Celtic Junction Arts Review

What the Grandfathers Want

Amy Elizabeth Robinson

In 2013 I traveled to Ireland for the first and only time thus far. I had studied the history of British colonialism in an academic setting but this was the first moment of touching into my own relevant root story, my reamhscéal. My travel companion was my creative writing teacher, and she suggested I invite one of my Irish ancestors to keep me company on the journey. It was awkward, and surprising, and transformative, and the beginning of a journey that continues: to understand and articulate the tricky sense of connection I feel to the land and story of Ireland. This writing is pulled from my journal of that trip.

Saturday, May 11

Another day, another pub. Sitting in the afterglow of fish and chips and cider, trying to maintain my center, and stay warm.

We toured a part of the Burren this morning—the bare, beautiful, windswept Burren—with a local guide and farmer named Shane. We met him in the church parking lot in the village of Ballyvaughan, and hopped into his car.

The Burren

After parking and choosing hand-whittled walking sticks from the boot, we beat uphill against the wind and occasional driving rain, crossing slabs of limestone rock striped and pooled with struggling early-spring flowers.  Cowslip, hart’s tongue, seadrift, yew, lady’s mantle, birdsfoot trefoil, blackthorn, orchid, juniper.  Cows and wild goats and skylarks hiding from the wind. Ring fort, hill fort, nineteenth-century pre-famine settlement, stone walls stretching fingers of organization over the limestone terraced land. Bronze Age cooking site in a hollow by a spring, surrounded by tenacious, almost-flowering whitethorn trees. Blue sea crashing, green fields laying still in the Fanore Valley below. 

While I stood by the cooking site, which felt like the oldest ordinary place I’d ever consciously been, a small, bright feeling arose in my body and made itself known. A slight, quiet, even will-o’-the-wisp possibility of being indigenous. (I hesitate to write that out loud.) The feeling of being rooted, somewhere ancient, and trusting that memory to inhabit my body, somewheresomehow.  The mere idea of grasping for indigeneity felt immediately and intellectually so clichéd. I wanted to push it away. But the rush and the resonance were also there. A release in my body, and deep gratitude for a place where I almost don’t feel like an interloper, where I almost feel I belong. A place, a tradition, a deeply layered landscape, a scrap of legacy I actually feel I can claim, and be true.  And right alongside this: a healthy amount of historical absurdity. A dose of doubt that raises questions and sharpens the mind.

What sinew of attachment has been severed across time?  What remains in me, and what was left behind?

In a stretch of sunshine, we sheltered inside the ring fort that sits at the crest of Blackhead.  We each found a flat stone and took off our backpacks, and Shane produced a bottle of Jameson with teeny-tiny plastic shot glasses to drink from.  I have never been so grateful for hard liquor.  Shane said that if you ask historians they will say that the round stone structure is indeed a ring fort, a relic of traditional medieval Irish clan life, and housed residences, gardens, churches. But if you ask the old people, he said (and how long can people continue to say If you ask the old people…?), they will tell you it is a prehistoric hill fort, a fortification for the legendary battles between the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danaan, who eventually took refuge as the fairies of the land.

The fairies seem far away to me today.  I am encountering more recent ghosts.

Later, by lamplight and peat fire in the hostel common room, I write to my mother’s father, the grandfather I never knew.  How did you feel about Ireland, Pop-Pop? I ask, and my pen makes an answer for me.  Angry, he says.  Angry at my grandparents for ever leaving. Angry about being from a borderland, County Cavan, the edge of Ulster, torn and tossed from hand to hand, never knowing where it would landThe lingering anxiety, the stories of sadness in every song. Celts and Catholics ravaged, exiled, but tenacious like the thorn trees on the hillside.

 A green land, a magical land, Cavan was. You’ve got to go there someday, and take me with you. Then you and I can both take the measure of the distance between the lake-filled land I longed for, and the concrete acid wasteland of Philadelphia, bare brick rowhouses and the glare of oil tankards by night. You and I can both sing, and feel the grasses, and smell the cool loamy scent of summer, and sip sweet whiskey on the leeward side of castles and walls.

Thank you, Pop-Pop, I write.  And while I fall asleep, please sing me some of the songs you want me to sing. 

Sunday, May 12

On the boat ride from Doolin to Inisheer, I stand outside, exhilarated, legs soaked with cold, trying to hold what is behind me and what is in front of me balanced in the center of the moment.  I try to imagine my mother’s grandmother leaving this land at age sixteen, traveling alone over that whirling molten cold ocean, not being able to see what was ahead.

Less than a week here, and I feel green at my heart, breathing at my heart, night and day. 

I can’t stop imagining Pop-Pop and his own shadow memory of Ireland, in his heart and in his bones as he checked dials and “managed things” in a 20th-century Philadelphia oil refinery, powering the new dreams of a new concrete land.

All these years, I see now, in my studious attention to colonized lands—all those terrors, all those divisions, all those displacements, all those themes—all wrapped up in Ireland and I did not know.  Or I knew, but did not dare to follow the thread, from sentimental tug on my heart to the true dark beauty I feel here, now.

Layers on layers on layers, sediment of ages, beauty bursting through. I know now the story that is in my bones.

I sit in another pub, eating fish chowder and brown bread, notebook and guide book open on the worn wooden table. The sun is glorious now, shining across a dark gray sea, stucco houses bright in the evening sun, low trees blowing steadily, terns flying, slow Irish ballads on the radio, Manchester United on the TV, old men speaking Irish peppered with thick English, two cats in the green grass, two boats at the pier. Nighttime blackbirds catching the wind.  I don’t want to be out of sight of the ocean, now that I am here on Inisheer.

County Cavan is not in the guide book.  It is seemingly a blank space, with buses passing through.  At the hostel, where I have free wifi, I go to Google images and enter “County Cavan Ireland.” What pops up on the screen are lakes, small strange hills, fishermen, more lakes, and mundane houses and country roads.  I long to catch a bus and walk the roads there, to see what I can find, but on this trip it will not happen.  I am surrounded by ocean and curtailed by time.

By Jjm596 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57527437

I leave the pub and walk eastwards, trying to head towards the castle above the village, but I cannot figure out where to turn. I crest a hill and the wind whistles and howls around me. I see a low graveyard on a hill between me and the sea.  I climb to the boundary wall and over the flat stones set up like a stile. Sandy paths lead around and over tombstones – shiny new ones and worn, ornate old ones. 1999. 1839. Great sandy slabs of rock lead down to a sunken 10th-century church. The sound of the wind dies as I reach the floor, walls rising around me protectively.  A creeping ivy-like plant with small pink flowers clings to thin soil at the meeting of two walls. A single blackbird sits atop the church and gabbles sharply, in an effort to scare me away.

St Cavan’s Church (Teampall Chaomhán), Inisheer

I linger inside the quiet sunken church, fingertips brushing cold stone.  Off to the left, nestled under the bluff that protects the site from the sand and sea, a small stone hut with plexiglass windows sits lowered into the ground. I read on a sign in both English and Irish that inside the hut is the tomb of St. Cavan, a coincidence that takes my breath away.  I climb out of the church and approach the tomb.  A few gnarled steps lead into the darkness, and deep in the stone-lined earth I see a smooth black slab with a Celtic cross, scattered with melted votive candles. I make the sign of the cross before I can stop myself, and hope that does not make anyone angry. I am not a Catholic anymore. At least I don’t think so.

“Hello,” I said to St. Cavan then, leaning into the dark. My sentences are short and self-conscious. “Thank you for being here.  I came because of my grandfather. He was from County Cavan, or at least his grandparent’s parents were. I am sure he didn’t know you.” 

I asked him something inchoate, for some blessing undefined.  And then I asked, “Do you know how many of your people had to leave?”

When we came across, the ferry engines sang to me, like banshees, like fairies, like ghosts. I remembered reading old Caribbean newspapers when I was researching my dissertation, and learning that black and poor white Caribbean seaman heard the voices of ghosts in steamship engines before they exploded.  Everywhere the danger, the magic, of crossing the sea.

The wind by the graveyard was filled with men’s voices—the given, the lost.

I came back to the hostel and tried to find a place to sit with a view of the sea.  The sun was setting over Inishmaan and Inishmore and the clouds were shooting east. I went to the door and opened it, certain there would be a rainbow.  I ran for my coat and bag, then shot back and out the door, down the footpath.  I turned right on the sea road, past young men arriving by car and foot to drink at the pub next door, and walked towards a full, faint and glorious rainbow stretching from the dark water over beached fishing boats and St. Cavan’s graveyard, down to the castle at the crest of the island. I chased it with a camera. It disappeared. 

The long cycles of time, layered in the landscape everywhere here. Poverty, magic, beauty, exile. And questions of power. Who wields it, who wants it, what does it look like? I think maybe all the fairy stories are about power and beauty and exile.

Monday, May 13

The sun is lashing the sea and the sea is lashing the rocks and the rocks are patiently enduring and transforming, all the time.

The rocks don’t fight back. But they change on their own terms.

There are some people, a Buddhist teacher said, whose anger is like an inscription on a rock. The wind and water lash them but they are solid in their endurance. Their anger is etched in them and cannot be removed except over very deep time. 

There are others whose anger is like an inscription in soil. It can be deep, but never lasting. It will fill with silt or rain and fade back into the earth of a person’s body.

And there are some whose anger is like an inscription in water. It can touch them, but only to pass through, and be gone. 

I see stone, soil, water through the window of my room here. Stone, soil, ocean, grass, wind. Soil built up through the ages, through the layering of seaweed and sand, which is itself sea-worn and wind-worn stone. All those forces, and people too, working with devotion in difficult landscapes, waiting for richness to happen.

I dreamt that Christopher Columbus, not Cavan, was buried in that tomb. I felt a confusion of energy—dark energy, bright energy—as I fell asleep, remembering the cool darkness of the tomb, the wind whispering no answers, the rainbow arching over the island through a cloud and light-filled sky.

The wind is alive, the sea is alive, and if they are alive, why not the stones? The stones that cover ancient saints, the stones that stretch like fingers across the land. After a long walk across the island, I watch the waves, turquoise and heavy, roll over dark beds of seaweed, churning and emptying out, filling up again. My eyes see rockbed and mussels, scraps of smooth white wood adrift from somewhere far away, shades of soft green seaweed under the bronze pools of water. My legs carry me, my spine supports me, my senses nourish me, as I put one foot in front of another between the work of ages, solid whistling rock walls.

The sea is a steady blue, a steady roil. My head is beginning to ache from the waves of loss and relief roiling through me, from crying, from being cold and being tired.

Pop-Pop did not choose to be born where he was, and his life stretched backwards to a place he never knew.  Pop-Pop, my mother tells me, lit up around music and played the guitar. Pop-Pop, my mother tells me, would turn to someone wielding banal racism and drily quip, “Well, weren’t you lucky to have been born white?”  Pop-Pop, my mother tells me, was frequently drunk and angry. I feel not just anger but grief in these evanescent stories.

I am finally understanding something about my story. Half my life—half my life—investigating the experience of colonized peoples, out of empathy, yes, but also from a misrecognition, a not-seeing the roots, the reality, of my own lineage. Not knowing the story in my bones.

Tuesday, May 14

I am watching a fishing boat dock at Inisheer. Tractors and work machines are aligning on the pier. Perhaps the boat is bringing cargo from Galway. 

My heart beats quickly from two cups of strong tea. I am dreaming of ocean and green.

The Tranquility sets off across the sea to Doolin, nestled safely beyond the dark Cliffs of Moher.

I write to Pop-Pop again.  I ask him what he thought when I pulled tarot cards before this journey, and ended up with Death. He answered right away:

I helped you pull the death card and there’s a bit of humor in it, don’t you see? I’m already dead! Perhaps it is to help you see what that means. To be dead is to be everywhere—here, there—and also to be stuck. I am happy to be spirit, but there is something wonderful, Amy, in having that human body, in having that richness, that lust for feeling and breathing and smelling and tasting. And thinking, too. Don’t fall for that getting-rid-of-thinking trap. There’s a reason people think so much. We get to create! To make music! To put two things together and make something magnificent. We get to tell stories! 

What’s new in you that wants to be born, Amy? Depth. Resonance. A diving into deep time.

Sing your heart out about deep time. That’s what your grandfathers want.