• Mother Ireland

    Edna O'Brien

    Winter 1976

    Leaving Ireland was no wrench at all. I took the mail boat, like most others, sat up all night, watched the drinking, the spilling, walked the deck, remembered how Thackeray and Heinrich Böll had come in by boat to write leisurely about it, remembered the myriad others, natives, who had gone out to forget. Euston Station was a jungle, grim and impersonal, the very pigeons looked manmade; and when I saw the faces of the English I thought not of the long catalogue of blood-letting history but of murder stories I had read in the Sunday papers and of that swarthy visiting Englishwoman from long ago who brought corn caps and a powder puff stitched into her hanky.

    This was to be home. It had nothing to recommend it. Unhealthy, unfriendly, mortarish, and to my ignorant eye morbid because I kept seeing wreaths and did not know that there was such a thing in England as Remembrance Sunday.

    But I had got away. That was my victory. The real quarrel with Ireland began to burgeon in me then; I had thought of how it had warped me, and those around me, and their parents before them, all stooped by a variety of fears-fear of church, fear of gombeenism, fear of phantoms, fear of ridicule, fear of hunger, fear of annihilation, and fear of their own deeply ingrained aggression that can only strike a blow at one another, not having the innate authority to strike at those who are higher. Pity arose too, pity for a land so often denuded, pity for a people reluctant to admit that there is anything wrong. That is why we leave. Because we beg to differ. Because we dread the psychological choke. But leaving is only conditional. The person you are is anathema to the person you would like to be.

    But time changes everything, including our attitude to a place. There is no such thing as a perpetual hatred any more than there are unambiguous states of earthly love. Hour after hour I can think of Ireland; I can imagine without going far wrong what is happening in any one of the little towns by day or by night; can see the tillage and the walled garden, see the spilt porter foam along the counters; I can hear argument and ballads, hear the elevation bell and the prayers for the dead. I can almost tell what any one of my friends might be doing at any hour-so steadfast is the rhythm of life there. I open a book, a school book maybe, or a book of superstition, or a book of place-names; and I have only to see the names of Ballyhooly or Raheen to be plunged into that world from which I have derived such a richness and an unquenchable grief. The tinkers at Rathkeale will be driving back to their settlement by now I say, and the woman who tells for­tunes in her caravan will be sending her child down for the tenth loaf of sliced bread, while a mile or two away in her domain Lady So-and-So will tell the groomsman how yet again she got her horse into a lather, and in some door in a town a little black crepe scarf dangling from a knocker will have on it a handwritten black-edged card stating at what time the remains will be removed, while the hideous bald bungalows will be mushrooming along the main roadsides. The men will be trying as always to distance their fate through either drink or dirty stories, and the older women will be filled with the knowledge of how crushing their burdens are, while young girls will be gabbling, to invent diversion for themselves.

    It is true that a country encapsulates our childhood, and those lanes, byres, fields, flowers, insects, suns, moons, and stars are forever recurring and tantalizing with a possibility of a golden key which would lead beyond birth to the roots of one’s lineage. Irish? In truth I would not want to be any­ thing else. It is a state of mind as well as an actual country. It is being at odds with other nationalities, having quite a different philosophy about pleasure, about punishment, about life, and about death. At least it does not leave one pusillanimous.

    Ireland for me is moments of its history and its geography­ a few people who embody its strange quality, the feature of a face, a holler, a line from a Synge play, the whiff of night air, but Ireland insubstantial like the goddesses that poets dream of, who lead them down into strange circles. I live out of Ireland because something in me warns me that I might stop if I lived there, that I might cease to feel what it has meant to have such a heritage, might grow placid when in fact I want yet again and for indefinable reasons to trace that same route, that trenchant childhood route, in the hope of finding some clue that will, or would, or could, make possible the leap that would restore one to one’s original place and state of consciousness, to the miraculous innocence of the moment just before birth.

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