I usually go to Ireland several times a year. As an exile, I have been doing it for forty years or so. It is part of the yearly rhythm like the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York. Suddenly, COVID took the parade and the perennial visit to Ireland. Yes, 2020 is different, in the words of Charles Dickens, “the worst of times.”
I missed Ireland this year. I miss the journey to the place I still call home. When I fly into Shannon or Dublin I still feel a tingle of emotion at seeing the old sod again; it is visceral and deep inside, like remembering a long lost movie of my childhood and early adulthood when I finally left.
It was 1976 and I was 23 when I left. For the next two years living in California, the US was far more exciting than old Ireland and I didn’t bother going home.
But the desire to visit Ireland soon intersected with my sense of rediscovering myself through the lens of America and I wanted to see with clear eyes the country I left as a young man.
I was part of it and not part of it, kind of like dropping in on the neighbors or staring over the half-door as Ireland re-invented itself in the 1980s and 1990s when the beginning of a sea change in attitudes and aspirations was a powerful and motivating force.
I saw all those changes and they were good. Now It is coming up to 18 months that I am out of Ireland, the longest consecutive time I have stayed away since I arrived from the Shamrock Shore many years ago.
I had planned the usual annual week after Christmas 2019 trek but an ailing knee and surgery cost me that trip,
Soon it was COVID sweeping like a mighty wave and making travel impossible really anywhere in the world which dominated every would-be traveler's thinking. You might as well have put up a “Closed for Business” sign in every airport.
Eighteen months have almost passed and here are some of the people, seasons, and places I miss
Christmas in Ireland, specifically Dublin’s Grafton Street where the spirit of Christmas seems utterly alive with the buskers (Bono has been known to join it), the illusionists, the break dancers, the guy who is frozen like a statue shocking some passing kids when he suddenly moves, and of course, the frantic shoppers.
One of the saddest changes is that Amazon etc. are crippling the bookstores which are dropping in numbers. Once upon a time, a lazy afternoon after a Bewley's breakfast on Grafton Street (Best Irish breakfast in town) would consist of perusing the latest best sellers in one of the bookshops on Dawson Street near Trinity College.
No more they tell me.
Winter has its charms, but August in Ireland when the New York humidity is at its worst is like a cool salve on a fevered forehead.
I love walking on a beach in Dingle where the Atlantic waves crash and churn or the beach near my home town of Drogheda, which is where the Irish Sea, far more gently comes ashore. August is also the height of the GAA season when Ireland’s best counties square off and everyone has an opinion about perennial opponents Dublin or Kerry in Gaelic football or Tipperary and Kilkenny in hurling.
Darragh O’Shea, a commentator in The Irish Times and a Kerry football legend, wrote once that if there was no Gaelic football there would no be conversation in Kerry as every meeting casual or business always begins with a discussion of Kerry’s chances.
So I miss the games, I miss the week of the Galway races too when the West of Ireland halts its business and heads for the racetrack where WB Yeats wrote it best
“At Galway Races
There where the racecourse is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind:"
On a personal level, I love to meet and greet old friends to travel the well-beaten roads of news, gossip, more gossip, more, more gossip, and endless cups of coffee, tracing old friends and just “talking shite” as the Irish inelegantly refer to it.
Talking shite lasts for hours and the weather features prominently as does the latest political or sex scandal and the sporting clashes of the week the latest sensational case in the Four Courts, the American elections, past present and to come, and opinions are offered with the certainty of truth, wisdom, and experience, which means a lot of people who disagree with each other are telling lies but what bother.
Following a friend’s advice, in 2021 I want to take a woodland stroll in the Wicklow mountains especially along the Seamus Heaney trail called after the Nobel Laureate of course, whose very spirit still seems to roam the land. The location is called the Devil’s Glen alongside the military road into the heart of the forest which was built by the British Army in the 1790s seeking to hunt down United Irishmen
There is much more, but I will leave you with the sadness of a chance missed to see the late, great Fungi gone to the seascape in the sky. All are snapshots of a lost summer and a year destroyed by COVID-19. May the curse of Biddy Early drive it out of Ireland and the rest of the world and let us revisit or own native land soon.