25 Years from the Most Important Moment

It's been brought to my attention, and in retrospect it's amazing I didn't sense it on my own, that this week marks 25 years since the day that I and 30+ other Notre Dame and St. Mary's students left on a Pan Am jet for the small village of Maynooth, Ireland.

I would travel to every bend of the country during that sophomore year of 1988-89, sometimes carrying nothing but a backpack, a journal and my thumb. But I also extended my travels to the continent and beyond. At the age of 19, I found myself skiing the Alps, gazing up at the Glockenspiel, walking among the ghosts of Masada, viewing the despairing slums of Gaza from the comfortable remove of a U.N. bus, swimming (I should say floating) in the Dead Sea, lighting a candle inside St. Peter's Basilica, riding the street cars of Budapest, staring in genuine awe at the Mona Lisa, and busking on Dublin's Grafton Street (and once on a boat to the Aran Islands).

Yet, despite the fact that I recall this year as often as one remembers a departed family member, these aren't the things I think about. What I really remember are the walks. 

The house that I shared with fellow Americans Pat, Bryan and Trace was two miles from everything: the college, the grocery store, the laundromat, the pub ("The Roost"), the ATM, the phone booth, the chipper. You couldn't even get a shower without first taking a good walk (and thus needing it even more). The first leg of the journey took you out of our bland, cookie-cutter housing development, Cluain Aoibhinn ("Kloon Even"). The bulk of it sent you along a narrow road marked at the halfway point by a "News Agent," at which I bought no newspapers but many Cadbury Dairy Milk bars. As you neared the school, you took a stone bridge over a small canal that ran along a horse pasture. Then finally, after nearly 20 minutes, you spied the castle ruin marking the entrance to St. Patrick's College. I made this walk every day, at least twice a day, for eight months.

I have no real recollection of what I thought about on these daily journeys, sometimes completed with my roommates, more often alone, sometimes on the way to the main road where you hitchhiked to Dublin, often late at night after The Roost had finally closed its doors. But I do remember one particular morning. It was midway through the year. I'm sure the air was laced with co-mingled coal and peat moss smoke rising from every house chimney. I was likely sporting worn black suede shoes with slightly detached soles, and wearing three layers of denim and flannel underneath my favorite maroon-and-black-checkered jacket.

I crossed that stone bridge and stared at the frost underneath the hooves of the horses, and at that moment, something washed over me that I've always found impossible to describe. Pete Townshend writes about hearing gorgeous music in his head as boy while on the sea one day--strains he's never been able to adequately recreate (though he says he came closest in the introduction to "Baba O'Reilly"). I can equate my feeling only to the correction of an astigmatism, like images that had always been split, fragmented and malformed finally coming together into perfect, sharp focus. But the images were me. And in that odd, glorious moment, it was as if I finally felt some kind of defined place in the universe: right, comfortable, genuinely spiritual. So overwhelmed by the feeling, I stopped and inhaled its euphoria along with the coal, peat and chill. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it vanished. I wouldn't be surprised if everybody on that program experienced something similar in their own way. It's the reason why I and the handful of others on my return flight cried in silence the second our plane left the ground in Shannon and headed west to bring us home.

I still bemoan never being able to conjure that cosmic ecstasy in Maynooth 25 years ago, but over time I find myself letting the wanting go in favor of hoping that others, especially my son, have the chance to feel something similar. I partly owe my Irish experience to my father's insistence that all of his children study abroad. And since his sudden death in May, I find myself wondering if his 77 years ever delivered him a comparable, magical moment. I imagine that if it did happen, it was while he was in college or grad school, before he chose the path of taking responsibility for other people and institutions, maybe when he was a newspaper reporter in St. Louis or Minneapolis--some point in his life when he was young and idealistic, doing what he truly loved, and able to accept the universe's generous offer of a unique place, just for him, just for that moment.  


Kristen Gill said…
Fantastic read, Mark. I was nearly in tears myself. Thank you for capturing in words what many others of us on the program certainly felt, but may never be able to put down in words. "Slainte!"
~Kristen Gill

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