The Christmas tale begins in December 2003. Cadfael had called with the usual “I will meet you anywhere in the world” invitation for during his holiday study break.
It was a call from heaven. I greatly needed be somewhere. On New Year’s Day, The Talented Mr. Ripley (the scary, newly ex) would be walking down the aisle, with his ready-made family, in my own parish. I didn’t want to be anywhere near them.
In all the world, I felt a strong pull to go to Ireland, hoping to be washed in the ancestral warmth and love of the country that specialized in mirth in the midst of heartache. Cadfael agreed. I would fly to Rome on Dec. 23 to meet him, then we would fly to Dublin, then drive cross country to the great city of Galway in Connemara. Each leg of the journey would put space and time between me and Mr. Ripley.
The trip started well. During dinner with a friend in New York before I went to the airport, I was bemoaning how endless the nearly seven hours to Rome feel, and how I never sit next to anyone interesting.
Seat 24 A: “Are you on your way home?”
Seat 24 B: An Italian-inflected “Yes.”
24 A: What do you do in New York?
24 B: I’m a cosmogonist.
And it wasn’t a punchline.
24B was a postdoc at ISCAP, the Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics at Columbia University, codirected by Mr. Elegant Universe, Brian Greene. My own academic brushes with Niels Bohr, Feynman, Millikan came rushing back and we slipped through a worm hole of conversation straight to landing. It turned out that Mr. Cosmogonist—quite the world traveler himself---had known a priest at Kylemore, an ancient Benedictine abbey that was now a school not far from Galway City (I had been there years before), and I said that I would bring a greeting to the priest if he liked. I left the plane with a tiny mission and a sealed envelope when I arrived in Rome.
My first visit to Kylemore was twenty years ago, visiting a college friend who was on a Rotary scholarship to Galway University. I remembered that I bought Seamus Heaney’s collection of poetry,Station Island, in a bookstore in Galway on that trip, and his work started filling my thoughts. Because an Italian cosmologist had brought up the Irish Benedictine community, Seamus Heaney—-the great Ulster Catholic master of vivid language and the complex ideas of Irish identity between Christian and Celt, modern and ancient, English and Irish—-joined me on my pilgrimage. It was a welcomed presence in my desire to erase a darkness, take a break from a reality I couldn’t change, and fill up a loss with the primal beauty of the Irish West.
And so Cadfael and I found ourselves in the Dublin airport on December 23. Cad is a very skilled driver, but the left road thing made for hilarious, scary moments just getting out of the rental car lot as we adjusted our car routine for different hands. Then it was 3 hours of easy driving to the midnight turn to Christmas Eve Day, with a cinematic soundtrack provided by exquisite radio in Ireland. We switched between soaring classics—Saint Saens Christmas Oratorio, Hodie Christus Natus Est by Palestrina, the Victoria O Magnum Mysterium and the Praetorious In Dulci Jubilo—and Christmas carols from Sting and Stevie Nicks.
That long, straight drive, enveloped in a rich deep darkness, put more and more distance of all kinds between me and New York, and I began to breath. We let the unique quirkiness of the Irish set the trip’s tone: the major artery connecting Dublin to Galway is mostly one lane in each direction. One lane. They are a unique tribe, these Irish.
I finally felt a little safe, sitting next to Cadfael going to the city of Galway, where Nora Barnacle was born and lived until she left to work in a hotel in Dublin before walking into literary history.