Gotham Diary:
My Ireland Problem
8 June 2015

In the summer of 1977, I landed in Dublin, with my father, on a flight from Vienna. We had been to London and Paris before Vienna, and a hotel near Shannon Airport would be our last stop. But first, a night in Dublin.

We took a taxi to the Gresham Hotel. We had dinner. I went to bed, but could not get to sleep, what with the noise in the street and the itch to join the people making it. I was twenty-nine years old, and still a willing carouser. But I stayed in bed, because in the morning I was going to have to get up and drive across Ireland.

I can’t imagine such a thing now. I can’t imagine that they rent cars to people with American driver’s licenses, just like that. I had never driven on the wrong side of the road before. We went back to the airport and they gave me the keys. By the time I had managed to drive out of the airport, I was confident behind the wheel. Things were going to be fine. And they were. Two or three times, my body was almost arrested by the toxic shock of knowing that I’d put the car where it oughtn’t to be, but at these times we were alone on the road.

We didn’t drive straight across, either. Because of Zardoz, I wanted to see the Wicklow Hills, so we left Dublin for the south, not the west. I don’t remember a thing about the Wicklow Hills, except that I never saw any countryside that reminded me of Zardoz. I don’t remember much else about the drive, either. The road was a main road, but just a road, nothing like a limited-access highway in American terms. We drove through a few towns — not many — and then we came to Limerick. I remember a spire in Limerick, but not very confidently. I might have seen it on a postcard. But we did pass through Limerick. We turned north, toward Shannon and the fancy place where we’d be staying. My mother was meant to have accompanied my father on this trip. But she had died, after a long bout with chemotherapy.

What I do remember is not seeing very many people on the drive across Ireland, and not being very impressed by the ones I saw. I remember quipping to my father, and thinking myself very clever for saying so, that “all the smart ones left.”

And what I meant by that was that the smart ones really left. They didn’t just leave Ireland. When they got to America, they kept going. They didn’t stop in the cities on the East Coast. They headed on, like my father’s grandfather, until they reached the Midwest, where being Irish didn’t mean very much, either in the way of identity or discrimination. Everyone in the Midwest came from foreign parts, and the Irish had the advantage of already speaking English. My grandfather went to law school and became something of a fixer for the Democratic Party. When he emigrated to New York, he was a Roosevelt appointee, not a guy off a boat. And he came from Iowa, not Ireland.

The food in Ireland was not very good. I shall never forget a plate of tapioca pudding that was put in front of me at a hotel in Galway. It was a hurl of white custard, with a dab of red jam in the center but not a hint of vanilla flavoring. Until that tapioca, I had always thought of vanilla as the flavor of no flavor. Now I learned that “plain vanilla” was very different from “plain.”

Ireland itself, however, was beautiful beyond belief. Every blade of grass of it.


The simplest way to describe my Ireland problem — I’ve been trying to work this out all weekend — is that all the interesting people are Protestant. Were Protestant. They’ve all gone, indirectly persecuted by the civic atmosphere of a working-class parochial school. The civic atmosphere has changed, it’s true. The referendum on same-sex marriage, all high-mindedness aside, was a glorious opportunity for Ireland to stick out its tongue at the Church; lots of people who don’t believe in same-sex marriage didn’t bother to show up to vote against it. That would have been a vote for the Church. But this new atmosphere is not going to bring back Erskine Childers or Samuel Beckett; nor is it going to reanimate any of the great houses.

Nor was it only the Protestants who had to leave. Maeve Brennan and Frank O’Connor had to leave. O’Connor had censorship issues in Ireland — imagine! Imagine it now, I mean. It was easy to imagine when I drove across Ireland, even though I had never heard of Frank O’Conner, or, if I had, I’d ignored him. A New Yorker story about Irish people was bound to be grim and twisted. The Irish (in literature) had a knack for being both crazy and common, and I can’t say which quality I find less appealing.

It’s all different now, of course. Colm Tóibín alone is doing several generations’ worth of composting, transforming the dross of everyday drear into literature of the highest kind. Tóibín was in fact the end of my Ireland problem. The people he writes about are neither crazy nor common. They’re like my father’s people, but they pulled off the advance right in Ireland itself. Maeve Brennan’s father was the first diplomatic delegate to Washington and the second Irish Ambassador. Even so, Brennan stayed in America when her family returned to Ireland, and Tóibín, whose family was also eminent in Fianna Fáil politics, escaped to Barcelona the minute the Generalissimo was dead — a few minutes before, actually.

My Ireland problem was that I should not have been at all surprised to know the story told in Philomena had I known it. In second grade, at St Joseph’s School in Bronxville, I was Sister Patrick Clair’s favorite target. Target for throwing erasers, that is. She rarely missed. After spending five minutes with my grandson, I can see her point, but my grandson, happily, lives in a better world, and is unlikely to be much punished for being interesting. In first grade, I don’t remember who the nun was, but I do remember being sent home with my shoebox of belongings on at least two Fridays — an informal expulsion that was meant to shame me. In vain, I’m afraid. In the confessional, Monsignor Scott asked me my name after I’d confessed to something that he considered very dark — worse than stealing; what can it have been? — and warned me that he was going to tell my parents what I’d done. Whether he did so or not, I still wonder just how much less bad threatening to violate the confidentiality of confession is than actually violating it.

Without meaning to, the good monsignor and his nuns taught me how Stalinism worked in Russia. Communism had nothing to do with anything. How dim Americans were, to think that Communism was the problem!

(How else to explain my conviction, bone deep if almost totally uninformed, that Russia was Russia, and only incidentally Communist? I’m ashamed to say that I’m not above enjoying the satisfaction that Vladimir Putin has given me by proving my point.)

I was already thinking about my Ireland problem before I discovered Frank O’Connor, but O’Connor’s stories — the ones that I’ve read over the past couple of days — have made my concern with the problem acute. This morning, after finishing with the Times, I turned to a story that I had found difficult to follow late last night (when I ought to have been in bed). It’s called “The Luceys,” and it is about a “bitterness” that separates two brothers in a small town. By morning’s light, it was gruesomely clear but also quite funny. The same could be said of the next story in the book (The Best  of Frank O’Connor; Everyman’s, edited by Julian Barnes), “Peasants.” Now, I know that I could never have got through either of these stories before I got over my Ireland problem. Colm Tóibín was from the start an unexpected voice, but Frank O’Connor was exactly what I sought to avoid. (Crazy and common.) Now I’m charmed to death! (I had Kathleen in stitches, reading aloud “My Oedipus Complex” and “First Confession.”) “Peasants,” indeed! In this story, a group of leading men (farmers at best) tries to dissuade the high-minded parish priest from pressing charges against a rotten apple who has absconded with funds. The men want the priest to give the man a character reference that will enable him to emigrate to America. The priest adamantly refuses. The man goes to jail for three months, and, when he gets out, he prospers, presumably by less dishonest means. But he is still a bad apple. In the final paragraph, we’re told that Father Crowley

has left unpleasant memories behind him. Only for him, people say, Michael John would be in America now. Only for him, he would never have married a girl with money, or had it to lend to poor people in the hard times, or ever sucked the blood of Christians. For, as an old man said to me of him: “A robber he is and was, and a grabber like his grandfather before him, and an enemy of the people like his uncle, the policeman; and though some say he’ll dip his hand where he dipped it before, for myself I have no hope unless the mercy of God would send us another Moses or Brian Boru to cast him down and hammer him in the dust.

Like Ireland, I have changed. I now find this sort of thing more than interesting. It’s the very stuff of life.