This Irish vignette has stayed with me throughout the years, the way poignant moments tend to do. It was only a moment, really, yet even at the time I could have told you of its impact; there was something about sitting in Pol’O’Phoil’s porch on the coast road in Inverin that made me think I’d truly arrived in Ireland, that I’d been invited into its inner sanctum and was a part of it now, even though I’d heard time and again that the look of me would have eventually done the same.
The first time I met Pol’ O’Phoil, I didn’t know he was a big deal. I’d struck up a conversation with a woman in a café on Galway’s High Street, who was in for the day from Carraroe. She sat with her bags clustered around her: the red and white stripped plastic kind with the flimsy handles that are doled out in every shop in Ireland. She’d swept them aside to make room for me on the red naugahyde community cushion against the café’s wall, and I’d scooted in gratefully as she accommodated while saying “You’re all right, there.” Her name was Kathleen O’Toole, and she wore her gray hair swept up in a bun over her round, blue eyes. Somewhere in her mid-sixties, I remember marveling at the quality of her skin: fair and translucent, the color of cat’s cream in porcelain, with high coloring that took up residency on her cheekbones and made me think of my mother.
I’d only been in Ireland a week. I’d flown out of LAX to Dublin on Bloomsday, spent four days in Rathgar at the friend of a friend’s apartment then taken the train across the island to Galway’s Eire Square because I’d been told the west would fulfill the vision I held of Ireland: rolling green fields cut through with gray stone walls on the way to the steel-gray sea. So it was here in the café on High Street that I told Kathleen O’Toole I’d be staying for a while; that I’d been offered a job at The Galway Music Center, and needed a place to live. “Where are the fields with the gray stone walls?” I’d asked her, and without hesitation, she replied, “You’ll be wanting to go to Connemara; you should take the bus to Spiddal and call into Pol’ O’Phoil.”
I stood shoulder to shoulder with Kathleen O’Toole, in front of a music venue named The Lisheen, waiting for the bus out into the countryside. When the bus appeared, it took me by surprise: it was one of those high, huge touring kinds, glossy and black and ominously official. It pitched and rolled through Salthill then turned left on the coast road, and came to a teetering stop in Furbo and Barna, before it touched down in Spiddal, where I thanked Kathleen O’Toole and disembarked. I couldn’t tell you now, exactly where Pol’ O’Phoil’s office was, but I do know it was amongst a cluster of shops along the side of the coast road. I was so new to Ireland at this point that I was swimming with disorientation over the sheer novelty of everything, but I found Pol’O’Phoil’s office because it was the only one with a glass door. He was on the phone when I walked into the worn, linoleum floored room, and I felt his wise owl eyes take my measure knowingly because everything about me screamed American outsider. He hung up the phone and listened patiently as I gave him my complete story, which he nodded through with his poker face as if he’d heard it all before. Without preamble, he reached into his desk drawer and presented me with a lone key topped with orange plastic. He laid it on the desk between us and said, “Now,” which I later learned is the Irish way of completing a transaction.
The place I rented was a one level, two bedroom holiday home in Inverin, with a kitchen and living room behind a spacious glassed-in porch. It was one of four positioned in a row on the same property beside Pol’ O’Phoil’s house; all perched on a hill overlooking the coast road, facing the boundless fields that ambled down to the sea. It was the modern architecture of the holiday homes that told me Pol’ O’Phoil was a forward thinker, for his real estate was glaringly dissimilar to the white-washed, thatched roof cottages peppered throughout the region nearby. In time, I learned his particular vision was the magnanimous sort, for he elected to do his part in bringing this particular stretch of Connemara up to state of the art standards in his capacity as local mayor, and that it was he who saw to it that the Knock Airport was constructed to fly passengers to the Aran Islands, although it was not he who laid this information bare. It seemed Pol’ O’Phoil had a certain reputation in the area, and word eventually drifted to me from the lips of locals that he was impressively well respected, even revered in the little area that was not much more than a certain stretch of the road.
And so it happened, one early evening, that I came to call round to Pol’O’Phoil’s back door to deliver my monthly rent. The kitchen door flew wide in mid-knock, and there stood Pol’O’Phoil’s wife, wearing an embroidered apron and wielding a wooden spoon.
“I was just after making dinner for himself,” she said, when suddenly a voice filtered from beyond, inviting me in. “Well then,” she said, then turned her back to lead the way to the residences’ porch, where Pol’O’Phoil sat king-like in a wicker chair.
Sometimes you find yourself in the presence of someone whose very essence makes you sit up a little taller. Pol’ O’Phoil exuded authority in his low-slung, square intensity; his steady gaze and no-nonsense manner held me fast as he offered me a chair. He conducted himself as if he’d called me to this audience; he asked me about myself in that covert manner the Irish employ when it comes to ferreting out information, which can only be described as leading the question.
“So you’re long here and doing some writing, you are,” he began, and one thing followed another in what morphed into an even, give and take exchange. Somewhere along the line he must have decided I was harmless, for the air shifted when his wife brought me a cup of tea, and he motioned for her to sit down and join us. In soft rhapsody, their story unfurled: that she was from Roscommon; that they had met as teens. They’d settled in Inverin decades before and raised their three sons, one of whom was no longer with us. I knew in that moment that this pair was no stranger to tragedy. They’d known life’s rough edges and cruel adversities, and in this particular instance, it was revealed, their deepest wound had been wrought from their youngest son’s suicide.
There are some moments, when self-revelatory confession is shared, that mere language becomes too weighty and too much. It hangs in the air with such reverberant force as to break the heart open, and as I sat in stunned silence after Pol’ O’Phoil told me about their son, it wasn’t so much that I was shocked by the fact of the suicide as I was by the fact that he had told me. It had been my impression that the Irish hold their cards close to the vest, yet here I was now in possession of this family’s intimate history. And there I sat on Pol’O’Phoil’s porch in the heart of Catholic Ireland, heavy with the realization that such an aberrant intimacy had been revealed.
I offer no moral to this story, except to say that it served as the pivotal point of the year I lived in Ireland. I knew now that behind that easy banter that often times masks the guarded countenance of the Irish people, there lays an individual story replete with life’s mercilessness. But you’d never suspect this in meeting most of them, for they are not a lot prone to laying their burden at your feet. Yet if they do, you are in-crowd, you are one of them, a part of it all, and the confidential grace they bestow will stay with you forever.