Return to America
By Mary Mulligan, Contributor
August / September 2010
How I failed to make Ireland my home: Mary Mulligan’s travels to Ireland and back to America
Ever since I retired from teaching with the New York City Public Schools, I’ve thought about returning to my native Ireland for the remainder of my life. Through the years, I have enjoyed summer visits, and dance and writing workshops there.
I looked at cottages near Galway, ancient city of The Tribes. I thought about Dublin, with its literary tradition, and Ireland as home to writers – from Swift to Yeats and Joyce. I dreamed of a space where I could write and invite friends to join me in the adoration of heather and newborn lambs in spring.
I thought I had a cottage a few years ago. In her will my mother left me the house in Mayo that the family bought in the 1960’s. It was considered an improvement over the house where I was born. My parents had left our old cottage with its thatched roof and whitewashed stonewalls to live in a gray house with a slate roof, a few fields away. After Dad’s death, Mom left the gray house behind and moved to London.
But when I went back to claim my inheritance, the neighbor’s calves rose up from their straw beds by the fireplace and let me know that they had squatter’s rights.
“Forget it,” the lawyer said. “You’d be throwing good money after bad, battling to get property back after twelve years of abandonment. ’Tis an old law.”
Well, the old law depressed me for a while, but I wasn’t going to let it dampen my enthusiasm for retiring to the land of my birth.
So, last November, after being awarded a two-week writer’s residency at the Heinrich Böll cottage on Achill Island, I decided to stay in Ireland for a couple of winter months, to see again what it felt like to take country walks in the cold rain and listen to the wind. I needed to find out if I could exchange my life west of the Hudson for a home west of the Shannon. Friends and writing buddies said they’d miss me, but they promised to visit.
When I left the idyllic writers’ residence on the sheltered side of Achill, I stayed with my friend Anne on the Atlantic side. Here, the winds roared in from the sea and moaned down the chimney. The rain teemed down while Mick, the cat, sat in his cozy spot on the windowsill. Occasionally, he’d twitch as the howl of the wind increased, his head moving rapidly from side to side when he spied an airborne feather or wisps of dead grass flying past the window. When the rain stopped suddenly, the sun glistened on the bushes in the wild garden. When the rain returned, Anne’s living room darkened again. The orange glow of the peat fire was reflected in the windowpane where it appeared to burn by the gray, garden rock.
My fire-gazing reverie was interrupted by the voice of a radio announcer: “An elderly woman sixty-two was found…” Elderly?
“I may be in my sixties but I’m not elderly,” I said as I braved flooded roads where trees rose up out of rivers, and stonewalls appeared down the middle of newly formed lakes. I picked a good time to “test the waters,” I thought when I finally reached my sister Bridie’s home near Shannon.
I hosted a dinner party, went to the theater and danced at a céilí. A friendly bus driver said, “No rush,” when I searched for change, and a well-mannered youth stood to give me a seat on the train. But I was feeling… well, elderly.
My dance students in New York e-mailed asking when I was “coming home.” The head of the North American branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann asked if I’d be available to teach a dance class at the spring convention in New Jersey. I jumped at the chance.
When I returned, the city gleamed its youthful welcome. I didn’t get a seat in the subway, but the lights put a spring in my step.
When my dance students embraced me in a group hug, I said, “I’m h-o-m-e.”