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

Is there value in re-encountering places from your history? I feel the experience fell short of what I’d expected. The flash of recognition in the dining room had offered a moment’s revelation, but it wasn’t sustained. Other people lived in the house now; we were in the way. My stomach hurt. Hank’s shoes were wet from the rain. In the smoky corridors of the mind, such realities are excluded; memory is exalted.

Later that week, we go for a drive around county Kilkenny—the region that includes both Kilkenny City and Thomastown, among other places along the river Nore—and come upon the most spectacular views. We pull the car over and look out at the great patchwork of green sloping down the hills and across the rolling land. Some of the surrounding tiny towns—Knocktopher, Bennettsbridge and Graignamanagh—are age worn but still have those defiantly optimistic, brightly colored doors.

We go to the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey, a Cistercian monastery of the 12th century. It’s raining again, which makes everything more beautiful; the weathered gravestones scattered higgledy--piggledy across the vibrant grass glisten. As I walk among the dead, I think about the disappointment of my return, its stubborn refusal to yield more.

But then, slowly, over the course of our last days there, disparate thoughts come together to offer meaning. I’d hoped to use memory to travel backward through life. I’d wanted another chance with myself as a child with young parents; I’d aspired to some kind of reconciliation. Instead, I learned that I could not provoke or manipulate my memory by revisiting its actual l-andscape—and also that I needn’t have tried. This place holds far more power, and promise, in the grainy footage of my mind than it could ever offer simply by my seeing it in the world again.

RELATED: Seeing Kilkenny for Yourself

NELL CASEY edited The Journals of Spalding Gray. She lives in Rome with her husband and two children.

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First published in the February 2014 issue

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