Okay… first things first… it’s pronounced Teer Na Nohg and it means the Land of Youth, which is a characterization of the pre-Christian concept of the afterlife, a land where time does not exist and all are in the full bloom of youth.
In the last chapter of my novel, The Violent Season, “The Bay, Part Two,” a man who is struggling to recover from the horrific experiences of war and combat in Vietnam, and shocked by the destruction wrought by time on the home of his youth, remembers stories of ancient heroes and the Tír na N’Óg that his Irish grandmother had told him as a boy, which now resonate in a way the man had never anticipated.
“His grandmother told him it was a magical stone. In Ireland, the “little people,” the tuatha dé danán she called them, used these moon stones to mark the entrances of the líos, their magical underground kingdom, a land of eternal youth where mortal time didn’t exist. She told the boy that only great heroes, Fionn mac Cumhail or the great Cu Chullain, dared to enter the líos. Once there, they were greeted by the léanan sí, three beautiful maidens, one red, one gold and one black, who
would love and care for them.
There, the hero was reunited with his comrades, who had fallen in battle at his side.
There, they all were young again, their battle-wounds healed.
There, they would feast and drink in the eternal strength of their youth.
There, the hero would be reunited with his loved ones, who had gone before him into the land of shadows.
There, all their joy, all their love, would be restored” (from, The Violent Season).
In the late 1970’s, some eight years after I had left the mountains and jungles of Vietnam, I was sitting on an American Airlines flight at the gate at LaGuardia Airport on my way to Chicago, the same flight I had taken every Sunday night for the last six months.
It was April, a New York City Spring; wet, sleet-laden rain was pummeling the thin skin of the Boeing 727, teetering the wings like a playground see-saw. I was strapped into an aisle seat with three tiny bottles of Bacardi rum and a can of Coke that the flight attendant at the door, who by this time knew me by name and had anticipated my arrival, had handed me when I flashed my boarding pass.
I was a nervous flyer. Surviving two helicopter crashes and a “rough” landing on a mountain runway under mortar attack in an Air Force C7A Caribou will do that. I figured my number was way overdo. So my coping mechanism was rum, coke and a spy novel to bury myself in while the flight crew and the fickle gods, who rule the folly of human flight in tin contraptions on stormy nights, decided whether we were going to land at O’Hare that night (and in what condition).
I was reading a passage in my book where the “hero,” a British secret agent-type, and his ally, an ex-IRA terrorist, who was now working for MI6, were trying to extract vital information from members of the Irish underworld in the slums of Belfast. Part of the conversation was in Irish Gaelic, which I suddenly realized that, as my eyes passed quickly over the text, I understood! Amazing stuff this Bacardi! But, when I went back actually to read these passages, the Gaelic was as obscure to me as Sanskrit.
Now, I would have attributed this entire phenomenon to pre-flight jitters and that miracle elixir bottled by that esteemed miracle worker, Don Bacardi, and just forgotten the whole incident. But, about a week later, I was on the phone with one of my more high-tone friends, a young woman, who boarded and trained horses out on Long Island. She was telling me about one of her new horses.
“… and his name is Capall Dubh…” she was saying.
“Oh! He’s a black horse?” I interrupted.
“Yes,” she answered, “That’s what his name means, but how did you know that?”
Well, I didn’t know how I knew! The English meaning had just popped into my head!
This being the 1970’s, and with my need for explanations, rational or not, I developed a number of theories to explain this linguistic marvel.
First, I was having a nervous breakdown that somehow manifested itself in the “gift of tongues.” Then again, the whole concept of a “gift of tongues” suggested to an Irish-Catholic a second Pentecost of the Holy Ghost (very unlikely considering my lifestyle at the time) or a demonic possession (The Exorcist was a very popular movie at the time… I haven’t been able to face pea soup since I saw it).
My personal favorite theory was that I had had a former life as an ancient Irish warrior. (We’re always someone famous in our former lives. That’s the way these things work as the character, Annie Savoy, in the movie Bull Durham, explains.) I was having flashbacks to my former life as an Irish hero.
A couple of days later, I was at a family wedding, one of those wonderful, New York, Irish blowouts (Q: What’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish wake? A: One less drunk.) There, I ran into my older cousin. She and I had spent our summers together as kids; to me, she was more like my older sister than my cousin.
When I told her what was happening with the Gaelic and my Irish warrior theory-we were well into the wedding celebration by this time-my cousin just laughed and said, “When you were small, you and Nanny used to sit in the front room every afternoon, sipping tea, watching The Kate Smith Show and Queen for a Day, while Nanny jabbered away at you in Irish and you just sat there saying ‘Tá, mamó,’ “Níl, mamó,’ ‘Tuigim, mamó.’ We were never quite sure you spoke English until you were about five, Skip!”
I remembered the tea-hot, sweet and thick with canned, Carnation condensed milk; my grandmother would pour a bit in the saucer to let it cool for me. I remembered sitting in the front room in the late afternoon with muted sunlight glowing behind heavy drapes, softening the noises of the city street, as Nanny and I sat in large, over-stuffed, high-backed chairs watching the tele.
But I didn’t remember the Irish! So, I asked my cousin, “Then why don’t I remember Nanny speaking Irish to me, Sock?”
“When you started school… what were you… about six… Nanny refused to speak Irish in front of you anymore,” my cousin explained. “Nanny believed if you wanted to get anywhere in this country, you had to speak English without an accent, like an American. That’s why she never spoke Irish in front of any of her own kids. My mother had never heard her speak Irish! She wanted her children to sound like Americans. They couldn’t sound like they had just gotten off the boat. Barry Fitzgerald sounds quaint in a movie, but no one in America’s going to give him a decent job. So, she never spoke Irish in front of you since that day.”
Well, in a way, I was kind of bummed that in a former life I hadn’t been a fénnid, a doughty warrior of the king’s fianna, but I had quite enough on my plate trying to deal with having been a grunt in Vietnam. Yet, I began to remember the tales my mamó had told me while we sat in the front room sipping our tea and listening to Kate Smith on the tele.
My grandma had been born in Mayo, so she wasn’t a big fan of Cú Cullainn and the Ulaid. Being a Connaught woman, she was partial to the legendary Queen Maebh, if her daughter, my Aunt Mae, was any evidence, bean fíochmhar rua dearg, a fierce, red-haired woman. But, she loved the tales of Fionn mac Cumhall and the Fianna.
One of my favorite tales that she had told me was how Fionn saved Tara on the Samhain from a fire-breathing demon, Aillen, who lulled his opponents to sleep with a magic spell before he attacked. Fionn manned the ramparts of Tara alone, with his spear placed under his chin, so if his head nodded in sleep, the point of the spear stabbed him. (I would have tried this one to keep students awake in my Monday, first-period classes, but I’m pretty sure bringing spears to class is illegal in Indiana.)
Her favorite tale, though, was that of Derdriu and her tragic love for Naoise. “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” she called the tale in English. In fact, I remember she once told me that derdriu, not brón, was the true Irish word for sorrow.
So, these many years later, I now play the role for my readers, that my mamó had played for me, a seanchaí, a teller of tales. These echoes of the Irish language spoken on sunny afternoons over sweet, thick tea and the myths of Irish heroes of course find their way into my tales.
In my novel, The Violent Season, a man, haunted by the horrors and combat and lost friends, and horrified by the devastation of the places he had loved as a child, wants to escape back into his past, where he can be innocent again; where he can again be with those who had loved and protected him; where his childhood dreams would again live.
“Somehow the man believed that, if he dared the dark, twisting path, broke through the brambles and brush of the years and climbed the hill, when he reached the top, all would be restored to him. The waste lands would be restored, would live again. He could again run along the secret Indian paths, brave the valley of the Iroquois, sit under the shady maples in the place of watching over the broad, grey-green bay of Lake Champlain near the fort of the English.
When he reached the top of the path, there before him would appear the white bungalow, framed in red. His grandmother would be there standing on the back porch, calling him.
His beautiful, red-haired aunt, would be sitting at the patio table next to her radio playing “Deep Purple.” She would look up from her magazine, take off her sunglasses, and her bright, green eyes would flash a welcoming smile.
His uncle would be behind the house polishing the Green Hornet, with its spotlight and police radios, into a deep, boundless, green luster.
And Janey, his sweet Janey, would run to him, her arms wide in welcome. ‘Why did you take so long to get home, squirt? Don’t you know how much we missed you?’” (from, The Violent Season).
Of course, entry into the Tír na N’Óg is not possible. The man must remain in the land of mortals. But, life renews itself, because love survives all things, and it is his wife who calls him back into the world of light, as his violent season ends.