This story is from 2002. I will be traveling again in Ireland in the autumn and hope that the magic I found then is still there…
I wonder if W.B. Yeats back in 1893 had a premonition for those born several generations later in the Americas when he wrote in the forward of “The Celtic Twilight”:
“The things a man has heard and seen are threads of life, and if he pull them carefully from the confused distaff of memory, any who will can weave them into whatever garments of belief please them best.”
Perhaps it is the common Celtic ancestry that makes fairy tales so popular for both the Irish and the Germans. And the third strand in this braid of a tale is found in the New World from where I flew across the sea to join a troupe of German actors in Ireland. We met to perform adaptations of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. One in particular, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, unexpectedly revealed the effect on my American family of the Irish famine migrations.
Our destination was the northeast coast of Co. Sligo. This is Yeats country. The 30 minute drive from the train station in Sligo town to Mullaghmore became an unofficial tour of some of the sites mentioned in Yeats’ folk tale collections. Around each bend of the winding roads enchanted landscapes appeared. The wind-swept mound ofBinnChulbain (Benbulbin) preoccupied us with searching for the secret fairy door and looking for Maeve’s tomb. Enticing forests beckoned us to tarry a while and softly slip into a dream. And who could not wonder at the delights that were hiding behind the flowered garden gates of the thatch roofed cottages? It was easy to forget we were in a modern taxi when wewere swamped by gangs of sheep swelling down the narrow lanes flanked by low stone walls as the shepherds and their dogs herded them to the market.Mullaghmore is a simple fishing village and tourist stop popular with the Irish. Very soon the local residents knew a troupe of actors was staying at the Piers Head Hotel. Because of the high regard for theater in the Irish culture, we were easily accepted into day-to-day life.
We spent the days rehearsing. Breaks in the afternoon included brisk walks along the high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean or lazing on the popular beaches. The weather was changeable even in July. Harsh winds from the sea during the winter season were best left to the locals, whose fortified stone cottages blended right into the barren landscape.
Ideally located near the fishing docks on Donegal Bay and the open green at the village center, stands the Piers Head Hotel. Its fine reputation crosses many counties. Not only are the rooms cozy with grand ocean views, but the traditional Irish cuisine alone is worth the visit. Its pub has a variety of live entertainment. It quickly became an evening ritual to wind down with a creamy pint of Guinness. People from miles around thought of this as their local pub and were happy to invite us for a pint and a chat.
One evening I met a married couple who regularly drive 1 ½ hours from Northern Ireland to enjoy this pub’s atmosphere. Upon hearing my last name was Gillespie, Mary noted the abundance of Gillespies in nearby Co. Donegal.
Like many Americans, my family emigrated probably under duress and the family history is lost. I mentioned that my great, great-grandfather supposedly had arrived by ship in Pennsylvania from Ireland, but I didn’t have any proof. And the Irish or Scottish connection with the name is also a bit sketchy.
She said, “In those days things were very rough and people were dying everywhere. Families put their pennies together to throw the healthiest son to the New World. They were not sure if they would ever see them again.”
She knew the exact dock where the ships had left for Pennsylvania. It was a heart breaking time, but the families trusted that somehow their lineage would continue if a son could reach safe shores. I was overwhelmed by the information. A giant hole in my family story suddenly was filled with a faint possibility of connection with the old world.
Ireland quickly felt like home. I recognized myself in the body types, skin, eyes and hair of the people I met. Evidence of my heritage appeared that may seem stereotypical, but had continued through my parents who had never visited Ireland. Qualities such as humor, teasing with twinkling eyes and a love of music, dance and story telling were easy to spot.
My father wore tweed jackets and my mother was a fine horse woman – reminiscent of lifestyles I saw in country homes. She always kept a small chair by the fireplace. “There must always be a place by the hearth for a little person,” she said.
I could personally relate to the famous Irish temperament – as fickle and powerful as the weather. At the heart of it all is a deep love for the land, for family, for real and magical animals and most of all for the remarkable legacy of the Celtic story telling tradition.
There is a curious mix of religion and belief in the old ways such as fairy mounds and wild banshees howling in the moonlight contrasted with saint days that fill nearly every day of the calendar. Loyalty among friends and hospitality are sacred trusts. Memories are long.
The Irish tradition is to go out-of-the-way to help travelers. My Mother was fierce about the importance of hospitality. I learned to understand the root of that when I became a traveler in need.
I had arrived in Dublin by train on a Saturday evening in July never doubting that I would easily find a bed and breakfast. After wandering the streets for three hours it seemed there was not a room left in Dublin. Discouraged, I tried one last place before heading to spend the night in an airport chair to await the early morning flight.
A lovely white-haired lady at the desk said apologetically that she had just let the last room in the hotel. “Surely a fine woman like yourself should not be walking the streets like a common whore! Listen, I finish work in ten minutes. Wait in the back room and have a cup of tea and you can come home with me”.
So, I did. We sat up until 3 in the morning drinking gin and orange and gabbing about everything under the sun. The next morning she called a cabbie friend who delivered me to the airport. This story marks a new chapter in my family history.
My trip to Ireland is best rounded up in the Seanachai way of storytelling. So, I circle back to the fairy tale we performed in Mullaghmore.
Not only did it touch the Irish audience deeply, but it changed my world view forever. There was a more profound reason for my trip to Ireland than to act – it was to let the actor weave into the threads of a larger story.
What kind of woman would abandon her children? I discovered an insight to this troubling question while acting in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and now view it as a soul tale of Ireland.
The mother (Ireland) was poor and tired and could no longer feed her children. She had the father “throw” the children into the forest (the new world) and meet their fate. Their fate wove into mine as the story took on flesh that revealed the plight of my relations.
The comparison can be embellished with many twists, subplots and details. But, that becomes another tale for another time in another place