‘The most difficult part of emigrating was leaving Dad’
‘My mother died from cancer when I was 11 and my Dad devoted his life to our care’
Carmel Breathnach with her Dad: ‘I believed I belonged in America. But I also belonged with Dad, the person who loved me unfailingly.’
Huddled together on the beige couch, my 85-year-old father and I sat with the Irish Edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter agus an Orchloch) clutched in my hands. I leafed through the pages trying to remember where we last left off. Dad was staying with my husband and me, in Portland, Oregon for a few weeks. Following a trip to Norway we’d paid my father a visit in Ireland, where I was born and raised, and brought him back to the States with us.
People ask if I miss Ireland. I miss the memories of a life I had there with family and friends when I was young. I miss old Ireland as I knew it, but over the years things there have changed. For me, the most difficult part of emigrating was leaving my Dad. Unlike most of my friends, I loved living at home even after college. Dad consistently granted me privacy and freedom, and my bedroom today is almost exactly as it was when I was little – filled with comforting childhood and family memories.
When the opportunity arose for me to move stateside I was living at home with my Dad and brother, Seán, and it was like the old days - the three of us together again. Part of me didn’t want to leave them but with a green card in hand I could not relinquish my dream of living in the US. Seán was in a serious relationship and would soon move out. He had his own life to lead. It was Dad I worried about.
I wrestled deeply with guilt and loneliness as I packed many bags and wondered about my future life. After all Dad had done for me down through the years, I questioned how I could leave him. My mother, Kathleen, died from ovarian cancer when I was 11 years old and Dad devoted his life to our care, loving us beyond measure.
But in my twenties I longed for a sense of freedom and self-expression that the USA appeared to offer. After visiting America several times and working various jobs in different states I knew I wanted to live there. I felt light, expansive and welcome in the US. New ideas and aspirations took shape in my mind and I believed I belonged in America. But I also belonged with Dad, the person who loved me unfailingly. He, on the other hand, belongs in Ireland.
My father sat beside me, two mugs of Irish Breakfast tea steaming on the table in front of us, as we recalled events from our last reading of Harry Potter agus an Orchloch. I flipped the pages of the old hard-back given to me by a friend named Bob, a retired dentist and fluent Irish speaker born in the US. Although one of my degrees is in Irish, I struggled with reading the book initially.
Since leaving Ireland almost 15 years ago, I’ve had little opportunity to practise my native language. My father spoke Irish and English to us at home, and for 43 years he taught both languages at a secondary school in Tullamore. The preservation of Irish culture is important, in particular to my Dad, who worked to preserve the language for much of his life.
My uncle, writer and translator, Padraic Breathnach was commissioned to translate Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, into Irish. We are a family who greatly appreciates the value of literature. What better way to spend some quality time with Dad than immersing ourselves in a renowned story translated into our native tongue?
Neither my father nor I had read any of the Harry Potter books so I proposed we read the Irish translation together. We began reading it about three years ago and are only getting close to half way at this point. Each of us takes turns reading pages aloud to one another. Sometimes I need Dad to translate a word or a phrase into English for me. This proves more convenient than reaching for the dictionary, although we realise now how many invented terms JK Rowling’s book contains. Through context we guess at the meanings of devised words, encountering magical and mysterious characters and creatures far removed from the world we are familiar with.
I worry about my father daily although he is content and in good health. We talk on the phone and plan occasions because it’s comforting to focus on a future in which we are still here together. Reading Harry Potter gradually over the years is part of this plan. As long as we have pages to read together and a book to complete, Dad will be around.
I know I made the right decision when I left Ireland. In Portland I met my soul-mate, best friend and husband of three years. Life for me would be completely different in Ireland. My father and I would see each other more regularly and that would be wonderful, but I believe my best self would lie dormant.
Together we have read Harry Potter in Tullamore and Galway, Ireland, Portland, Oregon, New York City, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. I flew with my father, back to Ireland in June and left Harry Potter in my bedroom. Every year for Christmas I fly home to spend time with Dad, so this month will bring our next reading opportunity. It’s a gradual process but a fun endeavour. We’re coming together for story, magic, our native Irish language and a mutual appreciation of literature. I’m sure the Irish winter weather will provide ample opportunity to cosy up by an open fire, hot mug of tea in one hand and Harry Potter in the other.
Irish woman Carmel Breathnach moved to Portland, Oregon USA in 2005. She holds a BA degree in English literature and Irish language studies from NUI Maynooth, and a Diploma in Education from St Patrick’s College, Dublin. She writes at www.alovelywoman.wordpress.com