I never really wrote about my last trip to Ireland, although it was wonderful. I managed to arrive on the hottest day of the year, and spent my first evening surrounded by family in the back garden drinking wine and catching up on all the news. It didn’t get properly dark until almost midnight, being only a week after Midsummer’s Day, and it stayed balmy all evening too. Most unusual, and most welcome after a few weeks of winter down under.
I hung out with Mum, and spent a few days in Connemara with her and Ashling and Connor. I had forgotten how much I love Connemara. We spent so much time there as children, and Daddy knew every boreen and every beach. Even now, after all these years, the landscape is so familiar and so captivating. Mum was the same: it was as if we exhaled for the first time as soon as we got past Barna on the Coast Road, and we wanted never to leave.
All around me on this trip was history. Especially in Connemara, every turn in the road brought you up against another ancient standing stone, another ruined castle, another fairy fort, another crumbling famine house, another favourite place for picnics and trips as children. Connor was in his element. He was chief navigator, sitting in the back seat with his proper ordnance survey map, shouting “STOP! Another standing stone up ahead Auntie Máiréad!” “Another famine house – where’s the camera?” The map was full of red markers signifying antiquities but he was most interested in the tiny stone ruins of the famine houses – homes for people in the mid-1800s and abandoned when their inhabitants died or headed for the coffins ships to America. Maybe it was because they were closer in time to him, and he could imagine the people himself.
Down at the beaches, you could still see the remnants of the drills of potatoes from the famine. As the potato plague took hold, people tried to grow potatoes everywhere they could, even on the infertile sand beside the water. They died anyway, and nobody ever harvested those meagre rotten crops. The undulating land remains nonetheless, to remind us of the five million who lost their lives.
Ireland is such a rich place to travel through after the relative sterility of Australia. We don’t even notice historical places, landmarks or buildings unless they are approaching a thousand years old in Ireland. In Australia, over a hundred years and it is considered ready for historical listing.
Strangely for such an ancient civilisation, Ireland only has two cultural items listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Skellig Michael down off the coast of Kerry, and the Brú na Bóinne Complex of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, on the north bank of the River Boyne north of Dublin. Although the Brú na Bóinne complex is Europe’s largest and most important concentration of prehistoric megalithic art, so that counts for something. Australia, on the other hand, has two cultural items (the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Exhibition building and gardens in Melbourne), eleven natural items (including the Great Barrier Reef) and four mixed items including of course Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Maybe our history is so ubiquitous in Ireland that we neglected to preserve it.
But there was history of another kind too. On my first morning in Dublin I went to Mass with my mother, in our local church where we have been going since it opened in 1973. My mother is a minister there and well known – and hence so am I, if only as Madge Doyle’s youngest. I stood beside her whilst she said hello to her friends, and I nodded at acquaintances and greeted cousins. A friend of my mum’s indicated one of our old school teachers sitting nearby – she called her over to say hello. Sister Anne-Marie would have known who I was only because she saw my mum, but she didn’t recognise me from the child I had been. She peered into my face and finally, slowly said: “Ah yes, I see you in yourself!” We chatted about mutual acquaintances, and then another nun approached. Sister Anne-Marie called to her, saying simply “Look who’s here!” The other nun recognised me instantly without an introduction, although the last time she had had any contact with me was when she was teaching our choir before our First Holy Communion back when I was six. It was so strange to be amongst people who knew me as a child, and had seen me grow up. As somebody who has lived in a foreign country for so long, it is comforting and really uplifting to be in that sort of environment. It grounds you and puts you back in contact with your own personal history in a way that nothing else can.
Later in my trip, we took a drive around the village my mum grew up in. It is so different now. Even the old cottages she grew up in are long gone, razed to the ground in the months before she got married over 56 years ago. We drove down the Mill Lane to the edge of the river Liffey, where she and my dad used to wander as sweethearts before they got married, and where my mum used to roam as a child with her cousin Tommy McKenna and the neighbours’ children. Tommy died just a few weeks before I flew over, and we had visited his grave earlier so I could pay my respects. That graveyard – Esker – is an old one, full of my relatives. I clambered over waist-high weeds and stony graves to find Auntie Mag, and Aunt Bridie and Uncle Christy, and so many others.
But down the Mill Lane there is a cemetery with just one grave we know in it: that of my mum’s father who died when she was two years old, of malaria fever contracted during the war as he fought in the British Army. The cemetery is long overgrown and disused now, and is a bit of a no-go area since some drug addicts took it over as a recreation ground a few years ago. But on a showery Sunday afternoon I braved the long grass and headed in.
The old church is in ruins now, and the view of the river is obscured by huge trees gone to seed. All I could remember about my grandfather’s grave was that it had a small black iron cross, it was to the left of a huge tree and it was right beside the cemetery wall. I searched but could not find it. My mum, frustrated at the wait in the car, decided to join me and she directed me to the other side of the church. Tommy had told her just before he died that the little iron cross was gone, so the main landmark was lost. I stood at the tree by the wall, and peered through a three-foot-thick clump of briars to see if I could see anything. We would have to send Bernard and Connor in with some hurley sticks to break down the briars.
Back home, our cousin Pat had unearthed lots of old photographs in his house and he brought them over to show us. Mum sat at the kitchen table pointing out us as babies, aunties and neighbours long dead, and a couple of rare pictures of her mum smiling – that was a rarity. One old photograph was from my parents’ wedding but was not a photo they had seen before somehow. It was a complete group photo taken in front of the house, rather than the smaller group taken outside the church which is the only one they have. She went through the rows of people and named everyone, including one or two whose heads were partially obscured. I wrote them all down in case I forgot.
Back here in Australia, I have a sister and two nieces and an old friend who knew me as a child. I have some history here which is wonderful, and so unusual this far from home. But back in Ireland for those three weeks, driving the familiar roads around Dublin without the aid of a map, exploring the back roads of Connemara with the next generation of intrepid Doyle explorers, and rambling through old graveyards seeking out my family members, I felt completely at home.