Dublin Calling: How the Irish Bagpipes Point Me Home

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What do I remember about my first seven years? I remember that I spent them in Ireland. I remember the rain and the pervasive grey skies that made every color on earth below—natural and manufactured—seem bottomless. I remember those rare sunny days that occasionally prompted women to stand in their front yards wearing bras like bikini tops, soaking up what sun they could. We were deadly pale, the ghostly descendants of Adam and Eve, and we felt no shame.

I remember the time one of my primary-school classmates returned from a month-long vacation to Africa with his family. He’d come back with a light-brown complexion, and I remember trying to make sense of the bizarre transformation. I was six years old before I saw my first tan. I remember sweets—the sugary gumminess of Fruit Pastilles, the way a chocolate Cadbury Flake crumbled and dissolved on your tongue after you plucked it from your soft-serve ice cream cone. I remember all these things and more. But I was young. The childhood brain is a sieve with yawning gaps in its mesh.

My mom reminds me of the time when I was two years old and painted my parents’ world black for a few hours. We were living in Dublin, and they’d decided it would be fun to meet some friends at the Dundrum Recreation Center near our house. At one point while everyone was milling about inside, my dad realized he’d forgotten something back at the house and headed out to drive home. No one realized, least of all my dad, that I’d followed him through the doors. After he drove off, instead of waddling back inside, I ventured into the surrounding neighborhood.

When my dad eventually returned to the recreation center and my parents faced the stomach-turning realization that they’d both assumed I was in the other’s care, my mom quickly broke up the group into search parties. Several hours later, one of the friends driving around searching for me was flagged down by a woman with a displaced toddler in her kitchen.

This woman’s children had found me sitting alone in a grassy field near their house wearing a little blue tracksuit and tennis shoes, crying hysterically. Not knowing what else to do, they brought me home. Before their mom happened to notice our family friend cruising slowly down her street, she’d stripped me head to toe, checking for any sign of who I was or to whom I belonged. She found nothing.

More than a quarter century has passed since that afternoon. My parents moved the family to Southern California in 1986, and it wasn’t long before my rough-and-tumble Dublin accent eroded under the weight of schoolyard ridicule. Once the accent goes, people patronizingly deem you Irish the way “everyone’s Irish on St. Patty’s.” But when I listen to Irish music today, it makes me feel like maybe I still belong to that wonderful country. And perhaps, in some small way, it still belongs to me.

In December of 2005, I began learning the Irish bagpipes—typically called the uilleann (pronounced “ILL-uhn”) pipes. “Uilleann” is the Irish word for “elbow” because, unlike the Scottish highland pipes, which are mouth-blown, the air that flows through the uilleann pipes is produced by a set of bellows strapped to one elbow. The other elbow is used to squeeze the bag, which pushes air through the chanter—the flute-looking part of the instrument, which you play with your fingers. It’s a mighty instrument and a humbling one to learn, but it rewards your patience with an unrivaled expressiveness.

Tonight I’m listening to master piper Liam O’Flynn play a particularly gorgeous slow air called “Aisling Gheal” on a mellow, flat-pitch set of uilleann pipes. (An air is the melody to an Irish song.) The keening wail of the pipes expresses the feeling of the song without need for words. Music has its own language. And the pipes have their own accent. So even if my speaking voice never sounds Irish again, I’ll let the pipes speak for me. When I’m feeling untethered and can’t trace my steps back to a place that feels like home, the pipes unleash singing sighs on my behalf.

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