Entry 86: Ballyhootry– Odi et Amo– the slogan from Latin sums up how I feel about my native land. I love its natural beauty, its literature and aspects of its history and I hate its insularity, its banality and its sectarianism.
Not Robinson Crusoe there, son! I hear a chorus of ghosts shout in a variety of accents. Other people have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis, Brendan Behan bellows. Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall, notes Oliver Goldsmith, while Samuel Johnston observes, The Irish are a fair people, they never speak well of one another. One could go on, ad nauseam,
So I’ll close this quote-fest by reference to that fine novel about modern Ireland, Niall Williams’, History of the Rain, The history of Ireland in two words: Ah well… In the Aeneid, Virgil tells it as Sunt lacrimae rerum, which in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation means ‘They weep for how the world goes’, which is more eloquent than Ah well but means the same thing.
Nativity does not equal identity, though, unless you stay where you were born. I spent my primary and junior secondary years in a small island called Aruba, located just off the coast of Venezuela and close to the vast oil deposits of Lake Maracaibo. We lived in “The Colony”, a walled Caucasian enclave built by the oil company, Standard Oil of New Jersey for its white American and European employees on the south-west tip of the island adjacent to the oil refinery.
And it shaped me right down to the strange accent I still have, a puzzling amalgam of American, Northern Irish and Australian notes that often prompts listeners to enquire as to my place of origin. At times, scenes and events from those formative years’ pop into consciousness, unbidden.
One such vignette finds me at about 11 years of age, walking barefoot on the water pipes above the coral and cactus scrubland that was a feature of the Colony. Below me, sunning itself on a rock ledge, was the most beautiful snake- coiled with a pink-patterned stripe running down its iridescent blue-scaled back.
I paused to look more closely and it slipped silently away leaving me wondering whether I had dreamed the encounter. Some days later, I was out the back of the bowling alley chatting with the Aruban pin-boys. They were all young men in their twenties. They gathered the pins knocked down by the bowlers and re-set them in their cradles- this was the time before automated systems had reached the island.
A couple were on a smoking break and I told them about the encounter. One smiled and said, ah, Cascabel. He went on to explain that I had seen the elusive Aruban rattlesnake, which I subsequently learned has been placed on the critically endangered list, there being little more than 200 individuals still alive in its singular habitat.
Some of the jocks and college boys returning for a vacation would visit the bowling alley for a game: not merely 10-pin bowling, though. They would send the bowling ball hurtling down the lane as fast as they could, with maximum possible spin. The result was the pins exploding off their sets and spinning upwards among the machinery.
They delighted in hearing the screams of pin-boys when hit by one of the flying bowling pins. Quick quiz: which is the more venomous, the rattlesnake with the lovely name of Cascabel or the raucous frat boys. Let’s rinse the sounds of bigotry from our ears by listening to this short poem written by Dwight Isebia in Papiamento, the musical creole language spoken by native Arubans.
KAÍDA Ta mihor nunka/ bo a bira para/ pa haña hala/y bula bai// Pasobra duru/ ta e kaída/p’esun ku ta kere/ ku e no por kai Now, for the English translation, THE FALL It would have been better if you had not become a bird to get the wings and to be able to fly away. As for the person thinking that he cannot fall, falling is very hard.
We flew away to Ireland at the beginning of 1979. And the dreams began. The ghost-gums, the Illawarra escarpment, body-surfing at North Wollongong, picnics at the dams, the long dusty roads of western NSW and the poetry.
Henry Kendall, in Bell-birds, captured the feeling, So I might keep in the city and alleys/The beauty and strengths of the deep mountain valleys,/Charming to slumber the pain of my losses/With glimpses of creeks and a vision of mosses.
Much as W. B. Yeats did a few years after Kendall’s death in the much better known, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, …for always night and day/ I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/ While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,/ I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Now, I want to travel to those places that provide balm for the deep heart’s core.
And if I don’t get back to the sacred sites in Aruba or Ireland, this mantra will do instead: ah well, Cascabel.