On our first arrival in Dublin, we had told a waitress that we would be spending a month in Ireland. She laughed, “A month! You can drive across the entire country in not much more than two hours time. You don’t need a month to visit Ireland.” She was wrong. A month was not nearly enough. We had only explored the southern half of Ireland, and there was still so much more for us to see and to know about this place and about how it figured into my own ancestral history.
I had made more progress on the question of my Irish ancestry, although some of the answers were unexpected, even unwanted. I learned that in two different official documents my grandmother had listed her place of birth as England, not Ireland. Although I find the English to be perfectly delightful people, I have to admit that I did not want to be English. Still, I was seeking the truth as it actually happened and not as I wished it to be, and as it turned out this new piece of information opened some doors. Examining English records, I was able to find an Annie Downy (her last name spelled the way my father had remembered it). She had been born in England…..Haltwhistle, Northumberland. Her birth year matched the information we’d gotten from two official documents, and I realized that this was very probably my grandmother. Little had I known that as we were traveling through the Lake District in England a month earlier, we were actually much closer to the birthplace of my grandmother than in Ireland. I learned that Annie Downy’s mother Jane had been born in Ireland in 1848 at the very height of the potato famine, making me Irish after all. My guess is that my great-grandmother emigrated to England in the aftermath of the potato famine, and then met Jack Downy, my great grandfather, who, as I learned, had been born in Scotland. Apparently in my family tree England was but a generation’s layover. The one piece that did not fit was that the only record of an Annie Downy emigrating from England to America near the turn of the century overstates her age by five or six years. My suspicion is that this was, in fact, my grandmother, and that she had intentionally given the wrong age…for reasons that aren’t hard to imagine. I knew it would take months more research to verify this information and to fill in details, but I had run out of time. We were now approaching the end of our stay in Ireland.
Although as the Dublin waitress had said, it is possible to drive on freeways from the west coast of Ireland at Galway to the east coast at Dublin in two hours time, it took us quite a bit longer than this. It had to do with a mysterious glitch in our GPS navigator, whom we call Carmen. She speaks to us. Although we’d instructed her to guide us to the Dublin Airport, she was actually directing us to a location some 40 miles southeast of Dublin a few miles out into the Irish Channel. By the time we realized this, we were well off our trajectory to the airport and completely baffled as to how to get back on track. Irish fairies were at work.
My mother had also had Irish ancestry, and even though she’d given lip service to the idea that the Irish spirit beings were mythical, she was clearly wary of their powers. Although by the time I was in my mid-teens, her Catholicism had dissipated to virtual non-existence, my mother never lost her convictions about Irish folkways. I remember chasing her through the house on one occasion with an open umbrella (an Irish taboo) while she screamed about the misfortune I was bringing down upon the household. When Lois and I had visited the Butter Museum in Cork, we’d learned that the reason why milk sometimes did not actually congeal into butter during the churning process was that the fairies were working their mischief. This was why women, who knew more about these things than men, were assigned to do the churning. Since Lois did virtually all the driving in Ireland, on our drive back to Dublin I’d been operating the navigational device…. clumsily, but without any obvious wrongdoing. Since we were now hopelessly lost, Lois stopped the car and commandeered Carmen because….she knows more about these sorts of things than I do. After a few minutes of conjuring, Lois turned milk into butter, and Carmen revealed the secret of the way to the airport.
We spent our last night in Ireland at a hotel near the Dublin Airport. Apparently an entire planeload of German tourists had found the same low-cost hotel deal we’d found, and the hotel lobby was mobbed with Germans watching their national team play Italy in the semi-finals of the Euro Cup (European soccer championships). We’d been following the Euro Cup since our arrival in Ireland, but now we were in some conflict over whom to root for. Lois generally tries to be supportive of whatever cultural group she is mixed in with at the time, and so part of her was inclined to root for the German squad. Her true loyalties were revealed, however, when Balotelli scored the first goal for Italia. Hers was the solitary voice in the room squealing irrepressibly in delight, followed belatedly by her clamping her hand over her mouth. Immediately, a hundred pairs of angry German eyes fastened upon her. Apparently her anthropological predilections are no match for her love of Italy (and her admiration for the hunky Balotelli as well – who, after scoring a goal, has a tendency to remove his shirt and preen, revealing an abundance of rippling muscles on his gleaming torso). I’ve now taken up jogging again. Germany went down in a truly humiliating defeat, and by halftime Lois and I pretty much had the hotel lobby and bar to ourselves.
We returned to our room and did some final packing for our early morning flight. Although I’ve heard that only the foolish attempt to divine the motives of fairies, I suspect that the fairies had bewitched our navigational device because they did not want us to leave Ireland. Nor did I. Still, like my ancestors before me, I bade farewell to the country of my great grandmother…with a very heavy heart. The song that was playing in my head was my favorite of all the Irish laments. These are the final lines:
So, fill to me the parting glass.
Good night and joy be with you all.
Good night…and joy be with you all.