Third Place Prose Winner
by Emily Forrest
After two days in the city, everything outside of it feels fresh. I look out the window and watch the world quickly change from stark pavement to soft mountains, painted green with yellow flowers and scattered with sheep. Everyone always says that Ireland is so green, but that feels like an understatement driving out of Dublin into the countryside. Two hours of driving and more than half of the island later and I find myself in Cobh (pronounced as “cove”, I come to learn), a little town on the Southern coast. Two hours. That’s all the time we have here. I don’t think much of this town, it’s just a stop, a break from the road. I wander into a quiet immigration museum and realize the silence comes from my friends having taken off. I soon learn that millions of immigrants left Ireland from Cobh. This town was where the last passengers boarded the Titanic and in 1915, the citizens took care of the survivors of the Lusitania, the man says. This town doesn’t seem to have luck with large ships, I think. But millions of people left Ireland at this port, he continues. Really, it’s just the tragedies that history remembers.
I find my friends again and we wander out of the museum to look out at the ocean, but find a better view after climbing steep stairs to the top of a hill. Cobh seems small and rather empty. But oh, I hear music floating from a band playing in a nearby park. Once we walk past the park, the rest of the town comes into sight. Row houses line the streets in muted shades of nearly every color, with a massive cathedral on a hill towering over all of them. It doesn’t take long for us to decide that we need to see it up close. After climbing the steep, stone streets, I discover it to be St. Colman’s Cathedral. It is a Catholic church, graced with Gothic architecture despite its relative youth at merely one hundred years old. The last passengers to board the Titanic watched this cathedral fade from sight. I am amazed. At the grandeur of the architecture, of course, but also by the amount of information that can be learned from a humble plaque. The doors are finally reached and pulled open. I should have expected that a building with such an intricate exterior would be just as grandiose on the interior. But I enter the cathedral with zero expectations (the best way to go about things) and let it astonish me.
The day before, I had wandered through St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A rather busy place, given its nearly thousand-year history and location in central Dublin. Three days after that, I found myself in another small town, in its main cathedral. This cathedral held a sense of reverence as a church in use. Paper cut-outs from the children hung about and a praying woman in the back. I didn’t stay long, out of respect. But this cathedral on the coast? An entirely different experience, with different emotions.
Besides the sound of other people trickling in, the cathedral is perfectly silent. My breath slips away when I catch the first glimpse. It’s like any other church or cathedral in that it’s lined with pews, facing an altar. But this is beautiful in a way that I have never seen before. Stories and saints frozen in intricately etched marble walls, while granite pillars hold up the sloping arches. The ceiling is a deep, dark wood The lights are soft and the evenly scattered stained glass is bright, even on this cloudy day. If a choir sang here, it would resonate so beautifully that it would be overwhelming. But that’s how I feel now, I realize, as I wander about slowly with tears in my eyes. Beauty often leaves me speechless and content, but this is something else. This is a sense of awe and of finally finding something I’ve never been able to catch. A sense of the divine as I’ve never felt before.
I walk slowly around each side of the space, taking in the beauty. I want to remember this moment. This exquisite, breathless, peaceful moment that I unexpectedly find myself in. I realize that I am the last of my friends lingering in the cathedral. They’re leaving too quickly, I think. I take my time, trying to take in every bit of the place. This space demands my full attention and I willingly give it. I move slowly to the center, deeply enthralled, as I breathe in the beauty of the dancing light and sacred stillness.
I eventually make my way back to the doors, hesitating as I turn back to catch one last glimpse. As I marvel at the exterior one last time, I can hear my friends – they aren’t as far as I had thought. Maybe I should convert to Catholicism and move to this lovely town, I ponder, as I leap down the steps. I would live in a blue house across the way, where I could walk to the cathedral each Sunday. In the summertime, I could watch the ocean until the sun sets, well past ten o’clock. And I would knit all winter to keep myself warm. I run into a French couple on the steps, knocking me out of my thoughts. “Excuse me,” I say. “Sorry, excuse us,” they laughingly reply, or so I assume. I don’t speak French, so I wouldn’t know. But they seem apologetic and not at all snobbish, as the French supposedly are towards Americans. I smile at this encounter and continue hurrying to meet my friends before I lose them.
We explore the little town and they drag me into a waffle shop, of all places. The Irish enjoy waffles too – who knew? The man making the waffles seems amused but is patient and kind as he deals with Americans. With such friendly locals, it wouldn’t be hard to make friends living here. If I lived here, I would invite my new Irish friends over to my painted house. I would cook and they would bring whiskey or wine, because the Irish love their alcohol to a fault. I would reprimand them for it, but still enjoy their kindness. The Irish people are kind, much kinder than I had expected. I’m going to miss them and their lovely accents, I think as we leave the shop.
We cross the street and I see the ocean again. I’ll probably never live on this side of the ocean, I tell myself. But right now, in this moment, I am here. Fully alive with the salty wind whipping through my hair and heart dancing from the exquisite, holy beauty it had just felt. Never again will I be twenty years old, feeling wildly independent, with the thrill of exploring such a beautiful country. And soon, far too soon, I find myself leaving this town, likely never to return, like millions have done before me.