James W. Finegan’s two fingers ceased typing last month. His hands were blessed with a full compilation of digits, all ten of which he used to hold a golf club and spank the little orb a mighty 210 or 220 yards. While pecking away at a typewriter, he only needed two of the fingers. On receiving news of his passing, I immediately abe-booked my way to Emerald Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas (subtitled A golfer’s pilgrimage to the courses of Ireland.) What I anticipated as an easy read wasn’t; Finegan’s years as a scholar (summa cum laude graduate from LaSalle University of Philadelphia and as an advertising agency employee and CEO trained him to store words as a gunman might load a magazine clip. He used them in writing, it was detailed through his many elegiac remembrances, as easily he spoke them.
As unexpected as it was, I found myself pausing longer over sentences, feasting unhurriedly on each description of every nuance of Ireland that Finegan tucked into his reminiscence. You see, this book deceives you into thinking that its main purpose is to detail a list of wondrous Irish golf courses. The author takes care of that in the first appendix, a five-page list at the end of the book. The second appendix, four pages in length, lists fine hotels, country houses and manors where he stayed during his many trips to the British isles. The preceding 277 pages are a compact (ironic) history of Ireland and Northern Ireland, told in a poetically-prosaic manner, touching on events, tribes, cuisine, lodging and recreation. The chronology is that of a trip around the ring that is the emerald isle, commencing at Lahinch in the central-west, then heading north. Eventually you reach Donegal, then the Giant’s Causeway, then down to Belfast and Dublin along the eastern road. You pass through Waterford and Kinsale as you work your way to the underbelly of the island, then finally up the west coast again, ending at Ballybunion.
At this juncture, this conclusion to the campaign, you might consider these options: return to page one in anticipation of revisiting each delightful description; or advance to one of Finegan’s other two tomes, on the golf courses of Scotland, or the ones found in England and Wales. Each decision should be laudatory and worthwhile, although I must confess that the second and third volumes still await me. Over the course of the next few paragraphs, I hope to give you a sense of what James W. Finegan so eloquently communicates on the topic of Irish golf (and all resulting tendrils) without robbing you of a desire to read the book on your own time. Emerald Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas is acquired at low cost at a variety of online outposts, none more efficient nor affordable than the aforementioned abebooks.com.
So it goes and on we go to the review. The book is sectioned into fifteen chapters and the two appendices mentioned above. The longest of these segments, number six, understandably approaches thirty pages. It assesses the golfing situation of Northern Ireland, a separate entity from the country of Ireland. The remaining subsets vary between ten and twenty pages in length and focus on a region and some four or five principal courses. It is an imperative that the reader understand that Finegan made over 40 trips to the British isles over the course of his life. Not the one or two bucket-list buddy trips that typical golfers make. He also made the majority of these trips in the company of his wife, Harriett. As he reveals and others mention, Harriett does not golf. She eats and sight-sees, as does he, and doubtlessly assesses and contributes in an uncredited manner to the depth and quality of Finegan’s writing.
I recommend that you read the introduction to Finegan’s text. In it, the author discusses a practical method for assessing travel and golf in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Keep in mind that the book is now approaching twenty years in print; it’s practically of drinking age! While the descriptions of courses are timeless, references to price and availability are out of date and should be treated as historical references. Finegan takes time to distinguish between seaside golf played over linksland, and interior golf played over arable (farm) land. The former is not readily available in North America, although places like Bandon in Oregon and Cabot in Nova Scotia certainly meet the standard. The author is certainly a fan of both types of course, as long as the holes are challenging and memorable. Finally and most important, Finegan reveals that he is not a collector of trophies in the manner that some braggarts reference 7000-yard this- and 7200 yard that-course. The members tees, usually between 5800 and 6500 yards in length, were more than sufficient to him; they were essential. The vast majority of golfers will never see championship tees in person. Why should someone write of their experience? Despite his memberships at Philadelphia Country Club and Pine Valley (two high-priced, private clubs in the Philadelphia area) Finegan knew how to write for the traveling golfer, the one who might have saved for years to make the single trip to Ireland to sample and savor its whiskeys, cuisine, seaside, countryside and golf.
I’m going to leave you with a series of quotes from the book. Read as a whole, they are disjointed and nearly unconnected. Individually, I hope that they serve to whet your appetite, to encourage you to purchase this book and read it. And to one day, as I hope to do, make a golfer’s journey to Ireland with your non-golfing wife, your family, your friends, or all of them assembled.
On Lahinch’s goats
We may not have the sense to come in out of the rain, but they do. When the weather turns mean, the goats turn toward the clubhouse — and shelter. So keep an eye out for them and their peregrinations.
On a most memorable meal
The mutton was revolting. It was so powerful that it made the oxtail soup seem sissy by comparison. It was also very well done, like a cedar shingle on an 80-year-old roof, and it was smothered in an aggressively greasy gravy.
On how to keep a bulldozer operator from ruining linksland
“Stay right with him, otherwise he’ll flatten it all out for you and ruin it. It’s in his nature to want to level thing. You’ll see, but you must not let him.”
On the meld of Ireland’s intellectual and recreational worlds
Even the scorecard pays homage to Yeats: The 9th hole, called ‘Cast a Cold Eye,’ aims toward Drumcliff and serves to remind us that we should pay a visit to the church there, where Yeat’s grandrather served as rector and where the poet is buried.
On the less-than-bucolic views in Cork
Few painters are likely to be tempted to render this scene, but, perhaps perversely, we liked it. What is lacked in picture-postcard prettiness it more than made up for in sweep and vitality.
And there you have it. I’ve saved the vast majority of James W. Finegan’s wry, insightful moments for you to discover on your own. I hope that you take every word for its full and complete array of meanings and enjoy the book as much as I did, and as much as he (perhaps too much hyperbole) enjoys every golf course in Ireland.