Home, Like Ireland

Show me the way to go home
I’m tired and I want to go to bed…

One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather singing that song to me, and I do believe that even as a toddler I knew what it meant. Home. Where I belonged, where I was safe and loved, where I could feel my feet on the ground and know I was sheltered by family. Where I had a growing sense of who I was.

Of course home is more than place, and in my travels I find it unexpectedly here and there in a song, a deep breath, a lift to where I’m headed, a shared meal or kind word. And certainly there are places, locations that are unmistakably home. Houses, towns, rivers and names. For me, that is Alabama, and the Deep South, and Tennessee, where I was born and where I’ve lived for the longest time. And surprisingly, Ireland.

I’m just back from my seventh visit to Ireland, from my first fans-friends-and-family bus tour of the country’s southwest coast and countryside. Twenty-one of us, plus a canny guide and a bus driving archeologist, visited some of the most beautiful places on the planet. Much of it being what you might call a harsh beauty. Or a hard-earned beauty. And if ever there was a place more connected to its people—and all their hard-earned beauty—I’ve not been there.

In fact, if there are a more hospitable and passionate people in this world, I haven’t met them. And the more I learn of their history, the more I appreciate their hospitality because I better understand that it is born of a wide and deep experience of the whole of life—of living and dying, of love and loss, community and solitude, family and isolation.

Between the years 1845 and 1852 almost half the population of Ireland—over four million men, women and children—starved or emigrated in desperation during what is commonly called the Great Famine. And it was less than a hundred years ago that a free republic was violently wrested from Britain and a separate loyalist state painfully quarantined in the north—a misery that has continued in some fashion into modern times.

So many Irishmen have emigrated to America through the years that in much of Ireland today the United States flag flies beside the flag of the Republic. American music, politics, language, literature and culture are infused with Ireland’s spirit. Even if we don’t have a drop of Irish blood in our family tree, we have a bit of the Irish in us… if we’ve ever loved a song or a poem or a story born of hard-earned spirit… or a laugh of hard-earned mirth.

A few days ago I was out at twilight wandering the Irish town of Skibbereen when I bumped into a dozen members of my group and joined them for dinner in a small family restaurant. Someone in our party told our waitress—a dark-haired beauty named Miriam—that I was a singer, and she asked for a song. I said I’d oblige if she’d sing one in return, and she bashfully agreed. I sang an a cappella number and she replied in a soft clear alto that mesmerized us. Then she said, “My brother Micheál is the real singer in the family.” And she darted into the kitchen to fetch him.

Micheál dried his hands on his apron, and in a sonorous tenor delivered a heart-stopping rendition of Dear Old Skibbereen, an aching ballad wherein a father tells his son of the Great Hunger that killed the boy’s mother and drove the father away. We were speechless.

Then Micheál told us that his father taught them all to sing, and he summoned his father to the dining room. The older man poured out another killer, this one in Irish, then Micheál launched into another ballad. The mother, Angela, emerged and hugged all members in the party. We were laughing and crying, astonished, transfixed.

It was one of those rare moments when I might’ve said, You can shoot me now. And if someone had, I’d have had a full life. Not only that, but I’d have gone home to die. Because where in the world could I possibly have been more at home? Nowhere. Nowhere more at home than in Ireland.

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