It's your first day in Ireland. The weather is bracing, the Emerald Isle's scenery is even greener than you expected, and you've negotiated the winding drive from Shannon Airport to Galway, the 760-year-old town known as City of the Tribes.
There's an edge of excitement - you've never driven on the opposite side of the road, and it's awkward shifting with your left hand - but you've found a groove, plunged safely into a dozen busy roundabouts and made it to your Tudor-style bed and breakfast safe and sound.
You've heard there's something magical about Ireland, that it's impossible to come to the isle and not be transformed. As George Bernard Shaw, the Irish-born playwright, put it, "Ireland, Sir, for good or evil, is like no other place under Heaven, and no man can touch its sod or breathe its air without becoming better or worse."
That's all fine with you. It's exhilarating to realize you don't know a soul and have only one phone number, that of a photographer who has been working in the area for nearly 40 years.
You've never met Stan Shields, and he's never heard of you, but he's thrilled to get your call. "Have ye been to Ireland before?" he asks, loudly so as to be audible over what sounds like a party in the background. "Ye haven't? Oh, ye'll love it to death. Ye'll have a hell of a time."
Before you've finished unpacking, he volunteers to show you around the town that will be your home for the next six days, and suggests a variety of ways to explore the rest of Ireland's western coast.
"Ah, et's awful bein' all by yerself in a strange place," he says. "We'll hit a pub or two and have a pint. I'll be over in a half a minute."
The time is right
It's a wonderful time to travel to Ireland, especially to the rocky, rugged west coast. Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline, has just inaugurated an amazingly low fare - about $400 round-trip from BWI Airport to Shannon, less than you might pay to fly to San Francisco and back - and it's so economical you could consider it even for a weekend trek.
From Shannon it's just 90 minutes north to Galway, a bustling university town on oyster-filled Galway Bay. It's the fourth-largest city in Ireland and the fastest-growing in Europe, according to locals.
Much in Galway has changed during Stan Shields' 38-year career with the Connaught Tribune, including the outward sprawl of suburbia, which spills in all directions from the city center. But much remains comfortably the same.
Crowds still flood the market district, which includes woolen marts, Old World pubs and "chippers" (fish-and-chip shops), giving the place the feel of an old European market town. And the jaggedly dramatic scenery, the deep green hills and bogs of the region, look much as they did centuries ago.
Stan, 58, a ruddy, round-faced fellow with a gap between his teeth, clamps a hand on your shoulder in palpable greeting. "What sort of music do you enjoy?" he asks. Though it's a weeknight, there's a choice of everything from old-time Irish fiddle tunes to the hardest-core punk in the dozens of pubs in town.
Galway, with its local Druid Theater, July arts festival and lively music scene, is the principal center for the arts in the west of Ireland. "There's a little bit of everything here," Stan says. "We're proud of that."
The streets are narrow and full of cars, and Stan is a tad rambunctious behind the wheel. He weaves his way through pedestrians, bounces over more than one curb, and as you reach your destination - the Park House Hotel, which has a four-star restaurant, the Eyre House - he leaves a front tire on the sidewalk. Half a dozen people - he pronounces it "payple" - recognize him and call out greetings.
"Wonderful payple," he says. "The Irish want to know everything about you. We're known to be friendly, but it's really just that we're nosy."
Tonight, Stan doesn't fit that description; his good-natured blarney flows like a river. Over the course of his career, Stan's history and Galway's have interwoven. Lots of important characters swing through town, and when they do, he's on the scene to photograph them. He has captured Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton on film, and he got to know John Huston, the American film director who bought a mansion in the area and raised his children here.
Stan's career highlight, though, was photographing John F. Kennedy - after whom Galway's town square, once called Eyre Square, is named - when the American president came through just months before his assassination in 1963.
"There was a charisma, a fantastic aura, about him," Stan says of JFK. "The town literally went crazy when he was here."
Stan, then a brash 21-year-old, climbed right into the car with Kennedy - "I was too young to know any better" - and took the photos that would occupy four pages of the Tribune in the following issue.