2016 is an interesting year to be living in Ireland. I have observed a continuing crescendo of various commemorations of the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, which will coalesce in the thundering symphony of the hallmark events to take place in Dublin at the end of this month. Everywhere I go, I am reminded of those Fenian dead who challenged an empire in the pursuit of an Irish Republic. I continue to feel, to sense the presence of the dead; their actions and legacies exert an ever-evolving yet continuous influence on the living. As in the blurring of the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds that occurs annually on the Celtic festival of Samhain, the dead remain with us, having imprinted their labors upon our hearts and minds.
I was in Belfast several weeks ago, a place where the line between the dead and the living is not so much blurred as it is torn asunder. Memorials to those who lost their lives throughout the Troubles line the Falls and the Shankill. Murals depict the anguish, the conflicting aspirations, and the fallen from both sides of the conflict. Here, it seems, the dead not only exert a subconscious influence on the preoccupations of the living, but rather, they roar from beyond the grave, reminding Belfast’s inhabitants of the tragedy borne out by bombings and terror. They serve as grim motivation to maintain the ostensibly tenuous peace, as tragic guardians defending against a return to the militant interpretation of Pearse’s fiery claim that “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
After I left Belfast, I traveled to the southern reaches of County Down to a small village called Drumaroad, where my great grandmother Josephine Hanna Golden was born in the early years of the 20th century. I parked beside the small parish church of St. John the Baptist, and just as I have done many times throughout the past few months, I began to explore the graveyard in search of the final resting places of ancestors. I spotted a tall headstone nestled in the shade of an oak tree; the headstone was that of Hugh Hanna, who I later determined to be Grandma Josephine’s uncle (using data recorded in the 1901 census of Ireland).
As I left the graveyard to explore Drumaroad by foot, I admired the beauty of the South Down countryside. It was a brilliant, cloudless day, something I had come to treasure over the past few months of bleak, rainy winter. The emerald pastures gave way to rolling hills on the outskirts of town that rose to form the snow-capped peaks of the towering Mourne Mountains. The landscape brought to mind some more of Pearse’s words, an excerpt from his poem “The Wayfarer,” not as fierce as his graveside oration but no less evocative:
“The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass…
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven”
In that moment, I wanted to ask Grandma Josephine about her life as a young girl in County Down. I wanted to know if, in times of turmoil during her adult life in the Bronx far from the rolling hills of Drumaroad, she closed her eyes and pictured a day like this one, when the sun illuminated the azure sky, glistened off the snowy peaks, and warmed the verdant fields. But sadly, I never knew my great grandmother. I never had the chance to ask her these questions, and I never will be able to ask them. And this highlights the enduring hardship of our human condition, of our mortality. Though the dead may at times walk among us, they can never walk with us. They may continue to motivate us, to be with us in various ways, but they are not here with us in the literal sense. We can never sit and have the conversations or uncover all the mysteries surrounding those who have passed beyond the veil into the unknowing void.
We can exert momentary victories over death during those rare times that make us feel most alive, of which I have had many during my months in Ireland. But to achieve lasting victory, to truly conquer death, requires a more nuanced approach that I believe is exemplified best by St. Paul in his most stirring and poetic epistle, his second letter to the Corinthians: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17—18). This sentiment would have resonated particularly strongly with those who willingly gave their lives in the pursuit of a hitherto unrealized Irish Republic during the Easter Rising. And it resonates with me when I think of the hypnotic call, of the mesmerising affinity I feel for those many ancestors who have passed, reaching out from beyond their graves, bidding me to explore the mysteries of this island and engraining in me its unseen and enchanting treasures, all this beauty that will pass.
Go n-éirí an bóthar libh.