Michael Harding: Subtle and awkward silences as families say goodbye at Knock airport

Loved ones bid farewell as emigrants leave Ireland following Christmas visits


I woke as darkness still hugged the mountains. The cats were still asleep in the shed. I drove down the hills towards Carrick-on-Shannon, passing a few trucks on the way. In Carrick, a woman was cutting the twine on a bundle of morning papers outside the Spar shop.

“You’re up early,” she said. “I’m heading for the airport,” I replied, grabbing a coffee before driving on through Roscommon on winding roads, past sleeping houses, where trellises of Christmas lights still hung like fairy cobwebs along the guttering of an occasional bungalow in the dark.

Even along the N5 towards Westport, the road was empty, with only the lights of Ballaghaderreen visible in the distance where people still lay in their beds waiting for daylight.

In the middle of Mayo, though, the airport stood defiant, on a hill surrounded by bogland, a miracle of light and hope.

I began to meet more traffic. More headlamps. Until I reached the car park where families were wheeling their luggage towards the terminal building.

It’s a long time ago since a faint glow illuminated the gable wall of a church in Knock and folks put their hands through it to see if their Gods were solid or of air, but they would have marvelled no less at the terminal building.

In the XL shop that sells newspapers chocolate and coffee, I asked the woman behind the counter where I might get breakfast.

She directed me to the restaurant upstairs, which was about to open. I found the food and I found a quiet table, but I couldn’t find any drama. I couldn’t find operas of loss or heartbreak playing out before my eyes.

I didn’t see anyone faint from sadness in the airport or be dragged screaming from a barrier as their children walked away to a boarding area.

All I could feel was a sense of stillness, as if there was no obvious pain involved in bidding farewell.

In the 50s it was different. I remember a man in Mullingar telling me about the boat he took long ago.

“There was a slatted floor where we stood,” he said, “and the cattle were below us. The boat rolled in the swell and the cows messed themselves all the time with the stress and the smell coming up through the floor took away our dignity.

“We felt we were not much better than cattle. It wasn’t saying goodbye to our mothers that hurt. It was the lack of dignity in the leave-taking.”

Homecomings and leave-takings

But that’s not the case now. Knock is a cathedral of dignity and restraint in the face of loss. I sat in the restaurant in a swirl of light.

Homecomings and leave-takings, funerals and christenings, and holidays in Alicante were all discussed in quiet tones at other tables.

Accents from London, Manchester, Glasgow, Warsaw and Belmullet wafted in the air.

And yet it wasn’t like an airport. The calm atmosphere had an edge to it.

The stillness was potent. There was no music on the intercom, no endless stream of announcements, no manic fuss about shopping, and nobody afflicted by that mental anguish that is caused by endlessly checking Facebook.

People just waited. And it was just a bit edgy with expectation, like the waiting room of a maternity suite.

An old man in a cardigan read the sporting page of the newspaper as he stood in the middle of the room gazing at the departures board.

A young woman in a black leather coat and leather boots up to her arse stood beside him.

They must be from different planets, I thought, until he spoke to her and they conversed without looking at each other and with such familiarity that I realised they were father and daughter.

But they, too, seemed unusually quiet and restrained.

The restaurant upstairs opened at 9am and the darkness outside dissolved in a wet drizzle and at the food counter people queued for scrambled eggs, sausages, and mugs of Bewley’s coffee.

Then a flight was called and the gates opened and I saw what I had come to see. I saw something as subtle and delicate to observe as an apparition on the gable of a church. I saw the little chink that opens sometimes in the universe and allows love to manifest in human form.

I saw the invisible made visible as certain as anyone might see God in a crust of bread or a child’s face.

And it happened again and again, each time a flight was called. And it happened at each table, between each couple and in every family cluster. It was the little nativity that everyone had been waiting for.

That strange birth of pain and love that comes unexpectedly to the human heart as a single event when a family is being rent asunder. It’s called saying goodbye.

Small chats

This is what the long miles were about, the awkward silences, the small chats over breakfasts that no one wanted and the pretence at reading newspapers. This is what it was all for. This was why everyone had been silent. This was the thing that no one wanted to miss.

The thing that everyone wanted to get right. To say goodbye and say it well in gesture and word.

Gradually I saw that it was happening all around me all the time in a thousand hidden moments. The farewells happened with such discretion that they were hardly noticeable. Sometimes no more than a whisper in the ear.

The last touch of a hand at the departure gates. A little tugging on a coat sleeve.

This wasn’t a single dramatic apparition of God, but a hundred tiny nativities of love shimmering in damp eyes and opening arms. The lips moving so clearly that I could spell the words.

“Don’t forget the sausages.” “Say hello to everyone.” “Happy new year.”

The last moment of physical intimacy is always a miracle. To breathe in love for a second and then hold it for another year as if each year was an eternity.

At the window, three brothers held a child to the glass so he could see the plane.

In another corner, a woman had spread Quality Street sweets on the table between herself and her granddaughter, as they waited for their moment, for their flight to be called that would whisk the young woman away to Birmingham so that she could return to her studies in Newcastle.

A young couple held hands at the table beside me. They talked of iPads and the price of Samsung phones.

A stout elderly woman in an anorak looked on as helpless as a child, until her moment approached. Her own little quiet nativity was about to happen.

“I’ll walk down with you,” she said. She meant she’d go down the stairs to the gate. That was all. And her face muscles struggled to be still as pain and love wrestled inside her for dominion.

Later, after a full breakfast, I walked across the car park, watching cars negotiate the security barrier. Cars with empty rear seats, no suitcases in the boot now, as they journeyed back into the mists of Connacht.