I recently learned a new word, ‘hiraeth’. This is a Welsh word with no direct English translation. It describes a yearning to return home, when ‘home’ no longer exists and perhaps never did. It’s the worst type of yearning because, just like a death, there is no way to satiate it.
When my application to teach English in Korea was accepted, I had unexpected bout of hiraeth. I suddenly wanted to go back to West Cork, where I lived from the age of five to 15. A visit had been comfortably on my long finger for about eight years, but knowing I wouldn’t have the chance to go there for at least another year made me feel uneasy.
I passed the long journey looking at the past through a figurative Instagram filter. My childhood was far from easy, but all I could think about was the good stuff. I thought about walks with my family when we’d stop to take in the view from the top of the Twelve Arch Bridge, a beautiful structure that used to carry trains connecting the people of Ballydehob to the rest of the world, until motor cars made the whole thing economically nonviable. I remembered chats with the nice elderly American couple in O’Carroll’s who always believed you when you said you had 50p worth of penny sweets, so naturally you’d nick just a few extra cola bottles for good luck. I remembered paddle boats on the estuary in summer, going hell for leather on the swings till you thought you might go flying all the way to Bantry if you let go, picking blackberries in September and eating them in a bowl with some milk and a teaspoon of sugar.
I didn’t expect to see the Ballydehob of my childhood, but neither was I prepared for reality’s wallop in the face. A quote from Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t go Home Again seems to fit:
‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time-back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’
Ballydehob used to have three places where you could buy a pint of milk and eleven where you could buy a pint of beer. But now many of the shops and pubs I remembered from my childhood were either closed or unrecognisable, having been taken over by new owners. Other people were living in our house, my school had weird animal sculptures outside, which I’m sure my (now retired) teacher would have found ridiculous. I didn’t see anyone I knew. In fact, I barely saw anyone at all. When I met a friend for dinner in Schull, she told me that most people our age are gone from the area; to Cork and other cities, as well as abroad.
But even though the place I remember is gone forever, I will always have the memory of the people who made it what it was. One blog post isn’t enough to talk about all of the brilliant characters I encountered during my childhood, so I will just focus on two.
There was an old man called Billy used to sit on a bench outside a pub all day. Every day we would wave to him from our school bus, and Billy would always wave back. One day he wasn’t there and we asked our bus driver what happened to him. She said he was in hospital because he broke his leg. We all got together and made him a get well soon card ‘from the kids who wave from the bus’, and gave it to our bus driver to pass on to him. Later, my family moved into the village so we walked to school. We had to walk across the junction where billy sat, and he would always tell us when it was safe for us to cross the road. We didn’t need a lollipop lady because he was always there. Occasionally he would go to the next town to sit outside a different pub there for the day. On those days you’d walk past his bench and see a big shiny bum groove, worn in from years of watching the world go by, waving at school buses and helping kids to cross the road.
Then there was a Bus Eireann driver called Willie. My siblings and I would get on his bus every second Friday evening to see our dad in Cork City for the weekend. We were three kids on our own and it was a long journey, stopping in what felt like every town and village in West Cork. But Willie made those journeys a lot easier by giving us chocolate bars and cartons of orange juice, and even playing our cassettes on the bus tape player. Sometimes my tiny bladder wouldn’t hold out for the whole journey, no matter how many ‘last wee’s I’d had before leaving. On those occasions I’d ask Willie if he’d wait for me to go into a pub for a wee at the next stop, and he always obliged.
I heard that Billy is now living in Skibbereen, and sits on a bench all day there now. But Willie passed away a couple of years ago. Part of his obituary in The Southern Star read:
‘Babies who were helped on board yesteryear became secondary school pupils who were waited for on icy winter mornings when they were late for school; proceeded to college and were never refused a seat even when their fare had been spent elsewhere; were now adults who needed help boarding with their shopping and their babies – the full cycle of life and Willie was there, no rush, no panic but a helping hand and knowing smile.’
It’s true, you can’t go home again. Economic peaks and troughs change landscapes and people, until the place you remember is just a shadow of what it was. But it’s people’s generosity that you take with you through the rest of your life. So even when those people have turned to dust, as we all do, you remember them as you drink coffee on a Sunday morning in your tiny Korean apartment, or wherever your life takes you. And you try to pass it on, to show kindness to those who need it and those who might need it, because you how do you really know what’s going on behind a face that looks happy? You try to live up to their fine example in your classroom or office or wherever you go every day. And that’s the real legacy of those people in West Cork and every other corner of the world, and the kind souls before them, and all of those who will come after them.