“An Irishman’s heart is nothing but his imagination.”
– George Bernard Shaw (John Bull’s Other Island)
Gabriel Byrne says that the line between reality and imagination is very thin. I concur.
Perhaps it’s because my father filled my head with stories of banshees and haunted fields with gates that never stayed shut. Perhaps it’s simply the beauty of the Irish countryside – some of the magic that you can see in Bill Doyle’s photos in the new issue of Irish America. I always feel close to the otherworld when I’m there.
As a child my belief in the supernatural grew stronger with every cloud formation. When the sun suddenly burst forth in a gray sky, as it tends to do in Ireland, I always thought it was God watching.
From a very early age, I was aware of, and believed in, a parallel universe where the ancients, including members of my own family who had passed on, cavorted.
All Souls Day falls on the day after Halloween, and on that day, or so we were told, the veil between our world and the otherworld is very thin and the faithful departed can return to share a meal with the family. As a child I always hoped that my grandmother would come back for a visit.
In school we learned from books that drew little distinction between fact and myth. The ancient people, the Tuatha de Danann, were so skilled in magic that they established an otherworld kingdom when they were driven underground by the conquering Gaels. The farm over from ours had/has a Fairy Fort that you knew never to set foot in. (I sometimes think that building that highway so close to the Hill of Tara, stirred up some ancient curse that brought down the Irish economy). Add healing wells (and the belief that the seventh son of a seventh son had the gift of healing), and the magic of the hawthorn tree (we had one in our front field) and you get some idea of the Ireland that I grew up in.
This is the Ireland that I took with me when I emigrated. It’s the Ireland that continues to exist in my imagination.
Like the Tuatha de Danann, those of us who had to leave created our own otherworld, a place that exists somewhere between Ireland and America, and involves living in one place but having a sense of belonging to another.
Sometimes, oftentimes, you have to leave a place to really see it. Irish culture, traditions and music became more valuable to me when I no longer held them in my hand. And the appreciation that Irish Americans had for Irish culture made me look at it anew.
I remember being astonished that the manuscript for James Joyce’s Ulysses was housed in a museum in Philadelphia. That Emory University and Boston College hold the papers of some of Ireland’s greatest writers. Could it be that Irish Americans have more of an appreciation for things Irish than the Irish? Particularly in the boom years there was a sense that Ireland couldn’t wait to “off with the old and on with the new.”
I like to believe that the Ireland of my imagination is still there, I just can’t see it for the make-over. But perhaps it is time to marry the imagination to reality – and take a look at all that modern Ireland has to offer.
A new campaign recently launched in New York could be just the thing.
“Imagine Ireland brings to American audiences a wealth of contemporary creators and a calendar of culture which will reshape and reinvigorate notions of Ireland, what it means to be Irish and the potential for Ireland into the future.”
That’s the promise of an Irish Government-sponsored campaign that will bring 400 Irish shows to 40 states and will include an operatic version of The Importance of Being Earnest featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
It sounds like a whole lot of fun. And I look forward to attending many events in the coming year. I’m hopeful too, that in addition to updating our notion of what it means to be Irish, the some 1,000 artists participating in the Imagine Ireland campaign will also look at Ireland anew, through the lens of Irish America. Perhaps they will discover some of the treasures of a latter-day Ireland that lie in the repository of our emigrant mind banks and take some of that back home with them. Imagine that.