My ancestors hail from eight different countries and three separate continents, yet my Irish ties have always held a special fascination. Maybe it's because my Irish relatives are so colorful and they tell such good stories. Whatever the reason, I'd always imagined that my Irish ancestors were somehow bigger than life. On my first trip to Ireland, I'm hoping to find out if this is true.
Upon arriving in Dublin, the first thing I am aware of is that I am the foreigner here and I'm not comfortable with that. I wanted to feel at home, to be welcomed by the somehow familiar faces of ghosts. Instead, I see retired Americans fulfilling a life-long dream and young parents proudly herding their red-headed offspring through museums and castles. I'm surprised to discover that they have come for much the same reason I have. They are all a little sheepish and apologetic about it. They have no explanation for the strong pull that Ireland has always had on them. Seems my journey is not so unusual after all.
I drive across Ireland alone, something which is viewed as not only strange here, but downright shocking. In the countryside, the dominant colors are the emerald green of the rolling hills and the comforting blue of the Irish sky. My eyes ache from straining to catch sight of every thatch-covered cottage and meandering stone wall. I pass ring forts and round towers, monasteries and castles.
Contrary to all predictions, it does not rain. The whole country has a clean, smoky smell from the peat fires. It reminds me of my Irish grandmother's house. Am I making this trip for her? I wonder.
I stop to visit the crumbling stone walls of a "famine village." A man in a tweed coat and cap explains to me that everyone in this village perished during the great famine. Even though the potato famine occurred more than 150 years ago, he makes it sound like a current event.
"Many also died on the coffin ships trying to cross the seas," he recalls. He pauses, then adds, "We keep their blackened cooking pots, out of respect for those who died."
I thank him for the information and travel on to the next hotel. The woman behind the desk seems more curious than most. She asks me the usual questions: "Why are you in Ireland... and why are you alone?"
She immediately begins talking about the living relatives I must have somewhere in Ireland. I had not been thinking about the possibility of relatives in the present; all this time, I had only been searching for my past. She asks question after question but I have few answers.
"Don't you have any old letters? Don't you know what county your family came from?"
"No," I admit, mumbling something about some letters that may exist with some distant relatives back east. How can I explain to her that we were the transient ones who moved west and then west again and again, each time leaving behind little trace of ourselves?
"You must find out," she says. Finally, she pauses and then continues, "I didn't want to say anything at first, but you are the spitting image of my great-great aunt. You even have the same name. It's even spelled the same way. And she had three brothers who emigrated to America. We may be cousins!"
We exchange addresses and she promises to send me a photograph of my twin who she claims even had similar interests, mannerisms and gestures. "Your voice sounds just like hers and you even walk the same way," she says. I have to wonder, Is this the ghost I've been looking for: a mirror image of myself?
With my trip nearing its end, I reach the Cliffs of Moher. I stand on the precipice and stare out across the Atlantic. I think of my ancestors leaving the land they loved, saying goodbye to families they would never see again. I think of their dreams and their promises to return one day. In that instant, the reason for my trip becomes clear to me. Along with my Irish hair and Irish eyes, I have also inherited my ancestors' unfulfilled promises. This is a journey I have made for them.
I return to Dublin and spend one final night. Then on my final taxi ride to the airport, the driver asks me about my trip. I tell him that I drove around Ireland by myself.
"You must be mad! A woman shouldn't drive around Ireland by herself" He ignores the whizzing lanes of traffic in front of him to turn around and look at me. "You must be mad," he says again.
When he's recovered from the shock, he tells me about all the places I missed, places that do not seem to be in any guidebook.
"You'll just have to come back," he says and he doesn't let the matter rest until I have promised to return.