At Swim Two Words
In Ireland, everything was grand.
Dublin was grand; Dublin was lovely. Why wouldn’t I like a city where most of the people looked like they could be my cousins and everyone sounded like my father?
Dublin was also very cosmopolitan. Three of the Internet cafes I’d given up searching for in Italy flourished within a few blocks of my hotel. Grafton Street store windows flaunted styles Soho might envy, while restaurant menus featured salads of mesclun. Banner ads on the sides of buses offered help with depression. Things had changed since my visit with my father thirty years ago. Dublin was a world city now.
I’d taken this trip in honor of my late father. Raised in Ahascragh, a small village in County Galway, Dad hadn’t been a big city guy. Despite my vow not to become another annoying Yank in search of her roots, I wanted to head to the West immediately.
I hurried back to the hotel to call my Aunt Julia and ask if I could visit earlier than planned.
My father’s sister’s phone number wasn’t in my traveling address book. Cursing my stupidity while picturing the precise page where it was inscribed at home, I found the number for directory listing. No listing. I remembered the McDonoghs down the road in Ahascragh, whose house I’d visited as a teenager. They’d be sure to have Julia’s number. Directory listing offered seven McDonoghs. The phone charges on the hotel bill would be more than the price of the room. Wait, both Mr. and Mrs. McDonogh had been school teachers. I tried the Ahascragh school.
The schoolmaster knew the McDonoghs, of course he did. He also knew that they were on holiday. Chuckling at my predicament, he asked if it would help if he gave me my aunt’s number instead. He’d seen her just yesterday. Would I have time for a cup of tea at the school when I visited Ahascragh?
Aunt Julia suggested I hop in the car and come that very evening. She’d have a thousand welcomes waiting, whenever I appeared. When I asked for directions to the house, she rattled something about a fire station and the street with the big trees. Sure, I’d know it when I saw it. She’d have the kettle on. We’d have a bite and a bit of a chat when I arrived tomorrow afternoon.
I mastered driving on the left side of the road by the time I found my way out of Dublin the next morning. Glad to be traveling in February, I shuddered at the thought of driving in the summer months, when half the other drivers would be confused Americans. I didn’t worry about my vague directions till I approached my destination.
Ahascragh hid in the map’s smallest font, but I did in fact recognize the lane with the big trees. Maybe the Irish mist had nurtured my memory. Aunt Julia stood waving in the yard before I closed the gates behind me.
The house my father was born in looked unchanged from the day he’d first proudly shown me his family home. I remembered the smell of the peat fire, Julia’s garden, and the verdant fields outside. I also remembered the table, covered with a fine cloth and platters of food enough for a bus tour. When I protested about the trouble Julia had gone to, she told me we couldn’t talk with nothing but a cup of tea between us.
I ate four pieces of the brown bread she’d baked that morning, and roasted chicken, and chunks of boiled bacon, and salad, and cheese, and cucumbers, and, yes, cabbage and potatoes. I couldn’t count the cups of tea we drank from the flowered pot kept warm on the stone hearth.
We told stories, traded gossip. I asked my aunt the family history questions I should have asked my father. Her anecdotes painted images more colorful than any in the National Museum. Julia brought out boxes of old photographs, some of which are now enlarged on my living room wall. We bemoaned the lack of a picture of Julia’s grandmother, my great-grandmother. I was, Julia insisted, her very image.
My aunt found a pillowcase edged with lace my grandmother had tatted and folded it in tissue paper, then tied the package with red string. Remembering how much I’d loved her brown bread thirty years ago, she’d made an extra loaf for me to take on my travels. After I admired her garden and told her about my own, she wrapped a fern clipping in layers of wet paper and advised me to smuggle it home in my toiletry bag. It would be fine as long as I kept the roots damp, God willing.
Julia and I had wept when I arrived; we wept again when I left for the long drive to Galway City. Only plans for another visit in a few days’ time saved the dirt in the yard from turning to mud.
Twenty minutes on winding, dark, lanes tested my new comfort level with Irish rules of the road. I couldn’t help a sharp intake of breath each time headlights careened at me through heavy fog. The town of Ballinasloe approached. Dad had brought me to meet friends in Ballinasloe on our earlier visit The town of Ballinasloe appeared like a grand place to spend the night. Memories might flourish in the dark, but touring the countryside is best done in daylight.
The owner of Hayden’s Hotel asked if I might be one of the Ahascragh Jennings, and wondered why I’d only be staying the one night. He and my father were great boyhood friends. We should all raise a glass in Dad’s honor. I wondered how many glasses he’d raised with Dad.
The next morning, I followed the dual English and Irish signposts pointing toward Galway, eventually recognizing those that directed me to Gaillimhe. Wide stretches of four-lane highway narrowed as the road passed through small towns with marvelous, tongue-tripping names. Traffic Calming Ahead notices warned me to reduce my speed. Showers traded sky space with sunlight. I saw several of those hand-of-God shafts pointing down, sometimes toward unremarkable fields and once to hilltop ruins that traffic rushed me past too quickly.
Like thousands of others, I remembered the green of Ireland from my earlier visit. This time, the subtle spectrum of gray fascinated me. Weather-beaten lichen on boulders, darkly damp cobblestones, sun-bathed stone fences, shadowy ruins, stained plaster walls, the wings of a gull, and ephemeral clouds created rainbows in gray. The puddles, rivers, lakes, and streams reflected the grays, threw them back toward the fierce sea.
Galway boasts that she is the fastest growing city in western Europe. The new housing developments and strip malls on the way into town’s center supported her claim. But the heart of the town, the twisting medieval streets, proved that the center can sometimes hold.
Dublin may be the official capital of the country, but Galway was the capitol of my Ireland. My father had often talked about the glorious young years he’d spent in Galway. She drew me in, too.
Quay Street, High Street, Shop Street – all allow vehicular traffic, all were designed for men and women on their own two legs. I parked my rental car in the hotel’s garage and didn’t open its doors again till I drove out of town four days later.
My hotel perched above the River Corrib, just off the Wolfe Tone Bridge. The view of the river rushing under the bridge annulled the room’s jarringly modern furnishings. Gulls skimmed inland over the fast-moving water. Gusts of rain blustered over pedestrians on the bridge and almost hid the Spanish Arch, built in the sixteenth century to protect Galway from marauders. Twenty minutes later, the sun glittered off the water and pedestrians swung furled umbrellas. The sky promised a splendid sunset over Galway Bay. I hoped it would compensate for the tortured versions of the song I’d heard at too many parties as a child.
I put my aunt’s clipping in a water glass and positioned her bread next to the ubiquitous tea-making machine on the table. Her gifts warmed the room, made me less a stranger.
Paris in the twenties? Manhattan in the forties? North Beach in the fifties? I fell in love with Galway in the nineties. The city felt alive to me, with an artistic energy both modern and ancient. Posters advertised theatres large and small, plays new and old, poetry readings in English, poetry readings in Irish, and music enough for several centuries’ long nights.
Then I found the bookstores. My first visit to Kennys Bookshop and Art Gallery lasted hours. I started stacking books to ship and books to carry. When I found a book written by a friend in San Francisco, Des Kenny introduced himself. Sean wasn’t our only mutual San Francisco friend.
The sun went down on Galway Bay without any admiration from me that night. The warm lights and thousands of brightly colored dust jackets in Kenny’s had distracted me from testing the lyric’s promise. It had been dark for quite a while before I left the store. I returned every day I was in Galway, though, and Des still sends me parcels of books. Shrewd Des even promised to carry any book I might ever write ‘of Irish interest.’ Galway’s other print purveyors profited from my custom too.
I walked around the narrow streets, looked in the windows of stores closed for the night. Buskers played Bob Dylan and much, much older ballads. Yet more music poured out of the pubs. A young woman, head swathed in a traditional shawl against the light rain, shrugged her shawl down onto her shoulders before she opened one pub’s door. The punkeen’s hair was almost as blue as her eyes, while her forehead’s faint Ash Wednesday smudge was lighter than her thick mascara. I added a black shawl to my shopping wish list.
Another San Francisco friend had made me promise to give his best to a barman at the Quays pub. I dutifully ducked into its bar, a fire-warmed room that subsequent visits would prove to be one of several bars in this multilevel pub built around an old church. Later visits revealed a cozy reading room lined with books, other bars, dining areas, music stages, and more levels than I ever quite mastered. Another nearby pub, the Slate House, was undoubtedly more boisterous than it had been in its original incarnation as a seventeenth-century Dominican convent, particularly after Cromwell’s ban on Catholic clergy forced the nuns to occupy their convent in secret.
It has been said that religion and drink battle for Ireland’s souls. The two forces maintain interesting truces in Galway.
Heathen or holy in origin, many of Galway’s pubs sprawl on and on. Later that evening, I walked into a small, quiet, room, then followed the sounds of a fiddle to other rooms behind and above the front bar. Often, what looked like a snug one-room establishment from the street slowly unfolded into a series of spaces connected by the odd flight of stairs or small hallways. I found myself walking into a pub from one street and eventually leaving the same establishment through a door onto the next street over.
The Ladies’ Lounges I remembered from my visit with Dad had disappeared in the intervening decades. As many women of all ages stood chatting vivaciously at the bars as sat at demure side tables. Galway houses the Nora Barnacle Museum, after all. Dublin swarmed with James Joyce trails; Galway gave his wife her own museum.
“Tell me now, darlin’, how long were you over beyond?” The bartender wiped the wooden bar with a dry towel. I tried to parse his question.
Beyond meant America, of course. My first night in Galway, and I’d already passed a test, though I’d done my homework unconsciously.
Despite my scathing hatred of the fake brogues we’re subjected to at home every March, three days in Ireland had started me inadvertently echoing the lilting intonations and glorious patterns of an Irish voice. I sounded like my father.
It’s hard to stay a stranger in Ireland.
When I regretfully admitted to the Quays bartender that I was a Yank myself, he wanted to know where in Ireland my people were from, then summoned a waiter from Ahascragh to see if he knew my family. He did, of course, and a woman three stools over had cousins in Ballinasloe. Most people I met had friends or family in the States, although for the first time in history more Irish were now returning home than emigrating to America. I understood why.
I eavesdropped on two strapping fellows standing behind me. Dressed in spattered workclothes, obligatory pints of Guinness in hand, they looked like bricklayers. Their passionate conversation centered on a serious structural comparison of two cutting-edge Irish poets. They were poets themselves, and entirely delighted to meet another writer when I tentatively joined their discussion. Every person I talked to in Ireland was delighted to meet a writer.
In all the Irish pubs I visited, I never saw anyone drunk, unless perhaps intoxicated by conversation. Many people even drank mineral water. The talk flowed much faster than the Guinness.
Geniality wasn’t limited to the pubs. As children, we mocked my father’s need for social contact with everyone he encountered. The day he talked to twenty-three people in the supermarket was ensconced in family legend. I, who had learned to avoid even eye contact when I lived in New York City, began to understand my father’s habits.
In Ireland, every transaction was a conversation. Only heathen barbarians would avoid the chance to talk. Requests for directions evoked Homeric narratives. A muttered “Excuse me,” when moving through a crowd elicited a reassuring chorus of “You’re fine, love.” I slighted many impressive meals by wishing I could transcribe every word of every conversation at the surrounding tables. Even the Irish weather was an inexhaustible topic.
An ocean of talk floods the small island. I swam under, over, and through that talk, floating on the swells of a language as necessary to life as water itself.
My aunt’s brown bread is long devoured, and my attempts at her recipe have yet to match her cookery skill. I drape the heirloom pillowcase over my computer each night, wondering what my grandmother would think to see her delicate handiwork silence my chattering keys. The smuggled fern flourishes in a gray pot on my deck. Friends say my voice lilts a bit when I encourage it to grow.
–Originally published in Tiny Lights