I've seen a bit of Ireland in the last few weeks. I've been down to Clonakilty and the wilds beyond to the little village of Ardfield, where I had the best meal of my life, cooked by a Venetian chef on a cottage stove in a place called Ballynoe.
Up to Wexford, for strawberries and opera and the oddest place names ever, and on to Dublin for a pilgrimage that didn't work out. I went to see Patrick Kavanagh, the poet. It was his birthday yesterday. He was born on Thursday, October 21, 1904, the son of a subsistence farmer in the unpoetic, unlovely town land of Mucker, County Monaghan.
As an adult he made his home in Dublin and he is commemorated there with a bronze statue that sits on a bench beside his beloved Grand Canal. I thought I would visit him there and say happy birthday.
I liked the idea of it, me tripping along through the lovely Georgian city, back after years abroad, to lay some flowers at the feet of a miserable old sod (who was, nonetheless, always gallant and charming to women, by all accounts). I neglected to ascertain what portion of the canal his statue occupied but I wasn't too worried about that.
I should have been.
The Grand Canal is accurately named, as it turns out. It is grand indeed and very long (it actually starts in Shannon). It took a miserable schlep along the canal dock to confirm that Paddy was nowhere in sight, and another painful trek to an internet hovel off Grafton St to search for him on Google and find out that the statue is actually out near Mesphil Rd in Dun Laoighre, pretty much.
No flowers, then, at the feet of the great man, no pilgrimage to the Word. I had to settle for queueing up with the Yanks to take a picture of Molly Malone. A tourist in my own country. I've been away too long.
I've spent the last week in cars and on trains, walking around cities with my suitcase, in sneakers and in high heels. On my travels I've seen an Ireland changed beyond recognition, and an Ireland that is exactly the same. It's still green and solemn in the slate grey light of the afternoon, but it's autumn here also - proper autumn, the first one for years I'm told - and the trees have burst into flames.
It's slick and fast moving, and awash with British chain stores, but in Cork they still say "thanks girl" when they give you your change. We used to sit on the cider barrels in the best bar in Cork city; now there's a Wi-Fi password up on the wall.
Ireland is part of a bigger world now, in a way it never was, and it's faster and dirtier and angrier here overall. People have been plundered, and they're furious about it, but there's still that roundabout way of expressing yourself here, so nothing is ever straightforward. Irish people still say "sorry" when they mean "hello".
The pauses, the silences, the substitutions, the ellipses. These are the things I notice in conversations, and they're the hardest things to get the hang of again after being away so long. I keep falling into the spaces between sentences and blundering about in there, realising too late that I was meant to shut up. Or asking questions that kill the conversation with their bluntness, like 'do you love him?' or 'are you happy?' I forget that in Ireland, we just don't talk like that.
Don't get me wrong, New Zealand can go toe to toe with Ireland any day in terms of personal and societal repression: I think that's why I like it here. Kiwis will never win the world prize for free and frank self expression but at least in New Zealand we seem to find it easier to say what we mean.
You get used to it, though. You get used to coming at things sideways, avoiding the thing itself at all costs. It gives you a certain mental agility - certainly you need to be listening harder in order to make out what exactly the other person is trying to say. I've been trying to read Irish faces, to remember what expression means what. I know Ireland is not the only country where you smile when you're angry, or nod your head when you mean no, but we're the best at it, I'm sure.
Still, it is good to be home. Even though lately I feel like a hybrid here, or Rip Van Winkle woken up. I am Irish, even though I live somewhere else. And I live in New Zealand because I choose to, and it has been the making of me.
"Now I am sure of something/Something that will be mine wherever I am."
Happy birthday, Patrick Kavanagh; I will see you another day.By Noelle McCarthy Email Noelle