I was standing on the deck of a ferry out of Holyhead in Wales. It was my first trip to Ireland and I was eager for the first sight of land. I’d heard the phrase "my heart lept up," of course, but I never realized that a heart could really do that. But as the shore began to come into view, my heart really did leap up. I was about to set foot on the land of my ancestors. My mind was full of thoughts of the great-grandmother I never met, who left Ireland as a girl and traveled around the world to make a better life for herself. To my knowledge, she never returned to Ireland and I felt I was looking at the country for her.
My ancestry is Scottish on my mother’s side and Irish and German on my father’s. But the roots I have always felt the strongest were my Irish roots. My great grandparents came from Ireland and my grandfather was an Irish tenor in vaudeville and throughout my childhood, some of my fondest memories involve listening to him singing the Irish Songs I knew so well--Rose of Tralee, Tumbledown Shack in Athlone, Mother Machree, Galway Bay, and other songs.
This was our first trip out of the United States. My father died the year before and left a small savings account. We split it in half, divided half of it among the kids and took the other half to pay for a big vacation for the whole family. It was the last year that we would be able to travel together as a family--Ned would be getting married the next year and all the kids were beginning to make their own adult lives.
We had already spent a great week in England and now we were going to Ireland. A friend in San Francisco had a small cottage on the west side, which we had rented for the week, and Walt’s mother had a cousin living in Dublin whom we wanted to meet. Other than that, we had not a single clue of anything we wanted to do in the country and my search through guide books hadn’t really left me with any "must see" sights. Something about kissing the Blarney stone was about all I could think of. (Four trips later, we still have never visited Blarney Castle!)
The boat docked in Dun Loaghre and the trip was off to a bad start when the "van" I’d booked weeks before turned out to be a compact hatch back station wagon. Trying to fit seven full sized adults and all their luggage into a car built for 5 was an experience. But we were determined to enjoy ourselves and so we folded up long limbs, packed luggage in, under, and around all of us, and we headed off to the hotel where we would spend the first night.
We met cousin Nora and formed an instant friendship, which has lasted to this day. She took us out to have our very first Irish meal: McDonald’s (the only restaurant open at that hour of night).
The next day, following a stop at the Guinness brewery for a tour and tasting, we folded all the body parts back into the tiny hatchback (to the great amusement of the guard in the parking lot) and started on our five hour drive to Mayo Abbey, in County Mayo on the west side of the country.
The "town" consisted of one long building--one end was the pub, in the middle was the grocery store, and at the other end was the undertaking parlor. Across the street was the cemetery and nearby the old abandoned abbey from which the town took its name. We were told that to find the cottage we should stop "anybody" and ask direction to "The Yanks’ house."
Walt stopped a white-haired old couple walking by the side of the road and the brogue was so thick they were almost impossible to understand. I got a terrible case of the giggles. But they did direct us to "The Yanks’" place.
We spent a week driving around western Ireland. We found the people warm and accepting everywhere. And we fell in love with the country. From the majestic Cliffs of Mohr to the rustic altars to the Virgin Mary you found in the most unlikely places, to the stone fences and the abandoned thatched cottages, a sad reminder of another family whose dreams died in the harsh terrain of Western Ireland.
Walt and the kids climbed Crogh Patrick, that holy mountain where pilgrims walk in procession on St. Patrick’s day to a small chapel at the top dedicated to St. Patrick (a clerk in a store, on hearing the plans, looked at my out of shape body and said "YOU’re not going to climb, are you??" I assured him that I’d be sitting in the car reading.)
After Climbing Crogh Patrick (in back)
We had a memorable "Irish experience" at the tiny pub in Mayo Abby. We were invited by the caretakers for the cottage to a benefit for a man with leukemia who was trying to raise money for a bone marrow transplant. People came from all over the county and the fiddlers struck up lively tunes. We sat in a booth with our host family and drank beer, watching the activity on the dance floor. An elderly man came up and told Jeri he was going to teach her to dance an Irish dance. Soon, all the kids were out on the dance floor. Tom dragged me out to dance a waltz (and I thanked his jazz choir instructor for teaching our son to waltz). The hour got late, the laughter was plentiful and by the end of the night, the kids got everyone in the place dancing a circle dance that they made up on the spot.
We were told a year later that the folks who were there that night still remembered the night the "yanks" took over Malachai Burns’ pub. We couldn’t have planned it if we’d tried.
Paul and his bride returned to Mayo Abbey for their honeymoon and found that the magic was still there and they were the toast of the town again. People in the town sent us condolences on hearing of Paul's death.
We were invited to another pub the next night--the Squealing Pig, which wasn’t quite as memorable, but the kids did make friends with a man who was so drunk they couldn’t understand when he told them his name (for years we called him "Southern Ireland" because that how it sounded...several years later we discovered his name was really "Sonny Nyland")
Paul and David with "Southern Ireland"
all 3 of them are dead now.
We visited the 300 year old family farm, which was still occupied by Walt’s distant cousin Ned. Though we had not named our own son after this man, we still made a big deal about having two Neds in the same place. Cousin Ned was generous with the Irish whiskey too, pouring tumblers full for all of us.
A toast, with Cousin Ned
(Cousin Ned has since died, unfortunately)
By the time we left Ireland, I felt like I had become part of the land. It’s a strange experience. I love England and have been there several times, but nothing has ever hit my soul the way Ireland did. We’ve been back four more times, and each time I feel like I’m stepping back into part of my history.
And when I stood on the shores of Galway Bay and watched the sun go down, I could hear the echoes of my grandfather’s voice singing off in the distance.