They had wanted to go to the Holy Land for their honeymoon but settled instead for the Holy Ireland where his mother and father had been born. They used a book called “Ireland on Five Dollars a Day” as their guide. They stayed at bed and breakfast places and, except for some expensive dinners, made it around Ireland on $5 a day.
Early on a Sunday afternoon, they drove into Lahradane, a widening in the road as his father called it, the little town closest to the cottage where his mother was born and raised. They walked into the crowded pub and up to the bar. “They’ll give you directions to the house,” his mother had said.
The bar maid smiled broadly and said to the man, “You must be Paddy Joyce. We’ve been expecting you.”
“And you must be one of the Murrays,” he said. She looked just like her three sisters who had come to Chicago over the past 15 years.
“The house is hard to find,” she said. “My brother Timmy will go with you to show you the way.”
The 12-year-old boy got in the back of the car and directed them down a gravel road, then down a narrow dirt road with hedges on each side. It was a tight squeezed even for the miniature car they had rented in Galway. Ahead of them an old lady dressed all in black was riding a bike down the road.
“That’s Sisheen Brown,” Timmy said.
“Sisheen Brown in one of my mother’s best friends,” the man said. He stopped the car and introduced himself and offered the old lady a ride. She threw the bike in the hedge and climbed in the car, and off they went to see his Uncle Anthony — his mother’s brother – and Aunt Rosey and his cousin Tricia.
The thatched roof, whitewashed cottage looked like something from an Irish tourist guide but it was the real thing, his family’s home for a century. Inside, a single light bulb hung from the ceiling. Electricity had arrived in this hamlet called Tonacrik a decade or so earlier.
Tricia was cooking dinner – ham, roast beef, potatoes, cabbage, turnips – all of it in the big fireplace. They made the newlyweds feel as if they had known them all their lives. Anthony peeled the boiled potatoes for the young woman from America. When she said, she could eat no more, he said, “Sure, go out for a little walk around the house and come back for more.”
After dinner, Tricia warmed tea on the coals near the bottom of the fireplace. Rosey sat next to the fire smoking a cigarette until it almost burned her fingers and flicked the tiny butt into the fire. They fixed a fine dinner for the visitors from America, but when you’re poor you waste nothing.
In the wall next to the fireplace was a niche where his grandfather had slept in his 80s and 90s – a man who had fled Ireland in the 19th century rather than go to prison for poaching salmon on the landlord’s river. In those days, the British owned everything in Ireland. Somehow his grandfather got in the British Army and went to India before finally getting back home. The only thing he remembered about India was that it had “a lot of mosquitoes.”
When he got back to America, the man asked his mother about the fireplace. “Do they ever put the fire out?” he said.
“No,” his mother said. “It’s always chilly and damp. You need it to keep warm.”
Some time in the last half of the nineteenth century, someone in their family lit a fire in that newly built cottage. A century later that fire was still burning.
They motored down to Dublin, alternately amused and terrified. Irish drivers of all ages seemed to drive with the reckless abandon of American teenagers. They ignored the advice of “Ireland on Five Dollars a Day” and stopped on the way at a miserable roadside motel. For the rest of the trip they stuck with the book.
In Dublin they went to lunch at the American ambassador’s residence, an imposing old building in a big park. The only other residences in the park belonged to the Pope’s envoy to Ireland and Eamon de Valera, a sort of George Washington of Ireland. A well-connected Baltimorean had gotten them the invitation. Apparently he had embellished the newlyweds’ resumes a bit. It quickly became clear that the ambassador was wondering, “Who on earth are these kids?”
They managed to make it through an exquisite meal served by men wearing white gloves without embarrassment. When lunch was done, they left quickly. The ambassador did not press them to stay.
They walked around Dublin through soft rain and gentle sunshine. They had high tea at an ancient but impeccably maintained hotel, then went to a nightclub to hear a folk group sing Irish rebel songs. They served only whiskey – no beer, no wine, no soft drinks, no water, just straight shots. He was a beer drinker, she a bit of a wine connoisseur. He had wanted to hear real Irish music, so they stayed and slowly sipped the whiskey.
They circled to the south and spent a night at the Cashel Palace, a bed and breakfast in a mansion a Protestant bishop had called home. They had French coffee with brandy and whipped cream and in the morning they woke to the sound his mother had told them to listen for – the sweet sound of the cuckoo.
They arrived back in New York with a hundred dollars and some change. In a world of 50-cent gasoline that was a respectable amount of money but after a dinner at an expensive restaurant staffed by surly New Yorkers and a night in the airport hotel, they had just enough money to get their car out of the parking lot and fill it up with gas for the trip back to Baltimore.
They got home with about $10. They didn’t know it at the time but that’s they way their financial life would be — just enough money to pay the bills with precious little left over. It was often frustrating but never overwhelming. They would have thought more about money if they had not been so distracted by the tumult of a house full of kids.
He was 28, She was 26. Two working class Catholic kids with no elaborate plans. They would start a family. Six kids seemed about right but they had no idea where that figure came from. He would go to work every morning. She would care for the kids.
They wanted only a simple happy life, but they were not idle dreamers. They knew we live in a fallen world where bad things happen even to good people. Decades later, a six-year old grandson would ask the man, “Pa, why are there bad people in the world?” He fumbled for an answer and finally said, “I don’t know why there are bad people, but I do know that even if we can’t stop them from being bad, we can do our best to be good people.”
“Where’s the Simca,” he asked. He had gone to get the paper from the doorstep, and saw her car wasn’t parked on the street where the left if before the honeymoon. It wasn’t much of a car, an obscure French miniature of uncertain age.
She smiled a slightly embarrassed smile and launched into a long explanation that boiled down to a simple fact: the Simca had been sold to pay off her credit card bills. He shrugged. The Simca wasn’t much of a loss. They still had his six-year-old Beetle. They would drive to work together. They would do everything together.