By Annette Gallagher Weisman
Cincinnati Magazine, September 2007

You’re in Ireland, your parents’ ashes are in your pocket, and Princess Diana has just died. Welcome back.

I’m standing on a platform waiting for a train to take me to Bray, County Wicklow, a coastal town south of Dublin, on a day that the Irish would call “soft.” A fine mist comes and goes so often that I am never quite sure if it is raining or not, while a strong breeze buffets me just hard enough to feel the collar of my raincoat slap against my neck. The reason I’ve come to Ireland is twofold—love and closure—and I am about to complete my weeklong mission. It is Saturday, September 6, 1997, the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, which I watched all morning on television. So mesmerized was I by these royal proceedings that I am now setting out on my own funereal journey much later in the day than I intended.

As the train approaches, a gust of wind pulls open one side of my orange slicker, revealing a green sweater and white pants. I am wearing the Irish flag. The look is unintentional. I am proud of my heritage, but I’m not much of a flag-waver; rather a middle-aged woman who was born here, and after a 20-year absence, is glad to be back, if only for a week. It still feels like home. But what kind of woman refers to a home that is far from her husband and two children back in Ohio? Cincinnati is where my real home is. Still, my heart gives a little leap as the train pulls from the station and the Irish coastline comes into view. Hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t longed for the invigorating taste and feel of a cold ocean breeze. Now, looking out to sea through a pane of glass, I reflexively inhale.

My parents, Kathleen and Thomas Gallagher, considered themselves Dubliners, though they were born in Waterford and Dundalk, respectively; they lived in Dublin from the time they were married until our family moved to London when I was 17. I am the eldest of four children, but I’ve lived in the United States since my siblings were teenagers. I attended my father’s funeral in August 1996, and my mother’s seven months later, but my parents never discussed death or dying, so none of us knew if they wanted their ashes to be buried in England, where they’d lived for more than 30 years and where my sister Susan and brother David grew up, or Ireland, where my brother Brian and I have our roots.

Looking out the train window, I mull over our debate about where the ashes should go. David felt our parents should be buried in London—near him. Brian said he wanted his ashes to be scattered from an Irish cliff somewhere—not with his wife’s family in Berkshire. Susan was torn. But I felt in my heart Tom and Kay would want to go “home.” As the writings of James Joyce will attest, once a Dubliner, always a Dubliner.

We finally agreed to bury the ashes in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, where my father’s sister, Aunt Maureen, said there was a family plot. I volunteered to take the ashes there myself. It was hardly a vacation, but after so long away, I was excited by the prospect of seeing the city I grew up in again.

First I had to pick up the ashes. The four of us met in a London café. My siblings all commented on how Americanized my accent had become. Then Susan said what we were all thinking: “It’s so odd for us to be together.” She was right. Later, David handed me a shopping bag containing two large, dark brown plastic canisters with screw-on tops. They were opaque, without any ornamentation, not the delicate urns with willowy handles I had envisioned, nor the romantic kind I thought I’d bury. And they were heavy. Something else I hadn’t expected.

I CONTINUE TO drink in the sights of fishermen, yachts, and seaside towns, while my thoughts remain focused on the past week, which began with Princess Diana’s death in a Paris car crash hours before I left Heathrow Airport for Dublin. My flight was delayed, as was the luggage. By the time I arrived, it was lashing rain, a suitably drab ending for a day that began with the death of a princess.

My friend Colette, a former actress with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, met me at the airport. She lives in Churchtown, a suburb on the south side of Dublin, where I spent most of my youth. We drove by my old home, which I had no difficulty recognizing: Number 85 Páirc Na Schéime, still an ordinary middle-class, semi-detached house. The only change was a yellow door and some glass frontage. Afterwards we drove to my old school, Notre Dame Des Missions. I thought of all the different uniforms we had for each season and rules for wearing same; heaven help anyone who wasn’t properly attired. I peeked in at some of the classrooms, feeling like Sister Mary Carmel, who used to clasp her rosary beads by her side so we wouldn’t hear her coming.

In Ireland, when one gets lost in thought, one can be accused of “watching the day.” That’s what I did for the next few days—watched the sights and sounds of my fair city, the purple majesty of the Dublin Mountains, the friendly greeting in the eyes and warm smiles from those I knew, and even those I didn’t.

AS THE TRAIN PASSES Dalkey and Killiney, I take pictures through the window of whatever appeals to me, even though I know that boats will become small dots, and vistas now swathed in a blue afternoon haze will look blurry when developed. A small boy standing on a green bench looking out to sea attracts my attention. The station sign above him is both in English and Irish. That was always the way in Ireland: You could never be totally Irish because of the English, but the Irish language kept you from becoming too Anglicized, kept the sound of Ireland on your lips and in your heart.

Earlier in the week, I had taken some pictures around Dublin, even one of the National Maternity Hospital on Holles Street, where I was born, as if recording my life—a reminder that this city is where my family belonged, a place we had not willingly chosen to leave and where we would likely still be if my father hadn’t had financial difficulties.

All week my emotions are caught in the barrage of commentary about Princess Diana. Even in Dublin, outside the Lord Mayor’s Mansion, people queue up daily to sign a condolence book. You’d think Ireland with its history of English suppression would be immune to Diana’s thrall, the magnitude of which is reminiscent of President Kennedy’s. Maybe it was the warmth of her own Irish heritage that made her so appealing.

Thursday, September 4, I had stayed the night with my Aunt Maureen. The canisters were never out of my sight and I sometimes wondered if what had once been my parents was really inside. I hadn’t opened them all week, but that night, before I was to bury the ashes in the cemetery the next morning, that’s what I did. I had an increasing doubt, prompted by a vague memory that my mother didn’t get on that well with the Gallagher clan, that burying her ashes with my father’s side of the family was possibly the last thing my mother would have wanted.

It felt a violation of some sort to open the canisters in Aunt Maureen’s home, so I sat on the bedroom windowsill with a tablespoon at the ready, and two envelopes marked “Mom” and “Dad.” I got up the nerve to unscrew the lids. It was breezy and the sill sloped slightly, so I kept my eyes glued to the canisters. Scooping several spoonfuls out of each one, I put them in their respective envelopes. My mother’s urn was a bit fuller and her ashes slightly lighter in shade and grainier. I didn’t dwell on the reasons why. It was done.

At 10 o’clock the next morning, my father’s brother Willy took Aunt Maureen and me to Glasnevin Cemetery, an historic landmark that included among its gravesites a number of prominent Irish nationalists, orators, writers, and poets. The gravedigger met us at the front office, a strapping, red-cheeked young man in a yellow T-shirt with one gold earring. The Gallagher plot was simple enough with the names of our deceased family members inscribed on the headstone. The gravedigger removed a green Astroturf cover revealing a hole that had already been dug. I handed him the two urns and he placed them inside, then re-covered the hole with the Astroturf and laid the two small rosebushes I gave him on top, promising he would plant them when he filled it in. Then he went back to his van and waited while we said a few prayers.

Aunt Maureen led the way with a decade of the rosary. I remember from childhood my aunt’s devotion; if anyone could say a meaningful prayer, it was diminutive Maureen. I’d already said a few words in London at my parents’ individual funerals, so I recited a poem by Donagh McDonagh called “Dublin Made Me,” as well as a short passage from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, while Willy, an uncle I barely knew, stood in silence.

Walking back to the car, I noted that the gravedigger had discreetly returned to the site. As we drove off, I could see his bright yellow shirt and muscled arm move back and forth with the shovel.

NOW IT IS SATURDAY afternoon and I am sitting on the train on my way to bury the remaining ashes that I’d placed in the two envelopes. My reverie is interrupted by the sound of the train slowing down. A young girl is swinging on a metal pole inside the carriage doors calling out to her mother, who’s engrossed in a newspaper splashed with photos of Diana. By now, the princess’s image has taken the form of emotional Muzak for me—the face that plays over and over in your brain whether you like it or not.

My goal is to find the church where my parents were married. I know the name of it, Holy Redeemer, and where it is located, but I haven’t been to Bray since I was a child and have to ask my way to Main Street. When I finally reach the church, I am taken aback. It has a stark, contemporary look to it, not the quaint picturesque one I’d envisioned. A few flights of steps lead up to the gray stone exterior and large patio at the entrance, but there’s no garden in sight. I enter the church to find a mass in progress and kneel down near the back. I look up at the brightly lit altar and see a cameraman standing to the left, while a priest says something to a couple on his right. I catch the words “Marriage of David and Ciara.” I study the way David and Ciara gaze at one another and wonder if my parents had ever looked that blissful.

Romantic songs they used to sing pop into my head. I’m listening to Dad’s version of Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love” when the priest begins to pass out Holy Communion. I hesitate for a moment, then trail up the aisle behind several women in feathery picture hats and elegant attire, wishing that my Patagonia slicker was less Day-Glo orange. Returning down the side aisle, I slip out the front door and desperately look for some kind of garden. At the back of the church is a meager row of shrubbery with only one bush that’s healthy. With shaking hands I delve into my purse. Opening the corner of each envelope, I sprinkle some ashes over the bush and then step back to take a picture. This was not the setting I had in mind. I tell myself that I am being ridiculous, but nevertheless I will try one more place; I will go down to the sea.

It’s around 5 o’clock now and the sky is a little darker and the wind more blustery. I look anxiously around, hoping that the perfect place will present itself. Angry surf is slapping against the side wall of the pier and I think of just spilling the ashes into the sea. But it doesn’t feel a specific enough place to come back to. I see Bray Head jutting out in the distance and take my last picture. Eventually I spot some steps leading down to the beach opposite a bandstand. This is more like it. I know I came here as a child. Suddenly I recall the sound of a yellow metal spade hitting the bottom of a red bucket, and then lifting the bucket up slowly as I wait to see if I’ve made the perfect sandcastle. Surely my parents came to this exact place when they were dating. They were a handsome couple back then; Mom with her strawberry blonde hair and shapely figure, and Dad, dark-haired with deep blue eyes and a ready smile.

I walk down the steps and rest my bags against the sea wall. Feeling exalted and refreshed, I breathe in the sea air and watch the tide run toward me in little rivulets. Running to embrace the ocean, I am thrilled by the feeling of cold water rushing around my ankles and scoop some up to splash on my face. As I wade along the shore I reach into my pocket for the envelopes and begin to sprinkle the ashes. They blow away without even touching the sand, disappearing into the air—a barely seen mist of what once were two lives.

Seeing some beautiful smooth stones along the beach, I select two of the largest—a pinkish-beige one with mauve tones and another with mottled shades of green, plus several pebbles. Wanting to remember the exact location, I calculate ten feet from the base of the steps and five feet from the pier wall. Scooping out some sand, I sprinkle ashes from both envelopes into that spot, then place the two large stones on top and the smaller ones around the edge and stand back to admire this mini-monument. I can picture my parents sitting right here. This is the kind of protected place where people have picnics, make out, and talk about future plans; a place I hope they loved.

Trudging back up the steps to the promenade, I lean over the top of the railing to look down on my handiwork. It is hardly a monument. Maybe I’ve reverted to my childhood in building this small memorial, like building a sandcastle so long ago, wanting to remember my parents by being with them on the beach one last time. Ireland is still so much a part of me, am I assuming it meant as much to them?

The windswept rain splatters my face, disguising my tears. I indulge in some wallowing over my parents’ death, even the trivial fact of having no film left in my camera. What’s it like to be someone, I wonder, who has no regrets? Who will never say to herself, as I am now, I wish I could have found a way to visit my parents more often, taken more interest in their lives, listened more?

WHEN I GET BACK to London that Sunday, the media is still consumed by yesterday’s funeral for Diana, a woman who has received more outward displays of appreciation than Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died the same week. My personal grief is dwarfed and yet amplified somehow by this media blitz, and I continue to stew over whether bringing my parents’ ashes home to Ireland and removing them from a place where three of their children still live was the right thing to do.
I’m staying in Chelsea with my close friend Patty instead of with my siblings, all of whom live outside of the city. In the early ’70s, when I worked for Vanity Fair and Over21 magazines, I shared a flat off King’s Road nearby. To be honest, I am relieved to be back in a part of London that has such good memories for me, and to be with a friend whom, sadly, I know better than my sister.

It’s a sunny afternoon and Patty suggests we walk to Kensington Palace Gardens. I’ve seen countless photographs of both the elaborate and crudely written memorials for Diana outside the palace gates, but Patty says I won’t believe the enormity of the display till I see it for myself. She is right. In front of the palace we confront a sea of cellophane-covered bouquets along with memorabilia—photos of Diana, personal letters to her, teddy bears, balloons, paper hearts. We have to stand a distance away from the gates to take it all in. It’s a shame these flowers will die without even being unwrapped, but after the past week in Ireland, I understand the need to do what one can, to make a visible statement of some kind.

Afterwards, we stroll through the flower garden nearby. It’s a perfect day for enjoying the outdoors, though by now Patty and I are a bit tired. Ahead of us we see a man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper. He is wearing an odd combination of clothing: a stylish straw hat, a heavy dark green sweat suit with a West London Cricket Club insignia, and Birkenstock sandals. We sit down next to him and he continues to read for a while but eventually asks us something. He appears to be in his late 60s, with the kind of craggy good looks that remind me of some Irish actor, and is so charming that we begin a lengthy conversation.

It turns out that he is Irish and has lived in England for 22 years. But he never divulges his name, not even when we get up to leave and give him ours. Still, before we part, there’s a question I must ask him. “I know you love London, but I wonder, when the time comes, would you rather be buried in England or in Ireland?”
The man turns away for a moment before looking me straight in the eye. “Ireland,” he says firmly. And then, after a pause, he repeats in a whisper as if to himself, “Ireland.”