The Holy Ground


True, full-time Hibernians [not youse who are bein’ Irish just for today, to honor St. Padraig] will know that the so-called “Holy Ground” of the old song [also referenced in a second song on Mary Black’s album of de same name] is not a religious place at all [like, God-save-us-all, East Jerusalem, or Mecca], but the red-light district in the port town of Cobh, in County Cork, from whence set sail many of our immigrant forebears, from the land of green fields and not enough food, to the land of green beer and food galore.

It is, thus, an ironic [Poetic] figure of speech, capturing both halves of the ambivalence which the Irish diaspora feel for their country of origin. For centuries, Eire was [as Dr. Samuel Johnson said of Scotland], “a grand place to be from.” In Mary Black’s song, “The Loving Time,” [the first line of which is, “Reads like a fairytale, cuz that’s what it was.”] it connotes the power of sentimental, romantic love to [temporarily] blind a couple to their [possibly irreconcilable] differences: “…and the Holy Ground took care of everything.” Spoiler alert. The last verse of this bravely wolf-acknowledging song begins, “It didn’t come true in the end. They went their separate ways.” Rather like Old Mother Ireland and Her then desperately hungry, later desperately nostalgic, children.

Suggested reading: Tom Hayden’s [yes, that Tom Hayden] historical and autobiographical book, Irish On the Inside.

So, here’s the point of this post. Any piece of real estate which holds powerful intimations [both sweet and bitter] of actual or legendary happenings, can become “the holy ground” for an individual, a couple, a family, or a tribe. In the Fall of 1957 my father drove through Gate 3 of his alma mater, the Naval Academy, and parked [illegally] in front of the Chapel for long enough to run into the Admin building and report for duty. My usually Stoic mother burst into tears. Was she afraid the Jimmy Legs [the Yard police] were going to ticket our car? Or was she overcome by the sight of the Chapel, where she & Rosie were married in a tiny, wartime service? Turns out the Chapel was a mere synecdoche for the whole USNA mystique, which, to one degree or another, our whole family [along with many others] have come to regard as “the holy ground.” In 1958 my mother dramatically fell ill with MS while walking on the Academy grounds; yet I found myself inexorably drawn back to live and work there, in 1976 and in 2000. And it’s not because of all the rollicking fun to be had there [especially, this last time round]. It’s because of the memories of the good and bad times I had there with The Now Departed [my parents], whose presence [I believed] would feel more palpable there, than anywhere else on earth.

It was, do you see, a Transitional Object [like a Teddy bear, or Alfred the dog, or Ciotogach the cat], that helps one to feel closer to “the ones that we love true,” to paraphrase the song.

How randomly can a place become “the holy ground”! Not for its intrinsic beauty, or bounty, or balmy weather, or enlightened folkways; but because it is the repository of memories, of Us interacting with [ambivalently] loved Others. When you’re in it [as I learned early, in my peripatetic Navy childhood] it’s often hard to believe that you’re going to look back on a place with nostalgia. I spent my first two months in England [now, the holiest of my “holy grounds”] squinting at ViewMaster reels of the Naval Academy and weeping for what was lost. Who could have imagined that, one day, I would be using Google Maps to take virtual rambles round my beloved English “home place” [as the Irish say] of Stoke D’Abernon, where Ying Tong the cat was regarded with such ambivalence [mostly, negative] by all the neighbors.

Speaking of rambles, I am wise enough to know that the South River woods [in which Lili once again warned me of a suddenly-falling-but-this-time-without-audible-warning, 30-foot tree trunk, not 20 yards ahead of us, on today’s walk] will be added to my list of “holy grounds” [if I am not struck down by falling lumber first].

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Filed under ambivalence, pragmatics, semiotics, transitional objects

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