The unlikely love that blossomed between me and my múinteor

When I struggled with pronunciation, he took my hand and said, ‘Tá sé ceart go leor, mo stór’

Kerry Neville and her Irish teacher, Dónal.

Kerry Neville and her Irish teacher, Dónal.

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a Fulbright to Ireland must be in want of a romantic if academic adventure: pots of Barry’s tea, scones slathered with blackberry jam and cream, plaid woollen scarf, lashing rain, and hikes along the cliffs with only shaggy sheep, lowing cows, and a leather-bound journal for company (never mind my usual journals were ad hoc Post-It Note flipbooks).

I was also in want of Irish lessons, a true Gaeilge adventure would enable me to pronounce my students’ names – Sadhbh, Ruadhán, Caoimhe, Dáithí – without mangling them in my American arrogance and, admittedly, to impress a future bae-with-a-brogue.

Kerry Neville: the American wanted to learn Irish and so began one-on-one lessons with 89-year-old Dónal.
Kerry Neville: the American wanted to learn Irish and so began one-on-one lessons with 89-year-old Dónal.

Yes, this is also a truth my serious, if swashbuckling, feminist self must acknowledge: I was in want of a shepherd who could recite Séamus Heaney, sing The Wild Rover to his wee lambs, and repair both his farm’s stone walls and my own ramshackle heart.

I believed the universe was readying my karmic reward for surviving both a wretched midlife divorce and the humiliations and dangers of online dating – the organic (weed) farmer who spoke of “ethical cannibalism”; the professor/drug dealer with bodyguard in tow because a gang wanted him dead; and the ultra-marathoner who, during a daytime stroll in a city park, unzipped his pants and waggled his bits in aggressive, revolting hope.

A few weeks into Irish class, Seán, my teacher, pulled me aside during tea break. “You are trying,” he said, “but you are struggling.”

Though a beginners’ class, my fellow students had taken years of compulsory Irish in school and knew how to move through baffling consonant clusters. For instance: Grianghrafadóireachta (photography). Gree-an-graf-a-doy-rukta, aka ClusterFeck.

Seán held out an orange jam Jaffa cake. “Ná éadóchas. Bíodh fianán agat,” he said.

I stared back in my usual bewilderment.

“Don’t despair. Have a cookie. My friend Dónal teaches one on one. He will suit you.”

Suit me. Suitor?

I arrived at Dónal’s small terraced house all hopeful butterflies.

An elderly man stood in the open door and smiled. “Dia duit, a Kerry,” he said. “Conas atá tú?” He clasped my hand.

“Go maith,” I said. “Good! No rain!” When in conversational doubt in Ireland, talk weather.

“Wow!” he said. “Tá tú ard. You’re tall!”

My 5’10” to his maybe 5’5”.

Dónal gave his time freely: ‘I’m just happy you’re learning this language. In this way, our language doesn’t die, though we do. And me before you.’
Dónal gave his time freely: ‘I’m just happy you’re learning this language. In this way, our language doesn’t die, though we do. And me before you.’

Dónal led me down the narrow hall and into a room with a table, two chairs, and a twin bed. “We’ll work in here,” he said. “It’s the dining room but is now my wife’s bedroom. She can’t do the stairs any more.”

I gave the room a discreet once over: a twin bed with a blue bathrobe folded on the pillow, family photographs on the wall with memorial mass cards taped between them, and a St Brigid’s Cross, woven from rushes, over the door.

“We’ll begin with what you know,” he said, and his clear blue eyes gazed into mine with direct and certain warmth.

I blushed and said, “Oh dear. I don’t know anything.” Schoolgirl crush and love at first sight flutters.

Kerry Neville with Phyllis and Dónal: Despite weathering the losses and difficulties true to all marriages, their marriage was still first-flush, head-over-heels solicitous love after 60 years. .
Kerry Neville with Phyllis and Dónal: Despite weathering the losses and difficulties true to all marriages, their marriage was still first-flush, head-over-heels solicitous love after 60 years. .

During that first lesson, Dónal revealed that he was 89 years old and had been married to his wife, Phyllis, for 60 years. “How does that happen?” he said. “Sixty years already? And you? Pósta? Married?”

“Divorced,” I said.

“Ah, colscartha,” he said.

“I have kids, teenagers, who live with their father during the school term,” I said.

“That is difficult,” he said. “I can see how you miss them. Your face doesn’t hide it.”

I nodded, as words were insufficient.

“My son,” he said, and pointed to a photo of a middle-aged man with the same blue eyes. “He died 10 years ago. Cancer.” Dónal looked at the clock. “You must be tired. You’ve worked hard today. Let’s stop and save ourselves.” He held out my coat and I slipped my arms in.

“How much for the lessons?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I’m just happy you’re learning this language. In this way, our language doesn’t die, though we do. And me before you.”

We set an ambitious schedule: three mornings a week for three months. I walked from my home on Clancy’s Strand all the way up O’Connell Street to Dónal’s home, and while I walked, my heart thrummed as I whispered Irish words and phrases hoping to impress him.

The English changed the name, took our sounds but not the words

One morning, Dónal paused on the question, “Cén fáth?” (Why) and asked, “Do you know why Lemonfield, a town close by, is called this? Lemons don’t grow in potato fields. The English changed the name, took our sounds but not the words: lei-mon-fia. Léim an Fheadh. Do you know what the Irish means?”

I knew better than to reach for the dictionary. Dónal told me not to bother with spelling and grammar, as I needed to hear and feel the language first in the way a child learns.

“So much lost,” he said, “when the English outlawed Irish. Léim an Fheadh means ‘the place where deer jump across’. A sound that is a poem.” He reached over, took my hand, and said, “Let’s say it together.”

So, we did. “Very good, mo stór,” he said, after a few tries. Mo stór. My love, my treasure.

I was Dónal’s ardent suitor bearing flowers, strawberry scones, and crossword puzzle books. Whenever I was frustrated and struggling with pronunciation, he took my hand, leaned in close, held my gaze in his, and said, “Tá sé ceart go leor, mo stór.” It’s okay, my love. And every time, I blinked away tears because no man had ever spoken so tenderly to me.

In his kitchen, I admired a beautiful purple orchid in the window. “I always kill them,” I said.

“I gave that to Phyllis long ago,” he said. “She’s the one who keeps it alive.” Then he looked out the window and gestured toward the back of the garden. “Dudley’s out there. A great, great dog. The best. He kept us young.”

I pointed to a plaque on the wall: Rules for a Happy Marriage. “Everyone needs this,” I said. If one of you must win an argument, let it be your mate. Never bring up mistakes in the past. Neglect the whole world rather than each other.

Dónal laughed. “When I was first learning Irish, I went to a dance and said to a girl, ‘Tá tú mo gach rud. You are my everything.’ She said, ‘Gach rud agus níos mó. Everything and more!’ That was Phyllis.”

I’d watched them together, how they joked and laughed, how Dónal tapped Phyllis’s nose as if giving a kiss, how she gathered his keys and cap so he could drive me home on the rainy days. Despite weathering the losses and difficulties true to all marriages, theirs was still first-flush, head-over-heels solicitous love after 60 years.

On a drive home, Dónal mentioned he’d finished reading my book. “You understand families. Grief, joy, and people who hope to be loved. You care about getting the words right, even in Irish.”

Dónal keeps an eye on Kerry as she works on her Irish at his home in Limerick.
Dónal keeps an eye on Kerry as she works on her Irish at his home in Limerick.

I’d worried, stupidly, that my book would be off-putting, but just my ageist assumption – as if an 89-year-old man, 60 years married, had not also lived a life of joy and sorrow, longing and loss, loneliness and love.

“See you Monday,” I said, as he pulled to the kerb in front of my home.

Dónal laughed. “I don’t like to get ahead of myself,” he said. “Maybe Monday. At my age, it’s day to day. Bi go maith! Bi slán, mo stór!” he said, as I climbed out of the car. Be good! Be safe, my love!

How lovely and how lucky you both are to have found each other

“See you Monday,” I said again, “Dé Luain. Dé Luain. Dé Luain.” As if saying these words could keep him here and with me forever. As if the word for Monday, Dé Luain, was a synonym for Mo stór, Mo stór, Mo stór.

I gushed about Dónal to my friend Máirtín who said, “Mo stór. An old-fashioned endearment. You don’t hear it much. How lovely. Really, how lovely and how lucky you both are to have found each other.”

I thought of the abrasive salutations I’d received on Tinder and Bumble over the years – “Hey Babe, Down To F***?” and “I’m married. Do u care?” – and how online dating turned my hopes for love and intimacy into a demoralising algorithm.

Yes, how lovely and how lucky. Álainn agus ámharach.

At our last lesson, Dónal and I exchanged addresses but did not say slán, goodbye. Instead we said, “Slán go fóill,” goodbye for now.

“Write,” he said, “as Gaeilge and we can be together that way. Tá tú go hiontach, a stór.” You are wonderful, my love.

“Tá tú go hiontach, a stór,” I said, words that are a sound poem, a love poem.

Kerry Neville is a a former Fulbright scholar at the University of Limerick and a professor of English and Creative Writing in Georgia College in the US. She has published two short story collections, Remember to Forget Me and the GS Shandra Prize-winning Necessary Lies.

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