Message in a Bottle
Reading My Way Back to Ireland


With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I am reminded that my Irish passport is due for renewal. You may wonder why a girl from Walla Walla who married a bookseller from New England even has an Irish passport and you wouldn’t be alone. The short, logical answer is that Ireland is generous in bestowing citizenship rights on the descendants of its residents.

The longer, more personal answer started in an old farm house on the edge of town where I could turn left and walk a mile through tree-lined streets to St. Patrick’s Grade School or borrow the always available pony from the neighbor lady and ride straight out through the green fields of the Palouse. And if I rode that pony far enough in a northwesterly direction, I would land right on the fields that my Irish great-great-uncles and their sister homesteaded long ago. The very mention of their names and the whole idea that homesteading conjured up in my young mind made me think that was all ancient history. Then one day in my late teens an Irish cousin just my age appeared in my life and those ancient times got a whole lot closer.

imageimageOver the last thirty years, I’ve gotten to know more of my relatives and heard many of their tales (and I’ve received many St. Patrick’s Day cards exactly on March 17th—now that’s the luck of the Irish). Their stories aren’t unusual, just American immigrant stories like so many others. Nearly every Irish writer that I have read describes a character just a degree or two off from the ones in my own family. The books, of course, tell about them so much more beautifully than I ever could.

When I read William Trevor’s Lucy Gault or Sebastian Barry’s Secret Scripture the families making their living off the sea and land in Skibbereen come to life. Their stucco farm houses exist on rolling fields that could be placed in the landscape of eastern Washington. The ground in both places is as green, but the ocean is a good bit farther away from Walla Walla, mind.

imageimageWhen Irish fiction turns to America, I recast the starring roles with actors I know. Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn may ostensibly be about a young immigrant to New York, but for me it’s really about my great aunt Ann and her friend Peggy who as young women left the farm for the big city of Cork then decided to really bust out and head for the States. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, which I read for our book club last month, was really about my grandmother, Mary O’Donovan, who was brought to Boston at age 15 for a better life with her cousins. Like Kline’s protagonist, my Irish lass headed west, sent by her uncles Dan and Con down the rails to the wide Palouse.

imageimageFast-forward through history to my most recent visit to the old homeland where cousin Danny, father now of young adults, looked at me and said “We were poor when you came last, and we’re poor again.” He was speaking of the ten-year span when Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger, when its economy soared and an entire generation was raised like American children, privileged and entitled, thinking they were invincible and the world was their oyster. Kevin Barry is the voice of these now thirtysomething children in his collection of short stories, Dark Lies the Island. Anne Enright in The Forgotten Waltz reflects on the adult lives torn apart when the boom times were followed by the fall of the housing market. And of course, Roddy Doyle’s expertise with dialogue puts me right into contemporary Dublin; he revisits the rollicking band we first met in The Commitments, now in their declining years, in his latest novel, the funny, poignant The Guts.

imageimageIn Mink River by Brian Doyle it seems that all of my experiences of Ireland and Walla Walla come full circle. Doyle writes about life in a small coastal Oregon town populated by Northwest loggers, Irish immigrants, and Salish storytellers. With a beautiful narrative voice enlivened by just a touch of magic (there’s a speaking crow) and a setting not so different from Skibbereen or the town where I was born, I am there again in my ancestral lands. Perhaps I don’t need that passport renewed after all. I can read my way home.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you all.



Legislators Are the Unacknowledged Poets of the World

On June 16th, while catching up with the news of the week, I read several articles about a not-so-minor political flap in Michigan. While the state legislature was debating a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless a woman’s life was in danger, two female representatives were chastised by the Speaker of the House for “failing to maintain…decorum” and had their speaking rights suspended for the following day. One of the women had pushed for an amendment requiring that men prove their lives were in danger before obtaining vasectomies, while the other had concluded her remarks by sarcastically saying she was “flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina.”

The idea that it was inappropriate to say “vagina” while discussing issues involving human reproduction struck many observers the wrong way, and an outcry was heard across the nation. Was this mere prudish neo-Victorianism or was it Orwellian political oppression? (Note to self: Is it sexist to cite Orwell instead of Atwood here?) Others insisted it was the legislator’s tone, not her use of the word, that was being censured. There’s surely some truth to that, but I’m just as sure that far less decorous comments have been made by other politicians without gags being applied.

The incident reminded me of the brouhaha over the book that won the 2007 Newbery Prize. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron stars a 10-year-old protagonist named Lucky Trimble, who on the first page of the novel overhears a conversation she doesn’t fully understand. A former ne’er-do-well is regaling his buddies with an anecdote about the moment his life hit rock bottom, and it involves his dog being bitten “on the scrotum” by a rattlesnake. Many people (few of whom had actually read the book) objected to the very specific anatomical reference and claimed that there was no place in children’s literature for such vocabulary. Those who did read it knew that Patron had more than shock value in mind when she chose to employ it; Lucky’s development as a character is closely tied to a search for a loving, trustworthy adult who can explain things she knows she’s not equipped to deal with on her own. The message sent by the book as a whole was not that the word or the subject was fit for casual preteen use, but that kids need guidance as they grow older and confront adult topics. Patron, a children’s librarian when not wearing her author’s cap, agreed that parents should make their own judgments about whether the story was suitable for their kids, and encouraged discussion about the topic. Seems to me that this was the right response in that situation, and that more discussion, not less, was what was needed in the Michigan case.

I found an irony in reading about that conflict when I did, because of a much earlier controversy over the appropriateness of various words. James Joyce’s encyclopedic masterpiece Ulysses was published in 1922, but wasn’t legal for sale in the US until a landmark ruling in 1933 that declared it a serious work of art despite its more than occasional crudeness. Its characters—Stephen Dedalus, Leopold and Molly Bloom, and many others—get up to all sorts of mischief in the course of the novel, and virtually all the proper (and improper) names for bodily parts and functions come into play at some point (“vagina” makes but a lone appearance, so far as I can tell). All the thoughts and actions in the book, base or exalted, famously take place on June 16th, a date that’s celebrated every year by Joyce fans who call it “Bloomsday.” It was on that date in 1904 that the fictional Buck Mulligan stood on the frigid Irish shore and violated taboo by referring to “[t]he snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea.” The Martello tower withstood the utterance of this vivid and accurate description, and so will our republic weather any storm of words from the pens of our authors or the mouths of our elected representatives.


Image of mute Justice by Miel Prudencio Ma.

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