How trips home to Donegal make me feel like Rip Van Winkle

Rip Van Winkle
Rip Van Winkle
It's one of life's enduring ironies that the things we go in search of, the things that take us across borders and international datelines, the things we ache for, may have actually been within our arm’s reach before we even set out.

We discover at some point, to our stunned incredulity, that we could have spared ourselves the trouble. All that carry on with passports, visas, luggage, humidity. It was a distraction.

The peace we went in search of, the love, the truth, the answers – well, they were eventually found where we least expected them, inside ourselves.

No matter where you go, there you are, they say in Donegal. They're only half joking. They know a change of scenery changes the details but not the woman or the man. It's a great truth.

But you don’t often realize that when you’re in your teens or twenties. You may not realize that when you’re in your fifties. It can be so hard, at times, to see what has been staring you in the face for years.

Traveling changes you. Or at least what you encounter on your travels will.

Your own little story, which started out in some quiet village or big busy town in Ireland, will rub up against the louder, flashier stories that are told abroad, and both will be changed by it. At least on the surface.

The heart's story rarely changes. It has a small list of names, usually a handful, and they'll remain there from your earliest memories till your dying day.

I'm amazed by the resilience of that organ. The way it endures every natural shock and keeps on beating.

Whenever I return to Donegal now I always feel like Rip Van Winkle. The details change, like the currency and the phone carriers and the shop fronts, but the place itself is set in the most ancient landscape, a landscape that has endured from the dawn of time. That landscape steadies me.

To re-visit Donegal is to step into ancient time (you wouldn't be surprised to see some Gaelic chieftains race by on horseback along the white strands) and into modern time (as people pull out their smart phones to capture the latest christenings).

It's also to step into the heart’s time, which is every time, regardless of how much of it has passed since your last visit.

Every Irish person alive who lives abroad knows what I'm talking about. You're there in the moment, but you're also there in all the lost ones. You're a walking double negative, but the experience is strangely positive.

There's one person I always hope to see in Donegal but I rarely ever do. The last time I saw him was in the 1990s, during a lunar eclipse, as it happens.

He pulled up in his rattling old car as I walked along the street and he shouted to me. He had already lost most of his hair.

It didn't matter. To me he will always be as I knew him first -- 16, ready for the world, up for a laugh.

He was laughing again now. “Well for God's sake, is it yourself?” he shouted. “Would you look at me now?” he said. “Wains and all!”

He told me he was the manager of a computer engineering firm in Donegal town. “I have 12 people under me,” he smiled.

“That must be very uncomfortable for them,” I replied.

He looked serious, then he laughed again. “You were always taking a hand,” he said. “You don't change.”

On the surface it was hard to look at this man, with his paid up ticket to middle age probably already stored somewhere on his untidy dashboard, and find a trace of the radiant being he had once been.

But my heart saw, and it remembered. You could see it in his eyes, that he remembered too.

All the bridges and rivers and oceans in the world couldn't break the link between us. “Do you mind fourth class and craic we had in it?” he asked me suddenly.

“I do,” I replied.

“Jaysus, we were living, eh?” he said. “I'll never forget it,” he said. He winked at me.

Watching him drive away a few minutes later was like watching a part of myself take leave. He waved as he took the corner and drove out of view.

That left me silent and slightly bereft on a tiny village street in the middle of the afternoon. I just stood there for a moment, lost in time. Until my heart opened, and like the landscape, it steadied me.

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