Come Back Irish

As a child she had kept a pony in a small stable behind her house. One afternoon, in a moment of pure misunderstanding of her own motives, she had encouraged it to bite her
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(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


BETH was going to learn Irish. She had gotten herself a slim illustrated book called Speak Irish Now. In it were pictures of kitchen implements, body parts, a hurley stick, sheep. But the words on the page were clusters of consonants, as indigestible as bricks. For instance, "d'fhanfadh." For instance, "ndeachaigh." Most of the words seemed to be about the same length. They were cunningly unphonetic; they got shipwrecked in her windpipe. They were, as a woman from Donegal had once said of her countrymen, a clannish lot.
After six years on Long Island, Beth had begun hassling Eamon about going home with him. No time, he'd said; no money. Then his father had unexpectedly bounced back from a pair of heart attacks: a sign, Eamon said, that he should spend his savings on tickets home.

At JFK lightning storms delayed their flight. Eamon found a kiosk that sold only Murphy's, and traded two five-dollar bills for flimsy plastic cups of stout. He held his high in the air. "You're a great woman, so you are," he told Beth. "It'll be grand, you and my dad in McCormack's for big filthy pints. For that alone he'll want to marry you." His sisters drank only crème de menthe. His brothers preferred German beer, lager after lager. His mother, now dead, had been a devoted whiskey drinker; she finished a pint of Jameson's each night and then filled the bottle with tea and milk for Eamon to take to school. "I was the only one who thought she drank the whole bottle so that I could have something to hold my tea in the morning," he said.

A zigzag of lightning cracked against the sky. Beth jumped.

"What you need," Eamon said, "is a Guinness and black-currant. For the nerves."

Beth was drawn to brogues, Emerald Isle kitsch, the shillelagh-and-tea-cloth brand of Irishness. Now she had invented a match game of family members and favorite drinks to help keep track of all the relatives -- a kind of mnemonic device in a glass. She even had one for herself: a rich dark stew of stout and syrup.

When at last their plane taxied down the runway and took off, the flight became an airborne booze cruise, the passengers' demands for little bottles of liquor noisy and unabating. Beth took out Speak Irish Now and read while she drank her little bottle of chardonnay. Foreign-language primers always seemed inordinately preoccupied with the weather.

"I think it's flichshneachta out there," she said.

What was that? Eamon asked.

"Sleet."

"You'll get a lot of flichshneachta in Ireland," he said. He explained Beth's interest in the Irish language to the passenger beside them, an ancient man with a throaty, incomprehensible Cork brogue and a carpeting of dandruff across the shoulders of his suit jacket.

"No one has Irish anymore," the man said fiercely. He might have been objecting to shoes of a certain era, or an outdated dance step. He ceremoniously offered Beth a throat lozenge, and then joined Eamon in pretending they needed Beth to order extra cans of beer for them.

When they stood to deplane in Dublin, the man offered Beth a cold hand. "Ní thabharfadh an duine sin deoch uisce duit," he said, and then vanished.

"What did he say?" Beth whispered.

"He said you wouldn't give a man a drink of water."

AT customs they had to separate; Eamon and his Irish passport with a gold harp printed on the cover went to the left, Beth and her eagle-stamped one to the right. He walked backward and waved to her as he got in line with the other Irish citizens -- a young mother with a yowling baby and three stooped old men. Eamon looked oversized among them, a giant boy in a white sweatshirt scarred brown down the front with stout.

Yet Eamon was, after a decade in America, adulterated, only a partial Irishman, an uncomfortable Hibernian hybrid. "Resident alien," the card in his wallet declared him, like some half-recognizable species -- a turnip with a human head. He had always wanted to live here, he often said as they drove in heavy traffic toward Manhattan's show-off of a skyline, but he had always wanted to stay back home. "My detoured leprechaun," Beth told him, stroking the predictable cleft in his chin. "Cleft-chinned smithy of my soul."

But here they were, in the real Ireland, beyond the litter of Claddagh rings and Erin go bragh, the high-stepping of Riverdance on videocassette. Beth joined the long line for citizens of other countries, mostly Americans. Elderly members of a tour group were loudly exchanging greetings: "Top o' the morning to ye." The customs agents in their booths looked upon everyone, Beth thought, with unchanging expressions of glum suspicion. Maybe they didn't like such smarmy American aping of Irishness. Eamon himself hated Saint Patrick's Day, with its green-beer drunkenness and plastic bowler hats. Once, she had gotten him a card with a shamrock on it, and he'd laughed, but it hadn't been the laugh she'd wanted.

They would be staying at the house of Eamon's father, Paddy, the only place unpopulated by the brood of children his brothers and sisters had produced. Beth wished for a bed-and-breakfast, someplace tidy and uninhabited by decay. She pictured Eamon's father as a skeleton propped up in a corner, a death mask haunting a chair. Her grandfather had recently died after years suspended in dementia, as if in some viscous, clotty fluid. At the end he had thought he was a conductor on the Long Island Railroad, and then a baby who couldn't get enough to eat. Beth had held his head up while her mother spooned strained bananas into his mouth, the two of them cooing at him in the language of babies, all vowels. It was the closest she'd ever felt to her grandfather. Hadn't she once hoped that she and Eamon might find, in the sweaty, wordless aftermath of sex, a place like that, where language was no longer even necessary?

On this trip Beth would translate herself like a language, make of herself something as legible as block letters. She grinned at the customs official when she handed him her passport, and was disappointed when he didn't bother to wink or tell her to enjoy her stay in Ireland. Near the baggage carousel she found Eamon squatting on their suitcases and smoking a cigarette. "John Joe must've had a desperate head on him this morning," he said. He held up the keys to the car he'd rented. "We're on our own."

Driving to Eamon's home town, Beth fretted. She clipped and unclipped the barrette in her hair, put on lipstick and then rubbed it off with a napkin, needled Eamon with questions. How Catholic was his family? Would his family mind that they weren't married? Would they disapprove of her?

"For feck's sake, Beth," he said. He pointed to the green-and-yellow checkerboard flags flying in front of all the houses. They had entered his county. The All-Ireland Gaelic football final was coming up, he told her. No one would care if she were a one-legged Buddhist. Beth had noticed a lot of talk about Gaelic football in Speak Irish Now, much of it accompanied by cartoons depicting disgruntled spectators in striped jerseys. From what she could gather, this sport combined elements of soccer and American football, with a bit of dribbling the ball thrown in. "Ní bhuafaidh siad sin cluiche go deo," one character said to another. "They'll never win a match."

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