It’s an Irish wedding in the far end of nowhere. Nowhere is on the rugged west coast of Ireland and is so heartbreakingly beautiful, it twists a bone inside of you which you never knew you had. It almost hurts. You take a breath every time you pause to look around, because you know you’re going to get it taken away.
Brutal jagged granite rocks you could cut your hands open on, young pointy mountains so new that ole man deep time hasn’t yet had a chance to chaw down on them, cold freezing waters with small but great fighting fish, a huge sky sent from God himself that changes from minute to microsecond, green rain-drenched grass but the warmth within it all is the people who carved a home out of the alternative to hell which was supposed to be Connaught.
We’re in the local tiny church and in a pew three or four jumps back from the front, I suppose as befits my woman’s standing as an aunt of the bride, though nobody is that bothered about pecking orders. Wedging yourself into the place and finding a seat is good enough.
There’s a young couple in front of us with their two children. They’re a typical Irish story. He’s one of the shinier pennies who went away to Canada for a brief sojourn and met and married a local girl. She of course is Canadian but is very proud and aware of her Croatian heritage. First generation immigrant. In a sense, a perfect match.
Their older child is as pale as most Irish kids, but the twoish year old daughter has inherited her mother’s slightly sultry perfect skin. She smiles at us with milky teeth and big brown inquisitive eyes and we resist the impulse to start playing with her as she drapes over her mother’s shoulder looking at us. It’s a no tickling, no teasing zone, no poking your finger at their tummy, so behave yourself in church Pointy.
She’s already wrestling with her Momma because of the boredom of the ceremony. They’ll be going back to Canada after the shindig and I think that’ll be hard on the grandmother, but that’s the job, as we’ve all learnt. You only get them as your exclusive pleasure for a tiny little sliver of time. Anything after that is just gravy.
Unusually, there’s two priests doing the splicing on this occasion but they seem to work together well. As it turns out, one of them started teaching on the same day at university as the bride’s father, so this is an old mate’s thing. Fellow academics. He gives a sermon and it’s quite wide-ranging, eclectic and erudite. I don’t think he missed touching upon an ism. It’s all good stuff but when he hobbles out from behind the lectern making heavy use of a walking stick, he excuses himself for not being Swifty McGuire by saying he’s in the queue for a hip operation because they’re “waiting for bits.”
The delivery, timing and his slightly Bull MaCabe look are perfect for the quip and he gets a good laugh. He can do the lovable Irish priest thing but I later watched him from afar climbing alone up the five steps at the entrance to the hotel where the reception was being hosted. Every one was well-considered, well-calculated and a tough guy thing you were not going to interrupt if you’d any decent manners, though you’d keep an eye on him. Step after painful step, he made it and you do admire that sort of determined fortitude. Ernest’s grace under pressure.
The bride is beautiful, radiant and having her day. Whatever happened to that shy skinny little waif who was all elbows and knees and not a pick on her? She looks gorgeous and on this day any man would walk straight through the very fires of hell for her. Her man, whom I’ve never met before, has all the good signs surrounding him. He comes with a solid family and a posse of young friends who are dead set to help him celebrate the occasion without embarrassing him. You make judgements of any man but the kind of people you find around them speaks volumes.
I’m at the reception, sitting at a table and enjoying a fine meal of lamb and the company of my in-laws. I remember something the old priest said and smile. You marry a girl from the mountains, you marry the mountains and the people who live in them. That’s very true. I have a deep regard for them and they’ve always been good family to me.
The meal is lovely, every course delivered by slips of Irish girls who deftly clear away the wreckage of the last one before putting the next one in front of you. People say thank you to them as the plates arrive, because we’ve all had kids who did those jobs. We finish the meal and it’s time to listen to the speeches.
It’s an accident of the seating and geometry of the room, but we’re in what’s termed an acoustic shadow. What that means is that someone might be firing a cannon in the next valley beside you but you’ll never hear the damn thing. We can’t hear a word of the speeches but after confirming it’s not just you who’s been suddenly struck deaf, we follow the visual cues and dutifully clap at all the right points.
There are an unusual number of speeches but then something strange happens and everyone falls so quiet, we can actually hear it. Her father has written a song for her and the occasion. He sings it alone and unaccompanied to a hundred or so people; pins dropping would be a clash of cymbals in that silence. For a moment, the Atlantic stops beating the shit out of the coastline to listen.
He gets a deserved round of applause at the end, not least because with a voice like that he’ll never make Ireland’s Got Talent, if there is such a show, but because it artfully combines a father’s chronic love of a daughter and a few teasing digs at her. Irishmen and their lonely impulse of delight. He’s accepted letting go of her and you can see he’s feeling vulnerable; he trusts she’s under another man’s protection now.
Tables are cleared away to make room for dancing and the band kicks off. They’re under strict orders to play a few Eagles numbers because the bride’s mother is a big fan. No problemo, these guys can play anything con gusto, as they say in the Hispanic barrios of county Galway. People start beating the floor, but I head for the bar. Best to get a bit liquored up before shaking my booty and anyway, the white wine during the meal was a tad too sweet and warm for my rather dry white crisply chilled Riesling taste.
The barman loads me up a large Jameson’s, ice and water and I casually ask if there’s a cigarette machine in the place. Getting a pack of smokes nowadays is a bit like making a buy in the old days, if you know what I mean. He gives me one of those second too long are you sure looks before flogging me a pack at some outrageous hotel price which he apologises for. Sod it, I’ll get back on the wagon after the thrash. Like Mark Twain said, giving up is easy – I’ve done it a thousand times.
I borrow his Zippo and step outside onto the large veranda for a smoke and to watch the grey and Prussian blue clouds tip toeing their evening way between those big brooding fuck off mountains. A decent drink in one hand, a smoke in the other and some wilderness TV to watch as I enjoy them – who needs bloody heroin.
The band is good. They know how to work a crowd. Hotel California seamlessly meets swamp rock, the pretenders, planxty, radiohead, elbow, Celtic rock, ceili favourites, rock anthems and even a stab at gangstagrass. People are dancing away enjoying themselves. They finish up the second half of their set to a great round of applause and the DJ takes over the heavy lifting duties from there on.
Like the band, he knows his job; two or three high energy dancing numbers followed by a slower let’s catch our breath one, and keep running that play at them until they start to flag at the end of the night, which is when you do a few smoochy “swoop” numbers. As usual and despite what the blokes think – poor little lambs that they are – it’s not just them who’ll be doing the swooping at the end of the night. The lassies are just a bit more subtle about it. You can see why a lot of couples meet at weddings.
It’s about three o’clock in the morning when he finally packs up but people hang around in the silence, not willing to let go of the event just yet. My wife has danced herself to exhaustion and had a great time. We’re about to drift off to our room when a young girl starts singing. She’s sitting in a booth and we can’t quite see her but we don’t need to really.
It’s something old, Irish and evocative.
I lean against a door jamb listening with pleasure, my arm around my woman’s shoulders, her arm slipped under the back of my jacket and the other around my waist as she snuggles into me and we enjoy the song together. The girl in the booth is bullied into singing another one and then a young buck stands up to do a long and funny recitation that everyone shouts on cue the repeated line at the end of each verse. They’re going to be doing their own thing for a while yet but we call it a night and leave them to party on. Youth, despite what the magnificently named Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde said, is not wasted on this bunch. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth.
It’s the next day, the pace of celebration has moved down a couple of notches and there’s a relaxed buffet that afternoon because very few people were up in time for breakfast. It’s followed by an even more relaxed evening ensconced in the hotel’s sprawling bar. Both families are from the same county but not the same town, so naturally there’s a bit of friendly rivalry.
The bride’s dad, nagged by popular demand, sings his song again but this time supported by one of his sisters on guitar. They’re an accomplished lot. Obviously, the new in-laws have to field a singer in response and they do. She’s actually very good but the friendly slagging off both clans are giving each other is impressive. Witty, humorous and not an ounce of ill will in a bit of it. Good people.
It’s a nice wind-down evening and with no loud music to contend with, people chat away about anything or nothing. It’s time to renew acquaintances with some people I haven’t seen in years without having to lip read. Their faces are older but then again, so is mine. People like myself start off somewhere and end up somewhere else and it’s difficult to stay in touch from different countries.
I begin to miss my homeland but after so many years on foreign soil, you know that place no longer exists anywhere other than in the dusty recesses of your memories. There’s probably a shopping mall or parking lot been built over the top of it all. That scribbling pen moved on years ago; it’s an old scab I’m determined not to start picking at this evening. You can’t unring the bell.
Never go back, as my father warned me, because he knew me only too well. I now truly understand that faint shadow of sadness that was always lurking somewhere way out there on the far periphery of the man. Given a choice, he’d never have left, but he was a good man doing his best for his family. He masked it well, but there was always that little bit of him that stayed behind though.
For some people, the feast is not moveable.
It’s not that you don’t want to go back, but that you know it’s no longer possible. It’s all gone, like Roy Batty’s tears in the rain. It’s on occasions like this I really miss his company but it’s an apples growing on an ivy tree thing, so you move on with your life.
A wedding is the start of a couple’s adventure through life together. They’re making something new, something which will be uniquely theirs and theirs alone; their own exclusive journey. From the look of them, I’m sure it’ll be fun and I can only wish them both a long and happy marriage entwined around each other as the eternal lovers they should always be and blessed with the added magic of a few kids to drive them slightly insane.
It’s the next day and we’re getting a lift to the airport. I sit in the back of the car just quietly looking out of the window as it all flashes by me; stone walls lining the twisty turny jaggedy roads, the mountains, the streams flowing down the sides of them and then wiggling their way through the valleys, becoming rivers and then lakes as they power their way to the Atlantic. Get outta my way.
It’s all green and blue and granite and somehow quietly tunnels deep into that remaining core of you, the last chance saloon bit of yourself you’ve always managed to preserve which is still not too world-weary and cynical to believe in the possibility of a slow knowing wink of magic left behind in the world. If it’s hiding anywhere, this is where it’d take refuge from the numbing uniformity of modern civilisation. Magic, like the old gods, fades away when we cease to believe in it.
If you’re a certain type of person, it calls to you because it sort of knows it’s got a hook into you and senses you want to believe in something that innocent once again. This landscape has that dark watching seductive feel about it and you know that’s dangerous and yet something it’d be so easy to just abandon yourself into. Some visitors are drawn back irresistibly within a year or two, abandoning everything to make a new life there.
It’s too much like Ulysses and the Sirens; yes, listen to their song if you must but make sure you’re securely lashed to your own sort of mast so you can’t be seduced by the madness of it, because there is genuine peril there. Be careful.
It’s easy to see why this country produced some very fine poets, but just like the Sirens, it’s killed a lot of them as well, but I suppose that’s just paying the piper his Faustian dues and you can’t bitch on about that. I’m saying goodbye to it for the moment and hoping to see it again, but an old blessing runs through my head. It’s in an ancient and exquisite, grammatically perfect islander language which will probably be gone by the end of this century, since so few people speak it. Magic’s last wink at us. You probably won’t recognise a word of it, but it has its own power.
Go n-éirí an bóthar leat. Go raibh an chóir ghaoithe i gcónaí leat. Go dtaitní an ghrian go bog bláth ar do chlár éadain, go gcuire an bháisteach go bog mín ar do ghoirt. Agus go gcasfar le chéile sinn arís, go gcoinní Dia i mbosa a láimhe thú.
May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.
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