by Emily Herzlin
A few years ago I became obsessed with the 19th century Irish playwright John Millington Synge. He was raised near Dublin, but was drawn to the wild Irish west where the people still spoke Irish. After reading his travel diaries, plays, and essays, I followed my obsession all the way from New York City to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, where Synge spent months talking to the islanders about their lives and recording their stories. I endeavored to do something similar, and have been working on a book about my three trips to Aran and how my travels there helped me find genuine confidence in myself.
Felicity Hayes-McCoy has performed with the Abbey Theatre Company, worked with the BBC radio in London, trained in Dublin as a teacher of Irish and English language and literature, taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, written radio plays, and worked in television and film. Now she has written a book that is part memoir and part history of place.
Talking to me now over Skype, Felicity quotes one of my favorite lines by Synge: “No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied.” The word for satisfied in Irish, she explains, is sásta, and it means more than just satisfied. It is interchangeable with the word for “happy.” It is incumbent upon us, Felicity says, to be happy.
As a writer with a mindfulness meditation practice, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to be happy. I grew up with an autoimmune disorder, and when I was in high school my mother and sister both battled (and thankfully won against) cancer. For years I was plagued with health anxieties and did not know how to be happy in the face of chronic illness. When I discovered that Synge had also battled chronic illness since childhood, my obsession was cemented. I knew I had to go to Aran.
After Synge’s travels to Aran, his writing matured. He went on to write some of the most influential plays in the Irish literary canon, such as The Playboy of the Western World. I wondered if this change in his writing had to do with some fundamental change in himself, catalyzed by his Aran sojourns.As Felicity and I speak, it is summer in New York City. I am perched at my desk next to my window with a view of a brick wall and a sliver of Manhattan sky. Felicity sits in front of the turf fireplace in her house on the Dingle Peninsula. There’s a bit of a chill in the air, she tells me. Out her front window Felicity can see thick clouds moving slowly over Mount Brandon, making the hillside shimmer when the sun pokes through to reveal blue sky. Out the back window she can see the spine of the mountain range whimper out towards the coast, and the fat bellies of the Blasket Islands poking up through the Atlantic. Inside the house, the walls are made of thick gray stone covered in plaster, and the high, curved ceiling is made of slats of timber, as if an overturned boat were protecting the current inhabitants of the house
But Felicity’s house, Tí Neillí Muiris, contains more than just her and her husband Wilf. It is their house, Felicity explains, but it belongs to the community and to the memory of Neillí Muiris, the woman who moved to the house in 1911 with her mother when it was first built. The legacy of Neillí Muiris is still very much alive in Corca Dhuibhne (pronounced KIRka GWEEnah), the peninsula’s Irish language name.
“Corca Dhuibhne rears powerful women,” Felicity writes in her book. Many of her current neighbors grew up without electricity or running water, doing work “that would exhaust the average woman today.” These women are known as “mighty women” to their surviving daughters and granddaughters and Felicity draws inspiration from these mighty women. Felicity has done whatever was necessary to make room for writing in her life. Sometimes this meant turning down more stable, full time work in order to allow herself space and energy to write, and learning to live with that kind of insecurity. But thinking about the kind of obstacles faced by the women who once congregated in Tí Neillí Muiris – seasons of bad crops, powerful storms, and scant resources – gives her some faith in her own strength. And just as the tenacity of women like Neillí Muiris inspired Felicity, Felicity’s tenacity is inspiring to me.Felicity grew up in Dublin, and her grandmother often told her traditional folk tales and Irish myths from the west – some were funny, some dark, some very dark. (“Kill a calf, kill a cow. There, my story’s ended now.”) But the sound of her grandmother’s voice and her English sentences shaped by Irish syncopation stayed with her. When Felicity arrived in western Ireland, the memories of her grandmother came back to her, and she finally realized how those folk tales came about: the stories and myths were expressions of the landscape, the seasons, the weather, and the overall environment in which the people lived.
Felicity’s continued obsession with and love of stories and storytellers shapes the narrative of The House on an Irish Hillside. The chapters are, like the Irish folktales she grew up listening to, and like the seasons and festivals in Dingle, fluid and cyclical: Felicity interweaves Celtic folktales and the history of Corca Dhuibhne with her own personal story, bringing history and myth into the present, letting them dance with one another.
In one of the most compelling passages in the book, Felicity describes the first party she and her husband hosted in their new house. Tí Neillí Muiris was historically a “rambling house” where people would gather in the evenings for song and drink and storytelling. Felicity and Wilf decided they would keep this tradition alive. Felicity describes how during their first party one of the neighbors recounted where each person’s mother would have sat in this very house. It is a beautiful moment, reflective of the past and sensitive to the present, and Felicity’s sense of satisfaction is clear and genuine.
But although Felicity found her place in the house on the hillside where she can walk, garden, write, and feel connected to the community, she and Wilf continue to travel between Dingle and London. They maintain a flat in Bermondsey, and the book touches on the reasons why. She writes: “Life can be stressful wherever you live and close communities breed their own tensions and frustrations. For us, living in two places wasn’t about running from one and escaping to the other. It was about heightening our awareness and appreciation of both.”Felicity describes a day she spends walking through Bermondsey, trying to act as if she were walking in Corca Dhuibhne. She tries to appreciate the trees and natural forms around her, pays attention to colors and details, smiles at people and says hello to those who pass her by. “It was absolutely lovely and everybody just smiled back!” she said. “Though some of them looked scared and ran away,” she joked. But the experience gave her hope that she could bring the conscious awareness and sense of community she feels in Dingle to her life in London.
And, she believes, her life in London will also enrich her experience on the Irish hillside. “For me, part of the role of the creative artist is to be the outsider looking in and describing the place. And so I’m content with that role as an outsider here, and very aware of it, and very grateful that the people have drawn me in.”
Felicity reminds me that the Aran Islanders called Synge a duine uasal, a noble person, but she explains that this referred to more than his social standing. The traveling stranger, she explains, was considered a noble figure, perhaps because he or she could offer a different perspective. Thinking about this now, I wonder if I might endeavor to walk around New York, or go about my life wherever I am, with the outlook of a tourist – someone who sees everything as new and appreciates her surroundings with equanimity and affection – and if this could be a more satisfying way to live.
About the Author:
Emily Herzlin is a freelance writer and teacher in New York City. Emily’s writing has most recently appeared in The Millions, The 35 Under 35 Project, Crescendo City Magazine, Newsday, and The Women's International Perspective. She also contributes to the Aran Islands Blog, and wrote a weekly column for a year for the blog of the Interdependence Project, a meditation center in New York City. An excerpt of her book about J.M. Synge and the Aran Islands, There Will Never Be the Likes of Me Again, was published in Italish Stories Vol. III. Emily has her M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University, where she teaches a course she designed called Sit, Breathe, Write: Mindfulness and Creative Writing. Emily received her B.A. in Dramatic Literature from New York University in 2008. Her one-act play, “Assemblage,” was chosen for an off-Broadway workshop and reading in 2005 by Young Playwrights, Inc.