Sunday, March 16, 2008

return of glavin

as promised, here is the awesome irish story featuring a mermaid that was published in today's ny times sunday magazine. it's written by bryan patrick miller, who is a student in nyu's graduate creative writing program.

My pilgrimage to my mother’s ancestral home in Ireland began with the wrong bus, to the wrong village. Not that the delay mattered much in the scheme of things — no one in my immediate family had set foot in Goleen in more than a hundred years. I learned when I was growing up that my Catholic great-great-grandfather and his brothers left Ireland in a big hurry under dubious circumstances, but none of my relatives knew more than a few details. The bits of lore were vague and portentous, something to do with a widow and her starving children. My mother always said that someday one of us would have to go back and find out what happened. Then a few years ago, while she was struggling with what proved to be a terminal illness, she asked that I make the trip. “Go to Ireland,” she said, “and tell me everything.”

I did finally arrive in Goleen, a tiny cluster of stucco homes with farmland on one side and the Atlantic Coast on the other. It’s literally a one-horse town; a gray mare stood tied to a post outside the pub. I figured my best option was to walk into the only store, which doubled as the post office, and ask the clerk to point me to the church, so I could look in the town records.

“The name’s Glavin,” I said, smiling. She recoiled, backing away with a hand to her face, and wouldn’t say another word.

By the time I made it to Goleen’s dimly lighted pub, word seemed to have spread that a Glavin was back. Gnarled farmers glowered at me over their Guinnesses. No one spoke to me. I swallowed my pint fast and walked out. After an uneasy night at a bed-and-breakfast on the edge of town, the next morning I met Jimmy, the fruit-stand owner, a friendly old man who not only spoke to me but also led me to the home of Richard Hawkes, a Brit who co-wrote a book of history and folklore that, Jimmy said, included a chapter on the Glavins.

Hawkes, a lanky, bespectacled man, told me my family was hated all over southwest Ireland: we were tax collectors for the British since the 1500s. The lore had it that the Glavins terrorized and evicted their neighbors for their own gain, and it elaborated on some of the things I’d heard; supposedly the Glavin men once roughed up a widow for stealing potatoes from their trash, and as a result her children later starved.

And then Hawkes and Jimmy proceeded with a local legend: the last patriarch of the Irish Glavins was hiking one day along the Mizen Head, a peninsula of rocky cliffs jutting into the Atlantic, when he heard a woman shout. He discovered a mermaid thrown onto the rocks by the tide. They say she begged him to carry her back to the sea, but instead he snatched away her mermaid’s bridle, preventing her from returning. He held her hostage until she grudgingly agreed to become a woman and marry him.

Apparently, my great-great-great-grandfather and the mermaid had a pack of Irish children. The years passed. Then one day one of these offspring found the mermaid’s bridle in an outhouse and took it to his mother. Upon receiving it, she wept, hugged her children goodbye and hurried back to her home in the sea. John Glavin gave chase, but when he reached the cliff, she was already changed. He shouted as she swam on past the breakers, where she rose from the waves and, so the tale goes, laid a curse on my family. Soon after, the Glavins hit a string of bad luck and left Ireland.

Hawkes told me all this with a twinkle in his eye, but Jimmy the fruit seller, ageless in his navy peacoat, holding his hand-rolled cigarette, wore a serious face throughout. His knowing looks implied as much about my family’s past as anything Hawkes said.

Kidnapping a mermaid, roughing up a widow — I’d come looking for family history for my mother, and I’d found a countryside full of people with a 500-year-old grudge against us. I don’t know what I should have felt, but I was fairly exhilarated. It was as if I’d stumbled through a secret doorway to a mythical realm. My ancestors might really have been villains — the people in Goleen clearly thought so — but maybe the story was still alive.

Later that evening, Hawkes took me to the Glavin homestead high on the hill overlooking the Mizen Head, walking the same dirt my ancestors had. Scoundrels or not, my family wandered this land for hundreds of years. We tramped into the field behind the old house, where I dug a hole, and then read a blessing I scribbled down in my notebook in the town church a few hours before. I asked forgiveness from the land and its people — and any mermaids who might be listening. Feeling a little foolish, I threw in a handful of Irish coins. Hawkes, also the town’s historian, copied the blessing and put it in the town record, the next chapter in the Glavin story.

On the bus out of town, I wrote my mother everything.

No comments: