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BOOK REVIEW

Tales of Ireland from a man who walked it

Springfield --Back in the day, Kevin O'Hara's hair was long and brown, the color nearly matching that of Missy, his constant companion and fellow traveler. Today, O'Hara is topped by an irreversible gray, and not all of that transformation into middle age can be linked to the 25 years since he and Missy, an often obstinate donkey, walked 1,720 miles counterclockwise around the coast of Ireland.

Some of the change might be attributed to a quarter-century case of writer's block, which prevented this psychiatric nurse from Pittsfield from finding the words to adequately describe a donkey's-gait journey that only a handful of people are known to have attempted, let alone completed.

Early last month, however, O'Hara's tome hit the bookstands, and the images of a vanishing Ireland have found an unlikely voice -- finally. "I wanted to know Ireland as well as anybody could," O'Hara, 54, said over a pint of Guinness recently. "It was just too nice of a journey to let go."

The journey to publication, however, became a hell of a trip, and not in the positive sense. O'Hara describes years of fitful attempts at writing, in which pages would remain unfilled while emptied bottles of beer formed a lengthening line on his desk.

"I kept nibbling at it, a couple of chapters a year," said O'Hara, who works at Berkshire Medical Center. "I may be the only guy to ever win a lifetime achievement award for one book."

O'Hara's wife, Belita, knows that statement is not mere hyperbole.

"I would tell him I'm not going to hold my breath anymore," Belita said. "When we returned to Ireland, people would ask, `Where's the book? Is it published already?'

"There were times when I thought the book would never get finished. I'd tell him, `At your age, if you don't get it out there soon, you won't be able to enjoy it.'

"It took a while," Belita said, "but I think it's worth it."

The book, "Last of the Donkey Pilgrims," tells the story of a Vietnam veteran with an incurable case of wanderlust and an aching need to connect with the homeland of poor, immigrant parents who spun nostalgic tales of the old country.

Restless in Pittsfield, O'Hara persuaded his wife to let him travel to Ireland for a year. How those months would be spent remained unclear, except that O'Hara hoped the experience somehow would calm the unresolved and undefined turbulence that roiled inside him.

One day, bicycling near his grandmother's home in Roscommon, O'Hara saw a man driving a donkey cart along a country road. "That's it," he thought.

So, on April 29, 1979, O'Hara began a journey that would last until Christmas Eve, carrying about $200 in his pocket and with no plans for accommodation other than stopping at random farmhouses, where he would seek shelter after traveling about 8 miles per day.

O'Hara says he was offered a place to sleep and a seat at the dinner table by nearly every farmer he approached, his arrival heralded by Irish television and newspapers as he made his slow-footed way around the country. O'Hara encountered a few notable exceptions, however, such as the woman who warned him: "I don't care if you're John the Baptist proclaiming the Good News, you simple gomeral! Now get, or ye'll be gimping off, I promise."

Most people, however, were fascinated by his stories of other parts of Ireland, O'Hara said. He told and retold stories about the night he spent with the tinkers, the washerwoman in County Waterford who spun him around a dance floor, and the time he crossed the River Shannon in a tiny boat with his donkey.

"The more I chatted and spoke, the more I got out of the pantry," O'Hara said. "People would ask questions like, `How are the people in Clare? How are the people in Kerry? Are they clannish people?' "

When he was back home in the States, however, the inspiration to write never materialized. The will was there, O'Hara said, but not the production.

"I always felt like I had a great story, but everybody started going deaf on me," O'Hara said. "I became like background noise. After a while, you just don't hear it anymore."

The alarm went off when Paddy Grace, who opened the Littlest Bar in Boston near Downtown Crossing after meeting O'Hara by chance in Donegal, stopped asking O'Hara about the book's progress. "He'd be polishing a glass, not even hearing me," O'Hara said. "I told myself, `Don't be a super jackass; finish the damn thing.' "

With the encouragement of Steve Sartullo, a former bookstore owner whom O'Hara describes as his muse, the 1.6-pound, 430-page publication slowly took shape.

"Over 20 years, we've had dozens of different metaphors for our relationship," said Sartullo, who is a consulant for the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. "He was like a next-door neighbor building a boat in his garage. And I'd come over, and we'd work on it together, sanding, polishing, putting the pieces together.

"There were ebbs and flows in the energy being applied to the book," Sartullo said. "But again, what I bought into very early was this was a story that was a magical experience, and the turning of that magical experience into a book always seemed like a duty."

The result is a witty, whimsical walk around an Ireland before the "Celtic Tiger" of the European Union found its economic legs, before the roads were improved, and before battalions of Audis and Mercedes replaced the donkey carts, farmers, and unhurried pedestrians of another day.

In hindsight, O'Hara said, the 25-year case of writer's block probably was a blessing.

"If written then, I think it would have rung so hollow," O'Hara said. "The Old World wisdoms were nothing to me at that time."

A couple of weeks ago, 500 friends attended a celebratory book signing at a Pittsfield pub. The Old World music played, tales of a disappearing Ireland unfolded, and the bar ran out of Guinness.

After 25 years, O'Hara said, the postcript was well worth the wait.

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