In 1962, when I was three and a half years old, our family moved from a big brick house in suburban New York, to a 400 year old castle on an estate near the village of Glin, in the south of Ireland. Our father, who came up with this idea, went back and forth to the US numerous times on business over the next two and a half years, and while we were living there our parents took a number of trips on the European continent without us. Meanwhile my two older sisters and I lived at Glin Castle, on the River Shannon in County Limerick with the household staff, and a nanny. The lease my father signed with the Knight of Glin, was for three years, and we would have stayed the whole time, but my father fell ill, so we had to return home some months early.
Glin Castle, now known as Glin Lodge, is still a magnificent estate. The castle is stuffed with rare antiquities, surrounded by beautiful grounds, and the nearby village is quaint and stoic, like Ireland itself. My father, who was born in Scotland and immigrated to America with his mother and sister when he was a small boy, had been looking for a suitably grand place to bring his young wife, our mother, and us three small children, while he went about the business of retiring from his job as a Wall Street CEO. In the process he heard that Glin Castle might be available, and once he saw the place, he made an offer to rent it. Upon our return to the US, we moved back into his house in Bedford Hills, New York, and soon thereafter I started kindergarten at a private country day school a couple of miles down the road.
I remember walking into school with my mother on the first day, and being introduced to the pair of ladies who would be our teachers. I don’t recall what they looked like, or the sounds of their voices, but I do remember the way they, and the other children, reacted to how I spoke. Until that moment I wasn’t aware that I had a foreign accent.
My sisters and I had lived in Ireland for long enough to become part of it, and then we’d sailed home to a place we no longer knew. Our language, friends and cultural references were of an Irish village where most houses didn’t have telephones, and farm families came to church on Sunday by donkey cart. While we lived there we were ‘the Americans in the castle’, but we stuck around for long enough to absorb accents and nuances, and one year followed another, so that for a while we became part of the village.
I was young enough during that time to easily forget all about America. In fact memories of Ireland are among my earliest. They are fragmented, impressionistic and vivid. I can still smell the tobacco smoke in O’Shaugnessy’s Pub. But living there kept us innocent. Our parents must have sheltered us from the news, on November 22nd, 1963 of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which was as traumatic in Ireland as it was in the US, because I have no memory of hearing about it at the time. On the other hand, I’ve never forgotten watching on TV, just three months later, as Mohammed Ali (nee Cassius Clay), defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. I saw the fight in the Doak family’s front parlor on their small black and white TV, and what is striking about the memory is that I recall seeing it from an Irishman’s perspective. Liston was the Doak’s man. He was a quiet, brooding champion, with a dark past, who let his fists do the talking. His approach was patient, never flashy. He was the opposite of Clay, who was far too much of a ‘show-off’ and an ‘upstart’, to appeal to Mr. and Mrs. Doak. They were Protestants, in a Catholic town, working for the Knight who was Church of England, of course.
I didn’t know any of that at the time, but as Mr. Doak and his friends reacted to the fight, and the tension increased with each round, I remember hoping that Liston would win. To Mr. Doak, Clay was an alarming character. He was too brash and loud. He showed no respect for the champion. And his boxing style, dancing around the ring with his hands at his waist flicking out jabs and dodging Liston’s terrifying hooks, was somehow offensive to the Doaks. When Liston couldn’t answer the bell in round 9, the parlor got very quiet. I remember Mr. Doak still staring at the TV as we said goodnight and walked back to the castle in the dark.
I have loved and admired Mohammed Ali my whole life. That night at the Doak’s when I was four years old was the only time that I’ve ever rooted against him. I like to think that he would understand why.
The Doak’s cottage was on the castle grounds, which likely increased their sense of isolation. Mr. and Mrs. Doak were kind to us as part of their duties, but our presence was surely a relief to them as well, because we quickly became friends with their children, and all of us spent countless hours together. We might even have been answered prayer to the Doak family, as they were a great blessing to us.
Ireland was the happiest time of my life. I was a little boy living in a castle that came with a family of children who needed friends as much as my sisters and I did. The castle was huge and grand, full of strange, fabulous things, and the estate was staffed by people who, with some exceptions, I remember as kind, patient, and playful.
There was a point, after we moved into the castle and got into a routine, that our parents did hire tutors to help approximate the primary school education that was going on without us back in New York. This did not go well. There were multiple teachers, none of whom lasted long. One of them got so frustrated that in the middle of a lesson, she hit my sister in the head with a dictionary.
Being the youngest I didn’t have to start ‘school’ when my sisters did, but I do remember the day I got a spanking for running up to the Doak’s house during ‘recess’ and not coming back until after dark.
Sometimes our time in Ireland feels like a dream, because even though we were there for a long time, it was too good to last, and when our Dad got ill the return home felt sudden and fraught with new anxieties, which would only grow as we became American again.
So I’m standing there the first day of Kindergarten, and I say my name, and suddenly I’m an immigrant. My accent was alien and so was my information. I didn’t know what the other kids were talking about. I didn’t know who Rowdy Yates or Johnny Unitas were. I was more familiar with the sport of Curling, than American Football, and I called Soccer, ‘Football’, because, as I’m sure I said in my weird accent, “Ye play et weth yer feet!”
I don’t know what it feels like to become an immigrant by necessity. I’ve never been turned away, or suspected, or banned. The feelings I recall here never included hunger, or anxiety about whether we would be allowed to remain. If we’d been sent back to the castle it would have been for some soft, bureaucratic reason, and my sisters and I would have been delighted.
But I do know about suddenly being a stranger. On that day at kindergarten we were all new, but I was the only stranger because of the way I talked. This was Westchester County, New York, where the Clinton’s now live. Which is actually indicative of how much it has changed. Because back in 1964 a family from Arkansas no matter how much status or money they had, would have been viewed with a lot of skepticism by the households on the road we lived on. As Bill Clinton himself might put it, “if someone from Arkansas tried moving onto Harris Road in ‘64, they’d’ve got more condescension than they could shake a stick at.”
I’ve returned to Ireland many times. Our family has had two reunions at Glin Castle, and during the second one my wife and I took an unforgettable trip North, across the border and into Belfast with our friend the late State Senator, author, political activist, and indomitably Irish Irish American, Tom Hayden. Tom gave us the IRA tour in Belfast, and among other things we discovered the deep affinity of Northern Irish Catholics for African American culture. I’ve never seen so many white people with cornrows before or since.
It’s been over fifty years since I first set foot there, yet I still feel the sharpening effect those years in Ireland had on me. I was just a little boy, but it comes up all the time, like an extra lens that has added something essential to the way I understand the world.
I was a rich white American on that first day at Kindergarten in Bedford Hills, but I was also Irish, because I had lived there and unconsciously absorbed, the way only children can, the passion, and humiliation, the defiance, and alienation, the candor and poetry and ardor and hunger of a country that has had to, over and over again, empty itself of its’ sons and daughters, and let them become the immigrants without whose influence the world would be incalculably poorer. Because of our time in Ireland I keep relearning how important it is to be a stranger, to not get too comfortable, or familiar, or smart. Being a stranger gives one a truer sense of the way things really are. It makes it possible to see things without imagining that you know what they mean. It makes finding out what’s really going on an urgent, but methodical endeavor. Look, and look again. Watch. Listen. Ask. In that order. I disregard this wisdom all the time, and then I remember it, and when I do, it’s because of the little Irish boy in me.
My father, who was born in 1898 in Scotland (another tiny country with a massive impact on the world) and immigrated to America with his mother and sister when he was a little boy, was fond of saying, “The earth is just a wee speck of dust, a way out in left field.”
He was usually seated at the head of the dinner table when he’d say things like this, and what he was talking about, was the universe. He’d been a member of the board of directors of Martin Marietta Corporation, which helped to build the rockets that took the first American Astronauts into outer space. He loved the space program. It thrilled and inspired him. One evening, in his confused later years, he even told me that he had been to space, and then he left the room in a huff when I gave him a skeptical look. He returned a few minutes later and apologized, saying that he’d been confused, and that he’d only wished that he’d been able to go. I must have first heard him talk about the universe when we were still in Ireland. By then he’d married two well-born American women and fathered six children. (his first wife, with whom he had our older siblings; also two daughters and a son, died suddenly a little over two years before he met my mother.) I am the youngest of us all. My mother was thirty-three when I was born. He was sixty-one. He died a few months after my 21st birthday.
He too had been a little boy uprooted by a willful parent who took him to a new country, where he thrived. He fought in the first and second world wars, achieved great career and financial success, overcame devastating personal loss, and remained dynamic and adventurous, until soon after we returned from Ireland.
In the big brick house in Bedford Hills, and then the apartment in Manhattan where our mother still lives, his physical health declined, and all too quickly his mind began to unravel as well.
That’s a story for another time.
I prefer to remember him by reaching further back, to those earliest memories, when he was strong and audacious, and said to himself one fine day, “Why don’t we go live in a castle in Ireland, with room enough for everyone. It’s a bonny country, on a pretty little planet, in a fine little solar system, in an elegant corner of the infinite universe. There’s nothing stopping us. Let’s go!”