Born in this island, maimed by history
and creed-infected, by my father taught
the stubborn habit of unfettered thought
I dreamed, like him, all people should be free.
-John Hewitt, “The Dilemma”
There was a surreal, joyful melancholy to this homecoming. As we punched through the haze above a sweltering London and soared left, easing to maximum altitude over Wales, buzzing determinedly on, I pressed my nose against the tiny window. I was aching from exhaustion and desperate for a first glimpse. I felt fragile and edgy and strangely vulnerable. The pilot crackled through the cabin, telling us that it was 12 degrees in Dublin. There was a distorted ripple of laughter. It had been 31 in London.
Suddenly, through the cloud that embraced me and my little plane bumping its way across the Irish Sea, I glimpsed a coastline. Rocks. White caps of foam. A flash of brilliant green. I promptly burst into tears, grateful not for the first time that there was no one in 17B. I was finally, joyfully, unbelievably nearly there.
It had been over 20 years since I had touched down on Irish soil. The last time I had been back to the place of my birth was when my grandfather’s second wife had suddenly dropped dead, leaving my abruptly unanchored grandfather broken and confused. My father rushed from New Zealand and I flew to Belfast from France, where I was teaching English, to join him. We spent most of those days in an airless retirement home, trying to console my grandfather and convince him, entirely unsuccessfully, that he still had things worth living for. But some of the time we drove around Belfast, up to the Peace Walls, past barbed wire fences and closed faces and down dead-end lanes garish and defiant with murals, soldiers with green smears and wary eyes trailing us in their rifle sights.
I had visited a few months previous to this, when I had first arrived in Europe on my OE. At 24 I had been determined to succeed and confident nothing could ever fail. I had been driven by a family friend to my old school in South Armagh, to stand and peer at my old house from afar, to visit a castle here, a green valley there. I had spent time with my grandfather and his still-alive wife. But I had been brightly plumed and cocky; distracted, and rightly so, perhaps, by the things by which 24-year-olds are commonly distracted. I took none of my birthplace in; it was simply an obligatory first stop before the real fun began.
This second time, with my father (who was here, in truth, to breathe a slow goodbye to his own father), I took in all of it: the unease; the unrest; the piss in the bedpan, the desperate tears of an old man. The struggle and the grief and the weight of oppression. The sea air and the ghostly call of the gulls around Carrickfergus. The guns. The heavy boots and the camouflage. The labyrinth of lies and mistrust and barbed wire. The uncertainty of my father as he drove us tentatively down the Antrim Road towards the Shankill and not the Falls, wondering whether he still belonged in this place that no longer recognised him.
These were my enduring memories of Belfast, echoes of which whisper in the poem “Turn Again” by Ciaran Carson, the Belfast poet whose work I would lovingly dissect in my Master’s thesis four years later:
The linen backing is falling apart – the Falls Road hangs by a
When someone asks me where I live, I remember where I
used to live.
Someone asks me for directions, and I think again. I turn into
A side-street to try to throw off my shadow, and history is
We bumped down onto rain-smeared Dublin asphalt. It was dull, and cold, and jetlag sang a mucky, syncopated tune in my chest, teasing and twisting up and down my swollen and parched limbs.
Ireland. I am home.
I passed through immigration, proudly showing my new Irish passport. “Welcome home,” lilted the stern officer with the too-tight pants and the bad haircut. She smiled and waved me through in a heartbeat.
In the airport bus into the city, I texted home. Just landed in Dublin. Raining. Surreal. Can hardly believe I’m here.
From the other side of the world, the reply came. What’s it like? Ireland?
Wet. All the signs are in Gaelic. I’m exhausted.
The bus dropped me a stone’s throw from my hotel. It was dark, and shabbily chic. My room looked out over a tiny concrete courtyard, and the tiles in the bathroom were cracked. Britain’s Got Talent was on the TV. I cried briefly from exhaustion and dislocation, then slept for 10 hours.
I had never felt any pressing desire to go to Dublin. It had never been on my travel bucket list. So it was puzzling to me why I had chosen to land here, to use this city as a springboard from which to launch towards the north. It was new and undiscovered. Perhaps I felt I owed it a couple of days at least. Who goes to Ireland and doesn’t visit Dublin?
I bought a ticket entitling me to jump on and off a bus that buzzed around the main attractions, complete with the Irish Rovers dueting with a recorded commentary, and promptly lost the ticket after only one or two stops. In retrospect, I’m glad. It meant that for the remaining two days I had in Dublin, I walked. I walked all over the city until my feet hurt, and when they hurt so badly I couldn’t walk anymore, I caught the LUAS (the tram). I walked through Temple Bar in the early evening and stopped to watch the various hen and stag parties stumble and flounce their way through the cobbled lanes. I toured City Hall and the GPO. I stood with my nose so close to the Book of Kells and the books in Trinity College library that other tourists must have taken me for a lunatic. I wandered the shops and listened to buskers. I sat in the sun and people watched. I got lost. I took endless photos. In the National Museum I stared and stared at ancient celtic relics that I had previously only gazed at longingly in books. I drank wine, ate colcannon and took the piss out of the hotel receptionist, who sounded like she was singing a lullaby each time she gave me directions. I cleverly avoided the Leprechaun Museum, but not the Molly Malone statue. I started to fall in love.
Two days after landing I trammed to the very south of the city, picked up my VW rental car from a very grumpy but rather beautiful Dublin man, then took a deep breath and drove back to my hotel to pick up my luggage. I was terrified and delighted in equal measure, but I knew now I was good for the rest of the trip. If I could navigate Dublin’s streets, I could tackle anything. I headed out of the city, en route to one of the places I had dreamed of visiting for some months: the Hill of Tara, by way of Trim Castle.
I plan to write about my trip to Ireland in several installments. Part Two will come shortly. Follow me to make sure you don’t miss any…or just dip in and out at will.