Your Ancestral Home - Issue I
My entire family did those ancestry DNA kits. You know, the ones where you spit in a little cup, carefully put it in a box, and ship it off to a lab in Utah or some other mildly depressing state. I pictured one of the stars of CSI: Miami cracking open my box as they slowly removed their sunglasses. “Looks like this girl… has a very dry mouth”.
When we got my results back, I wasn’t very surprised that, like every other white American, I was a smattering of about 10 European countries. The greatest percentage, by far, was Irish. Having grown up with every German Lutheran tradition my mom could force us into (I could spell knockwurst before I could spell Mississippi), I was surprised that my dad’s Irish Catholic roots ran so deeply in my veins.
With the newfound results of my heritage in hand, I began this odd little trek into stealing Irish culture. Suddenly, all of my celebrity crushes were Irishmen (I’m looking at you, Brendan Gleeson and sons). I downloaded Duolingo on my phone just so I could learn Irish. And, like a magpie, I kept snatching up everything I could find with Celtic symbols on it. Embarrassing, but true.
Last year I even took a trip to Europe with my sister. We went to Denmark and Scotland but our trip culminated with one week in Ireland. Foremost on our list of places to visit was Ballymahon, the tiny town where our great-grandfather lived before coming to the US.
After arriving in our once-upon-a-time hometown, located in central Ireland, we found a sweet, little downtown area and checked into the only reputable hotel in town, waiting to feel something. Where was the rush of familial memory? Shouldn’t I have a Pavlovian response to the smell of Guiness and black pudding emanating from the bar downstairs? There was nothing. Cozy and friendly, yes, but it didn’t feel like home.
I had put so much time and effort into learning about this culture I felt obligated to be a part of, but now that I was there, I still didn’t belong. I didn’t know the regulars at the local pub, I wouldn’t know who to steer clear of at the next town meeting, I couldn’t even ask the neighborhood pharmacist about how her daughter’s doing at University. She probably doesn’t even have a daughter, just two upside-down brooms that she talks to from time-to-time. This wasn’t actually my home and these weren’t truly my people.
Today, I still feel connected to Ireland. I’m still learning Irish but can’t say much more than “The women eat a strawberry” (Itheann na mná sú talún). I wear my Claddagh ring every day. I even spend hours searching the internet for jobs that would take me to Dublin for a few years. I’ve at last come to the realization, however, that although I love the beauty of that country and although it will always be a part of my heart, maybe it’s not mine, and maybe it never will be. Perhaps I shouldn’t hold on so tightly to a past that belongs to someone else.
While staying in Ballymahon my sister and I took a walk around town. The one main street ended at a park that ran next to the Inny River. We followed the river down a half mile until our path ended abruptly in weeds and trees. From our vantage point, we could see cows grazing peacefully in a field on the opposite river bank. They looked up at us for a moment, then went back to eating. Perhaps they thought they recognized us.
No, sweet cows, we’re just strangers.