Tuesday, March 29, 2016
On a shockingly sunny Thursday morning I took Caitlin to Kilmainham. We went because I needed to and I discovered that she had never been. "You've never been at'all?" "Never, I've been to Guinness though, and to Jameson's." "Not quite the same." "I live more in the present than you." "Still." "I've been meaning to, it's just out of the way." I told her to call in sick and we caught the bus and rode out, yes, past Guinness. "But you've been to the Contemporary Art Museum?" "Of course, you've been there with me." I remembered that, I'd harassed her two months ago about the same thing as we rode a bus back from an opening. We were alone up top and she silenced me with an absolutely teenage snog session there in the front seat that carried us all the way back from the western edge of the old city to College Green. "It's right across the street," I'd said then, and I said it again as I picked her up at her loft. "It's right there." She'd just repeated, "I live more in the present than you."
Had I been by myself I would not have wandered the museum, and I might not have taken the tour. One of my students was working at the desk as we came in and would have let me simply wander, but with a first-timer you need to do all the things. And so we walked around among the exhibits, the long history of the risings against the Brits. The attempts to hold onto the culture, onto the language, onto the banished and tortured religion. Then the diaspora – half the population vanishing to death, to Liverpool and Manchester, to Australia, of course to America. Along the way, all the secret and not-so-secret organizations – the United Irishmen, the Young Irishmen, the Gaelic League, the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army: each that curious mix of poetry and violence that makes us so different from Russian or Chinese revolutionaries, or even those rationalist rebels of the eighteenth century in America and France.
But the museum could not affect me very deeply. I needed to sense the stones for that. I started to feel the stone in the walls of the chapel where the tour starts and Joseph Plunkett was married in the hours before he was shot in May 1916. "If you get sentenced to death I might shag you that last night," Caitlin whispered, "but I sure as hell wouldn't marry you." And some Brit tourist in front of us began to laugh. It is after that though, as you duck through short narrow doorways into the dank stone walled corridors and move to where all the Easter Rising martyrs spent their last nights, that you feel the weight. Many of those heroes indeed used that last evening of their lives to pen their thoughts in poems and the romantic prose of long love letters. And the stones then grow in weight. The stone floor of the courtyards where famine victims were buried in quicklime so the bodies would melt into the earth and untold thousands more could be buried on top of them. Those victims committed crimes simply to get into prison where there might be food, and the British reaction was to cut prisoner rations to discourage this. "There was really no food shortage in Ireland," the tour guides always say quite accurately, "or there would not have been had the British not continued to export huge amounts of food from Ireland to England all those years." Two million dead. Two million more fleeing on ships. And the ruling class in England opining in their newspapers that this was God's retribution for the Irish believing in the wrong God. But more than anything else, the stones of the courtyard where the 1916 martyrs were shot.
I've been in America's capital city and I've been in London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin. All home to massive war memorials, and gigantic tributes to the founders. I think they miss the point: the Washington Monument, the Invalides, and all. I've offended people in every country by telling them that they have missed the point. The wonder of heroes is that they are ordinary men and women, born as crying babies, raised as curious or maybe troublesome children, men and women who loved, who lost, who worked, who dreamed, just like everyone else, except that they heard a call. At some critical moment they chose to throw all normal human desires for comfort and even life itself into an incredibly dangerous pool, in true attempts to change the world.
I remembered a drunk argument at Notre Dame: "The Americans, the English, the French, the Germans, the Italians," I said, "they all try to imagine these people as Gods, as much larger than life. That lets ordinary people off the hook. It lets the rest of us say, We are not like them. We are not Napoleon, or Henry II, or Jefferson, or Frederick the Great," I even remember my audience losing interest, in American bars you argue sports, not literature, and surely not history, and so by the time I said, "and so we think that there is nothing that we can do." I was drowned out by some debate over whether the university should play football in the Big Ten.
On this day, in this courtyard, the stone walls towering above us, I said to Caitlin, my arm wrapping her for the first time since the tour began, "the holiest place in Ireland." She looked at me with a strange expression. "Not Tara? Not Christ Church?" she smiles at me, "Not even Joyce's tower?" I was listening to her, but I was really staring at the list.
It is such a simple list. It is such a simple plaque. It is such a simple place. The iron crosses and the single flagpole and the names and dates in bronze relief. Up in Derry on the corner there is a similar list of those who died on Bloody Sunday. Similarly simple. All over Ireland there are lists like this.
We left the prison and crossed the street to the pub and sat in the back by the fire. The pub has been there forever. Did Joe Plunkett's bride drink here on the day her new husband was killed by the British Empire? She may have, along with untold other desperate relatives. "They were all so young," Caitlin said looking at the portraits of the martyrs that filled the room. "Not all." "Most. They were all so young and they were the best of Ireland and they died for no reason." She looked at me while I drank my beer and smoked. "You don't agree," she said, "and…" she let her voice trail off. I looked at her. I was really falling in love with her, though this all felt different from past sensations. And I trusted her. I did, but I wondered, what could I say? How much could I say? "And what?" I asked. "You can say what you need to." She let out a big sigh. "You don't agree," she said again, "and that scares me."
"If they hadn't died," I said, sounding, I'm very sure, like I was in a classroom lecturing, "it would have been another thirty years, at least and we'd probably still have the fucking Queen on our money." She rolled her eyes. "Boys," she said. "Impatient, insane boys." She drained her pint. "Get me one more," she ordered, "using your no Queen money." I started to get up, "And listen fella of mine. I'm not coming to your funeral. And I'm not coming to visit you in prison. I'm telling you the limits right now." I turned toward the bar, then turned around again. "Well how about coming north with me then?" "North?" "Take a couple of day trips north with me," I said, "there are some things that I think I need to look for." She didn't answer, and I went and got the pints and came back. "I will come up north with you," she said then, "but you still understand the limits." "No funeral, no prison visits," I said. "Those are the rules," Caitlin told me.
- Ira Socol (c) 2006-2016