This Irish vignette has stayed with me throughout the years, the way poignant moments tend to do. It was only a moment, really, yet even at the time I could have told you of its impact; there was something about sitting in Seamus O’Flaherty’s porch on the coast road in Inverin that made me think I’d truly arrived in Ireland, that I’d been invited into its inner sanctum and was a part of it now, even though I’d heard time and again that the green-eyed look of me would have eventually done the same.
The first time I met Seamus O’Flaherty, I didn’t know he was a big deal. I’d struck up a conversation with a woman in a café on Galway’s High Street, who was in for the day from Carraroe. She sat with her bags clustered around her: the red- and-white-striped plastic kind with the flimsy handles that are doled out in every shop in Ireland. She’d swept them aside to make room for me on the red naugahyde community cushion against the café’s wall, and I’d scooted in gratefully as she said, “You’re all right, there.” Her name was Kathleen O’Toole, and she wore her gray hair swept up in a bun over her round, blue eyes. Somewhere in her mid-sixties, I remember marveling at the quality of her skin: fair and translucent, the color of cat’s cream in white porcelain, with high coloring on her sharp cheekbones that made me think of my mother.
I’d only been in Ireland a week. I’d flown out of LAX to Dublin on Bloomsday, spent four days in Rathgar at the friend of a friend’s basement flat, then taken the train across the island to Galway’s Eire Square, for I’d been told the west of Ireland would fulfill the image I sought: rolling green fields cut through with gray stone walls on the way to the dramatic sea. So it was here in the café on High Street that I told Kathleen O’Toole I’d be staying a while; I’d been offered a job at The Galway Music Center and needed a place to live. “Where are the fields with the gray stone walls?” I’d asked her, and without hesitation, she replied, “In Connemara; you should take the bus to Spiddal and call into Seamus O’Flaherty.”
I stood shoulder to shoulder with Kathleen O’Toole in front of a music venue named The Lisheen, waiting for the bus to Connemara. The bus surprised me when it finally appeared; it was one of those huge touring kinds, glossy and black and ominously official. It pitched and rolled through Salthill then turned left on the coast road and came to a teetering stop in Furbo then Barna, before it touched down in Spiddal, where I thanked Kathleen O’Toole and disembarked. I couldn’t tell you now where Seamus O’Flaherty’s office was, but I recall it was among a cluster of shops along the side of the coast road. At the time, I was so new to Ireland that I was swimming with disorientation over the sheer novelty of every Irish aspect, but I found Seamus O’Flaherty’s office easily because it was the only one with a full-size glass door.
He was on the phone when I walked into the linoleum-floored room, and I felt his wise owl eyes take my measure, for surely everything about the way I was formally dressed screamed American outsider. He hung up the phone and listened patiently as I gave him my story, which he nodded through poker-faced as if he’d heard it all before. Without preamble, he reached into his desk drawer and presented me with a lone key topped with orange plastic. He set it on the desk between us and said, “Now,” which I came to recognize later as the Irish way of completing a transaction.
The place I rented was a one-level, two-bedroom holiday home in Inverin, with a kitchen and living room behind a spacious glassed-in porch. It was one of four positioned in a row on the same property as Seamus O’Flaherty’s home, which was perched on a knoll facing the verdant fields ambling down to the sea. It was the modern architecture of the holiday homes that told me Seamus O’Flaherty was a forward thinker, for his real estate was conspicuously dissimilar to the white-washed, thatched roof cottages peppered throughout the provincial region.
And so it happened one early evening that I came to call round to Seamus O’Flaherty’s back door to deliver my monthly rent. The kitchen door flew wide in mid-knock, and there stood Seamus O’Flaherty’s diminutive wife, wearing a white embroidered apron and holding a wooden slat-spoon.
“I was just after making dinner for himself,” she said, when Seamus O’Flaherty’s voice drifted from beyond to invite me in. “Well then,” she said, then she turned her back and led the way through the living room and into the screened side porch.
Sometimes you find yourself in the presence of someone whose very essence makes you sit up a little taller. Seamus O’Flaherty exuded authority in his low-slung, square intensity; his steady gaze and no-nonsense manner held me fast from his wicker chair as he offered me a seat. He conducted himself as if it were he who’d called me to his audience. He asked me about myself in that covert manner the Irish employ, which can best be described as leading the question.
“So you’re long here, working and doing some writing, you are,” he began, and one thing followed another in what morphed into a give-and-take exchange. Somewhere along the line he must have decided I was harmless, for the air shifted when his wife returned to bring me a cup of tea, and he motioned for her to join us. In soft rhapsody, their story unfurled: that she was from Roscommon; that they had met as teenagers; that they’d settled in Inverin decades before and raised their three sons, one of whom was no longer with us. It came to me slowly that this pair was no stranger to tragedy. They’d known life’s rough edges and cruel adversities, and on this particular evening, they confided that their deepest wound had come from the suicide of their youngest son.
There are some moments, when self-revelatory confession is shared, that mere language becomes too weighty and too much. They hang in the air with such reverberant force as to break the heart open, and as I sat in stunned silence after Seamus O’Flaherty told me about their son’s suicide, it wasn’t so much that I was shocked by the fact, as I was by the fact that he’d told me. It had been my impression that the Irish hold their cards close to their vest, yet here I was now, privy to an intimate family history. There I was in the midst of Catholic Ireland, dizzy with the realization that such a personal essential had been shared on Seamus O’Flaherty’s porch.
That singular night was the pivotal point of the year I lived in Ireland. I knew now that behind the easy banter that often masks the guarded countenance of the Irish people, there lies a secret story replete with life’s mercilessness. But you’d never suspect this in meeting most of them, for they are not a lot prone to laying their burden at your feet. Yet if they do, you’ve cracked the code; you are in-crowd, a part of it all, and to be in their confidence hovers like the largess of grace, and stays with you forever.
Claire Fullerton is the author of contemporary fiction Dancing to an Irish Reel (Vinspire Publishing) http://www.clairefullerton.com