The Likes of Me

STORYIt is said that one can learn more is a single conversation with a wise man, than from reading one hundred books.

He smiles, reaches out to shake my hand, and says, “A pleasure to meet you, I’m Ken McElroy and I will be your guide for the next three days.”

And with that we blast off from Belfast, racing northwest along Ulster’s world-renowned coastal route in search of activity and adventure. The tour itinerary details a full day; places and times we are scheduled to see and be.

As it turns out, these are merely pit stops on our road of discovery – a warming cup of coffee here, a cigarette break there.

The wind picks up as we pull off to the miracle of nature that is the Giant’s Causeway, Ireland’s top tourist destination and a World Heritage Site. We discuss geology.

Later, ignoring the light drizzle, we look out upon Rathlin Island, stopping place of Robert the Bruce and home to the biggest seabird colony in Northern Ireland. We discuss geography.

The rain is a little heavier as we loop through Ballintoy, home to HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’. We discuss economics and pop culture.

Later, the skies clear as we explore the picturesque ruins of 600 year-old Dunluce Castle. We discuss history.

The sun breaks out as we pass a ‘Hedgeschool’, a small cave-like enclave along the roadside where the Irish language was secretly taught for generations. We discuss education.

Minutes later, we pull up to the Bushmills Inn, a restored 17th century gem of a hotel, and a warm respite from the cooling weather. We discuss travel and technology.

In truth, there is little silence to our day – loud cars and coaches overfilled with noisy tourists are all over the roads, many swarming the scenic fishing villages of Ballycastle and Cushendall. When there are moments of quiet, Ken gently fills in the blanks with Irish warmth, wit and wisdom.

A knowledgeable and kind touring companion is a great thing, I think to myself. But having one that is also an actor, playwright, poet, philosopher, political analyst, documentary filmmaker, and author of three books – like Ken – is even better.

I share a quote from former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau; “Small minds talk about other people, average minds discuss events, and great minds share ideas…”

“Oh, I like that,” he smiles over cod & chips at the cozy Bayview Hotel in Portballintae. “I just might have to borrow that one from you.”

The synergy of ideas has been electric all day; all topics eventually leading back to an abstract prime mover. Ken’s real talent, I soon discover, is in gently getting us back on track after we have rambled off in all directions.

From microscope, to telescope, and back again, I muse. I have lucked out; his passion is his profession.

“Thankfully, there aren’t too many days when I wake up thinking that I don’t want to go to work,” he smiles. “I love the opportunity to meet new people and show them where I live. And I learn much from them also.”

After more than 20 years of trekking journalists, politicians, celebrities, students, and everyday folk around his country, Ken’s pride in, and love for, his homeland is only exceeded by his thirst to know it better.

“There is always something new to learn,” notes the lifelong resident of County Down. “It is a never ending process, and one that I don’t see myself tiring of anytime soon.”

As such, he believes that there is always something fresh to bring to the table.

“History, art, politics, religion, sports – it’s always a challenge to connect the dots, especially in a place like Northern Ireland where everything is quite complex.

“Well,” he sighs, “it’s likely time we should turn in for the day. We’ve an early start and another long day tomorrow. Thanks so much for the chat.”

And with that he blasts off to bed. I order a last coffee, and make my way back to my room. I can’t remember the last time I did that much listening and learning in one day.

Later, I open my laptop and stare blankly at the white page for a long while. Then, smiling to myself, I realize that – for the likes of men like Ken and me – the journey is the destination.