Putting the Past to Rest in Ireland

The setting was idyllic, her childhood visit anything but. Thirty-four years later, Nell Casey returns to spectacular Kilkenny to gain perspective on the revelation that blew her family apart

by Nell Casey
Nell Casey
Photograph: Katherine Wolkoff

Meanwhile, my father—who at that time had just buried his godson and his favorite dog and would soon do the same for his father—had hit the hard grind of midlife only to sense that things had gone spooky in his marriage as well. “I knew that something was up. I just didn’t know quite what,” he recently recalled. “The idea was—well, a friend mocked me for it. He said, ‘Oh, that’s right. That’s the bourgeois remedy for marital trouble: Take a trip to Europe.’ ” This was an attempt to stop time, to create a temporary escape, but as the saying cautions, wherever you go, there you are. And there we were—my sister and I, as immaculately young as my own son—about to be flung into the maelstrom of our fracturing family life.

On the second day of our mother-son trip, Hank and I drive to the house my parents had rented all those years ago in Thomastown, about 20 minutes south of where we are staying. (Kilkenny was the place we had frequented for grocery shopping and dinners out.) We pass wide, open fields with cows blinking slowly and gnawing thoughtfully on grass. This part of the country reminds me a bit of Rhode Island, where I also lived as a child, with its low stone walls and swaths of land running alongside the narrow roads.

The plan is to speak with our former landlady—who still owns the property and is a talented artist—and then tour the grounds, ending with a visit to the house of my childhood memory. She is admirably breezy about being drawn into this adventure, especially given that she doesn’t recall our family ever having been here. Hank has also been a willing companion, happily traipsing across Ireland with me. I haven’t told him the background details of this trip—mostly out of an instinct to preserve his innocence for as long as possible but also because it seems like history that I need to return to alone.

Hank and the landlady sit together, drinking fruit shakes and listening gamely as I try to unravel why we’ve come. I explain how this place made a dramatic impression on me—a superficial version of the truth—and I am curious to find how it strikes me now. I recall some of the happier scenes: My sister and I gathered eggs from underneath the chickens in their coops every day, offering an anchoring sense of routine during our stay. We played often in what felt like our very own forest, with a row of trees creating a shady roof of leaves.

The three of us wait for the rain to subside—there have been daily downpours, living up to the Ireland -stereotype—and then venture forth. Nothing feels familiar enough to hang on to as a guidepost. I see hens and geese in a fenced-off part of the property, but I can’t tell where we might have gone to gather the eggs. There is no forest either, although we do walk across a field with a scattering of trees that offers a caress of familiarity.

When we finally arrive at the house, however, things start to come into focus. We walk into the dining room, a long, narrow space with large French doors opening out onto the garden, and I feel a flush of recognition and relief. This is the room of my memory—where we sat for dinner, where I greeted my cousins when they came to visit, where I ran through the doors to play.

In my mind, though, the rest of the place had been all white walls and sharp angles, stern and sophisticated in the way that modern houses arrange themselves. But as we walk around, I realize that’s not quite right. The house is as bright as I remember, with sunlight pouring in, but is not as architecturally severe. We go upstairs. I find my old bedroom. I stand at the spot where my mother and I once huddled together in my bed, both of us trying to allay our anxieties. I think about my dream again. You will be in our time. There will always be a ghostly beckoning toward the past.

First published in the February 2014 issue

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