I look down the schedule of activities for this week in Rosscarbery and see that we have already missed the annual mouse racing event at O’Brien’s bar. Luckily, though, we have not missed the Monster Rag, an event that has been described to us as a medieval routing of those in the community who have done something to raise the ire of the neighbors. At the Monster Rag a float is built depicting the wrongdoing, with characters acting out a scene or poster boards decrying the behavior. We have been told to stand close to a local for explanations. When we asked how the people being roasted took it, all agree that the Rag is a time of airing grievances, and that if you are roasted, you must take it on the chin and move on. The Rag is tonight, and I already can’t wait to see what transpires. Tom has joked that he will know we’ve been accepted into the community if we see ourselves outsized and trotted out for the locals to haze on one of these floats. For my sake, I hope to never be the target of my new community’s critical gaze.
The events scheduled for the Rosscarbery Family fair this week include a charity run, movies in the park, a dog show, horse race betting, a sandcastle contest, pig racing, a concert to raise money for cathedral repairs, fundraising for charity missions, and more. I looked forward to the release of the events with such anticipation precisely because they seemed so different than anything I would come across in California, but the more I thought about it, the less that seemed true. The Orange County Fair has some of those exact events, and it is going on in my home city right now. Most years we grudgingly go (mainly only if there is a concert we really want to see at the Amphitheater) and endure the heat, the crowds, the expensive food, the dust, and the parking mayhem for a few hours of diversion. What, then, makes the Ross Family Fair different? Consider these numbers: The OC Fair has 1.3 million visitors each year; that breaks down the 56,000 people per open day. The parish of Rosscarbery has about 1,200 people TOTAL, so the chances of being trampled, pushed and shoved, or waiting for 45 minutes for a parking lot to empty so I can drive the three miles home, is nil. There is simply room to breathe.
Perhaps that contrast is what I find so refreshing about splitting my time between Ireland and California. I love living in California and all that it means: liberal leanings, easy going lifestyle, sunny days and lovely breezes, access to fresh and organic foods from all over the world; top class culture in theater, art, music; the contrast of the ocean to the dry scrub of the mountains, and people who create little islands of like-minded communities where they feel nurtured and heard. Also, if you experience friction with a person or group you can gracefully shift gears, pull back and refocus on a new crowd that fits a bit better. The downsides are crime, crowding, traffic, and expensive land and commodity prices. Despite all that, I have a deep attachment to the area that is genetic: I am fourth generation Californian, a rarer and rarer title in this melting pot of a world.
The attachment I have to Ireland is a newer one, as my first visit here was in 1998, twenty years ago, and I don’t have a strong Irish family tree. The things I love about my adopted country are the lushness of the fields and byways, the green springing from every crack and even growing in the lineaments of the windowpanes. The wet wet sky and earth and stones emit a fragrance that is rather like the beginning of time, raw and new like birth. The monuments are simply stones erected to celebrate the passage of light, the celestial realm, and they don’t command attention like a Continental cathedral with its soaring ceilings. Standing stone and stone circles weren’t erected to dazzle man, but to commune with the earth and sky. This subtlety can often be lost on people looking for the castles to be theme-park ready. Irish people cut out the small talk and head straight to what matters. In the first three minutes you may know more about them and them about you than some friends you have held for years in the States. This is both thrilling and exhausting, as you can feel wrung out after a 15-minute lightning exchange. The food in Ireland is unfailingly good, as the Irish never lost their connection with agriculture and the land as they did in Britain, and the idea of slow food is so much an integrated part of their lifestyle that to label it slow seems absurd. It just IS.
In Ireland, however, while there are pockets of culture like Dublin, Cork, and Galway, the distance one must travel to catch a venue can be daunting. It feels as though the infrastructure to move about is kept deliberately narrow, squeezing the pipeline to slow it all down. Here the food choices are narrower, too, with the occasional Chinese, Thai, or Curry being offered rarely as a complement to the traditional Irish fare. The landscapes change here too, with the Burren and its lunar fields, to the lush forests of the Wicklow valley, but the changes are sometimes so subtle that it takes a trained eye to see them. And the towns are tiny, mostly a main street or three, and if you have a beef with a neighbor or friend, you WILL run into them at the local markets, so you may as well patch it up quickly. There is no escaping small town frictions.
These are the things I think about each evening as I review my day. As our trip draws to a close this week I am finding myself reflecting on what I find magical about Ireland, and considering how to bring those ideas home. Frankly, I am realizing that many of them are already extant in the States, I just need to immerse myself in them with the same sense of wonder and delight as I do here in Ross. I have been gifted this chance to live part-time on two continents, and the temporary distance from my friends and family makes me realize just how essential they are to me. I haven't even seen the Rag yet, and already I think the lesson will be that life is too short to cling to frictions and grudges that color our days grey. Instead, build a float on the back of an old tractor, convince the neighborhood messer to dress in drag, and raise a pint while ribbing the louts amongst us.