My first contact with Ireland came through the third person. When I was young, I would have been eight or nine, my mother travelled there with work and stayed for a whole month: I remember if felt like a never ending wait to me and that before she left, my older brother and I slipped a card into her suitcase in which we told her to be careful and to think of us. I also remember that I cried whilst we wrote it and a single tear fell upon the page, so my brother circled it with the felt-tip and wrote: ‘tear of F.’ Knowing my mother, I imagine she will have kept the card somewhere.
All these years she and I have talked about the actual duration of that trip. As you know, one’s perception of time changes according to who one is waiting for, why one is waiting for them and what one has to do in the meantime: she has always maintained that it was only 17 days. I’m convinced that it was at least double that. Anyway, at a certain point she returned. And so began the phase of the storytelling. Have you seen Tim Burton’s film, Big Fish, in which a father tells his son of his fascinating life, his adventures, and the strange encounters he had along the way? It was more or less like that. Since then, for me Ireland has always been tied to specific elements.
She told us that one evening she was in a pub drinking the first Guinness of her life with her colleagues when a wild German man, also there for work, invited her to dance. Sheepishly she accepted, she said, perhaps helped on by a drop of the stout, but above all struck by the man’s generous smile. I remember our laughter as she explained that the fellow was not exactly Fred Astaire, and so concentrated was he on making her twirl with style, he hadn’t realised that not only had he laid his hand on her back, but also upon her long, free flowing hair, thus pinning it down. And she had danced the whole time with her head forced backwards to avoid losing her hair during an impromptu caschè. The song, I should add, was If you don’t know me by now by Simply Red.
She spoke of how she went on a lengthy bike ride to the Aran Islands, how she fell in love with them so much that she promised she would return with us as well. She bought me a blue t-shirt from there, which I still wear to sleep in after twenty years (she was vaguely on the mark with the choice of size). Written on the front was ‘An Pucan’, which if I’m not mistaken means Aran Islands in Gaelic. From that moment on the expression An Pucan had sounded like a series of magic spells because I felt such joy inside every time my mother recalled and uttered it. Even the t-shirt became a lucky charm.
One morning she told us she had gone jogging on the beach with her colleague from Lyon. They were chatting away in French, when all of a sudden a tall, middle-aged man who ran at pace of someone who’d never stopped training appeared at their side, and whilst he ran he managed to disregard the fact that he was about to die of a heart attack. Perhaps he even had the strength to exchange a few words. She told us that the man had given them a very brief and resolute greeting as he went past them, and then disappeared into the morning fog. There was one detail, however – the man was Sean Connery.
She described Dublin as an exciting city and explained that at the bottom of Grafton Street there was a statue of an attractive woman called Molly Malone, who according to the legend was a fishmonger by day (the statue wheels a barrow of shellfish) and a prostitute by night. My mother thought it was beautiful and didn’t understand why, with an air of affectionate scorn, Dubliners called her ‘the tart with cart’. She even recited off by heart the first verse of the song about her, which is the unofficial anthem of the city of Dublin:
In Dublin's fair city,
where the girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she wheeled her wheel-barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive alive oh!"
I saw a picture of Molly’s statue many years later, when I had access to the Internet. As soon as I saw it I understood one of the reasons my mother had always appreciated it with such eager indulgence: it looks like her. Needless to say that she was immediately mocked about this.
These are some of the many wonders of that journey from which, amongst other things, mum returned laden with presents (the above mentioned t-shirt, an amazing rubber dinosaur, two snow globes, every type of Irish music and an infinite amount of beer mats, each one more beautiful than the last). Wonders that, as you can imagine, created the myth of a fantastic place in my youthful mind ‘where the women are beautiful and the men horrendous, where the gulls are enormous and sociable, where the smell of the sea mixes with the damp earth and also with the whiff of fresh onion’ (cit.).
It’s twenty years since that legendary journey and now I have also travelled there, so for me, Ireland is tied to different elements other than those maternal ones: I have already written about them and if you like, you can read about them here. But I can assure you that in twenty years, none of my mother’s passionate words have lost their validity.
The Paradise Trotter
P.S. I’ve forgotten something fundamental. When my mother returned from Ireland, every important family lunch or dinner would begin with a special starter: slices of smoked salmon with chopped onion, capers and accompanied by toasted bread with a layer of butter on top. You know what? I’ve just decided what I’ll be eating today. See you soon, Dubliners.
1 comment(s) so far...
By JTB on
Re: Le Marche, Ireland: a place in the geography of the heart
There are some brilliant anecdotes here, and the analogy with Tim Burton's film really conveys a sense of the fantastical. As for the 'special starter', I think I also may have just decided what I shall be eating for luncheon today!