Home is easy to love. It’s home, known and familiar. Usually coming home brings a little sigh of relief. Your feet know the shape of the steps. Shabby or neat as a pin, its warmth wraps around you.
So how is it that sometimes we go to someplace entirely new, completely alien, and foreign, and from the first time our feet step onto the ground we feel we belong there? This is not home, but in some inexplicable way this is your place, too.
That’s how I feel about Ireland.
I first started to think about Ireland as a place, as somewhere that intrigued me, years ago, when I was in college. I was drawn to Irish writing, the medieval ballads as well as the writings of the Irish scholars, learned men during a period when there were hardly any others in Europe – the period we call (not entirely accurately) the Dark Ages. Then I discovered William Butler Yeats, and fell in love.
Not long after that, I married an Englishman and went to live in England. Unfortunately, it was just about that time that what the Irish so characteristically call “the Troubles” began. It was the old Irish/English impasse all over again: the Republicans, from the Irish Republic, in the overwhelming majority Catholic, wanted Ireland as a whole to be free of English (now British) domination. The people of North Ireland, overwhelmingly Protestant – many of them descendants of the Scots Protestants that Cromwell and his successors planted on the soil of northern Ireland, having first cleared away the Irish Catholics who had owned the land before – wanted to remain part of Great Britain. Using religion as a cudgel, both sides did their best to make the life of the other side intolerable. Good men on both sides were killed; women and children were blown up by omnipresent bombs.
I went right off Ireland.
It wasn’t until over twenty years of warfare made the population too weary to continue that an uneasy peace settled, which gradually became less uneasy. The barricades came down. The barbed wire was rolled and discarded. Belfast became almost an ordinary city, no longer under continual siege.
And finally I came to Ireland and lost my heart all over again.
It’s been over 800 years since the English (mainly then the Normans, the new conquerors of England itself) first set foot on Irish soil and made themselves at home. For 800 years the English have tried to make the Irish English, and for nearly the whole of the 800 years the Irish have fought back. The Reformation added new fuel to the fire after Henry VIII reformed the English church to become Protestant. The Irish by and large chose to remain Catholic. The signs of their battles are all over the country. Ireland is a land of ruins – beautiful ruins, many of them now, weathered and sturdy even in decay.
More than that, Ireland is a land of talk. Story-tellers of magnificent tales, true or not. The same Irish who loved to fight are the Irish who now love to laugh and make wry jokes about the state of their country. An Irish pub is a warm and welcoming place, a window into the common life of the Irish people.
Ireland is green. No one could have guessed that the good Lord had so many shades of green to spread around the rolling hills and rocky plateaus of Ireland. There is good land to grow crops on and much more stony, stubborn land to be conquered before it can be fruitful, but all of it is green.
I came to Ireland late, but when I came home to my cozy, familiar home, the distant seductive sound of Irish music was still in my ears. I’ve been back since, and I’ll be going again. And in the meantime, part of my heart still lives there, and part of Ireland lives with me.
- Beppie Harrison