Five years ago, Trish Jenkins saw a personal ad on Craigslist that changed her life.
The lifelong Fairfax County resident, then a 44-year-old divorced mother of two teens, had a good job as a technical writer, and owned a nice home in Burke. Michael Waugh, the man whose ad caught her attention on Craigslist was an unlikely Casanova.
At 47, he was a full-time student at Lord Fairfax Community College who lived and worked as a caretaker in a monastery in Berryville while trying to “figure out what to do with the rest of his life.”
“I knew he had no money,” Jenkins recalled, with a chuckle. “And he lied about his age too.”
“I said I was 46, when I was really 47,” Waugh admitted. “Irish Catholic guilt complex. I could only lie a little.”
After a blind date in Shenandoah National Park that lasted 18 hours, both knew they’d met the love of their lives. The relationship was sealed some months later when Waugh, who had lived in Ireland for five years, took Jenkins to see the country their ancestors came from. When she loved the rugged beauty of Ireland’s West Coast as much as he did, they forged a plan to start a tour business.
After testing the waters bringing students on exchange trips to Ireland during the next few years, the couple took the plunge and opened Wild West Irish Tours in 2011.
“I sold my house in February, quit my job in March, we got married in April, and went to Ireland in May,” said Jenkins, who explained selling her house to fund the business was her way of “buying her freedom.”
“I didn’t like my job, but while my kids were still in school, I did all the responsible things in life,” she said. “But once they were ready to go off to college, I said, ‘It’s my turn to have some adventure,’ because my life had been very boring to that point.”
While Jenkins has traded in a life of mundane stability for adventure, Waugh has long nurtured a restless, traveler’s spirit. A Bronx, N.Y., native with deep Irish roots, he joined the Coast Guard at 18 and served as a chief boatswain’s mate, amongst other jobs, in a 22- year career that took him to places such as the Outer Banks, Florida and coastal Virginia. Later he tried his hand as an equal rights and diversity officer in Sligo, Ireland, but after five years and a failed marriage there, he decided to return to the U.S. to try to obtain the degree he never had time for as a youth.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in life and I came to a point when I needed to go on a retreat,” he said.
And that was how he struck a deal with the monks in Berryville to work as a caretaker in exchange for room and board. He lived there from 2008 until late 2010 when he moved in with Jenkins. As a student and a bachelor, the monastery wasn’t exactly an ideal place to bring a date back to, but Waugh, a father of three daughters in their 20s, said he found peace there.
“The only other place in this world that means as much to me is Ireland,” he said.
When the stress of Waugh’s job in Sligo would get to him, he’d take long drives in the Irish countryside and quickly developed a deep passion for the Emerald Isle’s out-of-the-way places. He says he uses that knowledge and passion to bring savvy travelers on custom-made itineraries to the kinds of places where big tour buses never go.
“Anyone can kiss the Blarney Stone,” he said. “We show people the real Ireland, the real, authentic culture, not the dog-and-pony shows that are put on for the tourists on the big package tours.”
In 2010, the pair led six tours to Ireland and this year they’ll double that figure. All of the tours are small groups of four to eight people who travel in a minivan or minibus. Jenkins said travelers are based in a stunning location near Sligo, in the country’s northwest, on their standard itineraries, but they also bring travelers to Dublin, Galway, The Aran Islands or wherever else they want to go. The couple finds out where the best traditional music can be heard that week and alters the itinerary accordingly.
In April, a new Titanic museum will open in Belfast, where the ship was built, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship sinking, and Wild West Irish Tours will be bringing travelers on a special Northern Irish itinerary for the occasion. Trips typically start at $1,599 for a 10-day tour, including accommodation, ground transportation, tours and breakfast each day.
The couple said despite the soft economy, the early response to their new venture has been encouraging. They now live with Jenkins’ sister and her husband in their Vienna home when they’re not leading tours in Ireland. Jenkins said she had no regrets about changing her life.
“It was a little scary,” she admitted. “But you only live once and you have to go for it.”
Waugh thinks that the crash of Ireland’s previously booming economy has helped refocus the Irish on what they’ve long been known for: Providing hospitality to visitors from around the world. In a recent telephone interview, the new President of Ireland, Michael Higgins, said attracting visitors from the U.S. was a huge priority for his administration.
“Americans will find Ireland a great value right now,” he said. “By now, the original census materials from the 19th and 20th centuries has been put up online and digitized, so on a brief holiday, it’ll be possible for people to trace where their ancestors came from.”
Jenkins and Waugh will be promoting their tours as part of a pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the Auld Shebeen in Fairfax on March 3 that will include an Irish genealogy expert, Irish food and Irish music. And of course, Guinness. But Jenkins said the smooth, creamy brown nectar of the gods is yet another reason to visit Ireland.
“It’s better over there,” she said. “They keep the best stuff for themselves.”