Pete Hamill, a prolific writer residing in New York City, was born and raised by parents who had emigrated from Belfast, Ireland. Writing about his first trip to Ireland – a journey not taken till he was a grown man -- he talks about boarding the plane as “a newspaperman, trained by vigorous masters to a permanent secular skepticism.” He was unprepared for his first glimpse of Ireland: "My scalp tingled. My skin pebbled. I felt a sensation of something invisible rising toward me, like atomic particles… 'Come' they seemed to whisper. 'Come home, we’ve been waiting for you,'" wrote the journalist.
I am always uneasy as the plane begins its descent into Shannon because I am afraid it will not be there anymore. Seriously. I fear that, like Brigadoon, the country has disappeared never to be seen by mortals again and I am too late to go with them, stuck on earth without her for the rest of my days. But then the plane falls through the white clouds and I see the patch-worked fields surrounding Shannon, fields stitched together by ribbons of country roads and slim lines of hedgerow stone walls with tiny cars going here and there, and I know everything is going to be OK because Ireland is still here.
I arrived in Ireland for the first time as a teenager in the 1960s. If you were in the States in the decade of free love, you surely recall all the talk about peace. But at some point, through my eyes, all the talk turned to shouting – generations shouting past each other. One summer, my father took me from there to a thatched cottage in the west of Ireland, where I was immersed in the peace of a bog explored on a bicycle and explained to me by gracious people who patiently answered all the questions of a wide-eyed young American. I returned again and again, till one day Ireland began to feel more like home than home itself. It was on a brilliant summer’s day on Aran where the Atlantic rollers crash into a wall of Irish rock that each wave seemed a sentence from the American world I had left behind, crashing into the rock, falling back into the sea -- a whole line of reasoning dismissed in a nod and a wink.
But in retrospect, it was much more than that. It was the providential juncture of time and place. Ireland was the place; my journey into adulthood was the time. I was raised in a small town in New Jersey where my father had a prestigious job and my six much-older brothers and sisters had already established some prestige of their own. When I was 18, I had to make a decision: Follow the well-established path of those who went before me, or go elsewhere to sort out who I was to be.
Irish people will talk about “the life” -- and if you know it, you get it. But to put this into words, I think of Yeats. The Irish poet would return from a walk in his beloved Sligo to his study where he carefully and deliberately wrote down what he had seen, only to tear the page up when he finally had it right. For if it was put into words, he feared the faeries would come and steal his tongue. The life, he knew, was meant to be experienced.
But I can tell you this. When I get off the plane in Shannon, the first thing that hits me is the smell of peat burning. One whiff of this distinct smell and brought forward in my mind are wet windy days that stretched into a week, giving little reason to rouse from a corner chair next to the kitchen fire. But on a sunny day, I would be out the door and into the fields past the cottages and over the stone walls, and into the silence of the furthest field. This is where words fail me; this sacred silence of the remote Irish countryside must be experienced to be understood. Once it was only there for a moment before the spell was broken by the sound of a smithy at work. There was no echo; no reverberation. It was pure sound exploding across the enormous Irish sky. Later that day, I was back on the road where the stream ran between me and the thick hedgerow, and then disappeared into it. Further down the road, almost as if someone or something was playing hide and seek with me, this line of water appeared back beside me again and ... my scalp tingled. My skin pebbled. I felt a sensation of something invisible rising toward me.…
Being an outsider, there is much about “the life” that is still a mystery to me, which led to my eventual return to American shores. But I know this. Ireland is where I was assembled and to where I return to renew the lessons I learned there, for hers is the landscape that rests at the bottom of my soul.