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Returning to Ireland

February 13, 2012

The timing is perfect. The day I leave for my fourth trip to Ireland, the NY Times Sunday magazine ran this wonderful piece by John Jeremiah Sullivan on his return to Ireland. Like Sullivan, I figured out not long after my arrival here that being an Irish-American isn’t worth much here. One way of looking at my ancestry is to conclude, “Your family took off while mine stuck it out here. Now you want me to be excited you’re here?” I read Sullivan’s story on my iPad in a restaurant in County Dublin tonight. The place was too nice to call a pub (and the bar was far too small), but it was not a fancy place either. The burgers are 100% Irish beef, and when combined with a pint of Guinness made for a fine meal. The PA played a string of Whitney Houston songs recorded in concert; red balloons painted with hearts were already in place to attract Valentine diners tomorrow. A couple of families were amongst the few patrons at the late hour (after 8:30 pm–a late lunch for my East Coast belly).

When I look at the Irish I see layers. On the surface is the great sense of humor and general decency. But just below that is a sense of caution. This is a people who’ve been invaded, enslaved, and discriminated against for centuries. They’re just coming off the spectacular bursting of their spectacular housing bubble, shattering the newfound confidence borne of the Celtic Tiger; they can be forgiven some caution, especially when an American trainer is selling them a better way to conduct business conversations. (The moxie it takes to tell the Irish how to improve conversation!) They’ve heard it before–and plenty recent enough to be fresh in their memories.

But below the caution is an authenticity I only occasionally encounter in my travels. So many of the people I have met here are so genuinely kind, willing to talk in ways that make American conversation look very very shallow, and almost humble to a fault. I have told new friends how much I love coming here, and they have been genuinely surprised–as if they could not think of a reason why someone not from here would enjoy their country. When the Icelandic volcano gave me an extra week here back in 2010, I decided that rather than continue to visit a couple of different pubs each night, I’d stick to one and see how long it took until the regulars would begin to chat with me. The answer: three visits. By the time I was heading home, it was handshakes and well wishes all around. As Sullivan writes, Ireland is a special place. But the specialness lies much deeper than sparkling green eyes and Clancy Brothers ditties. It is rooted in having felt the limitations and harshness of life and still finding belief and joy. You don’t have to use your ancestry to try to belong to Ireland. Just be yourself, take the time to get to know some people, and they’ll make you feel like you’ve always been here.

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2 comments

  1. I am now following YOUR blog Mr. Stocking! What a great read. I guess I need to do some cross-referencing although I am still savoring my Google win. Thanks for the note it means so much to have you in my corner. And, I will let you know when I get to Duke for my alumni ambassador projects … something to look forward to 🙂 I hope the wisteria is beautiful – this was my favorite time of year in NC. Love to all, Lauren


    • Thanks, Lauren, for following this and for your kind words. Please do keep us apprised of visits to Durham. Although my travel schedule is a bit crazy, if I’m home when you’re in town we would love to see you. Spring is indeed coming quickly, wisteria and all.



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