This year, death has been my shadow.
It glides closer each month, growing in intensity. First, a family friend fell from cancer. Then, in March, City Pages writer Raghav Mehta was found dead in New York. This summer, a friend’s sister was crushed by a horse at the age of 32. In September, my best friend’s dad died in his arms. I keep wondering if my next writing assignment will be a eulogy.
Through all this, I’ve barely been at home in Minneapolis. Weddings have drawn me back and forth to my childhood home of Massachusetts. There was a hiking trip to Seattle. A conference in Atlanta. A family sojourn to Maine. Two weekends in New Orleans. I should’ve said no when Aer Lingus invited me to go to Ireland for five days in celebration of their new direct route from Minneapolis to Dublin. I should’ve stayed home and processed, learned to grieve.
I shouldn’t have tempted the skies to take me, to complete this dramatic pattern, but the offer was too good. And so I went.
Residents of Ireland don’t call themselves “Irish people.” They’re “the Irish.” And nobody speaks English like the Irish.
Every greeting is flourished with poetry. You might be invited to “take the weight off your legs” and enjoy a coffee. You might look up to the rainy pall of the sky, nod, and declare it a “soft old day.” The gulls caw Joycean verse.
From the moment I land, I’m swaddled in Eireann vernacular. Our guide Ronan speaks with a buttery South Dublin accent. Ronan was hired by Ireland.com and Tourism Ireland to take us through a four-day itinerary meant to make us fall in love, and he alone is a good start. Every sentiment he utters is gracious, each word poured out carefully as if from a teapot inside his grinning skull.
We check into The Mont, a posh hotel in Dublin center patrolled by a 9-month-old French bulldog. The dog’s name is Monty, and Monty sleeps in the window and doesn’t think much about anything. Departing the dog’s company, our group heads to Trinity College Dublin, a first stop for any self-respecting tourist trying to leg out the jet lag in Dublin. There, we meet Helen Shenton, the library’s softly vicious archivist.
She proudly guides us to her library’s main chamber, known prosaically as the Long Room. The room is nearly 215 feet long and lined with the busts of the great Trinity patrons, all dead. Kept just beyond the Long Room, under a pane of gently lit glass, is the Book of Kells. One of the oldest illustrated copies of the gospels, the Book of Kells is written on vellum and colored with ochre, green copper, and indigo. In this book, Christ’s beard is red, as if to say there is no divinity greater than being Irish.
After lunch, we’re at the National Museum of Ireland, an exhaustive archive of the island’s history. Our tour guide insists on focusing our tour on the country’s ancient pre-Catholic goldsmithing, but my thoughts wander. Earlier, I’d stolen a half hour to see a 20-foot basking shark embalmed and hanging from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum, known to the Irish as the Dead Zoo. My mind has been a morbid curio since. Ronan, sensing this, adds a stop.
We follow him to an exhibition entitled Kingship & Sacrifice. Its entrance is marked with vague warnings. Cement spirals stand throughout the room, obscuring low-lit display cases. Inside are the Bog Bodies. Shocking displays of Ireland’s commitment to history, these mummified corpses were dug out of Ireland’s freshwater bogs, some dating back to nearly 400 BCE. The remains are incomplete, but they are impeccable. One leathery half body has ear-length auburn hair, spiked with pine tar and conditioned by centuries entombed in Ireland’s bosom. Another, just a torso with two arms, bears readable fingerprints and cuticles so well maintained that scholars assume the burial was a rite.
Death is a curious phenomenon to the Irish. It hardly seems final. Even if you do die, the country will pull you into its marshy bosom and spit you back out its heart. In the car on the way to dinner, I ask Ronan about a traditional Irish toast I’d heard as a kid. I don’t remember how it starts, but it ends with the line, “If you can’t go to Heaven, may you die in Ireland.”
“Yeah,” Ronan says. “I suppose the Irish already live in Heaven.”
On day two, our guide is Jim, a purplish bullshitter with a cotton-white goatee. He reads my hangover and encourages a Guiness, what he calls “a pleasant pint of quarrel.” He cancels a Seamus Heaney exhibition so we can visit the brewery.
Jim jokes that, every 400 years, Dublin gets invaded. The Vikings in 800 AD, the Normans in 1200 AD, and the English in 1600 AD. By his math, they’re overdue for another. Earlier this year, over 100 firms announced their plans to relocate to Dublin, mostly due to Brexit. Amazon, Google, Facebook—all have European headquarters there, and Fridley-based Medtronic is the country’s fifth-largest corporation. The correlated boom in business travel is what motivated Aer Lingus to open the MSP to DUB route.
There is a vague sense that this Silicon Valley is imperializing Ireland, turning its gentile monoculture into a capitalist hideout. Good old Catholic Ireland is gone, but no one speaks so baldly about it.
“Ireland isn’t something you see,” Jim says, expecting me to know what that means. “It’s emotional. You have to feel it.”
If there’s one thing I know about the Irish from growing up in Boston, it’s that they drink, and Jim insists that we drink, so we do. We boil through the six-story Guinness facility, skipping the educational exhibits for a lesson on pint pouring given by a cherubic rugby player named Frankie. He pours an extra pint to be charming, and we get his phone number for later.
After, we tour Roe & Co., an Instagram-ready whiskey distillery opened by Diageo (which also owns Guinness) in June. We taste five spirits and mix our own cocktails, led by a sassy guide named Karl with a K. He seems spectral, unreal, and the veil between worlds is thinning with each word. I think of how Aristotle called liquor “spirits” because he felt drinking invited the dead inside. I wonder if the Irish drink to try to commune with the unexorcised souls around them.
We drink two bottles of Cabernet over dinner. After, Frankie meets us at a pub. He brings three others with him, including a 19-year-old University College Dublin student from Ohio. She tells me she’s mourning America, and she’ll never go back because of Trump. We all get drunk and try on each others’ clothes.
I wake with Oscar Wilde’s words printed on my mind.
“I drink to separate my body from my soul,” he wrote, with unattributed morbidity, and these were the words scrawled in faux handwriting across from his statue in Merrion Square. I’d seen them the day before—before all the drinking—and I woke with them, suddenly, spilled across my pillow.
It’s our last day in Dublin, and Ronan has returned. He’s cheery, despite Ireland getting decimated by New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup the day prior, excited to take us deeper into Ireland’s emerald heart.
In just 20 minutes, the windshield is filled with a glen. Sheep bound stupidly across the hills as we take roundabout after roundabout. We’re in Postcard Ireland, traveling southwest down the coast to Wicklow. Ireland is larger than it looks on a map. We’re a half-country away from its most popular tourist attraction, the Cliffs of Moher, but here, deep in a county full of English estates, we find sanctuary at Powerscourt Estate.
Powerscourt is famous for many things, most notably for being named number 3 on a 2010 National Geographic list of the best gardens in the world. Almost immediately after arriving at the slate castle, I find out that it also houses the largest pet cemetery in Ireland. At least four ponies are buried there, along with a Jersey cow named Eugenie who produced over 100,000 gallons of milk in her 17-year residence at Powerscourt.
The gardens are indeed marvelous, especially the meticulous Japanese garden and its meditative streams. I pass through them with a ginger single-mindedness on my way to the pet cemetery. One chow is given the epitaph “faithfulness beyond human fidelity.” A shetland pony named Tommy shares a headstone with his “wife” Magic, who died 30 years before. Someone has laid out a leaf before every grave stone, a bucolic honor that quiets me.
But death is sinister, and Ireland does not pretend otherwise. This is a place where the living threaten to haunt each other as a form of trash talk. At Wicklow Gaol, a prison turned interactive museum a half-hour south of Powerscourt, spirits are projected on the walls, including a seven-foot-tall former militiaman who used to hang revolutionaries across his back. In the basement of the jail, a reenactor tells the story, calling himself the Walking Gallows.
I think of him all day, his willingness to make himself an artifice of death. I also think of Tommy and Magic, who never asked to be joined in eternity, entombed together forever after three decades separated by the afterlife.
The other thing you learn about Ireland when you grow up in Boston is that JFK was the first Irish president.
Kennedy was, of course, born in Brookline, Massachusetts, but his family emigrated to the United States from New Ross during the potato famine. In 1963, 14 years after Ireland became an independent republic, the then-president made a historic visit to his ancestral homeland of County Wexford. The Irish revere Kennedy for the trip, and a statue commemorates the emigrant son’s address on the shores of River Barrow, adjacent to the Dunbrody Famine Ship. The vessel is exactly the kind JFK’s forebears would’ve taken to sanctuary across the Atlantic, and outside the newly built emigration museum flickers an eternal flame, lit from the very same one at Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
Seeing the memorial to the late Bostonian is surreal. Ireland is a nation that remembers, even if the thing they’re remembering is a simple visit. They extend citizenship to anyone with an Irish chromosome, and the Wall of Fame inside the museum honors everyone from Hillary Clinton to Ronald Reagan for their ties to the isle. During a morning visit to Johnstown Castle, we tour a room where the woman of the house suffered until she died. Now her bed is cordoned off with velvet rope, and her library is kept in pristine, period-appropriate condition. In one of the castle’s old labs, I spy a soil survey from Isanti County dated 1953 and worry about the permanence of my own visit.
Dinner that evening is an ecstatic affair. We’re treated to an indulgent meal at Mount Juliet Estate in Kilkenny. Everyone is waving their forks to talk about the delicately baked halibut and molten creme brulee. Before the port is finished, we’re talking about ghosts, and the manor’s director of sales and marketing takes a hushed tone. There are kind spirits who roam the grounds. I tell her that I don’t believe in ghosts because I don’t believe in an immortal soul, and the conversation turns to something else entirely.
I once heard a homily where the priest joked that the Irish take their coffee with the obituaries.
By that measure, my last morning is my least Irish. I eat a pensive breakfast in a bay window overlooking the grounds. The yard is lovingly manicured, right to the point it’s split in half by a creek. For once, there are very few thoughts, and the veil is pulled taut. The sun is just milking into the horizon, and the toast is perfect.
There is no sound but for the clang of the butter knife finally cutting through the butter and hitting the dish. I take this quiet inside myself. It isn’t eternal, but then again, only one thing is.