Saturday, October 1, 2011

...he didn't just kiss the Blarney Stone; he proposed to it

Housecleaning in the technology age:  clearing off my hard drive, sorting through old photos...in short, taking an e-trip down memory lane. A comment on a friend’s photo on Facebook a week ago transported me first to my youth, then to Ireland, three years ago.  Johnny wrote of Reyolds Square in Savannah, "The dance of the sunlight on the pavers as it penetrates he oak canopy captivates me. It's a perfect spot." 

In the south, even trees adorn themselves...graceful strands of moss drape across their branches.


Not only did the photos that Johnny and Hannah posted of a trip to Tybee Island on the Georgia coast trigger memories. We share a common past: all three of us grew up in Dublin, Georgia, a town settled by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. My childhood was spent in a hot humid landscape of rolling hills bordered by pine woodlands. Memories of childhood trips to the coast are as golden as those Isles. Their flat beaches of white sand, the marshes of Glynn, and ancient oaks with moss-draped branches that brush the ground of the tranquil Georgia coast quietly seduce. 

The raw, rugged beauty of Ireland’s west coast, however, is anything but subtle.  Since childhood, I yearned to stand on these seaside cliffs, a desire that hinted inexplicably of homecoming. The romantic within me wonders if the gene of some distant ancestor whispered this longing. But the birthplace of dreams is as transcendent as the experience.

The roar of gales and water against the great cliffs... a show for the milleniums. 
But when I stood here and stared at the great ocean, as the waves lashed and the gusts howled, 
a quiet grew inside me. I stood, leaning against the wind, in the presence of perpetual creation, 
born of erosion.  And I live in that presence daily. Life pounds. I am diminished. 
With age, I cede to this death of self with greater ease and let go. Less really is more.

Three years ago, my past and my dreams merged when my friend, Jane Hooper, and I lived in Kinsale, Ireland for six months. An illness was the catalyst for the change of venue. I sold my good sewing machine, some chairs, and a few other items to finance my half of the rent for a five-hundred-year-old stone cottage on Chairman's Lane. My son, ledger in hand, reviewed my finances. He said the columns added up and gave me his blessing. The six months did not prove to be stress-free as the dollar tanked while the Euro rose. But we outlasted Lehman Brothers.

Most trips are pass-throughs: a quick look around before moving to the next locale; a trophy hunt of monuments, museums and sights. Our extended visit, though, revealed the subtler aspects of the culture. We lived in a cottage older than our country. We stood by famine graves, a humbling experience in a land that has been conquered, looted, humiliated, and starved. Yet the Irish haven’t merely survived. They have woven their history into soulful ballads and rousing jigs. Storytelling is an art; and art, a part of the landscape. We were graced by the experience, blessed by the wonderful people we grew to love. Leaving was difficult. Our Irish friends remain a part of us, each a gift, revisited often as stories return.
“So, where are you ladies from?”
Jane and I had slipped in the transept door of the cathedral in Killarney. We were women on a mission in search of a priest. A particular priest. Jane’s cousin, Father John, suggested that we call on his former housemate in Birmingham, now retired and living in the family home in Killarney. Bridget, our B&B owner, assured us that Father Paddy was anything but retired, active in the parish and on the golf course. He had just blessed her sister’s new house the week before. Now she deemed us the Alabama branch of the clan. And find him we did. Stayed tuned for more on this.
But back to the cathedral. We had entered from the side, away from the parking area.  A young woman stood alone, singing “Ave Maria”, so we decided to slip in and listen to her rehearse. We struggled against the blustery December winds to open - and then quietly close - a heavy door.  Once inside, we saw four women kneeling to our left.  We slipped quietly behind them just in time to hear a male voice. Still unable to see the nave from our position, we swayed and craned our necks to see the speaker. And heard the priest thank all in attendance. This was not a rehearsal. We were present at a removal. Just so you know, in Ireland, the body is taken from a funeral home to the church for a removal service. The funeral mass follows the next day. NOTE: We decided, in the name of what little dignity - and decency - remained, to forego the mass.
Mortified that we might encounter the family, Jane and I quietly rose as the last organ note sounded. So did the four Irish ladies in front of us. And this is where the conversation started.
We began with the truth and confessed our embarrassment. The Irish contingent was not only NOT offended, they were worried that we were uncomfortable.  
“Oh, heavens, don’t you fret. Donal would be so proud to have two ladies from Alabama at his removal.” 
We were for the duration of our stay - wherever we went - the two ladies from Alabama. And what came next occurred just as consistently.  
“So where did your people live in Ireland?”  Not “Do you have Irish relatives?” That we did was a given. Jane told them about her grandparents who had emigrated from County Clare and Waterford. I told them about my grandmother’s family and about growing up in a town settled by Irish. Then I said that I had married a man of Irish descent. His family was from County Cavan.
“Oh, my.  Cavan? Really?”

“Yes, I’m certain.” They looked at each other and nodded their heads.
The auburn-haired lady on the left spoke up. “So sorry. Those folks from Cavan are cheap.”
If I had a euro for every time I heard - or read - this, I would be financially solvent. Even the cookbook I bought in Kinsale entered the conversation.  “Recipe serves 4. In Cavan, 6-8.”

Just before our departure, I attended mass at the Friary in Kinsale. Following the service, the priests served breakfast to all. My friend, Eileen, the librarian, introduced me to the priest serving our table. He asked the usual questions and when I answered “Cavan”, he said, "I see." He sat down, leaned back and remarked, “A priest in Cavan told me a really interesting story recently." The conversation around us ceased as he went on, "This happened not long ago.” The older lady to his right laughed outright. "I'm hurt, Nora. Every word is true." When an Irishman, priest or not, says this, rest assured a fine tale unfettered by facts will follow. Here it is.
The priest, dressed in slacks and a sweater, began, “The pope was diagnosed with a rare disease, fatal if not treated with transfusions. Unfortunately, he had a particularly rare blood type.” He paused an looked at me, shaking his head. I am certain that, somewhere in his lineage, lurk the genes of Jack Benny.
He continued. “A massive search located a single suitable donor.” Here, he looked up as he crossed himself. “A man, recently retired, north of here in County Cavan.” By now all were listening, smiling and nodding. And watching me.
“Now, the Vatican called the gentleman in Cavan and explained the situation. The Irishman was thrilled that he could be of service to His Holiness. Arrangements were made to send a car to the house before the flight to Rome. Soon all of the neighbors knew.  The next day, all were glued to their windows as a large, elegant limousine pulled up in front of the modest cottage.”
The priest offered me another biscuit, then continued. “The Irishman asked the driver to make a loop around the block before heading to Dublin. At the airport, he was escorted to the papal jet. Once in Rome, the gentleman was taken directly to the Vatican where he gave blood.”
My left eyebrow was in an upright and locked position as the tale unraveled. By now the priest had crossed his arms behind his head and leaned farther back in his chair. “After this, a Cardinal carried the Irishman to an apartment in the Vatican to rest and recover before his flight home the next day.”
“Nice of them, don’t you think, Eileen?” He looked across at the librarian whose eyes twinkled just like his. 
He continued. “Next morning they boarded the jet, flew to Dublin, climbed into the  limousine and headed home to Cavan. The adventure was the talk of the town for weeks.
The priest paused and turned directly toward me, “But you’ll never guess what followed.”
I bit. “No, what!?”
‘Well, exactly seven weeks later, the Irishman answered his phone. The Vatican. Again. He listened with concern as they said the pope needed another transfusion. ‘Oh, dear, Is His Holiness not recovering?' ”
“The caller assured him that the Holy Father was improving but his doctors felt one more transfusion would be helpful. Then he asked if the man would be willing to return once more.”
“ ‘Of course, of course. Anyting that I can do.’ “ The priest said that as soon as the man hung up, he walked to the neighborhood pub and thus the whole village soon learned the news.
Father turned to the man beside him.  “By the way, I was at The Spaniard yesterday.  I’ll be seeing you in confession soon, I hope.” The two men laughed. He looked at me and said, “I get most of my business from the pubs. But let me tell you what happened next.”
“As the old Irishman waited at his door, a rusty rattle-trap pulled up in front of the cottage.  ‘Rent-a-Reck' was painted on the front doors. The old man fretted that the limousine would arrive any minute. He scurried out and told the driver that he was waiting on a car from the Vatican. 
‘Oh, that’s why I’m here. I’m to take you to Dublin to catch a plane. We need to get a move on.’
"Well, you know he was nonplussed." I nodded at the priest who had paused for dramatic effect. "I would have been," he continued. "The old gentlemen said, ‘Well, let me get my bags.’ He shook his head a bit as he turned toward the little house. Perhaps the limousine had gotten caught in traffic. He hoped that there hadn’t been an accident. And that the neighbors weren't watching this sorry spectacle.
"The driver spoke up. ‘You won’t be needing any bags. Just come ahead.’ ”
“Once in Dublin, he shook the dust off his coat as he exited the rickety car. A man met him and carried him to the Ryanair concourse." A voice from the end of the table boomed out. "Ryanair, Father? Now that's cheeky." The priest kept going. "The Irishman made his way to the rear of the plane where he was wedged between two strangers. Once in Rome, another old cab sped him to a dirty inn. A nurse drew blood in the sitting room. And the driver hustled him back to the old car, saying "Have to get you back to the airport.” 
The priest shook his head, sympathetically. “Well, the old man didn’t know what to think, of course. Just about now the driver’s cell phone rang. He handed it to the Irishman. A familiar voice from the Vatican thanked him for this latest donation. And asked if everything went smoothly. The donor answered yes but added, ‘There is one ting.’ ”
“The Vatican aide asked, ‘And what is that?’ “
“ ‘Well, understand, sir, I’m not complainin’. Oh, no. Anything for His Holiness.’ The Irishman paused, then said ‘It’s just that last time you sent the limousine and the papal jet and then put me up at the Vatican. I’m worryin’ that I might have offended the Holy Father.’ “

“ ‘Certainly not, sir.  The pope is very grateful for your help and sends his blessing.’ “

The priest looked at me and said, “The Irishman beamed with pride.  Before he could express his joy at receiving a papal blessing, the voice on the other end continued." A pregnant pause before the conclusion...
“It's just that now HIs Holiness has Cavan blood.”
The priest looked at me and said, “Every word a true one. From my lips to God's ears.” I laughed with everyone else as he asked,  “Pour you another cuppa?”
We are not so different. Our roots are intertwined with countless others. Long before my great aunt inquired if a stranger’s kin were some of "those Jones’ Country Morgans or are the ones from around Milan", my Irish antecedents had begun this familial inquisition. And they have the stories to prove it.
That’s the end of this story. Every word is true. Just ask Eileen. 
Mo’ sweet tea?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just love you!!! Lol We stayed in Cavan a couple of nights.
Hannah

Celeste said...

Love you! We should plan a trip to Ireland together! I'll eat ramen noodles for a year in order to travel.

Anonymous said...

I just read your blog for the third time. You have such a gift! Enjoyed each read.

We must plan another trip to Ireland!

GretchenJoanna said...

That was very much fun!
I wish every bit of traveling could be extended-stay as your time in Ireland was. It's the only way I can feel really satisfied by visiting a new place.

Celeste said...

I agree...those six months were life-changing. Such a privilege to "abide" in a culture.