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

(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.


"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."

She had thought the scenery -- cows blinking slowly in their pastures, the hills in their patchwork forty shades of green -- would calm her, but Eamon whipped so quickly around turns that her body set up a lurching metronomic rhythm. Finally she saw a crumbling stone castle and a small shop with a sign that read PAWS-A-WHILE. Outside Paws-A-While someone had hung a handmade sign that said SALE MANURE.

"We'll go see Paddy first," Eamon said. He swung the car into a development signposted AVONDALE ESTATE. The word "estate" flooded her with a sense of largesse. 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. The pony had not seriously injured her, but not long afterward her mother sold it to the parents of a boy about her age. The stable had never been used again, except for trysts with boyfriends and a few unfortunate incidents with schnapps.

She peered out at the squat gray two-story apartment buildings, row upon row of attached housing. Someone had draped all the hedges with green-and-yellow plastic banners. Checkerboard flags fluttered outside every apartment. A two-page color newspaper photo of the football team had been pasted on several windowpanes. UP MEATH was scrawled in the dust on the backs of some parked cars, BOO MAYO on others. From a second-story window a Meath jersey twisted on a hanger in the breeze.

"Jaysus, the atmosphere is great," Eamon said.

From the center of Paddy's yard a large bush shaped like a lopsided person waved, a flag jutting from a leafy fist. A green-and-yellow cap had been placed on top of the bush at a jaunty angle.

"Jaysus, that's great," he said again. He kept shaking his head and smiling. Beth found herself possessed by a wish, for the first time in several years of courtship, to tell him to shut up. He suddenly seemed to her parochial and quaint, whereas in all the time she had known him, he had seemed charming and quaint. The sculpted bush was dumb. She felt embarrassed for the people with the jersey hanging in their window.

They found Paddy watching television and eating tiny squares of cheese-and-tomato sandwich off a cutting board on his lap. "Beth, is it?" he asked. He hugged her and said she was lovely for a Yank. Tea and cigarettes and sandwiches were offered all around, the sandwiches so heavily peppered that Beth's mouth felt sandy. It unnerved her that Eamon called his father by his first name.

The china cabinet

AFTER a day or so the jet lag receded, but Beth still felt soiled and disoriented. Paddy's house did not seem to have any proper heat source. The shower head produced only a forlorn trickle. On the third morning she woke early and decided to make the tea. A lacy string of cobwebs stood between her and the inside of the china cabinet, where she could see a stack of teacups and a bottle of green liquid labeled Fairy Soap.

She was trying to decide whether to put her hand through the cobwebs when Paddy joined her. He was a small, trim, vigorous man, despite a persistent wheeze that often escalated into fits of coughing. Eamon's sisters had spoken as if Paddy were winding down toward his last days, but he looked bright with life for someone who had suffered a pair of heart attacks. "You don't smoke," he said, holding out his pack of cigarettes nonetheless, as if Beth might suddenly change her mind. "Do you take a drink?"

"Oh, yes," she said. "I like a Guinness."

This seemed to cheer him considerably. "A lovely pint of Guinness, with a creamy head," he said. Now hungry, apparently, he took an unlabeled glass jar from the refrigerator and began to feed hurriedly on its contents. Beth smelled vinegar.

At lunch, which he called dinner, he peeled potatoes with his hands, making a pile of brown jackets on a saucer in the center of the table, and placed them in Beth's bowl. When he was a boy, he said, everyone squatted in the middle of the floor and ate their potatoes out of the same big bowl.

"The bollocks is making things up again," Eamon said.

Once, at an Irish pub in Manhattan on Saint Patrick's Day, three Irishmen who claimed to be security guards at a tampon factory in Hoboken had bought Beth drinks. Late in the evening, drunk, she had come out of the bathroom and heard them speaking to one another in a flat nasal accent that she immediately recognized as an imitation of her own. In that moment she had hated them, for their in-jokes, their unwavering nationalism, their milk-white skin and unabashed poverty, their habit of talking over and across her in Irish, a language no one else knew or cared to know.

"Do you believe in the hereafter?" Paddy asked.

Beth saw that she had ploughed through all the potatoes he had given her. "I don't know," she said.

"Eamon says you're Jewish."

"Not really."

"What's that? Were you not born Jewish?"

"I was just born," Beth said.

He offered her his jar of pickled onions. Three still lolled at the bottom, submerged in murky vinegar like tiny preserved heads. "Try them," he said, beaming at her. "They're lovely." With one hand he traced the route from his throat to his stomach. "Next time I'll come back as a pint and go to a good home."

"Next time I want to come back Irish," Beth said. She wanted to be a citizen of a country with its own enviably embarrassing cultural identity (the cheerful, capering drunk), its own universally recognized songs and symbols and history ("Danny Boy," shamrock, famine), its own unpronounceable language cluttered with consonants. She pointed to the only things in the room whose names she could remember. "Cupan.

Paddy winked at her. "Níl me ag caint Gaelige."

"You must have learned it in school."

"Sure, now, we were too busy fighting the Norsemen in those days to waste our time with the likes of school." He winked, shrugged, and peeled more potatoes into her bowl.

is in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Utah.

Illustrations by Geoffrey Parker

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; Come Back Irish; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 83 - 88.