The Country Outside Us


In Ireland, I fell in love easily and often. On the bus from Galway to Dublin; in a smoky, centuries-old pub; on a Donegal beach, my hair wet with rain.

After working as a chambermaid at an eighteenth-century-castle-turned-hotel in a village in western Ireland, I made my way north of Belfast to a loyalist town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, to live and apprentice with a professional storyteller. This was 1998, in the months leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. I was twenty, taking a year off from college, and susceptible to a charming accent and a dramatic landscape. Northern Ireland had drama in spades: the craggy Antrim coast, lush Glenariff Forest, frequent, blinding rainbows. Against this backdrop, there were still occasional car bombs and threats from both republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

One evening, my mentor and I were stopped at two police roadblocks on our way home from a storytelling event at Bellaghy Bawn, an old fortress and historical center that houses many of Seamus Heaney’s old belongings and manuscripts. I don’t remember the stories we heard at the Bawn, only that during the fifteen-minute tea break I met James, one of the center’s coordinators. He was handsome and funny. He wore a blue wool sweater that smelled like peat and cigarettes.

I began volunteering at the Bawn, ostensibly to learn more about Northern Irish history, but really to spend more time near James. Once a week, I took a bus from grim Ahoghill with its curbs painted loyalist red, white, and blue to sleepy Bellaghy, where Heaney grew up and where he is now buried. During the day, I’d greet guests and serve refreshments. Most of the time, though, I sat in the library with Heaney’s papers and waited for James to come looking for me.

Some of the poet’s drafts were under glass, like sacred objects. Yet it was their earthliness that drew me in. I studied the loops of Heaney’s handwriting, the words crossed out, the newer words penciled in. In college, I took creative writing classes and fantasized about being a writer with a capital W. But until I read “Digging,” it had never occurred to me to see writing as a kind of labor. The words were either there, I had figured, or they weren’t.

Sometimes James took me driving through the rolling hills where Heaney had helped his father cut turf. To my disappointment, we didn’t stop at romantic, scenic overlooks. He never tried to kiss me. Instead, we talked—about the stories I was learning to tell, the Irish writers James admired aside from Heaney (Kavanagh, Shaw), and how he would have joined the IRA if he hadn’t gone to England for university.seamusheaney

At night, he got nervous. Recently, he and a friend had been walking home in the dark from a pub when they noticed a black car driving slowly beside them, its headlights off, the window slowly rolling down. A car full of unionists, ready to shoot, James had thought. Terrified, he bolted into a nearby field, then turned to see the car stopping to let a man out before driving on.

On his family’s farm, I watched him and his father foster a lamb to a ewe that was not its mother. Later, as we ate with his parents and little sisters, he got worked up about the peace process. “The English are thieves and liars,” he spat.

“Keep those things to yourself,” his mother warned. “You’ll put us off our dinners.”

After that tense meal, James and I went to hear Heaney read. We turned into giddy groupies. That shock of white hair! That gracious manner! The buttery voice saying words I had read over and over again while waiting for James.

When I was with James, I thought of something Heaney said in a video that played at the Bawn: “…we can all live in two or three places at the same time. The country outside us has to be aligned with the country inside us, and then we get our bearings.” Although I was the one from away, it was James who always seemed homesick.

I left Northern Ireland one day before Irish republicans and unionists agreed to the peace accord. I thought about James all the time for a while, and then I didn’t. When I heard that Seamus Heaney had died, I thought of the library at the Bawn.

One afternoon there, I’d held a handmade, leather-bound book of Heaney’s poems worth over £4,000. I should have been wearing gloves. The paper was thick and creamy. My other Irish infatuations had occasionally lent the patina of high romance to the lonesomeness of traveling alone, but they were fleeting, and it was easy to leave them behind. As I turned the pages, James said, “Now you’ll have some insight into his poetry, having seen the places he writes about.”

Outside it was raining, and the hills were the brightest green.


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Sara Schaff received her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. Her work is forthcoming in Tampa Review and has appeared in the Saint Ann's Review, Superstition Review, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Michigan with her husband and daughter. More from this author →