I had to put my phone on night mode. Each night, as I lay sleeping under Irish stars, my friends at home would be just getting their days revved with a green juice and egg white omelet. Or, if truth be told, a second cup of coffee and an artisanal donut. No judgment here. But my phone would ding and ping and sometimes even ring at all hours of the dark as the world spun along and friends wanted to share a tidbit of their day. Finally, I learned about night mode and the phones all fell silent. Bliss. Night silence at Reavilleen is complete: no freeway traffic humming along like electricity on a wire, no airplanes low enough to leave a wake of jet noise, no police sirens, no pool pumps from the neighbor’s yard, no air conditioning units grumbling off and on. Nothing. There’s very few crickets to disturb the peace. You can quite literally hear your heartbeat.
So in the morning it was always a pleasure to pick up the phone and see all the red dots of texts, WhatsApps, and Facebook Messengers, Instagram DMs, and missed emails from friends popping in for a bit of connection. I’d sit there and open all the little dots like tiny Christmas presents and feel the distance between myself and the people who loved me shrink down to the flick of a fingertip. Frankly, being away from my friends was the hardest part of the summer. I hadn’t really noticed how much my life is a series of connections with women and men who are genuinely interested in sharing lovely moments. I like to think of myself as the type of person who really makes an effort to keep people in my loop who add depth and richness to my days, and it turns out that a little distance made me realize who is really invested in me for me, and not just what I could do for them at the moment.
Distance can be a relationship killer for friendship, and can fray the bonds even in a tight-knit family. We have friends that moved only 26 miles away a few years ago, but it is as if they fell off the face of the earth. Even given this, Tom would move to Ireland in a snap. He loves his grandkids and daughters more than anything, and his nieces and nephews are the little moons that make his tides rise and fall, but he’s always had a strong desire to return to his ancestral roots. Maybe his childhood spent fending for himself made him the monk he tends to be today. Or maybe the pull of the DNA really is that strong. I think he has a longing to belong to a family larger than his own, a people, a history that doesn’t include abandonment. In the Irish he has found friends who would drop anything for him and help him solve the smallest problem. He is content to split his time between Ireland and here only because he can’t imagine being away from Jessica and the girls while the girls are young. He doesn’t want to miss a minute but he’s willing to give up a summer or two.
I, however, have a strong connection to Southern California, perhaps in that same ancestral way Tom does with Ireland. My great grandfather was born here, and our family lived in the Los Angeles area when it was all citrus trees and fields. The landscapes of my childhood are dusty oak-covered mountains and industrial concrete contrasted with ocean waves and seaweed. California is a contradiction, an argument between nature and urban life, and I love that friction. Maybe when I get older and tire of hearing the police sirens at all hours I will consider a move to somewhere quieter, but I never want to be so far away from my sisters, nieces, and nephews that a dinner invitation would be out of the question. My sisters and their children are my lifelines, my roots, the ropes that moor me to the dock and make me steady.
For all the steady flow of electronic communication, I still felt detached from real life while at Reavilleen. Occasionally Jessica and the girls would FaceTime, and Tom would be floating on a cloud for the rest of the day. Or Laura and her girls would WhatsApp video, and I would walk them around the house and show them the trees, the wind, the sights. Carla and I would send instant pix to each other at all hours of the day and night as she undertook her road trip up the Western Coast of the US, and the immediacy would help me feel connected. Heidi and I FaceTimed from Barcelona to Ireland and planned our attack on how we could next meet up. (It turns out she’s flying into Los Angeles this week and we don’t have to do the Euro jumper-jets after all!) Long before I was aware that my time in Ireland was coming to an end, friends at home who had it marked on their calendars were clamoring for a lunch or meet up upon my return. To say that I was honored to be thought of is an understatement.
Now that I have returned to the crush of scheduling and juggling Clare’s school schedule, I am taking this time to bask in the beauty of friendship and reviewing what it means to be “home.” The moment the plane wheels touched down in L.A., my phone picked up the local cell tower and dinged. It was my younger sister via text: “You’re home! You’re home! Now we can play!” I laughed as I texted her back: “We aren’t even off the plane. How did you know I was home?” She said: “I’m tracking your flights, silly!” And then over the next four hours or so the texts poured in: “U home yet? Missed U.” or “When are we drinking bubbles, lady?” or “Do you smell like sheep? Let’s convo over coffee!” or “Welcome back. Call me when jetlag goes away.”
I bathed in the richness of the love, surprised at how quickly I was growing teary at the trite #blessedmoment I was having. Was it jetlag tugging at my tear ducts? Probably. Did I care? Not much. I was realizing that no matter how marvelous my new friends in Ireland are (and they ARE marvelous) my friend base here in So Cal is stuffed with people whom I could call on for advice in a disaster or for fashion help before a party. Tucked away in our Irish home this summer atop a hillside overlooking the sea, I wrote and cooked and read and gardened and painted and repaired little pieces of my soul that had been ripped over the past few years. That distance sharpened my awareness of the richness of my life on two continents. In Ireland I am excited to begin exploring new friendships over dinners and festivals and nights at the pub; In California I understand now how important it is to hold fast to the bonds that have withstood the test of time. There is a gratitude for things long established and things just begun. But just for silence’s sake, I’m going to keep my phone on night mode, and look forward to the morning’s happy burst of little red dots filling the screen.
When the former owners of Reavilleen came to welcome us to the house in April, the wife, Paddy, brought me a sprig of hellebore from her garden to brighten my windowsill. It was a sweet gesture that brought a bit of the outdoors in during the cold and dreary days of April as we toiled away in cleaning and prepping the house. As we walked around the property she pointed out the plants they had placed as hedgerows and said to me: Those are whitethorns and hawthorns. They bloom beautifully in May, but never bring the blooms or branches into the house. It is Pishogue. I nodded thoughtfully and filed away the note, going so far as to write it in my list of things about the house – Whitethorn. Not inside. Is Pishogue. I had a general sense that it was forbidden, but she quickly diverted the conversation to travel and America and I lost my chance to inquire in depth.
As soon as we started meeting local people and getting on friendly terms I began asking what pishogue meant. Most of our friends just shook their heads and laughed. Oh, just superstition or That’s an old Irish thing or My mother used to say that too or I don’t believe in witchcraft. And while they laughed at it or brushed it off, most agreed that they, too, didn’t do some things that were considered pishogue. Superstition, spells, charms, folklore. Call it what you will, but the –thorn family of trees have a strong association with fairies and death, as being gateways between worlds.
After doing a little research I found that:
“Using the blossoms for decorations outside was allowed, but there was a taboo against bringing hawthorn into the house. Mediaeval country folk also asserted that the smell of hawthorn blossom was just like the smell of the Great Plague in London. Botanists later discovered that the chemical trimethylamine present in hawthorn blossom is also one of the first chemicals formed in decaying animal tissue. In the past, when corpses would have been kept in the house for several days prior to burial, people would have been very familiar with the smell of death, so it is hardly surprising that hawthorn blossom was so unwelcome in the house.” 1.
“The hawthorn was often seen as a gateway into the fairy realms. Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet in the C13th claimed to have met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Otherworld for a short visit, but when he emerged, he found that seven years had passed.”2.
“In Ireland it was believed that if one of your neighbors used a whitethorn (hawthorn) stick to herd cattle then he was up to no good. An old Irish custom was that the first milk of a newly calved cow should be taken and poured under a fairy tree as a tribute to the fairies. It was also planted around the house and sheds to keep away witches.”3.
Indeed, to this day you can drive by perfectly plowed fields with rows as straight as a laser (indeed, sometimes laid out by such modern tools) and smack in the middle there will be a crazy looped diversion around a big hawthorn tree. Oak and Ash also enjoy some protection in the world of superstition, but none hold the fearsome reckoning that comes with disturbing the – thorn world of witches and fairies. Recently in County Clare they diverted a large road works already in progress because a large band of locals warned that if the Whitethorn in the way of the diggers was disturbed there would be death and destruction associated with the future road. Nearly 1.3 million euro was spent to re-jigger the plan. Belief in superstition runs deep and permeates the most mundane aspects of daily life, especially in the rural communities such as ours. I can’t tell you the amount of times we have been mid-conversation with someone and they have uttered a phrase and then said Touch Wood to ward off whatever evil spirits might be lurking to carry out some dastardly deed. I find myself knocking on wood when I say something bad, too, though I have done that my whole life. Salt over the shoulder, an offering on a windowsill, a ritual to start or end the day, we do all of these things to beat back the possibility of the furies exacting revenge.
Another West Cork custom that has enchanted us is the display of the Infant de Prague. We found ours left for us in a kitchen drawer by the renters that lived here before we bought Reavilleen. As I was scrubbing the drawer interiors I flung open the small one and this porcelain painted figuring came rolling forward. I held it up to show Tom and wondered at its significance and then put it aside. Near the end of our trip that April I placed it on the mantle over the stove, up out of reach, and began to ask our Irish friends for information. Apparently the statue is commonplace in Irish Catholic households, and is the grantor of wishes for good weather for weddings, communions, and confirmations. One has to place the statue under a bush or hedge the night before the event and say a prayer. Also, a coin placed at the feet of the statue ensures the house will never be hungry or want for anything. The statue’s power is increased if it is continually displayed, even if the head has been knocked off, though this has to happen accidentally. Our Infant holds its prominent spot on the mantelpiece, and even though neither Tom nor I practice religion, we have no intentions of taking it down from its honored spot. There are some traditions you just don’t mess with.
As this trip draws to a close I find myself already planning for our next return, as I am deeply enamored with the rhythms and customs of this country. Market days on Friday and Saturday, exploring on Sunday and Monday (but no shopping or eating because most everything is closed!) and Tuesday Wednesday Thursday of housework, gardening, daytrips, and art making. Clare is enclosed in her little garret up under the eaves, Tom has set up his studio in the utility room, and I rule the kitchen and dining rooms with three squares a day made on my finicky Irish cooker. There is a simplicity and a beauty to days of exploring and expanding our horizons. Tom’s retirement and my rest phase have come at a time when it is possible to relish the small things such as friends coming to visit and planning for parties in the future. There is no doubt that our current life is a charmed one; one that I hope to share with others. I’ll just be sure to leave the hawthorn branches outside and a little coin under the toes of the Infant de Prague in the hope that these and many other blessings will be granted.
Did I mention the pig races the next night? They choose audience members to get in the ring and shoo the pigs around barricades. The crowd goes wild! The pigs go.... to slaughter the next day!! (They were going to be processed anyway, so why not give them a little runaround, right?) Clare attended this event without us, as Dan Barry offered to take the kids down to see it while Sinead and Tom and I nursed the last glass of wine over dinner and pretended to do the dishes. There's something magical about meeting people and becoming fast friends and entrusting your child to them. She had a blast.
Each summer for the last 50+ years, the small town of Rosscarbery hosts a Family Festival in mid August. On the lineup: Sandcastle building, a disco in the square for tweens, slippery pole contests, fun runs; dog, pig, and mouse racing; a dog show, concerts in the church, a bake sale, and something known as the Monster Rag. A quick internet search shed no light on what this might be, but a few locals described it as a public routing of bad behavior, so we set our calendars to mark the day so we wouldn’t miss the spectacle. We held a place at the front of the barricades and waited for our friends Dan and Sinead to arrive, as Sinead promised to interpret the floats for us. Near the beginning of the Rag, our next door neighbors John and Kathy showed up too, and soon I spotted our beloved electrician, GerFuck, edging his way toward us as the music started to blare. Familiar faces began to bloom in the crowd, as the people we had met over the past few months drifted into the square: Ger from Atkins in his HiViz vest was directing traffic in front of us, grin spread for ear to ear; the waitress from Pilgrim’s restaurant (she’s originally from Wisconsin) floated by in her civilian clothes; Kathleen, the famous baker we had only heard about joined the back of the crowd and stood on her tiptoes to shake hands with us up front.
Seizing the opportunity to quiz the crowd while in the midst of the Rag, I asked what the significance of the name might be. Everyone shook their heads and said, ummm… Monster as in big, I guess? And Rag like bloody or to make fun of…. I think? Later I told Tom that I found a parallel in the Shirley Jackson story “The Lottery” where they pick a person at random to sacrifice for the good of the town and the crops, but they don’t know how the ritual started or why they do it, but they continue to do it because stopping is scary and the outcome unknown. That is where the similarity ends, because the Ross Monster Rag serves a very clear function as a steam valve where the rural community can come together and poke fun at the people who have caused a rip in the social fabric over the past year. Anyone can build a float as long as they register and are approved to ride, and the topics range from the humorous to the dastardly. In small towns where everybody is in everybody else’s business and no one slips by unnoticed, this ritual is a way to renew a bond that may have been frayed by a person’s poor choices or to solidify a sense of proper behavior. Often the people being Ragged On are right there at the front of the crowd, lifting their glasses and playing the good sport.
The one that was the most humorous to me was a float depicting The Pike Bar. Apparently the new owner wanted to have it be a tourist destination, barred some locals, and allegedly ran a flophouse AirB&B operation upstairs. Sinead said to check the Booking.com comments and AirB&B comments to see the details. Each year The Pike used to run The Festival of the Bard (poet) and the title of the float is The Festival of the Barred. The new owner was said to have remarked that the locals need to be re-educated if they want to drink in his bar. Ooof.
The weather has been a beast in Ireland this year. First snow in decades and hottest driest summer in 40 years. Also, a hurricane and other assorted mayhem on the meteorological scale. What better way to depict that than a water sprayer behind a leaf blower, the sunshine throwing gummy treats to the crowd, and joggers just trying to have a fun run while being simultaneously drenched and blasted. The crowd got a real laugh from Weather Red Alert.
The good news: New bathrooms were built at the tiny neighborhood beach called the Warren. (It’s not called that on maps, natch.) The bad news: there’s only one stall per gender and the doors don’t lock. The lad in charge of the public scheme is in the left hand side of these images in a navy blue jumper, holding his beer and laughing.
A fight in the local fast food joint that ended with a bunch of 18 year olds getting hauled off in the paddywagon was the focus of this float.
Assorted other floats included a goat getting lifted 15 feet into the air, some grannies voting for a granny grant of 1000Eu per year for childcare support, and a cross dressing Yes to the Dress person commenting on the self-involved behavior of a local woman who appeared on the TV show.
And a good time was had by all!