by Emily Weitzman
The Long Valley Pub is the kind of typical, cozy, dimly lit Irish establishment that perpetually smells of Guinness. I climb up a tight stairwell to the tucked away bar that hosts Cork’s weekly poetry open-mic on my first evening in the city. I came to Ireland to escape—from what, I’m not so sure. I have a poetry grant, which provides me, a recent college graduate, with the freedom and money to travel the world solo for a year. Yet each new place I make home inevitably leaves me restless. My eighth time starting over in a new country this year, the feeling of the unfamiliar has become almost ordinary. I don’t have a clear sense of direction, yet I cannot stop moving. This is my last month of movement, this time in Ireland, before heading home. The decision to come here was almost an afterthought: a place so steeped in literary tradition, why not? As I order a pint and take a seat by myself in the packed room of Cork poets, Ireland seems more steeped in beer than anything else.
I am on time and the event starts late, but I am used to being alone among regulars. A lanky Irishman with a coy smile sits down on the bench next to me. He introduces himself as Eoin Murray, and explains that his name is spelled E-o-i-n, which the Irish pronounce Owen, not Ian. Eoin is twenty-three, born the same year as me, and he’s on summer break from studying at University College Cork. He has a thick Irish accent, made more apparent by his use of Irish colloquialisms like “savage,” “grand,” and “class,” all words for “cool.” Eoin’s curly, light brown locks are pushed out of his eyes with a headband. He’s wearing glasses, orange skinny jeans, and he’s not quite aware of his limbs. He keeps his hands inside his pockets as he walks to the bar to order a pint. With an untrimmed beard and unbrushed hair, he appears disheveled, but in an adorable way.
When the MC introduces the open mic in Gaelic, which the Irish just call Irish, Eoin translates for me. Irish is mandated in school, and while many folks only understand simple phrases, Eoin is fluent. When it’s Eoin’s turn to perform, he timidly gets up to the microphone, hands still in pockets. People from Cork tend to talk in a high-pitched, singsong tone, their voices rising and falling within one sentence. Eoin’s words fall into this cyclical pattern of speaking, but his voice is surprisingly deep. He comes across as shy, but he’s witty too. He has a sheepish schoolboy smile but a serious look to his eyes; while he performs or converses, Eoin is equally sober and silly. Tonight he shares a poem called Sonnet II, and as he reaches the end of it, I watch him watching me in the audience:
A girl called Lilly Mary who I could not
Stop looking at after we had our chat
And she would look at the ground and smile
As though she were a friend of the ground
And she would look at the space where no-one
Stands and smile as though she were a friend
Of the space, and other friends of the space
And I would look at her and smile as though
Our eyes were just about to make contact.
Eoin and I lock eyes through the crowd as the applause dies down and he walks back to our table. We get drunker and rowdier, rowdier and drunker, and by midnight, the pub is closing and the poets are kicked out. The group emerges onto the street and Eoin leads me round the corner to the poetry late night spot. Over a beer, he asks for my number and offers to give me a tour of his city. I am new to Cork after all, Eoin reminds me. It feels like he’s asking me out, and I know I should mention Brendan, the Australian poet I fell in love with in Sydney nine months ago, and our on-again-off-again currently on-again long distance relationship. Instead I don’t pry into Eoin’s intentions and agree to meet him by the river the following afternoon.
I spend my morning getting to know the city. The center of Cork is plopped between two channels that part from each other to make up this stretch of the River Lee. It’s like the river is fighting with itself about which way to go, so it diverges for a moment, a city is created in between, until finally, the River Lee meets back up with itself. If you were to watch from above, the north and south of the river look like open lips and the city center, the mouth. I live south of the southern lip, and Eoin suggests we meet near the train station, north of the northern lip.
From the apartment I’m renting through university housing, I walk over a three-arched stone bridge, one of twenty-two public bridges that cross the channels running through Cork. On the other side is a valley of cobblestone streets containing more pubs than I ever imagined could be in such close proximity. It’s the afternoon and I already hear echoes of Irish music seeping through the doorways of one pub after another. Fiddles, accordions, flutes, pipes, guitars, and bodhráns play the catchy, timeless folk music that gets Irishmen and tourists alike stomping their feet and dancing in circles. I pass pubs called Sober Lane and The Frisky Whiskey Bar. Sin é, one of Cork’s most famous traditional pubs, translates to “That’s it.” As in, “that’s it” with life. There’s a funeral parlor next door.
Facing the northern stretch of the river, gray rooftops rise up in front of me atop a hill in the distance. The houses look like they’re replicating Monopoly, each one similar and perfectly aligned in rows. There’s a church in the distance—a majestic gray edifice with three pointed towers, trimmed with gold, that reach towards the gray above. Ireland is full of cathedrals like this one. The churches stick out as Cork’s most opulent buildings among the drab houses that match the city’s sky.
It’s easy to see why so many writers are from Ireland: there is a certain romance to the melancholy that an artist can find here. Which is to say: the country is depressing. It rains and rains and rains and when the sun comes out, the sky is still gray. Its prominent patches of green are teasers for the happiness that could have been. The coast is a tease too; even in summer it’s often too cold to swim. What the country lacks in literal sunshine is not made up for by the attitudes of its dark humored, self-deprecating people. Statistics show that Ireland has the second highest suicide rate among young males across all of Europe, and the highest among females.
I wander over bridges and past pubs, searching for pockets of sunshine. I want to write, but I don’t know what to write about. Moments of sadness surprise me, along with moments of rain. Is this how I’m going to spend my last month of my yearlong adventure? Doing nothing in the downpour? But there is a kind of enchantment to a place steeped in gray and sadness, I think to myself.
Somehow Eoin “giving me a tour of his city” becomes “bringing me to a wildlife center outside of his city.” He used to work there and is overjoyed when he’s able to get us in for free. I’m not a big animal-lover, but I don’t tell him that. Our conversation starts off dull and awkward; stubborn silences persist. But as we walk past ostriches and monkeys and flamingos, something changes. Eoin cracks a joke about giraffes and we take pictures pretending to high five them. Soon we start to laugh, that giddy kind of giggling that reminds me of the start of a relationship. I consider not telling him about Brendan, daydreaming that Eoin and I could descend into a fantastical fling, an Irish affair. But I start to feel too guilty, and then we pass the koalas. “My boyfriend is from Australia,” I murmur as I point to the fluffy Australian beast. I have no follow-up comment, and Eoin is silent.
It is a relief to let out Brendan’s name, but a part of me wishes I had let the lie continue. At first, our interaction has a different tone—less playful—and I miss what it was like before. But then we start to laugh again, and maybe it doesn’t matter that I told him. At the end of our now non-date, Eoin gives me his book of poems with a signed note, which he had clearly written out before we met up that afternoon: To Emily, Nice spending the day with you today (July, 1) and looking forward to seeing more of you this coming month. His name is written twice, printed and signed: Eoin.
For the month I am in Ireland, Eoin and I date without dating. We drink into the late hours of the night and share poems as we stroll along the northern channel of the mucky River Lee. One gloomy morning as we walk along the river, Eoin shares this silly poem with me:
In the morning
all you can do
is get up
and getting up
thing to do
in the morning.
Eoin takes my notebook and writes down the names of all the places in Ireland that I just have to see. “I’ll bring you to wherever you want to go,” he tells me. I got used to being on my own in every other country, but too much loneliness in Ireland will make you depressed.
We take the train past his hometown to Cobh, the seaport town where the Titanic launched in 1912. At the base of the waterfront are stone sculptures of emigrants looking out at the Atlantic, a memorial to the catastrophe. We climb a steep road to the top of a grand hill and our knees touch in the pews of an extravagant Gothic cathedral while we listen in on a private choir practice. When I ask if Eoin grew up going to church, he tells me: “It’s Ireland.” He looks at the ceiling and then to the ground: “I don’t know what I believe.” We tour the Jameson Museum and drink more than our fair share of free whiskey. Eoin tells me about his past tumultuous relationships and I complain about my current one. We are the portrait of a timeless cliché: two poets in Ireland, drinking whiskey and lamenting about heartbreak.
On the train back from a day trip, as we look out the window and watch the rain pour down on endless green pastures, Eoin brings up his sadness like it is a person sitting in between us on the train. “It never really goes away,” he says. He is a hopeless romantic and speaks of his endless quest for the kind of love that will drown away what feels like his boundless sorrow. Eoin reads me this poem:
It’s new year I feel sad
All my friends were out last night
I feel sad
I stayed in I feel sad
The night before I didn’t get the girl
I feel sad
I feel sad. I feel sad. I feel sad. The poem continues like this, repeating the phrase, and his words help me to feel like my own sadness is normal, simple, okay. I tell Eoin how I feel like I’m fighting with my mind, how I think about death all the time. I fear its nothingness, its empty. I try to run from these thoughts—they lure me from one place, one promise of release, to the next—but I cannot escape my obsession with my own mortality.
“Most people don’t know that about me. I don’t show what’s really going on in my mind.”
“What about your boyfriend?”
“Brendan, he’s… he doesn’t get it.”
Eoin pauses, his upper lip curling in an almost-smile: “I do.”
Over a pint at a local tavern, I ask Eoin to help with a project I’m conducting by answering the question I try to ask everyone I meet around the world: “What are you waiting for?” He takes my question seriously, thinking it through before stating he’s embarrassed to answer. I try to convince him and tape Eoin’s voice on my digital recorder. As a fiddle dances through a cyclical melody, the tune in the background is jolly and joyful and so are we.
“So what are you waiting for?” (Long pause. Music gets louder.)
“You’ve caught me off guard.” (Pause. Fiddle.) “Ahhhh. I can’t do it.” (He begins to giggle.)
“Do it.” (Pause. Fiddle.) “I won’t look at you.”
“Ask me again.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“I feel silly saying it… Okay.” He slurs his words. “Shit you just asked me and I’m reacting very off the cuff now.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“I have to get on with my fit of giggles before I say it… Nothing, look around,” he is interrupted by his own laughter. “I feel weird saying it. I’ll say it deadpan.”
He takes a breath: “Nothing. Look around. We have arrived.”
“Why were you so scared of saying that?” I ask, slightly disappointed.
“Because it’s so like… I don’t… it’s very… arty.” He continues in an exaggerated voice, mocking his own words, “Nothing, look around…”
“We have arrived!” I join in, finishing the joke for him.
We laugh, but then something shifts, and Eoin’s tone becomes serious, thoughtful.
“I mean it though. We’re always arriving, like… we’re here.”
Eoin looks at me and I look back and though the lighthearted tune is still playing in the background, a moment of silence sits between us, an understanding, an acknowledgement of our connection, a rush of love. Then the fiddle comes back in and the moment is over, and we are no longer in this pub as two drunken lovers, just two drunken friends.
We don’t see as much of each other during my last week in Ireland. I travel on my own, spending a few days in the rolling hills of Dingle, one of the places Eoin said I had to see. Dingle is a town on the Dingle Peninsula, which sticks out west from the island of Ireland, reaching into the Atlantic Ocean. The colorful homes and shops and pubs and B&Bs climb the steep hill of Main Street, a rainbow leading to the still-gray-but-seemingly-less-gray Dingle sky. I decide to bike the Slea Head Drive, a famous circular loop through Dingle. I consider avoiding the daylong trip because of the rain, but I set out on a rented bike anyway; as I cross a bridge to begin the forty-seven kilometer journey, the skies miraculously clear.
I travel up the mighty hills along the coast, against treacherous wind. For the most part, there is no one in sight, so I say hello to the cows I pass on the way and they moooo back at me. I get off my bike and walk on a small path through the land, a quilt of green leading to precipices that plunge to the ocean. I climb to a cascading cliff and sit on the edge, my legs dangling above Dingle and the distance, into the empty space between the water and me. The breath of each new wave smashes against the cliffs, as if trying to climb up to the pastures above. One wrong move and I could fall into their vastness. My body is turned towards the west, away from everywhere I have been, away from the grayness of Ireland, away from the diverging rivers of Cork, away from Eoin, facing towards home.
Before I leave, I curtsey at the ocean. In this moment, I am grateful to have the time to reflect on this journey alone. The rain stays away as I turn from the coast, heading inland to complete the rest of the loop, back towards where I began; the moment I finish the circle and cross the bridge back into town, the sky downpours.
As I bike through the miserable rainstorm, I wonder whether being with Eoin would make the gray Irish morning more manageable to us both? It feels like Eoin gets me, like we are connected in a way that makes our potential romance inevitable. The time we spend together does not make me feel stuck—I don’t want to escape when I stroll down the river with Eoin by my side. But the desire to stay is not enough; I already booked a ticket home.
I arrive back to Cork in time for one last Monday night open mic before I leave on Tuesday. Eoin and I are the last to leave the pub that night, and the after-party pub too; we’re laughing and drunk on the street in the cold Irish night nine hours before I have to catch my flight. Eoin walks me back to the university housing, as he often does, but this time, he comes inside.
We take two Rebel Reds, our favorite beer made nearby at the Franciscan Well distillery, from the fridge and head to my room. My queen-size bed is the only comfortable place to sit, so we lay adjacent to each other, stretched out but not touching. Our shoulders do not brush and our knees are nowhere near each other’s. This is the moment, I think to myself. In nine hours, I’ll be leaving Ireland, and it feels like if it doesn’t happen now, we’ll never find out what we might have been missing. I could acknowledge there was something between us all along. I could spend my last nine hours kissing Eoin in an Irish castle. I could ask him to beg me not to board that plane.
Nothing happens. Eoin gets up to leave, and I don’t stop him. I send him off with my last Rebel Red. He tries to refuse, but I tell him I can’t take beer on the flight.
Two days later, back in New York, I receive a Facebook message from Eoin. It’s a close-up picture of the beer, his hand wrapped around the bottom, his knee peeking out from behind. “Thank you,” are the only words in the message. I reply: “Hahaha.” Followed by a smiley face.
Eoin and I don’t stay in touch for the following month. Then one August morning, while I’m visiting family in Truro, Massachusetts, I sign onto Facebook to a message from Eoin’s friend:
Hey Emily, I’m really sorry to have to say this. Eoin Murray passed away last night. It’s a real tragedy. He has had a weak heart since he was born and it gave out on him suddenly. It was very peaceful. I know you meant a lot to him.
I read these words in a Cape Cod cottage overlooking the bay that leads to the waves of the Atlantic Ocean that leads to where Eoin should be alive. I look out at the water and a rush, a wave, an ocean runs though me. I cannot move.
Eoin never told me that he had a weak heart. He never told me that his heart might fail. Why would he tell me about his heartbreak, but never his heart? Was it because he did not think that he could die at twenty-three from heart failure, or because he thought he could?
In this moment of grief, in the sadness that fills me, in the death I am faced with, all I want is to cry in Eoin’s arms. I mourn Eoin privately because no one in America knows what Eoin means to me. Thousands of miles away from Ireland, Eoin still exists for me in all the places we shared, so Eoin still exists. He is in the wildlife center where we high-fived giraffes; the churches where our legs touched in the pews; the pubs where we drank and laughed to the backdrop of the fiddle; the river where we walked along while he recited poetry; the bed where we lay next to each other and did not touch. All of this landscape, all of the Ireland that I came to know still holds Eoin Murray inside of it. But Eoin is not alive. Eoin is not alive. Eoin is not alive.
I can’t help but wonder if we had only met another time, in another place, maybe it would have turned out differently. Maybe Eoin was meant to stop my constant need to propel forward. Maybe I was drawn to Ireland that summer because I was supposed to be Eoin’s last love before what we could never have known would far too early come to an end. I replay each moment and filter the story until only the unfinished fairytale remains. Constructing this narrative is simple. It is easy to romanticize what could have been once it never will be.
I go to my shelf and pick up Eoin’s book of poems. I cannot search for Eoin’s presence in the gusts of wind or torrential downpours on the Cork streets we walked through together. But I can remember Eoin through the words he chose to leave behind:
I never really lost the will to
I’ve thought about it countless times.
Dead is surely just another way to be.
But never can I say have I ever
wished to die
I have only ever wanted life.
I try to come to terms with the limitations of our relationship: never romantic, and though maybe it could have been, for a short time, I like to think we found what we needed in each other. We filled each other with life that one summer. Eoin and I shared something special: the grayness of Ireland, draining and loving and consuming and beautiful.
I go on Facebook to look at our last exchanges: that damn picture of Eoin’s hand holding my Rebel Red, and my damn simple reaction of “Hahaha,” emoji. Facebook tells me I can “Write a reply” at the bottom of the page. I rewrite the message over and over, as if typing the right thing and pressing enter would allow Eoin to read my response. Sometimes I think of sending it, just to put it out into the universe, but I never will.
I miss you too. We’re always arriving. We’re here.
Emily Weitzman is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University, where she also teaches undergraduate writing.