Bill Sheehan

That Dublin is renowned for both the gift of gab and the Book of Kells is not merely a coincidence. This is a city of stories, a city of writers and poets, wordsmiths and playwrights, a city of intricate flourishes and grand ideas. 

This is also a city of pubs, perhaps because as someone once observed, “no great novel ever began by eating a salad.” Here, it’s all about the conversation. Although some pubs provide entertainment, in many there are no fiddles or pipes, no mournful renditions of “Danny Boy”, nothing to distract from the pressing task of putting the world to rights.  

James Joyce liked to hang out at Davy Byrnie’s pub, William Butler Yeats at Toner’s where tall tales and great literature share a corner table with the poetry of Seamus Heaney and the plays of Samuel Beckett. Dublin is a UNESCO City of Literature, and there are few cities that care so deeply about the written word. As Frank Delaney once observed in his book “Tipperary”; “We Irish prefer embroideries to plain cloth. To us Irish, memory is a canvas - stretched, primed, and ready for painting on. We love the "story" part of the word "history," and we love it trimmed out with color and drama, ribbons and bows. Listen to our tunes, observe a Celtic scroll: we always decorate our essence.”  

My grandparents, although they met, and fell in love in Boston, were both born in Ireland in the late 1800’s and emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century. My grandfather, it is said, departed with an “Irish Goodbye”. Now sometimes referred to as “ghosting”, the reality in the 1800’s in Ireland was that, due to economic hardship, want of work, and the near-feudal land system, many young people were forced to leave the country in search of a better life. Sometimes a gathering of family and friends was held, sometimes not, but at some point the “guest of honor” would simply disappear. At the time, distance and technology meant that when someone went to America, or elsewhere, they were gone forever, and it was unlikely that they would ever again speak to or see friends or family. To save everyone the pain and sorrow of departure, there was often no handshake, no hugs or kisses, no final embrace, they simply left. As James Joyce once wrote, there is more than one meaning to the term “the dearly departed”. 

In 1995, nearly 100 years after my grandparents left the country, my wife and son, and I went back to Ireland, found the old family farms and reconnected with our Irish families. In the best Irish tradition, my grandfather’s brother Jeremiah had retired as a policeman (what else?) and opened Sheehan’s Pub in 1934 just off St. Stephen’s Green in the center of Dublin, his sister Nell and her husband had opened Jack C’s Public House in Killarney, and our cousins continued as proprietors of Kate Kearney’s Cottage in the Gap of Dunloe, an inn, restaurant and bar that the family began in the 1850’s. In the ensuing years we made several other trips back, but mostly we’ve all embraced storytelling and letter writing, and have kept in touch ever since. 

So, I’ve become a man of letters which, in the grand Irish tradition, conveys nothing more than the fact that my correspondence is not by email. I write letters; hand-written, ink on paper, and mailed through the postal system, the way my grandfather did. And they respond in kind. I love the process; its slower, more thoughtful, there’s no delete key so I have to actually think before I say something, but above all it’s more personal, more intimate. It’s not cc’d to twelve other people. I can imagine my letter being shared in perhaps the same way my grandfather’s letters were shared; being read aloud to a gathering of family around the dinner table. 

In these uncertain times our letters have become more frequent, and the family concerns that were once the focus of our correspondence have now broadened to embrace the calamity that’s overtaken the world. Our desire to connect with family and loved ones has become more urgent, and I wrote a few weeks ago to say that in these uncertain times we were thankful for their friendship, frightened at the possibility of its loss, and fearful of the possibility of another Irish goodbye. I suggested that given how fast the world was moving, perhaps letter writing had become simply too slow. Still, I was surprised, and ultimately delighted at their response when the first Irish email appeared in our lives. 

 It is, like most things Irish, full of laughter and heartbreak but also, once again, a promise of a better life. It is something that begs to be shared. 

Slàinte mhath!

Go Outside and Play!

Well apparently it’s true. As I’ve been told repeatedly throughout most of my life by many people beginning with my father, but have steadfastly refused to believe, I am not in fact the center of the universe. I was informed of this fact once again.

A serendipitous encounter in the high desert just outside Cle Elum, WA during a brief period of clearing on an otherwise rain soaked weekend in early August; the Perseid Meteor Showers is one of the most astonishing spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. Shooting stars streaking across the sky and disappearing so fast you’re not really sure that you saw them, and other stars falling in long, graceful arcs as if something imagined or remembered from a childhood dream. So many stars falling from the heavens that after an hour you’d think the skies should be empty, completely void. And as the clouds rolled in again, and the rains again began to fall, the sky did appear dark and the earth appeared to sparkle and glisten as if covered with… well, stars.

There are a few simple and unexpected encounters in life that stand out from the rest and seem to illuminate what an extraordinary and wondrous world we live in; night-blooming jasmine, fire flies, banyan trees... this is one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars came out only once every thousand years.

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how 

would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations 

the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown! But 

every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe 

with their admonishing smile...” 

And we watch television. Should we instead be building cathedrals, writing poetry, symphonies, hymns and prayers to the greater glory of God? Perhaps. We do seem to have lost our collective sense of wonderment, or perhaps the world just moves too fast now. Or perhaps we don’t even bother to look anymore, after all it is kind of an awful distraction from Tweeting and Twittering.

I remember Mom’s admonition clearly: “Get out of the house! Go outside and play!” I guess she was right after all.

Keeping Quiet

It's a beautiful spring day here, the warmth of the sun has coaxed out a profusion of new life, but it is eerily quiet. The familiar hum of traffic has disappeared, the clatter of caballo hooves no longer echoes down the cobblestone streets, even the prayerful murmur of the funeral cortege that once slouched past our home on the final leg of its journey has gone silent. It’s as if the needle has been lifted from the grooves of the ever-spinning circle of our lives and the music of the spheres has suddenly gone silent. The roosters still call out their morning prayers, and the bird songs that were once drowned out by chainsaws and leaf blowers are now the only thing that mark the slow passing of the hours, save for the endless drip of the kitchen faucet.

Silence and solitude have always been inseparable companions. This is the realm of poets and writers and never has so much been said about saying nothing. I’m reminded of Wendell Berry, novelist, poet, farmer, in his instructions on How to Be a Poet. “Make a place to sit down.” he begins, “Sit down. Be quiet.” 

We are all bi-lingual, we all communicate in our native tongue, and in silence. But language is a barrier as well as a bridge, it helps us to communicate some things and hinders us from expressing others. Silence is perhaps a better way to communicate with nature, in the cathedral of the forest, in the dark of night, on the shore of the ocean, with the birds, and the stars, and perhaps with ourselves. 

“Keeping Quiet” is a poem written by the Chilean poet, politician, activist, diplomat, and Nobel Laureate, Pablo Neruda, and although written in the 1950’s it is perhaps especially appropriate for these times. 

He first asks us to count from one to twelve - something we’ve all been told since we were children to calm ourselves down. He then requests everyone not to speak because languages create barriers between people. The moment when everyone sets aside whatever they were doing and becomes quiet would be a moment such as the world has never experienced before. 

The poet says that in this moment of silence the fishermen would not harm the whales, the salt gatherers will not hurt their hands, those who are busy destroying nature will discover a new appreciation of life. The men who are preparing for wars and causing the deaths of innocent people will join their rivals and stand in unity with them, doing nothing. No one will harm another. Everyone will unite and contemplate the repercussions of how they spend their lives. 

Naruda is not asking that we stand idle, but to pause from the mad rush to achieve all that we can in the limited time we all have on this earth, and reflect for a moment on what we are really achieving, and what we have lost in the process. Perhaps a little solitude and a little quiet will cause us to rethink those things that are truly important in our lives. 

Keeping Quiet by Pablo Naruda 

Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still

for once on the face of the earth,

let’s not speak in any language;

let’s stop for a second,

and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines;

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea

would not harm whales

and the man gathering salt

would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,

wars with gas, 
wars with fire,

victories with no survivors,

would put on clean clothes

and walk about with their brothers

in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about;

I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us

as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

Dancing with Chihuahuas

As we step out into the early morning darkness, she's afraid that I'm going to get lost or do something stupid so the dog makes me hold on to one end of the leash so she can lead me home if I go terribly astray.  

The streets are quiet save for the roosters calling out their morning prayers, and the only other sign of life is the flash mob of street dogs appearing, disappearing in the spotlight of the streetlamps as they rush frantically, noses to the ground, back and forth across the cobblestones.

I lift my head into the cool morning breeze and head off intently toward no place in particular but the dog's interests lie in the opposite direction, closer to the cobblestones. She is as intent in pursuing her pleasures as I am in mine, and so the morning tango begins. Two quicksteps "adelante" as she drags me toward the curb, an abrupt, twisting "media vuelta" and a stumbling  "atrás" as I attempt to regain my balance and rein her back in, followed by an elaborately executed "corrida garabito" in which we both end up hopelessly entangled in the leash. 

We continue our hesitant tango for the entertainment of the adobe walls, the amusement of the cobblestones, the silent applause of the moonlight as we dance a little "contrapaso" onto the next block and then round the corner into the final stretch home.

The narrow view down this Mexican street as night meets day and the pink rip in the sky slants toward orange, makes me question once again, "Did I forget to unplug the toaster?" I've seen this before. Was it the footage of the wildfires raging across California, or that spectacular pipeline explosion in Texas? 

It makes me wonder if Dante Alighieri once lived here. Was this the ethereal light that he struggled to describe in the final canto of the Paradiso? Did Homer walk his dog here too in the early morning hours but neglect to mention Ajijic as the forgotten town in the Odyssey as the source of the repeated epithets extolling the "Rhododactylos Eos", the "rose fingered dawn"?
Some mornings Eos arrives as an explosive spectacle, a fiery chariot drawn by powerful horses blazing into the sky accompanied by the endless scheming and chattering of Homer's gods. 

This morning she appears as a waif, pale and thin, arriving silently, hesitantly, a lonely refugee from the night. 

Still, not a bad way to start the day, or welcome the dawning of a new Spring.

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