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What does it mean to be Irish?

March 11, 2017


Years ago, I was cast in a play as an Irish nun. As I prepared for the role, the accent seemed to come so easily: the rhythm, the sound of the words, the way the words came together in thoughts. I was puzzled; I’d never before played an Irish role. I wondered about it.

One day I was talking long distance to my mother on the phone. I happened to mention the play – and the accent. There was a pause on the other end of the line.

Well, you do know, dear…that your grandfather was full blood Irish.”

You never told me that!”

You never asked.”

My grandfather died when I was a small baby. Mother had always spoken about him with great affection, but no lineage was ever discussed. I had always assumed that his family was English and Scottish like my grandmother’s. So…my grandfather was Irish; his family came from the same part of Ireland – County Mayo – as my character. I began doing some research – about the potato famine and the mass starvation and immigration it caused. I saw pictures of the immigrants on the boats; in long lines at the immigration center. I learned that, during that time, the population of County Mayo plummeted – and it did not get back to it’s original number until 1956.

Years later, I visited Ireland. I tried to find my grandfather’s family records, but was unsuccessful. But once again, there was something familiar about the land… and there was one unforgettable memory.

We were on a tour bus headed for the Aran Islands. We passed yet again one of those little plots of land marked by a fence of stone with a crumbling stone cottage inside it. The guide pointed it out – another small farm abandoned during the famine. And then he told a story….

It seems that his grandfather had one of these plots on his land. One day, when the guide was a young teenager, he casually remarked to his grandfather that he should knock the old place down; it was useless … an eyesore. His grandfather was furious… almost cuffed the boy as he shouted:

That’s someone’s home out there! Someday… someone from that family may come back. And if they do” – and he cursed and swore under his breath – “their home will still be here!!!’

To me, THAT’S what it means to be Irish.

Celtic Heart1

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