We stand in front of a ticket window, my flatmate, Lydia, and I, in bustling Victoria Station. Our fingers, still greasy from a hurried fish and chips supper at a pub down the block. Fares purchased, we sling our backpacks over our shoulders and tromp down the wide staircase towards the night train to Holyhead, Wales. From that great rock, we’ll board the ferry that sails straight across to Dublin.
It’s late October, and the sky is pin-pricked with stars by the time the train comes out from underground and aims across the countryside. I lean my head against the cool windowpane, clacking with the rhythm of the track, but I can’t sleep. In the moonlight, I make out vague white lumps in the open field.
“Are those sheep?” I turn towards Lydia.
She leans over the raincoat bunched in my lap and whispers, “Yes, an army of them.”
The people around us are snoring under tweed jackets and fringed blankets, but neither Lydia nor I can close our eyes. We fly past smokestacks and steeples. Past cottages and barns hunched by the hedgerows. The darkened landscape, a grand photo album full of negatives.
It’s the middle of the night when we detrain. The narrow streets are lined with narrow houses. Every chimney chuffs out smoke with the murky tincture of coal.
The pier up ahead is lit like a used car lot. A string of bulbs scallops the edge of the dock. Great gray knobs are looped with lines that steady our vessel alongside land. We climb a puny gangplank and hand our tickets to a man in a navy-blue uniform with brass buttons. In no time, the water beside the ship roils as we start engines and heave-ho into the Irish Sea.
Ireland, the very word stops my heart with childhood tales of fairies, blood-chilling banshees, castles, rainbows, pots of gold, and plucky leprechaun kings too big for their pint-sized britches.
Also, there’s my father. The one I’ve never seen. The one who gave me up at birth as a mistake my adoptive parents were thrilled to correct. He was Irish and handsome, so they say, with strawberry blonde hair like mine and a ruddy complexion. I know not how many generations are between me and my roots tangled in the pile of rock across the waves. Soon my eyes will see what my heart can only imagine.
A shipmate points us towards berths in the belly of the ship. I lie down on a rough wooden bunk and sway with the ocean’s lullaby, but I can’t sleep. Is this a ghost ship? Lydia and I are the only passengers below deck. Or perhaps not many cross the Irish Sea in the middle of the night in bleak October. We climb back topside and cling to a rail in the bow. The wind whips my hair off my cheeks. Our ship, that looked tremendous at anchor, is now a toy climbing the crest of a giant wave and surfing down its trough.
A young man in a knit cap motions from the stern, “Hey, you’ll blow away up there.” We join him in the lee of the wheelhouse, a smooth wake behind.
He extends his hand. “Name’s Jake. I’m Canadian. You girls from America?”
Lydia nods. I almost shake my head. If the moon was my only witness, I might put on a brogue and say I’m going home to Killarney. Suddenly I feel anything but American. The night passes slowly in the no man’s land of the sea.
As the first gleam of dawn hits Dublin harbor, we disembark.
The city is still asleep, or am I waking in a dream? The island seems as devoid of people as our ship, as if my first glimpse of Ireland is for my eyes alone. I spy a sole fishmonger twisting open his awning as a fisherman unloads his catch. “You girls American?”
Lydia tilts her head, “Is it so obvious?”
He flings empty coolers in the bed of the truck. “It’s the backpacks.” He grins. “If you’re hitching towards Galway, I’d be happy for the company.”
We climb aboard as if the west is our planned destination and bump along to a small cove on the opposite coast.
After a handshake and a thank you, we wander south. With no more traffic to hitchhike, we tramp through fields, over stiles, and within the hour, stumble upon a castle. No sign. No tickets. No tour guide. The haunt of ancient kings no more than a pile of stone blocks, and a tower with a spiral staircase. From the lookout, I can see the edge of the world. A jagged series of promontories fall seven hundred feet to the sea, what our map calls the Cliffs of Moher. To my right roar rollers that have crossed the vast Atlantic. To my left, the peace of green pastures, greener than green, quilted by gray stone walls as far as the eye can see. My eyes flood at such majesty unannounced. The Emerald Isle has earned its name, a glowing jewel in a glistening sea.
We trace the dirt path along the precipice until we intersect the next road. A rusty sedan stops. Mom and Dad are up front. Dad leans out the window, “We’re only going to Ennistymon.”
“Anywhere is fine.” We smile and crush in the back with two little girls in braids. The older child, maybe ten, fastens her eyes on mine. “Are you from America?”
I sigh. “Yes.”
She looks down at my hand. “You must be rich.”
I laugh. “Not really. You like my ring?”
The girl beams.
“It matches your eyes.” I slip the small chip of turquoise off my pinkie, and onto her index. That’s when I notice her wool coat frayed at the sleeves, the rip in the upholstery between us. Maybe she’s right. I am rich, a college girl on semester abroad, privileged to see Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Stonehenge. Perhaps if my kin had never left Ireland, I’d be this little girl with the tattered coat and turquoise eyes. At the next town, Lydia and I ooch out the rear door and wave good-bye.
A few more hitches and we end up in the tiny town of Dingle: a pub, a market street, and a strip of beach. On the way out of town, a stooped old man in a plaid cap approaches. Words come up from his throat in a lyric chant that must be Gaelic. All I understand is Slieve Mish, a mountain range I’ve seen on the map. He points his staff towards peaks at the head of the Bay. We hike towards the bald green slopes dotted with sheep. As the broad-backed highlands narrow to a single ridge, we pierce the clouds. Two souls together. Alone in our thoughts.
On the far side of the summit, the fog lifts, and I wonder if Lydia is seeing what I’m seeing. Down a bit of a dale, a white-washed cottage with a thatched roof. Hollyhocks bloom by the door. Window boxes drip with geraniums. Roses crawl the fence. A white pony browses in the dooryard. A stone path curves to a red, rounded door. In the rising mist, a rainbow bends its light above the dwelling. I stare from the other side of a rock wall as if looking through the thin, gauzy space that separates the earth from the sublime. My child’s heart says surely beneath these hollyhocks fairies take their tea. If I press my nose against the pane, what more lies within? A father who will never leave? Who will claim me as his own?
That cottage remains a vision.
Decades ago, I would have called it my first brush with the supernatural. Now I see it was where I first awoke to the presence of a divinity I could not yet name. Only recently did I find my birth father. Not the man, but a picture. He was handsome. And his clan common to County Kerry wherein lies Dingle Bay and the high places of the Slieve Mish.
When I stuck out my thumb in Dublin, who but my heavenly father, the high king of heaven, could have led me back to the very turf my people fled. How ironic I had to leave America, my Irish ancestors’ promised land, to find my own holy ground.