When I tell British people that I’m from the south-west of Ireland, they think of shamrocks, leprechauns, Guinness and potatoes – they don’t hesitate to tell me that. And it’s true, growing up in Killarney, one of the island’s most popular tourist destinations, this iconography was ever-present in my childhood, but to a point where the keychains and tea towels that dangle outside shops ‘for Americans’ are practically invisible to me. In the place of pots of gold and little green men, I see the remnants of businesses that tried and failed, a spot where I cut my knee as a child. I see people that are affable and selfless, but also deeply suspicious of one another, a hangover from our colonial past. A sense of home, to many Irish people, mingles personal history with shared cultural history. Killarney is that home for me.
Killarney has it all – its architecture is modern enough to reflect the profitable European state that Ireland is in 2021, but many pubs and shops could as easily belong in 1921. When I visit home, the streets are a reminder of my heritage and Ireland’s metamorphosis over the last century, yet all of that is graffiti’d over by my own memories as I pass alleys that I’ve painted with vodka vomit and coffee shops where my mom would take me after a hard day at school. Charlie Foley’s pub, where my great-grandmother was born in 1910, is a place I was turned away from more than once for forgetting the birthday on my fake ID. I had my second kiss under a tree outside Killarney Outlet Centre and the boy stuck his gum to the bark. There is still a faint mark of red where I wrote TROTSKY on the bank during my Communist awakening at 16. It’s funny to think of the tragedies and victories of my teen years unfolding on ground that Bram Stoker and Jane Austen treasured.
The National Park is the jewel of Killarney. In the summer, it is swarmed with visitors drawn to the wild, majestic landscape. That time of the year the entire forest is green. Boys in Kerry jerseys kick around a ball in open spaces and young families picnic despite the wasps. As the autumn approaches, the tourists vanish, and decay ensues. The heavy sweetness of a wet July day turns into torrential rain that forces the aging leaves onto the brown October floor. Every year, I feel this death and the approaching rebirth deeply. As I’ve changed and grown, the park, too, experiences eternal transformation. Within the park is Muckross Abbey, an old Franciscan friary, an ancient yew tree grows within its cloisters, a Celtic symbol of death and resurrection. This sacred space is the starkest reminder of the many personal histories that have begun and ended there.
“Níl aon tínteán mar do thíntean féin, mar a deir an seanfhocail.” There’s no hearth like your own hearth, according to the old phrase. This is a cliché of Irish school essays everywhere, and yet it is apt to describe the intertwining of person and place; you can take me out of Killarney, but you can’t take the mountains, the crowded pubs or the Kerry cynicism and bleakness out of me.