After 10 years of living abroad, a traveler returns home to Ireland and tries to tap into the love she used to feel for her native land and its people.
A drunk man on the bus spits and sings. Foreign sounds punctuated with angry words in German: “Ich spreche alles, fucking Alleman… Ich bin alles, ich bin hier!” Where did he come from, and which country did he love before he hated this one?
The bus rolls across the border, and I leave Germany behind as the sun sets. I’m on my way to the nearest airport, which happens to be in another country – Luxembourg. I like the sound of that and the image it conjures: Bord-crosser extraordinaire, three countries in one day. I savor that thought to forget another. I’m on my way to see someone I’ve been avoiding.
In Luxembourg, dark birds circle over bright city lights, and the Haute Ville gives way to glowing Grund below, the old town. No time to tread those winding streets now. The buildings get shabbier and more utilitarian as we approach the airport. The driver smiles goodbye with dark brown eyes, caramel skin, and broken German. I say the words you’re meant to say, words that don’t sound clumsy in my mouth anymore. I have assimilated.
My smugness lasts until I’m seated next to an Irish man with cartoon freckles and a thick Wexford accent. I tell him I have family there, and his eyebrows say “confused.” He’s noticed the stumbling English, then, the false note in my accent. It seems the price of shedding cultural skin are scars that can’t be hidden from one’s own people.
We land, and I make my way through the airport, stalling, delaying the moment that’s so close now. Signs welcome me in a forgotten language. Fáilte romhat. Welcome. Go raibh maith agat. Thank you. The schoolbook words are still there, but I can’t wrap my tongue around the sounds. The terminal is smaller than one would expect from a country’s capital, but always bustling. Reunited families and first-time visitors pool at the arrival doors, while the regulars make a beeline for the exit. Pressed suits and expressions, briefcase, purposeful stride – you know the type. One road to cross, and then only a small shop stands between myself and the reality of arrival. I stop to flip through a guide book with pictures of places I’ve been a million times. They’re beautiful, but my eyes slide right off them, my mind elsewhere. If I delay any longer, I’ll miss the last bus. Out of the airport twilight-zone and into the night; she’s waiting for me there, looking like a storm cloud. Éire. Ireland. Home.
I remember when I first loved her. My small country seemed endless, and I spent my days roaming through a landscape made for fantasy. People ask me what we used to do all day when it rained, but I can’t remember a single rainy day in my childhood. It did rain though, and it was windy. In the Northwest of Ireland, the restless weather serves as a safe space in conversation between the age-old local families and the many blow-ins seeking solitude and freedom in this one part of the country that does not appear on tourist maps. Here, a boot-swallowing bog blankets the rolling hills, and the air is laced with the coconut fragrance of bright yellow gorse. The patchwork land of browns and muddy greens was once seamed with blue and gold. Just a few generations ago, Cavan was at the center of the Irish linen industry, but nowadays the land is used for cattle farming and commercial forestry.
I don’t know exactly when my own love story with Ireland ended. Sometime around puberty, when my body became too big for me and my country too small. She was too cold, too harsh, too gray. I left her, following the steady trickle of her blood into all corners of the world. So many of her fickle youth leave to lead other lives and have other loves. We forget her for a long time and only come back when we have to: Christmas, weddings, funerals. Being home feels like squeezing into a badly-fitting shoe, or meeting a friend you’ve outgrown. We look forward to going back to our “real” lives then, to our new homes – the ones we chose while still pretending we could slough off our culture like dead skin cells, ignorant of the scars it would leave behind.
But my country is a patient one. She waited all this time, and now some of us are coming back to find her rejuvenated, full of hope and newness. Is she the same one we abandoned? The past few times I’ve come back to her, she’s been on her best behavior. There have been long walks on the endless beaches, soft white sand, and rain-pattered water. Evenings spent chasing sunsets along the wild Atlantic coast, shivering shoulder to shoulder with tourists, joined in awe. A lot of the familiar, but also something fresh. Each year the pull grows stronger, and I feel myself falling back in love with the country I left behind 10 years ago.
She’s been left so many times, this one, and her life has been hard. She grew up poor, knew hunger and death, but she was wild and free until she was broken by one much stronger than herself and branded by the Crown’s plantations. The new rulers sought to civilize her, but instead she was only dumbed and deadened. She lost her tongue and her identity, a proud wee thing made meek. Bit by bit she was taken over and taken apart. She watched men who loved her fight and die for her freedom. When most of her body was returned to her, she rose and became a home for wealth and power. She was the Celtic Tiger then, and grew fat and languid until her spine was broken by the crash in 2008. Now, she’s picking up the pieces of herself, but they don’t fit together anymore. The gaps are too big, and those are the gaps through which her people leave her. We stream out at her weak seams to Australia, America, Great Britain, seeding long-distance love for her throughout the world.
Yes, she’s ugly at times, and tempestuous, but there’s something else in her. An old kernel, something pure. A long history, a quiet beauty. I could love her again, if she’ll have me. I could take her bad days with the good ones. I can only babble in her language now, but I can learn. I have forgotten how to be with her, but she welcomes me back and shows me how easy it can be. It won’t always be easy, of course. But love never is, and maybe it’s worth it anyway.
I’m leaving her again soon. As the moment draws closer, so do we. I hold tight to what I once threw away. But the rift between us is sealed now, and whatever hurt it was that sent me away is healed. I can see her in my future, and myself in hers. This time when I pack my bags to leave, it’s Slán go fóill – bye for now.