Happy St. Patrick's Day

I’m proud to have Irish ancestry on my mother’s side of the family. One branch left as recently as the Potato Famine, the other left earlier. I know quite a lot about the more recent immigrants. They were coal miners, arriving first in Braidwood, Illinois then moving down to New Mexico where the family dug in.

Maybe it’s that Irish blood in my veins, or maybe not, but Celtic music is among my favorite, and I feel most at home on earth in summer, surrounded by green. Perhaps those roots explain the dreamer part of me.

Three years ago my husband and I spent ten glorious days rambling wild Irish roads in the southwest corner of the Emerald Isle. For reasons of economy we reserved a subcompact car, with a trunk so small that it wouldn’t hold both suitcases and carry-on luggage, and the choice was serendipitous. Many of those roads are paved over cart paths, with lanes only inches wider than that mini-car and stone walls tight beside. Hubby is a veteran left side driver, but our nerves were taut as the natives careened along at twice our pace.

I was able to verify that Ireland really is as green as the pictures, and unexpectedly sprinkled with jewels. Especially in older parts of towns, houses are vividly painted in all colors of the rainbow, perhaps to offset the frequent grayness of the sky that provides the mists and rains to keep the isle emerald. I couldn’t tangibly verify the spirits that lent mystique to the misty Cliffs of Moher, but I felt their presence before hearing the legends.

It was a long way, but we did get to Tipperary, and we kissed the Blarney stone to boot. We stayed in the countryside rather than exploring cities. We saw sheep, sheep and more sheep, and almost as many ancient ruins of castles, churches and cottages. Some were old when Columbus sailed. We got tipsy on mead and ate with knives and fingers at a medieval banquet in Bunratty Castle. We saw seashore, rivers, and plants with leaves that made me feel leprechaun-sized. We discovered that Ireland has mountains! We visited a couple of “living museums” with villages and farms demonstrating the old ways, making it easier to envision the Spartan conditions my ancestors lived in.

We visited a famine museum that explained why they left. From the exhibits I learned that before the famine, the average male Irish peasant ate eleven pounds of potatoes per day. The women ate eight. They had a few wild berries, greens and fruit in season, and some buttermilk now and then, but their primary diet was potatoes. Historical studies show that those potato fed people were stronger, taller and healthier than their counterparts on the Continent who primarily ate wheat in the form of bread and gruel. Imagine that! My respect for the potato soared.

Yes, especially now that I’ve visited my Irish homeland, I’m proud to be at least part Irish, and drink a toast to St. Paddy.

Write now: about your roots. Where did your ancestors come from? Has your ethnic background influenced your life in any significant way? Did your family observe ethnic traditions? Do you continue to keep those?

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