A trip back home
The first time I went to Ireland, in 1973, I was struck by how familiar it all felt.
This should have been duh obvious.
After all, my father’s tribe was Irish, and I grew up around them, not around my mother’s German family, 1,000 miles due west out Route 90 from Worcester. The neighborhood I grew up in was almost entirely Catholic, and a goodly proportion of the residents were of Irish descent.
With the occasional exception, the priests in our parish when I was growing up were Irish: Lynch, Harty, Gannon, Foley, Needham. Oddly, the priest who baptized me was named Fr. Cyril LeBeau. He had never heard the name Maureen before, and at first refused to use it as a baptismal name, which had to be that of a saint. My father explained to him that Maureen was Irish for Mary, and that he would be hearing plenty of it at Our Lady of the Angels. (The church, by the way, had an Irish-style steeple. I don’t know what the actually name for this is, but I’ve dubbed it Irish Gothic.)
The nuns who taught at our school were largely Irish, as well.
Although “our” order had been founded in France, the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur recruited where they taught, and the daughters of South Boston and other Irish-American enclaves filled their ranks.
American regional accents take their cue from the dominant ethnic population. Those Massachusetts dropped “r’s” owe plenty to the famine Irish who made their way over on coffin ships.
And much of the New England countryside – green, hilly and rocky – doesn’t look all that different than much of the Irish countryside – green, hilly and rocky.
So, no, it shouldn’t have surprised me how familiar Ireland seemed: the way the people looked, the way they spoke, the gestures they made, the sense of humor, the dour streak: not much of a culture shock to someone who hailed from Main South Worcester.
Frankly, I had not really expected to like Ireland all that much.
Perhaps it was that those who I knew who’d “been over” struck me as having gone a bit ga-ga, gone overboard on sentimentalizing Ireland and the Irish. And there was my grandmother’s saying – “If Ireland were so great we all wouldn’t have had to come over here.” – that kept creeping into my brain.
Yet like Ireland I did.
Other than the cold and damp which, even as a New Englander I found a bit much, there was nothing (okay, maybe the food at that time) that I didn’t like, even love, about Ireland.
When I left after a short week there, I knew that I would return.
And I have, many times.
Tonight we leave for our first trip “back home” in nearly five years.
When last in Ireland, the economy was still in the fervid run up that had catapulted the country from one of the poorest in Europe to one of the wealthiest. Young people – long and sadly, one of Ireland’s greatest exports – were staying home, finding good jobs, building new homes in “housing estates” that were being slapped up everywhere you looked. The Irish were traveling, too, not as one-way emigrants, but as tourists. Ryanair cheap flights were bringing the Irish to places with sun, warmth, and good food. (Irish food had improved by 1,000 percent since 1973.)
Jobs that the stay-at-home Irish young had once taken – waitress, barman, store clerk – were now held by young Eastern Europeans. Virtually everyone who waited on us on our last trip to Ireland was Czech or Polish. Galway had a large and growing African population. The town of Oranmore was about 25% Brazilian.
Who’da thunk it?
The Irish had taken on a new confidence, and had put behind them the miserable chilblain childhoods, straight out of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, that so many had suffered through.
Everywhere we went, people would point out houses and note how much they were going for. Dumps in Limerick – a dump of a city if ever –were going for half-million Euros!
This is crazy, you might say to yourself.
But you’d keep it to yourself.
Who was an American to talk about real estate bubbles?
That was then. This is now. And now is changed utterly.
Just how utterly we’ll begin to see and here when we hop in a cab at Shannon on Friday morning and head out to Galway, where we’ll be spending the week.
We’ll not be having our usual driver this time over.
Sadly, we have learned that Pat Wallace died a few weeks back
For many years, on our frequent trips to Ireland, Pat would be our driver. Pat had grown up very poor, on the Limerick docks, one of a large brood, and worked as a cab driver, raconteur and tour guide par excellence.
We would have much enjoyed Pat’s take on the the state of Ireland.
The ride from Shannon to Galway will not be the same without him. Perhaps we can get tomorrow’s driver to sing a bit of The Galway Shawl, one of Pat’s favorites, for us.
She worn no jewels, nor costly diamonds
No paint nor powder, no none at all
But she worn a bonnet with ribbons on it
And 'round her shoulders was the Galway shawl
I’m quite certain that Ireland has not reverted to the sentimental ideal country of the Galway Shawl. But it will certainly be interesting to see where it has gone.
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