Muddy fetid fields and hollow faces had sent her family to New England during the potato famine. Its ravages weren’t spoken of and gradually were barely remembered. Subsequent generations had their own calamities. She knew these stories of loss: the little brother run over by a horse and carriage, the business gone to gambling, the uncle in the Korean War. The relatives kept praying, tragedy after generational tragedy. Things might have been much worse, there was no way of knowing.
The great aunts came from Ireland much later and so still had their Irish accents, melodic and cheerful. At family gatherings they appreciated everything, from corned beef she knew to be too fatty to mushy cabbage and carrots, to the pervasive smell, to noisy little cousins and squirming toddlers. The two aunts always smiled. They always sat up straight with hands folded in their laps. She knew her Catholic-school nuns would be proud, but as cheerful as the aunts were, they provoked a vague fear of lonely adult life.
In a family of such size, heirlooms were scant. She had been gifted her great-grandmother’s hand-made purse, crocheted and beaded and finished with brass filigree. This was special not because it was particularly beautiful or in any way useful–in fact she feared for its fragility–but because it reminded her of the great-grandmother who otherwise might be but a flicker of a memory. She was tiny but resolute. Her blue eyes held focus, fire and dance, though the rest of her was crotchety and composed by the time her great grandchildren knew her. In her heyday, she was famous for her pies, apple and berry most of all, as well as the reading of tea leaves with surprising accuracy. Her faded-to-dusty-pink furniture was as stiff and uncomfortable as sitting side-saddle on a saw horse. Nevertheless it was worth sitting and studying the environs and proprietress for source of the uncanny intuition with which the family had been gifted. If only it could be better channeled to avert the tragedies; even an eleven-year-old could hope for such things. That was how old she was when her great-grandmother died, near age one hundred.
When she married, her mother gave her some pieces of Irish lace, small delicate ecru-coloured doilies and dresser scarves that were her grandmother’s then her mother’s. Family lore had it that her grandmother had made them for her dowry, taught by her mother to make Irish lace. Her grandmother had married during the great depression in this country, yet wedding photos showed an extravagant bouquet and a lovely flowing gown on glowing bride, happiness and optimism unhidden. Only the groom in his tuxedo looked less than jubilant, but he was only eighteen and in just several years he would have a house full of children.
By the time he was her grandfather, he seemed quite happy, laughing and puffing on a pipe occasionally and telling her the same jokes about a man named Flanagan. This she did not mind; they were funny, and she could not help but smile to see her grandfather’s sparkling eyes beneath his bushy white brows. His robust laughter was contagious and made him seem like a larger man than he was.
Visiting Ireland was apart from other journeys because it was a place her soul knew, at least on her mother’s side. It–her soul–anticipated bright greens and magic. In this her soul was sorely disappointed. In the years before economic revival, there was a weariness and a greyness in villages and their rivers, in hills stripped long ago of old-growth forest, in crumbling castles and churches. It wasn’t until she found the pubs that she found vibrant life. Colourful patrons with their conversations overheard, lively music with fiddle and drumming, glowing whiskies and foaming faintly-burnt and bitter draught brews: she lived on those and the fresh brown bread, the animated conversations most of all.
Eventually she fell in step with the locals and found their bakeries, their groups of running children, their gardens. One little boy playing by a bridge with his friends approached with stick in hand. His buddies huddled a few yards away. “Me mum says Americer is very dear…” And he stood awaiting her response, stood there in a little grey wool jacket and short tweedy pants. He pushed the thin dark bangs off his pale forehead and tossed his head. He was the cool one, daring to talk to tourists.
“Well yes, it is very dear, to us…” she said.
He crinkled his nose and ran off. It wasn’t until years later that she realized he’d been commenting not on how beloved America was but how expensive. She’d perhaps inadvertently discouraged his immigration, and at a time when Ireland was bleeding lifeblood; its youth were streaming elsewhere in droves. He was the daring one, yet perhaps he stayed to keep his mathair company.
When she wound away from cities and towns and into the country, she found hills dotted with cottages still with thatched roofs. There especially she felt a tenderness for those long-ago family members who braved the sea and the unknown. They’d left these hills and fields, barren though they’d been. They were still home.
She walked the windswept sand at the shore of the Dingle Peninsula, sand hard and rippled like muscle of the earth. There was strength at the sea she could both see and feel. She was pulled by promise, soft soughing of waves, fresh brisk air on her face and cool ocean foaming gently at her feet, yet weighted by the darkness of water and bruised back-lit sky. This was difficult to leave, this empathetic beauty of Irish nature.
She ran up the hill, low green grass, winding trail. She couldn’t help smiling at her girlish energy, laughing as she stumbled over stone.
And so it is with the Irish: the pull of home, the reaching and leaving, the stumbling. The getting up, the laughter.
“May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun rise warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.” – an Irish Blessing