When an Irish person up and leaves for the United States, oftentimes the party thrown in their honor is referred to as an American Wake. I never knew this until the time was coming for me to leave Dublin; somehow, amongst all the gorgeous figures of speech we have in my city, it was a term that had escaped me. Now I think about it all the time, this wake. The weight of the goodbye, and the subtle implication that if you ever return, Dublin will have moved on without me, that my fingers will just slip right through the walls of the place. It will have become a place I cannot touch.
In the run-up to leaving Dublin, there is no such luck as a small affair to send you off, not at all. Even leading up to the Wake itself there are a litany of requests for reunions, last favors called in, last pints owed out, last secrets confessed. School friends will resurface and tell you how you look great and how they’re thrilled you’re making something of yourself, good on you, get out of this town, it’s a sinking ship, I’d do it myself only for the mortgage on me back. Old lovers will be devastated that you’re going and will tell you so, either right outside your teenage bedroom window the night before you go, or while smoking all your cigarettes in the park in the middle of the day when there are cherry blossoms all over the ground. Robin redbreasts will watch with curious black eyes.
My partner, C.B.’s going away party was in a large room in the bottom of an old townhouse up in the patchwork ancientness of Mt. Joy Square, the park near the prison. It was six weeks before mine; he was running out on the town first. The houses all along the square were once tenements, lean and towering, holding more families at once than they were ever designed to. My grandmother had grown up in one just around the corner from where this wake rumbled away, in an almost squat-like basement flat (affectionately known as Hovelton).
Our skinny DJ friend spun tunes out in such a way that the dance floor was never empty. At one point he elected to play that song from the beginning of the O.C—you know it, Phantom Planet: we’ve been on the run, something something else, looking out for number one, California here we come—and small blonde Christina wrapped her arms around me, cheeks tear-stained, saying how everything was changing even though I wasn’t leaving yet, not for weeks, and I hugged her tight and told her it was fine, it was fine, the world is such a small place, I’ll still be here, I’m never really gone.
She’s gone from Dublin now; she’s in South Africa. I Skyped into her going away party and they projected me on the wall and I wanted to say quietly to her that everything has changed and it’s so huge that I’m not sure how to cope sometimes but I couldn’t touch her, I couldn’t get close enough to say it. I couldn’t touch Dublin and I couldn’t hold Christina and tell her what I know now, having left.
My last six weeks alone in Dublin after C.B. went first into the wilds of San Francisco were spent in the suburbs of an area on the North side of Dublin that my parents call Raheny, but geographically is Kilbarrack. My family home is on the leafy side of the sprawl, the side that was less prone to burnt out cars and shootings and had semi-detached houses, not high-rise flats, back during the 1990s. My parents took me back into my now barren childhood bedroom and though almost unrecognizable, the air of it was still soothing and safe.
In these six weeks, after work, I’d sit up on my bed and watch the stillness of Grange Park Crescent out my window well into the night. These suburbs had driven me out of my head for all of my teens; sure, aren’t all suburbs that way, mapped in dreary walls and malnourished trees, designed to stir restlessness up in the hearts of young girls. Helena, the first real live creative person I ever met, was fifteen with me and we would walk the streets and scream into the concrete about wanderlust; we’d climb into graveyards and talk about how much we hated this town and we’d be a director and a writer in London or New York and we’d never come home because the suburbs were bullshit.
Now, in these weeks leading up to my flight, I’d jog out by the ocean every evening, sometimes with Helena, promising myself and her that I’d be thin and gorgeous when I finally looked Dublin in the face for the last time and said goodbye. Over the industrial estates the city sparked up orange when the night fell, and it was gorgeous, ten thousand stories all happening at once. Helena’s eyes turned glassy and sad just once, while we looked out over it. She flung her arms around me like Chrissie had, down by the ugly beach called Dollymount, because we were so old, so suddenly, and our suburbs were still just the same. The tide went in and out and in the light the place seemed so hideous, so constant.
Dublin is a big pretender, you see: the city is one bright lightning strike after another of change but the suburbs are an oozing static. They might gradually sprawl further but at their hubs they are constant. She was about to get ready to move too, to Bristol, to be an animator. I promised her and myself that we wouldn’t really be apart, we could always be in touch, we’ve got the internet, it’s not like we’ve to go years without a letter or a phone call like they used to when someone left in our parents’ day. There in the sandy road by the ocean I was convinced, this would be easy. Bristol and San Francisco, one click away; we could just pretend we were in Dublin together, it’d be no different. She’s not left yet, but she’s packing her bags.
We had to walk home extra fast that night because the sun tore down into the horizon quickly and it was getting cold–it was getting freezing cold. Freezing, same as always.
My own goodbye party happened in the South-side of the city in a tiny flat up near Copperface Jacks. They projected Woody Allen on the wall and bought me a mountain of the crisps that you can only buy in Dublin–Meanies that taste like pickled onion and being five years old (I only have one packet left; it is hidden in the press here in my flat in the Mission for the day when I miss that filthy hole of a town the most). I didn’t cry this time. I just held everyone tight and one by one told them that the world is a smaller place now, that I wasn’t really going anywhere. By this stage this phrase was second nature, it just rolled off my tongue–it was the truth as far as I was concerned. I stepped out into Hartcourt Street. It was three-ish and it was flooded with girls and boys going to the club and there were legs everywhere, tanned beautiful firm legs that didn’t look a thing like they could have grown in the cold of Ireland but are more Dublin than anything else in their disguise. Dublin is always in disguise, really. It’s a village all dragged up as a European hot-spot, caked in modern monuments and miles and miles of empty housing estates. The tan is all painted on but it’s pale and soft underneath. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that skin with my eyes but I know I’ve touched it with the tips of my fingers in the dark, walking home late, when Dublin has nobody to impress but taxi-drivers and drunk, broke teenagers walking back to their parent’s houses from huge,expensive nightclubs.
When my parents brought me in the car to Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport I stood in their arms underneath the gigantic life-like portrait of a stallion, mid-gallop, which was placed directly next to the departure gates. I’d seen this horse before, when C.B. walked that floor what felt like only moments ago. I’d been furious at this horse at the time, the sheer ridiculousness of it taking the edge off of my teary-eyed farewell with the man I loved. Now, as I kissed my Da, my Ma and sister goodbye, I was glad of its presence. It united us, we laughed at it together, cracked up at the awfulness. This strange creature presiding over a thousand goodbyes a day–how awkward it was, but still, how absolutely perfect, how absolutely Dublin. I suppose the men in suits who run the airport thought it was an empowering looking beast, representative of Ireland’s emigrants racing off into the future. I suppose they thought that, but the Griffin clan stood in a tight circle underneath it, chuckling at the wretchedness of whichever shortsighted interior designer thought it was a good idea. We were so close in that moment, before I turned my back and was out the door–not crying, not at all, just telling myself it was grand, I’d be grand, the world is such a small place now, such a small place.
They wake you when you leave Dublin for America because when people were first leaving on the ships to start a life in the new world, their families and loved ones would never see you again. You’d either die on the ship, or make it there and never have the money to go home. Either way, you were gone forever, so the people around you drink and drink and dance and tell stories, because it’s the end of you. They put pennies in your eyes and send you away up the river. You’re gone.
Now that we live in a world of cheap airlines and Skype, this, of course, seems melodramatic. I insisted to everyone again and again, fearlessly, sure I’m grand, I’m only a click away–the world is so small now, so small. What I didn’t understand is that appearing to your family through an iPad in the middle of the kitchen table and chatting with them once a week is not the same as their warmth. That appearing at parties projected through a live video stream onto a wall is not the same as stumbling drunk with your best friend into bathrooms or onto balconies or lying on the same sofa for so long drinking so much whiskey you think you might never get up ever again but that’s just fine because it’s so right, so right. Instead of this closeness, you are summoned from the New World like a spirit from the grave with messages for all of them, all translucent there on the wall and the internet is just one big Ouija board leading them to you.
They’re all holding hands, and you’re just talking to them from beyond. You can’t feel them. They’re too far. The world is not smaller. It is absolutely huge. Five thousand miles from Dublin is always going to be five thousand miles–and this distance reminds me that through all the strange metaphors I constantly try and rationalize emigration through, outside of Dublin is not a heaven, or a hell, or an underworld, or an after-life. If it were, I’d have seen Chrissie. I’d have seen Cathy and Caitlin and Laura who all emigrated last year; we’d have all somehow wound up in the same place together. But we didn’t: we’re sprawled across continents, across miles and miles and miles. Dublin is not a purgatory where I waited to get out, only then to pass through into a better place. It is not where you wait to be born. It is not a soft-skinned woman dressed up to impress all the other countries in the European Union. It is not every mistake I’ve made, every friend who walked away from me or everyone who ever broke my heart–Dublin is not me. It is not who I am, even though I speak in its twisted, mangled voice. All my accent is, is a reminder–a brand on my tongue from 24 years in that strange, electric, shapeshifter of a town..
Dublin is a place just a little over five thousand and eighty miles away from San Francisco. It is the place where I grew up, and where I turned into who I am, and I don’t know if I will ever live there again. I don’t think I will; there’s much more to see out here. The world is so big, you know. So big.
First photo by David Monahan.