Dark days in America, and as far as I can tell the only real answer is to respond to the prevailing chaos, evil, hate, ignorance and violence with love, understanding, peace, kindness, forgiveness and all those other idealistic values and heart-based hoo-hah that will get you hung as a lily-livered bleeding-heart liberal these vitriolic days. But the truth is I didn’t learn empathy from any political system or politician. I got it from listening to music and from Catholic school and mass, which rammed the gospel of peace and love and look-out-for-your-neighbor down my throat for 12 years before I bailed.
I stopped going to church when I was a teenager, figuring I’d learned everything I could from organized religion and that I’d ingested the Jesus love message sufficiently enough to take me on my way. I’ve gone back and forth on it all my life, but not this week. This week, at a time in my life when I’m in dire need of something more than all this, I’m off in search of something I might have missed and revisiting my boy Jesus Christ in the land of my Catholic ancestors.
“Oh my god, Jim,” my friend Colleen Martin Oake gasped when I told her I’d be traveling to Ireland for the first time in my life this week, “you’re never going to want to come back.”
Maybe so. That’s how it feels at the moment, one of America’s darkest. I’m winging my way to Ireland as you read this; a date to Dublin and Derry with my cardiologist sister Minnow for a conference of the heart and some serious shenanigans, and the timing of the trip couldn’t be more perfect given my feelings about the state of the shallow, sad, mean, infantile country we live in. So of course we’ll be taking the Guinness and Jameson factory tours. Cheers.
For a long time I’ve been craving a more ancient experience than what America has to offer, and now that I’m finally traveling to the Emerald Isle, over the weekend in preparation I revisited Roddy Doyle’s Dublin-based “The Commitments,” whose band manager and narrator Jimmy Rabbitte seemed to be welcoming me to Dublin at long last when he explained, “The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’”
In short order, I brushed up on the work and bios of Dubliners U2, Glen Hansard, Sinead O’Connor, Thin Lizzy, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and more. I blew through James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and reveled in his romance with Nora Barnacle. I got up to speed on the history of Bloomsday, that time-honored June 16 Dublin celebration of all things Joyce, writing, reading and drink. All in all, I was heartened by the idea of my such-as-it-is tribe’s contributions to the history of music and literature and what it all might mean for the lot of us going forward these strange days where “the future is unwritten,” as the late, great Joe Strummer properly hoped.
More than anything, I’ve seized on the idea of trekking to Trinity College in Dublin to be in the same room as an ancient holy book I’d never heard of, the Book of Kells. A masterwork of calligraphy and insular animation that’s often called “medieval Europe’s greatest treasure” and regarded as Ireland’s most prized national treasure, the Book of Kells contains the four gospels of the New Testament and was written and crafted in the dark ages (800 AD) by a group of monks in seclusion on the island of Iona. The monks worked feverishly on their creation far away from civilization and outside influences and protected their prize for years from pillaging Vikings — all due to their primordial faith in Jesus Christ, who spoke in dark times of light and love and taking care of the poor.
This fascinates me. This is what pilgrimages are made of. Before organized religion strangled the mysticism out of Jesus, before men co-opted his words of love as a way to control others, what moved those monks to make their art? What sang to them? What can I learn from that solitude and space?
What supernatural spirit took hold of their collective and individual souls? What light did they witness? What miracles did they want to tell the world and future generations about? What inspired them to testify so fervently and to so painstakingly render the story of a god-man who walked the planet 800 years before they were born?
Why me? Why have I, an American living and getting out from under Trump rule, been bitten by this pilgrimage bug? What can I learn? What can we all learn? What secrets of the heart and soul will the Book of Kells share with me to help me help us? What is this? Who am I? Is the future really unwritten? Is the world really this horrible?
Shhh, it’s speaking to me now. Listen. Hear it? Lord, have mercy!
“You need a drink, lad. America has made you nutters. Go to Ireland.”
See all you lads and lassies in a week. Go Twins. Go Lynx. Wish you all were here.