I’ve always loved Ireland.
Sure, when I was little, I worried about Irish eyes which could, according to my Irish mother’s favorite song, smile. I pictured shamrock clowns with happy-faced grins tattooed across their pupils. But somehow, despite my obvious need of ongoing coulrophobia therapy for all things Bozo, I was still a sucker for anything Irish.
I entered the University of Chicago as a biology major. That lasted until my first year required literature class taught by Frank Kinahan, newly-hired professor of Anglo-Irish lit. Our initial encounter was less than auspicious. My first assignment, a five-page paper on Ode to a Nightingale, was returned with a polite inquiry in red at the top as to the level of intoxication that led me to misspell “nightengale” through the entire paper. But it only took one impassioned Kinahan lecture on William Butler Yeats to have me trying to explain to my befuddled advisor why I was switching majors to focus on the writers of the Irish literary renaissance.
Over the next four years, I took every class Kinahan taught, including the notoriously difficult one on James Joyce’s Ulysses. When I graduated and told him I was taking myself on a tour of the Ireland of O’Casey, Synge, Yeats, Joyce, and Lady Gregory, he gave me two pieces of advice: eat in pubs because Irish restaurant food sucked, and hitchhike because it was a safe and excellent way to get to know the country.
Then he handed me a bright pink ping pong ball, a map marked with times and places, and my last assignment for him. When writing Ulysses, Professor Kinahan reminded me, James Joyce exhaustively researched every aspect. He even consulted tide tables to determine proper timings for a crumpled bit of paper which is thrown into the River Liffey, spotted during Bloom’s afternoon wanderings through Dublin, and finally sighted as it drifts out to sea. My job was to check Joyce’s accuracy by tossing Kinahan’s ball into the River Liffey, and verifying whether it showed up on Joyce’s schedule.
On his advice, I toured Ireland with my thumb stuck out. I lived on pub sandwiches and pints of Harp laced with Roses Lime as I hitched to Yeat’s tower. Almost everyone who gave me a ride wanted to know if I knew their cousin in Chicago or Boston or New York. Most wanted to show me their pile of crumbling rocks in the upper field that they assured me had been a castle. I spent one night in the beautiful thatched-roof cottage of a couple who picked me up. I think I broke the nose of one too-friendly driver. Yet another group of musicians insisted on taking me to the pub they were playing in that night, and we all ended up sleeping in the room above the bar because we stayed out too late and the owner of our guesthouse locked her front door and went to bed.
Eventually, I did make it to Dublin. If my life was a novel, I would have faithfully tracked the path of Kinahan’s pink ball and reported back, both creating an allegory for my future life, and forging a professional relationship that would define my character going forward. There were at least three reasons that could never have happened.
- I’m map-impaired. I know there are people with godlike directional gifts who can just look at a map and translate “north” into “turn right” or “hang a left.” I can look at a map, and (if I’m having a good day) manage to refold it along the original creases.
- This was before the plaques marking Bloom’s route through Dublin were installed, so my killer ninja plaque-reading skills were wasted.
- More importantly, it was after I was old enough to drink. So any vestigial map-following instincts were quickly buried by my default response: “Look! A pub!”
In fact, I did toss that ball into the Liffey at the appropriate start point, and made an attempt to track its path. Many pints of Harp observations later, I had seen no sign of that ball. By the end of the day, I had a group of new BFFs gathered with me in front of what I thought was the last spot. Our glasses were empty It was getting late and I had just about given up when a flash of pink drifted past.
If my life was a novel, the sight of that ball floating by more or less on schedule would have confirmed my decision to become a great writer like Joyce or a brilliant academic like Kinahan, or even to write the definitive PhD thesis on floating trash in Ulysses. Instead, in the coming years, I completely forgot about that little ball. Frank Kinahan died tragically young. I served time as a journalist. The ghost of James Joyce had no comment.
But a few weeks ago, I remembered the pink ball again as I stood in Dublin looking at the River Liffey. To my surprise, I am a writer now and this trip encompassed a different odyssey. With my mother’s recent death, I was looking for connections to her Irish family roots. Traveling (in my own car this time) with my sister and her husband, we saw an Ireland that was a world apart from the one I’d heard about in Frank Kinahan’s lectures, or from the one I visited decades ago. Roads are lined with mcmansions that would be at home in California suburbs. Restaurant food is flat out fantastic.
At a stop at the Rock of Cashel, we found a plaque on a house proclaiming the birthplace of one of my mother’s relatives, the famous theologian John Lanigan. The sign next to it invited people to come in and visit the museum housed within.Score! We knocked, but the older man who finally answered said that the museum was closed for the winter, and anyway he had his doubts about the plaque’s accuracy. When we explained our connection, he suggested we look up the owner, whose shop turned to be on the way back to our car.
As we passed, a man came out and introduced himself as Bernard, the museum’s owner. I told him we were looking for information about a relative, John Lanigan, and asked if he would mind showing us anything he might have relating to him. Those were pretty much the last words I got in. Bernard’s face lit with the fanatic zeal of a knight asked if he might like a holy grail or two, or maybe a PMSing woman offered chocolate and potato chips. He opened his mouth and didn’t shut it again for two and a half hours. We followed him through his museum, duly admiring the paintings (done by his brother-in-law), the life-sized figures of families dying of starvation during the Troubles (done by his brother), the “last” gypsy caravan in Ireland (in which, he assured us, a family had raised thirteen children), the clandestine chapel where disguised priests secretly celebrated outlawed sacraments. We nodded, exclaimed, followed, and did not hear one thing about John Lanigan.
When Bernard finally wound down to a pause, I opened my mouth to ask again about our relative. But my sister was behind him, waving her arms in the universal “Danger, Will Robinson” sign and mouthing “NO!”. Next to her, my poor brother-in-law shook his head vigorously.
A day later, we were in Dublin overlooking the River Liffey, and I was thinking about connections. My pink ping pong ball was gone along with my academic aspirations. My family’s Irish heritage seems disconnected with the affluent new country that is Ireland today. But some connections never change… “Look! A pub!”
I’ve always loved Ireland!