A Man of Two Countries

Writer Colum McCann.

By Colum McCann, Contributor
October / November 2000

“I have lived so long abroad and in so many countries that I can feel at once the voice of Ireland in anything.”

– James Joyce, in a letter to Frank Bludgeon

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A story: In the early 1940s a young and popular nun from Louisburgh in Mayo – a coastal town under the dark and lovely shadow of Croagh Patrick – was asked to leave her native land to help a struggling church in the Bronx. Reluctantly, she agreed to the move.

When she got to the north Bronx she found herself peculiarly ineffective. Her spirit seemed drained. Within the community she felt as if she wandered ghostlike. Nothing she could say or do brought peace to what she saw around her. These were hard streets. There wasn’t much sky above them.

Things went from bad to worse and one morning, in a small convenience store where the young nun went to buy cigarettes, she entered to find the owner slumped across the front counter with a gunshot wound to his head. The shock of it caused a strange neurological reaction that baffled doctors – the nun went blind.

She walked the local streets wearing dark glasses, her eyes closed tight, tapping a white cane on the ground, and, being so visible, she soon became well-known amongst the locals. They began to hail her on the streets. After a while she began to work more closely with them.

As the years went on, she became one of the most effective agents of change in the poor Bronx neighborhood. She developed a gift of humor and wisdom and there were times when even some of the street kids listened to her. The murder rate within a 12-block radius decreased dramatically and the attendance at church rose slightly.

She lived 45 years in the Bronx, never once returning home, until – at the age of 74 – she was given a ticket to Ireland by members of the diocese. She returned to Louisburgh and together with three other nuns she made a pilgrimage, blind, up the holy mountain that had shadowed her youth.

At the top of the mountain she said to her companions: “How lovely this looks.” They turned to her, startled. She had taken off her glasses and she was squinting her eyes against the sunlight. The women thought they were witnessing a miracle, but the nun just turned to them and said: “I’ve never been blind. I simply just closed my eyes a long time ago in order to remember all that I had once known.”

The story doesn’t end there, of course. In fact, stories should never really end at all. But the Irish nun, at this point, raises a peculiar question. Are we formed by our early weathers? Does the geography of our childhood affect the intricacies of the human heart? Do the peculiar vagaries of our country – our nationhood, if you will – lend a consequence to every single moment of the rest of our lives? Can we shed a country and can we adopt another? Do we operate with a certain blindness when we leave?

It is true that whoever we once were is whoever we now are. This is an undeniable truth. We are built up out of our past. The only way we can essentially change our past is by telling stories (or lies) about it.

I have been in the United States on and off now for the best part of a decade. For the first couple of years I took a bicycle around, vagabonding. Then I worked as an educator in a program for juvenile delinquents. For the last five years I have lived in New York. For most of that time I have consciously denied any inherent link with being “American,” as if I am just on an extended visit, a blow-in, a curious happening. But the truth is I married an American. I then had an American daughter. Followed by an American son. In an American city. Working on a novel that centered around American questions of race and identity.

All this “American-ness” was suddenly a scaffold to my heart. But what also held me together throughout all of this was the notion that I never wanted to lose my “Irishness.” I have tried to fiercely protect that corner of myself that was my early weather.

Yet recently I have grown accustomed to the notion that I am, in many ways, a man of two countries. I have a foot planted in the dark corners of each. Every year I try to spend long enough in Ireland in order to rediscover why I left it. I also spend long enough in the States in order to question why I would want to live here. (Overheard recently in a bar: “If you could live in New York you can live anywhere.” “Yeah, but why live in New York if you can live anywhere?!”)

Possibly the most enduring question for any of us is: Who are we? To be Irish in America is vastly different from being American in Ireland. To be Irish in Ireland is different again. And yet I would argue that the two worlds – American and Irish – are beginning to converge in significant ways.

The world is shrinking so dramatically that the notion of “country” or even a “national consciousness” might soon be brought into question. With the Internet; with emigration no longer an issue (most people don’t emigrate any more, they commute); with global media; with our lives becoming jumbles of coordinates, it is possible that we can belong to no country whatsoever. It is also possible that we can belong to more than one country. Which begs the question: How do we define ourselves?

But the story, as I said, is not quite finished…if it was ever begun in the first place.

The nun – after two weeks in her hometown of Louisburgh – returned to the Bronx in order to work with the people she had grown to love. But she realized that her self-enforced blindness had been a currency of sorts, that it had been a sort of spiritual passport into people’s lives. She worried about revealing the truth to the people in her area, perhaps losing their support, maybe even damaging their faith.

In the end she hit on quite a simple solution – she continued to wear her dark glasses everywhere she went, even indoors, but behind the glasses she now kept her eyes open.

She began to see the world around her: the doorways, the tenements, the churches, even the grocery store where she had once found the murdered shopkeeper. Her spiritual mission in the Bronx was stronger and more successful than ever.

Upon retiring, the elderly nun was given the choice of living anywhere she wanted. Instead of either the Bronx or Louisburgh, the nun decided that she would make another trip, this time to Guatemala, where, before she died, she was often seen wandering narrow streets, being guided along by a number of children, all of whom wanted to hold her elbow in order to show her the way.

She was famous locally as the holy woman with dark glasses who walked around with the constant suggestion of a smile on her face. And she was often heard to say that she had been so long in different places that she could hear the voice of everywhere in just about anything. ♦

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