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Strolling down a road in Inis Oírr alongside the many stone walls used for pasture enclosure. (Photo by Sam Benac)

Tin Can Economy | Home away from home

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My world is quite small here in Yellow Springs.

A morning commute to the News office is a four-minute walk, and I see the same Midwest faces most days. I drive once maybe every two weeks, and I’m grateful that my groceries are still cold after I walk them home to my chicken-coop-of-a-house on Union Street. Mercifully, our local watering holes are within an easy stumbling distance.

The thought of flying across the Atlantic has always made me shudder — just slightly more than my annual trip to Kroger — but my wife and I wanted to do something nice for our honeymoon.

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Ireland seemed to fit the bill. We’d always dreamed of going, and owing to some negligible ancestry, I’ve felt a kind of mythic pull for most my life.

Eire it was, then. 

After a miserable red-eye, my wife and I landed in Dublin in late April. We checked into a ritzy castle and immediately pounded pavement. On our first day, we ambled around Trinity College, walked through an impossibly old cemetery littered with springtime daisies, and next door, drank a few Guinnesses at John Kavanagh’s aptly named Gravediggers Pub. It was easy to make friends there.

We rented a car and made our way across the countryside on the wrong side of the road, past more castles and neolithic ruins, through lush rolling hills dotted with little white lambs. After raucous Galway, we stayed in quiet Doolin — a seaside hamlet that had the cutest thatched-roof sweater shop you’d ever see.

There, in a dark pub, an old one-legged man brought me to so many tears as he sang the lyrics, “In the dark recesses of the mines, where you age before your time,” accompanied by a five-piece session band. It might have been the Guinness that made me well up . Or maybe it was how much Doolin felt like Yellow Springs and I was beginning to miss my home. 

Inis Oirr, the Cliffs of Moher, the Wicklow uplands and bogs, shipwrecks, stonewall labyrinths, lilting singsong accents — Ireland’s uncanny and unearthly beauty just wouldn’t let up. How does it all fit in a country smaller than the whole state of Ohio?

Eventually, it was time to return to dirty ol’ Dublin. There were more pubs and more fish dinners. A Joyce walking tour brought us through Leopold Bloom’s daylong odyssey and we went to the Disneyland-esque Guinness Storehouse. The Temple Bar district surrounded us with more languages than I’ve ever heard in one place.

The week ended, and a plane flung us back stateside before we knew it. Vacations of that caliber always end in a whimper, my wife joked in an airport.

Though she returned with food poisoning from a dubious airline chicken meal, I came back to Ohio in good health, albeit with some crippling incredulity. I mean, it’s just inconceivable that a person can go from the euphoria of standing atop a roaring cliffside to hunched over, typing away in an office half a hemisphere away — that these places are on the same planet.

Despite that whiplash, I’ve found some consolation in this village I call home — Yellow Springs feels a bit Irish to me now. The two places share more in common than I thought.

I don’t mean to force a square peg into a circular hole by making such a comparison, but if I squint, the fields between here and Enon start to resemble County Clare. The Tavern isn’t too far from a pub, and the townie culture here translates to a T. Glen Helen’s verdant greens are only a fraction less fluorescent than those of Ireland’s.

Then there’s the tourism, of course.

Ireland is a country of just over 5 million people, winnowed dramatically from its historical peak of 8.5 million on the eve of the Great Famine in 1842. Starvation, brutal colonial oppression and the often empty promise of better living conditions elsewhere, forced millions of Irish from their homes over the last 200 years. 

But nearly 10 million visitors flock to the republic annually, far outnumbering Irish residents, making tourism one of the largest contributors to its economy — so it made sense that my wife and I weren’t the only Americans bellied up to the bars. A similar phenomenon can be seen here in Yellow Springs on any sunny Saturday afternoon.

And yet, at the same time, who among us villagers doesn’t know a lifelong local who’s raring to pack their bags for greener pastures?

This isn’t at all to suggest that the occasionally tenuous economic conditions of Yellow Springs, with its own declines in population and demographic shifts, stack up against the changes wrought by colonization and famine in Ireland.

What’s my point in this rambling column?

My point to note is that diasporas and vacations can occur in tandem; prosperous arrivals and unfortunate departures can be simultaneous.

How can that be? How can a place — a home — attract some while ejecting others?

The disenfranchising power of capital is, I think, the low-hanging answer here. But also that which magnetizes and simultaneously repels people to particular locales is contingent on the stories we tell ourselves of those places — the myths we make. It’s the old photos we see and the histories we invent, the traditions we say have always been there and the roots families claim. What I mean is that what we know of places — even those that we call home — is fungible and subject to imaginative tricks from folklorish faeries. 

For instance, it was the idea of Ireland that brought me there. Likewise, it’s the idea of Yellow Springs that crowds our downtown sidewalks with tie-dye on weekends. For some villagers, it’s the idea that our small town isn’t what it used to be that can fill a person with enough nostalgia to implode or move to Portland. These ideas of place and permanency, I’m suggesting, are capricious and shouldn’t always be trusted.

I’m reminded here of the Welsh concept of “hiraeth,” a fickle term with no direct English translation that describes the longing, homesickness or grief for a home to which one can never return — a home that maybe never was.

Just like several of the small Irish towns my wife and I visited last month, Yellow Springs has absolutely changed in considerable ways over the last couple of decades. Still, it’s a beautiful, idyllic place, and I wonder if it’s possible to sometimes see that more clearly through the eyes of others.

I suppose Thomas Wolfe was right: You can never truly go home. But perhaps going away can make you appreciate it in new ways.

Either way, it’s good to be back, and I hope I can afford to stay a while.

*Tin Can Economy is an occasional column that reflects on object, form and scale. It considers the places and spaces we inhabit, their constituent materials and our relationship to it all. Its author, Reilly Dixon, is a local writer, gardener and amateur winemaker. He is also a reporter for this newspaper.

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