His name was Eoghan, and I never did catch his last name. A solid year spent with the desultory coming and going of this enigmatic man through the door of The Galway Music Center, and I came to accept him as Kieran’s friend from Derry. Kieran rarely explained himself, much less anyone attendant, and because he was the head of The Center, the rest of us were not in the habit of asking. They talked alike, Kieran and Eoghan, but half of the time I couldn’t discern what they were saying. In each other’s company, neither enunciated; they’d slip into a flat, guttural diction that lacked the singing high notes of the west of Ireland’s accent, and I confess it took too much effort to attune my ear to their patois. On Kieran’s lips, the name Eoghan was levelled to the convenience of “Own.” I figured it was a linguistic vortex from there, so I settled with gathering the essence.
Eoghan was older than the rest of us by a good 10 years, but this wasn’t what gave him his arresting gravitas. He had a way of standing that meant business: feet planted, weight centered, eyes with an unambiguous stare. And although I’m an innocuous little thing in stature, no threat to anybody in any conceivable way, the day I met Eoghan, he took his time looking me over. There was a nerve-wracking tenor to his streetwise swagger that seemed crouched and coiled between fight and flight. Kieran once hinted that Eoghan had, and I quote, “Northern Irish connections,” but I paid it no heed because Eoghan’s blue eyes settled the score between his tough-guy countenance and his poetic mind. His eyes were the color of liquid innocence, round and clear and all-knowing; the kind of eyes that saw between layers; the kind of eyes you knew you could trust.
And so it evolved that on a windswept, December’s Saturday, I took the bus into Galway and followed the directions Eoghan had given me to Scoil Lan-Ghaeilge. It was there I found him in the back of the room, wearing a Santa Claus costume and speaking to a passel of fresh-faced children in the Irish language, while a pack of smiling mothers stood by, cameras in hand. It was a scene so incongruous to everything I knew of Eoghan that I had to study it for a moment because he’d never bothered to tell me he taught the Irish language in his spare time. It turned out this was just the beginning of Eoghan’s love for all things Irish. He took a warrior’s pride in his country and possessed a knowledge so deep in its history you would have thought he’d been personally involved at every turn of Ireland’s storied past. Which is why he took it upon himself to invite me to the gentle fields of Oughterard, on the shores of Lough Corrib. He hadn’t divulged our destination; he simply told me to get in his blue Honda Civic, then sped out of Galway on the Headford Road. Twenty six cork-screw miles and 45 minutes later, Eoghan stopped the car on an uneven dirt road. A cattle grate lay before a rusted gate with a padlock, and climbing over it, we stood at the mouth of an unkempt field.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see it: the unfathomable immensity of winter-torn acreage, its wooded grassland beaten to a faded ochre beneath an overcast sky. The earth was sodden beneath my boots as we trudged through the unmarked expanse. Blackbirds and hawks swooped above watching; they sailed in a majestic current with the rights of jurisdiction, and I knew myself to be an interloper in this dreary landscape, where the wind pitched and rolled with a chill that touched bone. Eoghan roved forward in his loose, ambling stride. He held his head with fierce intention, his eyes on the horizon between earth and sky. It was there beyond the rise that I saw it. It rose out of the earth and spread ominously, a thunderous ancient castle, in parts without a roof. A grey stone wall stacked around the manse declaring its prominence. At one time it must have been impressive, but now shrubbery defaced the castle walls, and tangled ivy and moss ravaged through the windows. But still, she upheld her imperious grandeur. There was something queenly in her stately elegance; safe in her desolation, and validating to the soul as we walked her interior then circled her venerable grounds. You simply cannot walk grounds such as this with any amount of Irish blood in your veins without it speaking to you. Something longing and haunting descends like the call of atavistic memory. Something turns in your blood that is probably DNA. I don’t think you can be Irish without Ireland’s history being part of your personal story. I started to say something to Eoghan about this, but from the way he was looking at me, he already knew. And the thing about that day was I half expected Eoghan to hold forth in erudite commentary, but he didn’t. There are some moments so sacred they require no words, and to share them with someone creates an unnamable intimacy best not disturbed. In that moment, I knew something, though I couldn’t tell you what I knew; I just knew. I was there and experienced something ineffably integral to being of Irish descent, and from the manner of his quietude, I thought Eoghan did, too. I suspected it was why he’d brought me here, to this place without a name. It was Eoghan’s way of sharing his homeland, and I am warmed to this day by the gesture. I took the above photograph as we walked towards the castle. It’s unfortunately small and lacks the impact the structure made, but I keep it in a standing frame just the same. It doesn’t capture much of what I saw that day, yet every time I look at it, it brings to mind the most important memory: a peacock proud Irishman in love with his country, that swashbuckling Derry man named Eoghan, whom I’ll never forget.
Claire Fullerton is the author of A Portal in Time and the 2016, Readers’ Favorite award winner for cultural fiction, Dancing to an Irish Reel.