The island it is silent now,
But the ghosts still haunt the waves ...
The Pogues, 'Thousands are Sailing', 1988
In late June of 1985 I was aboard the ferry boat Leinster as it churned through the Irish Sea, halfway between Liverpool and Dublin. It had been four hours since we'd sailed and I was still outside, windblown on the rail, my backpack at my side, looking for ghosts.
Martin and Katie Rowley had been a fixture of my childhood, growing up in a small town outside of Philadelphia. It wasn't until one of my friends asked why they 'talked funny' that I even thought about the Irish brogue that they had both never lost. They had come from Ireland long before I was born and they had some things that they did differently. That was just part of what made them unique. I didn't question their ways very much I was always glad to see them and they always seemed glad to see me, so we happily watched each other grow older.
I got even closer to them those last four months, the car accident ceasing all concerns except eating, sleeping, and going to the hospital. During that time I spent many long hours sitting at bedsides (whether recognized or not), watching them gradually losing faculties and consciousness. The days were not spent grudgingly, but thankfully, in the memory of 20 years of limitless affection they had given me.
We got a call late one evening with the news that Martin was gone. We came to his bedside, arranged his limbs, combed his hair, and felt more peaceful that the struggle was over. After so much pain, his death were easier to accept.
I stayed with Martin while my mother and brother went to see Katie and tell her of her husband's passing. I sat next to him for some time. Feeling like the moment warranted something more on my part, I stood by his bed and quietly sang 'Amazing Grace', but stopped after one verse.
There had been an energy in the room, peaceful and serene, that had intensified as I was singing. It had started out like a nearly-inaudible electrical hum partly heard and partly felt but had grown steadily louder, its volume and intensity finally demanding my attention. Now I felt like I was no longer alone. Standing next to the bed that held Martin's lifeless body my attention was drawn through the doorway across from me. Inside was a bathroom. Though I had spent many dull hours next to that bed, I had never entered it. Now I could just make out the form of a man, sitting with his back against the far wall.
I have never actively sought to interact with 'ghosts', but sometimes during the blossoming that is Spring in the small Colonial town where I grew up, I would find myself shooting sidelong glances onto lawns where I had thought I had peripherally seen gatherings of people and thought I could almost hear a murmur of voices or laughter. A quick look in that direction always found nothing, but I had often felt that if I could relax my mind enough and follow my spirit, the Netherworld that exists within our own would allow its shadowy figures to be viewed. It was with this memory that I gazed over the still body before me and into the shadows behind.
He was not physically visible, the tiles behind where I could feel him sitting were as clear as those around him. Yet, by looking to the side I could peripherally sense his form, the shape of him unmistakable. He sat on the floor with his back against the wall, facing me. His knees were drawn up to his chest with his arms wrapped around them, one hand vigorously rubbing his chin as would someone deep in thought. He stared straight ahead. Not at me, but at himself, laying colder and whiter in the bed as the hand I held began to stiffen. He worked his chin forcefully and stared. I could feel his confusion, as if he were trying to figure out how he could be sitting in a room looking at himself laying in a bed. Suddenly he stood up. His form seemed much younger than the man I had known, his body powerful and athletic, but still quintessentially Martin. He strode toward the bed, and in the doorframe the form evaporated. The hum in the room, which had continued to increase in intensity, ceased as if the needle was pulled from the phonograph record. I was once again alone in a hospital room with a lifeless body.
As Martin's death had seemed swift and merciful, Katie's was prolonged and painful. She endured complications and setbacks as her will to live was worn away. A great part of her seemed to die with Martin, and what was left seemed too weak to rally for more. As Martin's body was only a shell to me after his spirit left the room, so too was Katie's the day after the stroke; her brain function gone, with no recognition in the eyes that looked up at me for one blank second before closing again. She had wanted to be with Martin from the night he died, and it felt like she willed herself there. The eventual death of her body seemed more of a formality than an milestone.
Two short weeks after standing with my family at Katie's graveside, I was standing next to strangers at Newark Airport, waiting to board a plan for London. I was bound for Ireland, my Grandparents first home. We had always kept in touch with the relations who had remained, and now the loss felt on both sides of the Atlantic warranted a representative to carry their memory home to those people they had left in order to come to America. I was that representative.
Packing for the Journey
I had spent those two weeks getting my ticket and passport, alerting relatives, planning a route, and packing my bag. One evening, a few days before I was due to depart, I was sitting in my bedroom next to my half-filled backpack. I was pouring over a map if Ireland that I'd bought that day. Nobody but me was home, and I was glad to have peace and quiet so that I could focus on planning my trip.
Both Martin and Katie had come to America from small villages in Connaught the poorest western district of Ireland around 1925. Though they had grown up only about 5 miles apart, they didn't really get to know each other until they settled separately in Philadelphia, following scores of others from that same region of County Mayo who'd come before. Martin was from a village named Carrowleambeg, while Katie had been born and raised in a place called Cloonlumney, both of which sat along the road that ran between Swinford and Charlestown. The River Moy, which I imagined strong and majestically running through the fields and bogs of County Mayo, ran somewhere between them. I had heard of all these places many times throughout my childhood from stories told around my grandparent's dining room table during long holiday feasts, and now I was about to see them for myself.
Staring at the lines on the map along which I soon would be traveling, I was became distracted by the return of the feeling that I was no longer alone. I knew no one else was at home, but the feeling I had in the hospital a few week's before told me otherwise. I consciously relaxed, trying to recall the mindset I'd had in Martin's hospital room. I relaxed my gaze and looked peripherally around the room. It was then that I could sense two figures. They were sitting on the low bookshelf that I'd made from old apple crates lined up against one wall. They sat side-by-side, with arms folded on their laps, their heads bowed down as if partly asleep. Their gaze pointed toward their feet, which rested inside my backpack sitting on the floor.
I had known that this journey was to symbolically 'bring them home', but now it dawned on me that I was going to literally carry them home to Mayo. Their bodies would remain in the ground of their adopted home, but the spiritual part of them that never stopped being Irish could not stay in a foreign land, so I would carry them home on my back.
"Is this how restless spirits get created?" I wondered to myself.
I didn't tell anyone that I had two ghosts living in my room because I wasn't certain how. I thought about sleeping somewhere else in the house, but reconciled myself to the idea that they were going to be with me wherever I went, and so we cohabitated. A few days later I slowly zipped up my pack (to give them time to get inside if needs be) and headed to the airport. I assumed they would find a way to hang onto me, as I had no idea how or even if I could hang onto them.
I could not feel them sitting with me in the plastic chairs at Newark airport, waiting for my flight to board. I could not feel them a few hours later, high over the Atlantic Ocean, as our jet crossed the ocean that divided their lives. I thought about how long it must have taken them to cover the same distance by ship, and here I was doing it in the course of a single night. Where they somewhere near me or the plane or did they have some other way to travel? I had no idea.
The next morning I landed at Gatwick Airport and, tired from very little sleep, I rode The Tube into London. After a quick walk past Buckingham Palace I got back on The Tube to Euston Station where I caught British Rail north to Manchester. There I spent a week getting to know the family of Tom Rowley, my Grandfather's brother, who had lived for a time in both Yorkshire, England and The States. As Martin and Katie had gone to Philadelphia, Tom had gone to Boston. He spent a few years working in Massachusetts before returning to England and settling down in Manchester. I had met him only once, when he and two of his sisters had come across the ocean to visit Martin and Katie in Philadelphia. He had passed away only 5 years before Martin, and in talking to his family about the two old men I got a better appreciation for both of them as young men like myself, looking to find their way in the world.
I had a very enjoyable week in Manchester, mostly hanging out with one of the cousins who was exactly my age and had a great group of friends. I spent the days watching BBC television, and the evenings in Manchester's Irish pubs. A week later my cousins drove me to the docks in Liverpool to put me on a boat for Dublin.
Liverpool to Dublin
I stood out on deck for a long time that night as the cold breeze blew across the Irish Sea. The Summer Solstice was approaching, and the though the sun set around 11 PM it never got fully dark, remaining a 'midnight blue' until the sun lights the sky once more. Sitting on deck I thought about all the men and women that had left the rock to which I was headed and who continued to pine for it throughout their lives. I'd felt this longing from my own grandparents. Katie had gone back only once in the late 1960's and Martin had never returned. Even though they had adopted America as their home, Ireland came up in every conversation with them, and it was as real in their world as The States. They seemed to exist in two places at once throughout my life.
They did not, however, seem to exist on the midnight waves of The Irish Sea.
After a few hours' sleep below deck, the ferry pulled into a harbor beneath the most emerald green hills I'd ever seen. I walked off the boat, stuck out my thumb, and caught a series of rides that took me out of Dublin. By sunset I was in the northernmost county of Ireland County Donegal. I was there to visit my Grandmother's sister. Mary Grant had left Mayo for England and, just after World War II, she had married a Scotsman named Willy Grant and they had settled down in Donegal to raise a family. As Tom Rowley's family had taught me about Martin's life before America, now Mary Grant taught me about Catherine's. I stayed for a week in Donegal, absorbed in the beauty of the place and getting to know the family I had never met.
One of my cousins drove me around to look at various sites, and at one point we passed several houses that appeared to be under construction, but which also appeared to have been untouched for years. When I asked about them called them 'fairy houses'. I asked what he meant and he described it this way:
"When you're looking to build a house you'll be getting your paperwork in order and go 'round talking to the neighbors as you survey the site. At some point an old Biddy may come up to you and tell you that you can't build there because 'The Fairies' lived there and didn't want you building on their land."
I was a little taken aback at what seemed like a serious working man telling me fairy stories, so I asked if he believed in them.
"It's a load of shite." was his quick and decisive answer. Then a moment later he added , "...but I wouldn't build there".
I pressed him on his answer, as he seemed to be talking out both sides of his mouth.
Finally he said, "Look, I don't believe it Fairies, but I have also seen what happens to just about everyone that tries to build on those lots. Things go wrong on the project. Unforeseen expenses pile up. People get sick or injured. One thing after another happens until the builder cuts his losses and pulls out before he goes bankrupt. I'll sell supplies to someone building on those sites, but never on credit it's always got to be cash because I don't want to be left holding the bag on a Fairy House."
There was something very Irish about his position of not believing in it, but working on the assumption that there was something to it. I couldn't judge the man because I plainly understood where he was coming from I had a couple of ghosts living in my backpack at that moment, but I declined to mention that to him ...
On a gray, rainy morning the time came for me to leave Donegal for Mayo, the final leg of the journey to the beginning. I hitchhiked all day and ended up walking as much as riding, so few were the lifts to be had in the more sparsely populated part of the country. I was nearing my destination as the sun started to sink toward the horizon. The driver of my last ride set me down at one of the tiny roads that wanders off the main blacktop snaking through the fields between Swinford to Charlestown.
I was getting close.
After waving to my last ride I turned to look down the lane and was hit with a massive wave of Deja Vu. Something inside me jumped in recognition. I was standing on a deserted crossroads with a pub on one corner, and the scrubby, rocky fields of Connaught stretching out all directions. There was not much going on there, but the terrain was incredibly familiar to me, and I wasn't sure if my recognition was the shared memory I held with my invisible companions, or my own memory of the few pictures that Katie had kept in a shoe box that I occasionally had seen. The land in the photos had looked exactly like this, only now the open fields and low stone walls were bathed in late afternoon color, instead of flat black and white. I was getting closer.
There was no one in sight and the pub on the corner looked to be closed, which was a pity as I was very hungry by this point. It was odd that a crossroads pub would be shut at that time of day, which further accentuated the emptiness of this place. There were no people to be seen, no cars passing, and no sights or sounds to indicate anyone lived nearby. It felt as if the whole population had gone off to America, leaving the place empty of life.
With no option but to walk, I shouldered my pack and started down the narrow lane. It stretched off in the distance between two low stone walls on either side, backed with scrubby trees. I was tired and hungry as I trudged along the empty road, and I did not know exactly where I was going or how long it would take to get there. As I was grumbling to myself about my situation I became aware of footsteps behind me and actually turned to see who was there, but of course I was completely alone. I knew from the feeling of being followed that they must still with me, having hung onto me and my pack through a flight, train ride, and multiple car rides. They walked to my pace, but I could feel an eagerness and energy pushing me forward, as if it was hard for them to walk so slowly when they'd waited so long. I was tired, but felt like I needed to keep up a strong pace to stay ahead of them.
We walked for a mile or more together. The barrier hedgerows that lined the road on either side waved gently in the evening breeze, and I thought they looked like arms reaching toward us in welcome. If I looked to my left I saw only trees on that side, while peripherally to my right I could sense crowds of people hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them standing in the fields waving as one would watching a parade. The slight murmur of the wind seemed to mingle with muffled shouts rising over the noise of the crowd. Switching my gaze to my right they were gone, and I saw only the foliage, but now I sensed a waving crowd to my left. I finally gave up trying to catch them and looked straight down the road, and felt the crowds on both sides pressing against the stone walls as our small group passed; one living soul walking alone down a lane with two dead souls walking through a sea of their brethren. I was aware that I was walking a narrow path between two worlds that I could neither control or understand, and so I continued, not wanting to disturb the moment. With one part of my brain I could see myself, a solitary figure walking down a lonely road with the barest outlines of two apparitions in tow. Yet, in another view in my mind, I was in the midst of a great festival celebrating the triumphant return of two expatriates, who walked through a throng of well-wishers with a faint shadow of an out-of-place time traveler trudging before them.
I existed in two worlds, and in one of them I was the ghost.
I heard no signal or warning, but all of a sudden I felt the two spirits speed past me, one on either side, and turn left and right into the waiting throng of spirits. As they merged with the crowd was an almost audible crack as the door to the Other World slammed shut. As suddenly as the procession had begun it was over and I was once again a solitary figure walking down a lonely road in a gentle evening rain.
I walked on, asked directions of one or two farmers out working their fields, and at last turned down a small, one-lane road in the gathering dusk. I rounded a bend and found a black and white farm house just as the farmer up the road had told me. A young lad in the driveway caught sight of me and ran off toward the house yelling at the top of his lungs, "The Yank is here! The Yank is here!".
A man in overalls stepped out of a small shed and pointed me toward the house. Within another minute I had shed my pack, and was seated by a stove with a roaring turf fire and sipping a hot cup of tea. On the other side of the stove sat Maggie Hegarty, Martin's sister. She lived here in the house that Martin had built before he left for America, with her son Marty Joe (who had been named after my grandfather), his wife Joan, and their two sons, Declan and Francis.
The Old Homestead
The house in which I sat had been built by Martin in the early 1920's, just before he'd left home. Across the driveway from the new house sat a small, square stone building with a rusting tin roof. It was only about 8 feet by 12 feet and it was where Marty Joe milked the cows. It was a much older structure of indeterminate age and was the house where Martin and Maggie had been born and grown up. They had lived in that tiny one-room house with two parents and four other siblings. If I was to deliver Martin back to the place of his origin, then this must be the place.
The next morning I paid a solemn visit with Maggie to the place of her and Martin's birth, connecting the spot where he had entered the world with the hospital room in Philadelphia where he'd left it. I pondered the process of coming full circle, and wondered what, if anything, I could do to help him on his journey or was it already done?
I had to admit that I was a little disappointed. I had always felt Martin the strongest, but there was no feeling of his presence in this drafty old cow barn. I'd come halfway around the planet to be there, but how would I know when my duty was fulfilled if I could not feel him?
Cloonlumney by Night
The next evening after work Marty Joe drove me up the Swinford road to visit Cloonlumney, Catherine's birthplace. Having brought Martin to his ancestral home I was eager to do the same for Katie. Here again the old house was still on the property, but unused, the new house standing in front while the old one slowly fell to pieces behind. As it was already dark, the Aunt that lived there suggested that I come back in the daytime to see it. So instead of finishing my journey with Katie, we sat inside and drank tea and talked, a portrait of Catherine as a young woman smiling from one of the side tables, undoubtedly pulled from a drawer and put out for The Yank. It was a nice enough visit, but as I sat looking at Catherine's portrait I had the same sense of loss I'd felt thinking about Martin in the cowshed. Perhaps I would feel Katie more clearly when I visited the old house in the daylight?
I was pensive as we drove back to Carrowleambeg. Martin and Katie had come home and left me, but wasn't this what I had expected? Maybe I didn't know how this whole dead spirit thing worked, or perhaps I was laying my own mortal expectations on it. I could not escape the feeling that something was unfinished, but I had no idea what to do about it.
I had felt them so much over the course of this journey that I was sure I would know when it was done, but I didn't.
Carrowleambeg by Night
Back in Carrowleambeg that evening I sat by the fire with Maggie, Marty Joe, and Joan, after the boys went to bed. We sat up telling stories of the people that we knew in common, family stories of people I had only heard of, and stories about local characters and events that where brand new to me. The fire warmed us while we listened to the wind and rain beat against the windows. The conversation revived my spirits a bit and I was feeling much better by the end of the evening. I still didn't know what was expected of me from a ghost perspective, but why was I worried? I had done my part. I had carried the ghosts back home. They needed to get on with it, and so did I. There was more of my trip to go yet, and I didn't want to waste it worrying about things I could neither see nor control. The ghosts would have to take care of themselves.
It was getting late and we were just getting up to head off to bed when there was a gentle rapping at the side door. Four or five neighbors were standing outside in the pouring rain they were just on there way back from town and wondered if we'd mind if they stopped in for a quick moment to dry off. We invited them in, shook off wet raincoats, gave them the seats by the fire, and pulled in more chairs from other rooms. As Joan put the kettle on, I introduced myself and what I was doing in Ireland. We exchanged pleasantries while the tea brewed. After a few minutes everyone was poured a cup full. Then, with the focus off of me and the tea in place, I watched as a ritual that I'd seen so many times around Martin and Katie's table in Philadelphia played out in front of me:
It all started innocently enough. With the formalities out of the way, one of the neighbors made an offhand comment of "Now, did you hear about so-and-so ...?".
It was a small thing really hardly worth mentioning, but there was interest from the group and it was related.
"But that does bring to mind something I heard last week...", said someone else, almost tentatively, as if to gauge whether this new bit of news was welcomed or not.
With a little prodding that story was told, which led to another little bit of news that "didn't really matter, but since we're on the subject ...".
With no more introduction than that, we were off to the races. The stories tricked out tentatively at first, like small appetizers on little plates. When the guests let it be know that they might have an appetite, another course came around in slightly larger bowls. Finally, when it was clear that the group might really be hungry, then main courses appeared, as if on heaping plates. The dishes were passed around with hand gestures, gesticulations, and mighty bouts of laughter from everyone. The pantry was returned to again and again, while all manner of conversational food was marched toward the table. Stories, songs, and jokes flowed like water, and everyone seemed able to keep eating and drinking it in four hours. Were there had been nothing more lavish than a pot of tea in the sad, dented little teapot everyone in Ireland seemed to have, there was suddenly a feast of epic proportion. The effortlessness of the Irish conversation seems to appear out of nowhere, feed on close to nothing, and multiply magically into a roaring celebration.
As the tea went around and the stories continued I marveled at seeing something that I had thought was so specific to my Grandparent's table recreated so far away. As a child I had often wondered at the time warp that took over at holidays spent around that table. We would sit down to dinner at around 4pm. Dinner would be served, then plates would be cleared. The Balleek teapot would come out, and then there would be 'a little conversation' and suddenly it was 11 or 12 at night. It always mystified me that I could never recall what on earth could have taken up all those hours. Sure, Katie made a great turkey, but what happened to the rest of the time? There was something magical that would happen at that table, where time and space did not have the same rules as elsewhere and the evening seemed to pass in an instant.
I would often fall asleep in the car on the way home, but I never recall being tired at the table.
While the stories flowed around the turf fire in Carrowleambeg, I thought about how much I was going to miss those long evenings around that table in Philadelphia. Then it dawned on me that I had never really understood what was happening before; far from being the authors, it was my grandparents who were the imitators. They had packed this feast of words, ideas, stories and laughter from this very kitchen in Carrowleambeg and another one like it down the road in Cloonlumney. They'd squirreled it away in a corner of their meager suitcases. They had kept it alive during a long sea voyage, and then stored it carefully in one of the dusty mason jars on a shelf in Philadelphia. Then when company would come, they would pull it out and serve big helpings to everyone that came in and somehow that jar with its meager 60 year-old ration never ran low or got stale. As a young lad I had grown up eating a portion that was more than half a century old and was still fresh. And now I was feeding on the original source that I had dined on so many times before and realized for the first time that this magical feast was the shared property of many more people than just my grandparents.
As I was squinting in full-belly laughter for what seemed the hundredth time that night I caught sight of the last thing I had been missing: an extra pair of eyes were laughing with me from just beyond the circle. I could not see him I only caught the glint of his eyes, and I recognized them immediately. It was then obvious to me that I'd been looking in the wrong place. Why would anyone look for Martin out with the cows in the shed? His family lived in this house and this house was where he would go. I looked for the eyes again and they were there for a moment longer than usual, and they seemed to look directly and mutely at me in a way that said "thank you" before they looked away toward whomever was telling a story at that moment. When I looked back to see him again they were gone, only empty space where those eyes had been a minute before.
He was home and as if tipping the cabby he thanked me for the ride before returning to the party.
Cloonlumney by Day
The rain had cleared by morning, so when Joan offered to drop me by Cloonlumney on her way into Swinford, I gladly accepted. Since the last time I had come was at night, I was coming to it now for the first time where I could see it. Left at the road I thanked Joan and walked the half mile or so along the sandy track to the cluster of houses. I knew that this would have been the road that Catherine had walked thousands of times as a girl, so I looked for her along the way, but met no one but myself. Coming around the bend to the house I found my Auntie in the yard and she took me back to the old house, about 10 yards behind the new one.
Where the house of Martin's birth was still in use, the house of Catherine's birth had stood empty for decades, the thatched roof having fallen in, the straw rotted away and the timbers that supported them well on their way. The whitewashed plaster was almost all peeled off, revealing the stones underneath, while tall weeds grew in front of the fireplace. I walked about, took part of the metal hook that had held the cooking pot as a souvenir, then went in for tea with my Auntie. I had always felt Martin as a stronger presence, so not feeling Catherine now was not a big surprise. I knew that she had to be home and I would content myself with that.
After walking around and getting the feel of the place, I thanked my Aunt I walked out the gate, and up the sandy road on which I'd come. Giving a quick last look over my shoulder as I was rounding the bend I caught a brief glimpse of the young woman I'd seen in the photo the evening before; so young and full of promise. Now she stood just inside the closed gate looking at me with a smile that I had seen many times on the much older woman that I had known in Philadelphia. I knew that she was seeing me off and not coming with me. She was only there for a moment and as I looked again she was gone.
My ghosts were home. My job was done.
The Cloonacanya Bridge
I walked out to the road and turned toward Carrowleambeg. On the bridge over the River Moy I stopped. I had tried to imaging what standing on that bridge would be like while back home in The States. In my mind's eye it was a long expanse over a broad and slow-moving river, much like the Hudson or the Delaware that I was used to, but the river before me might be better termed a creek, only a few yards across. Though it was small, it had figured prominently in the stories of my family, growing in stature and importance with continual retelling. It was not what I had expected, but then again, the whole trip had not been what I had expected.
Martin and Katie used to talk about having dances at this bridge. The young people of the area would agree to turn up at the bridge at an appointed day and time to dance to the music of a fiddle or two, until the parish priest rode out to break up the 'occasion of sin' that those dances could represent. Before leaving they would begin planning when and where the next one would be. I tried to feel the presence of those young men and women of Mayo who were my own age and had clustered on that same bridge so long ago. Relaxing my mind to see the spirits around me I paused and waited. After a few moments scanning my peripheral vision I realized that I saw and felt absolutely nothing, save for a little embarrassment that I was actually standing on a bridge in the middle of the day looking for ghosts.
I had been granted temporary access to a dimension beyond this one. It was not because of who I was, but because of who I had been with. Now that I was alone again I was just like any other living soul forbidden from seeing anything of the spirit world until I went there myself. My days of living among the dead were over.
One of the Many
I spent a few more weeks in Ireland, both visiting family and touring on my own. It was all too soon before I was on the deck of the ferry once more. Like so many generations of Irish before me, I was standing at the rail of a ship, baggage at my side, looking sadly at Ireland sinking below the horizon, but filled with anticipation and plans for the future.
I was off to America.