I’m not perfect enough to be loved by my mother. Throughout my life, she knocked me constantly – with fists and words – and, as a result, I have never felt loved by her. In adulthood, I am incapable of accepting love from anyone. When a man professes love for me, I cannot believe that he truly feels those things for me because I’ve been told that I am unlovable by my mother and older sister. It is for that reason that I cannot accept my husband’s love and adoration, and I leave him after six short years of marriage.
After my divorce, I start to deepen my bond with Mary, my Lord’s mother. It is to that mother – my divine mother – that I turn in my brokenness seeking maternal compassion since my own mother and elder sister has no time or heart to deal with me in my weak and broken places.
In 2002, I am not to be included at my oldest sister’s family Christmas dinner table yet again. Cissy always hosts the family Christmas dinner since she is the only one of us who has been blessed with children. My parents go to Cissy’s to a Christmas Eve open house and for Christmas morning breakfast and family gift exchange, and then again for Christmas dinner, leaving me entirely alone. I decide rather than be at home alone for another Christmas, I will travel to Scotland and spend it visiting family in Glasgow.
I land in Scotland on Christmas Eve. My mother’s youngest brother picks me up at the airport and together he and I go to Christmas Eve Mass at his parish church. My uncle has studied to be a priest from age twelve to eighteen. He leaves the seminary to marry and together they have three daughters. They later divorce and in time he marries a wonderful woman who, tragically, dies of breast cancer. Since the death of his beloved, my uncle’s faith has become central to his life as it has been in his youth. He and I spend Christmas Day with his beautiful step-daughter – so like her lovely mother – and her family. It feels wonderful to be a guest at a family Christmas dinner table again.
On Boxing Day, we go to see Glasgow Celtic play. My uncle drives us to Park Head, Glasgow Celtic’s stadium, and we buy two tickets for the nosebleeds. We find our seats and as we wait for the game to begin, we are entertained by the patter in the stands. One drunken man seated behind us sings the rebel songs of Celtic, one after the other. A man seated two men down from me says, “See him. If he gets wan word right like, I’ll be bloody surprised.” I exchange a look with my uncle and together we share a laugh.
There trails onto the field four Santas. They are an acapella group brought to the stadium to entertain the crowd before the match begins. As soon as the Singing Santas start to sing, the power goes out. It is a night game and if they are not able to restore the power then the match will have to be cancelled.
“Oh no. Do you think they’ll cancel the match?” I ask my uncle, bracing for disappointment.
“If they do, there’ll be a riot. See all these folk with their Celtic gear on? They better get that power back on,” he laughs. They do manage to return the power and the match is played, and Celtic wins 4-2.
My uncle tells me of a time that my father brought him to see Celtic play. “I was just twelve and home from the seminary for a holiday. Your daddy told me that if I got lost in the crowd as we exited the stadium, I was to just pick up my feet and let the crowd carry me, which is exactly what I did and your daddy got me at the other side. During the match someone behind us was swearing and your daddy told the lad to cool it. When he didn’t your dad thumped him,” my uncle tells me.
I picture my dad there, at Park Head. He has always said that he wants his ashes scattered over that park. That day I am thrilled to be there, not just to see Celtic play, though that is exciting, but because it is hallowed ground upon which my father had weekly walked. I worship at the altar of my father.
The day after the match, my uncle drives me to Edinburgh in his Jaguar. We have a meal together and then we part company. I am staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast in the heart of the city. I am glad to get on my own again. At my uncle’s I sleep in his room as he takes the couch, and I feel like an intrusion. The bed in the B & B is plump and plush. I have tea and biscuits in my room as I watch the BBC from my puffy mattress clothed in a courtesy white bathrobe. That is my idea of heaven: a nice hotel room, tea, chocolate biscuits, and a downy bathrobe. What more does a girl need?
I love to walk the cobbled lanes of Princes Street, and pop in and out of the charming shops and tea houses along the Royal Mile. I love Scotland. I am proud to have been born there. I eat alone in pubs off the Royal Mile where I can see tourists rush past Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. One evening, a man asks me to join him at his table, but I politely decline and continue to people-watch in my own world.
I fly to Dublin, Ireland on December 30th in time to ring in the New Year. I go on a New Year’s Eve pub crawl through Dublin. A band of Irish musicians takes tourists about the fair city and talk about the history of Celtic music. I walk to the pub where the tour is to meet, and introduce myself to the group. The man who leads the Celtic music tour is very attractive. He is tall and thin with dark hair and dark blue eyes, and wears a black knit cap and a black jumper. He carries an Irish drum called a Bodhrán with cipín or a tipper. His drum, made with an animal skin, reminds me of the drums of First Nations’ peoples in Canada. He says the Bodhrán is the drum of the Celts and is called a poor man’s tambourine. This striking drummer looks like U2’s The Edge, and sparks fly between him and me as the night progresses. As usual, I am the only single person present, and he and I invariably end up chatting alone together, laughing as we sip a pint here and there. Of course, when I notice that he wears a wedding ring, I keep meself to meself, as the Irish say.
The pubs that we frequent are always empty, allowing us to listen to the band members as they speak to us about the history of Irish music. At the last pub we are each asked to sing a song from our home country and I sing Bad Timing by Blue Rodeo for no reason other than it is the only Canadian song – besides the national anthem – to which I can recall the lyrics. I walk home from the final stop on the crawl amongst the Hogmanay revelers in Temple Bar. A dozen Scotsmen, like twelve apostles dressed in kilts, appear to my left. Their apparent leader is Gerard Butler’s doppelganger. He winks at me and says, “How’s about it, lass?” Had I more confidence in that moment, I might have said ‘hello’ back to him. Instead, I return to my B&B with a chicken curry and pass out before the bells.
The next morning I eat early in the dining lounge. “Did you see those devils out last night? I was coming over the Ha’penny Bridge just across the Liffey, and they were still drunk as monkeys walking home, so they were. Shocking!” says the little woman who serves me breakfast. She is in her fifties with neat, short blonde hair. She wears a crucifix about her slender neck. I laugh at her mock exasperation of Ireland’s young making their way home in the early hours of New Year’s Day after welcoming in 2003.
I am to catch a flight to Sligo at nine in the morning so check out of my hotel and head for the Eirebus stand. At the stop, I meet a young couple who are Canadian teachers. They are teaching in England for the year and have come to Dublin to ring in the New Year as have I. They are headed back to England, they say. I think about my year at teacher’s college in Glasgow when I was newly married. I had asked my Canadian teacher-husband to come with me and teach in Scotland for the year to allow us to have an adventure together as newlyweds, but he hadn’t the courage to come. He remained in Canada, within his comfort zone, and I went alone to Scotland for the year to study at teacher’s college in the country of my birth. It was not the best way to begin a marriage.
The flight to Sligo is little more than an hour. I stay at the Sligo Hotel, which is very posh though its floors are visibly slopped and it smells damp and musty. The television in my room has two Gaelic channels, and not much else. I have come to Sligo to see Yeats’ country before I go back to Scotland, but everything is shut down in Sligo on January 1st. It is a bank holiday. Two taxi drivers chat and smoke together outside the bus station, which is directly in front of the hotel. I walk down the hill from the Sligo Hotel and approach the drivers.
“Would one of you drive me to all of the Yeats’ sights?” I ask them.
The tall, good-looking one takes a long drag of his cigarette and looks at me from head to foot. He is yet another alluring, tall, lanky, dark-haired Irishman with startling blue eyes.
“Yeats’, is it?” he says with a deep, Sligo accent. My heart somersaults in my chest. Good Lord, how I love the Irish accent.
“Yes,” I smile. “I’ll pay you whatever you think is fair.”
“It’ll cost you,” he smiles.
“A drink maybe. Or dinner,” he smiles.
I check his ring finger. No ring.
“Maybe dinner and a drink but I still insist upon paying you for your time. Would twenty-five Euros be fair?” I am always converting currency in my head, and figure that twenty-five euros is about fifty Canadian dollars. That seems fair.
“Where ya from, g’ill?” the other driver asks. He is older, short, squarely-built and balding. He puts out his cigarette under the heel of his boot.
“Canada,” I grin.
“Oh, Canada, is it?” he says. “I always meant to go there. Big place, Canada.”
“Yes, and beautiful. Like Ireland,” I say.
“Right, g’ill,” the man who is my driver speaks. “In you go.” He opens the front passenger door for me.
I sit next to him and he tells me his name was Fionn. I introduce myself to him but feel he will continue to call me g’ill.
He drives me to all of the Yeats’ hot spots. He takes me to the Drumcliff grave of Yeats, and I place a stone on the headstone alongside the other pebbles already decorating his headstone. I cannot conceive of the fact that W.B. Yeats is under my feet in that moment.
“Why do you think he wanted to be laid to rest here?” I ask my driver.
“No idea, love. He’s feet first to the sea here though. It was where the family’s summer house was. Yer man had many a happy childhood memory here. Maybe that’s why. I’ll take you there, to the Yeats’ summer house in Sandymount. It’s not far from here, just a little out of town. ”
We pile back into the taxi and he drives twenty minutes up the highway. I take in the beauty of the landscape as we pass green mountains that roll toward the sea, dotted with sheep and horses.
“There it is,” Fionn pulls off the motorway and we get out of the car to look at the house and its surroundings. It is white with dark blue shutters, at least two stories high. It looks like Georgian architecture.
“As a child, he spent his summers here,” Fionn says. I love how the Irish say ‘child’. They say ‘chile’.
“It’s very regal,” I say and Fionn nods in agreement.
“I’ll take you to the water’s edge,” Fionn says.
He drives me to Lough Gill. There is a sign that says: Lake Isle of Innisfree.
“He wrote that poem about his childhoods spent here,” Fionn says. “It was this lough that he wrote about.”
“It must have been wonderful,” I say. “Summers here at that time.”
“The family had money, g’ill. They had a grand life,” Fionn agrees. “Better than most, that’s for certain,” he says and I know that I could listen to the sound of his voice all day. “I’ll take you to Yeats’ Tower. It’s a couple of hours from here.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Nonsense, g’ill. It’s going to quieter than a funeral Mass today, it being a bank holiday. I’ll not be doing much business today. You’re here just for the day. We’ll go out there and you can have a look at Thoor Ballylee. It is an old Norman tower near the town of Gort in County Galway. It’s only noon now. Sure now, you’ve all day.”
“If you’re sure,” I say.
“I am. That settles it. We’ll be pottering again,” Fionn says.
As we drive, Fionn and I chat about our lives. He grew up in Sligo. He went to Australia for a few years but then his parents grew ill and he returned to Sligo to care for them.
“I missed the place anyway, Fionn says. “Australia was too hot for my tastes. I missed this miserable rain, if you can believe that,” he laughs.
“I don’t like the heat either. And I love the rain too,” I tell him. “So, yes, I can believe that.”
“Must be that Celtic blood we both have, raging through our veins,” Fionn winks at me.
On the drive to Thoor Ballylee, he tells me of its history. It had been built in the 15th or 16th century by the de Burgo family. It passed to the Gregory family and in 1857 it was worth £5. In the early 1900s, the tower was still owned by the Gregory family and became part of nearby Coole Estate, the home of Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats’ lifelong friend and patron. Coole House was the centre for meetings of the Irish literary group to which Yeats belonged. It was a group composed of a great number of preeminent literary figures of the day. Near the tower, in Coole Park, began the Irish Literary Revival.
Thoor Ballylee is known as Yeats’ Tower because in 1916 or 1917 Yeats purchased the property for the nominal sum of £35. He was enchanted with it and it was located in a rural area. From 1921 to 1929, Yeats and his family lived there. The tower retained its original windows in the upper part, but Yeats and his architect, Professor William A. Scott, restored the tower for the next two years and installed larger windows in the lower floors. Yeats dropped the term ‘castle’ in naming the property and replaced it with “Thoor” (Túr), the Irish word for “tower”, and the place had been known as Thoor Ballylee. For twelve years, Thoor Ballylee was Yeats’ summer home and country retreat. He was inspired to create poems like The Tower and Coole Park and Ballylee here. In 1929, Ballylee was abandoned as the Yeats’ family moved out and it fell to disuse and ruin.
“In 1951, a scene in John Ford’s The Quiet Man in which John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara cross a river was shot next to Thoor Ballylee,” Fionn tells me.
“I love that film,” I gush.
“Me too,” Fionn smiles.
When we arrive at Thoor Ballylee, we get out to explore the grounds. The rain has stopped and we walk about without umbrellas. It is a mystical experience to be where Yeats has stood and lived and worked.
“We’ll head back to town,” Fionn says. “Maybe we can stop for a bit to eat along the way. I’m famished, so I am.”
“I’d like that. I’m hungry too. My treat,” I say.
“Wha’?” Fionn is puzzled.
“I’ll buy,” I clarify
“Nonsense, g’ill. You’re not in Canada now with all of its liberal ways. You’re in Ireland, and in Ireland the man pays.”
We stop at a pub and have a late lunch/early dinner. Fionn is very charming and chats easily with me. We laugh a lot together. I tell him funny stories about my students and he tells me stories from the life of a taxi driver.
“Neither profession is for the faint of heart,” he laughs. “I also work construction,” Fionn tells me. But that industry is slow around these parts at the moment.”
“Do you ever think of leaving again?” I ask.
“My place is here with me mam and me da,” he says. “At least for the time being.”
On the way back to the hotel, Fionn drives me to where a statue of Yeats usually stands in Sligo, in front of the Ulster Bank building, but it has been flattened by a drunk driver on New Year’s night.
“That’s yer man there,” he says. “Flat as a pancake, he is.” I laugh.
Before I leave the taxi, I fold together two twenty Euro notes, one inside the other, and slide it to Fionn.
“No, now. It was my pleasure. A more pleasant day I don’t remember if ever there was one.”
“I enjoyed it too, Fionn, but you need to make a living. Take it. I insist. Please.” I push the money into his hand as I leave the car. “Thank you for taking me around,” I say again. “It would have been a wasted trip to Sligo had you not ferried me about today.”
“T’was my absolute joy now, g’ll,” he winks.
I decide to leave Sligo the next morning and go to Knock. I’ve never visited a Marion Shrine before but have long felt the call to do so. My Aunt Christine travelled to Lourdes and Fatima before she became a nun. She brought us holy medals from those Marion shrines when we were young. My father’s sister, Sadie, cleaned her local parish church in Glasgow and with her fellow parishioners she had often travelled to Knock on a holy pilgrimage. I had researched the story of Knock in the 1990s after my divorce when I had moved home to London. I learned that in Knock on August 21st, 1879, Mary, Joseph and John the Evangelist appeared at an altar before many witnesses. On the altar was a lamb and a cross, and a host of angels appeared over the altar. Fifteen residents of Knock claimed to have seen the vision. I want to experience Knock for myself.
I take the bus from Sligo but have to change over busses, which are running on a Sunday schedule though it is January 2nd and the bank holiday is over. I stand in the rain for more than an hour awaiting the connection, and chat with two young people from a tropical country who think they have arrived in hell as they shiver in Ireland’s icy rain awaiting the bus to Knock. We are so grateful to see the bus arrive, and to warm up as we are driven to the shrine.
When we finally arrive in Knock, I am shocked by it diminutive size. Knock is a tiny village. I don’t feel an overpowering sense of anything holy while I am there. I pray my rosary in the cemetery by the marked graves of the many visionaries, and I go to Mass in the new church, which has a beautiful white carving on its front that depicts the vision of Mary, Joseph and John standing next to the altar upon which stands the Lamb of God and a crucifix.
As I walk the rain-soaked grounds of Knock, I ask Mary to bring me a Catholic husband. I don’t want to be alone anymore. I do feel that my prayers are heard and feel hopeful that they will be answered.
I go to confession in the old cathedral, then celebrate Mass. It is lovely to be there and to be surrounded by Catholics from all over the world. I shop for Knock souvenirs before heading back to Sligo where I will stay one more night. I must fly back to Dublin and then take a flight to Glasgow from there in preparation for my journey home to Canada where I have a good job that offers security and a good pension, but where little else awaits me.