With all the mentions of Guinness and Dublin and the wild west coast of Ireland that I've been seeing lately, I am getting more and more nostalgic for my years of living in and travelling around Ireland. Looking back over what I have written, it's gotten very long! I hope you all don't lose patience with me.
My father's family is mostly Irish, and my grandmother was entirely Irish (a Holland by birth, her parents both hailing from County Sligo) and fairly fierce about it. The family never did any of the typically Irish-American stuff though (other than being Catholic), but there was a true connection to Ireland that was a thread running through the family. My grandparents sent clothes to the poor Irish relations for years, and even visited in the 1960s. My father and two of his siblings had also visited our relations in Kilkenny and Sligo in the late 1970s, and Christmas cards were exchanged regularly. But most importantly, to my young bookworm self, my grandparents had a print of a WB Yeats poem, "The Fiddler of Dooney," illustrated by Jack B Yeats, on their wall, and I knew that poem so well from visiting them and staring at it -- now it hangs in my parents' house, in the room I stay in when I visit.
I first visited Ireland when I was fifteen, in 1998. I had imagined it for so long, and then I saw a poster advertising a home-stay visit for three weeks. I proposed it to my parents and they actually agreed! I had never travelled by myself before, and arriving in Ireland was extremely bewildering. The directors of the program had sent a nice young man to pick me up, and we got a taxi to the house I would be staying at. I remember the drive, and every time I have gone back to Dublin, we always drive down the same road and it feel like the years are just layering on top of each other as we pass the same shop signs hanging over narrow brick buildings with bright doors, with crowds of people packing the skinny sidewalk (or path, as they call it). What I recall the most was that this nice young man gave me directions from the house I was staying in to the center where the program was based, and he said I should turn left at the Pope. "The Pope?" I asked, knowing Ireland was very Catholic but not thinking the Pope just stood around giving directions. "Yeah," he said in his Dublin accent, "the pope. P-U-B: pope." The mystery was finally unravelled, and the next several weeks continued to present mysteries and differences and I kept working to figure them out.
Most of the other American teenagers who were there with me were more interested in trying to find ways to party, meet boys or girls, or establish cliques. I was just constantly trying to understand this new place, especially trying to reconcile it with my parents' memories of travelling around Ireland by bike in the 1970s, and with the stories told of my great-grandmothers' travails and hardships that forced them both to leave their family homes as young girls to come to America. In this city, the girls wanted Levi's, there was a giant bowling alley, and it turned out the family I was staying with didn't think St. Patrick was Catholic -- their last name was Byrd, and looking back with what I know now, that probably means that they were Protestants and had a dog in the fight. Something as simple as the fact that Patrick was a missionary for the Roman Church could not be taken for granted in Ireland when labels like Catholic and Protestant still put people very much on edge.
After the three weeks, during which I learned Irish history, music, dance, and culture, visited amazing sites like Newgrange, learned how to surf in the freezing waters off of the coast of County Mayo, got a terrible headcold and cough, and was rained on every day. I was told by everyone that this was just a terrible summer, worst they'd ever had.... but every time I go to Ireland people tell me that, and I am starting to get suspicious.
|The church in Ennisnag, Co. Kilkenny where my great-great-grandmother is probably buried|
My parents and sister flew to join me after the program ended, and we travelled around Ireland by car for another two weeks, staying in hostels and the occasional B&B. My parents brought us to meet our cousins in Kilkenny -- my grandfather's first cousin and her six daughters. Katherine Murphy, nicknamed Bunny (she was born a Murphy and married a Murphy) was the daughter of my great-grandmother's brother, and she told us about the stepmother who had made my great-grandmother Margaret Murphy and her brother so miserable that Margaret left at sixteen for the US and moved in with her uncle in Philadelphia. Bunny has since died, and I'll always remember that even in the weeks before her death, her hair was still as black as ever, and never even touched with dye -- but I visit and stay with her daughters and grandchildren whenever I travel through Ireland.
We also saw our last relation left in Sligo that trip, the widow of my grandmother's first cousin. Sheila was amazing -- her memory for family stories was clear as a bell, and she knew the area so well, having grown up maybe a mile away. She still cooked with a turf-fired stove and lived in a little tiny cottage. She told us stories of walking home in the dark and hearing piercing cries that she was sure were the bean sidhe (banshee), and other stories of waiting until the tide as low enough to walk through the waters of the bay to the other side and save having to walk around it.
A treasury I made to celebrate Irish women.
What I loved most about visiting Ireland was visiting relations and walking the same roads my great-grandmothers had walked, visiting the churches they had attended, and feeling that there was truly a past that I was connected to. That I wasn't just one person floating around in the world, but that there was a lineage that I was connected to.
My favorite part about going back is that my family and friends there always embrace me and say, "Welcome home."