It was a late February morning on Achill Island and the clouds looming above the Irish Sea were tinged in silvery gray. Working in unison, they waged war with the sun, whose halfhearted attempts to breakthrough fell short, resulting in only half rays of light that fell meekly upon the ground.
The wind, though temperate, possessed a fierceness that cautioned. I squinted at the landscape before me, and the ubiquitous white sheep scattered in every direction. Their fleece sported a splash of varying hues, from cotton candy pink to a dusty sky blue – a way for farmers to claim a restless rogue who may have wandered off whether by chance, or choice.
I had two things in mind as I stood high on the hillside that beautiful day; to gain closure after the death of my Irish-born mother and to find the perfect sheep, by which to remember her.
My mother loved sheep for as far back as I can remember. A love, perhaps, taken from an earlier chapter of her life when she lived on a farm, in Cloone, Co Leitrim. Though she left Ireland in later years for the US, married, and raised four daughters, she never lost her fondness for these gentle creatures which reminded her of her home across the sea.
A memory materializes, long gone but still cherished. My family is on a two-week summer holiday in Ireland. I am six years old, tailgating my mother contentedly as she makes her way in and out of the local Irish gift shops in search of the most beautiful and authentic souvenir sheep. Who, if chosen, would be gifted with a one-way ticket back to the United States via Aer Lingus. My mother chose two sheep, one white, one black.
I cannot say which was dearer to my heart as each possessed a unique charm. The black sheep, its tiny horns curled, stood defiantly in our living room, where my mother placed it atop the baby grand piano, a sentry of sorts before the addition of our German Shepard, Brandy.
The white one, with its soft, knotty curls of white fleece and spindly black wooden legs, was strategically positioned on the always meticulously polished cherry side table of our family room, directly overlooking the front yard. A view not of the sea, but equally appealing given the jade green grass and vivid pink hydrangea which blossomed in abandon in the spring.
Yes, I believe our two Irish sheep were pleased with their new American home and proud to assume the role of ambassadors of our heritage.
Those two sheep often came to my rescue in times of stress or discord, each assuming a different role. I recall, after a particularly hurtful fight with my best friend, holding the white sheep in my hand and stroking its fuzz. That placid, calm face and silky wool, somehow righted all wrongs of the moment.
The black sheep, in contrast, was a symbol of courage, boldness, perseverance. Holding him in my palm, eyes closed, his sensible nature always prevailed. And if the black sheep could talk, I imagined might offer the wise words of an Irish proverb I had once heard or read somewhere, and loved: “There is nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse.”
When my parents departed this world, aside from the carpets, paintings, and other furnishings amassed in life, my three sisters and I each took turns expressing a particular item we desired, one which held a special place in our hearts as a remembrance of our much-loved mother and father.
My younger sister Caroline, had hoped for the grandfather clock, a 200-year-old beauty purchased at the Lord Edward in Dublin whose hourly grand chime never failed to produce memories of my one-of-a-kind father.
My sister Sheila asked if she might have my mother’s Irish shillelagh, which for a lifetime hung unused in her bedroom closet, its blackthorn wood carved with care, a forever symbol of Irish heritage and a reminder of her home across the sea.
My older sister Anne had always loved our family’s oriental gong, an item purchased at a local tag sale that appealed to my Scottish/Irish father’s sometimes eccentric nature. He never failed to delight in pinging the gong four or five times dramatically before a special family dinner, its vibrating echo I can still hear to this day.
And for me, well perhaps you can guess? I asked to be caretaker of the sheep, both the white and the black, as there was no way the two could be separated after all those years together. To this day, they sit serenely in two rooms of my home a wee bit older, ambassadors still.
But after the death of my mother, for the first time in my life, the sheep could not comfort. Instead, I longed to return to Ireland, the place of her birth, in search of something I could not quite define.
So there I stood that late February day on Achill, high up on that hilltop, lost in thought. And when my eyes fell upon one sheep, grazing not three feet from me, I had to wonder if it had been there all along or if its presence rather, was an illusion. The sheep remained for a good long moment, its black spindly legs planted firmly before the glistening sea. It stared at me placidly then turned and made its way downhill but not before, in that brief encounter, I captured its photograph.
A large canvas print of that perfect Achill sheep presently hangs on my kitchen wall. It is in clear view of both the black and the white sheep, who will never be replaced and forever hold a special place in my heart.
I shared my photograph on several Irish websites, my image garnishing over 7,000 likes on one entitled “Postcards from Ireland.” I found I was not the only one who was enchanted with sheep, both among Irish and Americans alike and every other nationality sprinkled in.
Some favorite comments… “God’s Hand at Work;” “As far as we’ll get to heaven in this life;” “I want to be a sheep overlooking the ocean in my next life;” “This photo makes me so happy!” “Magical Achill, where time stands still."
I recently had the privilege of returning to Ireland once again, this time in celebration. It was my son Owen’s 21st birthday. His grandmother Mary would be proud to know he is spending his four college years in the land she loved so well.
As we walked through the colorful town of Doolin, famous for both its music and iconic Cliffs, a small shop beckoned. Entering, Owen tailgated me contentedly as I examined the beautiful handmade gifts, neatly laid out before us. The proprietor, an older woman with world-wise eyes, watched wordlessly then offered “Can I help ye find something special to bring home?”
I paused for a moment, then my eyes fell upon a small black sheep, half hidden on a shelf, its spindly legs standing boldly before me. Approaching I picked up the tiny figure.
It was as if he was waiting for me all along.
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