By Erin Byrne
The air is the region of the invisible.
—John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
It is morning on the west coast of Ireland on a swath of pebbly beach with an emerald hillside and plateau off to the right. Cloudish sky, pewter water. Beyond the lapping of the waves comes a faint yet beckoning wail, like the highest note of a flute, heard by those who achieve a certain kind of quiet. A haunted sense of synchronicity surges through me: I’m home again.
Once before this has occurred, eight years ago when I traveled here and spiraled through a childhood in the green that had never happened. The conviction that this had once been my home was odd and defied categorizing. When I returned to the states, Irish poetry, philosophy and lore offered insight, especially the writings of William Butler Yeats, whose book The Celtic Twilight, was written as he traveled around the west of Ireland collecting accounts of the supernatural, of encounters with spirits. These Irish people, as Yeats described, favored by their own characters and by happy circumstance, and only then after much labour, have understanding of imaginative things.
I concluded I’d been in the thrall of the faeries. But this certainty has faded in the time that has passed since, and I’ve mused that it was all just fancy, wishful thinking, a yearning to connect with the land of my ancestors.
But here, now, this beach viewed from above seems to be a border between existences.
As a girl growing up in America, my stigma was a freckled face, “red” hair, and a ski-jump nose. Even now, in middle age, I stand out in crowds. Other differences I’ve kept hidden: my secret joy is writing poems; a clandestine poet, I am. Animals, wild ones—birds, horses, deer—are drawn to me; they approach and stare, and we communicate. When passing a graveyard in a small Idaho town, or the Stephansdom Crypt in Vienna, or Père Lachaise in Paris, I feel the dead as if their breath warms my skin. Various lives unspool and spin through me like fairy tales, and the joys, sorrows, hopes, and frights of the departed dissolve into my own mood.
Others do not feel these things; I am strange, set apart.
But here in Ireland, freckles sprinkle skin like flecks of gold, heads flame, and noses swoop up. History’s risings and revolutions were envisioned and enacted by poets, and the people speak in lyrical phrases: Ah, and weren’t your sons lovely when you last were here? The youngest had it in his head to fish the River Nore, and determined he was as well. I feel such affinity with speakers who arrange words thus.
Our first day here, across the bridge from Inistioge in the countryside of County Kilkenny, a cluster of cows romped to greet me as old friends, and after our visit their velvety heads turned to follow my steps. In the cemetery of a tiny village, lichen crept over stone, and the words of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue, May the lives they lived unfold further in spirit were realized as grandfathers and fine ladies and twin girls long deceased laughed and shouted from one world as their loved ones keened in this one. These worlds seemed to me not parallel but intersecting.
This was different from Idaho, Vienna, or Paris: I recognized my people. Yeats might have looked up from penning Celtic Twilight, peered over his spectacles and smiled: Some speak with the dead, and with some who have never died as we understand death; and even our educated people pass without great difficulty into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision.
This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home.
We drove south through County Cork and up through Kerry, eight of us, extended family. Behind me in the back seats maps were rustled, exits called out, whisperings and jokes exchanged. Out the window blurred long-memorized gates and lanes. Looking ahead I anticipated a tree around this corner, a farmhouse around that, but wished away this anomaly of the never-seen familiar.
One afternoon, we visited Caher Conor, to the west of Dingle town, where beehive huts, once as many as 400, covered the hillside here creating a village called Fahan. Their history is unknown, the dates slippery. The first inhabitants of Ireland arrived in 7500 B.C., and these stone domes could have been built as early as the Bronze Age or as recently as the 12th century when the Normans shoved the Irish to the edges of the land, but my imagination veered away from all timelines. Inside, under the corbelled arrangement of rocks, an echo resounded. The others milled about outside, seeing, doing, enjoying, and I was alone in my secret that I’d lived there, disturbed by the known air.
This trip comes at a time of personal searching, amid seismic shifts in my stability. I have permanent roots in Seattle, where I grew and raised a family; perennial roots in Paris, where I’ve often stayed for long periods to teach, write, and film; and am currently casting about in efforts to develop initial roots in Sausalito.
Over the past decade, I’ve worked hard to fine-tune the receptors that read one’s own heart, and feel pulled by some intuitive force to Sausalito, where I’ve gone regularly for a writing conference, for literary events, and to see friends. In almost every way it is a new start for me in that place of shores and seagulls and sailboats, of sea breezes and mists.
I felt ripped away to come on this trip to Ireland, which extended a trip to Europe four weeks beyond the time I’d planned to be gone, in addition to an already-full travel dossier. The tentative threads I’d put out had only started to search for soft places to burrow into the ground in California. I’d begun to be settled in my nest, embraced by friends, finding my place in the literary culture of the Bay Area—and interrupting this progress was frustrating. I feared that for me, home would always be everywhere and nowhere at once.
In Ireland in this untethered state, although I loved my companions, I yearned for solitude, my usual mode of travel. When alone, I sensed things under the surface of a place. This tension between the inner and the outer is always there but seldom felt. There is only one thing required of me then.
So I begged off the day of driving the Ring of Kerry, stuck close to our rented house near Ventry Bay, and stayed outside all day with ears open. Sheep crooned and cows bellowed, and the wind swooshed through trees carrying something else I strained to hear. Ghosts and hours passed as I glided in and out of clouds of reverie. The group returned, boisterous and exuberant, but I didn’t mention I’d been communicating with spirits.
My experience seems so different from what everyone else is enjoying. It is an inconvenience, vaguely embarrassing, so this next day I’ve joined in. It is near this beach that I feel most strongly the fusing of the inner and outer, as if an invisible reality invites me to venture to a place where the words “here” and “now” transfigure, and where dimensions commingle.
As my travel companions gaze at sights, and point and exclaim, all I want to do is lose myself in memory-dreams of cottages with hearth-fires and straw beds, and listen to the Irish speaking in their lilting cadences, to the sheep and the cows and the wind. I wonder, what is the use of this, these days of feeling like some kind of timeless Irish Goddess? Why did I come here again, to this place where such weird things happen? Perhaps the greatest risk of travel is not that we won’t like a place or have a good time, but that we will experience the unthinkable and not understand a single thing about it. Then the light seeps out, we cannot easily see, outlines morph, and shadows appear. We have been twirled into an unlit no-man’s-land of the mind and are lost.
By evening, my thoughts carry a lyrical accent, each word light, accentuated. I have been to many foreign places but never have I heard my own thoughts reflect another tongue. My brain is moving to a different rhythm now. I run my hands over the top of a stone wall of sharpish rocks stacked in familiar order; recall sunlight flashing on red blooms of wild fuchsias; taste rough, sweet soda bread and feel the grains traverse the same path through my body as they did when I was a toddler, an adolescent, a teen. I re-live my ages and stages, agreeing with more words by O’Donohue: Your soul has more refined antennae than your mind or ego.
An evening in Dingle: Warmed by dinner and drinks and stories and laughter, I feel ensconced again with my family, and wonder if each of them may have been living through their own inner happenings. As daylight shifts restlessly, we amble up a street lined with shop façades painted green and blue and white, colors that deepen in the dusk—galleries and shops and so many pubs: Foxy John’s Hardware Store Pub, Dick Mack’s, O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub.
We step into O’Flaherty’s and are hit by the promising scent of Guinness being poured, being swallowed, being spilled, being felt. People stand on a wooden floor, laughing, talking, but listening expectantly in the smoky air. I am pulled toward a corner and settle in, apart again, and straighten my back against the green painted wall, which is plastered with newspaper clippings. The paper is yellow but the news is fresh, telling of rebellions and risings and poetic sacrifices. This tumult is current: It is 2016 and 1916 and I am in two places at once, in this corner and moving toward the center of the room as three men, Fergus Ó’Flaithheartaigh, Bríd Uí Bhriain, and Tom Lynch, position themselves on chairs surrounded by instruments: fiddle, flute, accordion, banjo, and guitar.
The music begins. The fiddle circles and rises, activates this very inner spot where body links to spirit, the place from which we as human beings perceive. It is where this music I danced to as a child fizzes, and I’m back to mornings in fields with long grasses swishing my legs, and afternoons on pebbles with gray wavelets foaming under my toes, and evenings of feet whirring upon wooden floors with sawdust bouncing, and myself twirling, clapping, nodding. Against the green wall, the back of my neck thrums. To understand this sensation that is beautiful but terrible in its alienation, I must let my spirit leave O’Flaherty’s and participate in this intersecting scene. It is required of me.
Night, I dance in a clearing on the plateau as moonlight glows on the green and the music plays me into a frothy faery frenzy. Cottages above, beach below, pipes in the wind. I lift my skirt, tap my toes, and spin upon impossible waves. As my heels stomp the ground, I feel the roots of centuries, of millennia, and am entangled deep in solid and eternal groundedness. I have crossed over and my two existences have merged.
This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home. Here is the fusion of the inner, the outer.
Back in Sausalito I attempt to grasp what happened in Ireland. I know other travelers who have experienced similar fates: a young man who discovered fly-fishing on a trip to the Gallatin River in Montana as a boy now has access to a rhythm, patience and purpose in nature that extends to his job as a forester; a woman who, when in Israel, felt she became her great-great-grandmother, standing on the edge of the Jordan River watching her lover drown, developed a connection to her family at a time when she felt cut off from them; a man whose footsteps on a path in a rock garden in Kyoto, where the final stone must be found in the mind, led him to a merging of an exterior and interior sense of peace.
Here in Sausalito, this place I have been gradually drawn to, I recall the floundering feeling of new shoots trying but not yet connecting, but sometimes, like a surprise chess move that originates from a corner of the board, we find what we most need in a faraway place. I remember my roots so richly buried in Irish soil, like those of an old tree anchored in dark earth. I know what it feels like, this change I want.
I stand on the edge of my deck. It is the hour when the last rays of sun spotlight the undersides of clouds and the air carries the clarity of day and the uncertainty of night in equal parts, when leaves and branches transfigure from being bearers of green phosphorescence to black silhouettes, when darkness descends in time-lapsed moments and the next second suspends as the universe holds its breath.
An airplane coasts across the sky, a winged figure that becomes a soaring firefly in the pink tinged air, a vehicle filled with human beings who may be gliding toward lands where they’ll celebrate their own uncanny homecomings. As day goes from dusk to dark, this airplane does the same thing that travel requires of all of us. It moves: transverses borders, coasts over boundaries, lands in new worlds, and enters unimagined dimensions.
So I will try this without understanding it, this travel-induced spell of the faeries. I will imagine it. I don’t know if it will work to conjure roots here and now, but I’ve learned the metaphoric meaning of those words.
See the blue, the bay, the boats. Try to attain Yeats’s condition of quiet, and listen hard. Beyond the sea breeze, like the highest note of a flute. Feel it, dance.
This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home. Here is the fusion of the inner, the outer. We travel to come home.
Erin Byrne is author of Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, winner of the Paris Book Festival Award, editor of Vignettes & Postcards From Paris and Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco, writer of The Storykeeper film, and occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company, Paris and on Deep Travel trips.