You’d think that after all these years, he’d be used to seeing me trudge up the steep lane, ankle-deep in the County Mayo muck, toward that ancient abandoned shell of a cottage that until just recently passed for a calf barn. After all, I’ve made this pilgrimage four times in 20 years, twice with a different sullen teenager in tow and every time, either he or his wife has been there to greet me.
It doesn’t make any sense to him. That’s obvious. Just as he did the first time I showed up, his eyes, which look remarkably like my own, still narrow when he sees me coming, and those six little lines that appear at the corners of my own eyes whenever I need to express a mixture of amusement and pity form at precisely the same place at the corners of his.
I know he wants to ask why I’m obsessed with this place, why I’d travel a quarter of the way around the globe to wander around and in a dangerously dilapidated old ruin of a cottage virtually indistinguishable from all the other rundown cottages that those who could afford to have long since abandoned for more modern homes all over this corner of Ireland. But all he says is, “is it 10 years since you were here?”
I’m sure, though he never said so, that at first he imagined that I was just another ignorant American trotting over the countryside in search of my roots, chasing some cartoonish Quiet Man image of an Ireland that never really existed. But that wasn’t the case. If I had wanted a lethal dose of Irish kitsch, I could have found that with a dollop of clotted cream in any one of a hundred little tourist traps all over the country.
No, what I was looking for was something else.
You see, 130 years ago or so, without a touch of nostalgia or remorse as far as I can tell, my great-grandfather walked out the front door of that little cottage and never looked back. Of the stories I heard of him, never once did I hear of him dreaming of his own return, or that any of his descendants would. He had been born in the throes of the Great Famine and fled in the midst of second one in the 1880s. He was a refugee, the bane of the Donald Trumps of his own day, and like millions of immigrants today, he wanted more than anything else to shake off the vestiges of the old country. He changed the spelling of his name from McGrath to what he hoped was the more Protestant and thus American-sounding McGraw. It didn’t help, of course. He still ended up coughing out his lungs in a Pennsylvania coal mine.
Rarely, if ever, I’m told, did he talk about the place he had come from. Except for one thing. He used to tell how his mother, in the depths of their poverty, had started a small business, canning what she grew from her rocky little garden in one of the most inhospitable corners of the island, and selling what she could to neighbors who could scratch even less from their patches of land.
As a man who worked his whole life with his hands, he was proud of his mother for doing that, and he was even prouder of his father, who, realizing that his wife was upset that the neighbors were mucking up the floor of her tidy little cottage, built a small but sturdy addition to the house, a stone vestibule off to the side, as far from the hearth as it could be and remain under the same roof. It had a small window, which would have been about chest high on the diminutive woman, through which she could pass her wares to her customers who queued up outside.
He described that room in great detail to my grandfather. And he in turn described it to my father, who in turn described it to me. The three of us, my grandfather, my father and I, without even being aware of it, had a vivid picture in our minds of the place, though none of us had ever seen it.
I never realized how vividly that place was etched in my imagination until about 20 years ago when, on a lark during a trip through Ireland with my wife, I found it. Some McGraths who remained behind guided me to it, and told me that it was still in the possession of members of the extended family.
It was, to my complete amazement, precisely how it had been described to me. Though the family had long since moved to better quarters, and it now housed cows, when I stepped inside for the first time, it was as if I knew every inch of it.
I think that may have been the first time in my life that I really understood the power of narrative, that, even in these cynical days, when half-truths seem to be all that we’re ever told, when jagged fragments of the facts are passed off as truth, there are things buried deep inside of us that are just as we’ve always been told they were.
Sure, sometimes you have to travel a quarter of the way around the globe and trudge through ankle-deep muck to find them, but they’re there.
And that’s why I keep coming back. It’s now a ritual in my family. As each of my children becomes a teenager, I tell them, much as my great-grandfather told my grandfather, and as he told my father, about that little room and how it came to be.
And then I let them see it for themselves.
On this last trip, it at last occurred to me why my distant kinsman had such a pitying expression on a face that looks disturbingly like my own. I’ve long since explained why I keep coming all this distance to find something that’s true.
I believe he thinks it’s tragic that I’m a refugee from a world where I have to.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette March 12, 2016