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Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man's Journey Through Ireland

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Overview

A heartwarming story of a man who journeys to the land of his people to discover what kind of man he is . . . and, more to the point, what kind of man he could become

Kevin O'Hara was a man who was at the crossroads of life. Newly married to a beautiful woman, Kevin found himself full of rage and pain. A former soldier, he had seen the horrors of war and was unable to let those sorrows go . . . and his pain threatened to destroy not only his own happiness but any chance of a ...

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Overview

A heartwarming story of a man who journeys to the land of his people to discover what kind of man he is . . . and, more to the point, what kind of man he could become

Kevin O'Hara was a man who was at the crossroads of life. Newly married to a beautiful woman, Kevin found himself full of rage and pain. A former soldier, he had seen the horrors of war and was unable to let those sorrows go . . . and his pain threatened to destroy not only his own happiness but any chance of a happy life with his wife. If he couldn't fix what was broken in his own heart, he'd be lost.

In desperation Kevin traveled to Ireland, the land of his people, to seek some sort of balm for his pain. It was there, amid the impossibly green fields, open skies, and glad hearts of his friends and relatives, that Kevin began to see the possibilities of joy again.

And it was there that he formed a wonderfully daft plan. The age-old method of traveling by donkey cart was beginning to disappear from the Irish countryside as modern life crowded in. What better way, Kevin thought, to experience the beauty of Ireland than to travel the length of the land in the old way—-man and donkey, drinking in the sights and sounds of the country.

Among the Irish, opinion was divided as to whether Kevin was a madman . . . or a saint. Bets were made, and most of the locals near his grandmother's farmhouse predicted that this strange American wouldn't even get out of the county, much less circle the entire island.

But Kevin had a vision in his head, and a goal. He wanted to make things right for himself, heal his heart, and return to his beloved wife. And so, with Missy, the shaggy brown mare by his side, he set off on that long mad walk, an eighteen-hundred-mile trek that would take months.

Along the way Kevin would meet some incredible characters, endure hardships (and moments of high drama . . . and very low comedy), and find the Irish in all their glory. And he would find himself.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
A witty, whimsical walk around an Ireland before the 'Celitc Tiger' of the European Union found its economic legs, before the roads were improved, and before battalions of Audis and Mercedes replaced the donkey carts, farmers, and unhurried pedestrians of another day.
From the Publisher
Praise for Last of the Donkey Pilgrims

“One of the finest books about contemporary Ireland ever written...In a style evocative of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, O’Hara writes memorably of his most unusual way of touring his ancestral home of Ireland.”—Library Journal

“A witty, whimsical walk around an Ireland before the ‘Celitc Tiger’ of the European Union found its economic legs, before the roads were improved, and before battalions of Audis and Mercedes replaced the donkey carts, farmers, and unhurried pedestrians of another day.” —Boston Globe

“A delightful book to be enjoyed by everyone on a life pilgrimage.”—Catholic Library World

“Kevin O'Hara is neither a madman nor a saint; he is an original. The story he tells will be an inspiration to any person who has ever tried to patch a broken life.”—Morgan Llywelyn

“Skillful piece of travel-writing; like the Irish fog, it’s both glowing and lightly pushed by an unacknowledged melancholy.”—Kirkus Reviews

Boston Globe
A witty, whimsical walk around an Ireland before the 'Celitc Tiger' of the European Union found its economic legs, before the roads were improved, and before battalions of Audis and Mercedes replaced the donkey carts, farmers, and unhurried pedestrians of another day.
Library Journal
In a style evocative of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, O'Hara writes memorably of his most unusual way of touring his ancestral home of Ireland. A Vietnam vet with emotional wounds to heal and a need to connect with his roots, O'Hara searched for meaning in his mother's homeland, finding that Ireland and life were more complex (and hopeful) than he had even imagined. He set out on his often obstinate donkey, Missie, to discover the Ireland few people really know and, in the process, rediscover himself. The various people he met on his journey sometimes thought him a bit daft to be using such an old-fashioned method of transportation, but they unfailingly welcomed him into their lives. This memoir is one of the finest books about contemporary Ireland ever written. In it, he shows us a country trying to rid itself of a difficult past while preparing for a promising future. Anyone planning an extensive trip to Ireland will definitely want to bring this humorous and insightful work with them. There's only one caveat: the book would have benefited from photographs and a map. Recommended for all public libraries.-Joseph L. Carlson, Allan Hancock Coll., Lompoc, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Skillful piece of travel-writing from O'Hara, who walks around the coast rather than ride in the cart, "because I want to view old Ireland from donkey level" (or maybe he just can't command the cart?). It is 1979. O'Hara is a young man semi-fresh from Vietnam, an American in Ireland with an idea: take a donkey and a cart around Eire's circumference. This notion comes to him in a pub, and some in attendance suggest "he'd be much like those wise men who climbed Faerymount one clear night in June, all in hopes of catching the rising moon in a burlap bag." His aunt Cella is less poetic: "I think you're a half-boiled eejit!" But not really, for all and sundry think his adventure is pretty fine-and it is. Short of funds, O'Hara figures he'll be a seanachie, who gets the 3 Bs (bed, bath, and beer) by telling stories. Actually, since newspapers across the country are following his progress, it's celebrity that gets him a welcome most nights, though one woman tells him through the farmhouse door, "I don't care if you're John the Baptist proclaiming 'the Good News,' you simple gomeral! Now, get, or ye'll be gimping off, I promise." It is a slow and marvelous journey under dove-gray skies and beside forlorn Norman towers, through the "hollow bright fog" of sun and mist, reeling from the collywobbles of a bad bottle of stout, along a pilgrim's path of holy wells and beehive cells. Everywhere there are intimate local vignettes and good wishes: "Now, safe home, and may a gallery of saints protect you" are the chosen parting words of a morning. It took newcomer O'Hara 25 years to compose this poke at Ireland's edge, time for the events to become burnished. His writing is all the better for it; like theIrish fog, it's both glowing and lightly pushed by an unacknowledged melancholy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765309846
  • Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 413,825
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin O'Hara

Kevin O'Hara has spent the last twenty years working as a psychiatric nurse at the Berkshire Medical Center. He lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Last of the Donkey Pilgrims


By O'Hara, Kevin

Forge Books

Copyright © 2005 O'Hara, Kevin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780765309846

The Donkey Proposal
 
CHAPTER ONE
 
 
The Irish Midlands
MARCH 1979
 
It was at Rattigan's Pub in Kilrooskey, County Roscommon, that I first proposed traveling the coast of Ireland with a donkey and cart. The elderly patrons, biting at pipes and smelling of turf smoke, rolled in amusement.
"Ye're thinking of walking an ass about Ireland?" jawed Hugh Mannion from a high stool. "I have two at home that won't cross Derrane Bog!"
"Arragh, Hughie, now, be fair to your man," chimed Willie Cassidy from behind a hand of playing cards. "There'd only be the one ass that could circle the Ring of Ireland, and that'd be Johnny Rabbitt's jackass who swallowed the umbrella!"
I soothed my throat with a generous swallow of the black native Guinness, and sought refuge by the potbellied stove, flashing back to my inaugural pint here when I was seventeen. That long-ago summer, my younger brother Dermot and I were unwillingly sworn into the Celtic race in a drunken stupor. Now, on this cold winter night in 1979, thirteen years later, nothing had changed in this illustrious parish pub but the Harp calendar.
My uncle Vincent, to whom I had sketchily mentioned my plans, had warned that my "donkey proposal" would be greeted with ridicule by these age-old pensioners, who gathered every Friday evening at Rattigan's. But whoelse knew more about a donkey's strengths and limitations than themselves?
I took another gulp of the milk-warm stout, thinking back on that wondrous incident days earlier. Pedaling home to my grandmother's on the Knockcroghery Road, I was knocked off my bike like Saul from his horse when I saw a farmer smoothly tipping his donkey and cart down the road. "That's it," I gasped at the vision. "That's how I'm going to travel the whole of Ireland."
Now, taking a deep breath and another fortifying sip, I mustered the courage to speak above their merriment.
"But say, for instance, I was truly willing to go through with it. Could a donkey, a good one, travel the coast of Ireland? I'd take it easy, eight to ten miles a day, and I'd give myself eight months to travel the eighteen hundred miles."
Rheumy eyes glinted and glanced. The Yank wasn't having them on: he was dead serious. The house went silent. Playing cards were flattened. Miserable March rattled outside the panes. Pints were called for and collected as the old gentry of the parish circled their stools to gather their wisdom.
"A jackass, cut-jack, or a mare?" asked Mickey Owens, still eyeing me with suspicion.
"Never a jack," voiced Jack Rattigan, lifting the cap off his brow. "A jack would be braying sonnets in June, bugling day and night in August, and downright altogether mad in the snows of December."
"A cut-jack, then?" suggested Joe Hickey.
"A cut-jack is neither useful nor ornamental," mused Jim Tiernan. "A cut-jack has no heart. Nipped. Dry as polished glass. 'tis a mare the Yank would need, young and well-handled."
"The very thing," agreed the tall and scholarly Headmaster D'Alton. "A young mare sound of wind and limb, and a fine temperament. You wouldn't want her kicking the stars from the sky."
"A good mouth and square feet," added Hugh Mannion, "free of spavins, curbs, and sidebones. And she'd need to be well-shod with pony shoes and frost nails to cover those miles."
I stood among these wizened fellows--my mother's former schoolmates--nodding my head in agreement, but not having a blooming idea what they were on about.
"A double fistful of oats every morning would do her kindly," continued Willie Cassidy. "But don't go giving her a bucket of water after a good feed, or she'll cripple up and die with the gripe."
"Search Roscommon and Westmeath for your mare," offered Paddy Tiernan, "and don't go to any knackers or horse jobbers. With your Yankee accent, they'd sell you a mule without a tooth in its head."
"Better still," added Dan Madden, "if you're sincere in setting out on this caper, go see the horseman, Jimmy McDermott, in Kilteevan. If there's ever a mare that can circle Ireland, Jimmy Mac would be the one to find her."
"And keep a safe distance from the Spanish jacks," jabbed a smart aleck from the corner, "or your mare will be carrying extra baggage on the road home!"
The donkey seminar ended abruptly as the playing cards, itching in the hands of Willie Cassidy, were reshuffled and dealt again: the quarter-final round of "25" for an Easter turkey was at stake. Jim Tiernan, however, joined me by the stove. My grandmother's neighbor in the village of Ballincurry, he told me how his donkey could travel twenty Irish miles--twenty-five English miles--a day on a pinch of oats.
"An ass would go forever if you gave her her time," said old Jim, rubbing a plug of tobacco in his hands. "Pity is, too many farmers hurried and abused them. The only worry I see in you traipsing the world with a mare is that she could easily become homesick and lose heart. And when a mare loses heart, nothing will set her going again."
"What makes a mare lose heart?" I asked the affable man.
"'Tis easy enough, I'm afraid," he continued, packing his yellowed briar pipe with his thumb. "Mare asses worked a hard long day in Roscommon. But whether they were off to market with a sow, to the creamery with a can or two, to the bog for a cartload of turf, or to the fields to draw in the hay, they always knew they'd be home by nightfall to be fed and watered. Your mare won't have that luxury, for she'll be traveling the roads day after day, over mountain and bog, and at night be tethered in a different field or placed in some stinking byre. Nor will she be able to make any sense of your wanderings.
"I suppose a jack would be right for your journey if they weren't so ornery," he went on, lighting his pipe. "A jack is a common rogue, a rambler, but a mare likes her home. I heard a story years back of how a County Longford man sold his mare heavy in foal to a County Fermanagh man. The deal was settled over a jar of stout and the mare was boxed and carted up through Longford, Leitrim, and beyond the border town of Enniskillen. Fifty miles, if not more. Well, wouldn't you know, three days later this same Longford farmer was walking his fields, only to spot the sold mare feeding her downy foal. The poor creature had made good her escape and traveled fifty miles in two days to give birth on the third. Now, doesn't that give you some idea of their homing instincts?"
Of course, not everyone at Rattigan's was as helpful as Jim Tiernan. There was a scrum of old wags who brayed and whinnied throughout the seminar, asking one another if both my oars were cleaving the sea and other opprobrious remarks better left forgotten. But, all in all, it had been a fine evening. My proposed journey, however whimsical, now seemed at least plausible.
I sat on a wooden bench by the doorway, finishing my drink and tucking my pants into my socks for the bike ride home, when Hugh Mannion addressed the happy crowd, saying I'd be nothing short of a folk hero if I managed to circle Ireland with a donkey and cart.
"He'd be much like those wise men," he exclaimed, raising his bottle of barley wine, "who climbed Faerymount one clear night in June, all in hopes of catching the rising moon in a burlap bag!"
Everyone had a good laugh at that one, and they were still rolling when I left Rattigan's and mounted my bicycle for home.
On my three-mile spin back to Uncle Vincent's, I became so elated by visions of these donkey travels that I hopped off my bike and shouted up into the star-frosted night. But it was too early to go celebrating just yet. I hadn't a donkey yet nor the knowledge of what to do with one once I had it. And there were those donkeymen at Rattigan's, willing to wager their weekly pension check against any one ass completing the Ring of Ireland.
If this was true, would I have to set up relief stations along the coast--the proverbial Donkey Express? And was the distance of 1,800 miles--Boston to Amarillo in my country--fair for one donkey to travel?
Who was I trying to kid, anyway? I'm no Marco Polo. Not even a Cub Scout. I never toted tents on campouts or annual jamborees, never learned how to read a compass or light a fire with dry sticks. Neither Marlboro Man nor L.L. Bean mountaineer, I was not from that breed of men who tamed the American wilderness. Little wonder those cronies at Rattigan's enjoyed their chuckle, figuring I hadn't the strength to tie a double-knot in my sneakers, and then, to propose this preposterous expedition.
I hopped back on my bicycle, my wheels wobbling down the black country road. There were so many stones in my path: Could a donkey and cart handle the hills and water-crossings, navigate the cities, the Northern boundaries, elude the animal protection league, and avoid encounters with Tommies or the IRA? Would I be gunned down by some trigger-happy sectarian? But easy! Easy! No sense in becoming too anxious too soon.
I stopped to gather myself at the old millhouse in Cloonara where the stars gleamed in winter glory and the River Holywell grumbled through the quiet blackness. Was I really mad, as many at Rattigan's had thought? Who would ever know? But this one time in my life I wanted to leave all worldly concerns behind and embark on this journey with the dizzy abandon of an adventurous boy.
Or like the adolescent I'd been when I first came to Ireland with my parents in 1966, their first trip home since emigrating to America. They'd been in England till 1953, where I had been born, along with four siblings, and three more arrived after we moved to Massachusetts. "The Yanks," we called the latecomers.
Dermot and I had been the chosen pair for this long-awaited vacation, and when we arrived to our grandmother's at Ballincurry, our mother led us to the high-hedged fields of her old homestead. There, uncharacteristically, she took us each by the hand and spun us around, stopping to point out things with a trembling finger.
"There's the white stone where Mrs. Tiernan would sit and wait for us to come home from school with slices of rhubarb tart. Why, you've never tasted the like! And below, there, in the meadow of Coolrua, Aunt Bea kept her blue hens. Yes, blue hens! And look, boys, the fires smoldering in the bogs. Many a long, happy day I spent there gathering turf with your great-grandfather. And do you see Lough Ree? Headmaster Foley would tell us stories of how Vikings sailed their longships there on St. John's Eve a thousand years ago."
Dermot and I looked at her in awe. This wasn't the mom we knew back home in Pitts-field: a tired, worn mother of eight, living in a drafty duplex on Wilson Street. How sad to be brought up amongst the greenest fields, dotted with farmhouses of friends and kin, and to wind up hanging her laundry in a bare backyard where our landlord kept his collection of junked automobiles. Little wonder she was often blue, saving her dimes in a Skippy peanut-butter jar all those years for this short respite to Ireland.
"At your age, boys, I could gather two stacks of hay a day in Jamsie's Field," she continued, her face flushed, her voice young and vibrant. "And I'd deafen swarms of bees with a spoon and tin can in those trees beyond. Oh, and the call of the corncrake. How charming their chatter!"
She told us colorful stories that left us imagining what might have been if she had remained in Ireland and raised her family here, rather than leaving for England at age seventeen to commence her nurse's training there. And how different would we be? Would we have been great men with the cattle, Dermot and me? Would we handle horse and plow, and rest atop the headlands, breathing in the ethereal goodness of turned tillage?
As witness to my mother's awakening that summer of long ago, I felt a great unrest begin to stir in me. What homeland treasures lay buried, never to surface? What hidden springs were never tapped? What balm for the soul never unearthed?
Not that I hadn't been drawn to Ireland long before this first visit. When my mother had suffered low periods back in the States, she would often keep me home from grammar school. I'd do chores and watch the little ones, and then I'd play marbles on our braided rug in the front room while Mom sat sadly by the window, rereading letters from home. I'd beg her to share the contents, and in no time I knew all of Grannie Kelly's family and neighbors. After the letters were read, I was given the stamps from their envelopes--colorful stamps depicting a little stone hut named Gallarus, a seat of kings called "the Rock of Cashel," and a brown-cloaked monk penning a Psalter--which I'd carefully paste into my notebook.
When I asked my mother what she missed most about Ireland, she had said the people, because they were as wholesome as fresh linen on the line. I told her I was going to travel all of Ireland one day, and I'd know it as well as my marbles knew the frayed seams in our braided rug, and sometimes she would smile.
A few years later, Grannie Kelly herself came to America, and I was relieved of my duties. She stayed with us for eleven months, filling the house with lively chat, love and laughter. And stories, always stories. With the evening Rosary said and tea in her lap, she'd tell us tales with her lovely accent and mighty howl. "Aye, and poor Gummy Nertney coming off the mountain after a neighbor gave birth to triplets, you know, and Gummy saying, 'Have ye decided which one ye'll be keeping?'--as if talking about kittens, be God."
So here I was now, alone in the dark of an Irish night with a diadem of stars over my head, ready to reclaim my lost kingdom, determined to travel the roads in search of my heritage, to find some missing part of myself, to recapture an Irish childhood lost to emigration. Call me mad, but I had to embark on this crazy quest.
My cousin Noel Kelly was the only one awake at Uncle Vincent's when I walked the bicycle into the yard. Excitedly, I told him about my planned donkey tour, and how I had to see Jimmy McDermott the next evening in Kilteevan.
Noel, reading the paper at the kitchen table, looked up at me with one eye cocked. "How many pints did you have tonight?" he asked.
"Two."
"Two pints of Guinness," he chuckled, carrying himself off to bed. "Two pints of Guinness and you're out of your flipping mind."
 
Copyright 2004 by Kevin O'Hara


Continues...

Excerpted from Last of the Donkey Pilgrims by O'Hara, Kevin Copyright © 2005 by O'Hara, Kevin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 11
Introduction 13
1 The Donkey Proposal 19
2 Talk of the Parish 25
3 Jimmy Mac, the Horseman 31
4 Missie and the Fleetwood 35
5 The Apprenticeship 40
6 The Kilteevan Report 46
7 A Birthday Visit to Knock 52
8 The Commencement 57
9 A Gift of Hazel 62
10 Old Coach Road to Galway 68
11 The Hollow Bright Fog 73
12 A Worldly Man, Indeed! 81
13 Joe McHugh's Pub 87
14 The Grass Widow and Bottle Scrubber 93
15 Old Country Cures 99
16 Crossing the Shannon 103
17 A Breather in Ballybunion 110
18 Dead Cut of a Weasel 118
19 On the Dingle 123
20 Up the Conor Pass 129
21 Celtic Starlight 133
22 A Souper's Kitchen 142
23 A Night with the Travelers 148
24 A Rock Soars from the Sea 154
25 Faery-Waxed in Ballybrack 161
26 The Memory Stone 167
27 The Road to Kilmakilloge 174
28 Lord Tim of the Holly 180
29 A Wasp's Dying Sting 186
30 A Run to Mizen Head 192
31 Wood of the Pilgrims 198
32 Over the River Blackwater 204
33 Washerwoman from Tramore 211
34 The Cock and Hen 217
35 Going Widdershins 226
36 A Green Martyr 234
37 Brother Malachy of Mount Argus 241
38 Approaching the Dragon 247
39 The Kingdom of Mourne 253
40 Ship on the Sea 258
41 Nursery of Blackguards 264
42 Knock Sunday in Belfast 269
43 The Glens of Antrim 277
44 Faery Kingdom of Dalriada 284
45 Gandie's Goats 293
46 A Celebrity in Derry 300
47 The Questions of Children 307
48 Close Call at The Beach 315
49 Mary Hanna's Pub 321
50 All Hallow's Eve 325
51 Missie's March to Drumnacart 331
52 Glengesh Pass 336
53 Glen of the Saint to Aerie of the Bishop 342
54 A Walk to Ballyshannon 349
55 Beneath Maeve's Crown 356
56 Between Shamrock and Harp 364
57 Mary Cleary's Pub 373
58 From Achill to Clare Island 381
59 Hazel to Holly 388
60 Rounding Roundstone 395
61 Lamplight to Streetlights 402
62 A Bonfire in Ballygar 410
63 A Proper Pair of Pilgrims 416
64 A Christmas Ceili 419
65 Fingerpost to Ballagh 425
Epilogue 427
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2006

    I picked up this book on a whim...

    while at the bookstore looking for a good read for my vacation. And what a treat it was. Mr. O'Hara's delightful and thought provoking story of his travels around Ireland in 1979 brought to life the many colorful characters he met along the way and his descriptions of scenes and places put the reader right there. The historical details he intersperses made me want to read up on Irish history. His struggles with Missie, his sometimes quirky and difficult donkey companion, added some comedy to lighten the long and at times lonely road. I loved the book from cover to cover and was just sorry when it ended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2013

    Unique perspective of Irish life at the end of the 20th century

    O'Hara captures the ebb and flow of life on the emerald isle as it was in its not too distant history. His feet on the ground story telling report the enduring humor,generosity, and unique Irish spirit (not unlike his pilgrim partner,Missie). The rythym of his prose allows for "picking up and putting down" with no concern as to the where,when or why of the story. This is a remarkable account capturing the ancient Irish personality

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2013

    Qwerty

    I luv donkeys

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  • Posted April 20, 2011

    Must reading for anyone in life's journey

    This book should be read by anyone wanting to enjoy life's journey!! Kevin is a consummate storyteller. His humor and joy for the best of life is in every page. This is THE BEST book you will ever buy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2011

    Great Book

    This is a great book.A shame it was not publicized more.Need to bring it out as an E book and people would really enjoy it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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