Ugly Fingers

Connor sat on wet sand and watched the waves lick at his feet, knowing he would regret it when he put his socks back on. His jeans were rolled up to his ruddy knees, revealing freckles and blonde leg hair. It was surprising how warm Inishmore was, after having spent so much time wrapped in a raincoat on the mainland. Maybe he just felt warm because of the biking. Connor hated biking, but everybody was doing it so he did too. It wasn’t the same as jumping off a bridge.

His friends were thankfully elsewhere, exploring a mountain trail or pestering wild ponies. Some had gone up to see the cliffs, but Connor didn’t care to. He didn’t like bikes and he didn’t like heights. Instead, he liked sitting by the ocean and not saying a word. Here, he felt loud.

Moments ago, he was excited by the shells. He had found a crowd of baby ones in all different colors. In his left fist were two spiral purple ones, a pointy green one, a red one that had a chip in it, and probably ten or so ordinary ones. He opened his palm to look at them again but got distracted. He had a habit of picking at the skin around his fingernails when he was nervous, and he was always nervous. His fingertips were raw and unsightly. Instead of putting the shells in his pocket, he threw them into the ocean and buried his hands in each other so no one could see, even though no one was looking.

Connor decided that he liked traveling a lot. It was a treasure to find places and moments like this, like in the movies. If he ever traveled again, he would do it alone. His friends here weren’t really his friends, and he grew tired of following them everywhere they wanted to go because he was too slow to suggest things of his own. He closed his pale eyes, not realizing they matched the sea. He willed it to come and carry him away.

After lunch, before everyone split up, the group had visited the Aran Sweater Shop. Apparently it was a huge deal to buy a sweater made on the island – on the island. He had been looking around and feeling the material of a button-up green one, when a lady with a silver braid asked him if he’d like to try it on. At first he didn’t understand because of her accent, but by the time he put the puzzle together, she was already unbuttoning it for him. His ears grew hot, knowing what would come next. He put it on and stood stony-faced as his friends gathered around to hoot and holler. The words were all kind spirited, urging him to buy the sweater since it “looked so good”, but he couldn’t hear them over the roar of his own insecurity. The lady took it behind the counter and waited. Connor had a hard time saying no to people, and a harder time saying no to situations. Seventy euro never felt like so much.

It was getting cold on the beach. The bag with his sweater was behind him, just out of reach of the water now as the tide was coming in. Connor reached back and pulled the sweater out of the bag gingerly, staring at the woven knots before putting it on. They were supposed to bring him good health. The sweater was itchy.

Connor marveled at the classic beauty of the sunset and wondered how many times poets had tried to capture it with words. He resolved to never try. Absentmindedly, he picked at his fingers and wished for a peace he could not name. He shivered and noticed that the water had somehow crept past his ruddy knees and up to his hips, spoiling the bottom edge of the sweater. Good, he thought, and still he did not move.

Behind Bars

For those ten minutes, it was gorgeous. Dublin’s brick and cobblestone were warmed in the sun, and the water droplets that remained looked like fairy dust. I lowered the hood of my purple rain jacket and looked around. Mitch and I were definitely at the jail, or Kilmainham Gaol as it’s called, but there was no way in. We had already walked the same block three times and could not find an entrance anywhere. After vain attempts to locate nearby wifi in order to search for clues on google, we sat down in silent defeat. We had come all this way, even paid for a bus – it seemed such a waste to just leave.

After all, this jail was supposed to be an experience worth every moment we spent looking for it. Opening in 1796, it was the home of untold horrors in a time when Ireland wasn’t quite as charming a place as it is today. Brutal executions and inhumane treatment of prisoners were par for the course – but it was especially bad during the potato famine. Numbers rose exponentially as women and children would commit petty crimes on purpose just so they could be locked away and guaranteed a meal – and the high numbers didn’t stop arrests for these petty crimes. A jail built for 1,000 with one in each cell grew to hold around 9,000, and each cell and meal given was then split nine ways. The youngest prisoner was put behind bars for several months for stealing, and he was five.  So naturally, when all is said and done, the jail is considered terribly haunted by these tortured souls (a tourist trap, perhaps, but alluring nonetheless).

I inhaled sharply and told Mitch that we should try finding a back entrance one more time before we gave up. The cold grey towers of the locked front entrance of the jail receded from view as we made our way down the street once more. I still wasn’t used to the cars driving on the left side of the road, and it always looked like the double decker tour buses were going to strike me down. As we rounded the corner, I heard that powerful “click click click” of heels on pavement coming closer and closer. A woman passed us, with a shopping bag in one hand and a purse in the other. She had a beautiful frilly blue dress on and large dark sunglasses. Her lipstick was bright red and her blonde hair was perfectly styled. I wondered how she had managed to keep it that way with the unpredictable rain storms. She looked completely out of place in this sort of rural corner of Dublin. I wish I had known more of her story; where she was headed, what was in her shopping bag, why she looked so focused, how she learned to walk so fast in those heels – but she disappeared.

According to the map on my phone, which may or may not have been malfunctioning, we should have been right on top of the back entrance to the jail, but at this point, I couldn’t even see the building anymore. We walked off the sidewalk and down a gravel path towards where we thought the entrance must be, losing more and more confidence the further we walked. The path ended in front of a small pasture of what looked like wheat, and it seemed there was nowhere else for us to go. Mitch walked to our left, trying to see if he could catch a glimpse of the jail, while I looked to our right. There was a large black gate there, medieval looking, but betrayed by its very modern keypad. It looked like the bars were protecting a stack of dingy apartments – as well as a man, who was jogging in our direction. I motioned to Mitch that we should just forget it and head back, feeling suddenly that we were trespassing. Just as we turned to go, the man closed the gate behind him and hesitated. Then he turned directly to us and asked if we were lost.

He was very Irish, in the best sense of the word – a positive attitude, a goofy grin. He had a short, scraggly red beard and a mop of red hair, and he dressed very well for himself. Not so well as the lady in heels, but well enough that he might be considered a vintage hipster if he were in Seattle. I would guess that he was about thirty. We smiled at him sheepishly.

“Yes, we sort of are. We were looking for the…”

“For the jail?” he interjected. “You’re not the first to get all turned around up in this place. Here, I’ll show ya where to go.”

We exchanged pleasantries on our way back toward the sidewalk, though I can’t remember now if we ever got around to names. If we did, my memory of his is lost. He eventually asked if we were from California, which I suppose is pretty impressive since Mitch is. It made me very conscious of my own voice and the fact that, I guess, I have an accent. I long to hear it with the ears of a foreigner, just to see what it’s like. We asked our guide if he had ever been to the states, and he told us he had been a couple of times; once to New York and once on the Route 66 road trip. We told him a little bit about why we were in Ireland and he told us a little bit about what he did for a living, before he broke off from that and told us how he couldn’t wait to get to America for good. He was working on getting a job over there so he could move permanently; he said this as if he felt trapped in Dublin.

Suddenly, his phone rang and he apologized for taking the call amid our frenzied, courteous insistence to do so. “Hey. Yeah, I’ll be there in just a couple of minutes. Some Americans got lost looking for the jail. We’re almost to the corner. Okay. See you soon.” I got the sense he was talking to a lover. He had kindness in his voice, and didn’t sound at all passive aggressive when he said “some Americans” – just warm and jolly. It began to bother me how rude we can be to tourists in the states. It seems like we have such a negative stereotype of “stupid, annoying tourists” getting in our way, even when most of us are tourists at some point in our lives. While I’m sure I would be kind to someone who asked for help, I doubt I would go out of my way to offer it like this man had, even when he clearly had somewhere to be. I felt very touched in this moment.

Furthermore, I couldn’t get it out my head that he was so desperate to get to America. What an archaic notion! A young Irishman dreaming of America as if it were some utopia where he could go and find happiness. (A little bell rang in the back of my head, reminding me of the countless Irish who, before committing petty crimes so as to be fed in the jail, tried to get out another way and escape to the States. I find it creepily ironic now that when I first saw this man, he was literally behind bars). Of course, I don’t know his circumstances and am filling in all the blanks myself with my biases, but I was still struck that I met someone who wants to go to the states now. With so much talk at home about how our country is doomed and how everyone is going to move to Canada after election season, how we are already the laughing stock of the rest of the world, I guess I was a little taken aback by this man’s reverence for America. I felt pride and shame all at once, and I’m still working out why.

He got us to a street corner and pointed in the direction of the entrance to the cruel stone structure that loomed over Dublin. He told us that we couldn’t miss it; the jail would be just on our left. We turned to say thank you and goodbye, and he left us with a smile and a wave of his hand. Then he was gone, off to meet up with his – someone.

It turns out that we had been right in the beginning, and he pointed us back to where we had started in front of the locked doors. When we finally got back to Trinity, we would come to learn that it had closed an hour before we had gotten there, hence our unfruitful adventure. As we started back, waiting for the bus, it began to rain. I hoped that our guide was somewhere dry. Maybe he was headed to meet up with the lady in heels. Maybe she had gotten him a gift in that bag she was carrying. Maybe he would take her to America with him.

I hope he does, and that America is still worth it.

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