The first month I arrived in Ireland, two friends and I boarded a bus from Galway City to Gort with the three train tickets we had mistakenly purchased (fortunately, the bus driver was very kind – or perhaps merely indifferent). We walked up a steep and gravel road to the entrance of Coole Park – 1000 acres of woods and water, and the former home of Abbey Theatre co-founder and Yeats confidante, Lady Gregory. It was here that Yeats and other writers leading the Irish Literary Revival regularly met, gathering inspiration and solace from what the former referred to as “the most beautiful place on earth.”
After passing beneath an endless shroud of trees, their trunks patched by moss and their arms already shedding colored leaves, we finally found the park’s most famous tree: “The Autograph Tree.” Pressing my face up to the bars of its iron cage, I could distinguish the letters “GBS” carved in large and audacious letters. Here, the playwright George Bernard Shaw had signed his personhood into the tree’s flesh and here, a part of him, stubborn to the passage of time and life and death, still persisted. His initials were joined by those of Jack B. Yeats, Sean O’ Casey, and J.M. Synge; they too had been here once, maybe many times even, and yet, like Shaw, they had never departed.
There are some places, I realize, that never leave us, and we ourselves never leave. They will beat, and beat forever, with the breath of those who have come and been and gone, but still remain. Coole Park, I think, was one of those places – one where past, present, and future ran evenly and parallel to one another like the concentric circles that reveal a tree’s age. So many had wandered through its leafy gates over the past months and years and centuries to hear the quiet rush of its disappearing lakes. That day, it had been me – and days, and seasons after, it would be others.
The older I get and the more everything seems to always be changing, it seems I have grown increasingly reliant on such places – ones whose histories I enter and who themselves become a part of my own history. They form an internal and sentient map, one that both roots and connects me. These are the places we make enduring homes out of, able to return to again and again, even if only in our memory. And now, so soon to returning to the United States, leaving behind the many such homes I’ve made in Ireland and throughout my travels this year, this is the thought that comforts me the most.
The poet Seamus Heaney once wrote: “If self is a location, so is love.” These past nine months I’ve spent on and near this island, I feel I must have seen and visited love many times: in cathedrals and castles and ancient ruins; on hilltops with sunsets that blanket entire cities; on park benches and languid beaches; in museums and gardens and ports; in rivers that run through mountains and beneath bridges; on ordinary streets filled with people and sounds and life. There have been places that have made me wonder and places that have made me weep; places with which I immediately become old friends and places with which I still remain strangers.
All these places, I have left or now must leave – but never will let go. So that someday, many years from now, I can still look back on this hidden map to which they belong and which I will always carry, and say: here, I remembered something from my childhood; here, I grew closer to someone I knew; and here – here, I was immensely, and completely, happy.