I’ve just been back about five days from a month in Ireland, driving most of its perimeter and hundreds of miles of the winding, narrow roads of its interior. I arrived home not only overstimulated, sleep-deprived, and jet-lagged, but I caught a bit of food poisoning I think from the absolutely dreadful lukewarm airplane food, so I’ve been asleep the last few days more than awake, my mind and soul apparently still stuck firmly in an Irish dreamtime. I’ve dreamt continuously of traveling still its relatively meager forests, surprisingly abundant stony mountains, actively crumbling coastal cliffs, grim but bustling cities, pastel-painted villages, and layered human structures, old and new.
In the ruins of an old abbey in a quaint medieval village near Kilkenny on a Sunday morning, about a week into my trip, I greeted multiple generations of a family helping an elderly matriarch, her rust-colored hair silver at the roots, navigate the rubble on a visit to some ancestor or another in the ancient but still active cemetery, just after mass at the neighboring Catholic church (the protestant church adjacent was typically shuttered and tomb-like). “You sound like a Yank,” she said, directly. “I am.” “A tourist?” “A pilgrim, more like,” I said, “Visiting the old country, as we do.” “As one should. God bless you,” she said, and the rest of the family, children to adults, all smiled and greeted me heartily. These kinds of interactions and benedictions were a daily occurrence. I’m hardly the first to observe that, despite the incomprehensible, endless beauty of much of its landscape, the Irish people are the country’s most extraordinary asset.
Of course, millions of Americans make such trips, and more than one Irish citizen remarked to me, a bit bemused, how interested American visitors in particular were in connecting with their ancestry. The cliche holds true. I was full aware of participating in one, and being old enough to be without shame about it. They’ve built an entire museum catering to the Irish diaspora, in fact. Opened in 2016, the appropriately named EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin tells the story, and its clear that Americans comprise the bulk of its devoted visitors. After much hesitation, last minute I went ahead and pulled the trigger on a three-day Dublin Pass, which encouraged me to do all the expensive touristy things covered by its not negligible price, trying to get my money’s worth, including EPIC. The included Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery tours were as tediously touristy as expected, but still a hoot (drinks were included). Of the booze tours, Teeling’s Distillery was the real treat, and EPIC was unexpectedly affecting. Beyond the content, if you want to know what top museums are going to look like in coming decades, visit EPIC. It’s more of an immersive design experience than an old school museum visit. It’s over-designed to my taste, meaning one visit in a lifetime will suffice, but it was informative and surprisingly moving. At the end, I was offered a visit with a staff genealogist, which I couldn’t resist, and which might prove to be useful in my ongoing casual family research.
I spent four full days in Dublin before escaping “beyond the Pale.” Few non-Irish realize that phrase refers to how the Dublin region was the seat of occupying British power, called the Pale, and that beyond it for centuries was seen as the true Ireland – and probably by a majority of non-Dublin Irish to this day. My use of it as I traveled gained me street cred (and a few drinks in pubs) with natives of Kerry, Cork, Sligo, Dingle, and Donegal, and did my willingness to sing, take an insult, laugh at bad jokes, not to mention my O’Brien appellation. The name is as common as dirt there, and here, but once I showed a bit of Irish moxy, I was often encouraged to go see this or that fellow O’Brien at eponymous pubs and shops, and told I looked like this or that O’Brien cousin, in-law, or family branch. This happened more times than I can count.
The enduring connections from such exchanges were few, but their commonality speaks to the immediate and consistent sense of downright tribal belonging I felt basically from the time I stepped off the plane, which only increased until I left weeks later on another. I don’t want to make too much out of it, but I got what I and so many Americans travel to Ireland to get: a sense of history, identity, and belonging. Now, I put my work in, and this helped. I have worked for many years studying Irish history, reading Irish literature, and learning the Irish language, and have what could be considered an almost mystical reverence for all of it. I say almost, because I think there are deeply practical reasons why the language is vitally important, which was reinforced being there and speaking with people. Not many Irish can speak Gaeilge fluently, and many resent its mandatory inclusion in Irish education. Unfortunately perhaps, it also acts as barrier and litmus test for entering governmental and educational career tracks. You have to have a certain proficiency in the language to be considered for many jobs, and yet the language has not tended to be taught well, with most Irish students viewing the language much the same as many English or American students would have once viewed Latin, when it was compulsory. There are rapid changes occurring in Irish language education, and the whole thing is a fascinating topic. I tentatively hold the idea that the very notion of Irish national identity is actually rooted in the language itself. Many of the founders of the country promoted this very idea.
to be continued…