On a damp January afternoon, I sat in the front corner of Reidys Wine Vault Bar poring over Ulysses. It was 2001, and I was less than a month into my semester abroad. My friends and I had dubbed Reidys the ‘Old Man Pub’ for its ornate tables, plush seats, stained-glass partitions and chestnut-panelled walls teeming with framed moments from Irish history, not to mention its utter lack of students. The only other patrons that afternoon were grizzled elders who sat at the bar arguing about when Ireland would adopt the Euro. In fact, the quietude of the Old Man Pub was what drew me there.
This was my second trip to Ireland, and I was there on a fluke. As a junior at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, I wanted to study abroad in London. But my advisor advised that London was too expensive, and she’d heard American students tended to hang out only with other Americans. As a cheaper, more authentic alternative, she suggested Cork: the second largest city in Ireland, where the students would be friendly and the university cost half as much as Brandeis for a semester.
“Plus,” she informed me, “University College Cork is supposed to have an amazing film studies department.”
Since I’d been minoring in film at a university where nearly all the classes were taught by the same professor, this was the deciding factor.
Travelling to UCC to study film, however, was like Rick Blaine going to Casablanca for the waters – I was misinformed. The cinema classes were overcrowded, uninformed lectures, in which stodgy professors projected shoddy copies of films I’d already seen. Instead, I threw myself into a class on Joyce, figuring it might be my best chance to appreciate Ulysses now that my father was gone. Dad had been a high-school English teacher and Joyce was his passion, but he passed away from chronic lymphocytic leukaemia three-and-a-half years before my semester abroad.
Sitting there at the Old Man Pub with a creamy pint of Murphy’s stout, I wished Dad were still alive, if only for one afternoon to discuss Ulysses with me.
How he would have enjoyed sitting in on my class and hearing Joyce read with a melodious lilt! The class was taught by a greybeard who told us not to fret when we felt beleaguered by Joyce’s myriad allusions to the Bible, foreign languages, history and culture.
“Just keep yer heads down, and you’ll do fine,” he huffed through a thick accent.
Yet without Dad to help me unlock the inscrutable text, I opted for the annotated edition. Aside from a tweed cap, the Oxford World’s Classics Ulysses was my most expensive purchase in Ireland at thirty-five pounds, though it soon became the most valuable.
I was only a third of the way into the first episode, ‘Telemachus’, and halfway through my pint of Murphy’s when the book proved its worth. As Buck Mulligan, stately and plump, tries to cheer up Stephen Dedalus in the Martello Tower along the beach near Dublin, he leaves Stephen alone to stare at the sea, singing:
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery
For Fergus rules the brazen cars.
My eyes moved over those indented words again and again, widening each time they passed ‘Fergus’. I eagerly flipped back for an explanation and found that the verse was from a song in a Yeats play, The Countess Cathleen. Cathleen sang it after she sold her soul to buy her people food, and though Buck Mulligan didn’t know, it was also the song Stephen sang to his dying mother in lieu of a prayer. The name of the song: ‘Who Goes With Fergus?’
I felt a dizzying surge of sentiment. “Who goes with Fergus?” had been Dad’s tried and true expression throughout my childhood. He used it when asking us to accompany him to a Phillies game, the supermarket, or even outside to help mow the lawn. My two brothers and I never understood the reference, and Dad’s only explanation was a cryptic grin. Stumbling upon Fergus on the printed page, then, was akin to figuring out who shot Kennedy, or discovering the Rosetta Stone and then deciphering it right there in that smoky pub booth.
Although I didn’t know if Dad had gleaned the expression from Joyce or from the Yeats play, I suddenly experienced a more profound connection with my father. I’d spent three-and-a-half years since his death living with the notion that I might never be able to understand anything more about him. Now, reading Ulysses in the Old Man Pub over a pint seemed precisely what I was meant to be doing. In fact, all the difficult decisions I’d made since Dad died – which college to attend or what subjects to study – felt affirmed because they led me to this very moment. That’s when I had an unexpected memory of my first trip to Ireland, and the first time I heard Dad ask, “Who goes with Fergus?”
My father spent months planning our family’s two-week vacation to Ireland in the summer of 1985. He read up on every castle, every dolmen, every B&B between Cork and Connemara. Strewn about his study were brochures from Celtic sites and letters of correspondence that Dad had struck up with various innkeepers. I remember the maps that covered the shag carpet; Dad on his hands and knees, meticulously calculating driving distances, routing and rerouting our trip for maximum sightseeing, while our black cat Harry nestled next to him on the Irish Sea.
Yet because I was five, the whole vacation had boiled down to only a couple distinct memories. Both of them arose from the backseat of our rental car, which reeked simultaneously of the cigarette smoke left by the renters before us and the stale farts that were all ours. For much of the journey, I was cramped next to my younger brother Ben and our mother, who kept her left arm around us both during the drives to compensate for the lack of seatbelts in the back. My older brother Josh sat up front, his Velcro Keds resting on the dashboard with a freedom I envied.
“Who goes with Fergus?” had been Dad’s tried and true expression throughout my childhood. He used it when asking us to accompany him to a Phillies game, the supermarket, or even outside to help mow the lawn.
The first thing I remember from that trip is the five of us eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Mom prepared. We’re parked in the verdant countryside, overlooking a lush valley dotted by sheep creeping along a web of stone walls. Besides our chewing, the only sound is Dad’s map, which crunches as he unfurls it across the steering wheel in search of a ruin he suddenly can’t locate.
“I know we took the right road out of Dingle,” he says. The town’s name makes us all giggle, which Mom finds funny. She has a blonde row of bangs that hangs over her eyes like an awning. When she laughs, her eyebrows disappear.
All of a sudden our impromptu picnic is disrupted by a donkey, which sticks its spiky mane through Mom’s open window. The donkey has dark eyes the size of the buttons on Mom’s new Irish sweater, and it snuffles and slobbers all over Ben and Mom as they back towards me.
“Oh my God!” Mom shrieks, instinctively protecting us with her left arm while trying to shoo the donkey with her other hand. The donkey grunts and opens its mouth to reveal two white teeth bigger than my fingers. Its floppy ears are fuzzy and I want to touch them but am too afraid the donkey will bite my hand.
“Quick, throw it your sandwich,” Dad shouts, snatching Josh’s half-eaten lunch from his hands and waving it in the donkey’s snout. He tosses it out Josh’s window and the donkey follows, streaking Mom’s sleeve in drool as it leaves. Who knew donkeys liked peanut butter?
Another donkey sidles up next to our car to see the commotion. This one is much more handsome with its cropped mane, though its eyes are sullen. It sniffs our car but isn’t as intrusive as its friend, who’s now polishing off the crust of Josh’s sandwich along the gravelly shoulder. Dad and Mom howl hysterically, a signal to us to stop being stunned and laugh along. Rather than speed off right away, Dad leans out Josh’s window to take a picture.
The second recollection is en route to a B&B, but exactly which part of the country or rural road Dad’s taken is unclear because I’d fallen asleep and only woke up when our car broke sharply. Looking back now, it must have been pretty late since sunset is around eleven o’clock in the Irish summer – a fact Dad used to his sightseeing advantage.
“I think we have a flat,” Dad whispers to Mom, trying not to wake us. Josh is still asleep in the front seat and Ben’s using Mom’s lap as a pillow. A light rain taps against my window, and I can barely make out the fields beyond the low stone walls, running along both sides of us like a chute.
“Well, who told you to take this rocky route?” Mom mutters, which I think is going to launch an argument loud enough to wake my brothers and every kneeling cow in a ten mile radius.
Before the bickering can begin, though, another set of headlights flashes behind us. A man with a grey-cabled sweater suddenly appears at Dad’s window and knocks. Dad’s mouth hangs open behind his bushy brown beard, shocked at the sight of anyone else along this road. When he looks back at Mom for guidance, his glasses gleam in the headlights. Mom nods cautiously to crank his window open.
“Saw you’re having problems there with your car,” the man says in a singsong. Beads of rain sparkle across his sweater, which stinks of wet wool, but his face is invisible. “I have a spare in me own car. I’ll fix it in a jiffy.”
“Thank y—,” Dad starts to say, but the man has already disappeared behind our trunk.
I lean forward and ask, “Who was that?”
Dad turns around, puts his hand on my cheek and smiles.
“Must be a leprechaun!”
After Dad passed away from cancer, my inability to recall more than two memories from that vacation deeply saddened me. Discovering Fergus in the Old Man Pub, then, wasn’t just significant for understanding one of Dad’s enigmatic expressions; it triggered a third remembrance. Coincidentally, this one was in the car as well.
We’re parked in an empty lot near the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, somewhere along the coast. Pouring rain blurs the outside.
“Who goes with Fergus?” Dad asks, wrapping a plastic bag around his camera.
“Don’t look at me,” Mom says, knitting a cap from a skein of white wool she must have bought at a roadside stand.
Dad turns around and puts the question to the back seat: “Anyone want to walk across a bridge like in Indiana Jones?”
The three of us have just seen The Temple of Doom and loved it. Dad had to cover Ben’s eyes during the part where they pull out the guy’s heart, but Ben still saw the scene where Indy’s fighting his way across the narrow rope bridge above ferocious crocodiles in India.
“Robbie,” Mom raises her voice and puts down her knitting. “If you want to go out there, you’re on your own. There’s no way these guys are going with you in the rain.” She points a pearly knitting needle toward her window. “And you said yourself that bridge barely has handrails.”
“Aw!” Josh cries from the front.
“Aw!” Ben echoes, idolising Josh.
I say nothing but I want to go with him. I want to go but I’m scared. How can a bridge of ropes stay up in the driving rain? The bridge in Temple of Doom collapsed, though that was because Indy cut it to escape. But what if we take one step onto that bridge and the wind twists us up like pieces of wrapped candy, then another wind twists us back and spits us into the ocean? What if I can’t hold on or fall through? Short Round, the kid in the movie, almost fell right through when he was jumping up and down yelling, “See, strong wood!”
Dad puts his hood over his head and pushes his glasses up on his nose.
“Be right back,” he says, stepping into the rain.
I crane my neck to see the bridge but can’t see past a pair of purple shacks that Dad walks in between and out of sight. I wonder if Dad will be all right. He said the cliffs of this coast are higher than the roof of my school. He said there’s a castle nearby whose kitchen had been crumbled by a storm and swept out into the Atlantic. He said that rope bridge barely has handrails! How on earth is he going to cross it? I imagine us as the family in that nearby castle, and Dad’s going downstairs for a midnight snack in the middle of the storm.
After Dad passed away from cancer, my inability to recall more than two memories from that vacation deeply saddened me.
A few minutes later, Dad reappears, hustling in that determined way of his – gripping his right hand as though manoeuvring a cane, while he hugs his camera under his left arm. He gets back into the car, and I swear he doesn’t have one drop of rain on him. Josh notices this too and asks, “How come you stayed so dry?”
“I walked in between the raindrops,” Dad smiles, first at Mom, then at us. He takes off his glasses because they’re fogging up.
“That bridge is the most wobbly thing I’ve ever seen,” he continues, “with no fence and no one around. I started to walk across, but it was so slippery I almost dropped my camera. So I just took a picture.”
Finished with my pint of Murphy’s, I put Ulysses face down on the marble table at the Old Man Pub and ruminated on the photograph Dad took of Carrick-a-Rede: a head-on shot from the entrance of the bridge, which Mom enlarged and framed. The picture captured the rickety bridge with its thin handrails made of yellowing twine, which somehow held up an entire row of wooden planks with only a few connecting strands. The greyish bridge was slightly bowed to the right from the wind, mirroring the grass on the bluff across the way. Yet as eerie as the picture was, it didn’t truly capture what must have been Dad’s moment of indecision.
That photograph hung on our living-room wall after my first trip to Ireland. When Dad was lying in a hospice bed in our living room, Carrick-a-Rede took on a different meaning for me. It became a grim reminder of something Dad had been unable to accomplish – a side he would never reach. Of course, there was no chance I could have crossed that bridge, but maybe all he needed was to hear me say that I’d go with Fergus in order for him to summon enough courage to cross alone. After Dad died, I noticed that photo less and less in passing, regarding it as nothing more than wallpaper, as I blocked the memory entirely until that afternoon at the Old Man Pub.
Yearning for another Fergus moment, I became an itinerant student, roving the countryside as often as I could afford. On weekend excursions with friends from my program, I travelled to Blarney, the Rock of Cashel, Dublin, Killarney, and then further afield, to Galway and the windswept wilderness of the Aran Islands. I wanted to squeeze the most out of my time abroad and hoped to jog more memories from my former trip.
When my family came to visit over St. Paddy’s Day, we drove up the west coast together. Ben was now about to graduate high school, while Josh was working as a biomedical researcher at Thomas Jefferson University. Mom had just been named ‘Teacher of the Year’ in the Philly public school system. The first thing she said when she saw me in Cork was that I looked like Dad with my brownish goatee and glasses.
Mom and Josh retold the stories from our first vacation, and a few further flashes came to mind. Coming back late to a B&B. Dad holding me around his shoulders because I’m so tired, and Mom carrying Ben. I move out from under Dad’s bearded neck in time to see the proprietor take one look at us and say, “Aw now, are y’all killed out babbies?”
Still, the more powerful remembrances came from the sites we revisited. A rock that jutted out of the rough surf beneath the Cliffs of Moher made me recall when my brothers and I wore matching yellow raincoats, while Dad posed us near the edge of those cliffs for a picture. Mom’s holding onto the three of us because there’s no guardrail between us and the four-hundred foot drop. The backs of my knees are suddenly sapped as Dad and I stand near enough to the edge for Mom to call over the wind, “Oh Robbie, that’s too close!” We’re in the shadow of O’Brien’s Castle, a solitary round tower where Dad said a ghost lived. In front of us I can see isolated storms scattered across the Atlantic, ready to pounce on us for five or ten minutes at a time before scurrying east across the lush countryside.
“See that,” Dad says, pointing to a ship-sized cave cut into the bottom of a nearby cliff. Dark waves crash into its mouth like a quivering lower lip. “That’s Castle Grayskull.”
“Really?” I ask, astounded that my He-Man home – a green plastic fortress that I’d got the year before on Chanukah – has suddenly sprung to life.
“No way,” jeers Josh.
“Yeah, no way,” chimes Ben.
But I believed Dad. After all, I was the one who said that a jagged rock – jutting from the water about twenty yards from Castle Grayskull – was the fossilised wing of a pterodactyl.
As gratifying as it was to recall more of that earlier trip, I thought the only way to achieve another Fergus moment would be to return to Carrick-a-Rede. When the semester ended, I took a road trip around the north-eastern quarter of Ireland with my girlfriend and two other friends. I’d mapped out the entire loop beginning in Dublin, leaving ample time in our busy itinerary for an afternoon at Carrick-a-Rede.
I had no idea how long it would take to cross the bridge, or whether there would be anything to do on the other side except turn back. When my friends asked why I urged them to leave the shops of Derry with such alacrity that morning, just to drive along the northernmost coast of Northern Ireland, I told them I wanted to take advantage of the clear skies. I couldn’t explain why exactly I wanted to see a modest bridge that, as I learned from a guidebook, was put up by fishermen every spring and taken down every fall. The bridge served a practical purpose after all, but what I wanted from it was almost entirely unrealistic.
Each switchback along the coast revealed another breathtaking vista of luxuriant hills abruptly dropping off into the sea. We stopped briefly at Dunluce Castle, a roofless ruin from the thirteenth century, where the great hall that once led into the kitchen was now a room with a view – perched precariously on the cliff’s edge, just as Dad had said.
We pressed on to Giant’s Causeway, a geological marvel of hexagonal columns rising dramatically from the breakers. Celtic legends attributed the causeway to the giant Finn McCool, who used it as a bridge to reach his love in Scotland. As magnificent as these sights were, I knew Carrick-a-Rede was within reach.
I pulled into the same parking lot where I’d sat in that stuffy car with my family in the rain. I quickly got out and didn’t realise I was walking ahead of my friends until our rental car was out of sight, but at that point I couldn’t wait. Down through a narrow path that cut between two green knolls, I came to Carrick-a-Rede. The bridge swayed in a stiff wind that tore through the chasm from the west. Compared to the Carrick-a-Rede that hung in my family’s living room, this bridge looked brand new and much safer, gloriously lit by the uncharacteristic Irish sunshine. Instead of single ropes holding up the wooden panels, the bridge now had mesh sides and a canvas-covered bottom that could prevent even the smallest of children from slipping through the cracks. Still, I was terrified.
I couldn’t explain why exactly I wanted to see a modest bridge that, as I learned from a guidebook, was put up by fishermen every spring and taken down every fall. The bridge served a practical purpose after all, but what I wanted from it was almost entirely unrealistic.
The narrow bridge swayed back and forth as the waves crashed between the rocky crags eighty feet below. Finally, I felt I was seeing Ireland through Dad’s eyes, yet I didn’t know if I could walk across the bridge myself. I realised that it wouldn’t have taken any additional courage for Dad to have crossed; it would have taken foolhardiness. Standing before the bridge, I was plagued with the same thoughts of being swept off the edge that I’d had as a child, a vertiginous sense of déjà vu. Across the way was a tiny, steep islet. Its grass-covered precipice revealed a path that led over a hill and out of sight, along with a white banister that hadn’t been there in Dad’s picture.
I took a step because I heard my friends coming. I took a step because merely standing before the bridge wasn’t enough to experience another Fergus moment. Later, I’d tell my brothers that crossing the bridge was more like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy has to take the leap of faith.
The wind shook the bridge violently, undulating beneath my feet with each step. I held the rope rails tightly. At this point, I could look only straight ahead. The image that I’d seen everyday growing up was coming closer and closer, as I tried to channel the tunnel vision of a tightrope walker. Then, about two-thirds of the way across, an exceedingly powerful gust blew the bridge several feet sideways. I was in mid-stride, and the wind made me crouch so low that my right knee touched the wooden plank.
Behind me, my girlfriend cheered from the bridge’s entrance.
“You’re almost there!” Her voice was barely audible above the wind.
But I am there! I thought, realising I’d already come further than my father. Seconds later, when the wind subsided and the bridge returned to its normal position, I quickly made my way to the other side. Completely drained, I kneeled on top of the bluff and ran my hand through the cool grass.
This time I waited for my friends, looking back at the coast that hooked outward in either direction. One rocky protuberance was eroded so much it resembled a yellowish elephant drinking from the sea. On the other side of the narrow islet where I now stood, a steep path wound its way down to a fishing hut, where a wooden raft was tied to a pier. In the distance, the sky was clear enough that I could make out Scotland along the two-toned horizon. I turned back towards my friends on the bridge and took out my camera.
Z. P. Heller is a writer, editor and professor. A portion of his début novel, In Your Head, won the 2012 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA Literature and was published in Hunger Mountain. His writing has also appeared in UPI, The Huffington Post, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Columbia, among other publications. Currently, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife, daughter and dog.
Stories from the Ivory Tower is an online series of creative non-fiction essays that draw their inspiration from academia. These commissions are made possible through the University of Melbourne’s Cultural and Community Relations Advisory Group (CCRAG).