Friday, March 15, 2002
An Irish cottage
Halfway between Galway City and Connemara, on the Coast Road in Spidal overlooking Galway Bay, is a one-room whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof. There is a little donkey in the front yard and she'll let you pet and feed her if you first sit quietly on the stone wall for a few minutes. The yard is overgrown with tall grasses, heather, and Queen Anne's Lace. Rose of Sharon blooms near the front door, and the black rocks of the wall, immoveable, are probably a million years old.
Just outside the stone wall is a grave. Rocks, each one the size of a large fist, are arranged in a rectangle, and at the head of the rectangle a Celtic cross, made of iron, is stuck into the ground. The cross is usually leaning to one side. Every once in a while a woman comes to tidy the plot and maybe plant a geranium or a marigold. She pulls the cross out of the ground and uses its sharp end to scrape the hardened earth so she can pull out the weeds and toss them to the side. She plants the flower, pours water from the bottle she has brought with her, shoves the cross back into its spot, stands up and claps her hands together to get rid of the dirt. Then she goes to talk to the donkey.
In 1952 my grandfather went back to Spidal for the first time since he had left in 1926, and met his brothers and sisters in the cottage. He and Joe and Pat and Darby dug the grave outside the wall, carried their mother out to it, and buried her the same day. They arranged stones to mark the plot and set the cross. The next day he boarded a plane for the second time in his life and flew home to Boston. He wouldn't return to the cottage or his village for another thirty years. Things have changed a lot in the fifty years since Penelope was buried. My grandfather and his six brothers and sisters are all dead now too. His wife is almost 100 years old. His youngest grandchild is expecting a son in May. That boy will be Penelope's great-great grandson, and someday his parents will probably bring the boy to visit the donkey and look at the grave.
The cottage overlooking the bay doesn't change, but the world around it does, and a little house that was once too small and too cold and too dark for a family of ten now seems quaint and picturesque and evocative of a sweeter, simpler past. Of course, my grandfather's past was no simpler or sweeter than anyone else's, and nearly all of Penelope's children and grandchildren left Ireland as soon as they could. Most of them had no desire to return. They left a tiny house with no running water or electricity, a village that barely taught its children to read and a country that desperately struggled against extreme poverty and political impotence. If they felt guilty about their choice I never heard about it. They made a new sort of a country in Dorchester and South Boston and I think they were much happier here than they would have been back there.
In Ireland young people plant bombs on buses and in shopping malls because they have no political influence and they believe their fierce religion needs protection from the encroachment of other religions. They believe in the purity of their blood and they are doomed to hopelessness because there is no such thing as pure blood or pure religion. In Israel a suicide bomber killed fourteen people in a restaurant last week for the same reasons. The color photo on the front page of the newspaper will make you dizzy. The blood red carpet on the floor of the café is not a carpet and a woman in shock wades through it. Is she looking for her husband or her children or is she just trying to escape? Eventually the shock will wear off a bit and she will look at herself and realize she is covered in blood and she will have to wash it off.
In Spidal, the children and grandchildren of Penelope battle over who owns the cottage. The bickering has lasted fifty years and will likely last fifty more. The one who plants the flowers believes its hers because she tends the grave. The one who whitewashes the walls believes its his because he is the caretaker. The one whose daughter sometimes lives there believes its hers because she needs it. The only ones who don't seem to care very much either way are the ones who left, and it makes me think that maybe America is a better place. I would rather tear my house down or sell it to strangers than know that my children and grandchildren would fight over it and let it come between them. Here, I believe, they will grow up and move away and their past will be a place they might visit, or they might not. It won't matter too much. But in an old place, like Ireland or Israel, where time gets stuck rather than moving forward, people get mired in beliefs that don't change. They start protecting things that don't need protection, like religion and pure blood and little houses.
This is a family story. There are a thousand versions. But when they start with the belief that the blood or the faith or the past is pure, they all end the same way.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito