The two old men sitting across from us—one possibly in his sixties, the other maybe in his late eighties, elbows lightly touching, suggesting the humble tenderness of a father and son—ought to have their picture taken. They have as much character in their lined faces as you see in a Walker Evans photograph, and they tell as much of a story: These two frail men make a moving portrait of the inescapability of family.
There is, I confess, an element of projection in this observation. I am on the Irish Rail with my son, Hank, heading southwest from Dublin to Kilkenny, hurtling back through memory, revisiting a time and place where my family—my mother, my father, my older sister and I—lived for a month 34 years ago. I was eight then, only slightly older than Hank is today. And at 42 I am roughly the same age my parents were then. This family echo has spurred a restless tug-of-war within: Sometimes I feel more sympathetic to my then struggling parents; other times, I’m more protective of the child unwittingly caught in their crossfire. This trip to Ireland holds the promise of letting me walk into the past—when my parents were trying to keep their marriage together, when I was filled with the engulfing anxiety of a child in over her head—and try to see us all through the eyes of an adult.
As we drive into Kilkenny on High Street, I am not, as I’d hoped, thunderstruck with recognition upon seeing the small city’s main drag, where my mother once bought fisherman’s sweaters for my sister and me. And yet the place quickly feels familiar, offering itself eagerly to visitors, its stores and restaurants concentrated in just a few blocks, and with local pubs announced by signs displaying the ubiquitous shamrock sitting alongside good Irish names like Lenehan and Ryan. Front doors are painted bright red or blue or green or yellow—a famous Irish custom reportedly begun in Dublin in the 18th century as a way to distinguish one identical Georgian row house from the next. They are so joyously personable, you can’t help but fall for their charm. We arrive at Butler House, the hotel where we will stay for a week. It was once the dower house of the town’s main attraction, Kilkenny Castle, a 13th-century mansion that sits alongside the river Nore with a lush stretch of land reaching out behind it. This castle was the principal home of the noble Butler family—earls and marquesses of Ormonde—for almost 600 years, until 1967, when it was given to the people of Kilkenny in return for a token payment.
It was through a connection to the legendary Butler clan that my family came to Kilkenny in the first place. Hubert Butler, a celebrated Irish writer, began a long friendship with my father, also a writer, when they met here in 1979. His daughter, a dear friend of my parents’ in Virginia, where I grew up, suggested that we rent a vacation place near her family’s home. And, inasmuch as time can spiral away only to snap suddenly back in on itself, her daughter Suzanna now lives in that same family house.
I call Suzanna once we’ve settled into our hotel, and we fall into an easy, funny conversation, though we haven’t seen each other in more than three decades. “You remember that field where you used to ride the horses with your sister and those twins?” she asks. I draw a blank. “You don’t remember? Well, it’s funny to call them twins, really—it makes them sound as if they were kids. They were actually about 100 years old. You and your sister would sometimes ride the ponies with them in the afternoon.” I look out my enormous bedroom window at the hotel’s walled garden—eight precisely trimmed hedges encircle a tiny stone wishing well—and wonder what it means that Suzanna possesses this memory from my life that I do not.