Dinner with Strangers

by B.A. Van Sise

The author of this piece is not Irish, even on St. Patrick’s Day. Nevertheless, he traveled from the United States to the small parish of Ematris in Ulster to visit the home of a distant, much-hated ancestor.

On St. Patrick’s Day of 1999, I wore a shirt that said Kiss Me, I’m Irish and was kissed so many times, and with such vigor, that you’d think I was the serpent-saint himself.

I am not Irish. 

There’s an odd habit in the United States, where I live, of people not identifying themselves by their origins but by their ancestors.  Minnesota is so ripe with vikings, all born here, that the state might better be given back to Scandinavia;  half the people born in Boston will tell you they’re Irish.  On the census, we identify ourselves as Italians and Germans and Vietnamese even though we’re born in Brooklyn and Ohio and Tulsa. Perhaps it is because the American people, having first constructed their homes in suitcases, needed to leave their histories on other shores to make room for their traveling clothes.

My best friend- born most assuredly in New York- is proudly Irish.  Katie is a serious person: a hospital administrator who brooks absolutely none of my bullshit, and it is hard to overstate how much she loves, loves, loves being Irish.  She’s a one-woman Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. One faraway tomorrow when she dies, the coroner will open her chest plate to find not a heart but a formerly beating potato.

And when she recently celebrated a round-number birthday, she had one request:  that we go back to the old sod, see the villages that made her but never knew her.  It would be, the internet assured us, a wide-cast net over picayune towns rounded with green, sheep of all shapes and sizes.  

She wanted, as so many people do, to go to something like home– to sit where the ancestors sat, shit where the ancestors shat, raise a glass in pubs whose walls were raised long after their forebears lit out from this territory to every other. Pictures on the internet matched the imagination: in every town cramped pubs would have half the local gentry turn when we walked in the door, ask her what are you doing here? and, when told, welcome her back as the long-lost friend they’ve always wondered about.  

We’d sweep the departures under the rug, and then drink ourselves under the table.

We began, as everybody does, in Dublin, spending several days near arm-in-arm with an endless tide of Americans, all far more kissed than Celtic but looking to be Irish, the sons and daughters of all of those who’d lived, and laughed, and loved, and left.  We ate pork sandwiches so meager they might better be called hint-of-ham, and lived as tourists fluttering between the fuddy-duddy puddly Irish on their way to work, dodging drunk Dutch dudes hanging desperately onto the world by their elbows.  We bought sweaters, we bought caps.  The two of us- who do not drink- drank far too much. And then we, too, left.

Most of Katie’s ancestors come from postcard pop-up towns dotted across the southwestern coast that make it hard to tell where the houses end and the land begins;  everywhere there are little crumbles, piles of rocks with only hearths standing, that anybody looking for instant ancestors would be proud to claim as their ancestral manse. Sure, perhaps we’re gone, but our sacred kitchens remain, faint embers within them still keeping warm in our waiting. 

The towns were beautiful, but on every turn of the trip we met bad weather: just day after day rain, rain of every kind, an unwaking land under a sleepless sky. It didn’t matter- we’d come here to meet the ancestors or at least those they’d left behind, we all heaven, they all earth, and somehow the gray above made the ground below all the greener.  

We had no trouble figuring where to take a picture or raise a glass: the pub in one held her grandmother’s name;  the hotel in another shared a cognomen with grandpa.  And more importantly than that were not the things that were left but had grown: her past was a perfumery.  Fields rolled away from us, everywhere, ripe with bog rosemary, wild cherries, spring squills. Water mint, marjoram, wild pine. Poppies, poppies, poppies.  Easter lilies, just beginning to fade, held court in gardens, rated by scrappy little sheep’s bits, their purples popping out of every corner, mild daisies, and wild clover flanked by all her lovers: bees, butterflies, field mice.

We stayed in little old houses, and even an abandoned church still heated in the old way: big logs of peat tossed into an oven.  After a few well-chilled summer nights, we began to understand that there is only so much bog you can throw into your stove before you begin to wonder if there isn’t a better way. 

Still, it was charming.  And, now, Americans love to identify as things- it’s useful on an application, handy in an argument- but I only identify as myself, and even then feel more like a field mouse than a man. Still, after visiting a dozen of Katie’s villages- each of them clearly raising small questions in her as to whether it might not have been a better deal for her family to wait out the famine- I had to ask her if we could go to Ematris.

I’m not Irish, but have one Irish ancestor: a terrible man named John Learey who came from that otherwise unknown place to Brooklyn before the Civil War, and then created more and more problems for himself. Again and again he was arrested until he figured the best thing for himself would be to take up a job in the only truly disreputable profession: he became a politician.  Rising up through the ranks of the Republican machine in Kings County, he got caught up in a vote rigging scandal, so naturally was then appointed election overseer, all the while owning a metal store, by which I mean he sold stolen metal.  Eventually his problems became too public, and he was offered a sinecure position as Brooklyn’s Keeper of the Dead House, choosing not to appear daily to take charge of the morgue because, regardless of whether he punched in his time clock, people would still keep dying.

I hate him. 

I got interested in genealogy as a teenager and it took me more than twenty years to figure out where in Ireland he was from, if he was from anywhere at all.  I knew- largely from the many, many news accounts of his many, many crimes- a tremendous amount about him, but not where he was from.  I assumed, based on the larceny in his heart, that he was surely to the low tide born, but figured he had surely covered his tracks.  All efforts to figure it out were further complicated by the fact that on April 16, 1922 the Irish records office was blown up and everyone in Ireland lost their genealogy: their histories became mysteries, their forebears forever rumors.  We could find Katie’s towns because the people who’d come from them could tell her they’d been;  we had no trouble getting pints with her ghosts.  But I was unlikely to have a cocktail with my ancestors, because a century ago thugs had thrown Molotov cocktails at them.

A lucky break- it turned out he had a criminal record back in Ireland, too, and had moved west to America to move west of the law- revealed his origins after two decades and, in spite of my niggling fear that my relatives might be related to me, I asked Katie if we could make a side trip.  After all, her own towns were a good sales pitch for the thing:  the primrose path of her ancestry was literally lined with primrose.  So, I began to imagine my ancestors, the people ol’ John had cast off: charming hobbits who throw their caps over the wall, who make merry wars and sad songs. 

And so, we went.   On the drive over, slowly ambling out of the majestic perfection of Katie’s towns, I wondered aloud and often about the place he’d left to avoid an Irish jail and instead live all the days of his life. 

Katie’s verdant seaside counties gave way to something much, much uglier:  the stone gray soil of County Monaghan, the flyblown towns broken not only by emigration but also by war:  the famine had found here, too, but long before that there’d been Protestants hunting Catholics, and Catholics doing the same to their aberrant neighbors in turn.  My one lone Irish ancestor, Hated John Learey who had lied to every census taker, clerk and policeman he’d ever met, was a Protestant who’d flitted out in the middle of the worst of it. 

Her towns had been all farms and loam and charming little flowers;  Ematris was… emphatically not.  It was broken rock houses on broken rock lanes spotted with broken rock churches all the way up to the cemetery, our first stop. What little dirt was there was unusable- full of rocks. It felt strange, as a genealogist, coming back to a place we’d so long ago left: so many talk of themselves as the soil, yearn to return to their homeland. How can I be made of soil, I wondered as I looked at the landscape, when I am so clearly stone and rock?

At the cemetery, more rocks- this time, gravestones, all of them charming, moss covered, the bodies once again turned to soil and the stones sinking into the sog to to join them.  It was, for so much death, an abundance of life: the graves were overgrown, the ancestors beneath them having been, if nothing else, good for fertilizer, and were feeding fenicules of foxglove to bobbling bumblebees nibbling their pollen unvexed.  Over one gravestone after another there were small, slimy, unconcerned snails crawling on their commute to their next lunch, their thousands of microscopic teeth floating over the names of the long-gone on their way to eat the graveyard’s leaves, stems, bark, fungus.  The many mushrooms of Drumswords Cemetery- that’s what it’s called- are in reality just the small fruit of the real animal below- a wide, interlaced network of fungus hooked into the soil between boxes of bodies. 

The cemetery’s most famous permanent resident is near the Leareys- though to be fair, it’s all Leareys there in the shadow of that crumbled monastery, that’s what they are, Leareys all- is a rebel named David Burke.  The church was already in decay by 1790, being even then far too old, but was still kept in use for subterranean storage of the dead. In 1828 Burke, the leader of the local Protestants, died and was buried there.  The next night, fouled under a rainstorm, local Catholics unburdened the soil of his body and took a hay rope to the nearest tree to be not a man, but a signpost.  He was found, of course, as he was intended to be, and the local Orangemen took to the streets with ropes of their own only to find that Catholics in the area had fled, knowing that their courage would not outlast their oxygen supply.

Today there’s just a small flat stone with “BURKE 1828” written upon it, set upon the ground not far from the tree from which the man had been dangled.

The monastery adjacent, largely broken into bricks by time, had become the roost for a coven of crows who live in a smeuse in its eastern wall and watched for our departure so that they could go back to their hunt for worms, grubs, surely a snail or two and who-knows-what-else.  It was growing noon and they were surely eager for us to leave so they could get back to it: every afternoon, surely, they fly down for dinner with strangers, understanding the fieldstones and man-shaped rocks underneath them as well as they understand the moon, and thinking about them half as often.  

They, now, are the true relatives left behind, even though conversation with them must be limited.  I wished, then, that I could speak crow, learn what they’ve learned from living so long with my ancestors.  After all, every culture has words specific to that culture: schadenfreude. Hozhó.  What do only the crows have words for? The coming of storms? The wiggling of worms? A different word for every shade of black?  

After visiting my deads and their descendants, we stopped at a range and shot 25 unsuspecting clay discs out of the sky for sure catharsis, and then at the local pub- the Protestant one, we were assured by the inhabitants, and thus the better one- for a pint and a meal in a roomful of strangers I understand as well as the moon- a roomful of sad faces, all of them never more winning than won upon, who asked why I was there.  

I told them the truth: my next stop was to visit his house, which I knew had long ago fallen into abandon, an inaccessible wreck which we’d decided was worth jumping a fence for, even if to risk a charming chat with an Irish copper.  Everybody in the area seems to know the house- it became a porridge house where the indigent could get a warm, if bland meal, after we’d left.  Perhaps Joyce was right: there is not past, no future, just everything flowing in an eternal present.

We headed over, fully fixed to bound over the fence even though I’ve a bum leg and Katie’s never bounded over anything in all her life. I knew, from everything else about the area we were now visiting, that it was going to be a miserable dump. The whole area was a miserable dump. I knew that this leucocholic adventure would have us leaping over that little aluminum fence right into disappointment. 

And then, the surprise: we arrived at the address- well, really the GPS coordinates- to find a cleared path framed by an open gate, the way to the old stone farmhouse wrapped in vine-covered serenia, a little nest of ragwort and dog violets by the door. 

We walked up that lane, confused, to find a little girl nestled into the windowsill, who ran into the house at the sight of strangers headed for the door.

A woman with a South American accent answered the door and I told her I- well, my ancestors- had once lived here.  She knew all about it; they’d carved their initials into the outer wall two centuries ago, in the many generations they’d lived there. She’d come from Colombia, moved there to be with her local husband, a contractor who bought the old place for a song just the year prior, had been working to fix it up.

I asked her if she’d mind if I walked around the lot, took a few pictures of the house, perhaps a stone to give my father as a gift.  “But wait,” she said with a smiling confusion, “wouldn’t you like to come in and have tea?”

Karina, from Bogotá and now Ematris, showed us into the house where my most hated ancestor had once been just a little boy.  I knew I’d hated him for all the crimes he’d done, the last of which was understanding the value of making himself unreachable. I hated him more than any other forebear, as if any one man would be the cause of all our grievances, impeaching him forever for what he did on just one night, far from home, to that one woman’s egg. 

And yet here he was, not any of that: not a criminal. Not a liar. Not even an ancestor. Just a little boy.

Karina showed us around the house, its second floor still in the process of restoration, to become better bedrooms for their daughter, as her contractor husband sets one plank into another. She showed us his old hearth- the embers in there surely, somewhere, still warm- and the cubby hole where he and the rest of the family used to hide, hidden under the floorboards, whenever the Other Side would come barreling through the neighborhood with clubs, before he left, made a new life, before his narrowing years wished the end of his whens, so that I can say that I hate him, and he is me.

I stared at the hidey-hole imagining generations curled up in it- it was no bigger than a kitchen table, for a house that held a dozen people- thinking of all the still-warm embers inside it:  young men, young women, young wives, young husbands, old grandfathers, criminals, crooks, paupers, and porridge, and myself. And myself. And myself. 

Karina showed us to her own kitchen table- no bigger than a hiding hole- and poured Earl Grey into large mugs, asked to see pictures of the Leareys, even though by the time you see a photograph it is already long gone. She put out cookies and sandwiches and there I was: I, John Learey, keeper of the dead house, with Karina of Bogotá, keeper of the living one– both of us, finally, dining with strangers. 

All photos (c) B.A. Van Sise.

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