Monday, March 17, 2014

beir bua agus beannacht

if you take a look around the social media world today, you’ll likely be able to identify several key themes: drinking, green clothing, fake beards and comically-oversized top hats, shamrocks galore. such is the state of one of my favourite holidays – an excessively-commercialized mess of a celebration, when an entire culture gets diminished to a few caricatures and stereotypes. people who couldn’t even locate ireland on a map are suddenly popping out of the woodwork with “kiss me, i’m irish!” t-shirts and a plastic cup of diluted green beer in each hand. 

while partying with friends is all well and good, for me, saint patrick’s day is about history and family. more than any other day, st. paddy’s day always reminds me of my gran, my mom’s mom. as the granddaughter of irish immigrants on both sides of her family, she took her heritage to heart. and even though we lived on the opposite side of the country, she always made sure that my sister and i were stocked up for our celebrations – without fail, we would receive boxes of cookies, buttons that boasted an irish ancestry, some freshly-crocheted or sewn article of green clothing… i can still remember the clear, plastic boxes with the crumpled tissue paper inside, trying so hard to provide safe passage to the already-crumbling baked goods within. only a grandmother would send cookies across a continent. looking back, i can comfortably say that it was gran who instilled my love of ireland in me from an early age. growing up so far away made any contact special, and her passion for her ancestry found a comfortable home in my sensitive little heart. that curiosity has been fed by my saint of a mother, who has dedicated endless hours of research to filling in the straggly branches of the family tree. thanks to her work, i can name most of my ancestors, all the way back to the early 1800’s. with a few blank spaces left to fill, we know the birthdays, the marriage anniversaries, and the death dates of the past four generations! the combination of gran’s cultural passion and my mom’s documented support gave me a strong sense of attachment and pride in my “people” that i hold to this day.

ask anyone who has ever spent half an hour with me, and they’ll tell you – i’m a sucker for nostalgia. for better or for worse, i love reliving the past and imagining back even further. it’s why i love europe so much; the history is so alive here, so palpable in each castle wall and stone bridge. who lived in that tower? crossed that little foot bridge? nothing makes me feel so connected to the universe as standing in a place where i can almost see the passage of time whirling around me. for that same reason, i’ve always been interested in my own personal history – how did i come to be the person that i am? i love creating stories to go with the names i see on my family tree, imagining how the circumstances had to be exactly right for my great-great-great-grandparents to meet. in fact, today i learned that two of my great-great-great-grandfathers (one from each side of my mom’s family tree) lived at the same time in the same county in ireland. i cannot describe how tickled i am by the thought that they might have known each other – however unlikely that might be, it’s not that unlikely. mayo is a large county, but it’s not impossible! how i would love to have a time machine, just to go back and find them two of them, sit them down (in my fantasy, they aren’t at all disturbed by a time-traveling descendant appearing in the town), and tell them that one day, a hundred years in the future, william’s great-great-granddaughter would marry michael’s great-great-grandson, somewhere across the ocean in america. i can just see those two men laugh with the same twinkle in their eyes that my papa has now, hear my gran’s tone of amusement and wonder in the “how about that?” they’d utter with delight. few things fascinate me more than imagining the lives and loves and joys and sorrows behind the names in those little boxes..

it came as no surprise when, years after this ancestral soft spot had developed in my spirit, the irish students down the hall became some of my closest friends while studying abroad in france. the first time i went to ireland to see them, it was more than just a visit to see friends. as cliché as it may sound, i had the distinct feeling of homecoming. and as i began to meet more and more people, that sensation only became more concrete. there were moments when i swear i could feel gran smiling down on me from her little cloud in heaven, saying “see? i told you, these are your people.” and it’s true – over the last three years, i’ve been lucky enough to return several times to that magical little island, and each time, it has been harder to leave. i’ve continued to add friend after friend to a wonderful list, to the point where i could hardly count the number of faces i’d love to see during my next visit. and in fact, my next trip to ireland will be even more special, because this time, i will get to have my mom and aunt with me! i can’t wait to show them the country i’ve grown to love so much more over the last three years. they won’t need much convincing – they have the soft spot, too. it will be so lovely to share a week of bonding with them, watching them fall under the same spell that enchanted me so long ago.

while most people i know are out partying to celebrate their irish heritage, my homage came in the form of something a little more subdued. i couldn’t help but write out my feelings today – sometimes, i am overwhelmed by my nostalgia, both for my own experiences and for those of my great-great-great-grandparents. i suppose all i can say is, éirinn go brách, mo chairde. and, as my wise friend donnchadh taught me, beannachtaí na féile pádraig ort agus ar do chuid.  ireland forever, my friends. the blessings of the feast of saint patrick on you and yours.

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