My Year of Living in Ireland

National University of Ireland in Galway

“Irish on the Inside” (from the San Diego Reader)

— By Jerry Griswold

PEOPLE DON’T EASILY “GET” ME. It takes about three weeks for my students to figure me out and start laughing. Friends say I should always wear a button that says “I’m only joking.” In the old days, before ATMs, I used to go to my neighborhood bank on a regular basis and in that way got to know the clerks there. After six months, one of the tellers finally told me, “We used to think you were angry. Now we realize you’re funny.” So, I went to live for a year in Ireland. It’s a place where I’m understood.

When I first visited Ireland, I took a budget flight and spent 22 hours in the air before arriving in Dublin. But my mother and sisters, who were already touring in the country, wouldn’t hear about my needing to sleep. “The best way to get over jet lag,” they insisted, “is to keep going. Besides, we’re already booked for the Guinness tour.” About then, the taxi driver pulled up —

Him: “Where are you going?”
Me: “The Guinness Brewery Tour.”
Him: “How long you been in the country?”
Me: “Forty-five minutes.”
Him: “So, it’s the Guinness Tour you’ll be going on?”
Me: “I thought we’d start in Bethlehem first.”
Him: “Sure, it’s not the birth of Christ. It’s the resurrection.”

And so, I knew I was home, if you mean by that a place where you’re easily understood.

When the chance came to live for a year in Ireland, I jumped at it. In 1999–2000, I took a leave for a year from San Diego State University and taught at the National University of Ireland in Galway. That university needed an American professor to teach American literature, and I was happy to oblige because I knew this American would learn more from the natives than whatever he could teach them. Then there was what the Irish call “the Roots thing.”

Like many, when it comes to ethnicity, I’m a combination pizza. But on my mother’s side I’m Irish, the family name is Phelan, my ancestors from Tipperary. So, I was ready for “the Roots thing.” Inspired by Alex Haley’s story, I imagined myself having a mystical experience in the backcountry of Tipp, my hands clasped around the knees of a blind bog farmer who would be chanting the names of my forefathers and foremothers. If that didn’t happen, I’d still have a good time.

I did.

A pub in Ballyvaughan

Once a year at San Diego State we get a memo from the administration warning faculty about “field trips,” especially any outside-class activities that might involve alcohol. These are the nightmares of the university’s liability lawyers: If a student drinks too much and gets in an accident, if someone makes a pass at someone else, can the professor and the university be held responsible?

My Irish students found this laughable, when I explained this regulation to them over drinks at the university pub–a huge place in the center of campus with room for 300 and that serves not just beer and wine but every hard drink imaginable. “We’re all adults here” was their attitude, then conversation turned to the novel we’d been discussing in class.

That’s another thing. The university rule against teachers and students “fraternizing” outside of class–and SDSU is not different from other universities in this regard–creates a huge and artificial chasm between our “work” and our “lives.” Here we were in Galway, continuing our classroom discussion in a pub. As far as the students were concerned, there was nothing remarkable about that. As one said, “If we enjoy talking about literature in the classroom, why wouldn’t we want to do so outside the classroom and over a drink? By the way, what are you having?”

A few days after I got back from my year in Ireland, friends took me to a newly opened Irish pub in my California neighborhood. After twenty minutes, I wept. Going to those ersatz Irish bars is like going to a Disneyland with shamrocks on the walls. And when the memory is fresh of what the real thing is, you can only be haunted by what you’ve given up.

What’s the real thing? Let me give you a glimpse of a Sunday afternoon session at The Crane, a neighborhood pub in Galway. A few dozen people, families. Still dark on this damp afternoon. Over in the corner, some guys in sweaters playing a tin whistle, fiddle, bhodran (a handheld skin drum), box (accordion). Other musicians come and sit in. Then the magic. A four-year-old girl starts dancing in the Irish manner. Kicking her legs up. Two eight-year-old girls do the same. Nothing special. Nothing fancy. Not on a stage or anything. Just in the little space of the aisle near the bar. The kind of things kids do, say, when relatives come over and the kids want to put on a “show”–that is, if the relatives play the tin whistle and bhodran, roll their own cigarettes of Drum tobacco and live in those sweaters.

When people ask me, “Why is pub life so important to the Irish?” I say, “You’ve never seen Irish tv.” And you go to pubs to meet people, and people are there for the same reason. So, there’s none of this pussyfooting and sitting at the bar staring into your glass before tentatively striking up a conversation with the person on the stool next to you. Sweet creeping Jesus! Everybody just talks and joins in, without hindrance and why not?

Sinead at a book launch

When it comes to romance, Irish women aren’t easily fooled. As a professor, needless to say, I am constantly surrounded by the buzz of the young flirting with each other. And if I can generalize, a lot of American seductions seem to consist of pretending to talk about something else while the real agenda lies beneath the surface. That wouldn’t happen in Ireland. Irish women are particularly frank and ready to match a man stride-for-stride. I once saw the wind taken out of the sails of a visiting American engaged in some conversational flirting with an Irish lawyer: “You’re only saying that to get in my pants,” she pointed out with a toss of her head.

As this suggests, the war-between-the-sexes is alive in Ireland. One idle Sunday afternoon at a pub, two women acquaintances down from Dublin took advantage of the quiet to sing an hilarious song insulting men. Across the room, a table of men answered with an equally comic tune poking fun at women. This exchange of musical insults continued for two hours, until an old gent at the bar stepped forward and hooked a finger in his cardigan and spoke: “There’s been a lot of bad feeling between men and women here today,” he began, “so I’d like to bring it to a close by reciting a poem by Patrick Kavanaugh.” And he did. And the last line of the poem was a man saying, “What I know of God, I know through women.”

When it comes to Irish males, American women, I learned, are particularly taken with them. I took some visiting friends to a pub one night and late in the evening, as was the custom, folks took turns singing. On this occasion, a handsome fellow in his twenties with a lovely tenor voice got up to sing a sean-nos, a traditional lament about lost love. The American women melted. “God, are they all like this?” my smitten friends wondered.

And when it comes to issues of sexual orientation, the Irish struck me as far more open-minded. They were puzzled, for example, by the controversy then brewing in New York about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. For their own parade, in response to the controversy, Galway invited over the San Francisco Police Drill Team.

My mother at a church in Tipperary.

I was raised a Catholic, and I suppose I still I am. But in the 1980s, I turned to Zen Buddhism. So, I was pleased, after my move to Galway, to discover that there was a Zen group there that I could “sit” or meditate with in the mornings.

Every once in awhile, Zen students assemble for a “sesshin”–a rigorous retreat that goes on for several days and where meditation pretty much lasts all day, though broken up by meals and periods of work and rest. The ones I have attended in the States are puritanical affairs where silence is the rule and folks go to bed at 9:00 p.m. in order to get up at 4:00 a.m. Imagine my disbelief, then, when after painfully sitting all day at an Irish sesshin, a fellow in black robes and with a shaved head came into the dormitory and asked me if I was going to the bar.

I thought he was joking. He assured me he wasn’t. So, I trotted over to the kitchen to see for myself, and I saw what I’d never seen in the States: a gang of Zen nuns and monks, and lay students like myself, tossing back beer and wine, reading the newspaper, engaged in animated conversations, and smoking with abandon until late into the night. It’s often said that Zen accommodates itself to whatever culture it finds itself in. The Irish had clearly come up with a new thing: Barroom Zen.

Raised Catholic, I sometimes felt during my stay in Galway that I was revisiting the 1950s and my Catholic school years. Nuns on the street were not dressed like their American counterparts, in Sears-Roebuck civies, but in full nun regalia. Walking near a parochial school at noon on an autumn afternoon, I seemed to be seeing my past still alive: kids in school sweaters and uniforms, hanging around a candy store, a gang of roughnecks pushing and shoving.

So, one night I went to a Jubilee Novena, a nine-day event that is the Catholic equivalent of a revival meeting and usually run by a special order of fire-and-brimstone priests known as the Redemptorists. Cars were parked for miles around Galway’s cathedral. True believers, young and old alike, were packed cheek-to-jowl in the pews and the aisles.

I was there, I confess, for the wrong reasons — out of a nostalgic wish to hear about hellfire, as I had in my youth, and be smitten with guilt for my sins. I was disappointed. The priest was a young man from the new generation, and he was filled more with compassion than with righteousness. In the old days, God’s laws were black and white and unbending, so I was stunned and crestfallen to hear this kindly young priest suggest that a sin was whatever we thought it was. I was shaken. While he brought sunshine to the faithful through one door of the cathedral, I slunk out the other with my gloom and guilt.

Before the rosary for Jennifer, Louisa, and Catherine

After living in San Diego’s endless sunshine for two decades, you can imagine what it’s like to take up residence in Ireland’s weather. Galway’s sister city is Seattle. Indeed, I saw seventeen kinds of rain one day. They were easily distinguished because they were broken up by intervals of what Irish weathermen call “sun breaks.”

When winter comes, it’s not unusual to have indoor electric lights on all day long. Of course, that creates a cozy indoor culture largely unfamiliar to San Diegans: when a rainy afternoon can be spent reading in front of a peat fire, in a stuffed chair and with a cup of tea. On the other hand, the dark and damp can get to you and some folks ward off trouble by basking for an hour or so each day in front of synthetic light boxes.

I say this to warn you that what follows is a genuinely sad story about the suicide of a mother and the death of her two daughters. Those who treasure the notion that life in Ireland is all hilarity and high spirits would do best to skip over this section. This is a sad tale from the month of March, High Season of the Blues.

My good friend Sinead was the nanny to two girls, Jennifer (10, red-haired, smiling and spunky) and Louisa (6, thin, petulant and moody but still sweet). Because they lived just down the way, Sinead would occasionally bring them by in the afternoon for tea and cookies. We would play board games or talk about their schools. In this way, I got to know and enjoy them.

Their mother Catherine was having mental health problems. One Sunday, she committed suicide by driving her car off the pier in a nearby town and into the sea. The children were locked inside.

I still weep to think of the unfairness of that, and of the sad funeral and seeing those tiny coffins, of marching through the rain to the cemetery, of the teddy bears and gifts placed in the graves. Everyone soaked and shivering. Lots of heavy, resigned, choked sobbing. It rained, and rained.

One of the worst things about living in Ireland is that you can’t get Mexican food. What passes for an “enchilada” in a fancy restaurant is a tortilla covered with a can of chili. Within weeks, I started to get the shakes from withdrawal. Friends back in San Diego helped out. One afternoon, the Fed-Ex deliveryman handed me an overnight package containing a carne asada burrito from my favorite restaurant.

My wife is a Latina and I have endured years of her poking fun at my ethnicity: “What’s to be said about a culture,” she’s observed, “whose highest contribution to fashion is wearing white sox with a dark suit?” One night we were watching “The Commitments,” a well known Irish rock-and-roll movie, and along comes the famous line in that film: “Remember, the Irish are the blacks of Europe.” My wife turned to me and said, “Someone should tell the blacks what they’re saying about them.”

If you know anything about European history and American immigration, you know how the Irish worked for 800 years as tenant farmers and downstairs maids in the Big Houses owned by the English, and how the Micks and Colleens who came to these shores were greeted with signs that read “Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply.” There’s a famous book called “How the Irish Became White”; I gather it happened in the 1930s. Even today, Tom Hayden says in his book “Irish on the Inside,” some Irish-Americans boggle at those race and ethnicity forms that oblige them to identify as “white.” There’s a reason there are more Irish working for the United Nations than any other nationality: because of their long experience under colonial rule, the Third World trusts the Irish more than any other Europeans.

Because they are of mixed heritage, my children, of course, have had to sort things out for themselves in a culture with race and ethnicity forms that direct you to “choose one.” My son, when he was a disk jockey playing rock en español, used as his on-the-air name “Café con leche.” My daughter, a teacher in a dual-language school in Chula Vista, received a calendar by the cartoonista Lalo Alcaraz and the caption to his drawing for St. Patrick’s Day read: “Remember, the Irish are the Chicanos of Europe.”

Buskers in Clifden

Look, I go to the Theater. I go to the Symphony. I go to museums. Still, there’s one thing that sticks in my craw. In the States, the arts often seem associated with the Society pages, with a certain elitism and snootiness. What is remarkable about Irish is their wide and class-less interest in the arts.

While living there, I argued about books with folks in pubs, and the person on the stool next to me wasn’t an academic or an intellectual. I’ve seen farmers from County Clare clean up and come to town to attend concerts and hear Mozart or Schubert. And I’ve heard ordinary folks argue about the new theater season with the same energy that folks here use in discussing recent films. Many Irish play musical instruments and, it seems to me, one out every ten writes poetry– though because it is such a common activity, people don’t put on airs about doing so.

I don’t want to give a false and romantic picture here of Irish interest in the arts and cultural matters; there are plenty of, say, truck drivers who could give a shite about all that feckin’ stuff. But perhaps I can suggest something about the wide and class-less interest in the arts by referring to an event that happened while I was there, an event that I don’t imagine happening in San Diego.

There’s one central post office in Galway, and the postmen working there collected their poetry and published it in an anthology. (Can you imagine the folks at your own post office doing the same?) As it was, I received an invitation to the book launch. Red faced, reading their poems in a bookstore, uncomfortable in their Sunday white shirts, those postal poets laughed and enjoyed themselves. In fact, a good time was had by all.

When you think about it, given its size (about a fifth that of the State of California) and population (about an eighth that of California), Ireland has had a disproportionate influence on culture. That remains even more true today: Nobel-Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, Riverdance, U2, Neil Jordan’s films, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.” I think this is due to the wide and class-less interest in the arts.

This might also explain something else. I’ve taught at some elite universities, but I prefer teaching at SDSU. I like working with students who also hold down 40-hour-a-week jobs as waitresses, and my real pleasure comes in getting the eyes to suddenly kindle in that frat boy with spiky hair when he suddenly gets something about a piece of literature and is hooked. They remind me of myself at their age, a working-class kid surrounded by adults driving trucks with gun racks and talking of salmon fishing, and my reading literature for the first time and falling in love with all that. In that sense, I realized after my year abroad, I was Irish on the inside.

Your man in Inishmaan

When we were growing up, my brother and sisters never thought we were “real” Irish. Sure, we sang a few songs and wore green on St. Patrick’s Day. But we weren’t like those kids who had just come over and enrolled in our Catholic school, the ones who talked so funny and made fun of us for thinking we were Irish. So, I surprised myself one day in Galway when I answered the familiar question “How do you find Ireland?”

“It’s been an eerie experience,” I replied, “to discover how much I thought was mine, or just my family’s, is out there, at large, in this culture. It’s made me wonder how much of what I thought were my own quirks, or my own family’s idiosyncrasies, are really properties of the race.”

Take the way my mother and my aunts decorated their houses. I used to think they had bad taste or no taste at all. Then I come over to Ireland, and I visit enough parlors to suddenly realize that the cluttered-cottage look, the bric-a-brac everywhere and religious pictures against the wallpaper, is a style and a style my mother and aunts shared.

There are other things that I thought were uniquely my family’s–the veneration of salmon, the big deal over breakfasts, the way my mom would boil big hunks of beef until there was no taste left, the drinking, the singing. God, the singing. There was singing everywhere we went as a family. It used to embarrass me when I was growing up. But I thought that was just my family, that my family was different, different from other families. Imagine what it’s like, then, to find a whole culture like that.

And the people have the faces of my sisters, my cousins, my aunts and uncles. So, my year in Ireland was a very uncanny experience but, at the same time, a very comfortable one. What I thought was mine, special and unique, or just my own family’s thing, was really out there for hundreds of miles in any direction I looked.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the San Diego Reader (March 13, 2003). An amusing essay about meeting up with my Irish relatives can be found here. And an inebriated account about biking in Ireland can be found here.

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19. January 2016 by
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