Back to the source
Novelist Emma Donoghue has travelled far and wide, but her heart always returns to the green turf, crashing waves and family gossip of her native Ireland
There’s a ramshackle cottage on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, and I want to be there right this minute.
We’ve stayed there in previous summers, a week at a time, with the same old friends from Dublin (360km to the northeast). Sometimes rain keeps us in for days, nattering over tea and biscuits. Sometimes Irish sunshine astonishes us. The rooms are all different heights and our teenage son never fails to stun himself on one of the lower door lintels. There’s a lushly wild garden out the back door, where we can hang up our washing and pick herbs and greens. A gate in the back fence lets us cut right across the turf to the shore. Two horses in a field, grateful for apple cores. Craggy outcroppings. The crashing sea, the pebbly sand and nobody in sight. Our own private patch of heaven.
I don’t know exactly why that particular rental cottage seems to be pulling on an invisible string in my chest. (My family and I were meant to be there in July but had to holiday close to home in Canada instead.) Is it the quiet of the place? I’m a culture vulture who doesn’t usually seek out silence, but when I’m on the Beara Peninsula – which is inexplicably spared the crowds who flock to similar Irish wild beauty spots – I suddenly hear the emptiness and I feel my shoulders let down. Is it the mysterious consolation, for an emigrant twice over, of feeling that I’m back in my ancestral homelands, which are littered with standing stones and dolmens? (Killarney, where the Donoghue line begins and my grandfather lived, is only around the bay.) More likely, it’s the fact that the friends-of-30-years we go there with are among those I treasure most in the world, so even a week of uninterrupted time with them restores me like nothing else.
One good thing about this pandemic is that we simply can’t take travel for granted any more. It’s been a compulsory pause, a hard reset, that moment in the game when someone calls “Freeze” and you try to hold still and not wobble so much that you’ll fall.
Like many people whose job has international elements, I have (I see now) travelled too much and too fast. There are American cities whose names ring only a faint bell with me – did I overnight there for a book event? Film distributors once flew me from Nice to LA for four hours, to film an interview. I didn’t eat anything there, and didn’t even get jetlagged because I never saw the California sun. Every now and then over the years I’d feel bad about my carbon footprint… but it didn’t stop me saying yes to the next gig.
So it’s not work travel I find myself pining for now – except for some unique experiences (such as theatre rehearsals or film shoots) that absolutely have to be done face to face. No, what I’m craving is to fly for reconnection: to be with the people and the places I love that have been out of reach for half a year.
My father, for instance, is 90 and on the other side of a closed US/Canada border. I wish I could be on the sofa beside him this afternoon, sharing cake and fretting over the upcoming election. I’m thinking of the mediaeval walls of York, where we have great old friends. I want to be at their kitchen table at midnight, eating cheese and making each other laugh. There’s Barcelona, where Gaudí’s sparkling buildings make me laugh out loud, and you don’t go out to dinner till midnight. Or Athens: I could go back to the Acropolis where I haven’t stood since I was 19. Maybe India again, and for longer than four days this time, I swear! (I remember those leaping monkeys and caves full of holy carvings in Sanjay Gandhi Park in Mumbai.)
And my French partner and kids and I have a special fondness for Nice, where we’ve spent two separate years. I’d love to see sunset on the Promenade des Anglais, that long and leisurely ribbon of pavement on which pleasure-seekers have been strolling and carnival-processing (despite wars, terrorism and plagues) for thousands of years.
But most of all I long to be in Ireland, because one of the best things travel does is bring you back to your wellspring and let you take a long gulp of it. I left my native land at 20, but with enthusiasm and curiosity about a wider world. I’ve never regretted that departure but, like all emigrants, I find that some sadness comes with the territory. Spending time in Ireland every year (usually visiting every few months) has been a crucial umbilical cord for me, a recentering, a reconnection to the source. I am of Ireland, as the mediaeval rhyme begins, even if I’ve now lived outside it (eight years in England, 22 in Canada) for longer than I spent there. Walking on Dublin’s long Dún Laoghaire Pier with my sisters or brothers as we did when we were kids; catching up on the gossip and scandals. I can’t explain what it satisfies in me to glance out the window, when the pilot says, “Ten minutes to landing, folks”, and see the wet green patchwork of fields below me, the jagged edges of where I’m from.
So this is the trip I hanker for: nothing exotic, not some bucket-list jaunt or once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Just to go back to Ireland, to have another week with the same old friends in that cottage in West Cork (for all the chances of rain), to hear the same note again, like a rhyme. I hold that cottage in my mind, a place away, and, I tell it, I’ll be back.