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Her Irish Eyes Are Smiling Once Again

August 01, 1993|MARY ROURKE

With a name like mine, and a face like a map of Ireland, I should have known why the place was calling me. But for years I fought it. The land of my ancestors looked to me like a nation of brawlers and hopeless romantics. I vowed early never to set foot in it.

You can say things like that about what is your own. I'd be incensed if anybody who isn't Irish criticized Ireland. But I am: Irish American, three generations, right and left on the family tree.

I was raised on stories about life there, even though my father never saw it, and my mother was in her 50s when she went to the old country for the first time. They had learned to love Ireland as children, listening to their grandmothers from counties Kerry and Cork.

Then this winter, my mother died suddenly of cancer. And I began to wonder where I belonged. I have lived in Los Angeles for 15 years, but never quite taken root. I came alone and on the lam from a vast, Catholic New England family that held me back, at least in my own mind. For some reason, Ireland got tangled up in all that.

When I had finally gone to Ireland two years ago, it was with a sense of obligation. A person should know where they come from. Afterward, I found myself thinking about the mist rolling over fields above the ocean and the creamy pink roses rambling over every garden wall. I liked it better than I expected.

Lately, I've started to see what Los Angeles is for me. This is where I am a journalist, home owner, car driver; sister, aunt, cousin, with most of my family living nearby, now. But what does that tell anyone about their deep heart's core?

I wasn't planning to go back to Ireland; it happened by fluke. Saying goodby to friends outside a restaurant one night, a woman they knew walked by. She mentioned that she owns a small hotel in Scilly (pronounced silly ), near Kinsale in County Cork. Right about now, I thought at the time, I could do with something silly.

But there was more to it than that. For some time I have been wishing to find a place to call my own, as the Irish say. I was reminded of this again lately, watching the movie "On Golden Pond." There were Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn returning to their cottage by the lake. That crotchety house was as familiar as their own faces. They had celebrated family birthdays, caught lake trout for dinner, battled over countless games of Scrabble beside that lake. After years of summers there, they felt connected to it.

My parents and grandparents had a place like that. It was easier to do before prices of everything went over the moon, when cops and school teachers could afford a little spot near the water. I lived that way too for a while, spending part of each summer in Cape Cod with my brothers, sister and cousins all bunked into one big house.

But in my 20s I tossed that aspect of my life aside, along with a lot else that seemed to be bogging me down. There was a world out there and I knew just one way to see it: Don't Look Back.

Maybe it was time to reconsider.

A conversation with a friend got me thinking. She and her husband and their little boy spent three weeks in Martha's Vineyard last year. They fell in love with it and I remember her saying, "We know where we'll be from now on."

There was a sense of marvel mixed with the contentment in her voice. The funny thing about finding your own place is, you can't just choose it and dig in. Something about it has to get under your skin.

My mother used to recite an Irish poem to us, "The Lake Isle of Innesfree" in which William Butler Yeats describes the place he can't forget:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Ask most people what makes them feel this way and they think of wherever they grew up. A friend told me that for years he couldn't wait to get away from Kingman, Ariz. Now he's always trying to figure out how to get back.

An avid traveler talks often about her family's house and the field beside it for grazing cattle in Wichita, Kan. She left more than 20 years ago, but lately when she is there she realizes it is special to her.

I think age has something to do with all this. After enough of traveling, a steady relationship starts to seem more appealing than another romantic fling.

When I got to Kinsale, settled in at Scilly House and walked the miles of country roads around it, I could see that it wasn't a place to stay forever. But it could be a place to go back to and build memories on--of country roads and fields of wildflowers, poached salmon dinners, fiddle music floating through the night air.

At the airport in Los Angeles, I bumped into friends on their way to a walking tour of Italy's lake district. Their summer travel schedule included Cambridge, England; Princeton, N.J., and somewhere in Greece. They have not been to Ireland.

"I can't even say I recommend it," I told them. "It's just that when I'm there, I feel . . . . " I couldn't think of the word.


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