It was dark when we arrived. The lights of the city stretched farther than I had expected. Traffic was bad, but not as bad as it had been in Dublin. John took the first parking spot he saw and we headed into the Pub across the street. There was some sort of meeting going on and we invited hostile looks from people present. One woman glared like we had come to ruin her conspiracy.
“Hey mates,” John said. “Hope we’re not interrupting, just lookin’ for a pint.”
“Oh, Dear,” an Irish mum called getting up, “Come in, come in, excuse my manners. What’ll ya have?” She smiled and in the wrinkles around her hazel eyes I saw years of worry, strength, and laughter. Her hair reached out in tight curls.
“Guinness,” I smiled.
“Of course, dear, and for you?”
“There you are.”
She was endearing and nervous and her strong hands and rosy cheeks were everything I expected from an Irish barmaid. She was going on about some old head and John was paying close attention but I was drifting, taking in the authenticity. It was the Irish pub that I had always wanted to be in. I admired the flags and lace curtains and shamrocks that someone had painted on every spot of empty wall, gaily. At this point such space was hard to come by. There were top to bottom pictures from all sorts of celebrations, weddings, birthdays, football matches, all that looked like St. Patty’s Day and all to which we were at least 20 years too late.
“We’ll join,” John said and I turned back to the conversation I had missed. “Won’t we?”
“Sure,” I said trusting his judgment.
“Hey, Pauly,” she called both excited and more serious than I had heard her sound, “we’ve got two new recruits.”
“Sorry, we’re full,” snapped the vicious woman.
“Oh, bollocks,” the barmaid said ushering us over to the group.
A dark haired man with crystal blue eyes rose from the head of the table, “I’m Paul.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said trying not to sound too American.
“This is Violet, I’m John, and we’re always up for fighting the good fight.”
I nodded and wondered what he had gotten us into. I felt like we accidentally stumbled into the den of a revolution, and I liked it.
“Do you know anything about the Old Head of Kinsale?” the steaming woman asked still glaring at me. I shook my head. Her hair was long and deep red and poured over her thin shoulders like the fire she seemed ready to spew.
“This is Nora, don’t let her passion frighten you. She grew up outside Kinsale so this matter is very dear to her heart.”
I wanted to ask what the matter at hand actually was but I was not about to say anything, lest she might rip my face off.
“Well, its nice to meet the lot of you. How can we help?” John asked
“The planning has all been done, but the more people who come, the better. We leave tomorrow at five in the mornin’ to beat the sun. It is only an hour or less. We don’t have many extra seats though.”
I liked Paul. He had kind eyes that were clear and penetrating.
“No worries, mate. We can follow in my car.”
“Great! Where are you from?”
“I’m Aussie, she’s American.”
“Well, we’re glad to have ya.” He shook both of our hands again and his eyes meant business and good-heartedness. “Where ya stayin’?”
“We don’t know, just got into town.”
“Any suggestions?” I asked feeling exhausted.
“Right here,” the barmaid piped up from behind the bar. “I’m not exactly full, ya know.”
“Sounds good to me,” John shrugged.
“That’s me Mum,” Paul smiled.
“Mrs. O’Connell,” she winked. “I have a room for you upstairs.”
“Brilliant,” Paul said, “we’re meeting here in the morning.” He turned back to the crowd. “Is everyone clear?” They all cheered and held up their pints. “Good, well get going soon. I don’t want everyone staying up drinking. Tomorrow we celebrate.”
He kissed Mrs. O’Connell on the head and disappeared upstairs. She picked up John and my’s suitcases in a swift grab and wouldn’t let me help. I followed her upstairs. John stayed and got to know the rest of them.
“Don’t worry about Nora,” she said once we were out of earshot. “Her bark is worse than her bite.”
“It is quite a bark.”
“‘Tis. Her family has lived in Kinsale for three hundred years and…”
“I see,” I said and left it at that.
The room was quaint and the price was right. Thirty quid for a night and she never charged us for the Guinness’ we’d had. I didn’t go back downstairs. The day had been long and life in Ireland had not yet allowed me a moment to myself.
John woke me softly and told me if I didn’t want to get up I didn’t have to. We hadn’t discussed what exactly we were sneaking off to in the last hours of night but even in my just roused daze I knew this was something not to miss. I could smell the coffee downstairs. I slipped on the same jeans and sweater I had pulled off what felt like moments before and I watched my feet as we made our way down the old wooden stairs.
John had to bend his head to go through the old doorframe fit into stone. I was happy to be there with him. Then I saw Nora’s cold eyes and a chill went through me. I tucked myself under John’s arm and he smiled and squeezed my shoulder.
“Mornin,” a couple of them called.
Mrs. O’Connell’s smile warmed me more than the steaming cup of coffee she handed me. “Good mornin’ love,” she said with a jolly tone that turned quickly to that of a General. “Come get sandwiches the lot of ya! An army marches on its stomach!”
Is there going to be marching, I wondered, taking the paper wrapped sandwich she shoved in my hand. John took one, thanked her, and I let his arm fall granting him permission to wander. He kissed my cheek and walked straight up to Paul. I drank the coffee black.
All at once everyone started to rush outside. It was time to go. I offered to help Mrs. O’Connell clean up but she just pushed me towards the door. John was already at the car and he smiled big when he saw me coming.
“Ok,” I said, sitting down in the passenger seat. “What is this all about?”
“I knew you weren’t listening,” he laughed. “Did you hear anything?”
“My mind wanders. Just tell me the story.”
“Well there is this town called Kinsale, a small little town on the sea. And the Old Head of Kinsale was sold out to these rich guys who made it a private golf course. So no one can get on the land any more unless they pay for a tee time.”
“What’s an old head?”
He laughed and put his hand on my knee. I looked at it and wondered why things couldn’t just stay like this. The simplicity of a connection becomes so complicated with time. I put my hand on top of his and wished that I could keep that feeling of his light touch forever.
“It’s just a piece of land,” he said letting my fingers slide between his. “A rock formation that juts out into the ocean. The locals think it’s the best place in Ireland. Generations of families have enjoyed the views, and also a lot of people apparently used to go to pay respects. It was the closest point of land when the Lusitania sank.”
“The RMS Lusitania?”
“You know it?”
“We do learn some things at school in America. It was the passenger ship that the German’s sank in World War One right? Didn’t thousands of people die there?”
“And they closed the whole place for a golf course?”
“So what are we going to do?” I felt the surge of outrage breaking through my morning haze.
“We’re going to protest.”
“Shit, John, you haven’t gotten us involved in some IRA plan have you? Because I can’t associate with terrorists.”
“That’s not funny,” he said smiling. “It’s a peaceful protest. Just to show that you can’t keep the public from land that clearly lives in their hearts.”
I looked out over the hills turning from shadows to shapes and could see the dew frozen on the grass sparkling in the last bits of moonlight. I figured there must be passion sparkling behind the ice in Nora’s eyes and doubted that I had ever had that kind of strength of spirit.
We arrived just before dawn. It was dark but I could see the magnificence of green stretching from the road towards what had to be the sea. It was freezing. Past my breath I could see cliffs, black and echoing the crashing ocean below.
Nora stepped out of her car with an edge, but the fire in her eyes had been lit with something other than scorn.
“For the sons and daughters of Ireland,” she said softly. I wasn’t sure anyone else heard but she found my eyes and I nodded once. She opened her trunk and started unloading big ripped pieces of carpet into my arms. “Pass them out,” she instructed. I did.
The light of dawn began its persistent approach and I could see in the silhouette that there was barbed wire across the top of the fence. I looked down at the ripped carpet in my hands and understood.
John whispered in my ear as if he was reading my mind, “I’m right behind you.”
“Let’s go lads,” Paul said softly, “it’s a direct line to the lighthouse from here. Be bold. Make haste.”
There was a soft murmur of agreement and I could feel the excitement within the group like I could see the razors on the top of the fence. Nora was the first to go. She wasted no time. She threw the carpet on top of the fence and hoisted herself over it like a gymnast flipping over a vault, and without a second of hesitation she went from landing to take off. Her wild hair streamed behind her as she glided across the grass.
I let go of the carpet in my hands and followed her over the carpet she had left on the fence. I didn’t look back. I ran like the wings of Ireland were guiding me and I was sure I could hear flutes and pipes. Just like the people, the proud music of Ireland is strong and scrupled. Hope and misery, pain and love.
I could have run right off that cliff and soared across the ocean I am almost sure. The presence of people beside me brought my feet back down to the perfectly trimmed grass and when I looked to my side John had caught up with me. He wore the biggest grin I had seen on him yet. Paul was on the other side passing me with fierce determination.
The sun was close to rising when I reached the lighthouse. No one said a word. My breath came out in short quick puffs of vapor, the cold air felt hot in my lungs. My eyes were fixed on the horizon, and songs of the sea slapped the cliffs two hundred feet below. Its presence encouraged us with patient fury as we waited for sunrise with combined serenity.
When the sun finally shattered the cloud wall the wind played its part and pulled the grey clouds until they were out of the light’s way. The oldest member of our peaceful protest stood in the bold sunshine and said a prayer for all the souls that went down on the RSM Lusitania and then, in his thick Irish accent, prayed for the damned who had lost their way and shut the Old Head to the public. He asked God to forgive their cruel, heartless souls and I was sure they would be absolved just as I was sure I saw heaven in that sunrise.
Security came in the form of a golf cart. There were two men, the older one wore a polo shirt that said “Security” in the corner and had some kind of crest. The younger was meticulously dressed and had the same clear eyes that Paul had, ones that a girl could drown in.
“Nora,” he began but she looked as if she’d shoot lightening bolts out of her eyes if he said another word. He looked away. “Paul, let’s not make this hard.”
“We’re not here to make any trouble, Mr. O’Connell” Paul replied. “Just came to enjoy the sunrise. Or have you sold that too?”
“You can’t put a price on a sunrise,” he said pitifully.
“I thought everything has a price,” Nora hissed.
“What’s wrong little brother?” Paul asked. “Is that silk tie cutting off your circulation? You look a little uncomfortable.”
“You should have come for sunrise,” Nora said spitefully. “It was beautiful.”
“You know who really would ‘av enjoyed it?” Paul asked.
“Don’t do this, Paul,” he said and I could see his jaw clenching in his cheek.
“Oh, you do? I thought you forgot.”
“He forgets promises, not people,” Nora said and I saw who bore her scorn.
“I’m not the one Dad would be disappointed in today Paul.”
“You smug bastard,” Paul had his brother by the collar of his fancy suit in a second and slammed him against the lighthouse wall. “You never knew what Dad wanted.”
“Jesus, Paul, are you going to ‘av me call the police?”
“Yeah, call the police,” I said, surprised at the sound of my own voice. “Call them and tell them there has been a crime against humanity.”
“Who are you?”
“She’s a bloody American,” Nora said, “and she cares more about this land than you do.”
“Nora,” he started.
“Don’t you dare,” she said in a whisper that echoed across the cliffs.
Paul let him go. The sun was getting higher now and the clouds were persisting in pushing it out of sight. The scenery was shining under the grey sky in a symphony of green that mocked the fading drama along with the sun. Our exit was far less exciting than our entrance and though I supposed we had accomplished what we had come for, it was a silent and somber withdrawal.
They shut the steel gate behind us and the sound of iron slamming nullified the joy that had culminated in that sunrise. I took John’s arm and put my head on his shoulder. Weight was pressing down on my heart like the bleak clouds against the hills.
We didn’t go back to the pub straight away. Neither one of us knew why, but we wordlessly agreed we should spend the day elsewhere. We walked through town towards the water and everything mirrored our mood. There were empty bottles broken and decaying in the grass along the sidewalk. A cars that looked like it had been properly abandoned sat parked in the bike lane. The forgotten tower that stood next to city hall had a clock at the top with the wrong time. I stared down at a busted umbrella sitting in the gutter. Shadows stretched across the littered street in the stark flat light. There was undeniable beauty in the disorder, just as there had been strength in my voice at the lighthouse. Plain strength that I couldn’t deny any longer.