I had it all planned. I’d waltz into the pub, and the bartender — casually wiping down the bar between patrons — would ask me what I wanted. I’d say I was here to pay a debt. He’d look at me quizzically, and I’d tell him the tale of my grandfather, Ed Brophy, who criss-crossed the Atlantic in WW II on convoy escorts, trying to keep the transports safe from U-boats. One story is that a ship he was on was torpedoed and split in two. One half sank while the other stayed afloat long enough to rescue the men on board. He was on the lucky half.
Ed was Irish through and through, by inheritance but not by passport: we think his grandfather came over in the 1880s. Ed fit every Irish stereotype: a consummate joker and a dedicated drinker, blessed with the gift of gab and a wicked sense of humor. I remember seeing a photo of him at a St. Patrick’s Day party, one half of a duo keeping a drunken friend in between them upright. One day my sister pointed out he was the one in the middle, not the help.
Ed was full of stories. One was that after an Atlantic crossing he paid a visit to the village of Ballybrophy in Ireland, the nominal seat of the Brophys. On arriving at the village pub, he proudly proclaimed he was a Brophy and he’d buy a drink for any Brophy who’d come forward. There were apparently a lot of Brophys in Ballybrophy (shocking, I know). So many came forward that Ed quickly realized he didn’t have enough money to cover the bill and escaped out the back.
It’s a great story. I have no idea if it’s even half true, but that’s the great thing about great stories: their accuracy is less important than their ability to capture our imaginations. This one captured mine, and I resolved to pay back Ed’s debt if I ever made it to Ballybrophy.
I never thought I’d have the chance until my sister decided we needed a homeland tour. I was initially skeptical of the idea of revisiting our Irish roots: the last Irishman in our family was probably born 170 years ago. What connection did we have to them and to Ireland? When someone asks, “what are you?” I say I’m Canadian, whether they’re asking about geography or identity. A century and a half have severed the ties to the old country. I liken it to being shipwrecked on an uncharted Island: there’s no way back to “where I’m from.” Time has erased the route. Even if I wanted to return, who would I return to?
Not only that, but half the family tree’s Irish and the other half’s a mix of English and Scottish. If we’re Irish, it’s by choice as much as by blood. That’s the funny thing about identity: ultimately, it’s a matter of what you choose to call yourself.
But the music, traditions and culture of Ireland live on in Canada’s east coast where I grew up. That much is in my blood. I took the journey, not so much to reconnect to the homeland, but because it promised to be a great vacation. Ireland is beautiful, the people are great, and the butter is unbelievably good. Some of the tales I’d been told turned out to be true: there are a lot of potatoes consumed, it is often quite damp and many folk do enjoy a drink or two.
But Ballybrophy is not what it must have been in WW II, much less in the mid-19th century. The train station is now almost a whistle stop. Half the buildings are abandoned. A water pipe for filling steam locomotives that haven’t visited in who-knows-how-long stands forlorn on the platform.
We wandered around and took a few photos. I looked in vain for a pub that might answer to the description of an antiquated village roost, something that looked at least a century old. There was none. A train pulled in, a few people got off, someone got on, and we departed on our little tour bus. The bumpy, winding back roads to our lodgings afforded ample time to reflect on what home really is.
Home isn’t where you want it to be. It’s not where you imagine it is. It’s neither the wellspring of romantic notions, nor the stuff of legends. Home is prosaic and everyday. It’s where your cat, your spouse and your kids are. It’s where you burned your first curry and where you mourn the loss of those you’ve loved. It’s where you can’t seem to fix the drip on the damn kitchen sink and where you held your housewarming. It’s a thousand tiny things and the bigger ones that make a life.
We all tell ourselves stories to embellish our world, or to make sense of it. Home is where we eat and sleep and live as we craft those stories. It’s the place where we dream about all the other places we’ll come home from.
After we returned to our accommodations, I looked up Ballybrophy on Google maps and found a pub down the road. We missed it. Maybe it’s the same one Ed wandered into that day in the 1940s. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the whole thing was just a great story told by a great storyteller, and never happened.
But if the owner of the Green Roads Lounge Bar in Ballybrophy, Ireland, wants to contact me, I’ll send you 20 euros to buy a round for a few people and we’ll consider Ed Brophy’s debt paid.