Twenty-four years ago, we packed up our belongings and moved to West Cork from Brussels, Belgium. Today, this beautiful, little part of the planet has become my home. After two decades in the same place I have a different understanding of what the word ‘home’ means than when I first arrived. I come from a ‘wherever I lay my hat is my home’ tradition. Home was not linked to any particular homestead, or country for that matter. As a child, I was always moving from one place to another. In fact, my family has been moving from one place to the other for generations. Moving is what we do. You could say that my people are Blow-ins, like some families are Travellers. It’s in the blood. Just in the last three generations we have been blown from Spain to the Philippines, from Sicily to the US and back to Europe again. Yet after all that blowing about, this leaf has pretty much settled down – for now.
The Blow-ins journey in Ireland always begins in a love affair with the landscape. It then progresses to a love for the music and finally the people. Like all loves, it has its ups and its downs. The charm that first beguiled us with its sparkle can lose its lustre. The weather can creep into your soul and suck out the will to live. Some blow-ins never make it past the third year. They often leave totally disenchanted. Other blow-ins get the seven-year itch. You know that if you stay any longer you might stay forever, and that makes you decide to leave and seek new adventures. These ex-Blow-ins still love West Cork and come back often to visit. Once you’re past the fifteen-year mark you’ve been around long enough to have some measure of the place, both the good and the bad. If you stay it’s because the former outweighs the latter.
After twenty years I am still enamoured with West Cork and its people. I still find the whole package irresistibly charming. I know that charm can veer into unequalled cute hoorism, but most of the time I’m willing to be duped. I sometimes lose patience when a story unravels into so many threads that I’ve lost the point, but I have learned to appreciate the telling and not get too picky about the facts. The local linguistic ability not to commit to a definite statement is something I’m still getting to grips with.
Actually, I recently discovered something that explains this reluctance to commit to a definite statement. It makes me regret not having learnt Irish. It would have helped a whole lot in understanding the culture. I already knew that there was no way to say ‘Yes’ in Irish. I figured that is why it is so difficult to get a straight answer. However, I had never heard of an modh coinníollach. It turns out that not only is there no way to say a simple ‘Yes’, there is a whole verb tense to conjugate what might, maybe happen. I learnt that an modh coinníollach is the conditional form, or conditional mood, as it is sometimes called. I think that mood is more appropriate, as it expresses the mind-set better. English does not have a conditional tense, or mood. In English the word ‘would’ is used to translate the conditional, but it doesn’t really do it justice. In English when you use the verb ‘would’ it is usually followed by a specific condition. For example, “I would love to go to your party, but I am visiting my sick mother”. I found the following definition for the an modh coinníollach conditional mood: ‘It means that the action is dependent on certain (named or unnamed) conditions.’ In other words it might maybe happen, or not, depending on the conditions. My mind seized up momentarily trying to get around the concept, but when my head cleared it was as if I had suddenly jumped in my level of understanding. Here was a distinct difference in the way Irish people think. In Ireland you can hope to maybe attend a party. It may sound somewhat wishy-washy at first, but it is based on a true knowledge that things don’t always work out as planned. There is a fatalism in that knowledge. It goes with the territory. Even the best-laid plans can be thwarted by the weather. An modh coinníollach probably evolved to take account of the fact that it could very well rain and then all bets were off. But in that knowledge is contained a ray of hope. It might well rain, but then again it might not. It all depends on the conditions.