We followed the signs down the narrow, walled country lanes to the wide spot in the road where we parked and got out. Across from us was a field of sheep, with Mount Brandon rising into the clouds behind. In front of us was the Atlantic Ocean through a rocky break in the land. We had arrived at the spot where Brandon's Creek flowed through pastures and into a small bay before the crashing of the Atlantic waves. Goats were grazing on the steep cliffs above the creek. We sat on a stacked stone wall and listened to the creek and the surf and the wind.
"Can you imagine setting off in a tiny boat from this spot, looking out on that ocean?" "No," Mom replied.
For this is the spot where in the sixth century St. Brendan the Navigator set sail on his seven year voyage that, according to legend, took him to North America and back. Over the following days I often thought of this moment on the edge of land and ocean and the sense of mission that would drive someone to risk everything.
My trip to Ireland was rich with holy moments and revelations, of these I hope to write in the coming days.
One revelation was that I have never felt less like a foreigner in a foreign land. I felt very at home. I may be more Irish than I realized. Some of this is my gift for gab and my sense of humour. The Irish are among the friendliest people I've ever encountered. Moments after greeting someone you could be in the full swing of conversation, way beyond surface pleasantries. Politics came up a lot.
One of my favourite moments came in a shop in Killarney, County Kerry. The clerk asked where we were from. Oklahoma, my sister said. "You get bad winters there," she said. I responded, "Not too bad, but I live in Nebraska where they are significantly more." The clerk said, "But you're used to that, right? Being 'significantly more'?" Ouch, sassy.
A strange aspect of the travel is hearing the dark sides of Irish history, the colonization and attempts by the British to ethnically cleanse the island of its native population, particularly the many reminders of the famine. Mom wanted to visit the Cobh Heritage Center which narrates the story of Irish emigration. While the center celebrates the strength of the emigrants and their lasting impact upon the development of other nations like the US, Canada, and Australia, I left the exhibit with a sense of grief and horror. Underlying all the joy, the beauty, the music, and the friendliness is this dark history.
And so I work to understand what I experienced and learned from this vacation, so let's tell the story, beginning with my arrival in Dublin at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, October 12 when my cabbie said, "Not much to do this early."