“Ladies and gentlemen, in just a few short minutes we will begin our descent into Dublin. At this time we ask you to kindly fasten your seatbelts and return your tray tables and seat backs to their upright positions…We will be landing shortly and we thank you for choosing Ryanair.” As the plane touches down, my Irish roots nuzzle into the green earth.
I haven’t seen my dark-eyed friend in years. That summer in California, she left Sonomans intrigued with her mischievous eyes and husky voice. She had a brutish way about her that made the guys feel they could knock back a few beers with her, but then, as soon as she would flit her taut figure around and flash her dimpled smile, they would slouch a little, feeling smaller in their bar stools. There was something about Irish charm that Americans couldn’t resist.
My mom always said that Mike and Fiona were good-hearted people, old souls. They had lived in Sonoma for ten years, but when the children were still young, they moved the family back to their homeland. Ava and I met in preschool. She used to come over, and we would dance in long t-shirts, holding the remote control as a microphone while belting Beauty and the Beast tunes. When she came to Sonoma as a teenager, we reconnected instantly. We only spent a few weeks together but it was though the ten-year gap had been a mere few weeks. She told me about her boyfriend, Liam, her desire to live in California, and the crush she had on the blonde firefighter she had met the other night out with her family. I would ask her about Ireland and she would respond,
“Oh you just have to come. That would be grand.”
I took her everywhere with me that summer. We’d drive around town, stop at the Mexican food trucks, sun bathe at Evie’s pool. And all the while she would insist, “Come to Ireland! Come to Ireland…you have to come to Ireland.”
Finally, when I’m studying abroad in France, I have the chance to go to Ireland. With no working cell phone or phone number, I sit on a hard plastic chair in the airport lobby, hoping for the best. About 45 minutes after landing, I hear that familiar husky voice from behind me,
“Feck, I’ve been lookin’ all over for ye! Where have ye been!? C’mon, mam’s waitin’ out in the car.”
We embrace like long-lost friends and rush off to the airport parking lot. Fiona gets out of what I think should be the passenger side, but I notice she’s been holding steering wheel.
“Sorry that the car smells like a barn, dear. We’ve just come from the stables. Ava had to feed her horse. Welcome to Ireland!”
I muse aloud, “I thought I heard some other language on the plane. Is there such a thing as Irish?”
“Oh yeah, we speak Irish. We have to learn it in school.”
“Do you speak it a lot?”
“Not really, just when mam and I want to say something behind someone’s back…”
The first morning I spend in Dublin I experience the sun, the rain, snow, and sleet, all within just a few hours. Ava’s family lives in a two-story town house in the suburbs of Dublin. I sit in the solarium and watch the clouds blow across the sky, and the sun as it melts bits of snow covering the back lawn. I walk into the kitchen and meet Mike, Ava’s dad, who gives me a bear hug and bellows,
“Ye are as welcome as the flowers of May! How are your folks now, Chels?”
He is jolly, plump, and cozy in his green wool sweater and khaki slacks. As I devour eggs and black pudding, we sit around chatting, and he makes jokes in his thick Derry accent that elude me but make me smile nonetheless. Siofra comes in, backpack hanging from her shoulders, sweatshirt loose. She grabs me by the arm and nudges me out the door. “Let’s scoot… I want to take you into town before I have to go to class.”
Dublin is a modern city, with tall buildings and a bustling midday rush of people. We make our way down O’Connell Street and in the center divide there are pixilated billboards that display giant digital crosswalk figures that walk in place. Staring, Ava shrugs, “They light up at night…some kind of modern art.” I nod. Finally, we stop at a Roman-looking building.
“Lovely, here we are. This is the GPO, if you look closely there near the window and on some of the columns, you will see bullet holes from the Easter Rising of 1916…”
“Wait, what bullet holes?”
“Oh… do you know anything about Irish history?”
“Umm, not really….”
“This is where the leaders of the uprising staked out when they rebelled against the English. This is where they claimed Irish independence. After six days of heavy fighting with the Black and Tans…all the leaders were executed at Kilmainham Gaol…You’ll go there later. Stood in a line outside and were shot point blank…”
“Oh my god. That’s awful. What’s that a statue of?”
“Oh, that’s Cúchulainn. He’s a mythic hero. He’s some kind of figure that stands for Irish nationalism.…So does this post office.”
“So what’s the relationship between Ireland and England…”
Ava scoffs, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Do we have a- 800 years of history with the English!”
“Are there still tensions between you guys?”
“Ah! Bloody Sunday doesn’t ring a bell? And of course the Civil War wasn’t that long ago, and people still blame the English for that…Ireland has a dark history and people still aren’t over it.”
“Ohh…I had no idea.”
“I’ve gotta go to class. Quick. I’ll take you to the hop-on, hop-off bus stop. Enjoy Dublin, pet!”
Sitting on a park bench near the river Liffy, I glance at my map of Dublin and admire the ancient charm of the city. I feel its mysteries seeping out of the gothic architecture and the street signs written in old Celtic script adjacent to English words: “This way to Temple Bar, Barra an Teampaill.” I take a moment, close my eyes and like a sunflower hungry for light, I tip my chin upward towards the sky. Afar, I suddenly hear the cracking of thunder and just as quickly the wind begins to pick up. Dark, ominous clouds creep toward the city. I shiver and fortunately, the hop-on, hop-off red double-decker bus appears in the nick of time.
“We didn’t foresee this rain comin’ today,” chirps the bus driver in a spotted bowtie, as he punches a hole in my ticket. “Tanks,” he says” Get in wid ye’ now, pet.” One by one I cross off Dublin’s most notorious historical landmarks: Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the famous park where I find Oscar Wilde, sprawled back on a rock, with a twinkle in his glossy stone eyes. The day takes a turn at Kilmainham Gaol. There is no warmth here. The thunder booms as I wander the dark corridors of the prison.
“And here at Kilmainham, the leaders of the Easter Rising were locked up until their deaths. This cell held one of the most famous leaders, Joseph Plunket. Seven hours before his being shot mercilessly to death, his sweetheart Grace Gifford was brought over, and here in this chapel, they stated their wedding vows and were married…”
“Here is where they lined the men up, and where the firing squad shot them dead. The last to die of the great leaders was Joseph Connelly who, because he sustained terrible injuries, had to be tired to a chair in order to be held upright for the firing squad.”
“And afterward Michael Collins finally signed the treaty with Britain, a civil war broke out between Pro-treaty and Anti-treaty forces. It literally divided Ireland in two. The Irish who had just previously fought together for their Independence, now found themselves brutally pitted against one another. Even blood relatives turned on one another… Today it is still a cause for bitterness….”
Getting back on the bus is a short reprieve from a battlefield –I attempt to shield the horrific images that have been planted in my mind, expel them with every breath and focus on the cold winter air and the lush parks. But Grace and Joseph….
“Steven’s Green was a place for execution… One well-known execution happened to poor Paddy Dougherty, who was executed for a bit of a minor crime: armed robbery. He was hanged here and left at the gallows over night. His family snuck in to Steven’s Green and brought his body to the house of the witness who testified against him. However, he didn’t last long there either. Didn’t you hear of the body snatchers? Well, during this time, the medical students at Trinity College didn’t have enough cadavers to practice on. So they would pay large sums of money to those who would bring fresh bodies to the college…”
“Oh, and as we pass through this stone gate, we arrive at lovely St. Kevin’s Park… But you see, before becoming a park, it was actually a cemetery. During the Great Potato Famine, hundreds of bodies were buried here. Eventually the city decided to turn the place into a park, and so the bodies were moved and formally buried elsewhere. But you see those headstones propped up against the wall over there? Those belong to the bodies who were never claimed, whose entire families were wiped out, and who are still buried underneath the grass where people picnic…. This was the most famous site in Dublin for body-snatching.”
“Do you see that plaque above the door there? This was Braham Stoker’s house. It was in Dublin that his mother inspired him with her bedtime stories about the people with consumption…lepers and social outcasts, who used to creep into town in the middle of the night, sneak into people’s homes and steal their food. At night before falling asleep, Stoker would envision one of those faces, yellow-eyed and foaming at the mouth, hands pressed up against his window, desperate to be let in. And from that imagination was born the Great Dracula.”
Each time I mount back onto the bus, feeling more weary and haggard with each stop, the bus driver in the bow tie ushers me forward cooing, “Hello again, pet…How are ye likin’ Ireland so far?”
I take my time in the Guinness Storehouse, relieved to be reading about the mix of hops, barley, and yeast that craft the perfect pint. The warm and nutty scent of beer carries me through the exhibit until I dreamily arrive at the 7th floor sky bar. Round-shaped with glass windows, I take my complimentary pint of Guinness adorned with a foam shamrock and sink into one of the plush chairs that overlooks the city. As day fades to dusk, I follow as each light blinks on – a harmony of neon and electric colors.
I can’t shake the stories from Kilmainham. How could Grace Gifford survive the tragedy? All of those men who died for freedom. All of this death that permeates the city- the bullet holes that serve as reminders, the invisible blood that still stains the walls of the prison, the “faint odor of wetted ashes” and decaying bodies, death skulking at every street corner. How do the Irish go on with their daily lives, knowing? How could they forget? I let out a heavy, audible sigh.
Two American guys sit down next to me, raving about Dublin’s party scene.
“Dude, man…that was SO sick last night. We raged so hard…I love Ireland!”
“We should totally go back to the Temple Bar again tonight. I think there’s live music, bro..”
I chime in softly, “So, you guys from the States?”
They both snap their heads in my direction, pleasantly surprised to be interrupted by a female voicel.
“Yeah! We’re from the East Coast. How about you?”
“Oh, I’m from California…just visiting for a few days.”
“How you likin’ Dublin. Pretty sweet right? We’re just bummed we won’t be here for St. Patrick’s Day. We hear it’s the party of the century! These Irish people definitely know how to drink. Kinda hard to keep up…”
“Haha… well, you know…I haven’t really gone out yet.”
“Ohhhh…” They scan my immediate surroundings, “Are you here…a-lone or somethin’?”
As they flash me a sorry, pathetic look, I realize I am very much alone. I’ve spent the whole day alone. And yet, my eyes glaze over as I take a sip of Guinness.
“Well no…actually, I’m just doing some sightseeing while my friend’s at school. I’m staying with her family just outside of Dublin. Damn though, this city is intense, don’t you think? Have you guys been visiting too? The history… Ugh… is so depressing…”
“Damnnn, you have an Irish friend? That’s sick! You should totally have her take you out. We haven’t had much time to visit. We usually end up staying out late and spending the whole day catching up on sleep in the hostel!
“Haha… that’s awesome. Well, it was nice to meet you…have a great time.” I smile and turn back to the view. Alone again with my thoughts. Some moments are just better experienced in solitude.
When I get back to the house, Fiona is sitting at the table, her forehead resting in her hands, elbows propped up on the table. She sees me and gets up to give me a hug.
“What’s wrong, Fiona?” I ask.
“Ohh, hello love. It’s just that my friend’s mother just passed away. She had bone cancer. It was just terrible. Such a tragedy…Lord, Mary…” Tears stream down her face.
“I’m so sorry,…”
“I’m alright, pet. These things happen. Why don’t you go have a rest in the living room with Darragh. Tomorrow morning we’ll be leaving early for Clare for the music festival.”
I go into the living room and see Darragh, 16 years old, pale, thin, with radiant blue eyes, lounging near the fireplace. He looks up at me from his book and smiles.
I remember my mom telling me that when Darragh was born he could fit into the palm of your hand. He had a premature birth, was lucky to have even survived. He seems to wear a subtle glow of his good luck. His calm demeanor enveloped the room .
“How are you liking Dublin so far?”
I had forgotten he had something strange with his voice. It cracked softly when he spoke.
“I’m really liking it! I had no idea Dublin had such a dark history…I just actually came from the Guinness factory. I hear Guinness is like Ireland’s pride and glory.”
“Yes, that’s true. Can’t say I’ve tried it though. I don’t drink.”
“I know, I know… The Irish guy who doesn’t drink…What else did you see?”
“Trinity college, Kilmainham, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the Irish Writer’s museum…”
“Did you know that James Joyce went to my high school?”
“Yeah…one of the characters in “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” is based on one of the old teachers there…”
“So what was the most memorable place you visited?”
“I think Kilmainham…I can’t get over the Easter Rising …And oh, at that park that still has all of the dead bodies buried beneath the ground. So creepy.”
“Oh yeah, I know…But don’t worry. Would you like to know the perfect remedy for such heavy thoughts?
“Come on… let me introduce you to Ireland’s very own Father Ted.”
We sit on the couch and begin to watch the first episode called “Good Luck, Father Ted.” Quickly, we are immersed in the misadventures of three priests who have been exiled to Craggy Island, entertaining themselves on the “whirly-go round” at the fun fair, throwing bottles of whisky at the TV, and mistaking Madonna’s “Papa don’t Preach” for the Lord’s Prayer. A blatant mockery of the Catholic Church, the absurd humor makes me laugh deep from my gut until it’s searing with pain, and my eyes are producing a steady stream of tears.
“Ah, Father Ted. Brilliant!” Ava comes in and snuggles in next to me to me on the couch. We watch three more episodes. Later, we jump into our beds upstairs and I fall asleep to her musing about her horse, her boyfriend, and her nostalgia for the warm California summers and easy living.
“Rise and shine, girls! Get ready for the festival…Auntie Lizzy is waiting for us,” shouts Fiona the next morning. We hurriedly collect our things and Mike drops us off at the train station. On the train, we stuff our faces with Cadbury eggs and crisps. Ava is grumpy and tired, and snaps at her mother. The conductor passes, scolding her for having her feet up on the seat, while he examines our tickets. She frowns at him and munches her oil and vinegar potato crisps loudly. Jean begins to tell me about Clare…
“The Celts were in Clare and for that, it is home of traditional Irish music. Some of Ireland’s most important musicians also come from Clare. We go to the Corofin Music Festival just about every year! Clare was the home of the High King of Ireland…until the English took it. But here they were also plotting the 1798 rebellion… Oh, and the Cliffs of Moher are on the Atlantic coast, and are just beautiful. It’s a pity that we won’t be able to make a trip out there…”
During the train ride, Fiona continues to recount old Irish folklore. My forehead presses against the cold windowpane as I soak in the hillsides blanketed in green. I imagine the high mound where the ancient king sat, the hills that whisper secrets of midnight betrayals and rebellion against the English invaders. The land has seen it all. The truth and the legends intertwine, buried into every nook and cranny of her soil.
“Just wait until ye hear the music,” grumbles Ava.
The village of Corofin is made up of one small street that probably has more bars than it does people. It’s 5 p.m. and strings of lights decorate the trim of storefronts. People are spilling out of the entrances of the pubs.
“Have you ever seen so many pubs on one street?” chuckles Lizzy, Ava’s aunt.
“Where are the stages?”
“Oh, no. It’s not that kind of festival my dear. These are pub sessions. The musicians are among us. You’ll see!”
Suddenly we are shuffled inside a musty pub called Anglers Rest. Amid the crowd of people, in the middle of the room sits a group of musicians in a circle, each with an instrument: Banjos, fiddles, clarinets, harmonicas, and accordions. An old man in a worn brown suit, holding a pint in one hand, taps his heels and lifts his knees high up as he skips along to the music. A little girl with pink bows in her hair skips out to join him, and their hands interlace. They twirl around and around, shoulders erect, eternal bounce in their step. People clap along, hoot and holler. Musicians pause and join in, but the music never stops– the flutes and the violins, the dancers’ clicking shoes, the murmur of lively voices, the thick stream of stout pouring from the tap- all in sync. The woman next to me places another pint in my hand and guzzles down her own drink. The fireplace blazes. For what seems like hours, the music goes on. People step in and bow out, taking turns. The buzz of chatter and hearty laughter fill the room as pints go around. The woman who handed me the beer is now passed out on a wooden chair in the corner. Her husband stands next to me at the bar and flashes me a toothless smile, another Irish twinkle in his eye. Each jig merry and bright, we tap our feet, nod our heads, clap our hands and sing along. So this is where the Irish come to forget all their troubles…
The man sitting in front of me stands up as the music starts to fade out. He is clad in a short-sleeved pinstriped shirt. His Donegal tweed hat matches soft brown eyes, and his large belly protrudes from his body. The musicians calm their instruments and a hush falls over the crowd. The man begins to sing,
“Oh the winter it has passed
And the summer’s come at last…
As his vocals reverberate, the gold-lined chords melt from his tongue and hang in midair. A deep melancholy settles over the people. No one stirs.
“And the small birds are singing in the trees
And their little hearts are glad
Ah, but mine is very sad
Since my true love is far away from me”
“And straight I will repair
To the Curragh of Kildare…”
For it’s there I’ll finds tidings of my dear…
For it’s there I’ll find tidings of my dear”
Time is suspended as the spirits rise from behind the bar. They leave white trails as they twirl around the people and graze their ashen faces. Grace smiles. I feel myself getting faint.
“A Livery I’ll wear and I’ll comb back my hair
And in Velvet so green I will appear
For I’m going far away ah but I’ll return some day
I’ll return to the land that I hold dear…”
The lyrics speak for all of Ireland. The lyrics resurrect tears that flow like green liquid diamonds. They follow his voice…
“All you who are in love
Aye and cannot it remove
I pity all the pain that you endure
For experience lets me know
That your hearts are full of woe
A woe that no mortal can cure”
Grace tells me this song will protect us from the menacing threats that are lurking behind the hills. In his words I’ll find shelter, the voice of an angel, the whisper of the violin.
My body gets hot and I’m rattling in my own skin and muttering to myself. Just as the folk music picks up again, the banjo and the harmonica, the river dancers and the girl with the pink bow…. my body crumples to the floor.
Two days later, I’m back in Dublin with a 102-degree fever. They say it’s a nasty flu. I’m so pale; they say it looks as though I’ve seen a ghost. I haven’t left the bed, but Ava and Fiona, Darragh, and Mike; they all take turns coming up to my room, pouring me tea, dabbing my forehead with a cold washcloth, adjusting the bedding to make sure I’m comfortable. Fiona worries and calls my mother to check in. Darragh pops in a DVD of Father Ted. Mike cracks jokes that I don’t understand. After class, Ava comes upstairs and settles in at the foot of my bed, daydreaming out loud about how next time we are together in California, we can ogle at the fit lads at Evies’s pool, and eat lots of tacos…
Somehow I find myself back on the plane. Somehow I’m at the train station…. The fever breaks when I’m back in my bed in France, and when I wake up, it’s as if I’ve suddenly come to. Visions of my first taste of Ireland, home of my ancestors: the mists of the green hills and ghost stories, riveting music and toothless smiles in the pub, come back to me like a dream. I long to be back under her spell.