When I was a boy, I remember my father sitting, lost in thought and memory, in view of a painting in our American living room. That painting was of Torc Mountain rising above the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry, Ireland, which was for my father, home. He always seemed unreachable in this state, but whether or not he was, it was clear to me that he was filled with a longing that I at least in part understood. I loved him then as he loved Ireland—hopelessly, with every fiber of my body.
So for me, my father was Ireland itself, just as he was the Catholic Church, the essence of which he labored mightily to instill in me and my six brothers and sisters. (And of course in Ireland, the two are, as the saying goes, joined at the hip.) What then did my father, as Ireland, represent in these twin roles?
He embodied a love of learning, a love of scholarship, a love of exact speech, of moral laws, of hard work, of looking for and expecting goodness in others but not being surprised if it wasn’t forthcoming, of storytelling and reading and music, of sly and lunatic humor. He had a wild streak of sacrifice and charity, a combination of St. Francislike gentleness and ayatollahlike fierceness. He lanced personal boils with self-denial, revered tradition and rules because they are the stone framework of civilization when the wolves of cruelty and hunger are at the door, as they have been for so much of Irish history, a framework that lasts long after the roof has burned and the residents hanged. My father made me want to be, well, a saint—because it was so transparently the goal and practice in his own life—and it seemed then as it seems now, that nothing else could be as important. What does being a saint mean? Being as close to your Maker as you possibly can, at all times, warts and nose hairs and terrible bleeding mistakes all. That was the gift of my father, and for me was and remains the gift of Ireland.
What does this have to do with modern Ireland? Ireland has changed so dramatically in recent years, you’d hardly recognize the place if you haven’t been in a while, or if all you know of Ireland is what Uncle Paddy told you of his childhood. So intellectuals in Dublin may scoff at my characterization of Ireland, cynics in Belfast hoot with derision, geeks in Cork dismiss the bandwidth of my thinking, Eurotrash in Galway snort at my naïvete. They’ve seen the real Ireland and it doesn’t look at all like the romanticized version sloshing over the gunwales of the vast Irish diaspora. The Catholic faith has eroded, the Church is in decline, the famine ships are ancient history, the rural culture is on its last legs, and everything Irish is nothing but a tourist gimmick. But sometimes those who have left, those who are filled with unspeakable longing, as my father was, have something correct to say.
Ireland has in it, in its soil and air and water and sun, something that for want of a better word is alchemical, that no other place on earth seems to have. This is not to say that other peoples don’t love their native land as much or as well, or that ancient portals of feeling and wisdom don’t exist the world over, not at all. It is just that whatever there is in Ireland is unique.
Perhaps this is a genetic thing—my bias is suspect with a name like O’Reilly—but I don’t think so. I think the genetic predisposition may be only to love Ireland a bit more fervently, but it is not responsible for the place Ireland holds open on the spectrum of human possibilities. Ireland, it seems to me, is an earth-bound zone between birth and death that has not been de-coupled from either human event, not by Celts, nor Catholics, nor Computers. In Ireland you can sense more clearly the form of your own life, the shape of the little corporal boat that carries you down the river to home and the Eternal. In other words, in Ireland, you can get pretty close to Heaven.
When my father died, we took him back to Kerry. He was borne on the shoulders of his grade school classmates to rest above Killarney in Aghadoe, in a sixth-century cemetery with a breathtaking view of his beloved Lakes and, of course, Torc Mountain. My brothers and I filled in his grave, taking care with the skulls and bones of other relatives buried there.
When I visit now, especially when I visit my father’s grave, and look out over the Kerry Mountains, I am still filled with longing for all the things humans long for. But the heart’s home really is elsewhere…only in Ireland, you are closer to it than anywhere else.
About James O’Reilly:
James O’Reilly is the publisher and series editor of Travelers’ Tales. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Palo Alto, CA, where they also publish children’s art games at Birdcage Books.