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.
Over 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.
When 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.
Fast-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.
In 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.