Ah, God Love Her
by Erica Levi

From the writer: Emma McNally attended Syracuse University during my sophomore year, and in that time, this vibrant girl from Northern Ireland left a lasting impression on my heart. The following year, I studied abroad in London and took a travel writing course. The class allowed me to reflect on my journeys throughout the semester, and I chose to write my final piece on my trip to visit Emma in Belfast. When I started writing, I got lost in fond memories of the two of us and never felt as if I was completing an assignment, but rather, I was writing a chronicle of a friendship and a lifestyle.

From the editors: Erica Levi's recollections of her Irish roommate, Emma McNally, are by turns touching and hilarious. Emma's comments are interesting on their own right, but equally intriguing are Levi's reactions to her Gaelic counterpart. The enjoyably candid tone and engaging anecdotes of "Ah, God Bless Her" merit its inclusion in Intertext.

I met Emma McNally on her nineteenth birthday. She spoke excitedly in her thick brogue, and I couldn't understand her. Now I think I finally do.

From day one, I introduced Emma as my Irish roommate. I lured people into the accent, the wide-eyed, gapped tooth smile and bubbly speech of a foreigner. I grinned when my friends lapped her up—first puzzled by her tongue, but then howling at her stories. I saw the rapport she had with everybody. Even the people she disliked took a liking to her. I watched what she had and admired her spirit, her persona, her eccentric ways.

Day after day she had me in hysterics over some story from her childhood about being caught smoking by a nun, or bringing a horse into her mother's house.

Night after night, she would put on the kettle and we would sit in her room sipping tea and talking. We would gossip about the boys we were fond of and the girls we disliked. And no matter who we insulted, Emma would add, "Ah, god love her."

We listened to Delilah and her love songs and talking about love and relationships, and who we were and who we wanted to be. She saw so far into me and pulled so much out of me, I needed a box of tissues on her nightstand. She understood what scared me and what threatened me, and what angered me.

She read my tarot cards and analyzed my fate, and she let me see myself. She didn't need a crystal ball to do it. She is Emma.

The Irish have these superstitions. These are sayings that they share at free will. You start to believe them when you hear them enough. When you shiver, someone is walking on your grave.

I never thought of my own grave, but Emma made me think things I wouldn't have normally. She held me tight when I got the call that a friend of mine died in a car accident. She sat beside me and read with me the friend's entry in my yearbook. She consoled me. She befriended me immediately, and I felt warm beside her.

I am cautious upon meeting people—I must make sure they are real and true before I can accept them. Sometimes I think Emma is too real. I marvel at her warmness—she can open arms to all, and all will flock to them.

She tried to bring her Irish ways to America—to have a good "craic" as they call a good atmosphere in Ireland. But she was troubled by the materialism of all those around her, annoyed by the unappreciative. They brought her down, belted her in.

She responded the only way that she knew how. She would go into her room and close and lock her door. Always lock her door. It wasn't that she didn't trust us, but she carries with her an old superstition based on harsh reality. It still makes her uneasy. She was woken up to gunpoint once.

At night, I would stare at her slathering butter on a piece of bread, grabbing it to go, and returning to her room for a cigarette. If I followed her in, she would wait until I was sitting on the bed, and she would shut the door and lock it. She locked me in. She locked me in to the person she is, the place she represents, the experiences she has endured.

But in her small cell-like room, where she was to read daily for her classes, write papers, and study for tests, she felt overwhelmed by the American way of doing things. The Irish way, the Belfast in her, needed friends across the road to call in to. She needed her sisters and nieces and nephew to pick up and play with. She needed her mother to tell her a bedtime story with Irish folklore. But they were all across an ocean, on another continent, and all she had was this wee room with a hole in the screen that looked out on a field between other South campus apartments. All she had was a little boom box, where she would play the Corrs and reminisce about running to the pubs after school and work. All she had were pictures she would dig through often, and she'd tell me the stories attached to them.

She would tell me about all the odd jobs she has had. Waitressing, working at a newspaper, for a cab company, cleaning hotel rooms. She would run to her room and return with Irish poetry and literature and tell me of her love for the works of Oscar Wilde.

Emma sat in Syracuse University classes, trying to be a student that someone wanted her to be. She wanted to do well because someone else's money was paying for her to be there, but she looked around her and didn't like what she saw. She saw American students who were eager to be through college, so they could find these high-level, high-paying careers, that they would later discover they were dissatisfied in. She didn't want to be trapped by that so she took various classes—attempting to find what was just right for her.

I told her she should be a psychologist or psychiatrist. She can read people and help people and is such a wonderful listener. But she isn't a reader of textbooks, nor an avid fan of tests.

She thought about education for a while. Maybe teaching is the best way to exert her influence. Like Frank McCourt, she could show the world this girl from Northern Ireland was smart and beautiful and worldly and had a real gift. But the thought of education soon dwindled.

Emma is a traveler, a wanderer even in her own home. She wrote home to Belfast, called home to Belfast, longed for Belfast, but sometimes when she is there, she wants to run away. She is bigger than the trap still set by the walls of the Catholic and Protestant communities. She is bigger than the girls who go out for a pint and end up in bed with guys they knew from the playgrounds, and later pregnant and in search of work. She wants more from a guy than sex and laughter—she seeks intellectual stimulation. The last Irish guy told her he heard she liked poetry crap and what was that all about. She knew she had to doubt him.

She can't sit still. A guy she worked with has friends in Malta who said they would give her a job. So she is planning to go to Malta this summer to work. She announces this to some of her friends. They are used to these frequent announcements of departure, will surely be entertained by the postcards she sends home, and will of course be waiting upon her return.

Emma doesn't know what she wants to do, but routine is mundane, and she wants to be free. She looked at me just a few nights back, sipped her pint, and said she wanted to be the leader of a safari in Africa. I laughed, and she laughed and for other people, such fancies are talk, but I won't be surprised if I open my mailbox one day and find pictures of her in khaki standing beside an elephant. I already have one of her sleeping inside a tumble dryer. That is her life, always spinning, always moving.

Washing Machine

She is caught in a washing machine

But she laughs

Because she is free.

Free to tumble

Because it is just her

And that is her life

Always spinning

Always moving

Always washing out the stale scents

And hanging her life up to dry

She is bored when things are dry

Because it is hot and nothing inside.

When it stops she spins the dial

And takes her chances

She goes where the marker points

Puts in soap to cleanse her soul

Starts to tumble

Always spinning

Always moving

Mixing whites with colors,

The permanent and not

The old red and white

Make new pink

And when the machine spins

And spurts

And rattles

She is happy.

"Do you remember when, ah we used to sing

Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah."

-Van Morrison, "Brown-Eyed Girl"

Van Morrison played softly in the early hours of the morning, and I sat leaning against the wall—dreaming. "Brown Eyed Girl" bellowed gleefully from my stereo, and slowly the somber night woke up. Emma began to dance to a song of a Belfast man that might have been written for her.

It was too late to remind her of the cup of water in her hand, and with a swift movement, my sheets were soaked. Emma dashed out of the room and came back with a hairdryer. She stood over my bed and dried my sheets and I just watched, shaking my head.

Emma's klutzy, and she knows it. She has burned a few cigarette holes in clothing because her head is in far off places—but she traveled in her mind because she rarely wished to be in the 9' x10' room in our seemingly dull beige apartment on South Campus in Syracuse, New York.

In Northern Ireland, the sky is gray like Syracuse. It rains, and the cold chills the ground. It is that cold you cannot escape.

But in Belfast there is warmth among the people. There is a friendly sentiment in the streets that have known crime and hatred. Two little girls came up to me as I posed in front of a mural so that Emma could take a picture. They asked where I was from, and when I said the U.S., they asked if I had met the president. I have, in fact, I told them, and they skipped along gleefully talking about how they had met a girl who had met the president.

From Emma's bungalow in Ardoyne, you can see the rolling green hills that descend into a dull city where the houses all look the same—it is the people who provide the color.

The people are vibrant and alive. The girls wear extension braids in their hair and enough bronzer on their faces to color themselves a darker shade of skin, Emma said. The boys sport brightly colored Umbro backpacks, Kids run about until the wee hours of the night. They chatter away in their brogues, and at moments I am lost in the accent. When their daily work duties have been completed, the pubs resound with laughter—a good "craic," or Gaelic word for fun, as Emma always says.

The kindness and generosity of the Belfast community is hard to comprehend. In America, there is an "every man for himself" mentality, but it is obvious that Belfast children are raised at any number of dinner tables and scrapes and cuts are bandaged across town. I admire a place in this world where people care for others as they do, but it is painful to know that in this town, people are killed because of religion.

Jerry Conlon, who was falsely convicted of an IRA bombing of a London pub and years later released from prison, said although the streets of Belfast share one image, it is the people that make homes real.

"All the houses in our street were identical, but you could tell someone's attitude just by looking at the walls," Conlon once wrote about the homes in Belfast. The brick and dull browns and beiges run together. You wonder how people called into friends for tea and don't end up sitting in someone else's living room.

But I imagine if that happened, they'd still pour you a cup anyway.

There are no houses with white picket fences. There may be a dog in the yard, but who knows if it belongs there? The yards are hardly big enough for a child to run around in, so child, adult and dog alike, roam the lanes from here to there. The white picket fence is not a dream in Belfast, and part of me wonders why. Another part of me realizes the fence, and all attached, is the American ideal.

There is no written code, but the American ideal is programmed into us from the beginning. We move mechanically through the education system—attend a prestigious college or university, land a successful job and work our way up. The American ideal is to settle down and get married, raise a family, live in the suburbs, drive an SUV, and take family vacations to places like Disney World and the Grand Canyon. No one I know saves up for a family trip to Belfast.

The Northern Irish have their own ideal, and that is to live day to day. That is good enough for them. Emma wants a little more. She came to the states for school because she thought she might find what she couldn't get out of Belfast. But Emma found American college students obsessed with this American standard, so much so that it disgusted her. She questioned the behavior of American students—she detected their fraudulence. Emma is the most perceptive person I know, and she saw immediately how people are so wrapped up in themselves and concerned about their clothes and jobs and money and hearing themselves speak.

Frank McCourt, an Irish writer who grew up in Limerick but came to America as a young man, said in his novel 'Tis that "Everyone talks and no one listens and I can see why." Americans don't listen because they don't know how—and they have no patience.

The Irish are patient. They take the time to get to know one another. Emma knows a lot of people. Maybe not well, but she has a story about each. That guy over there, she said as we strolled down the block was the first guy I had a crush on. "Quick Erica, cross the street, look into that store at the guy by the clothing rack and then keep moving." She told me afterwards that that was Taz. Taz she had confided to me last year in her cell-like bedroom was the guy she had lost her virginity to who liked to do it to the beat of the music. She told her friend Lindsay this story while they were recording music and the conversation was taped. Her mother called in Syracuse to tell Emma she had come across an audiotape collecting dust and had played it. That was all her mother said. That was all she needed to say.

I went to Belfast to visit Emma for St. Patrick's Day. On the flight over, I watched her dance around me in my memories, arching her head back, closing her eyes, and taking a drag on a cigarette. It all seemed surreal as the memories have begun to fade—but I held on tight to the windowpane card she sent me for Thanksgiving. I looked through the cutout area and reread her scribble: "When are you coming to London?" I feared when I left Emma last May that I might never see her again. But when the plane descended over the giant emerald foothills of Belfast, I became choked up.

The first time I spoke to her was two years before on the very holiday that justifies frolicking in the pubs, wearing green, and saying a little prayer for St. Patrick. She made an inebriated phone call to the states from a phone booth.

She said St. Patrick brought us together again. On the eve before the joyous occasion, she pulled me into some church, doused me with holy water and prayed to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. She stuck money in a slot, and we lit candles for St. Patrick and she said since I was Jewish I could say my own prayer. She told me her mother's husband showed her a synagogue in Belfast, and she couldn't believe how there were Jews there or that she never knew about them. I was the first Jew she had ever met. I thought that strange at first, but I had never met anyone from Northern Ireland either. And I definitely had never met anyone like Emma before.

I went to Belfast with specific instructions from my parents to take extra precautions, which seem ridiculous to Emma and the rest of Belfast because they live it each day.

From day to day they live. The Irish work to live, Emma said, but Americans live to work.

Emma's mother worked all day and her older sisters helped raise her, but she is different from them. She has her mother's spunk and vivaciousness. I didn't get to meet the woman I had come to admire over a cup of tea on a late Syracuse night.

Rita, Emma's ma, went to New York for St. Patrick's Day. New York, this land of opportunity where relatives immigrated long ago—a magical place that people spend their lives planning to visit. Her mother made it. Rita, I believe, is a strong, determined woman—full of great stories and folklore and magic. I have never met her, but I know Emma most resembles her character. She raised four girls on her own and Emma credits her ma for raising half the neighborhood. Rita's children are now raising children only blocks from their mother, but Emma is still running.

Emma is the youngest but hardly a baby. You wouldn't know she was born last the way she carries on with her sisters. She throws back the gate in front of her sister Granya's, knocks loudly on the door, but doesn't wait for an answer. Like the gate, she casts the door aside dramatically, like she used to do on drunken nights in Syracuse. She makes a stunning entrance and then runs madly through the house looking for her pregnant sister. I'm not supposed to know she is pregnant—Emma has only just learned, and she has a big mouth anyway.

The big mouth screams up at Granya who is in her bedroom, and I'm sure it only sounds like an earsplitting noise to her sister. Emma grabs some food from her refrigerator, tosses me a snack, and with that, she pulls me out of the house and on the road again.

Emma is always on the road—even if it's only in her head. She has worked since she was young, she has traveled, and she has learned how to live without studying a lesson plan. She has waitressed and bartended, made beds, answered phones, and worked at a newspaper. She has served Bono drinks in the Europa hotel. She once poured a drink on a customer as well. Emma has will power and strength.

The Northern Irish live their lives day to day. That is the way. The hordes of children rear themselves in the streets. Emma said they choose if they want to be good or be bad. They choose if they want to pick up crime as a hobby. If they want to test limits.

Belfast has limits that are earmarked. The Shankill Road is Belfast's Berlin Wall. It separates the Catholic from the Protestants. The Catholic stay in their areas, but sometimes they cross or vice versa. Emma showed me the homes and the streets boarded up from bombings. It is all so real to Emma that she sometimes acts as if it were nothing—or merely normal. But seeing it scares me.

Like two gangs that paint their tags on city streets, curbs and light posts are painted Nationalist and Unionist colors. Emma laughed when she realized a room in her new bungalow had the Irish colors of green, white, and orange.

Emma laughs, and she makes others laugh, and I'd like to think if she spun her magic on the rest of Belfast that she could bring down the buffer between communities. Emma laughs, and I look around at her group of friends—one is pregnant with her second child and another must get home to relieve her mother of babysitting duties, but Emma laughs and I know its because she still feels free. She slurps down a pint and lights up a cigarette, offers around, and smiles.

She had the gap closed in her front two teeth. She never spent earlier years in braces and retainers, and it always made her self-conscious. I think the straight pearly-whites of America got to her.

"I'm weary of Ireland's sufferings, and I can't live in two countries at the same time."

-Frank McCourt, 'Tis

America seeped into her blood, and she lost herself in a community that wasn't the closely knit one she called home. It was one of individualism, cliques, cattiness, and bullshit.

Emma saw right through that, but she wouldn't dare say anything. It took enough out of her to speak in class.

"I thought it drew attention to me," she said. "Whenever they found out—I wasn't normal anymore. I felt categorized."

This is not to say she regretted coming to the states. She wouldn't have forgiven herself if she had given up the opportunity, but it took a lot from her. She had to learn how to be by herself. She would scribble letters home to friends and write of loneliness.

"In America, I had to learn to be on my own," Emma said. "But in Belfast, you could never be lonely."

In Belfast, there is a feeling of togetherness, and of sincerity, Emma said, but in America she never knew where she stood with people.

She's Belfast-born and will always come home, but Emma loves to disappear when she feels the strains of Belfast.

"Things that go on here just wreck me," she said. "People go about things the hard way. I know the lifestyle, but I can disagree with it because I've seen other cultures. Like girls and pregnancy. There's just so many kids here, Erica. I love travelling and getting away, but I still always love coming home."

She comes home for the people and the streets and the memories. She needed me to come so that I could grasp it.

"I wanted you to put a face with a name. You had this vision at first that I lived in a cottage with sheep. I wanted you to gather your own opinions of all the places I would talk about. I brought you around to my places and let you judge."

I judged her, though, at the onset of our meeting. I knew she'd be my friend immediately.

She taught me things about a culture and a lifestyle I would never have seen otherwise. To conceive a way of living, divided by religion, separated by the colors of a flag.

Her generation, she admitted just doesn't care anymore about the politics of the situation. They are tired of what they didn't live through. But she says one must still fear what is out there.

"There are a lot of old men with grudges and they are bitter because they lost out or they lost a member of their family. You don't feel comfortable because there is that generation out there that's bitter. I wouldn't feel 100 percent safe walking through a Protestant area."

To know there is a road in Belfast that Emma would never, could never walk down, scares me. She is brave, but you don't test courage in a place you don't belong.

"No Catholic in their sane mind would want to walk down it—it's just history."

Instead, she tested her strength in America. But she missed her bread and butter.

So, in America, Emma ate bagels. She devoured them. She hoarded them. And when she found out I was Jewish, she asked if my mother had a recipe to bake them.

Emma would say anything and I wouldn't be surprised because it was coming from Emma's mouth.

"My sisters and I were in my mother's room—and I was young. It's before I really started smoking, but we decided to try it, and we lit her ferns on fire. We ran down, and I told her, but I lied and said an angel come down and lit the fire to the ferns. She believed us because she didn't think we were smoking. So for a week we had a statue of Lady Phatama in our living room to pray to the angels. My ma never found out until about three years ago."

Some who don't know Emma might not believe the webs she spins, but I have seen her in action and know what she is capable of doing and saying.

Last spring, as South Campus residents, we did our duty to mix some drinks and prepare for Block Party. Earlier that weekend walking home from the bars, Emma spotted a poster tacked up to a pole in Walnut Park with a picture of gansta-lookin kid with a llama.

It read, "Have you seen my llama?" It had a phone number.

Emma was never one to call people she hardly knew, but she had the drink in her, and in her inebriated state, and with us egging her on, she picked up the phone and called Llama boy. She told his answering machine, in her drunken brogue, that she was holding his llama ransom and to meet her in front of Maggie's in an hour with $1,000. We couldn't contain ourselves from laughing, and she sat on her desk, smoking a cigarette, and laughing hysterically. But then she stopped, and you don't know what to expect when her smiles slips into a fiendish grin.

She picked up the phone and redialed.

"Make that $2,000," she demanded, and hung up.

Belfast Child

(Music : Traditional ,

Arrangement : Simple Minds,

Words : Simple Minds)

When my love said to me

Meet me down by the gallow tree

For it's sad news I bring

About this old town and all that it's offering

Some say troubles abound

Some day soon they're gonna pull the old town down

One day we'll return here,

When the Belfast Child sings again

Brothers, sisters where are you now

As I look for you right through the crowd

All my life here I've spent

With my faith in God the Church and the Government

But there's sadness abound

Some day soon they're gonna pull the old town down

One day we'll return here,

When the Belfast Child sings again

When the Belfast Child sings again

So come back Billy, won't you come on home

Come back Mary, you've been away so long

The streets are empty, and your mother's gone

The girls are crying, it's been oh so long

And your father's calling, come on home

Won't you come on home, won't you come on home

Come back people, you've been gone a while

And the war is raging, in the Emerald Isle

That's flesh and blood man, that's flesh and blood

All the girls are crying but all's not lost

The streets are empty, the streets are cold

Won't you come on home, won't you come on home

The streets are empty

Life goes on

One day we'll return here

When the Belfast Child sings again

When the Belfast Child sings again


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