In Ireland, unlike Tibet, the dead are everywhere

Irish people are so afflicted by melancholy that even the living look like they are carrying dead weight

The 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, in Kildare in 2011. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

The 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, in Kildare in 2011. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


This week the festival of Saga Dawa is celebrated. In Tibet they will be celebrating the Parinirvana of Buddha – or, as the Buddha described death, the moment when the fire goes out.

My favourite Buddhist story goes like this: once upon a time there was a child in a house, and he was playing with a toy cart and a little wooden horse. His father, who was dozing by the fire, suddenly realised the house was on fire. So he said to the child, “Come out quickly, the house is burning”. But the child wouldn’t listen. “I’m playing with my toy,” he said. So his father said, “But I have a real horse and cart outside, made of jewels. You must come and see it.” So the child rushed out, found no such cart, but realised the roof was in flames.

“You told me a lie,” he said.

“Yes,” his father agreed. “But I saved your life.”

I’ve never been to Tibet, although the image of a plateau surrounded by snowy mountains fascinates me. It’s as if Tibetans had been living inside a lotus flower for centuries. It’s probably the geographic isolation that encourages them to withdraw from the material world in order to contemplate a deeper shape in the cosmos.

Head for the hills

I find the best place to contemplate is up in the hills, when the fog is covering the windmills. It’s impossible to see anything clearly, and a sense of uncertainty arises with regard to what is or is not real. Everything is uncertain. The many beauties of the mountain and lake are hidden.


I suppose beauty never required high definition. Which is why I’m not a fan of shaving pubic hair. To me it seems like an act of compulsive anxiety, as if we were no longer certain that we exist unless we can see everything.

While I was wandering in the fog last Sunday, I got a phone call from an old friend whose mother had died. She was an old, kindly woman who baked her own wedding cake 60 years ago. I can imagine her the night before the wedding, watching the oven with great excitement.

And now she is gone, but we don’t know where. She was a Catholic and she had great compassion, so perhaps she is offering her advice on homemade bread to the mother of Jesus in some heavenly realm. Or maybe she is caught eternally in the embrace of her loving husband, a quiet man in slippers who was taken away when she was only in her 50s.

The dead are everywhere

They say that in Tibet there are no dead people, because each dying is a door into another life. So there is no time to consider the door as a place. Death is the
in-between; a momentary shadow, like a pause on the ongoing journey.

But in Ireland the dead are everywhere: in graveyards; in the rivers; in the ruins of old convents; and along the roadways, where flowers are often scattered at the base of little monuments remembering teenagers obliterated by fast cars.

Irish people are so afflicted by melancholy that even the living look like they are carrying dead weight – as if something was irrevocably broken inside us.

I was on a street in Dublin recently when a homeless man approached. He was blue in the face behind a wild beard. He was holding a sandwich and a mug of coffee. He had the money for a hostel but he was so hungry he had spent it all on food. I stopped because I recognised his accent. I could identify his home county in the complaining song he was weaving for me. And then we got talking.

“I won’t last in the city,” he said at one stage as he toyed with me. And when he realised I too was a country man he whispered in my ear like we were buddies. “Will you say a prayer for me, boss?”

I gave him one lousy euro, although he wanted more. He wanted anything I had in my pocket, but I wasn’t going to give him everything. There was something burning inside him. Like a fire consuming his body.

The monks in Tibet who douse themselves in petrol on the streets, and strike a match, know what they are doing. But this man hadn’t even a clue he was on fire. And then I remembered the story of the child with his toy, not listening to anyone, and I wondered if my homeless friend has a father somewhere.

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