A Dublin Memory
I was in Ireland, completely alone in life, far from family and friends, when I finally discovered what it means to feel at home. I was almost thirty years old.
I had come over on a scholarship to complete a program of Irish studies, mainly to further cement an emerging self to the source I had come to identify with most closely. Growing up I had always been aware of my family’s background, but had yet to fuse my roots to my identity, and felt a strange sense of disconnect between place and purpose. I was a Southerner, to be sure, shortening sentences and lengthening vowels with the best of them, but it never felt like it was me speaking as much as it did me playing the part of a Southern speaker. A character in a play, if you will. As my studies drew me deeper into the Irish side of my family tree, I began to feel a kinship of sorts with the myths and the legends that sang to me across the centuries. I began to feel as if I knew the characters in the legends, with a level of psychological insight more common to familial bonds than friendship or fandom. I could see them in my mind, anticipate their words and actions, and think the thoughts I knew would be in their heads. I understood them better than I understood myself. When one of my professors suggested a study abroad program as a possible fork in my educational path, I knew right away that I would do it, and where I would go.
My arrival in Dublin was pretty much like all arrivals, a gradual debarkation, the inevitable trudge to baggage claim to retrieve my personal mountain of “necessary” crap. Then a mercifully short walk to the bureau de change and cab stands, where I parked the mountain and stood off for a smoke to take in the scenery and sounds. Instead of looking at the surroundings, I found myself fixated on the ground beneath my feet, where I could see the blackest soil I had ever seen outside of a bag bought from a gardening store. I bent down and sunk my fingers into the soft soil, picking up a small handful to bring to my nose. I don’t know if I can properly describe the sensation, but when the musky salty smell of that hunk Irish soil hit my nose I immediately understood the connection between scent and memory. A flood of familiarity washed over me, as if, impossible as it might sound, I had smelled this same earth at some point in my past.
This feeling would persist, and grow deeper, the further I explored my new temporary home.
My cab ride into Dublin was… interesting… largely for the amount of time the driver spent looking at me rather than the road. How he managed to get me from the airport to the city center without slaughter and mayhem is a mystery to me to this day, as he continually turned to pump me with questions about America and myself as he whipped back and forth from lane to lane between busses and pedestrians. In the half hour or so it took to take the trip, he managed to wrest a large chunk of my past, present, and future from my fear compressed lips – words stammered out between gasps of terror and stomps upon an imaginary brake. He was equally forthcoming, rattling off local landmarks and family favorite watering holes as we blazed past. When he dropped me at the hotel, I was so relieved that I had survived the trip, I left a generous tip in the palm of the man I now considered a wise and noble guide (largely because death was so obviously afraid of him).
I parked my luggage within the hotel, then drifted back downstairs and into the streets for my first walk about Dublin. One thing I’ve always done when visiting a new city is discard the travel guides and let me feet take me wherever my feelings dictate. In cities like New York or Paris, such wanderings are an excellent way to discover both hidden treasures off the beaten path, as well as highly effective ways to die. A smart traveller stays attuned to his surroundings, alert to hints of danger that remind him to never stray too far from the path, but as I walked the streets of Dublin, no such hints arose. I felt strangely comfortable, and even more bizarrely, un-lost. Some sort of directional instinct in me had awakened, and without really knowing where I was, I knew where I wanted to be. Streets opened before me like pathways into a past I could almost believe I had lived before. I was not one to believe in reincarnation, and I’m still not today, but at the time there were moments where the eery familiarity of the airport soil were echoed in the sights and sounds of the city streets around me.
As I continued my walk, I began to analyze this new sensation, wondering if I could put an intellectual explanation to something unexplainable. There was no logical explanation for why I should feel so at ease, so at home, in a city I’d only seen in pictures, but there was no denying the fact that I somehow knew these street as if I’d walked them my entire life. I had never been this comfortable walking the streets of my hometown. I began to remember the power the mythologies had held over my imagination, and wondered if maybe something in the stories had imprinted itself upon my very DNA.
I had once read a study that suggested mankind’s fascination with dragons had evolved from a fusion of memories of the three greatest threats to early man: snakes, eagles, and tigers. The author speculated that generations of predation by these three lethal threats to early hominids had become so thoroughly embedded in the human psyche that the mental image of a dragon was formed as an amalgamation of, or triumvirate image of death. An interesting notion at the time I read it, but casually dismissed as notion and nothing more. Now, however, as I walked anonymous streets knowing exactly where to turn and which direction to face, I began to reevaluate the possibilities of genetic memory coming into play. Had my Irish ancestors, filled with such a deep and abiding love of a home they had chosen to leave, burned their very past into their genetic code as an emotional and psychological signpost for future generations? I have no answer to this, nor do I ever expect to find one, but it holds a certain charm for me. It was, and is, as if the landscapes of my beloved myths had merged with my memories, and that the land I had fallen in love with from afar had welcomed me back with open arms. Home.