This post was written in a pre-COVID-19 world, and I did not to make any changes. It is dedicated to Irish-Americans and to Ireland, which I will dream about visiting again.
“How long are you home this trip?” A distant cousin asked me this question on a recent visit to Ireland. As an Irish-American on an ancestral pilgrimage to Ireland, I felt a thrill at his words. But, can someone who was happily born and raised in another country really feel at “home” in Ireland?
The answer, as you might have guessed, is complicated. Being in Ireland naturally feels foreign in many respects, but it also is comfortingly familiar.
Let’s start with an obvious issue. EVERYONE in my family has red hair. That’s right—my mother, my father, and all three siblings were born with blazing red hair. Redheads make up less than 1% of the world’s population, and it seems like pasty, white redheads make up 0.0% of the population where I was raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. When we were young, my siblings and I were often stopped by tourists who wanted to take photos of us because of our hair!
Ah, but in Ireland, I am just one of the crowd. Redheads are nothing special. In fact, on my recent trip to Dublin, I was stopped multiple times by IRISH people asking me for directions.
In the Las Vegas desert, a redhead suffers miserably. Redheads are more likely to get skin cancer than any other group, and our eyes are genetically more sensitive to sunlight. When I stood on the farms owned by my family in County Down and County Mayo in Ireland, I looked out at the endless green grass and the overcast sky. I could feel my DNA strands sighing happily. Redheads are meant to live in ireland.
Then there is my name: Maureen. In the United States, I have to spell it ten times before anyone gets it right. People never have to be told twice in Ireland. As one gentleman recently noted, “Ah, with that proper Irish name and that red hair, I knew you were Irish!”
We must discuss potatoes. Go ahead and laugh. This is a real thing. We had potatoes every night as a kid. It wasn’t a question of whether we would have potatoes, but which kind of potato dish we would serve. At a seafood restaurant in Galway, we were provided with a list of the day’s specials. I asked which of these seafood specials were served with potatoes. Our waitress looked confused and indignant, and said, “Well, all of them, of course!”
The Irish are also known for a love of literature. Books feel as important to my well-being as food and water, and I am always reading two or three at any given time. I believe Ireland will be the last refuge of the bookstore. Joyfully, the streets of Ireland are still a treasure trove of these endangered species.
Perhaps my most important connection to Ireland is this: I loved and was loved by an Irish family. Ninety percent of my “people” came from Ireland. Some came during the famine, but most came later to escape from poverty, struggle, and persecution.
Two of my grandparents were born in Ireland and lived near me in Las Vegas. I heard their tales of Ireland and learned their traditions. It was not until a friend asked me how I understood what they were saying that I realized that they had a thick Irish brogue. Their lilting accents simply were the background music of my childhood.
The Irish are unfailingly generous, social, and kind, just like grandma. They have a wicked sense of humor, just like grandpa. I still hear the Irish words, cadence, and gift of story-telling in my father. I recognize the Irish reverance for learning and books in my mother.
The United States obviously is my home, but I can’t help feel a thrill of belonging when someone in Ireland claims me as one of their own.
To read more about my adventures in Ireland, please see: