Nearly three decades after emigrating to America, the novelist Colum McCann finds on every return to Ireland a place that never really lets you go.
There are many places in Ireland that haunt me. There are the rippling waters of Strangford Lough. There’s the curl in the river Barrow where the agile water sweeps beneath the stone bridge. There are the tree boughs in Glendalough, beautifully bent by the rigors of weather. There’s the swallow darting over the cliff face at Bloody Foreland, turning and returning, time and again.
But there are other places too, much grayer, much darker, and more ordinary. One is the short-term parking lot in Dublin Airport. Most of the time, it is a place of hustle and hum: designed for the quick pickup or the harried goodbye. People zoom in and out. The fluorescent lights flicker. Nobody stays much more than an hour or two. It is, after all, the most expensive parking lot in the airport. But every now and then it becomes the saddest, most poignant place in the country. A car pulls in. The barrier rises. A family piles out. They struggle with their suitcases. They walk toward the terminal. You can recognize them by the tears streaming down their faces. Eventually, the authorities realize that a car has been in short-term parking longer than it should be. On the front seat, they find mortgage papers. In the glove box, they find the terms of the car lease. In the backseat they find a child’s toy or a school textbook. The family is not coming back. They are done with Ireland, or Ireland is done with them. They are on their way to London, or Dresden, or New York, or Sydney, to make a new life away from the country that will always, in some way or other, haul them home.
Everyone knows the story of leaving something adored behind. But nobody leaves quite like the Irish. We have been going for centuries. We left on coffin ships for America. We left on cattle boats for England. We left on jetliners for the seven continents. We have had myriad reasons for leaving—the hunger, the economy, the pettiness, the greed, the stranglehold of the church—but perhaps one other reason we leave is because we want to remember, and nobody remembers quite as powerfully as those who have left everything behind. Leaving is a form of memory-making. There is, in the emigrant, a desire to wound himself or herself. The emigrant carries the scar in order to remember the moment of loss. This act skirts close to nostalgia and sentimentality, but also to violence and love.
I have been gone from Ireland for almost 30 years, yet I can’t shake the word “home” from my idea of her. I try to maintain a good degree of skepticism about where I came from because my country is, in so many ways, a spectacular ruin. Our sad love songs. Our happy wars. Our stunned submission to power. Our silent complicity with financial thuggery. Our willingness, especially early in the 21st century, to let our heritage be demolished. Ugly ring roads were allowed to encircle one of Ireland’s most mythical sites, the ancient Hill of Tara. Office buildings went up in Cork and Limerick without regard to taste or landscape. Cranes swung like toys over the skyline of Dublin. “Model” villages were built in the middle of nowhere, only to become ghosts.
But it is the essence of human instinct to be able to hold two or more contradictory ideas at once. What you can love, you can hate. What you can miss, you can revisit. What you lie about, you can reimagine. The truth is that I love coming home to Ireland. I feel as if it pries my rib cage open. I feel a pour of cold water along the hollow of my spine when I pass that short-term parking lot in Dublin Airport, because I know that I am picking up a part of myself that I left behind.
I want, immediately, to drive out toward the valley of Glendalough, where the light is more agile than anywhere else in the world. I want to head north to the farmland around Derry, where I feel like a younger version of me inhabits my older, more tired body. I want to walk west to Connemara and spend some time in a small patch of bogland where the soil leaves tea-colored stains on the cuffs of my jeans. I want to swim at Sandycove in what Joyce called “the scrotumtightening sea.” I want to take a kayak around the Aran Islands and call out to the ghosts of J. M. Synge and all the playboys of the western world. I want to wander through Belfast along the murals of the peace walls. I want to watch a flock of long-billed snipe rise from the grass around Faha. I want to find myself marveling at a piece of colored sheep’s wool making beautiful a strand of barbed wire on a fence near Roundwood. I want to scuff up my liver in the quiet snug of the Stag’s Head in Dublin. I want to hear the music filtering out from Leo’s Tavern in Gweedore. I want to spend time with that man on the corner in Stoneybatter who looks like he wears a storyteller’s hat.
Walking is so often the cure for me. I have, over the years, walked from Dublin to Galway, and from Belfast to Kerry. I strap on a pair of boots and stuff a sleeping bag into a backpack, tuck away a naggin of whiskey in the side pocket, and off I go. Back roads. Walking trails. Rutted laneways. Puddled tracks. Sleeping under stars that appear like rifle holes in the night. Hunkering under sheets of corrugated tin in old cowsheds to wait out the inevitable rain. These trips return me to what I want to be. And they also return me to what I want my own Ireland to be.
Landscape is character. Character is fate. Fate is belief. There is nothing more wonderful than topping a hill in the middle of an ordinary afternoon and looking down on the quarrel of green fields, and the wander of stone walls, and the squabble of river, and believing, once again, in your country—that place you left behind in order to rediscover the feeling that trills in your heart at that very moment, a sort of short-term parking of the soul.
Gone, in order to come back.