“So,” Andy says, lowering his pint of Heineken. “Where ya from then?”
The Brazen Head is loud. It’s not American-college-bar-loud, where drunken sorority chicks whoo after having a shot of tequila, but loud with the murmur of conversation. Glasses clang and people laugh. The bar is rustic and the walls are plastered with pictures and framed articles. The area we’re sitting in is small and filled with people, though it doesn’t feel the least bit cramped. It’s the oldest pub in Dublin, and we found it by simply wandering around.
“The States,” I say. And then to add a notable area, “Just outside of Boston.”
If we’re going for precision, I’m from Connecticut. I never say it with any conviction. Truth be told, if I’m in a city where no one knows my name, sometimes I’m from New York, Wisconsin, or maybe even Denver. Restlessness is something I’ve learned to deal with. While I know I’m far from alone in my desire to be someplace other than where I currently am, I don’t know how common it is to not really feel like you’re from anywhere.
“Ah,” Andy says. “Cheers then!”
Depending on what living relative you ask and what census record you attempt to interpret, I am either third or fourth generation Irish. Regardless of the specifics, part of me hails from Ireland, and I’ve wanted to travel there since I was just a kid. However, nine years ago when I was supposed to board a plane for Dublin, I crashed my car head-on, forfeiting the money I had saved for my self-awarded high-school graduation present in favor of a down payment on a new ride. For the foreseeable future, Ireland took a backseat.
Nearly a decade was far into the foreseeable future. Too long. But it wasn’t spent being complacent in New England. Florida occurred on several occasions. Peru and a hike into the Andes to touch Machu Picchu’s sacred stones happened. I’ve traveled to Colorado twice, been kissed by a wolf, but never made it to Dublin.
With a little shame (and a lot of reservation) I’m willing to admit that fear was the reason it took me so long to get here. I was afraid that if I went, I would never come back.
It’s a laughable reason to many, met with an eye roll and an, “Okay, but in reality, with bills and everything?” However, it could happen with little more than a thought. I get this look in my eye, or so my girlfriend, Eryka, says.
In regards to Ireland, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if walking through a cemetery and seeing my mother’s maiden name, or hiking along trails in the same place my great-great-great grandfather and his family lived, would make me feel at home enough to stay.
Situated on a street corner, about a block away from the River Lee in Cork City, is The Oliver Plunkett. Or, as its second floor is known as, The Frisky Irish Whiskey Bar. It’s a place where everyone sings when the Irish rugby team takes the field or cheers and applauds when Wales scores against Italy.
We find this place not by an internet search or travel suggestion, but by again randomly wandering into a bar (albeit a different bar) where we meet a group of people on holiday from England.
After a few pints and laughing about my poor ability to translate Gaelic, it is like we’ve known each other our entire lives. We take a few pictures together for either Facebook or a physical photo album, even though we had never seen them before and would in all likelihood never see them again. As we start to leave, they begin to rave about the Oliver Plunkett, its second-floor bar, and its smoke room.
“So, we’ll see you there, right?” one of the gents asks.
“Sounds good,” I say and we’re on the street following signs to the center of the city.
The bar is as cool as they described it. The downstairs dining area is packed and the hostess can’t get us a table, but seeing as neither of us is hungry we shrug, say thanks, and head upstairs.
When you think Irish pub, you’re imagining the Frisky Irish Whiskey Bar.
We grab two seats in front of the taps (thank the saints for draft Heineken at every bar) and order two drinks. Behind us, people cheer at a large projection screen. Italy scored against Wales in the Rugby Six Nations tournament. A woman dressed as a leprechaun starts chanting and people laugh with their glasses raised. No one, not the young women behind the bar, the guys sitting on adjacent stools staring at their phones, nor the people cheering and yelling at the screen, ask us where we’re from. In that bar, we are Irish and nothing else.
The game ends and we have a half-hour until the next one starts. The pub is getting busy because the game coming up is Ireland versus Scotland. I look at Eryka and say, “We have to stay.”
I’m not a sports guy. I can’t remember the last Super Bowl I’ve watched in its entirety, but you bet your ass I caught that entire match.
My grandfather on my mother’s side died in an accident long before I was born. I’ve only seen his face in pictures. As far as I know, there are only a few of those still around. A few days before we left I opened a card while sitting at my mother’s kitchen table and inside was one of those pictures.
She stopped cooking for a second and told me, “Your grandfather and your uncle were always playing jokes and doing ridiculous things. They called a taxi one time, loaded the trunk full of shopping bags and when the guy asked where to, they pointed across the street, a few buildings down.”
I laughed as she continued, “So here’s what I want you to do: I want you to leave this picture somewhere in Ireland.”
It took me a second before I looked at her and asked, “What?”
“I want you to leave this picture somewhere in Ireland. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the wall of some bar or in the Jameson distillery or wherever you think is right, but, because you’re the first of the boys to make it back home, I want you to pick a spot and leave this picture there.”
I held the corner of the picture between my thumb and forefinger and thought, There’s that word again.
“Do you know where you’re going to leave it?” Eryka asks.
I flick the photograph between my fingers and tuck it back inside my notebook.
I had thought of Sheep’s Head Peninsula. We had earmarked it as a place to stop and do some hiking between Cork and Killarney, but we never made it. The weather was being too cooperative and I couldn’t see the point in spending a few extra hours in the car when I was sure there were other places closer to where we were.
One of those places? Killarney National Forest.
After parking, we walk around the Muckross House estate. Its manor that, along with the surrounding gardens, looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Lush plants and bushes line gravel walking paths and trees whose massive trunks are hugged tightly with green vines. Breaking away from the gardens, we follow signs for Torc Waterfall. Sealed in a plastic bag, the picture of my grandfather is tucked inside my pocket.
We don’t spend a lot of time at the falls; a group of people have stopped and are taking pictures. After a minute or two we press on, up three or four-dozen slabs of stone embedded as stairs in the hillside. Around a bend there’s an overlook, allowing an unobstructed view of Muckross Lake and Lough Leane. There’s no rain. Not even a cloud overhead. Just blue sky and sun. Eryka looks at me and I know she knows. After waiting for several people to pass, I trek off the trail for a couple dozen yards and find a spot to bury the photograph of my grandfather. I pat the ground and smile, pausing to take in the woods around me.
Eryka smiles when I get back to the trail, and we stay at the overlook for a few minutes more before continuing. We come to a bridge where a several mid-twenties are sitting with their dog. They ask me to take a picture and make sure to get the dog in there as well. He’s family too of course. I smile, thinking of my own animals waiting for me to come back.
Our next hike is in Liscannor, County Clare along a cliff side that anyone would recognize as the iconic picture of Ireland. Walking along that edge, the ocean air feels different than it does stateside. I don’t know if it’s the Cliffs of Moher themselves that give it the cooler, crisper feeling but whatever it is, I’m relishing it.
I stare out at the expanse of the Atlantic and think of how far we traveled in the matter of a short flight. Five or so hours, and we’re in a different world. I think of all the differences, both apparent and subtle. The countryside behind me is so much like the farmlands in Connecticut and yet it is so drastically different it’s almost indescribable. It took me almost a decade, but I am where I wanted to be. The trouble is, I still don’t feel at home.
I know that when I go back to the States and people ask me if I’d move to Ireland I will say yes because the truth is that I would. It is a gorgeous place with friendly people and a rich history. But, in the same respect, so is New England. As I’m sure Norway is as well. And Alaska. And New Zealand. The only way to be sure is to go to each of these places and find out. To walk the gravel paths and drive the roads laid out before us. Who knows, maybe when I get there and someone asks where I’m from, I’ll tell them Dublin.
This was originally published in Fall 2017 edition of The Helix.