Revisiting my grandmother’s jail – rather than indulging in the clichéd rolling meadows, pubs and the Guinness – was the most emotional event of the recent trip to my homeland, Ireland. I recalled hearing words of wisdom from Granny when, in my boyhood days, on summer holidays I accompanied her, large bucket in her hand, on daily trips to the well, her only source of fresh water. The well was “east-the-road,” as she would say, a journey of about 150 yards.
By the time I got to know her, she was already a widow. Her husband, a teacher, died in the year of my birth. “What’s all the world to a man when his wife is a widow?” she would say in sad, saintly tones when referring to him and his passing. Mother of nine grown children, she by then lived in her home, a large now lonely house.
The residence, a converted former police barracks, still retained some of its original architectural distinctiveness – in particular a jail-room with a massive steel door and lock. Granny and I often delighted in child-play and frequently she locked me – and I her – in the jail. We knew that the house’s residential conversion provided the jail with an easily opened rear exit door. Nevertheless, some local kids and I played many variations of cops-and-robbers and hide-and-seek during which we used the jail-room with its exit door that we camouflaged to the best of our ability.
Prior to my visit, my sister gave me a copy of a recently published book, researched and authored by members of my grandparents’ locality. It was dedicated to the local national school for its 100 years of service to the community and provided a rich reservoir of memories, stories and photographs including that of my grandfather, the principal at the school’s opening in 1909. Scanning the old rolls was a joy in itself. They contained the names and addresses of more than 1,000 past pupils. Familiar names like Murphy, McCoy and McCarthy peppered the rolls together with the “O’s” such as O’Connor, O’Neill, O’Shea and beyond.
A few short years ago, during the school’s reconstruction, a “dear finder” letter was found hidden behind a coat and hat rack. It was hand-written on Sept. 4, 1928, by a 12-year-old student. She was an aunt of mine, a daughter of the principal and bemoaned her life and loneliness in her little village of Kealkill, County Cork. It stated that she was fed up with school and lamented her solitude and lack of friends while wondering what her life would be when she grew up to be “an ould gray goat.”
Other highlights of my atypical sun-drenched holiday – yes, a 10-day rain-free jaunt in Ireland – included delightful reunions with my family – one sister and two brothers – all of whom provided me the traditional “Céad Míle Fáilte” (hundred thousand welcomes) that included an outdoor picnic in the magnificent grounds of Carriganass, a local historic 16th century castle.
As planned, I visited my grandmother’s house now occupied by an aunt. Regrettably, just three weeks after I purchased my airline ticket, she lost her son, stricken suddenly by a heart attack. I, having lost a dearly beloved daughter, empathized with the intense pain of her bereavement. Distraught and tearful, she showed me the urn containing her son’s ashes, now secured in the room where once there was so much joy and fun. May both souls rest in “Glory.”