Travels in Ireland: Native Ground

A couple years ago I spent a few weeks traveling in Ireland. The homeland.

As I travel in Ireland I revel in the extremes, unable to find or simply not looking for the in-between. I drink too much too often. I read too many books that only add to my restlessness: Kerouac, Steinbeck, Joyce, Abbey, Thoreau, Hesse. I listen and dance with wild abandon to traditional Irish folk music, feeling a nostalgia for something I have never possessed and that cannot be possessed, something that was lost long before I knew I had to find it. I walk the hills with their eight or more shades of green. I feel a wandering vagabond love for these people I am descended from, these people who have been beaten down by the British, by famine, by Jameson, by poverty. Beaten down but never all the way down, only ever far enough down to get in touch with their inner melancholy, their yearning. Far enough down to get in touch with their core, finding creativity and meaning in those depths, music and art to raise them up again.

My first night in Dublin I recite a poem in a dimly lit basement bar. In the crowded Temple Bar Square musicians play standard karaoke tunes for the benefit of the tourists, who are mostly Americans. Here is something different. Some people read exquisitely wrought personal poems, others sing songs written by the poetic songwriters: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison. This is how I’d imagined Ireland; here is the reality to match my dream. In this bar people do not seek to escape their discomfort by drinking themselves into oblivion; instead they sit with their feelings of discontent, try to understand them, use what little understanding they gain to connect with other people who feel the same way. As someone who knows what the search for oblivion looks like, I feel the difference here.

I recite a poem I had written about some struggles I had had the previous year in college. This one:

When I am finished the bartender says,  “Welcome home. What’s your second name? I tell him it is McCloskey, which is my middle name and my mom’s name and so not an altogether dishonest answer.

The next morning I leave town on the earliest train and head out to the country. I camp that night on the top of a hill somewhere in county Waterford, cooking my food on a small fire I built with little twigs and leaves. I eat the food; then I sit and listen. I listen to the Clare cuckoos, to the wind that makes sleep difficult, to the sheep I share the hill with. I would look again in the cities for the type of connection I had found in that bar, but I would always return to the places you could never fully return from, the places where you could not help but be changed, the transformative places

Restless but not rootless, I would get back to my roots in wild country, feeling most fulfilled in the empty places, instilled with a sense of the beauty of unfilled spaces, stilled and unhurried places.

Listening, sitting with the discomfort, the discontent. Not hiding here alone on the top of the hill; rather, trying to find above what is hidden below, what is often hidden in the towns and with others. I like to spend time alone because you can’t hide from yourself when you are alone. There is something freeing about sharing loneliness together with other people, sharing pain and sorrow, joy and love. That was how it was in the bar the night before. But there is also something equally freeing about leaving the places where the people are lonely, leaving the bars, fleeing town like a released criminal flees prison, getting back to the unpeopled hills and trails.

Back to the roots, before they get rusted. Maybe I would never find a permanent place that I could call home. Maybe I would always wander, feeling at home  sometimes, feeling like a stranger other times. I remember feeling at home in Ireland, both when I was among people with good hearts and souls who felt strong emotions, and when I was alone in the green hills with the cows and the sheep and the cuckoos.

The next morning I wake before the dawn and hike down the hill, entering the town of Lismore, where there is a travel writing festival. There I meet and stay with Catherine and Jan, the couple who organize the festival each year, for the two nights I am in town. They see that I am a lone traveler and welcome me into their cozy house; they bring me down to the bar on Saturday night, where I tingle with happy draughts of Guinness and mingle with the happy lot who frequent the bar.

I feel accepted into the congenial atmosphere, and grateful to Catherine and Jan for allowing me a special peek at Irish pub life that I otherwise would never have experienced.

I had listened to the nonhuman elements on the hill the night before, now I listen to the human stories. I talk with the Irish travel writer Paul Clements who had led a workshop earlier in the day that I had attended.

We had gone up The Vee Road outside of town and made ‘nibble notes’ on the landscape there. Back in town, Clements told us that the number one rule in writing is that there are no rules, that writing is a profession with no masters. That stayed with me, it is the main point I remember from the workshop. The only rule is that there are no rules. I was writing a book at the time that would be called The Rules of the Road, about a bike trip I had gone on. I jotted that rule down; it would end up being the last sentence of the book.

He leaves late that night; I am the only one who catches a glimpse of him as he slips quietly out of the bar, without a word or a backward glance.Clements had written a book about hiking to the highest peaks in each county in Ireland. In the bar I ask him who his favorite authors are. Thoreau and Abbey are two, those advocates who lived in different times, one hundred years apart, but insisted on the same things: solitude, wilderness, civil disobedience. They are two of my favorite authors as well. He tells me when the bar closes he is going to start walking. He is planning on walking to Belfast, over two hundred miles away. Although more than twice my age, he is no less of a wanderer. He is no more settled; age has done nothing to settle his restlessness. I understand the impulse to walk somewhere far away, a sauntering pilgrimage to some holy land, for no other reason than it is there, and walking is the best way to get there; I know that longing even if I don’t always know the reasons behind it. I think of asking him if I can join and walk with him, but I figure this is something he has to do alone.

I wake up early and do the same, slipping out in the welcome silence and darkness, leaving Catherine and Jan a note, thanking them for their kindness, for welcoming me into their home

The town is empty, the drinkers have all gone to sleep, the workers who are probably also the drinkers have not yet risen.The streets are empty and dark; the sky is full of light. The frantic energy of the human world is temporarily stilled; the stillness of the inhuman world is for a short time restored. I walk the deserted streets and am not booked for vagrancy. I hum along with the birds and am not looked at askance. Nothing rankles, no chains bind my ankles, I am free to do a little footloose jig to the silent music of these lonely hours. I do so. “We must risk delight,” writes Jack Gilbert. I take that risk.

I leave town and walk back up the hill, and then down the other side, heading off to somewhere new, alone in the pre-dawn twilight of the homeland, walking on native ground.

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