and sang it.
About halfway through the part of the chorus that goes "But
they've never seen the Northern Lights / They've never seen a hawk
on the wing / They've never seen the spring hit the Great Divide
..." I must admit I teared up a bit, for the obvious reasons but
also because it just then occurred to me the chorus ends with 16
bars' worth of yodeling!!
But people hummed and sang along (and even yodeled, best they
and I could), and awful as it must have sounded, they cheered
heartily when it was over and came up and shook my hand and, in a
couple of cases, hugged me. ... To put it in the Irish-English
vernacular: Sure it's something I'll nay forget.
The return flight
I was unable to reach Aer Lingus, by phone or Internet, during
Sept. 12-16. Aer Lingus had an 800 number announcing which flights
were canceled (into New York, especially), but the number the
airline set up for those of us ticketed on canceled flights was
I thought of calling my travel agent, the intrepid Susan Spanier
of Greenwald Travel in Clifton, N.J., but even by Saturday the
"trunk lines" to the States were jammed, and one had to "queue up"
for outside lines and merely sit by the phone, with no assurance of
reaching the head of the queue.
So on Sunday, Sept. 16, I donned my not-quite-yet-fully-dry
underwear and socks, along with the cleanest shirt and pants I
could find, packed my kit-bag, and headed for Shannon -- a mere two
hours away by bus.
The concourse at Shannon was not busy that Sunday. I even
overheard some maintenance staff saying to one another how "nice
and quiet" it was.
The Aer Lingus bank of counters had above it three signs, left
to right: Customer Service, Sales, and Reservations.
There were no lines -- or queues -- to speak of at any of these
counters, so I went straight to Customer Service, where I was
handed a handwritten telephone number for Aer Lingus Reservations,
given directions to the nearest phone bank and told to call the
number to "re-ticket" myself on a flight to (or near) New York.
"Do I really have to make my re-reservation by phone, from
here?" I asked, incredulous. (Prior to Sept. 11, I realized, I
might have turned momentarily into one ugly American.)
Still, I was about to follow instructions when I noticed there
were only two people ahead of me in the Reservations queue, about 5
feet away, and don't you know I stepped right up and got my lucky
self on the next day's 3 p.m. flight out of Shannon into JFK. (Some
Americans, particularly couples insisting on traveling together,
were confirmed only for days or even a week later.)
Even more remarkably, I got in the standby queue for this same
day's 5 p.m. (Ireland time) flight into Newark, and I made it on,
only because so many other Americans had decided to extend their
stay longer than I was willing to -- and, I'm pretty certain,
because I was traveling solo and without check-in luggage.
I ended up, no less, in first class -- seat 2K, the starboard
Aer Lingus seemed to be keeping up its class distinctions,
despite the presence in first class of standby lumpenproletariat
such as I: a leather-bound menu and wine list, with four choices of
appetizer and four of entree; desserts galore, and a
fruit-and-cheese course replete with vintage port.
The fruit and cheese were of the supermarket variety, of course,
but hey, who cared. Here you were, in the air, a mere five days
after the disaster to trump all air-disaster nightmares -- all for
the crucial purpose of getting home.
The novelist Francine Prose wrote recently, in an essay on
flying in airplanes, that it is a "consolation of aging" that one
fears, less and less, the loss of one's own life. This is true -- I
think perhaps even profoundly true.
When I got on the plane at Shannon, I -- normally a fairly
sanguine flyer -- was certainly aware of "heightened
possibilities": that we might be hijacked or bombed from within.
But as we took off from Shannon and, inexorably, swept the wild
west coast of Ireland, the little troglodytes of fear
transmogrified into the angels of awe, at the beauty of this coast,
which, by now, I've been privileged to see from several
Then there was the arrival -- some seven hours later, into
The plane was set on a southerly approach to landing: It flew
from up north, down into central Jersey, then banked north again
toward the runway.
This afforded us, on the starboard side of the plane, a
remarkable view of the Manhattan skyline at about twilight, 7
When we came to rest on the tarmac, I was told by my seatmate --
who'd preferred not to look out the window -- that the pilot had
put down a particularly smooth landing. I hadn't noticed: I was too
busy staring at the sky.