It is my birthday and my sisters and I are crammed into one of the late-night clubs in Dublin, where everyone flocks when the regular pubs close. We can barely move. We clutch our beers, taking teeny sips, avoiding the spills as the crowd jostles us.
Jean bought a little Irish drum called a bodhran earlier in the day. We haven’t yet gone back to Siobhan’s dorm room, so Jean is forced to bring the bodhran into the club. She is very embarrassed and keeps talking about it.
“I can’t believe I have a drum in a nightclub.”
“I look like such a loser tourist with this drum.”
She instructs Siobhan and me, “If anyone asks, tell them I bought it for my nephew.” Of course no one asks. No one even notices.
Finally, Jean feels so persecuted by the imaginary judgmental Dublin night-clubbers she has created that she exclaims to them, “Yeah?? So WHAT? Yes. I have a drum. Okay? I have a drum. You got a problem with that?”
Earlier that day, we had driven to see the spirals of Newgrange. They upset me. Everything of any importance or resonance has happened millennia ago. An abyss between then and now. An abyss between the present moment and my ability to experience it. I love my sisters with an intensity that hurts my heart, but I do not know how to express it. I feel very alone.
An Irish guy approaches. In striking up random interesting conversations with strangers, the Irish have no equal. He has barely introduced himself before Jean brings her shame out into the light. She blurts at him aggressively, “Hey! Ya like my drum???” She doesn’t want to give him a chance to silently think she’s an idiot. She wants him to know that she already knows. He grins kindly at her and compliments her bodhran, unfazed. We shout above the insistent house music. I have trouble listening, still surrounded by the ghostly spirals north of Dublin. He asks us our itinerary and tells us we must go to Clonmacnoise. Jean shrieks, “We went yesterday!!” He tells us about his years in Australia, his sister with Down’s Syndrome.
“I moved back ’cause I’d like to be closer to my brothers and sisters, y’know?”
His words cut me, standing as I am, beside my dear sisters, feeling light years away from them.
He references the Spanish Armada. He is politically sophisticated, understands how the system of checks and balances work in the U.S. government. I listen to him, the rest of the thrumping gyrating pounding world dissolving into quiet stillness. A bright spotlight from overhead shines down, and I alone stand in its pool. The Irish guy comments on this, taking me in with his eyes. “It’s a beautiful image, isn’t it?” he says to my sisters.
Up until this point, it has been a four-way conversation. Full of witty banter, and interruptions. But after seeing me in the pool of light, he turns to me specifically, and says, “Sheila. Do you believe in fate?” He isn’t asking because he already knows the answer, or wants to engage in an ideological debate. He is looking for something from me.
Suddenly I am very calm. I feel that I have something to say about fate to this man, this stranger. “Yes. I do believe in fate.”
There is a sadness within him, reaching out towards the sadness within me, the sadness that is my constant companion.
He says, desperately, “Do you believe? Really?”
Again, a wave of calm certainty rises. “Yes. I do. But I also believe that it is not immediately apparent, or obvious. Sometimes you have to wait. Only in retrospect does it become clear that something was meant to be.” I shriek this in his ear.
My words seem to give him comfort. Something very private has happened between us. Later, looking back on it, I have a hard time believing that this exchange even took place. It seems like something out of a dream. We are in a deep cool pool of certainty, lit up by the beam of light above.
One of my sisters interrupts ourtête-à-tête, and informs him, “It’s her birthday today.”
I am not surprised when he gasps, looks at me, his hand going over his heart, as though this information affects him personally, and on a very deep level. There is also a tinge of hurt in his expression, as though I have been holding back on him. Suddenly, I know with clarity that if he said to me in the next moment, “Will you marry me?” I would say, “Yes.” He doesn’t propose, but he does lean down, puts his mouth right next to my ear, making the hair on my arms rise up, and recites something to me in Gaelic.
Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.
Go raibh cóir na gaoithe i gcónaí leat.
Go dtaitní an ghrian go bog bláth ar do chlár éadain,
go dtite an bháisteach go bog mín ar do ghoirt.
Agus go gcasfar le chéile sinn arís,
go gcoinní Dia i mbois a láimhe thú.
The words are guttural and soft, grounded in the earth, yet also airy, hard to pin down. Gaelic is mostly consonants, yet when spoken all you seem to hear are vowels. Or, come to think of it, maybe it’s the other way around. Jean comments, as we listen to the Gaelic radio station on the Aran Islands, “You can so tell that this is not a romance language.” If I shifted my consciousness by one degree I would be fluent in the language of my ancestors. I am sure of it.
He finishes, and straightens himself back up. I feel that something important just happened. An exchange of energy. Power flowing back into me.
I say, “What was that?”
He grins. “The Irish blessing.”
I think of that man now. I do not know his name. I barely remember his face. But he gave me a gift in that moment, one I will not forget. So I say to him in return, using my own admittedly inadequate language:
May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rain fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.