In her article on travel writing in The Paris Review, Tara Isabella Burton points out that travelers don’t only see what’s in front of them; they also see what they expect to find from a given place, especially one they’ve been thinking about long before they arrived.
The place I’ve been thinking about for many years is Ireland. Next week, I’ll leave for a month-long trip to the island I first became aware of as a nine-year-old, when my grandmother gave me a book she had used as a schoolgirl outside of Dublin.
I was thrilled with the gift and took a shine to two of the pieces in particular: the poem “Try, Try Again,” and a Christmas story called “Little Jack.” In the story, Jack lives with a cruel aunt and gives one of his shoes to a child whose circumstances are even worse than his own. In the end, Jack’s generosity is rewarded by a kind stranger, and his aunt’s heart softens as she is overcome by the Christmas spirit.
This was the first time I remember wondering about Ireland. Thankfully, the stories I read in Blackie’s New Programme Reader didn’t entirely shape my view of the country. If they had, I would simply have viewed it as a place where people weren’t very good at things but tried really hard, over and over again; where kids lived a dreary life, some sleeping in doorways without shoes; where adults were heartless (aunts, specifically); and where children could only rely on Christmas to improve their lives. Sheesh. And this was reading instruction for five-year-olds!
As I got older, I did more reading that was also dark at times but equally as intriguing. My favorite course in college was Irish Literature with Dr. Fitzgerald. She introduced me to the work of Edna O’Brien and Seamus Heaney, among others. I was really taken with both writers, whose work created an impression of the landscape (green and lush, with white washed buildings and lots of farms) and an impression of the people (smart, strong-willed, religious, understated).
I went to see both writers speak at different times after I graduated, Seamus Heaney a year after college in Upstate New York, and Edna O’Brien in 2016 at a synagogue in Washington, D.C. O’Brien was promoting her new novel at age 85 and the feisty spirit that I saw in her writing was on full display that night.
After college, I was introduced to Irish music during my time in the bars of downtown Boston. I quickly progressed beyond just shouting “No, Nay, Never!” with a bunch of sweaty post-college kids and discovered I really enjoyed The Chieftains and other bands. I grew to love a variety of Irish music and listen to it regularly.
I came close to traveling to Ireland a couple of times. Before each of my marriages, my soon-to-be spouse asked if I’d like to go to Ireland for the honeymoon. Both times, I said I wanted to make that its own special trip.
Fast forward to a few months ago, when I had just dropped off my 20-year-old for his first semester away at college. A friend asked me what I was doing for myself and my own growth now that my son was living in another city.
I thought about it. I’m 53. Twice divorced. Transitioning out of my role as a caretaker. My son had said he might not be coming home for the summer. What would I really like to do?
The first thing that came to mind was to finally take a trip to Ireland. I quickly decided that I wanted to visit for an extended period of time so I could see the country in an authentic way, as I did when I studied abroad for five months in Spain and lived and worked in Japan for a year. Since English is spoken everywhere in Ireland (I think), I figured it would be feasible to travel there solo without too much trouble.
I don’t expect that I’ll have the same kinds of language snafus in Ireland that I experienced in Spain and Japan, but I understand that I’ll come across different ways of expressing things and probably some big cultural differences. Like many Americans of Irish descent, I’ve always “identified” as Irish, if you will, but on the eve of my trip, I recognize that I’m fully American.
In hopes of being slightly more informed before arrival, I got a copy of Irish History for Dummies, which in itself feels very American (just the Cliffs Notes version, please!). Actually, I picked it up because it was funny, with chapter headings like “I’m Irish – But Who Isn’t?” and “The Romans: They Came, They Saw, and They Didn’t Bother.”
Humor aside, I know there has been a tremendous amount of conflict in the country, especially within the last century, and I wanted to understand that better. I’ve only gleaned a superficial knowledge of what has transpired and why, and I will be interested to know more through my visit.
I also re-opened an Ancestry.com account that I had set up for my dad several years ago and learned that 11 of 16 great-great-grandparents were from Ireland and came to the U.S. around the time of the Irish Potato Famine. My parents had told us that we were Irish, English, French, and Welsh, but I was surprised to find out just how many relatives came from Ireland. The one strand of the family that came from England is the one whose name we carry—Phillips. More prevalent were names like McQuiggan and Doherty.
It occurred to me that most of them likely left the country because of the famine. I wondered if, like many of the immigrant students I teach, my relatives felt a deep sadness about leaving behind family, friends, and home and did so only because circumstances had become unbearable. My parents visited Ireland in the 1990s, and my father told me recently that when he saw how beautiful the country was, he thought, “They left this?”
I’ve planned my trip to take in as much as possible in the month I’ll be there without rushing around trying to see every single sight.
The first week of my trip will be spent at a writer’s retreat in Donegal. The workshops will focus on creative nonfiction writing, but the week will also involve learning about Irish culture and language.
For the remaining three weeks, I’ve rented a one-bedroom cottage in Dublin. Two close friends from Virginia will be meeting me for five days, timing their visit to coincide with the Dublin Pride parade at the end of June. We’ll also do some sightseeing in other parts of the country together.
Other than that, my plan is to ask people at the writer’s retreat and elsewhere for recommendations of where to go and then just wander using public transport. I have never traveled solo with this much unstructured time, and right now it feels both exciting and terrifying. As someone who rarely plans to “wander” and who tends to have a good deal of anticipatory anxiety about anything unknown, I have lots of questions.
Several friends who have been to Ireland have said they felt at home there and assured me that I would find the same thing. Will I?
Will I feel some affinity for family members who came before me, the Farrells, the McQuiggans, the Donnellys, the Dohertys?
How will the real Ireland compare with the one that exists in my mind’s eye?
I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.