Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ireland 2016 ~ After thoughts

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So my adventure ends. I'm still not sure what, exactly, I am to think of Ireland. When I first went to England, I expected medieval castles, ancient churches, old coach inns, red phone booths and mystical Neolithic stones. I found all that. When I first went to Scotland, I anticipated stone cottages, heather and highlands, kilts and sheepdogs and isolated lochs where sheep grazed next to tumbling, tea-colored streams. I found that, too.

But after returning to Ireland a second time ... I don't know what I was looking for. My great-great grandparents immigrated to America about ten years before the Famine. Everyone to whom I mentioned their surname - Barry - immediately said," Oh, yes, they're from County Cork." But I don't know where in Cork, what village or parish or town, or if they were Catholic or Protestant or what. Did they leave to seek greater religious freedoms in America, or did some other compulsion drive them to risk all and abandon everything they'd ever known?

Of course, there is still that idealistic vision of green Irish hills crisscrossed with stone walls, of musical pubs and old men on bicycles and whitewashed cottages crowned in thatched roofs standing along crooked little lanes. Last year, my first full glimpse of "the auld sod" turned unexpectedly emotional when I stood on the Hill of Tara and beheld the green, sunlit expanse of Ireland spreading for miles at my feet. "Mine...," my heart sighed. But as soon as we started driving towards Galloway ... what the hell? Where were my thatch-roofed cottages? Where were my quaint little farms? And why were all those big, ugly modern houses taking their place? I suspect a hazy wish to connect with my Barry roots, or at least somehow glimpse the Ireland of my forebears' time, colored my expectations and not finding that left me feeling a little hollow.

But in reality, I have no way to know if my great-great grandparents left with sighs of regret or tears of joy. When reading the history of Ireland, it can appear that often what seems like the simplest times were actually the most turbulent, with sectarian and religious divisions played out on a violent stage. The stereotypical view of Ireland wants to freeze her in amber, in a vision of romantic poverty that may have never really existed.

On one hand a person could think Ireland doesn't really value its more distant past. How else to explain ancient abbeys where locals have been digging up the floors as a graveyard for generations? Or a forgotten Norman castle among whose ruins modern houses squat, its only purpose now to limit access to a light house that takes all the tourist glory. But if one were to take the builders to task, perhaps they'd just be baffled, saying, "Well, why shouldn't we? Everything is right where it's stood, we just made better use of the place."

In another light, it could seem that a cosmic ax clove Ireland's history between the Famine and everything before that, and another cleaved time between the Rising of 1916 and the remainder of the 20th century. Perhaps Ireland is so layered in history, vigorous and dynamic and often still-green, that it's never had the luxury of wallowing in nostalgia. If an Irishman sings of heroes or battles, you have to listen close to discern if he's singing about something that happened in 1916, 1816 or three hundred years ago. The past is alive in Ireland's mind, a nationalism that builds its own myth and has little need of ruined old castles or haunted abbeys to keep those tales alive.

Which leaves us, the lost great-grandchildren of Ireland, possibly a little out of luck if we're looking for a stone to touch or a hill to climb and claim as our birthright. But maybe that's the point. Maybe our task is to embrace all of Ireland, with its convoluted history and mosaics of struggle and rebirth, and heroes who may also be villains, depending on the song.

Ireland is a complicated place with a complicated history and a complicated people, a land that reinvents itself every generation or so. I'm still a little disappointed at the scarcity of thatch-roofed cottages ... but I've gained a new appreciation for just how well the Irish have managed to proliferate and prosper in almost every corner of the globe. There's the old joke that God invented whiskey so the Irish wouldn't take over the world. But if you look close enough, perhaps they already have. And I've fallen a little in love with rural southern Ireland. :)


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