An inkling of valor
"It's lost you are?" I was. "You can't get there from here," the windtanned farmer informed me, as he continued to transfer empty milk cans from the back of his donkey cart to the wooden bench outside his cottage.
I can't? As I fumbled for an appropriate response, he continued. "And why would you wnat to be driving to Wexford when Gledelough is right down the road?"
Distracted from my Wexford quest, I asked, "What's in Glendelough?" (After four hours in Ireland I had already lost my way twice and now I was beginning to wonder if this solo visit to my mother's homeland was going to be the great "roots" experience I had envisioned.)
As he shifted another milk can to the bench and turned to me, I observed the man. He was my idea of a typical Irish countryman -- in his 60s, with weathered , craggy features, graying red hair, blue eyes that managed to be serious and laughing at the same time. He wore a tweed cap pushed back on his head, shiny black trousers and a blue serge suitcoat, very old now, and thin, but warm enough for this fine October day in Wicklow County, Ireland.
"What's in Glendelough?" he repeated. "Why the Church of St Kevin, and the cemetery, and down the road a bit, the meetings of the waters of Avoca."
I tried to look appreciative, but he saw through me.
"It's American you are," he said, as though that explained everything. "You wouldn't know then about the lads buried in that cemetery; those brave fellows that saved this country from the British wanting to steal our land."
"Tell me," I urged.
"Youl'll come in the house then and have a cup," he invited."Let me get old Denny Donkey some water. Sure, these cans can wait."
"I'm interrupting your work," I suggested.
"Not at all. Come in." He led the way into the small whitewashed, thatch-roofed cottage. A playful black mutt nuzzled my hand at the doorway and a heavenly odor made me inhale appreciatively as I walked in. (Sour dough bread?)
"Maggin, then," he called to the small woman at the stove. "Here's an American and she doesn't know about Glendelough."
Maggin wiped here hands on her large white apron and took mine between them. They were warm and hard. She reminded me of my Aunt Erin. I thought Maggin beautiful -- short black hair, grey eyes, freckles showing through her tan.
"It's welcome you are," Maggin laughed. Sit down and have a cup and a bit of bread before John here wears you out with his talk of Glendelough and the wars."
I moved across the room to the smaller of the two wooden rockers before the fireplace, while John washed his hands in the kitchen sink.
The fireplace, not lighted now, dominated the living room. Peat was stacked on one side of it and small sticks and logs on the other.A multi-colored braided rug in front of the two rockers and a vase of fresh yellow flowers on a low table between them caught the early fall sunlight. The flowers were in a tall slim Cavan crystal vase. We had one at home just like it.
As I looked about the cottage, Maggin converted her worktable to a tea table by covering it with a flowered yellow cloth, and setting it with thick plates and mugs. John moved sturdy wooden chairs from the wall to the table and we sat down to a tea with milk and sugar and fresh bread covered with thick honey. Presently John lit his pipe and began his tale. In addition to its church and cemetery, Glendelough marks a passageway through the Wicklow Mountains to Avondale and to the Vale of Avoca to Wexford. This land, which had evoked the poetry of Thomas Moore, (Sweet Vale of Avoca, how calm could I rest . . .)m had also inspired centuries of uprisings, and was known as the Rebel County of Ireland. Though much of the country north and west fell to the English, this area was never subdued.
John spoke with angry eloquence and suddenly words weren't enough for his message. He put aside his pipe and said, "A bit of song will do it best." Then in a fine soft tenor, he sang of Ireland's fight for freedom, recounting how often a small number of hardy Irishmen, armed only with scythes and pitchforks, drove back heavily armed troops in battles that raged intermittently from the 16 th to the 20th centuries.
He sang of Kevin Barry, the 18-year-old university student-soldier captured, but never conquered, in the War of Independence (1919- 21); of the Croppy Boy, tricked by the British as he went to Wexford to replace his father and brothers killed in Cromwell's War, the Rebellion of '78; of the parish of Boolavogue in Wexford County, where Father Murphy, a man of peace, became a military genius.
John stood, as did Maggin, as he sang "The Soldier's Song," Ireland's national anthem, written by Pendar Kearney during the 1916 Easter Rebellion. I stood, too, feeling the awesome pride and patriotism of all the Johns and Maggins who have loved Ireland and believed in her destiny.
The Vale of Avoca, Glendelough, Avondale, Wicklow -- liquid-sounding places for romantic ballads. Yet John sang hard words of opposition, rebellion, war, protest, deaths, and freedom.
Two hours later as I left my friends John and Maggin and headed for Glendelough, that sense of the human cost of freedom was strong with me. I knew that while lost in IReland, I had begun to find myself.