All photos by Kelly Gammon White
Inishbofin Island, off the coast of Connemara in the West of Ireland. A great place to walk, if you keep an eye out for sheep and such.
By Kelly Gammon White
I’m sitting in Katie’s Cottage, a hybrid historical/crafts/tea shop in the west of Ireland, in Galway specifically. I’ve been brought here by Kathleen, a high school history teacher transplanted to Galway from Tipperary many years ago, and no interest in going back, thank you very much. We’re enjoying a cup of tea and talking to Mike, who just opened the business a couple of weeks ago. The tables are set with blue and white tea cups, pots of jam and plates of butter. The scones were baked by his wife this morning. Artisan works in iron, limestone, Connemara marble and bog wood fill the space around the tables. None of these carved, drawn, forged items have price tags. (Mike knows the cost if you ask him.)
We’re talking about traditions and cultures and the disappearing of some, the tamping out of others by this and that. I say that I think the Irish culture is simpler but deeper than the American culture. Music, storytelling, family, and welcome are what I notice again and again when I visit. Mike agrees, and tells me buskers (musicians playing on the street) are as important to Irish culture as anything else, and for the first time, the Galway council is voting on whether to require permits for them. “As if they cannot stand on the street and play music as God intended. Can you imagine it?”
I tell him that playing music is no longer prevalent in the states. Coffee houses, open mic nights and the like, bringing a guitar to the beach or to a party, just isn’t done the way I experienced in the ’60s and ’70s.
“Play music, do ya?” he asks. I say that I do, some. He points to a black upright piano against the wall next to the cash register. “Well, here in Ireland, we don’t let you pass by a piano if you can play a song.” And just like that, I am playing a Trisha Yearwood song in a tea shop in Galway.
Kylemore Abbey, Western Ireland
I’ve come to Ireland from Washington, DC, to write fiction. Two novels, actually. One about an uptight 39-year-old single mother with a safety obsession, and one about two teenage brothers with supernatural powers. A natural question is, “Why Ireland?” All writing requires is a computer or a notebook. Even chairs are optional. One can literally write anywhere, anytime, any place. But I’ve come here. To the Emerald Isle. To the land of my great-grandfather Thomas Joyce’s family because I’m old and can do as I please. Because writing here is different. Because there’s something on the air here that’s softer. Something that echoes and asks me to tell stories, to play music and look at the moving sky, to get out of my solidly built structure and walk and wait and listen.
I’m walking down a sidewalk with Kathleen a few nights after our tea cottage visit. (She has somewhat adopted me and makes sure I “get out” a couple of times a week.) Four boys in their late teens are walking toward us, wrestling and jostling each other, yelling cuss words at each other. As they get closer, one of them sees us, two middle-aged women who likely remind them of their mothers, and he stops his companions, saying, “Civil, civil.” Kathleen does the same as we are about to cross paths, she says, “Civil, civil.” They walk normally as we pass. One of them says, “Ok, then?” Kathleen says, “Nice to meet you,” and we walk on. It’s not something I would expect on the streets of DC. After they pass, they start up their shoving again about 10 feet down the sidewalk.
So, what does Ireland have that Washington doesn’t have? Why is it not satisfactory to be at my desk in my downtown row house to craft my stories? I’ve got a serviceable desk from Crate and Barrel; the door shuts perfectly well. I have what Virginia Woolf demanded – a room of my own. But, I don’t have hundreds of years of a story-telling tradition. And, I say story-telling, not writing, because the Irish were forbidden for a couple of centuries from learning how to read and write. But they told stories anyway. They repeated them over and over; they sang them; and yes, some brave lads (and lassies) even wrote them down. Stories were important to them because they didn’t have much else. They couldn’t own property, were continually invaded, their faith was outlawed, even as the church controlled them well into the 20th century. (Look it up, I’m not footnoting.) Modern day Ireland still has spoken word festivals. They’re held on beaches and in pubs and in open fields. I’ve been to a couple. People (writers) sit around and drink beer and make jokes and then one of them stands up and stops your heart with a tale of loss or heartbreak or triumph. They finish to applause, then resume their conversations. I’m jealous, and I sit quietly, not brave enough to get up and tell a story of my own.
The job of a writer is to create something where nothing was a moment ago. And yet, to tell a story that is universal and recognizable in its truth. Here, people are more ready to share their pieces of truth. I’m in a taxi riding through Dublin. My driver asks me where I’m from when my accent gives me away. We talk a little about the one visit he had to New York (he loved it but never made it back) and I ask how he likes driving a taxi. He tells me he drives a cab but it’s nothing to do with what’s important in his life. He tells me of his wife, how they married in “great happiness” eight years ago, and who, after failing to get pregnant, “We wanted at least four,” was found to have cancer. “Now, I just want her to live. We can figure out adoption and the like, but, we’re just hoping she lives.” He doesn’t say this with a lot of drama. More in the tone of, it happened like this, and so.
A few days later, I’m walking with Roisin across a field dotted with sheep, side-stepping their substantial droppings, and she tells me about her sister’s husband’s sister. “Oh, such a sad tale. Will it spoil our day if I tell it to you?” I say of course not, how bad could it be? She laughs. “Well, he and his wife married and all was well. But they took in two kids, struggled a bit. And, for no good reason any could fathom, the man gets hooked on drugs. The meth kind. They divorced, which is bad enough. But, the older son gets hooked, too. The state took him away. The husband committed suicide, he was so distraught. The wife is left with the daughter, but then she got cancer and died. At her funeral, and I’m not making this up, her sister is out throwing her ashes in the waves and drowns.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I tell Roisin that’s the worst story I ever heard. She says, “Yes! Isn’t it. All true. Goodness.” And then we start laughing. I ask if it’s really true the sister drowned at the tossing of ashes. She says it is. She’s laughing. “I know! It’s just awful.”
Shop Street, Galway. 58 degrees and rainy at the end of June, but full of pubs and buskers of a summer’s evening, regardless of the rain.
I travel from Dublin to Galway, out to Connemara and down through the industrious south, and I’m continually impressed at the ease with which this culture offers up its stories, whether in words or songs. I find myself trying to match up to it. It demands easiness of truth and humor in return. Honestly, I’m funnier in Ireland. When I tell a story to someone here, I try harder to make it entertaining than I do in Washington. Here, the audience waits with a clear and ready expectation that you are worth hearing. They are ready to laugh, or be sad if the story takes them there, instead. In a pub in Galway I mention that my three-quarters-Irish father passed away a few years ago, but that he’d always wanted to come to Ireland. He died suddenly, I say, so that someday trip never happened. The response is “aww,” and “Well, that is a pity,” and “tis a sad thing.” But after a pause, the man next to me says, “Well, you’re here for him, and bless him, we’ll drink a pint in his name. What was his name, then?” “Jim,” I say. And I get a little misty as we raise a glass to my dead three-quarters-Irish dad.
Besides the stories, no matter where you go in Ireland, there is music. (Okay, I don’t know about the midlands, because nobody goes to the midlands. Nobody recommends going to the midlands. Even the people from the midlands don’t recommend going to the midlands). From here to there, someone is offering a song. Trad, or traditional music (think Riverdance) isn’t the only kind you hear. Walk a street one end to another and there are acoustic versions of Elton John or Mariah Carey; yesterday, I passed a man who was 60 if he was a day, sitting on a blanket playing “Every Breath You Take.” Restaurants, pubs, parks, or just a piece of sidewalk, someone is offering up music. I’m not exaggerating. It’s everywhere. In the states I’m used to places playing the same 20 tired songs on tinny speaker systems. When was the last time you stopped to listen to a street musician? Here, you do it five times a day. They’re not just playing music, they’re singing stories. Eyes closed, faces scrunched up to match the emotion of the words, music feels deeper. I started playing guitar when I was 12. It’s been something I’ve loved to do for decades now. In DC, where am I going to do that? In Ireland, people of all ages, from teenagers up through the downright elderly, are out and about playing their music.
Unknown busker on Shop Street, Galway. He’s sitting between a bronze Oscar Wilde and Wilde’s brother William.
On a Thursday night I go to a pub with Kathleen, (she’ll love that she’s getting painted as quite a partier.) Three men are at the front of the narrow space sitting on a small stage playing music. They are each over 50, playing two guitars and a hand accordion. The place is packed in that way where you get bumped every 20 seconds by someone trying to get past. What’s noticeable is how those here are totally invested in whatever these musicians are playing. People aren’t yelling across tables at each other, talking over the music. They’re facing the stage, listening to the music. When the song is familiar, the whole of the audience, young to old, join in and sing with. I start watching, to see it was just a song or two. But, we’re there for at least 45 minutes, and most faces stay trained toward the stage, and not the person across or next to them.
Maybe it’s that the Irish have been through some stuff. They didn’t have their own country until 1916. (Google it.) Once they got rid of England, the Catholic church oversaw every aspect of life. A lot of things were deemed “sinful,” and punishments were harsh. Pregnant unmarried daughters were sent away, their cursed, unwanted babies born in orphanages and either given away or simply buried out back. Priests abused children both sexually and with harsh corporal punishment; couples were unable to divorce. Literature was banned for having the slightest reference to sexual contact. (A lot of literature was banned.) So, perhaps it’s because of all this suffering and sadness running like a bloated vein through their culture that the Irish have learned to get on with it, to live by trying to enjoy the moment. Sunlight appears here for roughly 20 minutes a day. (I exaggerate. But not by much.) Mostly, it’s cloudy or outright raining. It seems to me the Irish have learned to appreciate that brief patch of sunlight, but also don’t mourn the clouds. “Oh, you’ll never have nice weather in Ireland,” Kathleen says as we walk through the 58 degrees and cloudy evening in late June. Then she laughs. “I don’ think that’s why people come here, do you?” No. It isn’t the weather. Life here seems less built on achievement and resumes and how close someone is to a power, and more on a laugh with an old friend or a new acquaintance; a hearty walk through deep green fields where the sheep lumber about; or in the exchanging of stories in a warmly lit pub while the rain mists the windows and music is offered because it’s just a part of everything else.
I’m of an age where I now have more time behind me than ahead of me. I’m aware that the window of opportunity to get my stories told is not going to stand open forever. If I’m to really create and hone and care about these stories I’m writing, then it’s okay to look for inspiration to help me do that. Here in Ireland, accessibility to stories in words and song is everywhere and inescapable. So, that’s why I’ve come. For a little while, I’ll live in the midst of people who make their lives available with generosity and humor, and where stories are exchanged and absorbed just because that’s the way it is. So, I best get after it, before time runs out. As it is sure to do.
About the author:
Kelly Gammon White is CINE Golden Eagle winner for best non-broadcast documentary writing, as well as a two-time regional Emmy nominee for Best Educational Programming. A lifelong resident of the Washington, DC area, married with four uncomfortably tall children, Ms. White has an MFA in Creative Writing and teaches College Writing at American University. All photos by Kelly Gammon White.