Casting off

This evening I sat on the floor for twenty minutes casting off.

There was this knitting thing, you see. Back in May I had opened the bottom drawer of the bureau in the hall and found a bag with knitting in it. In May I was busy looking at nursing homes. My brain can only cope with one thing at a time. I’d closed the drawer and gone back to whatever else I was doing at the time, just like I had closed cupboard doors on moulding jam and half-used lipsticks and left them for another day, another trip.

Now I can do it. I can open those drawers and I’m ready to consign much of their contents to the skip that’s handily outside the house (yes, I arranged for it to be there). In May I threw out the tissue paper that was everywhere, consolidated items, put all the lone gloves into one drawer and socks into another, found the jewellery that had been secreted away in odd shoes and cubbyholes and hinged tchotchkes. Now it’s September and I’m ready to put them in boxes and send them away: to donate them, to bag them up, to remove them from the spaces they were placed into and set them free.

So when I saw the knitting this evening, that I had pulled out of the drawer yesterday, I said to myself, I need to just do away with that so that I can put the needles and the wool with all the other knitting needles and donate them to the charity shop.

And then, because I had twenty minutes to spare before I had to be somewhere, I thought, No, wait. I don’t need to unravel it. I can just cast this off. And I sat on the floor where the kitchen meets the hall, and in the dimming light I put my basic knitting ability to use and I cast it off.

It was going to be something in baby blue. I don’t know what, though I think there was a pattern in the bag. I suspect it was for Dash, when he was a baby, that it was found too frustrating and stuffed away. My mother was never a great knitter. The biggest thing she ever knitted, to my knowledge, was a moss green waistcoat for my father some time in the 80s. I found it on his shelf yesterday when I went through his wardrobe, but I put it in the donation pile because I don’t think he needs it in the well-heated nursing home. I have no sentimentality, no soul, apparently. Also, I don’t think he ever wore it much, he just couldn’t throw it away.

So I cast it off, the blue knitting that was going to be a cardigan for my baby boy, or whatever, sitting there on the floor in the evening light. I’ll take it with me for the girlchild to use as a doll blanket. Knit one, pick it up, push it over the one before. Off she goes. My baby boy is eleven now, he’d never fit it. I saw my mother today and she was delighted to see me, disbelieving that I was really me, asking me how my exams had gone, moving on to generic questions about mum and dad or the boys, things she could ask anyone, because she wasn’t sure any more who it was but she couldn’t let on.

And then I cut the yarn, pulled the knot through, put the rest of the ball of wool in the bag with all the knitting needles and the patterns, ready to go to the charity shop tomorrow.

And as I sat there I thought how poignant it should be, and how metaphorical it was, and how I could write a great blog post about casting off the past and all that jazz. But really, I was just knitting, waiting, in a messy house, full of memories; it’s reached its time, it’s moving on, as all things have to. Finished off, undone, sent on, sent away. An end and a beginning. There’s always a beginning too.

Seafront at dawn

The annual curmudge

I’m a big old St Patrick’s Day curmudgeon. This is not news to anyone who was here last year or any other year. I don’t want to wear green today or get drunk today (well, sure, but children) or set up leprechaun traps today or listen to traditional Irish music today and I’m only just getting over the mortification of having to see Enda Kenny visit Donald Trump today.

When the word went out that this year’s international dinner at Dash’s school this Sunday would have live Irish music and dancing, I went from vaguely wondering if we could get out of it to deciding that I really didn’t have to show up to everything they put on.

Old map of Ireland, framed, from unusual perspective.
No, it’s not sideways. That’s the way they drew the map.

Then I wondered if I was really a terrible person, denying my children access to their heritage like that. Am I like one of those immigrants who refuses to speak the language of the old country to their children so that they’ll assimilate better, thus taking the wonderful benefits of bilingualism out of their family’s grasp?

Actually, no. I don’t like traditional Irish music or step dancing. It’s part of my national heritage, but it’s not something I feel any personal connection to. Same goes for GAA (that’s hurling and Gaelic football). And we’re not even Catholic any more. But you know what my kids will grow up with?

  • A Hiberno-English vocabulary that they can turn on and off at will.
  • A bookshelf full of books by British and Irish authors many of whom are less well known here, from Oliver Jeffers’ picture books to Joyce’s Ulysses and a lot in between.
  • Knowledge of the canon of Father Ted, Monty Python, The Two Ronnies, and various other bits and pieces of nerdy 80s trivia befitting children of Irish people our age.
  • A better grasp of Irish and European geography and history than many Americans.
  • An understanding that other countries are just as valid and real as the USA and that normal is an ever-shifting concept.
  • Familiarity with the Dublin Monopoly board.
  • Access to plenty of excellent Irish hits of the 80s and 90s, should they choose to indulge.
  • Their grandfather’s watercolours of Irish scenes and historical maps of Ireland on the walls.
A pile of books by authors including Marian Keyes, Kate O'Brien, James Joyce, Julia Donaldson, Liz Nugent, Flann O'Brien.
Not all Irish authors, but all from that side of the pond

And then there’s that book I wrote, too. It’s set in Ireland.

I think they’ll be secure enough in their cultural heritage even if it doesn’t extend to a spot of the old diddly-aye.

Framed watercolour painting of a Galway hooker with brown sails on the water
An Irish painting of an Irish boat


New Year’s Day
I feel vaguely as if I’m coming down with something but I think it’s probably just the jet lag, or the time displacement, or whatever you want to call it when you’ve had enough sleep but you’re five hours out of kilter. Yesterday we went to a kids’ New Year’s Eve party, which is a lovely tradition we seem to have become caught up in, and was just the ticket for us, because we got to count down and release the balloons and sing Auld Lang Syne at about 7:15, and we were home by 8:30. Whereupon three of us went swiftly to bed and one decided he was going to stay up and stick it out no matter what. Around 2am I heard noises downstairs and investigated to find a morose ten-year-old who had unaccountably been unable to keep his eyes open after 10:45 and had missed the whole thing. Since midnight here was 5am in Ireland, where we were until two days ago, I’m quite surprised he managed to stay up that long.

I have a 2000-piece jigsaw on the go and mostly I’d have liked to spend all day staring at it but instead we went out to a New Year’s Day party this afternoon, which was probably the best thing to do because there’s nothing like being in a room full of friends and watching your kids running around in a pack with all the other kids they know to remind you that it’s not so bad to live in a place you don’t come from, if the place you get to live in is this one.

There’s always that touch of the blues that comes with the return journey for me, that makes me wonder why we do it, why we leave what’s so right and familiar and is part of our bones and our souls – the sea and the sky and the stones and the trees – to come to this other place that has all our stuff but none of our history. Except it has all the history of our children’s childhoods now, and as our lives are entwined with theirs, so our futures and our pasts must be too.

Mabel just asked me why we can’t have someone deliver the pizza, instead of going out to get it. I made noises about it being quicker, and it being hotter that way, and because we can, but really it’s because if we got the pizza delivered, America would have won and stolen our souls. (Never mind the fact that people in Ireland also get pizza delivered.)

The day after
Today I feel properly woozy, as if I’m on a boat, or as if I just got off a boat and the world is still rocking. I keep having cups of tea and eating unhealthy things to make it stop, but so far only going back to bed for a while has actually helped. Now the boys have gone off to Rogue One and Mabel and I are watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with a large bowl of popcorn.

My jigsaw met an untimely end, for now – but the good thing about jigsaws is that even when they’re broken they’re not actually broken. I’ll take it out again some time when it’s not the last day before back to school and small tempers aren’t so frazzled.

I’m starting to crave properly healthy food like lemony broccoli and yogurty dressing, but all I could throw together without a trip to the supermarket was roasted sweet potato wedges and chickpeas, with halloumi draped over them. Not bad, but a little dry.

Tomorrow, back to school, back to fresh air and exercise and normality and reality and some writing. It’s going to be good. Here goes, 2017. Don’t fuck it up for us.

Mossy tree beside a small river.
A picture from our walk in Powerscourt three days ago and half a world ago.


The weather has taken a retrograde step. It was just perfect there for a little while: warm, sunny, not too hot, delightful for sitting on the bleachers hearing the “pock” of the baseball bat or taking your lunch outside and listening to the birds twittering their tiny hearts out on the bursting green branches. But now it’s chilly and grey and the forecast is for more drippy, dismal, not-very-warm days. I know I like it not hot, but I also wanted to show off our perfect weather to our Irish visitors, and it’s not optimal. Warmer than Ireland, a bit, but just as unsunny.

But I keep looking around to see how it might seem to new eyes. I always do this when we have visitors. I always want to give them the full immersive experience of Life In America, which is impossible in three days, especially when they’ve never been to DC before so we’re really honour-bound to trek into town and take a few photos outside the White House and with Lincoln and so on. Posing outside the White House is not really representative of our day-to-day lives here, but it would be remiss to omit it.

If you come to visit me I will hoover upstairs as well as downstairs. I will dust the windowsills and the picture frames. I will put out the good slightly better towels and make up the guest bed. I will plan delicious dinners and stock up on wine. I will spend long happy moments anticipating our conversations, in which I explain everything that we do and impress you with how many people I know. (I don’t know why being acquainted with people is impressive, but for some reason it’s what I always want to do.)

I will drive you around and try to make you understand the geography of the town, because orientation is important, and the socio-economic undercurrents and the architectural history, because it’s all part of understanding how it is to live here. None of this will make any impression because you have other interests, but I’ll enjoy telling you. I might not even get to tell you, because we’re friends, so we’ll probably have other things to talk about. But the general gist is going to be that I like it here. It’s a good place. I want you to go home and tell people that we live in a nice place, that we have a nice life, that we’re very lucky.

We are very lucky. I should know; I’m here every day.

But you might be horrified by my children’s exuberance. (They’re always particularly over-exuberant when we have a visitor, because they want to impress you with their prowess at throwing themselves around, at singing and dancing and talking to you and interrupting and having your pay all the attention to them.) You might be appalled by their lack of discipline and the fact that I feed them separately, in front of the TV more often than not, so that the grown-ups can have a civilized meal in peace. That, in short, they are terrible and the jury is out on whether they will become less terrible as a natural course of events or whether they need somewhat more input from the parentals.

If you bring children with you, of course, you’ll probably be experiencing the same thing in reverse, so hopefully we’ll all just pour a glass of wine,  boot the children outside, and relax. The house won’t stay clean, you’ll notice things I didn’t expect you to and breeze right by the picture frames and the socio-economic lectures, the weather will throw an oar into our sightseeing plans, and we’ll have to remain flexible and patient, but we know how to do that because we have children.

We’ve got this. Come and visit me.




Quiet airport sceneOn Wednesday afternoon, I went to the airport. On Sunday afternoon I was back there. In between, I hurtled through the skies in a metal tube, kept aloft by nothing but will power and loud noises, as far as I can tell, to a small country 3000 miles away; and then did it again in the other direction.

It’s a strange life we lead, in this twenty-first century, where people can do things like that.

The first time my dad visited the US, he came on a boat. It took five days. He’s not so old that they didn’t have flights back then, but it was probably much cheaper by sea. But I can imagine that doing it that way at least gives you a sense of distance. You use the time in between to come to terms with leaving one place and going to another: you’re not so surprised when you finally get there that you’re a long way away now.

But when I walk onto a plane, time stops. (This does not apply when travelling with children. Then time becomes infinite.) Then I walk off, and – inexplicably – my surroundings are more familiar than anything I left behind me. The air is damp, the streetlights are orange, daylight creeps into being, voices sound like home. I can navigate to the other side of the city without thinking too hard, just heading in the right direction. I know which way that is.

I spent three days seeing a very few family members and friends. I did some useful things. I threw away a lot of ancient pieces of paper. I brought away a small amount of memorabilia and another tranche of my teenaged bookshelf. I decided I will live the rest of my life quite happily without being in possession of my piano exam certificates, my secondary school homework notebooks, or even my terrible teenage poetry.

Back in the airport before I left I couldn’t shake the feeling that, even though I was returning to nothing but a delightful life with the people I love, Ireland was the right place. Ireland’s just better, in spite of no concrete evidence to support that fact in almost any direction beyond scones and jam, cheese and sausages, people in the service industry who are genuinely happy to help, not finding your presence at their counter a tedious imposition.

The feeling persisted on the other side, at least for a while: I felt displaced, even after all this time, not at home.

Home. Other home. Wrong home, right home, different. It doesn’t matter, really, does it? Here I am.

Harbour scene



Layers like an onion

So, you grow up somewhere, so of course what you learn there is right. The way you do things is the right way, the norm, whether it’s spelling certain words with a u or driving on the left or paying the rent with a direct deposit instead of a cheque. (Or a check.)

And a long time later, when you’ve been grown up for a while, you move to another country, where other things are considered the “right” way or the right words. So, fine, you’ll drive on the right because you can’t exactly rebel against that one, and you’ll spell colour without its u if that’s what they insist on, and you’ll write aluminum even if you still say aluminium, and stop for gas not petrol; but you know deep down that they’re wrong and you’re still right, and you feel pretty comfortable with that. Your way, the right way, is better. It’s more right. Other is wrong, by default.

But insidiously, after a long time, a change comes about that you’re not too proud of. You start to feel, somewhere inside, that maybe this other, new, way or word is not just acceptable but also maybe better, and that your way or your word was actually quite small and provincial. This is a big, shiny, new country. So many people can’t be wrong, really.

Maybe you’re right now, but that means you were wrong before.

And you know in your heart – no, not in your heart, because your heart is still conflicted and slow to accept change; in your head – that neither way is right, that it’s just a matter of different things in different places. But even when you reach that point of balance where you’re sitting right on the fulcrum and can appreciate the joy of all things being equal and no one thing being more right than another, even then you constantly tilt one way or the other with a breath of air, flip-flopping between feelings of superiority and inferiority, smug certitude and tentativeness.

The world opens up and for an instant you understand a fraction more about the vast number of things there are out there that you don’t know, and how hard it is to just let things be as they are, without deciding what’s better and what’s worse. Just for an instant.

And then you go back to being an ex-pat, with all the constant shifting judgement that entails about who’s right and who’s wrong this time.

Lake, trees, ducks
I didn’t have an onion.


Paddy O’Rant

I was quite peeved with the whole St Patrick’s Day palaver this year, possibly even more than usual.

I’m a terrible Irish person, actually. I don’t like traditional music, I buy sweet potatoes more often than regular ones, and I find the colours of the flag garish and tacky. Every other day of the year I’ll loudly proclaim my nationality, but on March 17th in America if everyone’s jumping on that bandwagon I think I’d rather just jump off.

I’ve put a lot of thought into trying to figure out why this is, and how to explain it to Americans who feel I’m dissing their country’s tradition of celebrating the day, as it has been handed down by generations of emigrants a long time before I showed up with my snobby ideas about how it should be done properly.

The truth is, I don’t like it over there either. I don’t really like to make a big fuss of it. It seems jingoistic, and that’s a word that always went scathingly with “American” in my mind. Little flags and drum majorettes are not something I enjoy no matter what colours they sport, really.

But it is what it is, to coin an Irishism: those who are celebrating their national day, the day of their nation, are sometimes a bit put out when those who are celebrating the day of their heritage start to make it their own.

Irish people are pretty sure that, whatever the concrete shortcomings of our country – and there are many, and we will recount them at length for you – Ireland is in fact the best place in the world to be from, and it’s better to be from it, you yourself right now, than to have forebears who were from it.

As a small country with a big history of emigration, we have family all over the globe, and a reputation, deserved or not, for being friendly and welcoming. Everyone loves Irish people. We lap it up, the worldwide loving of us.

Saints and scholars, pints and poets, the green and the gold and the rain and the mists.

Americans (the nice ones, like all my friends) try very hard not to feel superior to anyone else, because they come from a huge and powerful country and wouldn’t want to look pushy. Germans have the terrible history of World War Two drilled into them lest they ever again decide to put themselves above any other nation. But Ireland, presumably like any other small, formerly colonial, country, has no such qualms. We’re jumping up and down at the back of the classroom with our hand up trying to get your attention, and when we do, we feel very entitled to hang on to it by making all sorts of eejits of ourselves so you don’t forget us.

We’re not a threat to anyone, that’s for sure, so all we can do is delight you with our entertaining ways, whether that’s in music or words or acting or donating to charity or being hilarious or drunk or a hilarious drunk or going out of our way to do a favour for a total stranger.


Anyway, I booked a ticket the other day so in a few weeks I’ll be over to inject myself with a quick shot of sea air and rain, Ireland style. Maybe it’ll make me less ranty.

Green hillside, grazing sheep, sea, clouds
Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry; last July