In our first morning in Dublin, I was looking for an authentically Gaelic experience, something filled with mystery, ambiguity, and the type of contradictions that implode upon contact. I was envisioning the inner meaning of the Celtic cross or a Luke Kelly song belted out with elan from the lungs of an overearnest busker on O’Connell Street.
The previous evening, upon arriving at the flat, I had been looking out at the Irish Sea from our balcony in Blackrock. That was a mysterious moment. The mystery was how it was possible to make such a knockout sky.
The next morning in the flat, while researching Dublin churches on the Internet, my mouth was filled with the bitter aftertaste of the Guinness I had drunken the night before. That Guinness had been a communion of sorts. So was the view of the Irish Sea. Church, the Catholic sort with statues, golden icons, and stained glass, would be my third.
It wasn’t just mystery, but history, as well, that I yearned for.
History as in the Viking ships that had begun arriving by 795 AD to plunder the rich monasteries and Gaelic races who lived here, pale-faced men who wore long beards and animal skins. At one point, 65 Viking ships sailed up the River Liffey, which today forms Dublin’s spine. It must have been a stunning sight.
History as in the Maretimo Mansion that was owned by the wealthy wool merchant Valentine Lawless, Second Baron Cloncury. My mother, my girlfriend, and I were staying on those very grounds. In 1798, Lawless participated in the 1798 Irish rebellion, which sought freedom from the English crown, but resulted in many Irish deaths. Still, it forced the Brits’ hand, and in 1800, Ireland was turned from merely a possession to an actual part of Great Britain, with at least token representation in Parliament.
Baron Cloncury’s Maretimo House sat on Blackrock Beach and had a fabulous view. By 1970, however, it had fallen into disrepair and was torn down and rebuilt as the Maretimo House flats, which I was currently occupying.
But today, my pursuit of the mysterious was focused on Guardian Angels Catholic Church, which started at 9 am with Gaelic services, and then at “half ten,” as the Irish lad on the street phrased 10:30 in his charming lilt, we walked down the street and entered the centuries-old sanctuary. There was iconography on the walls and the priest was telling an edifying story.
“I was helping out at a rural church,” he said, “and I overheard a congregant confess doubts about his relationship with the true Christ because he had never had any feeling of closeness with Christ or God or anybody.”
My mouth was still filled with the Guinness aftertaste, and I strained to listen through the priest’s thick Irish brogue echoing in the high-ceilinged church.
“…And later,” he continued, “I gave communion, and as I came to the doubting man, a kind of Thomas, really, he had his arms crossed in front of his chest, which in Britain means that the man would like a prayer said for him. And so I raised my hand and said, ‘Lord God almighty, I pray that you might show this man the true width and depth and breadth of God’s Face, and that he might know all of what it is to know You, my Lord.’
“A day later, as I was walking about the town, I saw that selfsame man walking down the street, and he was crying as he was walking. And it made me sad because of the depth of his despair. But the man with whom I was walking said, ‘No, father, he isn’t crying from despair, he’s crying because he has suddenly felt close to God.’
“And so I found the man, and sure enough, he told me, ‘I’ve been crying on and off over these past 24 hours, because for the past 40 years, I’ve never felt close to God, but suddenly, after confessing my despair, I’ve been crying from joy because I suddenly feel him in my heart after all these years.”
I’m not religious, but as I sat there in my pew in the back of the church, what came to me were impressions, feelings, and thoughts, nothing so neatly pieced together into neat story form like the pastor’s tale. In the pews at the left, a 3-year-old child was yelling intermittently, the echo going up to the spired ceiling. Nearer, I saw a 4-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mother, several rows of electric candles in front of her.
To our left, I spied a wooden sculpture named “The First Fall,” a carving of a Roman soldier flogging Christ as he carried the Cross towards Gethsemane, and I thought, I’ve felt that whip. In front of me were the backs of congregants, many of them silver-haired, many wearing casual thick cloth coats with hoods, and it was a reminder that in Ireland, bad weather is always expected. In my mouth, the Guinness was still lingering unpleasantly.
I suppose I was looking for a narrative. I was a vulture circling for a story, watching a priest who was also circling, but he, for souls.
At the end of the service, everyone stood up and filed out the huge front doors. I left the church somewhat disappointed, I must admit, because I had had a magical experience that was not a real magical experience. It was like a man watching a television show of his own life as it was happening, all self-consciousness. Outside, we were greeted by some rare Dublin sun. The congregants were milling around, chatting.
And that’s when I saw the three young boys dressed in rugby clothes, aged 5, 6, and 7. I immediately brightened. I approached them and talked about the big game of the night before, in which Leinster, the Dublin team, had triumphed over Glasgow to claim the Celtic League trophy.
“Are you rugby fans?” I asked.
“Sure we are,” he said. “Their uncle plays for the Manchester team,” he said.
I looked at the children with fondness.
“Would the children like to see a magic trick?” I said instinctively, because it’s always my first play.
“Yes, of course,” he said.
And so I pulled a coin out of a child’s ear. And then I pulled one out of each of the others’ ears, too. And then I performed a sophisticated routine that even decked the father. But I didn’t want to push it too far, because magic and religion are an uneasy mix, so I pulled myself away and we began walking home past 16th-century walls and hoodlum graffiti. And as we did, I mused that I had, after all, had my magical experience. It was the children’s smiles as they watched the magic. There’s nothing more magical than a child’s smile. And when I think back on that moment, I don’t remember the bitter taste in my mouth or the cynicism in my heart. That moment is pure, clear, and holy.