Some places you return to over and over, old places that hold significance in your head and heart. They can be cities, towns, villages, houses, or even dance halls, say. Every Irish person has them, because under our hard shells of cynicism, we're a sentimental tribe.
Sometimes we go back to them in memory, and sometimes we must get into a car or a plane. But the impulse that guides us is always the same: to take stock, to reconnect with something very deep and to see ourselves for an illuminating moment through the loop of time.
My father liked to go fishing in a particular stream in Donegal. It was located outside the townlands, which meant you'd rarely see another soul all day. What you would see were tall trees and the running water, and you'd sometimes catch sight of the trout leaping as they swam upstream.
They'd break the surface of the water in a flash of silver. You'd almost want to cheer when you saw it happen.
Sometimes, young as I was, he would bring me with him. I'd sit wordlessly on a stone and watch him cast his fishing rod. It was quiet but absorbing work, fishing, it had a rhythm and solemnity that I liked.
He set about the task with enormous concentration. There were fly hooks and lines and there was an art to casting them. It required two hands to work in concert with the light and the surface of the stream.
For my father, part of the pleasure of fishing seemed to come from the implication that he belonged here. He was close to the source of the stream.
It must have been the 1970s or early 80s. There was a war going on 14 miles away but it would never come to this place of calm.
For an afternoon the two of us would live outside of time. He taught me that such places of refuge existed and that it was wise to visit them whenever you had a chance. It was advice I took.
I still return to that stream, but I have places of my own too. Homesickness usually involves the desire to be among sorely missed faces, but sometimes it's a place you miss with all the intensity usually reserved for a person. I have sometimes missed loughs with the same intensity I have missed loved ones.
That's because the landscape of Co. Donegal, right down to the way the light falls on the water, is an aesthetic education. Wherever you look it will reward your gaze. And it still exists in ancient time, because cattle and horses amble through it they way they might have in the Book of Genesis.
Watching my father fish, I'd look further downstream toward the far horizon. By the time the stream fanned out and met the white strand near the shoreline I would lose my sense of where the earth became the sky.
They would mirror and reflect each other. The division did not seem to exist.
It's invaluable to have that happen to you. To have a little portal of eternity open up and awe you, or to walk through a landscape where there aren't any streetlights to protect you from the unbroken darkness, far away stars wheeling overhead, placing you in your proper human perspective, which some can find humbling or even terrifying, but which I find restorative and centering, even slightly funny.
When I walk around New York City now I carry that landscape within me like a talisman. I don't really care if anyone can see it (or not see it). I can hear the summer fields; I can see the salmon's leap.
It's a fascinating combination of the Homeric and the homespun, Donegal. I've never found its equal anywhere. It fills your head and heart with mighty dreams, but it's also humble and generous.
It's full of old ruins too: Gaelic castles, Elizabethan forts, 19th century workhouses, collapsed famine cottages, roofless stone churches, all these emblems of collapse and failure, scars on the landscape that the living overlook. Nothing that passes through time is unchanged by it, after all – perhaps especially not people.
Donegal has nonetheless destroyed my time sense. I'm late for everything now because I grew up in a place where I experienced time as something endless. Of all the gifts my father gave me I am most thankful for that.