The scene was a train trundling from Dublin to Cork on a Friday morning last March. My seven year old son Charlie was sitting in the window seat. At one point, I noticed that his iPod Touch was lying idle on the table and the book I was making him read on his vacation lay unopened. He had his head turned, his nose pressed almost to the glass. Suddenly, it hit me. He was transfixed by the scenery flashing before his eyes, by the green fields, by the trees in the distance, by the sight of livestock chewing the cud. He was, in fact, transfixed by Ireland.
I sat there watching him for a few minutes without saying a word. It was kind of wondrous to behold. A child staring out the window, taking in the country of his father and being fascinated by it. The last time Charlie had set foot in Ireland he was still in diapers and mostly travelling in a buggy. Now, he was old enough and aware enough to see and appreciate that this place was different. Very different. This wasn’t his native Long Island. This was not New York. Finally, I had to interrupt his daydream with a question.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“It’s very green,” he said. “And it looks windy.”
When I first left Ireland fourteen years ago, I made all sorts of promises to myself. I would come back to Cork at least twice a year and whenever possible I’d bring my son Abe with me (we had only one child then). And he’d grow up more Irish than the Irish themselves. But, life plays havoc with these types of idealistic notions. People get sick. More children get born. Work gets a little complicated. Disposable income becomes less disposable and flights start to look more expensive. Not to mention the prohibitive costs of flying home at short notice for funerals and sudden illnesses and the like.
All of the above explains or at least justifies to me why Charlie hadn’t been back to Ireland since he was two. That’s why when I came back for the publication of my book on Brendan Behan earlier this year, I was determined to bring him, and just him, with me. Never mind that he’s so cripplingly shy he refused to attend the book launch in Dublin. It was just important to me that he got to see the country properly. That’s why the little cameo on the train meant so much. It was touching to witness a child discovering and being captivated by somewhere you are so proud of. It felt like we were making a memory.
There’s always something magical about the train too. It makes you nostalgic and gets you thinking. Watching Charlie brought me back to all the times I made that journey as a child and as a young man too. I couldn’t help wondering if a few years from now he’ll be back on that train as a college student making a trip around Ireland, the type of journey his mother once made and which culminated in her marrying a Corkman! Maybe he’ll travel with one of his brothers and he’ll talk about the journey he made with me when he was a kid, back in the day.
On the third day of our stay at my niece Kadie’s pied a terre in Barrack Street, Charlie caught me sitting on a ledge at the top of the house staring across the river and the rooftops.
“What are you doing Dad?” he asked.
I answered by taking him into my arms, lifting him up to the glass and pointing, “I’m trying to see if I can see all the way across the northside to where my Dad grew up.”
He looked at the rooftops in the distance, looked back at me and shook his head, as if worrying I was starting to lose it. And maybe I was. The returned emigrant is the prisoner of his own poignancy during each trip home. Every landmark is a remnant of so long ago, every street corner a cameo from a previous life.
Of course, the problem with having a seven year old as your travelling companion is they don’t appreciate anything beyond toys, chocolate and the money that relatives (especially when we visited his grandma in the CUH) kept pressing into his hands. Driving past UCC, I proudly pointed out where I went to college. He didn’t even raise his head from the back seat to take a look. Truly, history is wasted on the young.
When we pulled up outside a rainy and windswept Charles Fort in Kinsale, he was momentarily impressed. He posed for a few photographs, listened to me offer some half-remembered details about the Williamites and war, and then he told me what was really on his mind. “Are there any toyshops in this town? I have my own money!”
Five months after our glorious nine days together in Ireland, we were out for a walk on a balmy summer’s evening. Strolling through a Long Island park that goes by and lives up to the name of Avalon, Charlie suddenly detoured on to a wooden deck overlooking a lake. “Look, Dad, look!” he shouted. “This is like that place by the water that we visited in Cork. What was it called again?”
Before I could even answer, it came to him.
“King-sale! Remember when we went to King-Sale?”
Remember King-Sale. I hope I never forget.