Photocollage by Matthew Chase-Daniel
The Cliffs of Moher rise seven hundred feet out of the Atlantic Ocean, on Ireland’s west coast in County Clare. I’m never quite sure if the ocean shapes the rocks—or the rocks the ocean.
Either way, the view cuts a deep impression into everyone who sees them. They are, for many, the definition of Irishness.
Daring invaders to try their strength, the Cliffs have survived—intact, better than any ancient wall. I can imagine the Romans coming across the sea and stopping at the Cliffs, and deciding not to push forward, deciding that penetrating those walls wouldn’t be possible. It doesn’t matter that the Romans didn’t come, it doesn’t matter that they would have come to the other coast and likely never seen the Cliffs, I imagine it anyway and Hadrian would have been humbled.
When I saw the Cliffs of Moher for the first time, I thought about my father and the only story he ever told me about his service in World War II. I don’t even know how much truth there is to it, but he did tell it the same way every time. He was headed for the beach at Normandy, for D-day. The boat passed by the coast of Ireland. All of the American soldiers of Irish descent on board came up to the deck to gaze at the shamrock shores of what they had always been told was home. They had grown up in South Boston, Massachusetts—Southie, a little Ireland. Every man saluted. They were close enough to swim to shore, but didn’t. Instead, they watched the coast in silence as the stories told by their mothers flashed before them and then melted back into the mists of the Atlantic.
No looking back. Instead, they saw the rest of Europe filtered through the adjustable-sight of an M1 Garand. They saved the world.
Dad always said that few of them ever saw Ireland again. It faded back into imagination and fairy tales, someplace remembered in a cultural consciousness, encoded in fiddle tunes and feises.
“Ah, it’s no matter,” he’d say, “Ireland’s just another place faraway where too many dreams died.” He’d pour a cure-all from the crystal decanter and slip into a silence that filled everything and everyone around him.
It’s not faraway places that kill dreams, but the silences we create right here.
Unlike my father, my first experience of the Cliffs was on Irish soil. I gazed out at the ocean from atop the Cliffs and imagined his taibhse-long that had so long ago passed by, with a hundred men saluting back at me, each of them filled with a sort of disenchanted longing. As I walked along the pathway to O’Brien’s Tower at the top, I talked to the Travelers, Irish gypsies. They line the busy path hawking their wares to tourists and pilgrims. I listened to their music and bought their handcrafted bowls, flutes, and sarongs. I walked along the Cliffs, not too close to the treacherous drop, and took in the view from several vantage points.
I did walk beyond the Danger and Hazard signs. Because I’m like that, daring the wind, pushing the boundaries.
I approached the rickety fences along the land’s edge, about three feet from the seven-hundred-foot drop. I had come to see the entire island from a thousand angles, to find what made me feel broken inside—what made me need to test the wind. I watched the people on the other side of the fence, lying flat and hanging over the precipice—what could they be looking for? What were they trying to see? I wanted to see—understand—my family, the family that had been silenced by the great span of water below. I wanted to know how that taciturn distance had shaped me.
Who were the ancestors, long dead, about whom I knew nothing, the family my father’s mother, Nana, had left behind and tucked away in her memory—never to be shared? I wanted to know the family that died with her so many years ago. I had come armed with my grandmother’s name, Nora Reidy, and the only town she ever mentioned to me, Miltown Malbay. I had come looking for the magic that my grandmother had always claimed lived over there. I had come knowing I was coming home—whatever that would turn out to be.
My grandmother carried one suitcase and her Irishness onto the boat for the three-week journey into the unknown, alone—a ritual—an initiation. Like her ancestors before her, who had survived Christianization, Vikings, famine, and the British, Nora Reidy would survive—in America. She would not surrender. She crossed the ocean and left poverty, disease, and any sense of family history behind. Silence prevailed, except in bedtime stories that subtly carried the ancient ways forward.
“’Tis not the land that makes ya Irish, sure. ’Tis the Irish that makes the land. ’Tisn’t a nationality dear, ’tis a spirit, and one day the pipes will call ye home.” That’s what my grandmother said. Like Muslims to Mecca, many Irish-Americans return to the tiny island of their ancestry, an obligatory pilgrimage. They return to touch the passion and the poison that has infused their lives. Like salmon swimming upstream, the desire to reach the mystical isle—to go home—can be overpowering. Back to the poetry, back to the pubs.
Singing was the only thing that Nana and Dad ever did together. And as I was growing up, they did it every night. I can still hear them singing about pipes calling, in harmony, as my younger brother Danny closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Next, it would be my turn for a song. In my hand-me-down foot-pajamas I would climb into Nana’s lap and sleepily listen to her rich brogue as she recalled for me, again, in songs and stories, her childhood on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare. I remember more stories than songs. There were tales of abbeys, all founded by Padriac—the great saint that he was—and castles where my brother and sisters and I could—would be king and queens, at least in our imaginations.
There were tales of banshees, solitaries, and fairies—the little people who took care of the earth; the ancient people, the world’s first environmentalists, who left the planet in our care. Her stories of the vast green landscape of her youth were filled with longing and lamentation. “That’s who we’re descended from—the peoples of the West—the magic folk. They had red hair, just like you. And they’ve left them to us, the animals and plants, to take care of, don’t you know. Yes, indeed,” she’d pause to stroke the family dog, “yes, we need to tend to them.” Her commentary stirred the imagination with /images of a simple, pure life without the intrusion of alcohol, arguing, and anger.
Then the moment would pass and Nana would carefully readjust her mother’s ivory woolen shawl to protect us both from the harsh New England cold that seeped through the insulated walls and defied radiator and furnace. She wrapped it around us. The shawl was all she had of her mother’s, all she had from home.
I coveted it.
“Have yer Da fetch me some Tay,” Nana would say with a wink. Her piercing blue eyes carefully watched as I scurried off to bring her the tea that Dad prepared for her each night. She brushed her long silver hair back off of her forehead and with elegant slender fingers braided one small piece underneath; with remarkable ease she used it to tie back the rest.
“There are magic places and ancient things—the great rock table, built by fairies, or was it giants?—Oh ’tis no matter now, ’tis it?” She would start her story as I climbed into her lap. “’Tis the most amazing thing I ever did see.” Nana waxed poetically about Irish mythological women, Maeve and Deirdre. She talked about their courage, their independence, and their strength. Their ability to endure and live life on their own terms. “Be like Maeve little one. Never let any one control ya. Or be like Deidre. Die first.”
“Don’t be fillin’ her with your tempestuous tales now. Jesus, Ma, fairies and dyin’!” Dad interrupted. “She has a wild enough imagination. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Fairies! This is Boston, not Miltown!” My father walked to the crystal decanter that held some curious Irish cure for regret. He filled his glass, drained it in one swift motion and filled it again. He drank it like his thirst had no bottom.
“Can’t even get the name right, it’s Miltown Malbay, son. Say the whole thing, enough of your short-cuttin’” Nana winked to me again, “’Tis off to bed with ya, lass. Don’t pay your Da no mind. Who knows what dreams tomorrow holds.” She glared at my dad, “If you don’t believe in dreamin’ that’s your own problem ’tisn’t it? All your answers are there in that glass I ’spose? Whiskey is a powerful magic, ’tis indeed. The deeds done by its magic would shame all the demons in hell. Shame on you. Remember now,” she turned back to me, “don’t let anyone control ya!” She sang a chorus from Galway Bay, or Rose of Mooncoin as I drifted to sleep.
As the only redhead born into the family I was special. Nana, took possession of me when I was a newborn. She left my siblings to the care of my mother. Nana thought my mother was inept and she made no secret of that. In return, my mother never said a gracious or complementary thing about Nana. Their contempt for one another was palpable and I was between them. I was Nana’s chosen one and therefore, by default, devalued by my mother and envied by my father. It is said that the human personality is formed in the first two years of life. Nana molded me. But she moved into a nursing home when I was four, and died when I was six leaving me the different one, the odd child, standing slightly apart in family photos—with no arm encircling me and inviting me to join in.
I’m told that my mother was not my dad’s first choice for a bride. He was in love an elegant Irish-American woman named Kathleen, Kitty. Nana loved Kitty. Dad went to Europe to help save the world during World War II and Kitty married his best friend. He was heartbroken. Dad came home from Germany, met my mom, and they were married shortly thereafter. There were no stories of anyone swept off their feet, or wild romances. They met. They married.
My parents divorced when I was fourteen years old. That meant my dad didn’t sleep in the guest room anymore and dinners wouldn’t be shrouded in resentment and non-fights. Long silences would no longer be punctuated by wounded egos, slamming doors, and hidden whiskey bottles. Nine o’clock Mass and daily confession. I naively thought it could mean that my parents would find something a-kin to happiness out there. I’ve seen pictures of my parents looking like married people but I personally never saw them behave that way. They conceived eight babies, so at some point they must have had a connection. My mother lost four third trimester babies before delivering her first healthy child. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. Somewhere in those years something happened and the tenuous connection between my parents was broken and my father, drowning in alcohol, moved out.
The silence his absence left echoed in the void of my soul. I wondered what his mother, my Nana, would think of all that had transpired. I wondered what it took to shame demons. Their divorce took me one step further from the magic places and ancient things of my childhood. It buried deep in the recesses of my mind, castle ruins and places where every one could be a king or queen. But, what we learn at bedtime comes back to haunt us—or hold us—and as the sound of my dad’s car faded into the distance, in my mind I heard my Nana’s voice say, “Be like Maeve little one. Never let any one control ya. Or be like Deidre. Die first.”
And I believed a little piece of me died.
But my grandmother had also told me the story of CùChulainn. He is a mythical war hero. In typical mythical hero fashion, his dad was a god. CùChulainn was the embodiment of what we typically associate with the Irish: impetuous, courageous, and proud. He was a bit of a drunkard. He faced all of his enemies, come what may. Nothing could hold him back. In his final battle, his enemy, Lugaid, who just happens to have magic arrows, attacks him. CùChulainn’s charioteer is killed, then his horse. The hero is mortally wounded. He refuses to succumb to his wounds; instead he straps himself to a stone. He will die on his feet. The sight instills terror in his enemies and the only creature brave enough to approach him is a raven. Even in death, CùChulainn surrendered nothing.
I clung to CùChulainn’s story. And it has served me well. I can be all of those stereotypical Irish things. I can even add a few more adjectives about redheaded women. I often wonder how my dad didn’t seem to know this story. Or if he did, why he didn’t use it as a model in his own life. When my parents divorced, he moved into a one bedroom apartment where he drank away his twilight years. He never walked the streets of Milltown Malbay, or stood looking out over the Cliffs of Moher. He closed the door behind him and yielded to his demons.
At twenty-six, I moved from Boston to Virginia because I didn’t want to become that. Like Nana, I was chasing a dream into the unknown, come what may. I moved to a farm. I taught my children tales of banshees, solitaries, and fairies—the little people who took care of the earth; the ancient people, who left the planet in our care. I taught them, as my grandmother had taught me, to protect animals. I sought a simple, pure life and eventually the pipes did call me home. And each trip to Ireland has taught me something about magic, survival, and the ability to face all enemies, internal and external. About myself.
During my last trip, I spent time in a pub with several local musicians. If I closed my eyes, I could hear Nana and Dad singing Danny Boy with them. I could feel the memory of the brush of an Irish wool shawl against my cheek. But, no one was drinking tea. The air was smoky, too warm, and heavy with the smell of Guinness and Jameson. I brushed my long hair back off of my forehead and braided one small piece underneath; I used it to tie back the rest.
At last call, a young woman began to sing, Sonny don’t go away, I’m here all alone. People shushed each other. The pub became silent as the patrons respectfully listened to the commanding, poignant voice sing a story it seemed they all knew too well. Many years have rolled on, though he’s barely a man.
I had never heard the song before but a chill of recognition ran through me. It was Dad’s story. I thought about my dad playing soccer by the L Street Pier in Southie with the grandfather I never met. He was killed, hit by a car, stumbling home from the pub, drunk. There’s not much to do, but he does what he can. I thought about the New York Mets and the contract my dad passed on to stay and home and take care of my widowed grandmother, Nana.
I ordered a double. Sits by his window, in his room by the stair.
I spent the next two days thinking about my father and his unrealized dreams—his alcoholism and of all that it robbed him. Many years have rolled on, Sonny’s old and alone. As I walked paths by Dysert O’Deas, I thought about Dad, in his one bedroom apartment everyday, hiding empty bottles from himself, looking up a new word in his ragged dictionary in the evening and watching Jeopardy—calling me six-hundred miles away to tell me he’d gotten every answer right.
Every day wondering what his life might have been.
As I lay in my bed in my rented room at Ashgrove House, after a third night of singing at Fitzpatrick’s, I thought about the Irish mythology I knew so well: fierce, determined women with messages to share about passionate living. Deidre, and Maeve. Every night ended with Sonny’s Dream, a pub full of little surrenders.
I thought about CùChulainn tied to a stone and facing his death without flinching. I thought about my grandmother crossing the ocean alone to chase her dream—and not surrendering. As I lay there I was sure of one thing, I didn’t want to spend my sunset years wondering what my life might have been. I had come to Ireland to find the past, so that I would not be condemned to repeating it. But I realized that the past is open to interpretation. I could have Nana’s story, or Dad’s.
On my last day in Ireland, I drove out to the Cliffs of Moher for one final look. I’m still not quite sure if the ocean shapes the rocks—or the rocks the ocean. But the view cut a deep impression. They remind me of CùChulainn. Nana.
Mel Jones had her own poetry column in a local newspaper at 15 and was determined that she would be the next Shakespeare or Tolkien. But then life intervened. She grew up and raised a family. Mel did her undergraduate work at The College of William and Mary, and graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University and Antioch University, Los Angeles. She holds degrees in History, English, Rhetoric, Literature, and Creative Writing (Nonfiction). Yes, she’s overeducated. She’s done extensive genealogical research, edited a now defunct literary journal, and has taught children ranging from kindergarten through college. Mel writes on a small leisure farm west of Richmond, Virginia where she lives with her partner, parrots, and progeny. She recently had an epiphany: if she sent her work out more, she would be published more. She’s working on that.
Read an interview with Mel here.