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SEED WHEEL
APRICOTS OF DONBAS
Masquerade
ECCENTRIC DAYS OF HOPE AND SORROW
The Keys to the Cottage: Stories from the West of Ireland  
|
  Carlos Reyes

ISBN 978-0-9908193-1-8     $18  /  $21 (Canada)     126 pp      
PUB DATE: Spring 2015       Poetry





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In 1954, documentarian Dorothea Lange traveled to the West of Ireland to photograph that region’s stark, rural life. While the 20th century succeeded in modernizing much of the world, the people of western Ireland held fiercely to the past and their traditions. But beyond a world frozen in black and white photographs are the stories of those people. And in 1972, an Irish-American set out to find those stories in a county known as Clare.

Reyes—who grew up in a family of seasonal farm workers in western Oregon—was intent on discovering his ancestral roots. What he found in the West of Ireland was more than lineage. For a pittance Reyes purchased a 300-year-old stone cottage in Letterkelly and lived among the very farmers in Lange’s photographs. And over the course of more than forty years Reyes came to be welcomed by those people as one of their own.

In his book, The Keys to the Cottage, Reyes brings to life this cast of unforgettable characters. Pa’ Lafferty, the near-giant of a man and patriarch of Reyes’ adopted clan. Mickey Vaughan, horse trader, old bachelor, and unrepentant bicycle thief. Not to mention the likes of Jack Dan Haran, the irascible IRA veteran who sold Reyes a cottage that he never even owned.

Through Reyes’ eyes we see the procession of people walking to Sunday Mass on the county road, and the Laffertys’ red tractor with diesel smoke trailing behind. Ten-year-old Paddy is confidently at the wheel, while his parents and sister, dressed in their Sunday best, stand in the cargo box, holding on.

Clustered behind the hedgerows of Letterkelly are the ruins of cottages abandoned during the Potato Famine of the 1800s, a daily reminder of the devastation that swept through the West of Ireland. The people in Reyes’ stories are the descendants of those either too poor to escape or tough enough to have survived The Great Hunger. With humor and the toughest of skin, they scrape out their existence: a cabbage patch and a bed of potatoes, a pig for meat, a few chickens, and a cow so they have milk for their tea.

The people Dorothea Lange captured in photographs are now gone. Reyes is the oldest surviving member of his adopted Irish family. Now 80, Reyes heeds the urgency to record the stories of County Clare and its remarkable people so that they come alive, to be treasured and remembered.

 

About the Author

Carlos Reyes

Carlos Reyes is a noted Portland poet, translator, and world traveler. His latest book of poetry is Pomegranate, Sister of the Heart (Lost Horse Press, 2013). The Book of Shadows; New and Selected Poems was published by Lost Horse Press in 2009. A Suitcase Full of Crows (1995) was a winner of the Bluestem Prize. His most recent book of translations is Poemas de amor y locura / Poems of Love and Madness: Selected Translations (Lynx House Press, 2013). In 2008 he was recipient of The Fortner Award from Saint Andrews College. He has been an Oregon Arts Commission Fellow, a Yaddo Fellow, a Fundación Valparaíso Fellow (Spain), a Heinrich Böll Fellow (Ireland), an Island Institute Fellow (Sitka, Alaska), as well as poet-in-resident at the Joshua Tree National Park, Acadia National Park, and most recently Devils Tower National Monument.

 

I Knock at the Door

Being Irish was always part of our family identity, even though our ancestors had come to America long before the rush.

According to my father, what it took to be Irish was red hair and a temper, and he sure had plenty of both. My grandfather, too, was a fierce little man with an explosive temper. Only he had black hair, which made him Black Irish, or so we were told.

Our name was King, which didn’t strike me as particularly Irish. Sounded British to me. But my father insisted his people came from the Emerald Isle, from somewhere in the west. My mother’s family name was Day, and that sounded much more Irish to me than King, whatever my father said.

Now my grandmother’s name was Mary Day, and folks took to calling her Molly O’Day. To me, it seemed like they were teasing her for being Irish, though I saw no reason she should be teased for such a thing. I liked the Irish sound of her name­—the rhythm of it like a jig.

Of all my siblings, my favorite was Mary Kathleen, the eldest, because she seemed to be the most Irish of us all, and I had a fascination with all things Irish. For starters, she was named after Grandma Day, even though she preferred to call herself Kathy. But more, she had flaming red Maureen O’Hara hair and a flaming Irish temper to match.

Kathy got married when she was only 16, so she had her own place not too far away. I loved going there, not just because it was anywhere other than home, but because Kathy had books, and oh, such books! Books were rarely if ever found in our house. It was Kathy who introduced me to the first Irish book I ever read, I Knock at the Door by Sean O’Casey. My school library would never have allowed books by someone like O’Casey, not with the abundance of lively North Dublin slang that it contained. And just as O’Casey had an older sister pushing him to read, I had Kathy encouraging me.

Of all the books I read, what was it about this book and this author that made such an indelible impression?

The answer is simple: this was the first book I ever read about Ireland, the first book by an Irish writer. The more I read about Ireland, the more I wanted to know.

Besides, the story of a scruffy lad from the north Dublin slums resonated with me. I could relate to him because of my own experience in an American tenement, which was colored by the same kind of poverty, the same kind of wanting.

In the title essay of the book, O’Casey is searching for the exact place where the mythic river, the Liffey, has its beginning. In the same way he sought to find out where that great river began, I wanted to know where I began.

When he asked, Sean was told, It’s the Liffey, what else do you need to know?

My father said, You’re Irish and that’s that, and he said no more.

But I wanted more. I wanted to know where in Ireland I came from, what the land looked like, what the air smelled like. Nobody could tell me. Like O’Casey, I knocked at the door of my Irish roots, but hadn’t yet gotten into the house.

Years later I would indeed be standing at the door of my Irish roots, discovering my heritage and how it defined me. And, by a series of coincidences, I would have the key to that door, literally: the door to my very own three-hundred-year-old cottage in the Irish countryside.

© 2015 by Carlos Reyes