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A Year of Living Irishly

By Ryan Coonerty

This year, my world, like most people’s, has been awful. COVID hit, as did the subsequent economic crisis. My family’s small businesses were rocked. My kids’ lives were disrupted, which caused first their tears, then ours. We began a painful reckoning over racial injustice. This summer, my friend was killed. Then the devastating forest fires ravaged our community.

Being a local elected official means that as all these crises raged, I am a person who people can easily call, email, or stop on the street to complain, cry, or vent to. All day and night, I was on calls and in meetings that were a mixture of pain, fear, and unimaginable decisions.

In these moments, I’m almost always calm and rational. But as this year went on, with each call and meeting, I’d feel a twinge of anxiety. Those twinges would turn to jolts as the day progressed. By sundown, I’d have trouble breathing and my thinking was jumbled and frenzied.

I tried journaling, breathing exercises, and real exercise, a therapist, and copious amounts of food composed almost entirely of salt, sugar, and grease. None of it worked. It was then, in desperation, that I began my walks and slowly, unexpectedly, living Irishly. 

I downloaded Donal Ryan’s audiobook From a Low and Quiet Sea. I was immediately hooked, as I am by all of Ryan’s writing. Through interlocking stories, he captures the vulnerability inherent in the human experience—a vulnerability magnified globally by the pandemic.

But more than the story, it was the Irishness that gave me solace. The accents’ lilt and pace were, of course, lyrical. The conversations between the characters felt different as well. They lived in the present, engaging each other authentically, if not always kindly. There were failings and disappoint- ment, but it was almost always moderated with Irish humility and humor.

Soon I adopted a routine. Mysteries from Adrian McKinty, Tana French, and John Banville for my morning walk. Murders and mayhem to start the day as a reminder that things could be worse. Late-night strolls and reading were reserved for Donal Ryan, Patrick Radden Keefe, Kevin Barry, Roddy Doyle, and Anne Griffin.

I recognize that there is a too easy unearned nostalgia in my daily escapes. It’s a cultural appropriation no different than wearing green and a “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirt on St. Patrick’s Day. These Irish stories are not my own. Yet they have become essential to me.

With Irish voices dancing in my brain, I am immersed in the lives of people in a faraway land who are living, it seems, more humanely and authentically. I also am transported back decades, standing next to my teenage grandfather admiring the stream in Sixmilebridge one last time before he emigrated to America and altered his family’s destiny. I am along for the ride as my parents spend their first date bicycling out from Sligo to the strand, increasing the possibility of my existence with every pedal. I am on one knee on the shores of Muckross Lake, asking my wife to marry me when our world was simple and we committed to times, good and bad.

As I walk and read and laugh and cry with these Irish voices, my soul is restored. And, for a short while, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, I live Irishly, facing the sun and believing the shadows will fall behind.


Ryan Coonerty is a Santa Cruz County supervisor and host of An Honorable Profession podcast. His parents met in Ireland at a Yeats summer school workshop and eventually bought Bookshop Santa Cruz.