I miss the old Ireland – especially Sunday afternoons when I’d head off with my grandfather in his old, and battered, blue Morris Minor. Amazingly I can still recall its license plate, ZR 5486.
We would be dolled up in our Sunday best: suits, ties, and crisply-ironed white shirts. He never announced where we were headed but the first stop was inevitably a country graveyard.
He was a headstone maker, although he preferred to be called a monumental sculptor. He’d putter around those old cemeteries for a couple of hours in rain, hail, sun, or sleet, selectively perusing ornate Celtic crosses or moss-covered brooding limestone slabs, most of which he had carved himself.
He never spoke during these inspections and I wonder now what was he thinking? I never asked though I inquired about many other things. I suppose we had come to some unspoken agreement that this was the time for his own thoughts.
He had a great sense of history and one day mentioned that he had met Padraig Pearse’s English father - another monumental sculptor. He was full of little jewels of that nature; such details are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to me now – they give you inklings of what life was like before the founding of the modern state of Ireland.
Eventually, he would head back to the old Morris Minor and sit there until he had decided upon which old friend or relative we should visit. He was a very popular man among his own circle and we would receive a hearty welcome in the farmhouse of his choice.
Tea would be made and scones or other delicacies served as we settled in around the fireplace for a chat that would encompass history, politics, gossip, and scandal that would stretch far beyond nightfall. Whereupon another tea would be served with slices of chicken, ham, turkey or occasionally some gamey pheasant.
By then natives from far and near would have gathered - courtesy of the culchie telegraph - to marvel at this visit from two sophisticated denizens of the metropolis of Wexford. After many goodbyes and promises of return we’d head out into the cool starry night.
My grandfather always soldiered through the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on the way home. Did he not know the Joyous or Glorious equivalents or had he by this time in life come to the conclusion that sorrow was more appropriate to his lot?
I don’t know but I learned much from him on those long Sunday afternoons. He told me how his own father had watched thousands of silent, starving people shuffle by in the dark and deadly days of 1847. My grandfather made me promise to give voice to those voiceless wraiths and to “never forget!”
People like him expected little from life. They learned how to entertain themselves, and it was a rare person who didn’t have a party piece – be it singing, reciting, whistling, dancing or, in his case, telling long and involved stories.
They were viscerally connected to the past and believed we were only separated from the supernatural by the thinnest of veils. One of the old ladies we used visit on Sundays was adamant that the electric light had done much damage to “our friends from the other side,” for they no longer had shadows to dwell in.
Time passed slowly in those days and it seemed as though boyhood would last forever. Oddly enough, I last saw my grandfather on a Sunday afternoon. I was living in Dublin then and had hitched the many miles to the home for the elderly in which he dwelled.
I was moving to New York the next day and told him I’d see him at Christmas. He nodded briskly at my optimism. People of his generation were familiar with the trials of emigration.
Alas the naturalization process was slow and my lawyer advised me not to risk going home until my case was settled. It was three Christmases later before I made it back. I was almost in time for he had only just passed away.
I often think of him on Sunday afternoons heading off for some country graveyard. His Ireland is long gone. Whatever would he think of it now?