Teri Orr: Connecting with the past in the small villages of Ireland
The trail is familiar in a cellular kind of way. The wildflowers along the path — the steep climb up along the coastline. The rocky cliffs. Eventually being so high — so very high I am looking down at the birds flying over the water. The natural stopping and stepping aside for another to pass with no exchange of language. Maybe a nod. Even though this is my first time in Ireland and on this path, in this country, I already remember the terrain.
I am doing that in and out of body and mind stuff. The ghosts of relatives past are walking with me. Nudging me, reminding me, whispering.
It is like a path in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area where there is no coastline and instead red dirt cliffs and wildflowers and occasional passersby. Or maybe The Camino in Spain where it is difficult and not well-marked and the whole point is to get quiet and let go and let god. But it is also like a wooded path on an island in the San Juans where I once spent a summer working on a writing project and where the coastline would appear and disappear as I wandered through the forest alone.
And it is like so many places on the coast where I grew up outside of San Francisco where my Irish relatives landed in the 1880s. Like Half Moon Bay where the dunes beach hides with tall grasses. The rhythm of the waves and cries of the gulls and the taste of the salt in the air is not new. It is comfortable … familiar.
I have been looking forward to this trip for a year and … my whole life. Knowing a conference would be taking me to Scotland this week I decided to tag on some days before and explore a bit of my father’s motherland — Ireland. I stayed outside of Dublin in a little village called Dalkey on the cliff above the sea. And one day I had someone drive me up to the most northwestern corner of Europe — where my people come from. We stopped in little villages in Ireland and for a minute we crossed over in Northern Ireland where folks took one look at the license plate on our car and knew we were NOT Northern Ireland folks. Since July is the time of the Orange marches, it is less welcoming for non-northern folks where the Union Jack flies on church towers in this disputed part of the world.
We are not welcome in the gas station. I am told to hurry back into the car.
For hours on end we stop in tiny hamlets and search graveyards for a few family names I know. I find O’Reillys aplenty from my mother’s side. We end up in County Donegal where there are so very many Daniel Dohertys in every church cemetery, there is no reasonable way to know which one might have been from my father’s side of the family. The next morning we keep exploring and the sun is out and there is a light mist at the very same time and a dampness from the rain the night before. This morning we are exploring graveyards and the clover is purple and I take off my shoes and walk barefoot on the cool grass.
Our waitress at lunch is a Doherty and a young woman I meet at dinner at the restaurant bar is one also. I pull a bottle of High West out of my backpack. I have lugged it over for just this occasion and I share a bit of Park City whiskey with my newest “cousin” and with the bartender and some folks who wander over — in a village so small — I have already forgotten its name. Americans come to these villages all the time in search of family roots. We are both a source of revenue and an annoyance.
I discover for myself that uppermost corner of Ireland/Europe has no fancy houses — mostly one story white-washed cottages. At the end of the land was an impossibly wide, flat, half-mooned shaped beach — surrounded by dunes and moors that reminded me of the Half Moon Bay beach my youth. But here on the hillsides are stone hedges — separating sheep and the dreamy creamy-colored cows.
I am struck by how simple and beautiful and really, really desolate it all is.
I return to Dalkey late at night and wake up in the wee hours of Sunday morning and there are chants filling the stone walls — muffled — as I fade in and out of sleep. In the morning I ask the young woman at the front desk what group worships there in the old dungeon area on Sundays. She says there is no group. I explain — the maybe two hours — of chants I heard and the young girl cocks her head when she looks at me. No, she says, there was no group here.
I wander the village later — amid the quaint little tea shops and book sellers. Bright hanging flower baskets and more headstones. A light mist is in the air and it feels just right. Fifteen years ago this month I attended a funeral in Philadelphia of a Quaker woman who had lived in Park City with the married name of Kennedy. Her new son-in-law greeted me and helped me understand all the quirky traditions of the Quaker service including the need to take the window out of the centuries old home to accommodate the large casket which was set up in the dining area so the deceased could be there for lunch. I remember asking Ryan if all this was normal. I had never been to a remembrance like that — ever. He looked at the folks divided by tribes in the room who were not speaking to each other — even now when the grudges should have been put aside. He laughed and said simply in a thick brogue — “right as rain.”
On the ride to the airport that morning the days of sun turned to gray rainy skies. I turned over my highlights — seeing Trinity College in the heart of Dublin, eating the best seafood chowder of my long life, visiting Yeats’ final resting place, seeing that lonely windswept beach, smelling lavender and knowing that being in the place my family had come from made me understand how all my Sundays in all the parks had led to this one. “How is your day?” the young woman at the airline counter desk asked in a tone that sounded like she honestly cared. “Right as rain” … I heard myself respond in a voice that had traveled through the ages.
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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Travel helps define our identity and culture, writes Jennifer Wesselhoff. “The real story is the people behind the data.”