To get to the Rocky Mountains, if you’re coming far, you have to fly into Denver. After you’ve disembarked at Denver airport, you are greeted by the voice of Olympic champion swimmer Missy Franklin, telling you how great Colorado is. Franklin is exactly the sort of American golden girl you’d associate with this part of the world. A smiley, white, uncontroversial Stars and Stripes queen. An appropriate face and voice to propagate this quintessentially American slice of the States, what with its dude ranches, cowboy hats, and gas guzzling monster vehicles emblazoned with ‘God Bless America’ slogans. I can’t imagine the Pope’s recent plea to stem the spewing forth of fossil fuels has been heeded much here.
Until you hit the mountains, the landscape is dry and uninspiring. The highways are long and straight and, as you pass cars and trucks, drivers tend to stare at you, not with malice but with a sort of curiosity. Those little oil wells which feature so prominently in the Daniel Day Lewis movie ‘There Will Be Blood’ peck away like birds nibbling at seeds. You still get that sense of Virgin territory, the promised land from which the native Americans were so ruthlessly displaced, with many new towns dotting the highways. It’s pretty idyllic, though, and even more so as you start to climb into the Rockies, where the rivers run fast and birds of prey circle overhead. Signs for tornado shelters are the only reminder of the destructive potential of Mother Nature. Breakfasts in diners. Gargantuan egg-based dishes. Struggling. Got to get through this. More toast? No thanks. Waffles? No thanks. No, I really don’t want any more coffee either. No, really, I’m OK, I don’t need a refill. Oh, I see you’re ignoring me and refilling my cup anyway. OK. More coffee. OK then. More cream as well. More sugar. Sure, why not? When in Rome…
I’m here to speak at the Rocky Mountains Irish Festival. Odd to locate an Irish festival in this part of the world, you might think, but the event is a big one, drawing in thousands. Mainly a music festival, the event also features lectures from academics, writers, journalists. I’m speaking alongside prolific author and journalist Fintan O’Toole and others such as Miriam Nyhan (New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House) and Grace Brady of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum. Today I enjoyed a good chat a over lunch with my fellow speakers, spanning everything from Irish water charges to Donald Trump. Less cerebrally, the festival also features your predictable slice of Celtic tat, from stalls selling kilts, to a genealogist, to a man who has come to show off his three Irish wolfhounds. The wolfhounds look hot, agitated and unhappy.
It’s a great public forum in which to speak but also a little bizarre. In a good way. Estes Park, the location of the festival, is a beautiful spot geared towards tourism since Victorian Anglo-Irish landlord Lord Dunraven settled on it as a good spot to open up. The snow capped mountains look down on glistening lakes. I get chatting to a local cop. “Any crime here?” I ask. “Not really” she replies. “So what do you do all day?” I ask. “Traffic issues mostly”. Traffic issues indeed. It’s a far cry from the horrific shooting in Charleston which is dominating the news. The only discernible link to violence here comes in the form posh hotel on the hill, the Stanley, was Stephen King’s inspiration for horror movie The Shining.
Weird and wonderful little Estes Park only has a population of 4,000 and so thrives on touristy events like the one I’m speaking at. And so, given the location and context, I’ve decided to indulge in the spirit of this thing in two ways. 1) Delving into my Irish ancestral connections to this part of America and 2) embracing the cowboy chic
1) Here’s a picture of an impressive looking man. John Healy, Denver fire chief 1912-1945 and an antecedent of mine. Courageous, apparently, bit of a tyrant, allegedly; I just love the hat.