I’ve never really been into genealogy and have a confirmation bias that means I tend to agree with articles that point out all the flaws in today’s DNA testing fads. [And I really don’t care about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry, either. I care a lot about how she can actually achieve much-needed reforms in American society.] Anyway, since I’ve started this lifetime as a Yank, I guess I need to honor/honour that tradition of searching for my biological roots. And since any good Irish comedian can go on for 20-30 minutes about people from distant places looking for long-dead distant relatives, I felt obligated to give them some credence.
So…I rented a car and found myself driving over the terrain my grandfather most likely walked over while leaving Ireland well over a century ago. The farms, fields and hills looked an awful lot like the farms, fields and hills I left behind in piedmont North Carolina. All in hopes of standing at his birthplace. But which one? We have “official” documentation that claims two different places and two different dates.
Research like this demands a good meal and a night’s sleep, so I checked into a nice place in the heart of the county’s biggest town. You know that half awake/half asleep time of the morning when your consciousness spans two different worlds? The next morning found me lying in bed absorbing street sounds through my open window. Peoples’ accents brought me back years, to another place and time. As daytime consciousness intruded I realized I’d been in yesterday’s reality, not today’s.
First stop of the day: the small town my grandfather left behind. If you’ve been there once, it’s twice too many. Like many other small farming towns I’ve passed through on every continent, its air is permeated with that unique perfume, Eau de Diesel, highlighted with hints of manure in varying strengths. He left at age 17 and never returned. But I still had questions. You know that feeling you sometimes get that something’s right – or just not right? My gut and that voice in the back of my brain told me to find the other place. It wasn’t on the rental car map and I hadn’t bought an ordnance survey map like they made in the days of Brian Friel’s Translations. But Google came to the rescue. While it didn’t have the precision required for military ordnance, it pointed me in the direction of the right place.
In Ireland, as in many other places, the more digits you find in a road number, the less developed the road and its pavement. I’ll swear in court that some of the roads I travelled had names/numbers that were wider than they were. And a cow path covered with tarmac is still a cow path. [The Irish word for cow is bó. It’s the root word for road: bóthar.]
After an hour or so of wishing I’d rented a 4WD, my GPS lady told me I’d arrived at the correct cowshed. It was an unroofed pile of stones that seemed to be of the right vintage – and the nearby critters looked at me as the most interesting thing they’d seen in the past few minutes. One mooed. I responded saying, “Hey now, brown cow.” She wasn’t impressed. It wasn’t until later in the day that I realized that the local greeting was “hello” and not a variant of “hi”. As I stood there in the straw, absorbing the pungent atmosphere, I looked around. Obviously there wasn’t a whole lot to see unless you’re a dairyman or one of his charges. But I did see something star-like on the eastern horizon in front of my stable – the swirling blades of that huge Mercedes logo we call a wind turbine. So I guess progress has come to this part of the world after all, countering the damage being done by all the cow belches and farts.
Mission accomplished, it was time to become a pure tourist. While our phones are generally smarter than we are, I developed some sympathy for the poor lady inside mine. She never could figure out whether to give me directions in miles or kilometers, changing her mind at the whims of the nearest tower. I’m thinking the border with Northern Ireland might make some more sense if the British politicians of a century ago had listened to a cow living on the land instead of their bull in London.
There’s a local mountain tall enough to merit its own tourist brochure, so I decided to see what there was to see. About halfway up I made my first discovery: I’ve been living at sea level long enough to become acclimated to a decent supply of oxygen. And all my years of flying and hanging out in the Rockies and Andes weren’t doing me a damned bit of good. So I huffed and puffed and stopped to “admire the scenery” quite a bit more than I’d expected to. Still a few hundred yards from the peak I encountered a 60-something year old woman and her mother on the way down. Both had big smiles and told me the view was well worth the walk. The mum even told me that the boardwalk steps near the peak [designed to protect the terrain] were just like climbing steps at home. I wonder if she lives in one of those medieval towers where you pull the ladder up behind you on the way in.
I made it to the top and found that the view was pretty nice. Then I descended and began driving back to my hotel, again confusing my poor GPS lady who heard voices from the heavens speaking sometimes metric, other times Imperial.
Next morning came a bit too early for me, but I didn’t want to ring up any late charges on my rental car so I hit the road with the sun. The morning mist and frosted fields were beautiful – too bad I could barely see them because the mist was so thick at times I couldn’t even see the front of the car. When the road rose just enough to bring me above the fog the low sun was blinding. So I just closed my eyes and continued my dream – excuse me, my drive – home to Cork. Four hours later the local accents were different, but just as comfortable as the ones I’d been re-absorbing for the past few days.
It’s home, with accents of my future, not my past.