A few weeks ago, I visited a place I had never been before yet knew intimately. Even though I couldn't pronounce its name, its most famous inhabitants -- Maggie Concannon, Rogan Sweeney, Brianna Concannon, Grayson Thane, Shannon Bodine, Murphy Muldoon -- are almost as dear to me as my own family members. It's called Kilmihil, in County Clare, Ireland.
Devoted Nora Roberts fans will recognize it as the tiny village that the larger-than-life characters of her "Born In" series call home. Born in Fire was the book that swept me off my feet, scooped me up, and carried me across the threshold into the extraordinary world of romantic fiction.
When my husband and I had the opportunity to spend a Saturday exploring the Shannon River region of Counties Limerick and Clare, I timidly asked him if we could go to Kilmihil. "We don't have to stop or anything; I'd just like to drive through it," I said. Frankly, I was worried. What if it wasn't what I had envisioned when I had become completely immersed in Nora Roberts's story? What if a gigantic billboard announced "Welcome to Kilmihil -- Home of the Concannon Sisters!" or Murphy Muldoon lookalikes wandered the streets signing autographs?
But I needn't have worried. It was exactly as I had imagined it. Neat storefronts lined a quiet, narrow street. A few villagers intent on their business dodged the parked cars pulled halfway up onto the sidewalks. The small petrol station sat deserted; no customers qued up for gas.
Still, my uneasiness didn't go away. Why did I feel so stupidly hesitant? I suddenly realized that it was because, well, this was Nora's town. I was a trespasser, an intruder. I fully expected someone to point a finger at me and say "Hey, you there -- you Nora Roberts wannabe! What makes you think you can walk these streets! Go away! You don't belong here!"
My husband had other, less insane ideas. "Let's stop for lunch," he said. Before I could protest, he had pulled the car up on the sidewalk, hopped out, and was standing at the entrance to The Fiddle Head pub. I took a deep breath and followed him in. No turning back now.
It's amazing how a pint of Guinness, a bowl of potato-and-leek soup, and homemade soda bread will vanquish fears. My sighs of delicious contentment must have been audible, because one of the older gentlemen at the bar turned and smiled at me. "Did you enjoy your meal, then?" he asked. I nodded, my mouth still full of bread and butter. He picked up his pint and walked to our table. "Are you on holiday?" he said. I had stuffed another piece of bread in my mouth, so my husband answered. "Yes, in a sense. Our daughter is studying traditional Irish dance at the University of Limerick, and we've just brought her over to get settled in." His face lit up. "Oh, is she now! I was All-Ireland Irish dance champion in my day!" he said, and struck a dance pose. The last of my shyness disappeared. He introduced us to others at the bar, and soon we were chatting, discovering almost-family connections, and having some laughs.
Later as we drove away, my husband said, "Now aren't you glad we stopped?" I could only smile.
And guess what. Kilmihil may be Nora's town, but she's gonna have to share it with me.