The Girls in the Burren

A woman alone follows two girls into a dark wood.

Alen MacWeeney, Tinker Child with Cellophane, Ireland (1965)

From Dublin, where streets curve with the brown brick corners of buildings and careening double-deckers carry commuters to work and home again under a sky that’s ever grey, I take a train to Galway, then a bus down the Wild Western Way. More than once, a blur of white sheep flies past my window. When the shoreline is visible, the clouds part for the first time since I landed in the country to reveal a startling blue. I look up at it from the bus window, take a quick breath in, and get off at a small village on the coast.

Eager to walk down to the water, I drop my bag at the inn I’ve booked and greet the man at the desk. He looks on quizzically, as if holding a question under his tongue. If we’d known you were comin’ early we’d’ve made arrangements, the woman at my Dublin b&b had said. I’d apologized, explained that I could wait for the room, no problem, but she’d merely sniffed; it was ready ten minutes later. The following morning at breakfast, full Irish for me, she was humming, calling me love. Reminding me that my lover, too, can be an endearment among older women, though I’d yet to hear it. Here, I am anything but early. But I am, as I was in Dublin, a woman alone. To the man at the desk I offer as explanation the phrase that’s become familiar to me: Apparently my people come from here. A smile, and a shrug.

I’m trying to speak in the manner I’ve seen men use with one another, strangers, bridging the unknown with bashful, jovial ease. But my words seem only to further disturb him. He grunts, and moves quickly to the next room. I take an umbrella, though there isn’t a cloud in the sky now, lace up my boots, and go. It isn’t true that my people come from here, or at least I don’t know it for certain, and I feel the gaze of the lie on my back as I walk away from the inn.

What I know is that I am 73% Irish, with a high probability of ancestry on the central western coast. Information that’s come to me by way of a genetic test bought on discount at a low moment, spittle pinched through pursed lips and deposited into the mail-in vial at a lower moment still. It is a particularly American thing to want to know where you come from. To cross an ocean following a question you hope will be answered straightforwardly—seeking… what, exactly, salvation of a sort?—then surprise at an encounter with a world you’ve never known. And what if you do feel something, some recognition?

As I walk the small cobblestone main street, no longer than half a city block, I think of the man who spoke to me hours before as we waited for our buses at the Galway Starbucks. He was a white-haired man with a cane and smart dress, missing a couple of teeth but making up for them in the length of those he had. A Long Belonging: Wisdom of the Ancestors, aye? He’d noted my book. I blushed. We could all stand to learn something from the ones who’ve come before. I mustered a nod. Figure it can’t hurt, right? Well, it may not be painless, that much isn’t up to us, he replied, squinting in my direction. American are you?

I nodded again, and he surprised me by asking if I thought it possible that the former president might be put in jail. I don’t know, I said, but I sort of doubt it. At least maybe he won’t be able to win again. He nodded then, sagely, and began speaking to me in long, winding sentences, some of them incomprehensible to me for the beauty of his accent, about the former president and the current one, about Ukraine and Gaza, about the untenable state of things. About people fleeing invasions with nothing, those brutally massacred with nowhere to go. About home, loss of community, the making of the self. How it, too, can be lost—and easily. Something about his own grandmother. When I had to catch my bus he wished me luck in finding whatever it was that I was after, and I thanked him, almost wanting to ask him what, in his opinion, that should be.

Just as I turned to go, he seemed to read my mind. They say if you close your eyes you can see them, the wise ones who’ve come before. I turned back, half expecting him to have vanished. But he was there, eyes lowered. Slowly raising his coffee to his lips with an unsteady hand.

It is a particularly American thing to want to know where you come from.

There was no reason to think my ancestors came from this particular town, I think as I take in that first glimpse of water, shimmering blue on the horizon. Even the formulation—my people come from here—sounds more like the following of a script than an actual life of one’s own making. Still, like water drawn to its source, I felt pulled by the memory of something I’d never had the chance to know. I wanted to see.

The year before, around the time of the ill-advised genetic test, I’d left Elle without knowing why, exactly. I knew only that I couldn’t continue on, readying ourselves to start exploring “family planning,” that euphemism for learning the options we had to make a child together, how much it would cost us. I loved Elle, I thought I wanted to be a mother one day. But I also knew I couldn’t go on as we had been. I tried to explain this to family and friends, but I could tell by the concern on their faces it didn’t satisfy them. She’s not getting any younger, I imagined them saying once I’d gone. But I felt that I was—getting younger, I mean. A kind of second adolescence was upon me. Something had been set in motion. I knew that I was becoming, and that I needed to be alone so that who I became was not overly influenced by someone else’s desires or vision, but was guided as much as possible by my own. Does this sound like someone who should be family planning?

Down by the water, a breeze lifts my hair and jacket. At the small wooden pier I watch two women, arm in arm, in winter coats, staring out at the horizon. As I get closer I hear that they’re speaking a language other than English. They are both blonde, not an Irish blonde—warm, strawberry—but cooler, more silvery. Like the light on the water. I remember then what the woman at the Dublin b&b had said about the west coast. Plenty of small towns full up with refugees by now, I expect. The government’s got hotels open to ’em, some—good money in it, wish they’d throw some our way. I nod to the women, but their eyes don’t leave the water, the focal point for their conversation. At the end of the pier I too look out on the deep blue, the ripples cascading outward, leading my gaze. I close my eyes.

It’s not long before they open, to the sound of screaming—shrill and thin, cutting across the cool sea air. My stomach dips before I register the children stomping, hysterical, onto the pier with three adults and two young teenage girls trailing behind. They too are speaking what must be Ukrainian, or Russian maybe. I watch them play as the other adults join the two women talking. We all remain there as the light changes, late afternoon lowering to gather us.

Finally, all but the two girls, about twelve or thirteen, leave the pier. They wear large sweatshirts and flared jeans. I watch them as they laugh and tell stories, looking at a phone they pass between them, and I wonder what they think of this tiny Irish town, their home for now. I wonder if they are sisters or cousins or friends, if they knew each other before arriving here or if their private language only developed since. I wonder how often they think of before. And then I watch the girls leave the pier too. I look down at my phone. No service. I’d decided not to pay for an international plan. It works only with WiFi, which has felt mostly liberating, only occasionally causing panic.

After Elle told me, through hot rageful tears, that I had to grow up, I began to look at photos of myself at age twelve, thirteen, fourteen, trying to feel some connection to the girl I’d once been—dark hair, slumped shoulders, long limbs. That awkward gait of a colt not yet confident in its legs. If I was to grow up, I had to understand my adolescence and feel I’d passed through it to some other side, didn’t I? I had to know, as others seemed so easily to manage, how to stop questioning the putting forward of feet—one, then the other—and move in a certain direction. Looking at these pictures, I stopped when I got to sixteen; photos taken after that, when I began to play-act at certainty, would not help me. As the girls go from the pier, I notice that one of them, her dark ponytail caught at her shoulder, gangly limbs the result of a recent growth spurt, looks just like I did when I was her age. The resemblance is striking. I try to picture the girl’s face, but can’t.


I make my way to the small waterside restaurant and order a bowl of seafood chowder with a glass of the house white wine. It comes deliciously cold. Once I’ve finished it’s twilight, and I walk back the way I came, past the pier. I almost turn off where a sign points toward the burren, literally a rocky place, the limestone landscape characteristic of County Clare, but darkness descends. Instead I walk past, to the one small whiskey bar on the main street, where I sit on a stool and watch people come and go. At nine, a three-piece band picks up playing Irish music and the audience, mostly locals, becomes their percussionists. We keep time with our hands and feet, tapping out rhythms on the old wood bar or stone floor, laughter riding the melodies. Whiskey, uisce beatha, water of life. One song, sung out in the clear and haunting alto of a woman who appears to have no relation to the band, champions the rebels of the long fight for self-rule. I think of the families from the pier and wonder what they’re doing now. When I come in after midnight, the inn is dark and I sleep heavily, dreamlessly.

The next day is wet and grey, but I walk for hours from early morning. First along the coast, down to Fanore Beach, then inland to a neighboring town, where I stop at a pub for soup and soda bread and a cider. On my way back I watch two grey horses in a soggy field. They return my gaze with such intensity, stock still and staring, that I stop to wonder what they see when they look at me. How will I know? I ask them, silently. It’s just living, my mother might say. You have to stop searching at some point, and just live your life.

Suddenly the wind picks up and the leaves, which had begun to dry, are thrown against one another in a roaring percussive dance. The rain begins again, turning quickly to hail, and I walk, then run, to a nearby church where an open door leads to a small foyer. The main atrium is locked but I can see through the glass windows that a few candles are lit and the chandelier above the modest pulpit is on. No one is inside. I wait out the storm there, in this small corridor between the elements and the divine, watching the hail pound the gravel of the drive and listening to the thunder that follows each flash in the sky. How will I know that I’m walking in the right direction? I consider praying, but it would be disingenuous, this place of worship so far from the life I normally live. There is nothing to do but wait. Within a half hour, the sun is peeking through the swiftly moving clouds. The horses are still there in the field, and I somberly nod their way as I pass.

I take a hot shower and dress, then set out again, as always, toward the water. The sky is an unusual blue, azure of the late afternoon, almost as full and deep as the sea’s. I am trying to remember the Gaelic word for indigo, which I’d read in a translation of a poem called “A Blessing for the Ancestors” from A Long Belonging, when suddenly I see the two teenage girls from the day before. They walk arm in arm, like the women from the pier, their mothers maybe. Again they wear flared jeans and large sweatshirts, perhaps the same as yesterday’s, the one’s dark ponytail hanging tangled down her back. I see them turn at the sign for the burren. One of them holds a phone, music playing from it, and they laugh and sing along and chat as they walk, though I am too far from them to hear their words and would not be able to understand them in any case. I turn toward the burren.

At the football pitch boys of twelve or so sit in a row. Some talk animatedly, trying out new inflections for new coarse words. Some look down at their phones. I imagine one of the boys texting a classmate who’s landed in Germany, another in Italy. Do they speak of home? I want to stay with them, but my eyes follow the girls, who pass over the stone threshold that leads into the burren. I watch their ponytails disappear and realize that if I had had the baby at sixteen, she would be older than they are now—almost twenty!—older than I was, then. And for the first time in these almost two decades I feel some sliver of curiosity to know her. This person who does not exist, but who may nevertheless be, in some sense, with me.

I look up to the late afternoon sky. Wispy clouds at the horizon, like the sheep that edge the pasture near the pitch. Even back then, in 2003, when abortion was legal, before we called it a crisis and merely climate change, before 2016, then 2020, things were already corrupt, unstable, uncertain—and yet, the more visible coming undone of late seemed to warrant something. Perhaps a second adolescence. Any confidence one might have had in how things were had been undermined by the more visibly, explicitly chaotic and cruel. The planet is warming, greed-fueled, to new points of no return. People are displaced, dying by state-sponsored violence and neglect, maybe more senselessly, certainly more visibly. But also, at the same time, an emerging potential? A cresting promise? That strange hormonal concoction, the right balance of nihilism plus hope or naivete that is the essence of adolescence.

The world was not expanding but contracting, spinning backward onto itself. Or was it opening to a portal, through which we might do it all again, differently this time? Had it always been this way, or were we entering a new era? The teenager’s alienation and angst—this world?—coupled with that spark of youthful possibility. It might seem silly, to feel yourself getting younger. It might seem the only response.

That strange hormonal concoction, the right balance of nihilism plus hope or naivete that is the essence of adolescence.

Soon I’m following them. Over the stone wall, with steps cut out, and into the rocky wilderness. Across grassy muddy meadows surrounded by brush. Grey is as much a part of the natural landscape here as the better-known Irish greens, and it gives the land a sense of timelessness, a severity and a wisdom. My boots squish in the mud. I almost slip, then right myself. Listen for the girls. A sound to locate them by. I hear their distant tinkling voices, see a flash of sweatshirt to the right. I move toward it.

We are far from the road, now. The thought passes my mind, would the boys by the soccer pitch hear me if I screamed? I wouldn’t scream, of course, there is no need. But still I wonder if they would hear me. The girls certainly would.

Had their mothers—the women I saw walking arm in arm by the pier, I have decided that these are their mothers—taught them to run toward or away from a cry? It would take us at least ten minutes now to make it, through brush and over stone, back to the road, even moving at full speed. Don’t their mothers worry? Do they know of their daughters venturing so deep into the burren? I can only guess what it might feel like to have someone rely on me as a daughter relies on a mother. My eggs are now what they call geriatric, and I have never had to make decisions for a smaller, more vulnerable being. If I don’t know myself well enough, don’t know how to put one foot in front of the other, how could I possibly bring somebody else into it? People do it all the time, my mother says. Exactly, I reply.

Perhaps these mothers don’t worry, now, so far from the more urgent fears they fled. The distance between there and the possibilities here wide enough to allow their minds some ease. Or, at a certain point a mother simply rests her mind because she has to. Impossible to be on constant alert to the world’s dangers for oneself, let alone another. Vigilance can’t always be a virtue. Far from warzones, in places where such worries are few, mothers become helicopters, shamed for hovering over their children. Perhaps these girls’ mothers are happy for their children to explore. Perhaps this instinct, toward freedom, autonomy, is stronger finally than fear. Who would I be, as a mother? I don’t consider that anyone would question me, a woman alone, in this Irish town. Searching for something—anything—walking after these girls into the burren. I am not what a mother might fear.


It’s darker, in the burren. Or maybe it’s only that the sun is setting faster now. The sky becoming a greyer, dustier blue. I follow their voices, no longer able to see even a flash of sweatshirt or jeans through the trees. I keep my distance, not wanting to interrupt their solitude. But not wanting to lose them, either. I hoist myself up and over another small stone wall, this one leading into a canopy of brush. I look behind me, to the open field through the hole between stone and brush I’ve just climbed through. Then again before me into the twilit dark.

The twilight makes everything harder to make out here in the low canopy. Should I go left, or right? Stay close or give them lead? I pause to listen for the girls, their starlit voices. It is silent but for the birdsong, as if it were morning, though soon it will be night. I close my eyes.

The woman tending bar at the whiskey pub the night before had commended my bravery for coming in alone. A compliment, but one with teeth. Margaret had served me a twelve-year-old whiskey, which I sipped slowly as I watched a group of men chatting about a rugby game, a group of women celebrating a birthday, each at their respective ends of the bar. A small Palestinian flag hung across the top shelf of amber whiskeys. You wouldn’t be afraid, then? Margaret asked, Afraid they’d all be starin’ at you, thinkin’, Ah but she’s come in lookin’ for a man? I hadn’t thought of that, I’d replied, and wondered idly about Niamh, whom I’d matched with in Dublin on an app, but hadn’t messaged—their epicene beauty almost too much to take in, and my time limited, in any case. I could feel the gaze of a young man from across the bar. He drank one Guinness, then another, stepping out to smoke every fifteen minutes. I’d held his eyes. On his fourth or fifth smoke break, I followed him outside. Never you mind, Margaret had said, though I never had told her what it was I was looking for. You’ll find plenty of men to talk to here, and with a grin, most of ’em married. It was raining lightly outside, and the smoke we exhaled tangled in the twinkling lamplight as it left our lips, followed by words that said close to nothing.

When we got to his place, a tiny apartment just up the road over a kebab shop, and I kissed him, he said, Hello, softly, shyly. As if we had only just this second met, as if everything else has been prelude, and the start is now, just now. Though perhaps simply a nervousness metabolized as greeting, it is tempting to think that all can begin in an instant, with no acknowledgment of what came before it, what might follow. That you can choose one moment from another as a beginning. A seductive thought. I came quickly, picturing what I could remember of Niamh’s face, their neck and collarbone, and was grateful to the man for asking few questions, for not protesting when I said I would not be staying over. On the short walk back to the inn, a brief pang of fear that somehow I would get pregnant, despite how unlikely, followed by a brief thrill of regret that I hadn’t more fully cultivated the risk by refusing the condom he’d produced from his pocket like a gift.

Back at the inn I’d slept heavily. Dreamlessly, I’d thought. But now I remember one dream—standing in the burren brush, listening to the birdsong—the whisper of a dream, its vague outline. Back home, the streets are chaos, shelling ripping across asphalt, bombing in the distance, the throb of propellers above. People are running, and then so are we. When we pause to catch our breath in an alley nearby the neighborhood bodega, Elle pulls me close, whispers in my ear, So, what, you’re not American anymore? They don’t care. Do you see anyone asking for passports? She carries a child, strapped to her chest, its face turned to her breast. I can only see its downy head. I want to cry, but instead I wake.

The dream I hadn’t remembered until now, it makes my cheeks hot, as if Elle were here. My not-so-subtle unconscious embarrasses me. But there’s trust there, too. A knowing. There is something that has led me here, I feel sure of it, my eyes still closed. Before them, red pumping blood. There is something, a thin line, almost imperceptible, that connects me to this place, to this land and its people. And with any luck it will help point me forward if I choose to follow it, one foot in front of the other. Do I really believe that? I’m not sure. What I know is that I need to see the girl’s face. In seeing that she is not me I will be released to live my life, to make choices fit for a woman my age rather than a teenager. A teenage girl. And if I see that she is me? If I recognize in her face my own?

I don’t consider that anyone would question me, a woman alone, in this Irish town. Searching for something—anything—walking after these girls into the burren. I am not what a mother might fear.

A low guttural sound like a moan ratchets my eyes open. The brush, grey and green and endless, fills my vision. I hold my breath. Silence. Then the moan again. But this time I hear it for what it is, a cow’s distant low braying. I turn, slowly, surveying the grey and green. Did I come from this way, or that? I turn again. I’m pretty certain it was this way, but then again… How long would it take for someone to come looking for me, so many thousands of miles from home? With no one waiting to hear from me each day, expecting my goodnight message or my morning’s plans, it could take some time. At least a day, maybe more.

In fact, it would be the suspicious innkeeper who’d notice first, before friends or family, when I don’t check out on time tomorrow. This is what happens when you’re unpartnered with geriatric eggs—a disgruntled stranger reports you missing when you finally meet your senseless and absurd end in a forest far from home. This is what happens when you are a woman alone. It’s what happens when you’re a woman alone searching for something.

I imagine sinking to the mossy rocky bramble floor and willing myself still. Willing breath to cease, heart to stop. Allowing myself to slowly decompose, feeling myself disintegrate, bit by bit, until I am no longer myself. Until I am dirt. Taken back into the land. The motherland, home of my ancestors—or, at the very least, relatively close to the home of my ancestors, give or take a few miles. This, finally, might be the noblest path on offer. Given the circumstances, this might be certainty.

I go right. Before long I am out of the bramble and into the low light, a twilit pasture strewn with rocks. I look out across the expanse, through the mist of foggy dew. Listening for the girls, I stop. I hear only the birds and my own breath, the echoes of my pumping blood. The birdsong is crisp and bright and I am struck, as my breath and heart slow, by the terror so readily accessible to me. But also the choice. By how easily I could choose to stop. Stop it all. Stop searching and just…

I listen to the birds’ clear song, and in it try to decipher what’s meant for me. I too can be a rebel. I will be. There, in the far distance, the high shimmer of the girls’ voices. If I can only see the girl’s face—

I am moving faster now, squishing through the mud, unwilling to lose them again. I move in the direction of their voices as the last light in the sky softens to a deep purple. My mind is clear. I am full of the crisp cool air of this place. Keep moving toward their voices. I am one with the trees and the mud and the moss. I slip, then right myself. I am not a mother. I am out of breath but I follow them, their voices. I am not what a mother might fear. They are there, just there. I am closer. A bit further, now. I am panting. Closer. There. A stitch rips down my side, but I keep on. Just a bit more. Keep going. Keep—

A scream, shrill and thin, and I am tearing now through a rare open meadow toward them. I push past the brush and scramble over another low stone wall, tripping forward into the clearing. Empty. I look left then right, but all is chillingly serene. I wait, listening for their echoing voices, and I wonder again if I were to die whether my mother would find me. I am about to call out when I hear music, just beyond the brush, playing tinnily from their cell phone. Another squeal, this one clearly of delight. And now I can see their sweatshirts beyond the trees. They are dancing. Choreography for TikTok.

I exhale. Sit on a large rock. I take off my jacket and the sweat on my back cools as it dries. I feel for my phone in my pocket. Screen center, the word Mom. A text that must have come through earlier. I unlock the phone with my face, it takes a moment to recognize me in the dusk, and open the message promising the teenage pictures I’d asked for. Write and tell me how you are, dear. I return the phone to my pocket. x, Mom.

I don’t want to startle the girls, I just want to be near them. To know they are there, alone and together, passing the time, having found themselves in this new strange place. Not knowing what is next. I listen to them laughing, dancing. I will wait here until they’re ready. I will wait here. I will leave the burren with them, deliver them back to their mothers. I feel my heartbeat regulate and, as my pulse slows, I close my eyes and wait to see her face. ♦

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