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Beyond the Pale

Not quite leaving the old world behind.

12:00 AM, Mar 17, 2008 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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HALF MACE, CARNA, Connemara, County Galway situated in the wild west of Ireland lies well beyond the pale of Trinity College, Dublin far to the east. Numerous small fields divided by loose rock walls are the main features of this hilly and treeless terrain. How stark a contrast is the Gaeltacht (Irish Land) compared to the neat, flat, and uniform English panorama that Trinity's College Green presents.

Queen Elizabeth I founded Trinity College in 1592. She had fond hopes "of civilizing the Irish barbarian" and of discouraging Irish culture and Catholicism. Her university's best efforts failed on me. To maintain my independent identity, on weekends and holidays I would hasten back to our house down by the sea in the village of Half Mace. Professor Brendan Kennelly from Trinity's English Department knew better than England's ginger queen. He used to laugh at me upon my return to class, repeating Breatnac, Breatnac, my surname in Irish, and then commenting in English, "you can't take the bog out of the boy!"

Though desolate, there is an awesome beauty which compelled my returns to Carna. My uncle, a bachelor, welcomed my visits. I enjoyed all of the chores of a small farm: digging up fresh potatoes (faite); fishing for mackerel (ronnack); picking eatable kelp from the rocks (craithneach) and letting it dry it out in the sun. In the morning the cows would be called to their oats with commands of guile, meaning eat--and eat they did with a ravenous hunger. I can still see our dog on his piled up turf throne watching the cattle on a summer day.

The house had electricity, but was among the last to get running water. Showering was done from a rain barrel and a large old tin can--a bracing experience. Soaking, soaping and rinsing had to be done very quickly, especially in cold weather.

When journeying back to university, I'd walk two miles to catch the bus for Galway City; from there I would catch the train to Dublin. Along the Carna road, people greeted me with 'Hi,' till I answered in the native tongue. After I had gone by, I could hear them whispering in Irish--nil strainseir--that I was not a stranger. Yet I always felt myself to be a kind of stranger, wandering between two worlds. On that road a sadness rose within as I pondered the difficulties of members of my family and all those who walked this same path in immigrating to America, leaving the old world behind.

George Santayana, a Spanish immigrant, admired "the unkempt polygot people that turn to the new world with the pathetic but manly purpose of beginning life on a new principle." Hungarian immigrant and historian John Lukacs recognized the trauma of immigration--"superficially speaking the Americanization of immigrants was often surprisingly easy; but the psychic process was much more complex and difficult, than people--including writers and historians--have been accustomed to believe."


Being Irish I believe is a kind of exile of never belonging. Few people realize we have our own native Irish language. Irish culture has also suffered from nationalists at home and a sentimental pantomime of her culture abroad exhibited on St. Patrick's Day. In Ireland, well meaning Anglo-Protestant aristocrats like Lady Gregory, Yeats, and Synge--my people's landlords--manufactured a nationalistic Anglo-Irish Literature which romanticized the native Irish. The great post colonial poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), declared their Anglo Irish Literary Revival to be a "thoroughgoing English bred lie." For this Kavanagh suffered exile among the Dublin literary elite who subscribed to this formula of Irishness.

Exile leads one to an understanding that man is a wanderer--homo viator. St. Patrick, who converted Ireland to Christianity, understood mankind to be on a journey. He perceived our homecomings without home point to another country beyond time. A realm we all hold passports to.

Patrick J Walsh is a writer in Quincy.