It’s taken me a long time to figure this out. I am alive 44 years & it took me until recently to discover this.
Why Ireland has such a hold on my soul.
This story is why you keep searching for answers inside yourself & inside others – for yourself & for others.
I was raised in a mildly troubled household. There wasn’t much in the way of violence, though there were splashes of it & lashes from time to time.
My folks shouldn’t have made it past the first date, really. But, in the 1960s, dating was nothing like it is today. So, they carried on. They got married & my mother got pregnant on the honeymoon. 18 months after my sister was born, my brother was born.
But, then my mother went on the pill & stayed on it for the next 4 years. For one reason or other, she came off the the pill & got pregnant with me.
By the time I was born, my folks had been separated twice. They were dealing with a domineering eldest child, a middle son who was gay & eventually a youngest son who just wanted it all to work out. I’m reminded of how my brother used to talk about how the old man’s anger was largely triggered by the fact that he didn’t have the Norman Rockwell picture perfect family.
One of my earliest memories is sitting in our kitchen in Ringwood, New Jersey watching my mother bawl at my father walking out for the 3rd time when I was around 3 years of age.
Another strong collective of memories from that era is the many, many times I stood between my parents trying to bring them together…if they were fighting…or if they were not. Making them hug me & one another so that they wouldn’t argue or split again. The tension in my house growing up was palpable, but it was not entirely constant.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first trip to Ireland. I was living in Boston with my then-girlfriend & now wife & we left around this time in 1997 for 2 weeks. At that stage, Aer Lingus – Ireland’s national airline – was offering a deal where you could fly from NYC, Chicago or Boston to Dublin or Shannon (Ireland’s west coast airport) & they would throw in a ticket to mainland Europe. So, we decided to split our time with a week in Ireland followed by 4 days in Paris & then close things out back around Dublin. Quick sidebar: we loved Ireland so much that we only stayed in Paris for 2 full days & headed back to Dublin early!
When we flew into Shannon from Boston, the goal was to head to Killarney on that first night, about a 2 hour drive. On the flight over, I was mildly concerned about driving in Ireland on the left side of the road. I didn’t normally drive in Boston, but whenever I did need to drive, I was a good, safe driver. When we were mid-flight, I closed my eyes & practiced what I had known as “SyberVision.” In hindsight, it probably meant nothing literally. But, when I was about 10 years old, my old man bought me a VHS box set of “SyberVision” tapes where I could watch baseball legend Rod Carew hit a baseball off a tee & then hit live pitching from each side of the plate. The idea behind this was to watch Rod Carew for 30 minutes or an hour & visualize yourself doing the same. It worked when I was 12 or 13 with a bat-in-hand & it worked when I was 24 in an airplane flying over the Atlantic!
I employed this same practice where it came to trying to picture driving on the left side of the road. I kept saying to myself, “Stay left even when you turn left!” I could envision myself doing it…so, I did it. As I drove us out of the airport with our newly rented car, I did my damndest to stay left! (In 20 years – touch wood – I’ve had no issues!!)
As we exited the Shannon airport, making our way towards Limerick & then onto Killarney, the roads in 1997 were largely vacant on that Saturday or Sunday morning. The roadsides were, too. It was 1997 & the financial boom that was ‘The Celtic Tiger’ was only beginning to simmer in Dublin. It wouldn’t hit areas in more rural Ireland for a bit. Though, there were signs – literally – of change. I will never forget seeing a sign somewhere between Shannon & Limerick about the coming of HP’’s European headquarters taking its place along the N18 4-lane roadway.
Once we got going, I was struck by looking at this stunning, rolling green landscape that lay before me. The stone, man-made fences that dotted the terrain, the sheep that dotted the fields encircled by those stone fences. It was stunning! I muttered under my breath, “Goddamn, I can see why so much blood’s been shed over this land!”
I was instantly reminded of spending time driving from Dallas to outside of Denver with my folks, my sister & brother in March of 1984. My old man’s colleague had a cabin in Estes Park, CO that we would stay in during Spring Break or some summertimes.
Those aforementioned tensions would rise, no doubt, with the 5 of us in one tin can for the 20 hour drive.
Tension has a white noise of its own & I spent much of that trip drowning out that white noise with my legs thrown over the hump of the backseat, facing away from the driver’s seat, of our massive Oldsmobile Delta 88 listening to the spare Walkman we had. My brother had left U2’s ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ in the tape deck & I was lost in what I heard.
“There’s been a lot of talk about this next song…this song is not a rebel song…this song is ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday…’”
I got my first lesson in ‘The Troubles.’ These troubles had stained Ireland in blood red & black & blue, green & orange for centuries. They were rekindled in the late 1960s in an effort of a few to upend the negotiations for the many. The Republic of Ireland was 26 counties strong & Northern Ireland was but 6…yet, attached by governance, to the United Kingdom. The history of that travesty was always intriguing to me. From the state sanctioned process of imprisoning folks for their beliefs & the terroristic bombings perpetrated on otherwise innocent civilians.
People on both sides of this divide had been killed, tortured, had their homes, hometowns & businesses bombed out by the other side. The violence was largely constrained to Northern Ireland – cities like Belfast or Derry or elsewhere – but, targeted attacks did happen in Dublin, London & other parts of England, too.
I felt such a kindred spirit to this ‘rebel song;’ their ‘rebel idea.’ The idea that peace was possible through negotiation. All I’ve ever wanted was peace – between my folks, my family, my friends & brothers & others. There is a path to peace in every situation, it’s simply whether or not all parties have the will to follow that path.
But, I lost myself in those songs on that live album. They ripped open my soul in ways that I couldn’t comprehend until now. Yes, 30-plus years later.
I was searching for that same peace in my homeland as U2 were searching for in theirs.
Listening to this album was the first time the hairs on my neck would stand up.
When we got home from that trip to Colorado, I remember I would stumble upon clips or the entire 90 minute concert film of U2 “Live at Red Rocks” on MTV If any of it came on, I was glued…not to be removed.
It also opens with one of the most stunning songs I’ve still ever heard from an Irish group called Clannad. I go to that song when I need a moment of calm & it works every time. (Sadly, the link above doesn’t include that, but you can see/hear that here.)
I was 11 years old when I first heard this recording…and, in hindsight, in many ways, it saved my life. It was the second-phase of music being the outlet for me that I needed to escape. It had begun when I was 4 or 5 years old with my sister’s Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen or Meat Loaf records & it continued on a few years later with U2. I used to affix the massive headphones across my little head & fall into the sounds.
When they played ‘Live Aid’ in the summer of 1985, I remember watching that performance live in earnest at 11am in Dallas. I’d seen what they did in their own concert venue, but was anxious to see what they could do on this much larger stage. Each act only had 20 minutes & it was a global audience watching like none the world had ever seen before. This 20 minute performance galvanized this band to me & to the world. I finally met someone recently who agreed with me in finding this to be the performance of the day.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical & film would have you believe that Austria’s hills are alive with the sound of music & there may be some truth in that where it comes to Bavarian composers. But, for me, the hills & dales of Ireland are cacophonous with the sound & vision of art – not just music – be it poetry, painting, music of any or all kinds. It simply is a land that fosters creativity in subtle & not-so-subtle ways. Look at the sheer volume of writers, poets & particularly musicians who are from Ireland or claim a connection to Ireland. Three-quarters of The Beatles were of Irish heritage & I am not convinced that Ringo wasn’t somehow in that mix, too. Think of any of your musical heroes & I suspect they’ll have a connection to Ireland. Whether it’s the guitar, the fiddle or the uilleann pipes, there is much music in those hills & that greenery.
For me, my Irish connection is through my mother’s side. In both of her parent’s lineage, there is Irish heritage. My great-grandfather (my mother’s mother’s father) was born in Sligo. He was born in 1875 & came to the United States in around 1888. My mother’s father’s grandmother was of Irish descent, but born in London around 1850.
In my life to this point, I have spent a total of about 4 months in Ireland over these last 20 years. I do not care if it’s raining, I do not care if it’s cold or if the sun is fleeting in wintertime because it stays out so late in summertime. I have been at the Cliffs of Moher when it’s been teeming rain & windy & chilly to the bone. I have been there when its waters are so placid & the sky so blue & warm.
A few months ago, I was at an Irish pub in my neighborhood. It was late on a Friday night & I was just there to do some reading & writing.
I ended up sitting next to a guy called Scott Hogan. He was from the New York area by birth, but as an actor he had traveled around a bit. He had come home to care for his mother. After a good bit of conversation, he explained to me the mitochondrial connection between my mother – any mother, really – and her Irish heritage & that of my own.
Who knew such revelations could come in an Irish pub on a Friday night in Hudson Heights, Manhattan, NYC?!
The lads from U2 are commingled:
There’s an Irishman as the drummer. The backbeat. The founder. The leader.
There’s a British-born Welshman as the guitarist. The orchestra.
There’s a British-born man on bass who seems to feel as much Irish as anyone on bass. He is with anyone who’s got his back.
There’s a man born of both Catholic & Protestant heritage who manages to balance them all.
None is good without the other.
Just like you & I.
Full disclosure: I don’t love everything U2 have done. I’m in the minority I know, but I don’t love ‘Achtung, Baby.’ I didn’t even like it for a long time, but it’s grown on me. I actually dislike almost all of what they did in the 1990s & only like a a handful of songs from the albums of the 2000s. ‘Songs of Innocence’ is, however, a masterful return to their roots.