Like many Americans raised Catholic on the east coast of the United States, I can trace at least one branch of my family back to Ireland. My great, great, great grandfather on my father’s side left Ireland in the 1840s. The exact date is unclear, but his son, my great, great grandfather, was born in America in 1846. This would have been a time of massive immigration, the start of what would become the Great Potato Famine, bringing waves of Irish to the shores of the U.S. By 1850, Irish made up a quarter of the population of Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Buffalo. New York City, where all of my ancestors landed, still claims the largest population of Irish in the United States.
In practice, we were our most Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. We wore green clothes, ate corned beef and cabbage and Irish soda bread. (And yes, I know that actual Irish people don’t eat any of those things on St. Patrick’s Day. Or ever.) My dad would sing, “The Wearing of the Green” and we’d all be Irish for the day. In truth, my Irish heritage is so minor that it hardly merits mentioning.
My interest in going to Ireland was less about genealogy and more about geology. Some time ago, flying to I-can’t-remember-where, I was flipping through the in-flight magazine and I saw a photo of the Giant’s Causeway. I didn’t know where it was, I only knew I needed to go to there. Happily, it is somewhere accessible (unlike, say, Al-Khazheh in Petra, Jordan).
Twenty years ago, Northern Ireland would not have been considered “accessible” by too many people. Even just ten years ago, we learned, Belfast had only 2 or 3 hotels. Now there are 40, and tourism is a burgeoning industry . The city center is clean and charming, with good restaurants, and the rough and beautiful Antrim coast is a short drive away. After a couple of busy, crowded days in Dublin, arriving in Belfast felt like a relief.
And our visit to the Causeway did not disappoint. Our bus tour got us there early, before the crowds arrived, and we were able to spend time climbing around the rocks, listening to the waves crash in, and marveling at whatever created this crazy pile of stones. We got a cursory overview of the history of Northern Ireland from our bus driver/tour guide, but it wasn’t until the next morning that we were able to take a deeper dive into the complex past – and the still-complicated present – of Northern Ireland.
Just before returning to Dublin, we took a taxi tour in Belfast with a very knowledgeable driver who brought us to several sites related to the Troubles: Bombay Street, the Shankill Road, the peace walls.
The history of the conflict in Northern Ireland is deep, ancient. Scholars and writers have spent lifetimes researching and explaining it; residents of Northern Ireland have spent lifetimes living it. I won’t dishonor anyone by pretending to understand even a fraction of it. All I can say is that I left with so many more questions than I arrived with, and with a lot of reading and learning to do. Reconciliation and forgiveness may be among the hardest tasks we are given as human beings. It has been less than 20 years since the Good Friday agreement brought a cease-fire to Northern Ireland. True peace will require time, work, and will, from all sides.
I first went to Ireland in 1994, on a whirlwind detour from Oxford, where I had gone to visit my best friend Meg. She was doing a semester abroad; the trip to England was the first time I had left the U.S. (save for a disastrous trip to Canada the year before, the details of which are known to only a lucky few). On a whim, we went to Dublin on a Friday night with no place to stay, no plans. I can’t remember how we bought a plane ticket in those pre-internet days…did we just show up at Heathrow and pay cash?
We arrived after dark, found bunks in a hostel, went to a pub and drank Guinness. In the morning we took a train to the countryside and walked around a little village and went to the grocery store, and ate brown bread in the station waiting for the train back to Dublin.
That visit to England and our hop to Ireland started something that has, in the 20+ years since, led directly to me being here, living abroad. It is a love of travel, sure, but also a desire to see and to understand. I felt that desire so keenly again on this trip – the combination, perhaps, of my present-day love of learning and the ancient memory of some long-ago, long-gone ancestor.