I grew up in what we referred to as “Upstate New York,” more properly western New York. From my earliest years, I was taught that we were “Irish, with a bit of Scotch, English and maybe some Norman French.” Somewhere on my father’s side, there was an Aunt Fitzpatrick. On my mother’s side, there were O’Connors and Riddels.
The opportunity to visit what was the home of my ancestors was amazing. I have been interested in my genealogy for several years. This interest is shared to some extent by my children. Daughter Christine gave me a DNA kit, and the results confirmed the family traditions. Recently, I joined Ancestry.com and began to trace my family. I discovered Irish roots in County Galway and in County Tyrone.
Over the course of the last few years, I have managed to read Patrick Taylor’s books featuring Dr. Fingal O’Reilly. As I read along, certain phrases and words reminded me of both of my grandfathers. They said many of the same phrases and used many of the same words.
Growing up in Irish western New York, I experienced some of the same mores that apparently existed in Ireland when my ancestors emigrated. Things like “A good Irish Catholic would never consider dating a protestant or Jew.” This wasn’t too restrictive as the largest segment of the population was Catholic and even an Italian was acceptable, to a degree, if they were Catholic. Catholics were the largest minority, about 24 % of the population. The rest of the practicing Christians were divided into several denominations, and I did not recall much cooperation among them.
A major shock came when I left home for college in Oklahoma. The entire state was one diocese, and Catholics amounted to 3 % of the population. Sticking to the date-Catholics-only rule was hard to adhere to and subsequently was generally ignored. In fact, I had started to ignore it when I was a senior in high school. I had gone to public schools in New York, and many of my friends were not Catholic as were most of my classmates. The kids who went to the local Catholic school were clannish, had the attitude that they were better than the public-school kids.
When Sheila Balagna asked for us to talk about our Irish trip experience, I started to ponder what the experience meant to me. My favorite subject in high school was history. That was still true until my last semester in college, when I discovered sociology. Personally, the ruins of one old castle, tower or abbey look pretty much like any other. My interest would be with the history of the building, why was it built there and what caused it to be abandoned. What happened to the people who lived there?
My Irish ancestors taught me that hard work and determination would overcome just about any obstacle. The Irish scenery is glorious, but it is obvious that only a hard-working people could survive for very long on that land. I could speak of the Cliffs of Moher or the Giant’s Causeway, but these features do not address what I was interested in. I appreciated the Museum of Country Life much more. It tries to explain the people and the struggles they endured. The Post Office in Dublin is also high on my list. It explained the Easter Rising of 1916 in clear, concise terms.
Growing up, I heard of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. As we rode through the streets of Belfast, I was encouraged to see more Irish Tricolors than Union Jacks. I realize that there is a long road still ahead and it will take a few generations to resolve the problems that still exist, but there is hope. We were in Derry — or Londonderry depending upon your political leanings — when our guide expressed his belief that there is hope. He mentioned that he had both Catholic and Protestant friends. Recently, he had attended the wedding of a Catholic and a Protestant.
He commented that during World War I, the Irish had fought the Germans as one people. They died side by side and were buried where they died. The survivors came home, and nothing had changed. Today, they perform on the same sports teams sharing their victories and their losses. The oldsters may still hold their animosities, but the next generation is learning to tolerate each other. His solution was to make all the children attend the same schools. Maybe the next generation will learn to live together as one people.
His comments recalled my own experience. Holy Cross Elementary went from kindergarten through the 8th grade. Then, many of those Catholic kids started in the public high school with the rest of us. By the time we were juniors and seniors, we were a well-meshed group of classmates. It took awhile, but they learned that we weren’t all that stupid and they weren’t all that smart. It just might work in Northern Ireland as well. I know my family will continue to hope and pray for a united Ireland, where our friends and distant families can live side by side in peace.
There are a couple of other things I noticed during the trip. One was the lack of litter. Austin explained that they start teaching the children in Pre-K that “This is your country, and it your duty to keep it clean.” I did find a cigarette pack stuffed in a briar growing over a stone wall. I pulled it out. All the wording was in German. Austin would have said it was from a damn German tourist. I tossed it in the trash can on the bus. I believe it was in Dublin that I saw a man unwrap a piece of gum or candy. He looked around for a trash can and finally put the wrapper in his pocket when no trash can was available.
Living in the U.S., we are exposed to graffiti just about everywhere. I was on a business trip to Los Angeles and as we drove along one of their freeways I commented that it must be newly opened. My boss said why I thought that, and I answered, “No graffiti.” With the exception of Northern Ireland, I only saw one incident of graffiti anywhere in the Republic.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the Republic has complete freedom of religion. After over 400 years of suppression, I would have expected some retaliation of some kind. Instead, the Republic has turned the other cheek so to speak; the Golden Rule is alive and well with regard to religion.
As we rode along on our way south of Dublin, Austin pointed out that they recycle everything possible in the Republic. “See those two smoke stacks off to the southeast? They belong to the only facility we have where items that cannot be recycled are incinerated.” I noticed that the “facility” was located on the east coast, where the prevailing winds could blow any pollution across the Irish Sea to Great Britain – imagine that.
It was a wonderful experience and a nice introduction to Ireland. Just enough to whet one’s appetite for a return trip.