by Dale Anderson
The O’Sullivan family farm lies on the outskirts of the adjoining countryside of the lower village of Ballingdagan, County Wexford. It is the kind of place where the same families have lived for centuries. The peculiar energies of Ballingdagan create a community were the fields and the stone buildings come together amid tight roads as you pass beside a medieval bridge structure that drifts over the River Slaney. To the west, the Blackstairs Mountains rise quietly from the countryside. Neatly trimmed hedges frame the homes creating an air of isolation where little ever seems to change while the unfettered residents appear to go about their daily business in much the same way that they always have. The people themselves are an honest hardworking class content in their daily routines. A singular thought possessed me as I stood solemnly upon the footpath somewhere between the church and the pub watching the town and the wind blow in the undefined half-light of winter, that no outsider in their right mind would ever move here. The O'Sullivan farm itself lies at the bottom of a gently sloping four-mile long hill. I saw it for the first time beneath the low midwinter setting sun, leaving me with the undeniable impression that I had arrived at the lonely and forgotten end of the universe. A brilliant sunset was dying out behind the hilltops dipping at the very moment we pulled up beneath two ancient trees beside the old house. It felt as if the sun and I were going down together.
Sean and Mary O’Sullivan have three daughters, Kathleen, Bridget and Margaret. I married the eldest, Kathleen, an athletic, headstrong blond. We had met in the voluminous landscape of the Midwestern heart of America after Kathleen had been transferred to my hometown of Chicago. Falling in love was the last thing I had on my mind at the time; I was at a low point after breaking up with Amy. I was innocently looking when we met yet somehow still managed to fall in love quickly and had soon forgotten Amy. In the beginning I could never have imagined that circumstances would lead me on the rural road to Ballingdagan other than a feeling that I needed some sort of drastic change in my life. That’s the way a lot of my decisions begin and I felt sure that underneath my indecisiveness and Kathleen’s persuasive argument laid some undefined consequence. We lived together for five years in America, married for the last two. From the moment we had gotten married Kathleen had made it her mission to convince me to move to Ireland and although I was aware of all of her little manipulating tricks I needed her and I hoped that it would work out. In hindsight I had felt that there were places that I wanted to go and Ireland is indisputably beautiful. On my previous visits I had explored the dark green depths of the countryside, encountered dissolute medieval ruins and passed endless nondescript stone walls that rose encircling lush fields in relentless never-ending rings. The slow pace of the morning and the poetic way that the day moves steadily upstream had a hypnotic effect and it almost seemed as if I were fulfilling some sort of prophecy. I surrendered to whatever uncontrollable forces drive our desires, filled with vague notions that there were a million things to see and when I closed my eyes I saw them all.
It was the second Sunday in the month of December, the holiday season fast descending upon Ballingdagan, and occasion for a family meal in honor of Kathleen’s decision to move home. We had just made plans to rent a small bungalow less than a mile from the O’Sullivan farmhouse where we were temporarily staying while we set about our plans to build a house on a small plot of Sean’s land. We would be moving into the bungalow the following week, which would be convenient, Kathleen assured me, because we were now expecting our first child and her mother would be a big help with the baby. The sisters had just arrived from Dublin, along with their husbands, and were already inside. It was the first time I had seen so large a crowd crammed into the old farmhouse. The house was much smaller inside than one would have guessed; the thickness of the walls was misleading. The back door was flanked by a beautifully landscaped garden framing a small enclosed mudroom. Passing through the mudroom, a dull and cluttered kitchen led the way to the dining room and a large sitting room. Upstairs were three medium sized bedrooms, one cramped smaller bedroom with an impossibly low ceiling, and a tiny bathroom. Downstairs, the kitchen was a cyclone of activity, with Mary a whirling dervish at the center. She was short and angular, moving at the speed of light as she directed the activities of anyone within hearing range. Her voice was shrill, her eyes grey and intolerant. The three daughters were each attempting to out-shout each other as they argued about who was going to do what. Sean seemed oblivious to the chaos as he lounged in the sitting room, snug in his armchair beside the fire. He has the lean and ragged look of years spent working long hard hours in the fields. A grey mop of hair stuck out from the sides of his cap, which he was still wearing indoors, framing sorrowful blue eyes that now and then flickered aggressively when he was attempting to make some point. His face has deep crevices running like canals from top to bottom and vertically around his eyes. My two brother-in-laws, Bridget’s husband Mark and Margaret’s husband Eddie, were glued to the football match on the television. I had met them on my previous journeys to Ireland, and I settled down for some friendly banter before dinner.
After an hour or so a bellicose cry arose that dinner was ready to be served and we paraded into the dining room. The men were seated first, Sean taking his place at the head of the table while the women doled out the food. Mary swooped around first, scooping balls of mashed potatoes on each plate. The other girls followed, passing plates and heaping large portions of roast beef, vegetables and roast potatoes in their places beside the mounds of mashed potatoes. The tempo of the conversation was that of good humored slagging. The men where needling their wives for more food or complaining about some small thing or another while casting sly smiles back and forth, each trying to be more clever than the other. The conversation eventually turned to America and the guest of honor, me. Sean commented between bites of his roast beef,
“I believe Irish beef is the best in the world, isn’t that’s right Mary?”
“I don’t know Sean,” Mary answered, “Joan Ryan has been to America and she says that the beef there is lovely.”
“Well,” answered Sean smugly, “It isn’t better than Irish beef.”
I was genuinely curious, as I knew Sean had never set foot outside of Ireland, so I asked him point blank,
“Have you ever had American beef Sean?”
“Well, no, but I know it isn’t better than Irish beef. “
I was measuring my response when Mary came to Sean’s rescue.
“Bridget spent a summer working in Atlanta. She didn’t like it.”
“Mum!” Bridget cried out, “I’m well able to speak for myself. I didn’t like the heat and I couldn’t get served at the bars because I was underage.”
This aroused some amused sniggers from the rest of us. Part of her was unapologetic and I felt for a second as if I shouldn’t say anything.
“The weather is different,” I admitted, “I suppose it’s what you’re used to.”
Sean seized the opportunity to steer the conversation towards politics.
“The rest of the world was better off when the Russians were keeping the Americans in check during the cold war. It’s isn’t good to only have one super-power.”
I had never really considered this point of view before. Besides, Sean had never witnessed the neighborhood nuclear fall-out shelters, classroom duck and cover drills, nor lived with the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction. I, for one, was not the least bit nostalgic about the Cold War but could admit that in some sort of geopolitical Pan-European world view his analysis did have some logic. In any event, I painfully reminded myself that I was four thousand miles from the last site of home and I now realized that it was critical that I learn how to respond to this line of reasoning. I was sure it would not be the last time I encountered it. I calculated my linguistic tactic and I took this approach,
“I won’t be painted into a corner of being an apologist for America foreign policy,” I started, “but it would be a far different Europe today if the US had gone back to its isolationist ways after WWII and just let the Russians help themselves to whatever they wanted in Europe.”
Both of my grandfathers had fought in the Second World War. I also realized that Ireland had remained neutral during the war, each country with its own agenda. I was resisting the temptation to bring this up when Mark quickly shot across the table,
“I think America is too corrupt.”
He then proceeded to summarize the vices and depravity of American society.
“I agree with some of your points Mark,” I reasoned, “America does have a dark side. But that’s human nature. Those with the power abuse it.”, and now I retaliated, “ You’ve had a few politicians that I wouldn’t be too proud of either.”
Just as Mark was about to respond, Mary cut over him decisively. I had never seen her soften, and now she addressed me.
“We won’t talk of politics at the dinner table. Let’s change the subject. So how do you like living in Ireland?”
“I love it,” I now lied with the answer I had been rehearsing, “I moved here for the weather.”
This brought a round of chuckles from my brother-in-laws who loved cheeky responses to serious questions.
We eventually finished eating, drinking and debating the pros and cons of Irish and American society. The table was cleared and the men moved off to the sitting room while the women congregated in the kitchen, washing up and discharging sarcastic comments to each other under Mary’s watchful supervision. After several more hours of drinking and card playing I strode outside and walked into the lonely iridescent night. I strode across the green lawn and traversed a gravel pathway. It had finally stopped raining and the sky was clear. I sat down on an ancient tree stump worn smooth from the wind and rain, lit a cigar and absorbed the life giving midnight air and the hanging jewels of the holy Irish sky. I looked westward toward the Blackstairs Mountains silhouetted in the moonlight, beyond which lay the heaving hills that seem to roll on forever to the Atlantic shore, across the indisputable ocean toward the whole of America and the sum of my past. I was starting to feel drowsy, and here, sitting in the darkness I thought about my circumstances and began to laugh. I finished my cigar, headed back inside, said my goodnights to everybody and headed upstairs. As I undressed for bed, I became aware that the warmth that I had felt from the wine I had consumed throughout the course of the evening was losing its effect. The thick stone walls of the house seemed to be sucking the heat right out of me. I marveled at how the O’Sullivans seemed to be immune to the cool dampness that permeated their old house, I could see the frost of my breath in the bedroom. Wearing gloves and thick socks to bed I pulled the covers up as far as I could and drifted off to sleep amid thoughts of hibernation.
The following morning Sean took me for a tour of the 94 acres that compromised the O’Sullivan family farm. We would be discussing the building site for our new house. There was the slightest hint of rain beneath one of the greyest skies that I had ever seen. The clouds seemed to pass overhead with a lightning speed. The air was cool, a misty curtain of moisture spat at my face.
“Is the weather ever like this in America?” Sean quizzed me.
“Sometimes it is, “I replied, “but not that often. It can get quite cold in Chicago but it doesn't rain all the time."
“This to me is a perfect day. A little mist in the morning and not too hot.”
“Well,” I answered, “I like a little sun once in a while. Don’t you find all the rain kind of gloomy?”
Sean looked at me with a look of genuine surprise.
“Gloomy? Feck off will ya, we’re used to it. The first thing you should do is invest in a cap.”
I looked at Sean standing there in the mud. He had on a pair of green wellies that his brown corduroy pant-legs were tucked into. He wore a dull green nylon vest over a white woolen sweater. He was carrying a walking stick in his right hand, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. On his head was a well worn brown tweed cap. It was the uniform of the farmer and of the countryside. I had flashes of the future, seeing myself at Sean’s age in much the same regalia. I immediately dismissed them. I wasn’t trying to become a country farmer I was too much a product of an earnest American suburbia. I had also presumed that most of the Irishness had left me with the dead generations of my family’s history. I wondered however, in some sort of counter-clockwise march of time, what it had been like for them leaving their Irish countryside and setting off for a new life in America. Now over a century later I was reversing the trip and although I knew Kathleen could fit back in I wondered if there would be room enough for me. I reflected a moment back to my own childhood, bred the icy entombment of the Chicago winter that dissolves into all of the usual Illinois seasons. And now approaching the midpoint of my life and through some quirk of fate I had fallen in love with the farmer’s daughter and set out for a new life abroad that seemed somehow to imply a new freedom. Sean and I continued on in silence until we reached the gate that led to the field where our new home was going to be built. I looked around, the closest neighbor was more than a quarter of a mile away, the closest shop a little over five miles. A gravel road was our only access. Still, there was a majestic view of the Backstairs. The trees had long since shed their leaves and the harvest was finished for the year. I realized that I was returning in one way or another to some small point in my distant past. Sean surveyed the scene and said,
“How do you think you’ll like it boy?”
I thought for a moment and said, “Well Sean, like your man Joyce once said, sometimes the long way round is the shortest way home.”
Born in Detroit, duel citizenship Irish and US. I've also lived in Ireland where I was involved with the literary community. Had my first poetry published when I was 9 years old, then not again until I was in my 20's. Studied chemistry at the University of Michigan and work in the auto industry. In addition to a love of poetry I also write short stories.