The past is not a foreign country


Scenes from a sort of homecoming. One day last week, I trudged along Cork’s under-appreciated North Mall up to Sunday’s Well and started to climb the steps of Blair’s Hill. Halfway up I stopped, to catch my out of shape breath and to turn and take in the epic vista of the city below. Suddenly, I was transported back to the times as a teenage boy I would push a 10-speed Viking racer up to this altitude. Every Friday I would cycle from Colaiste an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown to visit my father’s family on Blarney Street.

The emigrant’s curse is that every place you visit when you are home is a window into your own past.

On a Sunday evening, I went to Coffey’s Field in Togher to watch my nephew Cian play for Blarney United against Greenwood, and to marvel at how much more advanced these young footballers were than their American counterparts. A car journey through the area where I grew up and a lot of wondering about what might have been if I stayed.

Standing on the side of the field my brother asked me when was the last time I’d been on this particular patch of grass. It took a while but then I remembered. A long-ago Sunday afternoon in summer being drafted in to play on the wing in an inter-pub game for Cissie Young’s. I was 17 and I didn’t even drink there (honest Mam!) but I knew a few miscreants who did and they were shorthanded.

One of the many glorious weather afternoons of my trip I met an old friend for coffee in town. We ended up sitting outside a pub on Carey’s Lane, marvelling at how, on a sunny day in that pedestrianised quarter around Paul Street, you could be in any of the great cities of Europe. At one point, I nipped inside to go to the bathroom. As I climbed the steps, I thought they looked kind of familiar.

Then I saw the doors to a nightclub on my left and I realised, for the first time in over two decades, I was in The Pav. I stopped and, for a moment, I thought I heard the awful strains of “Rhythm is a dancer!” the soundtrack to so many nights we enjoyed in that venue in the early 1990s. Yes, the music was terrible (“I’m as serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer”) but, in our defence, we weren’t there for the dancing.

Saturday afternoon, myself and an old college buddy ambled through UCC. Coming up via the lower grounds, we were wondering if student couples still go courting there. In the archway leading to the beautiful quad, we stopped to read the noticeboard and remembered a summer’s afternoon 23 years ago when we stood in that very spot. Then we were frantically reading the just-published results of our finals, imagining they would be the most important factors in where our lives went from then on.

Of course, they weren’t and they were never going to be. So we could laugh about them now as we poked our heads into the Aula Max, the once-feared exam venue. We didn’t see the ghosts of our student selves, just some people contorting themselves in a dance rehearsal. Throwing shapes, we concluded, was what we did most of and probably did best during our time in that magnificent institution too.

This is the way of it then when you come back to Ireland. You can’t turn right or left without colliding with geographical landmarks that evoke your past life. Some of the memories are more cherished than others but they are all part of you who you were and, crucially, who you’ve become.