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I used to think I was just as Irish as American. After all, my mother was born in Dublin, thereby making me only first generation American on her side (and second my father’s). I grew up taking step-dancing lessons while other kids were taking jazz, wearing a kilt to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and listening to the Wolfetones and Clancy Brothers as much as the Beatles.
I went to Ireland with the intent of finding my family and myself. I was going to meet relatives I knew only through pictures and Christmas cards. I would sleep in the bed in which my maternal great-grandmother had been born. I had my paternal great-grandparents’ birth and baptismal certificates. I had a journal to record everything. I was prepared!
What I wasn’t prepared for were the feelings I experienced once I set foot in Ireland. I didn’t have to search for my roots at the local genealogy office. I found them in Ballyboden, Dublin and Ballyshannon and Ballintra, Donegal. I found them in my young cousins’ faces, which looked like my brother's and mine and in their voices, which were so different. In America, we look like the Mooneys, but in Ireland we are the Fannins or the Greenes, depending on who was doing the talking.
When I picked buttercups and heather from the fields in Camlin where my mother played as a child, I was told I had a poetic soul. We rode up to the family bog on a tractor in the rain and thought of the days when the trip was made in a donkey cart with Uncle Patrick. I took a piece of the bog home in a baggie and prayed I wouldn’t be stopped by Customs. Friends and relatives were still coming to call at eleven at night and we were still trying to get used to the length of the day.
The feeling of coming home was strong although there were so many things that were different. The most commonplace things to my relatives were exotic to me. A delivery of bread to the door sparked a conversation about the tinkers coming around and how they scared the children in the road. My great aunt despaired of my making a cup of tea when “there’s the pot of it right there, child!” (I thought it was just a pot of water!) Choosing between a postbox and a garbage bin to be the recipient of my postcards was a major decision.
It was mind boggling to us how the mail got delivered when addresses only read the name of the road. Hadn’t the houses any numbers? we asked.
Somehow, hearing a small cousin ask to sit on your knee instead of lap or to have her sister ask “Why have you not your shoes on?” seemed to make me feel closer to Ireland than I had when I had only dreamed of going there. (Or as the Wolfetones say...”A country we love, but a place we’ve not seen.”)
I came to realize that my relatives had ceased to be my mother’s family, but that they had finally become my family and that her rich heritage was also my own. They had gone from the idea of my family to being my family.