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

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.

So much of what I remember about our time here, about my entire childhood, is fragmented. I do not have a -forward-marching memory of my youth, in which recollections line up like good soldiers and tell my story in an orderly fashion. Instead, my memories stop and start, appear and dissolve; they evoke broad emotion more often than they offer a detailed chronological narrative. Much of what comes to mind has an otherworldly, uneasy quality: My mother and father loom as powerful and unpredictable figures, whereas my presence is shadowy, as if I were only lurking around their lives, not actually creating one.

Now that I am steadier on my feet—which is to say, deep into adulthood, with a family as well as hard-earned friendships with both of my parents—I want to revisit, perhaps revise, my notion of the past. Recently, for example, I was distracted by a work dilemma, feeling fraught and put upon, sweating in the summer heat, when my three-year-old daughter began to pull at me and scream. Something in me snapped, and I shrugged her off, ordering her to stop grabbing me. It wasn’t a devastating revelation, but it was enough to send a small flare of forgiveness across the years toward my own mother. A series of these demystifications led me to want to go one step further, to go back and find the reality of a time that had become grandly mythic in my mind. Doing that, I hoped, would help me release some of the unhappiness that I had come to feel over the decades since then.

The month I spent in Ireland with my parents and sister was, as it turned out, a pivotal one. It would be the last vacation we four would spend together, and it would also become the axis on which our family narrative has since turned. During our stay, my mother resolved that she would confess to my father that she had started a relationship with a woman who was not only a close friend of theirs but also the fiancĂ©e of a man in their circle. Because events unfolded from there—my parents split up the following year; my mother dated men again briefly before finally moving in with her girlfriend; my father remarried and spent the better part of a decade writing a novel about a woman leaving her husband for a woman—our month in Ireland came to be known as the starting point from which we rocketed eccentrically forth.

When my mother told me some months after our return from Ireland that she and my father were getting a divorce, I immediately “burst into flames,” as she put it, and demanded to know why they’d even given birth to me if they were going to do something like this. “Your fire was justified by the awfulness of the moment,” my mother now recalls, “but I also thought it showed how long you’d been worried about it coming.”

My mother’s secret—vibrating not only in her thoughts but also in my father’s premonitions as well as our vague perception of their problems—did hold sway over the household for much of the time we spent in Ireland. A mute anguish pressed down on us, occasionally surfacing in the expressions on my parents’ faces. I can clearly see my mother lying across the end of my bed as I described a nightmare I’d had the night before. The people I loved had turned into ghosts and come to me with this sinister promise: “You will be in our time.” But even then, sweetly draped at my feet with concern in her eyes, my mother seemed far away.

“I knew that what I was about to do would play out for years in our family,” she told me recently. “But I also wanted to hold on to our countryside idyll a little longer. I felt you and your sister seemed happier and freer in that landscape. I was aware of how extreme and strange, even shocking, the news of my affair was going to be and that once it was out in the open, we would be taken up in a current of destruction that would just drop us where it would. I hoped that we’d be OK eventually, but I was terrified to think of what we were going to have to go through to get there.”

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.

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 Tue, 2014-01-07 18:11

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