Thirty-five thousand feet above the Atlantic I jump-start our Irish adventure by reading Inishbream, Theresa Kishkan’s novella born of her own time in Ireland years ago. For me, reading Theresa is like stepping into a river of dream. Even the simple act of pulling crabs out of the ocean reads like poetry:
I bring them out, one by blessed one, to lay in boxes covered with shawls of sea-wet sacking to keep them cool. Sean, baiting the pots, steadies the currach from time to time with an oar. Our anchor is an island stone, falling to the bottom like a prayer.
I scour the upper left quadrant of our pocket map of Ireland looking for Inishbream. It’s a fictional place, but I locate its real-life cousins off the Connemara coast: Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark. Inish, or Inis, or Ennis, for that matter, all mean island in Irish, and bream are a kind of fish.
In Inishbream I meet characters and artefacts of Irish life I will encounter in our travels, though I don’t know it yet:
Gardaí, poteen, the acrid smell of turf smoke. A blackened bird tumbling down a chimney onto a hearth. Travellers – again and again we encountered them, in different places, different contexts. The protagonist of Inishbream called them tinkers, and recognized them as not so different from herself. Some people we met called them gypsies, and did not. The one I met in Lisdoonvarna called herself Madam Rose Lee, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and I cheerfully paid her twenty euros to tell my fortune.
Inishbream has an oracle, too. Like Madam Rose Lee she knows the curative powers of stones: The one that is the colour of heaven, lapis, it will cure the melancholy. The stone of the East, the sapphire, it will make the mind pure, it will make peace.
To read Inishbream is to step back in time to an Ireland that doesn’t exist anymore, except maybe on remote, unnoticed islands or in tucked-away places the country’s brilliant tourism industry hasn’t targeted yet. We were shocked at the number of tourists everywhere, even in October. Disappointed that globalization’s gloss extends into villages and towns and has altered the rural landscape.
The Ireland I was looking for I found in only one place.
Don’t misunderstand: I love Ireland. It is stunningly beautiful. The whole island is a subtly shifting tapestry stitched together with dry stone walls and peopled with lively, down-to-earth folk whose voices sing. Farm fields, still, dominate the landscape, and are truly emerald green. Medieval ruins crop up everywhere.
Global capitalism’s ruins are visible, too.
Theresa Kishkan spent a year in Ireland in the late 1970s. Inishbream reflects that time. Even forty years ago, traditional Irish life was disappearing. By the end of the tiny, lovely book, the Inishbream islanders have packed up their belongings and moved into council houses on the mainland.
The nets and pots would stay, piled in byres and unused rooms, waiting for the return of the fishermen, growing dry and warped with the salt of their exile.
Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, stepping into a river of global capital that transformed the country. One-third of all the houses in the nation have been built since the Celtic Tiger boom began in 1995. The tiger’s collapse in 2008 has left entire new housing estates empty and decaying, like the old stone cottages “rotting at the bottom of every garden.”
We were struck, again and again, by the similarities between Ireland and Canada. We’re facing all the same challenges. Globalism’s gloss wears thin.
Both countries need a new dream, I think. Which river will we step into next?