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Finding Peace After a Theft in Ireland

by Mary Tolan Dec 11, 2011
Mary Tolan overcomes the trauma of a big loss and has a very different experience than expected.

I ASKED THE BUS DRIVER where I might find an Internet café, then stepped off the bus in Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland. It was only three days after the theft of all my valuables, and I was still a bit hazy from shock, but not so out of it to miss noticing misty Dingle Bay with a dozen-plus fishing boats bobbing in the blue-gray water, and the brightly painted buildings in the village that stood out against the cloudy sky.

I called a taxi to bring me (and my diminished belongings) to Baile na nGall, a village 10 kilometers north of Dingle. I would become very familiar with this ride when I later became a hitchhiking aficionado. On that first day, though, I gazed out the taxi’s window, taking in the narrow winding roads and stone walls, and listened to the cab driver wax eloquent on the area.

Sunlight shimmered on the Atlantic; the view soothed me.

“Dingle is grand,” he said. “It’s a magical place, a beautiful place, and people will always want to come here.” As the clouds began to scatter, I soaked in the rich blues of the sky and water, the vivid greens of hedges and grasses, and the fields of sheep, horses, and cows. I learned later that a National Geographic writer, Boris Weintraub, called the Dingle Peninsula the “most beautiful place on earth,” but it was only after living there for five weeks that I discovered the graciousness of the people and rediscovered my own inner peace.

I didn’t know all that as watched the world outside my taxi window. As we got closer to the village, my unofficial tour guide pointed out the Three Sisters — three small peaks along the Atlantic coast that were the first land that Charles Lindbergh saw on his trans-Atlantic flight — a sight I would come to love on my regular cliff walks. Sunlight shimmered on the Atlantic; the view soothed me.


It could have been much worse, of course. I hadn’t been mugged. Still, the thieves got away with all my gear — my camera, laptop, and audio recorder — that are my livelihood. Because they also got my backup hard-drive, they stole six months of work including chapters of a book I was writing about Winslow, Arizona, and audio recordings of interviews I’d done in Ireland.

Like the one with Hugh, a 20-something Irishman I’d met at a London hotel where he worked as a waiter, bartender, and server. Like many young Irish, he had emigrated from Ireland because of the employment crisis. He talked openly about his “brilliant” jobs, and the “brilliant” feeling that comes with solid work after going two years “on the dole.” But his voice was slower and lower when he told me how much his mother and twin sister missed him, and how bad he felt that his father was taking care of the family farm without him.

And all my cherished photographs, gone. My photos of Ireland numbered in the thousands, and I still see many of them in my mind’s eye. I shot photos of political marches protesting the failing Irish economy and lack of jobs for young people, one such march of hundreds who passed the Dublin statues of Irish heroes like social activist James Larkin, arms outstretched, and another statute of “The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell, which includes four winged women, two that retain bullet holes from the 1916 Easter Uprising.

I took photos of many warm, sometimes shy, smiles of villagers, and the fuzzy faces of the sheep that dotted fields and hillsides throughout the green island. Like an idjeet (Irish for idiot), I’d shoved that hard drive into the same backpack as my laptop after getting off the train I took from Dublin to Killarney, a quiet village where I’d booked a rental car. My savvy traveler guard was down. Unlike traveling by air through Europe when I’d keep my passport hanging from a strap around my neck and my ID and charge cards inside a zipped pocket, I was at ease. And then it all vanished.

When I realized my bag had been snatched from a hotel lobby where I waited for the car-rental agency to open, my knees went weak just like they do in the movies. If it’s physically possible for a heart to hop into a throat, mine did. For days and weeks, I’d wake up replaying the three minutes I turned my back on my stuff.

Also irreplaceable was my hand-written journal that I began the day I got on the plane from Phoenix to Boston to Shannon, Ireland. Even items of lesser value like my prescription sunglasses and my running shoes, gone. Then there was my passport, my ID, my credit cards. Before I cancelled the cards, the thieves charged $2,000 worth of stuff, adding a whole new layer of paperwork and overseas phone calls to contend with.


The taxi dropped me at the village post office, and I headed in to meet Phil Brosnan, the postmistress/grocery store and B&B owner who had an extra key to the cottage where I was staying. (Of course my key was stolen with the backpack.) I would later be thrilled when I learned that I could stay for a month in the cottage rather than just 10 days. This was typical of the generosity I was to experience after the theft. It was almost as if everyone else wanted to make up for the deed of the culprits.

Standing in the tiny Post Office, I said hello to Phil, a short woman with maroonish tinted hair and quick wit, who knew exactly who I was. “Oh, you’re the woman who everything happened to,” she said, laughing, not unkindly. “Dorren told me all about you.”
Phil, who would make me laugh every morning when I went to pick up an Irish Times, gave me the key to the cottage just three doors down from the post office, which also served as the small village market.

Feeling a bit shy, I pushed open the heavy wooden door.

Before I left, I asked if there was anywhere nearby where I might get onto a computer with Internet access. She directed me to Tigh TPs, a pub just a half block from my cottage. The next evening, I made my way to TPs. Feeling a bit shy, I pushed open the heavy wooden door. I entered a large pub with an L-shaped bar, a boat lantern hanging from the ceiling, and a photo of the controversial Irish hero Michael Collins at the bar. This was the real deal.

The young man behind the bar welcomed me, and a few of the men who I discovered over time were regulars tore their eyes away from the match on television to nod my way. “I’m Mary, and Phil told me you had a computer you let people use.”

“You’re the American who lost everything. Phil told me all about you,” the bartender said, shaking his head but smiling widely. He turned to the others. “Everyone, this is the woman who had all her things stolen in Killarney.”

This was Sean Brendan O’Conchuir, the son of TP who had owned the bar before him. For the next few weeks, whenever I went into TPs, Sean would tell anybody new at the bar about my ordeal, and the regulars would ask me if there was any progress. The conversation would then move to the economic state of Ireland (“There’s no jobs left for our children in this country”), places to bike or hike (“You’ll find no better place to walk than the cliff walk just down the path from the front door”), and politics (“Those blighters in Dublin are stealing our children’s futures.”)

After I’d checked my e-mails and had a cup of tea, I asked Sean if he knew of anyone in the village who might rent me a computer for a couple of hours a day. “I’m a writer, and I need to use a computer every day to try and recreate my writing that was lost,” I told him. Without hesitation, he solved my biggest problem. “I have a little electronic notebook at home,” he said. “You’re welcome to use it for the time you’re here.”

Others on the Dingle Peninsula were also incredibly giving. Not only did they hand me deals — from a reduced bike rental to an extra 10 Euros off a coat — they often apologized deeply for my stuff being stolen. The story of my loss was reported on the radio and in the weekly newspaper, so I was often picked up hitchhiking by people who recognized me as the middle-aged woman who “lost everything.”

Hitchhiking became my main form of transportation between the village and Dingle. The last time I’d hitched was back in my college days in the 70s. I hadn’t planned to hitch while abroad, but due to the loss of my ID I couldn’t rent a car. I wasn’t sure what to expect. People said hitchhiking had been common on the peninsula throughout the 70s, but nobody was out on the road with me. I was a bit nervous at first, but that melted away as my preconceived notions changed from potentially dangerous rides into exciting ways to meet new people.

I met farmers, filmmakers, housewives, waitresses, the unemployed, and children. Everyone who picked me up asked me about my visit, some told me a bit about their lives, and many expressed dismay about the failing economy. Some gave me tips on hitchhiking. One woman recalled with horror the time she’d stuck out her thumb, noticing too late two cars that were practically bumper to bumper. When the first one stopped, the second one didn’t. It crashed into the other car from behind.

“I felt so bad that I’d caused the accident,” she said shaking her head. Some drivers simply gave me a ride in easy silence. My first ride, in fact, was with a farmer who said little except to tell me I could share the front seat with his dog. I sat with the sheep dog half in my lap, half on the floor, her liquid brown eyes gazing up at me.

Other rides came to me without hitchhiking. Francis and Kathleen 0’Sullivan, a local brother and sister whose family owns the Dingle movie theatre, would cull the crowd of the Tuesday Night Film Club to find me a ride home after the film. For years I’ve known — and tried to practice — the importance of opening my heart to opportunities that arise unbidden. But who knew that the action of thieves could lead to a more peaceful place, a deeper awareness of other peoples’ goodness?


I began recreating some of the words that had been stolen, and I tried my hand at short stories and poetry, which I’d not done in years. I had more time alone than I’d had in years. Sometimes it was lonely, but mostly I felt nurtured. There was something about the place, about my friends’ cottage with its multitude of books and the peat-brick burning stove, and the windy cliff walks and salty air, and the generous, funny people, that tempted me with new kinds of writing, all typed on the tiny blue Acer electronic notebook.

And the combination of elements did more than just help me as a writer. I found myself calming after the robbery, opening my heart up to trust. I meditated and practiced my yoga more than I had for months. Most mornings, after waking and starting a fire, I’d pad into the front room and find my seat on a cushion. Most mornings, the dawn birds would be talking and singing, creating the backdrop for my expanding practice. Some days, it was the sound of the Irish rain.

After sitting, the fear and anger that initially had coursed through my mind and body when I first lost everything seemed a distant experience. It had happened, it was a drag, but here I was now, in County Kerry, in a cottage that seemed to hold me the way a mother cradles her young.

One day as I finished my regular cliff walk — the Three Sisters shimmering green across the water — I flung myself down on the tall grass and looked up at the swollen gray and white clouds. Some held the rain that would lash down an hour later. They floated over me, over the Dingle Peninsula, over the ocean. As I lay on the grassy cliff listening to the rhythmic crashing of the waves below, I felt myself floating. My breathing matched the beat of the waves, my inner smile was like the humor of this country, my peace was my own.

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