For me, someplace else is the United Kingdom and Ireland, where I had the good fortune to visit last month. I know that people go there every day, but we hadn’t been in many years and neither me nor my husband had set foot in Northern Ireland.
Our Irish experience began in Dublin where one of my must-stops was the Jeannie Johnston Tall Ship and Famine Museum. Docked on the River Liffey, the ship is a reproduction of a vessel that carried desperate emigrants escaping starvation and disease in the Great Famine of the 1840s. It was on such a ship that my mother’s McGuirk ancestors made their way to New York. Their daughter, Sarah and son James, would wind up in the New York Juvenile Asylum and make an arduous trek west on orphan trains to live with farm families in Illinois. I’ve told their story in my presentation given through the North Carolina Humanities Council.
Northern Ireland or “Ulster,” the place that used to grab headlines, has settled down since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. After nearly 30 years of bloodshed the Unionists (Protestants) and Nationalists (Catholics) laid down their weapons.
Belfast is a bustling city these days, with city tour buses, day trips to the Antrim Coast (did this) and a large exhibition to the building of the Titanic (did that too). It was once the shipbuilding and linen capital of the world, the latter an industry that occupied my 4th great grandfather John McElroy, a weaver. He brought his Presbyterian self to Philadelphia around 1800, leaving Ireland behind. It was a place my father, a private pilot, had puzzled over for much of his life. He had traveled many places in his 79 years, but never to the Republic of Ireland, much less Ulster.
I have yet to learn exactly where John came from. Some say County Armagh; others County Antrim. As our train sped northward from Dublin to Belfast, crossing the now-invisible boundary between the Republic and the UK-controlled County Armagh, a small airplane soared alongside our train. I have never seen a small private plane anywhere in Europe, much less in Ireland, but for a few minutes on May 24, I thought maybe it was Dad giving me a godwink as I caught my first glimpse of “home.”
Once in Belfast, we noticed how many of the locals look like me—tall white people with fair skin that refuses to tan or even freckle before burning. Being so fair-skinned was the bane of my existence as a teen-ager. Being white-white has never been cool. It occurred to me that some passersby might share my DNA. They were as suntan challenged as I am. Maybe we shared ancestors–Viking invaders from the 9th century or displaced Scots who drifted in a bit later.
Celtic music played from stores and bars with familiar “bluegrass” notes. I kept telling myself that this place with dark brick buildings and gray stone was “home” though there was nothing hospitable in the chilly, damp wind except for the incredible greens of the landscape—every possible shade from forest to lime and all of the Kellies in between. The emeralds are fed by daily doses of rain—not the deluging howlers we experience here, but gentle, quiet showers that turn turf into padded carpet and lilac bushes into waving perfume factories. The greens are almost as vibrant as the auburn hair. I took an informal survey one evening in our restaurant—of the 18 diners in the room, three had those amazing Irish-red locks.
There was no doubt that I was “home” in Belfast, all doubts were erased when we flicked on the TV and saw the documentary, “Klansville, USA” featuring Catawba County’s historian, Gary Freeze. I am not making this up. There was Dr. Freeze his Western Piedmont accent, explaining the history of the divided society that produced so much violence in the American South. And the BBC commentator was, of course, appalled that such a divided society could exist.
Next day our tour bus took us around Belfast including the notorious walled neighborhoods of Protestants and Catholics and their wall murals and “peace gates” that remain closed on Sundays. Schools, she said remain 90 percent segregated by religion. America, I learned, doesn’t hold the franchise on divisions.
Overall, our trek to Ireland was a pleasant one overshadowed with the notion that I might meet my double at any turn. A woman who resembled my Aunt Loa greeted us at a pub. A lookalike of my Cousin Robert served us our meal. A dead ringer for my Cousin Gary stepped out of a crowd of tourists. That’s how it feels to be the first to return to the old sod after more than two centuries. You think you belong, sort of.