Of Many Things

My Irish grandmother spent her first 16 winters in the West Cork town of Newmarket, near Kanturk, on the border of County Kerry. Between her arrival in the United States in 1888 and my father’s birth in 1911, she returned to Ireland three times. In those days one could sail from Philadelphia to Queenstown with more ease and efficiency than one can fly from Philadelphia to Farranfore today. The journey did take longer, but was probably no more uncomfortable.

 

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My grandmother’s first two trips were for pleasure. On one of them, her sister Hannah went with her, leaving Aunt Mamie and Uncle Jerry behind. On the second, Uncle Jerry went along. The third trip was a mission. She went alone, determined to bring their Aunt Joan “home” to Philadelphia with her.

Joan Colbert had raised them after their parents’ death. But she was something of an outcast in Kanturk. Somewhere along the line she had “taken up” with one of the ascendancy Protestants, which did not go down well in that conservative rural area. He had provided for her; she was comfortably well off—but quite alone, rather like the Queen of the day.

Well, Nanny failed. She had allotted six weeks to the task of convincing Aunt Joan and getting her ready for the trip. After a few days, when it was clear that she wasn’t going to win, she got herself back to Queenstown and Philadelphia via Liverpool. She never went back, though she wrote to Aunt Joan every week.

As a little boy, I would go with my father every Thursday to a small shop in the Richmond section of Philadelphia to buy The Cork Weekly Examiner for her. She would read it avidly, especially the obituaries. But her major opinion on her native place, communicated in no uncertain terms to her grandchildren, was “too cold and rainy.”

Now anyone who has ever been to the southwest of Ireland in the winter knows that she was right. You just don’t go there for the fine weather. My own Irish cousins are as familiar with Tunisia and Malta as they are with Howth.

I was therefore stunned by a report that arrived in December from a very well-meaning nongovernmental organization that had singled out Ireland, Finland, Switzerland, Canada and the United States for poor water management. We are, it seems, quite wasteful. Inefficient. (As this is written, the rain is pelting down outside and our soaked Father Rector has just returned to the house saying: “It’s a monsoon out there. There’s a foot of water at the corner on Sixth Avenue.”) We are a little inefficient, I suppose.

Where Nanny came from in the west of Ireland is certified by the European Union as the wettest place in Europe. The Kerry tourist board is trying to keep that a secret, but they haven’t managed. But “wasting” water? No, just isn’t so. What are they meant to do? Bottle it and send it to Mali, Sierra Leone and the other dry spots that this N.G.O. has identified as the most needy?

But wasteful? If we want to talk about wasteful, we must imagine the money that is needed to keep the World Water Council in business. It has 313 members: U.N. agencies, other N.G.O.’s and private and public organizations. Does the world really need a council with 313 members to tell us that Ireland is wet and that Niger is dry? Many students learn that in fifth-grade geography classes.

The groups that contributed to the report might invest some of their resources in a survey that notices that Arizona in July has a rather different climate than New Jersey in March before they indict the United States for being wasteful. But Americans are used to being bashed. Sometimes we deserve it. Other times it is gratuitous jealousy and resentment over all that “sea to shining sea” stuff, about which we are so properly sentimental.

But Ireland? Wasteful of water? I can hear Nanny now, “Truth told, they could do with a lot less.”

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