Word & Image 

Michael Regan Waugh, 53: Wild West Irish Tours

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Scott Elmquist

"People who come to Ireland very often have something on their heart, there is something going on. Not only just Irish people, but other people just have some sense that it’s different. It’s a small island with so much packed into it — spirituality, history, things that have happened there. The place seems too small to contain it all.

"I started a touring company on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011 in Northern Virginia. We take about 20 to 25 trips a year to Ireland, with an average of six or seven people.

"In the early days, we had taken this adult woman to Ireland, her name was Elizabeth. She told me her father had died and she had a jar of his ashes. I mulled it over, and remembered there was a poet I knew, Dermot Healy, who lives right on the ocean — he died this last year, God rest his soul. So I went up to him by his cottage and told him about the ashes. Not only did he agree, but we went out by the ocean and he recited [William Butler] Yeats and even his own poems. Elizabeth had tears in her eyes, but Dermot did as well, this gruff guy, it meant so much to him that we had asked him. That’s when I realized the key was the people.

"My grandparents were from there. And I lived in Ireland for five years when I was doing work over there for equality. Ireland had just been mandated by EU to do better for civil rights. Having been a civil rights counselor in the Coast Guard, I was ready to do that. … My daughters went to VCU and Mary Washington. Eventually I wanted to be close to them, so we moved to Richmond a year ago. We go to a lot of Irish festivals. Here in Richmond we were at the [Central Virginia Celtic Festival & Highland Games] and the Church Hill Irish Festival. The Church Hill event is the most authentic thing [that Richmond has], in my opinion.

"St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland is very different. It’s still a holy day, a lot of people go to Mass, you’re with your family, maybe go out for a pint. I think over there, they think: “What are the Yanks doing? Why do you wanna be Irish?” My grandmother worked her way over here, she was a maid in New York City. That’s what I tell them: That’s who I’m celebrating.

"Where we do a lot of our tours is in what Yeats called “the land of heart’s desire,” Sligo and that area around there. Living in Ireland and having family and friends, we don’t go near the tourism board. We have our friends who know what to do, where the best music sessions are, where a holy well might be. Our mottos are: “expect great things in simple places” and the Irish proverb, “what is seldom is wonderful.”

"The crown jewel for us is to go out on a boat to Inishmurray — we call it mystical, sacred. You have these sixth-century monasteries still intact. We’re the only ones there. You just get a feeling of that thin place, there’s a veil very close with that other world.

"As Yeats says, “there is another world, and it’s right here."

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