An American in Ireland: ‘I have never been somewhere I wanted to stay so much’
I know I might be an optimist or an idealist for the many ways I love this country
Conner Habib: 'Unpredictability is what makes Ireland feel that things are still run by people, not by algorithm.' Photograph: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times
Outside my house, when the thick black and white street cat harasses the robin at its nest, I try to love them both. The robin – different here than in the US, the orange only a half-blush, not like the American variety, ash colour with that same orange reaching the end of its belly – flies up to my sill, trying out every call it has to alert me, so I’ll scare the cat away.
“That cat is brutal,” a friend told me. “I hate that cat.” But as soon as the cat’s finished bullying, I like him again. He sits on the tops of cars and meows happily whenever anyone walks by. And I pet him.
I know I might be an optimist, or an idealist, or a romanticiser, for the many ways I love Ireland. I tend to allow space for whatever is beautiful and hopeful to appear. For instance, I count magpies slowly. If I see only one clattering around on a roof in Portobello, I’ll ignore the omen until I spy another pouncing through St Stephen’s Green, then count that magpie as two, and dispel the sorrow.
That seems to me to be a quality of this place; it can be sorrowful but also remove the sorrow instantly, at any moment, especially if you ask it to.
You moved from Los Angeles to here? Why the f**k would you want to do that?
I came to Ireland for the first time when I was 15, with my mom and stepdad and sister. I had never been somewhere that I wanted to stay so much as here; but I didn’t know why. Nothing was reasoned out, it was just a feeling. And one that stayed for nearly 25 years, until I finally resolved to move here. Now, in Dublin, I find myself trying to explain it.
To my friends who I was leaving in America, to my new friends in Ireland, to the Dublin taxi drivers who laugh, “You moved from Los Angeles to here? Why the f**k would you want to do that?”
And to myself. When I posted a thread on Twitter recently about the things I love about Ireland, it (this phrase has always been unpleasant) “went viral”. Tens of thousands of people liking the thread, kind words from Irish people around the world; retweets from Irish embassies and politicians and artists. I was so deeply grateful that Irish people were telling me that I’d managed to express them in ways that hadn’t been “twee” (a new word for me), and relieved to find that my reasons made sense.
1— Conner Habib (@ConnerHabib) January 24, 2020
One year ago today, I moved to Ireland.
I've always wanted to live here. So! To celebrate:
Here's a thread about some things about Ireland & Irish people that I really love.*
(*Dear Irish friends, go easy on me for loving it here! I know compliments are...tricky for you!) pic.twitter.com/e119s9X04S
Ireland is a place visitors love without ever seeing it
Too often I was told by many respondents that visitors and blow-ins force the romantic vision and crowd out the problems. Ireland is a place visitors love without ever seeing it. I know that’s the tension of any true home: eternal love coupled with detailed frustration, and a frustration that’s amplified when it’s ignored.
That frustration makes sense to me too. It’s hard to love the cranes, for instance. They look like weird gods that clutter the air of Dublin. Carrying out plans for “development” that too often don’t develop anything that helps anyone. As I pass an old stone house wedged between a convenience store and a smashed facade, or empty and nondescript new houses littered across what’s been dubbed the Wild Atlantic Way, I pray that Ireland won’t die into newness, that it won’t die by becoming young.
But when I turn the prism, I can think of the crane operators and the builders taking pride in their work; work that is at turns satisfying and skilled and dangerous. As a kid I worked construction for my dad, and I remember the satisfaction of a nail going in, of callouses, of taking breaks and talking to the other workers, who I couldn’t help but be attracted to, in paint-spattered pants, adorned with dangling hammers. Well, they’re across Dublin, and I admire them as they stand, handsome, outside the sites.
I have no right to tell Irish people what’s right for Ireland,
but I have a strong feeling that whatever it is, it’s neither
new nor old
On my mantle, there’s a book from 1896 called A New Ireland. People have been dreaming of new Irelands as long as they’ve been romanticising old ones. I have no right to tell Irish people what’s right for Ireland, but I have a strong feeling that whatever it is, it’s neither new nor old. Neither buildings that creep across Dublin to house tech dreams while homeless people huddle against their glass and metal doors; nor a desperate clinging to the past that resembles the tactics of violence in other countries far more than any Irish way of life.
Maybe the reason the thread resonated was because it wasn’t a dream about a new or an old Ireland. Those “new” and “old” are the actual distortions, ways to leave Ireland behind while pretending to represent it. Ireland has a heart that is not impressed by dreams of it.
Poet, priest and philosopher John O’Donohue remarked that it was our spiritual duty to make others feel beautiful. And I think, I hope, that this is a pathway out of new Ireland vs old Ireland dead ends. Beauty is a different path, not against cynicism – for cynicism has its own beauty, especially here – but one that makes a friend out of the world. Ireland, at least, has been friendly to me, so I’m trying to see the ways in which it is friendly, in which it is beautiful.
I’m thinking here of the cyclist who, after being struck by a car and smashing its windshield, got off the ground and shook hands with the driver. For me that handshake was shocking. It was beautiful. They’d both been scared, so now they could be friends.
I’m thinking of the trains. I’ve been on trains to Belfast, to Sligo, to Maynooth, and sometimes the engine lingers on the track, indecisive or broken, but late either way. When we finally start up, the green rushes by, so overwhelming in its presence that your heart might break because you know you’re in it. Unpredictability is what makes Ireland feel that things are still run by people, not by algorithm. Predictability is a way to take sides, and beauty – like nature, like love – is never fully predictable.
I’m thinking of the clouds blowing above the house I stayed at in Letterfrack, the wind always breathing in. Beautiful enough, but then, stopping for a bit, its absence revealing the birdsong underneath. Was it there all along? I’m thinking of poet Brendan Kennelly’s vision of Ireland lifting off the ground in his book The Man Made Of Rain, and how underneath the apparent beauty, there was still more left.
And I’m thinking of the thing I remembered the most from my trip to Ireland decades ago – this sky. The way it’s lively even when grey, the way it looks like a brighter version of the water that laps against the paths in Sandycove. Everywhere I’d lived in the US, when clouds gathered, they’d make a mood out of themselves, both inescapable and brooding. Not here. The island may lie dark, but in Ireland, the daytime sky can’t help but give itself to us.
Conner Habib is an author, student, and host of the podcast Against Everyone With Conner Habib. patreon.com/ConnerHabib