greetings from ireland

A year ago, spending Christmas with my son’s family in Ireland, I finally decided to make the move. I’d been living eleven years in Harrisonburg, Virginia, near my youngest son. I was happy in America, comfortable, well established with good friends and plenty of activities. But my son had moved to Kansas in 2014 and I was long flights away from him and his brothers in UK, Ireland, Kansas, Arizona and Australia, all urging me to move. I realized I might one day need support, pushing eighty. The monthly “Dight Times” newsletter keeps us all in touch, but I needed a hug.

The decision made, I went home from Ireland with two houses to sell in America, another to buy in Tipperary, a mammoth task to de-clutter, sort, pack and move house all by myself. This would be my fourteenth house purchase in fifty years, living in England, Spain, Wales, France and America. At least this time I wouldn’t have to buy new school uniforms and sooth my sons through the disruption of moving hundreds of miles away from their friends, a pattern which had left them free to explore the world.

It took three months to organize the move. I’m arthritic, unable to bend, but my head works fine and I know the moves. I sold my home to the first people who saw it, and the second house was sold by an agent three months after I left. Meanwhile, I’d flown to Ireland for five days in February to view a couple of houses that fit my criteria: a bungalow within ten minutes walk of Patrick and Kate. I chose a fixer-upper for its admirable location on a pretty green in a quiet cul-de-sac, the fourth time I’d tackled such a task but the first time without a builder husband. I arrived in Ireland on my 79th birthday.

Patrick commissioned improved insulation to combat the chill of Irish winters. While the walls were stripped back to breeze blocks we took the opportunity to rewire the house and completely renew the central heating system, installing triple glazed windows (made to measure in Poland and shipped by truck). The builder moved doorways, incorporated the garage into the kitchen, installed new kitchen units and wood floored the entire house. Patrick decorated the rooms (his son Luke [16] and I laboriously removed the old wallpaper) and I painted all the doors. We replaced five solid doors with glazed panes to open up the vista. 12 year old grandson Sam mowed my lawns. After living with the family for three months, I moved in with delight. It was transformed from a scruffy, dated bungalow to a beautiful modern home with three bedrooms, study, new windows, kitchen, bathroom and ensuite toilet. I’m already planning a herb garden and raised beds for beans and tomatoes and Patrick has planted spring bulbs to anticipate.

Living in Ireland is an entirely satisfying experience. First of all, the people: open and friendly, articulate, amusing and cultured. More newspapers are read per head in Ireland than in UK, far more than in America, and the quality of journalism is good to excellent. Irish people don’t speak in clichés: they have plenty of words and the imagination to express them-selves. I sometimes wish I had a tape recorder to capture their original speech. In this small market town of about 6,000 people there is a train station, theater, cinema, library, courthouse, tourist office, castles, four large supermarket chains, small family owned shops, individual butchers, greengrocers, fresh fish shop, farmer’s market, government offices, a hospital, elegant clothing boutiques, furniture stores, multiple restaurants and pubs, churches and schools. Irish children scored highest in European math tests last year and 99% over fifteen are literate, some of them bilingual. Although I’m a linguist Irish is opaque to me. If I’d moved to Italy I’d be fluent by now, but the only words I understand, listening carefully to the news in Irish, are ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit.’ I have found three writer’s groups and two book groups.

Book jackets – The Spinning Heart, The Thing About December, and A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan

That’s me with Donal Ryan

Irish literature is rich. I’ve long been a fan of John MacGahern, Edna O’Brien, Seamus Heaney, Brian Keenan, and now Donal Ryan, a lawyer who grew up in Nenagh in the next street and made his name as a novelist and short story writer in recent years. The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature (Ireland) and Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, selling copies in hundreds of thousands. His subsequent books, The Thing About December and A Slanting of the Sun (short stories) were all published to acclaim. He said he knew he was successful as a writer the day he walked into a court room in the west of Ireland and all stood, including the accused, to applaud his winning the literary prize. I was at the book signing in a local bookshop for his fourth book All We Shall Know, just published. He now writes full time.

I’m reaching out to meet fellow writers and attended Dromineer Literary Festival five miles away on Lough Derg, to learn about Short Story form (unfamiliar to me). The group I’ve joined meets weekly to hear and comment on each other’s writing, offering useful criticism.

At the theatre I watched an amateur group perform a fast paced farce at professional level. Most of the packed audience knew each other and my companion described several of them as a writer, a poet, a musician and so on. Playing a musical instrument is a common Irish accomplishment and nearly every pub has a band of live music. The pubs are often shabby in their furnishings but always welcoming and lively, buzzing with gregarious company.

Neighbors have knocked on my door to welcome me and everywhere I discover interesting people willing to talk. Conversation is easy between the generations. Even unfamiliar teenagers will say ‘Good morning’ as they pass. Acquaintances will ask you why you moved to Nenagh and who you know, in order to place you. My son cautioned discretion because everything will become grist to the gossip mill, but in a small community people need to know your connections. I haven’t yet met anyone who didn’t know one or other of my daughter in law Kate’s extended family from the south west.

Attending each other’s funerals is an important part of social life. Their attitude to death is different from America and England. The deceased is laid out in an open coffin at home. Family and friends come to view and pay their respects at the wake, a steady stream all day of friends and acquaintances saying goodbye to the dead and supporting the bereaved with reminiscence, kindness and covered dishes. My son and his wife have been to more funerals in the nine months I’ve been here than I have in a lifetime. I’ve told them I don’t want to be viewed when I’m dead and can’t smile back. Close the lid and remember me alive.

I notice a lot of mid European immigrants in the streets, speaking Polish at the supermarket check-outs where several man the tills. Ireland would like thousands of immigrants to swell their workforce and stimulate the infrastructure. There is a movement to invite immigrants to dinner in our homes to make them feel welcome in the community. There are 5 million inhabitants in the Republic, millions having gone abroad for work opportunities that were lost here in the savage recession of 2009. The devastated housing market which bankrupted developers has turned a corner and prices are slowly on the rise. There are more homeless people in Ireland now, living in bed and breakfast accommodation, than during the famine, which they intend to remedy in 2017. When there are jobs for skilled workers they come back for the quality of life. In the nineties Ireland was considered the IT capital of Europe. At Christmas thousands come home to be with their relations.

Ireland is less than an hour by air from London and a committed member of the European Union, dismayed by Brexit which will have repercussions for them with the UK/Republic of Ireland border in their country. There are close economic and historic ties, a history of oppression which the Irish will never forget, and who can blame them? My own great grandparents (Higgins and Tobin) and half the population died or emigrated in 19th century due to the famine which the British could have alleviated. (I had an uncle who never visited Ireland but was christened Cornelius DeValera Higgins.) A farm laborer in 19th century consumed 8 pounds of potatoes a day in the absence of much else to eat and when the crop failed, so did they. Nevertheless, their descendants are tolerant and welcoming. The Irish definitely prefer Americans to Brits but they welcome all.

I visited the Diaspora Museum on the banks of the River Liffey, a new venture recording the Irish who left and their worldwide destinations, principally due to the famine. It’s a modern interactive museum with videos, life-size photographs, sounds and displays that engage and inform; not to be missed if you are in Dublin. The Irish have influenced other countries disproportionately in terms of their numbers.

Trade winds blowing across the Atlantic from America pick up condensation and drop it as soon as they hit Ireland, which is consequently verdant. The soft hills, small fields, contented cattle and small farms produce excellent nourishment for discerning palates. French cheeses like Camembert and Brie are produced in Ireland, sold redolent with flavor, ready to eat. If you haven’t eaten ripe cheeses you haven’t appreciated the miracle of taste and texture that delight the mouth. Beef, lamb, pork, sausages etc. are sold with the name of the farm on their wrapping. I recognized my son’s sister in law portrayed on a box of eggs (she runs a family farm of 6,000 chickens). I found pâté, which I had missed in America, looks something like baloney but is softer, spreading, rich in flavour. Lean bacon bears no resemblance to the invariably fatty bacon in America. The bread is hearty (wholegrain or soda). The ham is flavorsome, cut thick, the egg yolks richly yellow. The shops are full of international products (avocados and grapes from Spain, peppers from Peru, oranges from USA and Mexico). Restaurant food is outstanding everywhere. No wonder tourism is Ireland’s second largest industry after farming.

People quip ‘You don’t come to Ireland for the weather’ – the assumption being that you put up with it. We had an enjoyable summer, needing a cardigan at most, not air-conditioning – a relief to me after the heat of Virginia. Occasional showers quickly pass – watch for a break in the clouds to dash from shops to your car. Now in winter and I’m glad of the warm house when it’s cold and damp outside. It seldom snows in Ireland and so far we’ve only had a few frosty mornings after a clear night.

There are hoops to jump through when you move from one country to another; no immigration issues as I’m British and (for the moment) European, but it takes time and patience to acquire a bank account, social security number, doctor, driving license, insurance (health, house, car), and complete paperwork in America. It was only in October that I found all that behind me. As I’m septuagenarian I’m entitled to free doctor visits, a free TV license, free travel on buses and trains throughout the Republic of Ireland and a small subsidy to my electricity bill. I felt much like a hurdler achieving this but it’s all behind me now. Annual health insurance costs a sixth of what I paid for Medicare in America. Property tax is a quarter the price. ‘I’m fallen and I can’t get up’ devices cost one sixth of those in America. Only gas costs more: I pay $80 to fill the tank of my VW Golf car. House prices are on a par.

Political discussions here are mostly about local and European issues, although there’s global awareness thanks to the BBC and excellent journalism. Nothing like Fox News exists although there is journalistic controversy, well informed. I don’t understand the issues between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, parties that reflect historical opposition, but I can name the President and Prime Minister. Everybody here is uneasy about Trump’s election. The distance now between us is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the move, but I can’t shed my apprehensions for the world, still deeply invested in American politics. I really enjoyed living there. Nearly everyone I meet has American connections and many have visited America, including the postman.

I have four teenage grandchildren here. On Christmas Day at Patrick and Kate’s house, joined by my UK based son and his wife, after a splendid lunch of scallops, roast turkey and ham, roasted vegetables and all the trimmings, we played a lively game of ‘Secret Hitler’ about Fascists and Liberals. We were dealt cards secretly designating four of us in each category. More cards presented questions. The Liberals have to tell the truth but the Fascists can spread any lie they like. The trick is to discover which one is Hitler. The highlight for me was 16 year old Luke shouting ‘Granny, you’re a Fascist!’ He has two younger brothers and an older sister who has just started university in Cork, studying Medicine.

We cooked and ate together, chatted and watched TV. There is a highly amusing program called ‘Gogglebox.’ I’ll be surprised if you don’t have a ‘Gogglebox America’ before long. The same viewing families or friends are pictured weekly at home on their sofas, reacting to TV programs shown during the week. The humor is in observing their different takes on the same programs, which range from news, films, sitcoms to documentaries including Living Planet. We watch their reactions: anything worth an opinion is analyzed. It’s addictive viewing, enlightening and funny. The various commentators (differing in class, education, background, sexuality and tolerance) air their individual perspectives; great family viewing as we comment on them too. It sounds banal but I assure you it is not. There is already a spin-off Irish version. It is a relief to be back with the BBC, quality drama, news and documentaries.

Roads are narrow, parking spaces miniscule. I don’t mind rain. I can’t think of any other disadvantages.

Facebook helps me keep in touch with friends in America (and elsewhere), an ideal outlet. Our daily interchanges make them feel nearby. I miss the people I knew in the UU community in Virginia, my book group friends in particular, discussion and writer’s groups with whom I interacted for ten years, interpreting (Spanish) at the Free Clinic, and the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Shenandoah Valley. Most of all I my miss my two young grandsons Jake and Connor, who filled my heart since they were born. We talk often on Facetime with their iPads but I long to hug them.

What a difference a year makes. In my study the glowing flame of burning peat and straw blocks in the stove invites me to write or relax and read in the armchair, rising occasionally to put another log on the fire. I still spend hours on the computer alternated by cooking, sewing and pottering. In the evening I cook a delicious meal with a glass of wine and watch Netflix or TV. Every Sunday I have lunch with the family and Patrick and Kate call in two or three times a week. I’m glad I made the move before my joints got any stiffer. It’s tranquil. I could not be more comfortable or cared for. There are new avenues to explore and while physical mobility gradually diminishes, mental activities flourish. Most of my sons will come to share my 80th birthday in April, even the one from Australia, when I’ll get a chance to hug them all.

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Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight is a retired British specialist on trading in Spain, now resident in Ireland. Spanish- and French- speaking, graduate (at 46) of International Politics and History; former editor, interpreter and fundraiser. Her five sons and twelve grandchildren live in four different Time zones around the world. She has lived in England, Wales, Spain, France and Virginia, North America for 11 years. In 2012 she self-published her memoir Plate Spinner and Only Joking, 200 pages of collected jokes categorized for easy reference, as well as What’s On My Mind, her first 50 essays published in Like The Dew. All available on Amazon.com.