As a self-confessed city person, I admit that I tend to think of most countries as big cities with a few other places scattered in between. But Ireland has, as with so many things, helped me see the error of my ways.
One of the first things that you hear from the Irish outside of Dublin is, “Ireland is not Dublin” and “You only see he real Ireland when you get out in the country”. And from Dubs you’ll hear, “Sure, but why would you need to leave Dublin”. The implication being that the areas outside ‘The Pale’ (anywhere outside Dublin) are culturally incidental pits of tedious agrarian life, for which rubber boots are required.
What I’ve learned is that both views are equally valid. And as an immigrant playing cultural catch up in an effort to learn the history, customs, and social context in a new country, I feel it’s important that I take in as much as I can, regardless of how unprepared I may be for the consequences. And that’s exactly how we came to spend the holidays in an idyllic west of Ireland setting that, frankly crushed a bit of my dreams and aspirations.
I’ve always fancied myself the easily adaptable sort, and have longed for a life in the city that somehow, inexplicably, also included a small farm (a couple of chickens and a big garden, etc.). So, when a couple of friends offered us the keys to their small holding out in Mayo for a few days while they were away for the holidays, we jumped at the chance to be rural dilettantes. But beyond the idyllic walks around Clew Bay, and the evenings spent by the wood stove watching the storms roll in, I discovered that their life is hard, but deeply affecting work in ways I’d not imagined.
Between opening the gate and then closing it each time you come and go, tending the land, keeping the quaint old farmhouse heated, and making sure you never forget anything at the store, because it’s a 20 minute trip back, you have to be self sufficient and comfortable in your own head in a way that few of us really are. But what our time in self-sufficiency boot camp did for us was to really introduce to that part of Mayo in a way that just isn’t possible when you simply, “pass through”.
Shopping at the small local store (the only one in town) gives you a feel for what the town needs to get by. Rather than having everything that you want, you begin to see what the shopkeepers (over years of refinement) have discovered their customers really need. You look at brands differently. Firelighters and fresh food take on a whole new significance. You buy your meat from this butcher, not that store, etc. Your comings and going through town are noticed by locals and acknowledged with a nod (or a lack of one). Whether you can ever truly “fit in” over a week depends on the place, but it’s enough time to feel a bit of the place, and for it to leave it’s mark on you.
Enough so that, days later, when your briefly adopted home makes the news (due to rains and catastrophic flooding) the news has stakes, purpose, and peril. You think of the water lapping not-so-picturesquely against the stone pillars of the town’s only bridge. You wonder about the drivability of the dirt road out to, “your place”. The news is suddenly more alive. Your sense of place is more based on something visceral.
At the end of our holiday I realized that the idyllic farm life I lusted after is a dream, a shade. It’s not just that I’m not right for it. The “it” simply doesn’t exist. What I wanted exists only in my mind. But, by escaping the city and chasing that dream, what I found was a real place. And I realized that by “moving in”, even for a few days, we left a bit of ourselves behind, but we also took something with us.
Dublin, January 2016
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts: