Chapter I.i: It’s 8am and the bells are ringing.


It’s 8am and the bells are ringing.  The bells are always ringing in this city.  They ring from the seven low summits and the shallow valleys between; they count time and call the faithful and otherwise remind a man of his own mortality.

There’s an empy bottle of cheap chianti on the nightstand, and next to that a Bible, and on top of that a pack of cigarettes, and next to all of this is a bed, and in the bed a young man stirred.  The young man sat up, and looked around the room.  Barren, cool, stoic.  He blinked the sleep away and banished his hangover with a wince and got to his feet.  The stone floor chilled him as he walked to the window, and the crucifix on the wall hung heavily as he passed.   His room was littered with books and empty wine bottles, mostly philosophy and mostly red.  A new day, a new bottle, the same book.

The young man pushed open the wooden shutters, and he was filled with Rome.  He’d been here nearly three months and could feel the novelty fading away.  Still, the view of the ancient and eternal cityscape was something to behold.  Terracotta roof tiles undulated on top of pale buildings as far as he could see, and in the distance was dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, at once both ominous and beautiful.

Get up, shave, get dressed.  Go through the motions.  Even in this paradise, the motions are the same.  The motions are always the same, and the banality used to irked the man but now he mused at the ubiquity of it.  A part of the human condition!  All men go through the motions.   But there was the faintest pang of anticipation today, because today there was something new:  a job deep underground.

Bongiorno Tomasso!” bellowed the plump priest as the young man descended the staircase and entered the kitchen.  Like his room, the kitchen is spartan, old, charming.  The mason work is medieval, and the morning sun pours into the tall room through the highly mounted windows, giving the room a warm, cavernous glow which matched the demeanor of the priest within.

Bongiorno Padre,” said Thomas, “how are you?”

In Italiano, Tomasso, in Italiano!” he replied.

Thomas nodded and offered a weak smile.  “Come stai?”

Bene, bene! I have made you breakfast, Tomasso.  Please, sit, sit.”

Thomas took at seat at the long, wooden table in the center of the kitchen.   He thought it was oaken, but thought it might also be poplar.  He was no carpenter, and the monastery reminded him of this regularly.  It is smooth and worn and beautiful, like everything in this city.  The priest waddled toward the young man, an affable grin on his face. And Thomas wondered, as he often had before, Why is this guy always so happy? And Thomas was jealous of it.

“Here you go Tomasso,” said the priest, “eggs and toast and black coffee, just like you told me.  Just like in America, yes?”

Thomas smiled and said, “Si, Padre, just like in America, just like home.  Grazie.”

Prego!” said the priest with a ivory grin, “You Americans, Tomasso, your breakfasts…They are big, like a lunch!  Why are they this way?”

Thomas put down his mug and jabbed at his eggs.  “I’m not sure, Padre.  I guess we just need the energy to get through the day.”

Si, you Americans, you love to work,” said the priest, and shook his head and clucked his tongue.  Thomas ignored this is an knowingly sort of way.

“Speaking of,” said the young man as he finished his coffee and stood up, “I need to get going.  I don’t want to be late.”

Thomas walked through the central courtyard and exited the monastery though the heavy, bronze plated doors.  The springtime air on the Aventine Hill is crisp and lingering and abuzz with the life of the city below.  Thomas liked this, and it reminded him a bit of central California, where he grew up.  He lit a cigarette and walked along the Clivo dei Publicci, down the hill to the bus stop, where he would catch a ride to the catacombs.

Thomas did not like work, at least not in the traditional sense, and the crowded bus reminded him of this.  More people going through the motions.


Spring Break, Part the Fifth

I write, now, of a day long anticipated. It’s easy to romanticize it. Maybe it’s the human thing to do: think about your heritage and romanticize it. You paint a sepia picture of the land of your ancestors, crisp and glossy and full of cultural purity. There’s a simplicity about it that cultivates a sense of innocence — a mental refuge from the modern vices of your intricate life.

I hadn’t anticipated this day would start as it had: with me sitting on the beach, next to my cousin’s girlfriend, watching him and his friends surf. But it did, and in doing so it paved the way for a journey back into time as the the day progressed.

Rónán surfs for an hour or so, and my anticipation swells with the waves. We’re soon on the road again, making our way back across the Brandon Mountains and through Dingle. We arrive at a rather large house perched high on a hill with a commanding view of the bay and the town, which looks small and flat in the distance. The house belongs to Maura and Shane O’Connor — she is Tim’s sister, making her my Grandmother’s niece, and my second cousin, once removed.

Maura looks to be in her late 60s or early 70s and is of average stature. She has soft-looking skin and a kind face that always seems like it’s about to explode with expression. She beckons us in with all the unabridged hospitality that seems to be the norm in this land. She guides us to the dining room where a quaint and bountiful lunch awaits us.  She pours tea and we launch into conversation: about the family, about Dingle, about friends, and about me. Soon a new-looking, dark blue Lexus sedan rolls into the driveway. Doors open and close, and soon Shane appears in the dining room. He’s a fleshy man, with greyish white hair and a high brow. His wit is both quick and sharp, and his good humor reflects the way he is still in touch with his humble beginnings, despite the fortune he has made.

He had run a butcher shop in Dingle, and spent years living in quarters above the shop. Now he lived high above the whole town. Enraptured by the panorama, I remark that it’s a “million dollar view.” Maura smiles and tells me that my grandfather said the same thing when he first saw it.

The surrounding land is speckled with livestock here and there; mostly cattle.   Rónán points to the far corner of the lot, along the main road into Dingle, where there seems to be some sort of large construction project under way.

“What’s happening down there?” he asks.

“Ah, they’re building a new hospital,” Maura replies.

“You sold some land then, did ya?” says Ró.

Maura smiles and shakes her head, and I think I catch a faint blush.

Rónán inquires further, but with grace and humility she sidesteps the question, and I get the distinct impression that the O’Connors may have donated the land for the hospital.

They’re a munificent bunch, my Irish relatives. They believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son and through him they act out of love for Love, and through love they expect nothing in return.

Lunch is over now, and Ró and Sarah must be going. We say our goodbyes and extend mutual offers of hospitality, vowing to stay in touch and see each other again. I met him less than 24 hours ago, but I feel like I’ve known Rónán for years. A filial bond, perhaps, or maybe just a simple compatibility of character, but I feel so immensely related to him, and I know that it’s the result of the profoundly good upbringing shared by our ancestors, passed on through the generations. They pull out of the driveway, and I feel a dull sadness at their departure, but the sun is high in the sky, and, at any rate, Shane, Maura and I must be going as well.

* * *

Speak to me. From the hills and the rocks and the jaggedly cropped mountains, speak to me. What stories can you tell? What stories of triumph, what tales of sorrow? Remind me of the laughter and the love, but tell me also of the pain and the anguish. This wild landscape, this melancholy air; how did you produce such a civilized, virtuous, warmhearted people?

* * *

The road dodges and bends with the buckled landscape. We pass through boggy lowlands, and not another car is in sight. Sheep dot the land like spilled salt, each branded with a splash of green or blue or pink or some other bright color on their backs to identify them to their owners. They pay no attention to the passing Lexus, grazing with an eternal banality. Turf fires are burning on the hills — an ancient means of rejuvenating the land, Shane explains. Illegal, but virtually impossible to police.

The road is a single lane, and in the entire hour or so that we are on it, we pull over only once or twice to allow a car coming in the opposite direction to pass. Maura explains the old Irish definition of a road: take two cows and place them adjacent to each other at a 90 degree angle; if you can fit that whole lot on whatever path you’re traveling down, then it is legally wide enough to be deemed a road. The path we’re on just barely meets this definition.

The road, paved in dark gray asphalt, winds anachronistically through the otherwise unblemished landscape. It accents the hills and irregularities of the landscape like some massive postmodern masterpiece. And above us, now, looms Corrán Tuathail the highest peak of the Mountains of East Kerry, and the highest summit in all of Ireland. Threadbare and bleak, it reigns over the landscape with all the poise and posture of an unchallenged king. The road switchbacks into the heavens, and we pass beneath the summit of The Black Stacks. Before us unfolds the the coastal plains of East Kerry.

The road leads to Killeenleagh. The road leads to provenance. The road leads to the birthplace and childhood home of my Grandmother, Noreen O’Shea McEntee. Maura narrates as we pass family landmarks: your Grandmother’s cousin worked here, your great Uncle labored here, and so on and so forth.

* * *

What is it that’s so intriguing about the birthplace and childhood home of an ancestor? What draws us to make these pilgrimages, compels us to cross oceans and traverse mountains? There’s a subtle irony in it all: they left and now we return, if only temporarily. “To find out where I came from,” one might answer, and that’s fair enough, I suppose. Certainly, it can bring clarity to our understanding of our ancestors, and that in and of itself is valuable. But is that the fundamental reason we seek out our inherited past? Perhaps. Perhaps, also, it’s a subconscious fascination with the spectrum of our mortality — not just what comes after, but what came before us. To smell the air of our ancestors and walk ponderously on their soil. To try to grasp the enormous series of events that came together to create our own lives. To find meaning in our own life through the wearisome lives of our ancestors.

* * *

Before we visit Grandma’s home, we pay a visit to Maura’s brother, Father Padraig. He’s spending the day in the house of his (and Maura’s) childhood, ostensibly clearing his mind and preparing for Holy Week. He is currently at his (and Maura’s) childhood home, in the village of Mastergeehy, a few miles down the road, past Killeenleagh. The village is a ghost town, gray and empty, seemingly abandoned for years. He greets us with the terse warmth of a deeply pensive man — quiet but disarming. He looks at me deeply, and I know he’s looking for his Aunt Noreen, and I think he knows that I’m looking for her, too.

He beckons us in, and Maura sets about preparing tea and biscuits. We sit down in a small but quaint living room. The wallpaper is light blue and garnished with a pattern of festoons. The furniture is sturdy and constructed of a dark wood — oak perhaps. The walls are adorned with old pictures and paintings and a Papal blessing for an ancestor’s marriage.

Shane O'Connor, myself, and Father Padraig Sugrue

Shane O'Connor, myself, and Father Padraig Sugrue

Father Padraig leaves the room momentarily and reappears holding a stack of photographs. They’re old, but in good condition, no doubt due to the love yielded by the hands that have held them over the generations. He hands me a photograph and asks me if I can identify the person in the picture. A young girl stares back at me. She is standing in a yard, dressed in what must be her gown reserved for Sundays and special occasions. Her features are soft, her face porcelain. But her eyes: sharp and penetrating and beautiful, just as they are to this day. It’s Grandma.

We go through dozens of photos. At first, Father Padraig identifies each person for me, but after a while he goes silent and it’s understood that I’ve been introduced to the faces of just about everyone. Photograph after photograph, and I realize how precious little I know about my maternal Grandparents’ childhood. I had never seen childhood pictures of them. And why would I? They didn’t bring pictures of themselves across the Atlantic, and there just hadn’t been any pressing reason to have copies of them on hand later in life. I reckon there must be family portraits or at least photos of parents and siblings tucked away in some sacred corner of my Grandmother’s possessions, but I can’t recall ever seeing them.

In the corner of the room is a glass case filled with photographs and trinkets. Upon closer inspection, it occurs to me that they are mementos from one of my favorite stories of my grandmother’s childhood. In it are model airplanes, one clearly made of scrap metal or debris, and pictures of a similar looking plane. It appears to be a bomber, clearly marked with German insignia. During the Battle of Britain, it crashed landed in a nearby field, and my ancestors befriended the stranded German airmen. By all accounts, they were warm, friendly young men, happy to receive the hospitality of the Irish. It’s worth noting that this was years before the atrocities of the Nazis came to light, and less than two decades after Ireland won its independence from the British — centuries of tyrannical rule at their hands were very recent memories.  I’m told, to that end, that the locals were happy to greet these men who were fighting the British.

It’s a prophetic trip, seeing Father Padraig, and I feel supremely prepared for the remainder of the day’s journey. We bid each other farewell, and depart. Back through the abandoned village to the main road that leads back to Killeenleagh stopping for a moment to take pictures of a tattered, dilapidated old schoolhouse — Grandma’s schoolhouse.

Grandma's childhood schoolhouse

The building was wretched; everything crumbling and rotting, and the whole structure seemed to slump with exhaustion.  How long it had been abandoned, I couldn’t tell. It looked as if it had been made into some sort of miniature gymnasium near the end of its life, with basketball hoops up on the walls. And I wonder, now, what sort of wisdom was imparted between these walls, what knowledge had made its way from here to my own upbringing? And the Philosopher will tell you: buildings may fall, matter may lose its form, but ideas — well, those are eternal.

Inside the schoolhouse

Inside the schoolhouse

Back up the road we go with the evening sun at our backs, dampened by a veil of clouds. The River Inny runs parallel to the road, lapping at its banks; a faithful companion. The road is empty and the ride is short. We soon pull into a gravel driveway, round a hedge, and there it is. Grandma’s home. Silent and stalwart, it stands there as it did 80 years ago. The walls are white, tarnished here and there with streaks of grime. The backyard is damp and boggy, and the masonry sheds contain small piles of turf — fuel and warmth.

We are met by Dennis O’Shea, my Grandmother’s nephew. He is the caretaker of the property, having inherited it from his father, John. The house is currently being rented out, but the tenants aren’t home, and Dennis is happy to let us in for a peak.

* * *

Here is the place of your birth, the place of your youth, the place of your upbringing. You took your first steps here and spoke your first words there. Where did you learn to act with such dignity, with such grace, with such humility? Is that where you said your first prayer, prayed your first Rosary? There was laughter here, and I know there were tears. Times were hard and there was always work to be done. But you made it, and so did your children and so will I.

* * *

I’m told that the stove in the kitchen is original, as is the fireplace. So are the stone floors. Beyond that, the furniture and decor are mostly unoriginal. The heart of the house is clearly the kitchen. A source of warmth, and sustenance, the front door originally opened directly to it (though a wall has recently been installed to help retain warmth). The rest of the house sort of spins off of the kitchen, with a parlor off to one side, and a storage room off to the other. A narrow set of stairs takes you to the second floor, where there are a few bedrooms and a bathroom.

The house is not large. It’s certainly not small, but when one considers that a family of 15 lived here — as they did all those years ago — it is unequivocally small. And I understand now: there’s nothing truly winsome about the way of life associated with this place, nothing romantic. Of course, I’d always known that it hadn’t been glamorous, but still, it had been so easy to romanticize the good-old-days of my ancestors from afar. I had developed false nostalgia for an elegant, simple way of life in the Irish countryside. It’s so easy to do. My grandparents grew up on farms in Ireland — it rolls of the tongue and sounds so quaint and charming.

But here I am, staring the beast in the face and there’s nothing pleasant about it. It was poverty. I’d heard Grandma say it before, and now I see it. In the spartan woodwork and the stone floor, in the piles of turf and the soggy ground. Life hadn’t been easy here, and we must recognize this. When we speak of our ancestors, we must acknowledge this, and then, only then, may we come to grasp at the wisps of virtue cultivated here. That hard work brings value to life, that happiness is to be found in the small things, that religion and family ought always to come first — these are the lessons to take away.

And it is with this in mind that we leave Grandma’s home. But first we stop at the bridge over the Inny on the property, and I admire the land of my ancestors. The water reflects the waning sky in mimetic approval, and in the distance I can see the big oak tree, under the shade of which rests the remains of my great uncle John. I admire the green and the blue, the rocks and the mountains, and I give thanks:  thanks to Grandma and to Grandpa and to all my ancestors, who endured and persevered and secured such a happy life for their descendants.

Spring Break, Part the Fourth

Tuesday, March 18 – Dingle, County Kerry

The surfers are up early.  We take a quick breakfast — instant coffee and Oatbix — and then hit the road.  Reports say the surf is good off the Maharees, so we point the car in that direction.  But between us and the waves lie the Brandon Mountains.  It’s not a terribly menacing range, at least not in the age of GPS and rear differentials, but there’s something about it that subtly domineers.  The lack of chintzy McMansions which would undoubtedly and unashamedly ravage such real estate back home is utterly refreshing and the gentle southern slope makes one wax poetically about all the grandfatherly wisdom this mountain must contain.

Myself and Rónán at the crest of Conor Pass.

The Conor Pass takes us over the mountain, and the view from the crest is best summarized in stale words like phenomenal, breathtaking and incredible.  It’s amazing how elevation piques the senses.  The road that cuts across the northern slope offers a bit of an existential experience:  one lane shared by two directions of traffic, with the massive drop on one side offering a certain, gravity-induced demise.  I took this footage on the way back; have a look:

While Ro and the guys surfed, I sat on the beach with Sarah and talked.  She spoke about the Ireland of then and now, of the have-not and the have.  It was only 20 years ago that Ireland was economically out of step with Western European standards.  She remembers how it was when she was a child.  Money was tight for everyone.  Big families crammed into small apartments.  Then Ireland joined the EU, the foreign investment came, and the country assumed an enviable sort of prosperity.  But she’s afraid it might not last, that the past is the future, that people are resting a bit to comfortably on their laurels.  Empires fall — history tells us that much — and the weak get overrun.  Yet, somehow, Ireland has remained somewhere in between.  Untouched by the Romans and untamable to the British, this people persists, and in this we find comfort.

Spring Break, Part the Third

March 17, 2008 Dingle, County Kerry

Dingle and Dingle Bay

We depart Inch and the second act begins. The conversation meanders to the historical; the political. 1921. The revolution. The English. The civil war. There’s no official celebration of Irish independence, says Rónán, a bit indignant. I sympathize in earnest. Is it a product of the proximity to the crown? Did the vastness of the Atlantic incubate American pride? July 4th — it’s not a day to protest the British, but a day to love your country; a day for merriment to the tune of controlled explosions.

We arrive in Dingle just after sunset. The town is most aptly describable in trite terms like “quaint” and “authentic” — but that’s exactly what it is. It’s a coastal town on an impressive bay, ironically preserved partially by delicate tourism and partially in protest of it.

Our hostel is a simple place, unassuming and well located. We meet up with several of Ró’s friends who are also staying at the hostel. They’re all surfers; Redondo beach types with Irish accents. Sarah needs a shower and Rónán and I need money; she showers and we head into town to find an ATM. The cash machine does it’s thing and we’re soon filled with paper confidence.

“How about a pint?” says Rónán. We pick a pub and soon our paper confidence is exchanged for liquid confidence. There’s a trad session going on in the corner which is loud in the most pleasant of ways, so we’re forced to speak over it. The conversation meanders: travel, school, life, sailing. Did I really just meet Ró a few hours ago? Or did I always know him, as a character of my imagination resigned to faux-nostalgia of this mystic land of my ancestors?

We see the frothy bottoms of our glasses and then it’s back to the hostel for a lively dinner before we hit the town.  Saint Patrick’s Day.  Ireland. What sort of debauchery is in store for us tonight? Truthfully, not much. It’s a Monday night and, St. Patrick’s Day or not, the bars close at 11:00. And I’m fine with that. It strikes me as the ultimate act of defiance toward the American St. Patrick’s Day establishment that I’ve come to loathe. A year ago I was in New York City, taking free shots till two in the morning with Firemen and Police Officers dressed in their formal uniforms. Young female bartenders danced on the bar and poured unholy libations down the throats of yearning customers. But now the tin whistle is playing it’s last note and the patrons are saying their goodbyes as bar is wiped down. It’s been a good night, and it’s time to go.  Memories await.

The (Prodigal?) Son Returns

Out of money and out of time, I’ve returned to my parents’ hearth.  Leaving Rome was quintessentially bittersweet, but I made my peace with the city and left with no regrets.  I do intend to publish more memoirs here, though I hope you’ll forgive me if they’re a bit more concise than previous ones.  At any rate, thanks for your readership and I do hope you stick around.

Spring break, Part the Second

March 17, 2008 – Dingle, County Kerry

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. Back home it’s a peculiar day, a day for people whose only salient claim to Éire are the two capital letters in their last names to proclaim their heritage and corroborate it with the consumption of dark stouts. A day for the rest to wish and pretend they could make such a claim. Erin go bragh, they say, drinking to the ancestors they’ve never met. The Irish Prime Minister is the honorary grand marshal of a massive parade in Boston or Chicago or New York or some other American city that was thanklessly built by the Irish.

But I’m not home, I’m in Ireland. And the fact that I’m here when I am is a coincidence; I didn’t come to Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day — I’m not one of the thousands of Americans that make that profane pilgrimage. It just so happens that spring break coincides with St. Patty’s, and it just so happens that the most opportune time for me to go to Ireland coincides with this holy day, and it just so happens that this holy day coincides with Holy Week, and therein lies a subtle irony that absolutely scintillates.

It’s a Monday and I hop the bus into the center of Cork City. The parade is marching through. Kids are on parents’ shoulders, girls with painted faces and everyone and everything seems to be splashed with green and white and orange. It’s immediately evident that it’s a holiday more akin to the Fourth of July than to the sloppy mess we have back home. I’m given a pin to remember those that died in the 1916 Easter Uprising and all the Irish dead.

My thoughts wander to the Saint Patrick’s Days of my childhood. Mom makes sure I’m wearing something green. You don’t want to get pinched, she says with bright eyes and a soft smile. Lunch hour rolls around and I open the small feast she has packed for me. My peanut butter and jelly sandwich is wrapped in wax paper, and to the outside of it is a green Post-It note, and on it is written in dancing green penmanship, “Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Love, Mom.”

The years pass and I begin to understand that, for many Americans, St. Patty’s is a day for the drink. But I’m Irish, aren’t I? I mean, my mother is the daughter of Irish immigrants, and the Gosnell name can be traced through Ireland, so I reckon I am pretty Irish. Why has it never been presented to me as a day of soaked revelry? Mom speaks. She speaks of how she looked forward to Lent every year, when for six weeks, Grandpa wouldn’t have a drop. She speaks of the massive stereotypes, often grounded in truths, that worked against the Irish, stereotypes which took decades to overcome. And this lack of celebration becomes a sublime point of pride for me, pride in a more transcendent Irishness.

But I’m not home, I’m in Ireland. If I were home, I’d likely be hanging out with bacchanalian Bucknellians, defending my roots. But today I prepare myself for an early evening with tea, conversation and my copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Then my cell phone rings. It’s my cousin, Rónán. Truth be told, I hadn’t actually met Rónán yet — in fact, this was the first we’d ever spoken — but he’s 25 and we speak the same language and it’s clear from the get-go that he’s a cool dude. He and his girlfriend, Sarah, are going to Dingle this afternoon to — get this — surf. He invites me to come along, and subtly assures me that there will be merriment to be had. Of course, I accept.

So I exchange farewells with Tim and Mary and we hit the road in Sarah’s four door hatchback. The conversation comes naturally and it’s not long before I feel totally comfortable around my cousin and his girlfriend. He’s pursuing a master’s in oceanography at a university in Wales; she does work with the Irish school system. And all the while the Irish countryside, like the first act of an ancient drama, slides back and forth around us with a melancholy sort of beauty

We arrive at Inch in County Kerry, which has a sizable beach on Dingle Bay. Rónán nods to the south and says “On the other side of those mountains is Killeenleagh, where your grandmother is from.” Then he and Sarah put on their wetsuits and trot off toward the water.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, I’m in Ireland, and I’m watching my cousin surf. Surf. In Ireland. It’s the last thing I would have expected, but I’m loving it. I take pictures and breath deeply. I meander off to a little beachside cafe, order a pint of Guinness, sit down, and write.

Spring Break, Part the First

The last two weeks constituted our spring break; a chance to venture outside of Italy and see a bit more of Ye Olde World. For many, this was an opportunity to sample as much of the local drink in as many countries as possible; for others, a chance to take a look at cities and museums that compliment their studies; for some, a jaunt into the lands of their ancestors; for all, an opportunity to drop the books and relax. For me, it was a healthy combination of all of the above.

Over the past two weeks, I jotted down thoughts and observations in my little black notebook that many of you have seen me carrying around. Some of the writing was done on site — from a dark and musty pub in County Cork to the vast, white-speckled landscape of Mykonos — and some was done after the fact. What follows, then, is a catalog of notes and pictures from my travels, broken up into a few (i.e., yet to be determined) volumes.

15 March 2oo8, Cork City, County Cork, Ireland

Beneath the tarnish and the grit of a thousand years of birth and decay is where you’ll find the charm of Éire. She doesn’t flaunt it like France or pretend to contain it like Britain; she is genuine. She lives in the churches and on the streets, down crumbling alleys and in the abundant hospitality of her people.

I met her last night when Tim and Mary Sugrue collected me from the Cork airport. They’re cousins of mine: my grandmother’s sister’s son and his wife. This is the first I’ve met them. Or at least, the first that I can recall. He’s a lean man with handsomely sharp features and well set eyes. He speaks with the rolling accent indicative of his provenance. He speaks like my Grandmother, and his personality bounces with that inner child that seems to reside in this race. Mary has a soft face and a soft demeanor, constantly expressing a genuine concern for the wellbeing of her guest. Her tea is warm and so is her hospitality.

It was nearly midnight by the time the three of us arrived at their home.

–How about a cup of tea?

I tell Mary that would be lovely.

Tim shows me to my room. I unload my things and return downstairs to find Mary busily preparing sandwiches and tea. Tim turns to me:

–Well then, will you have a drink?
I’m not sure if he means tea or alcohol.
–How about some whiskey? His eyes light up and the corners of his mouth twitch slightly.
I smile and accept enthusiastically.

He proceeds to pour me the healthiest measure of Irish whiskey I’ve ever seen. The measure with which you measure will in return be measured out unto you. We toasted to slàinte, to health, and lost ourselves in the sort of banter that befits old friends.


16 March 2008, Cobh, County Cork, Ireland

Today I saw Cobh, the port at the mouth of the River Lee. It’s the place where, so many years ago, my grandmother bade farewell to family and friends, to turf and poverty, to green and grey, and set off across the brine for a new life in America. And how many other people did the same? Liberty called for the tired, the hungry, the poor, and Ireland obliged. How many?

There is a cathedral in Cobh that sits prominently above the harbor. Grandma is my age. She boards the ship, loaded with anxiety and a piece or two of luggage. The ship’s horn bellows and it sets off. She turns to look at that massive structure. Would she return? Would she ever again see her parents alive? All she can see is the tip of the spire, now; the horizon consumes her home. Would God be with her in America?

(Image taken from here.)