I’ve written about this before, but today is St. Patrick’s Day. So I’m writing about it again.
I used to pretend I was Irish. It seemed like everyone from my hometown of Butte, Montana was Irish and they used to rattle off the counties in Ireland their families originated. I, on the other hand, having lost my Irish father when I was a wee one, became disconnected with my past and his entire family. My mother wouldn’t speak of my dad or his family. I felt separated from a sea of Irish descendants.
Once I was an orphan, I began a quest into the past, tracing my roots to the Vale of Avoca, in the Wicklow mountains of Ireland. Wicklow? I’d never heard of it. Once I discovered it’s down the road apiece, south of Dublin, I jumped on a train for a day trip, and later returned to spend several days looking for my family, the Woolaghans and the Holdens. And I found them.
The first thing I learned was that Avoca had been the location for the filming of a long-running TV series in the 70s called, Ballykissangel, about a priest in a small town and his parishioners. The second thing I learned was that Avoca was the center of copper mining in the 19th century. My great-grandfather had worked in the copper mines there until he was laid off, then emigrated his family of five to Cleatormore, England, where he worked in the iron mines. He emigrated his family again to Ellis Island, then Butte, Montana, to work in the copper mines. Oddly, I found much of this info from the obliging patrons at Fitzgerald’s Pub, and the Irish docents at the Avoca Cultural Museum. The Irish are right: If you want information, go to the local pub!
Standing on the timeworn stone bridge in downtown Avoca, gazing down at the glistening waters of the river that runs through it, I finally felt connected. Not only connected to Ireland, but connected to Butte, Montana, in a way I hadn’t before. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Last April, standing where Thomas Moore wrote The Meeting of the Waters, where the Avonmore and Avonbeg rivers join to become Avoca River, all I could do was cry. My fellow day-trippers patted my back in understanding, yes, they see this a lot with Americans when they find their ancestral beginnings. I didn’t apologize for my emotion. After all, I was in the land of emotion. I let it all hang out.
The feeling is so powerful and overwhelming, I can’t explain it. And I’m supposed to, being a writer. But I can’t. I just know it for what it is.
Now, St. Patrick’s Day means something different: I don’t have to pretend I’m Irish anymore.
Erin go Bragh and slainte!
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