When worlds and words converge
How small the world seems when we meet other Irish abroad to whom we are connected, writes Marie-Therese Keegan
There’s a game at which we Irish excel, that doesn’t involve balls, sticks or horses and is played out whenever we encounter a fellow compatriot. It does rely on wide circles, knowledge of local topography and repartee. A good memory will carry you far. It’s a take on six degrees of separation but we do it in three steps at most.
Here’s a good example. A father at my daughter’s London school, on hearing I was from Sligo, told me of a girl he’d kissed when they were both 14 and studying at the Gaeltacht. Turns out she was in my secondary school. I can’t take the credit for working that one out. The Dubliner joined the dots.
And another. My sister spent a couple of years in New York. One day in a bar, she got chatting to Kevin who was living in Brooklyn with his girlfriend who they figured out was in my university class. And on it goes.
I get a thrill when I make the connections and I’m genuinely surprised with how small the world seems in those moments.
With white Irish making up a little over two percent of London’s population (based on the 2011 Census) the odds on me finding someone from home recently were not in my favour. I was participating in a therapeutic writing workshop at the Poetry cafe in Covent Gardens.
Malachy looked Irish but I knew from past encounters that making assumptions based on appearances don’t always hold. However when he spoke there was no place for doubt. Malachy was the echo of my friend’s father – a native of Co Cavan.
I heard Malachy talk eloquently about the wind on his cheeks as he saved turf. About his craving for the smell of sods burning in a grate. I made a beeline at break time approaching him in the coffee queue, my opening gambit a shot at his county of birth.
“Don’t tell me, don’t tell me, you’re a Cavan man.”
I’d gotten it wrong, he was from Tyrone. He placed me in Kildare. I corrected him. Sligo.
“Back in the 90s, I lived in Boyle, just up the road from you,” he offered.
“Oh, small world. Boyle is where my mother’s people come from”.
Of course we didn’t leave it there. He’d bought his newspaper from my aunt’s shop. Across the road was a big department store, Boles of Boyle. Oh yes, that’s still there. We spoke of the Abbey and The Forest Park. Of Rockingham estate and the grand house with a window for every day of the year before it was destroyed by fire in the fifties.
And then Malachy got more specific.
“Boyle was my town but I lived in Knockvicar.”
“So did we!” I exclaim. And we spoke of the pubs and the river and of the writer John McGahern that both of us regretted never having met. Though I tell him my mother went to his funeral. Her brother had been mentioned on one page of his memoir. That was prerogative enough. He tells me his old neighbour had once been a neighbour to McGahern. The neighbour he referred to was from Crosna and not Knockvicar.
“Crosna,” I say. “You are kidding?”
That’s where my parents wed. In the church on the hill. I’ve stood outside that church waiting for a hearse to arrive many times. My parents bringing us with them as they paid last respects to old neighbours. On sad occasions I’ve sat with the chief mourners at funerals of grandparents, uncles and aunts. I resisted the urge to play funeral bingo but we were bound to have attended the same ones.
Instead, with no shops or pubs to match up in this very rural setting, we spoke of characters. Of reputations.
And then we spoke of the serendipity around this encounter. Leaving our respective London homes that morning, neither of us could have predicted this.
The writing group were returning to their chairs but Malachy and I had more business to attend. Besides, a number of our classmates had taken quite an interest. These things don’t happen so often among the English. “Are you two related?” our tutor asked.
“Maybe,” I said. There was more drilling to do.
I asked him if he were to stand outside the church door which direction would he turn for his home. “Right, to Derryherk,” he said.
I was speechless. Could he and I have lived in the same house albeit in different decades?
We hadn’t. I’d mistakenly thought Derryherk was the name of my grandad’s house. Malachy tells me it refers to the townland that denotes a handful of houses. His being one. Batty, my grandfather and his brother Tom were dead before Malachy had come to the area, but he’d gotten to know their sons.
He tells me something I didn’t know. He’d heard it said that my great-uncle had the gift of weather prediction. I knew he had the cure for burns. We swapped stories about the men who lived a field away from Batty. A father and son. Great characters. The old man drove an ass and cart when I stayed in the area. I remembered the dresser with the blue and cream striped crockery – much sought after vintage gold these days. It survived the decades and Malachy knew of what I spoke.
When the class disbanded, we chatted some more. Therapeutic writing is powerful so we were basking in the feel-good factor from its immersion with the added kick of our jaunt down memory lane on a particular path I hadn’t trodden in a long long time.
I have emailed my new friend and old ‘cousin of the soil’ since. He wrote that he was still recovering from the shock of hearing the word Derryherk uttered in the heart of Covent Garden. As am I. It’s a small world and even smaller if you’re Irish.
Marie-Therese has lived in London since 1988, where she runs creative writing workshops for children. She has written for Generation Emigration on the meaning of “home” for emigrants, being in London longer than she lived in Ireland, and recreating her Irish childhood memories for her own children.