I grew up in a family that barely acknowledged let alone celebrated its Irish ancestry. Casey and Cronin blood flowed through the branches of my father’s family tree, but my understanding of our heritage was limited to tongue-in-cheek faith in leprechauns and shamrocks, love of beer and potatoes, and devotion to wearing green on St. Paddy’s Day.
Ireland’s culture and history were not part of my education. I did not know that the Irish people spoke their own language prior to British colonization. That they created a unique style of music, art, storytelling, and dance. That their Celtic folk tales, myths, and pagan mysticism predated Christianity. That a potato famine caused millions to starve, die, or emigrate.
Such superficial understanding of my ancestral roots changed after traveling to Ireland when I was a college student.
Upon arrival in Dublin, I remember feeling an uncanny sensation of “home.” It was notable because home was never a physical location for me. My parents lived like nomads, moving the family seven times before I was thirteen. Wherever we lived was where we lived until we lived somewhere else.
This feeling of at-homeness was new. And I experienced it the moment I debarked from the plane. There is no rational explanation, but perhaps one memory from my trip offers a clue.
It was early evening. Cobh (pronounced “Cove”), a small coastal port in County Cork, was our last stop of the day. The winter sun was starting to set so there was little time left to enjoy the view. Stepping off the tour bus we separated ourselves into smaller groups and scuttled along the shoreline.
Despite the boisterous lightheartedness of my cohorts, I felt solitary, quiet, and somewhat wistful. The surrounding jibber-jabber receded from my ears as a pungent fishy smell got tangled in my nose hairs. Brightly colored buoys dotted the sand, like breadcrumbs paving a path to nowhere. A dilapidated wooden boat listed against the ragged rocks. Perched there, I suspect, after losing its wrestling match with an Atlantic temper tantrum.
Dense fog was rolling in. A clammy shroud enveloped me as I peered across the brooding ocean that blended seamlessly with the sky. A heavy weight pressed upon my shoulders. I could not see too far into the distance. Still, I was transfixed by what I saw.
Distinct outlines of a very old ship appeared through the mist. It was sailing away from the shore toward the horizon. The vessel, faintly visible, was as grey as the water and sky. Inexplicably, I “knew” it was transporting people desperate to flee the potato famine of the 1800’s, in search of a better life in America. Goosebumps prickled my skin. I was spellbound. I felt certain my ancestors were aboard that boat!
Were the fairies playing tricks?
Waves of emotion swelled and threatened to capsize me. I turned away from the scene and my companions, trying to hide the torrent about to gush. Without speaking aloud, I admonished myself to get a grip. It was ridiculous to feel these feelings, to think I had seen something real. I choked off the welling tide of tears and focused on my friends.
Luckily, they hadn’t noticed my inner turmoil. Their playful banter continued unabated. Tears quelled, I shrugged off the gloom and joined their fun.
Months later, researching Irish emigration for a term paper, I discovered pictures of “coffin ships” that were used to transport Irish emigrants during The Great Famine. They were called coffins because of the rampant disease and death that plagued the passengers aboard. The images startled me. They were identical to the ship I had seen that day at Cobh!
I don’t know if what I saw was a freak psychic vision or simply spontaneous imagination. But I can say with certainty that the moment forever altered my perception of who I am and where I come from.
Proudly I wear the chains of my forebears, the ties that bind me forever to The Emerald Isle. The Land of Magic, Beauty, Charm, Creativity, Wit, Soul, Struggle, and Privation.
Ireland vibrates within every cell of my being.