For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of visiting Ireland. Those rolling green hills fascinated me, tugging my heart across the ocean since I was small. St. Patrick’s Day was always important to me. I liked decorating with shamrocks and rainbows and pots of gold, and I liked trying to trap leprechauns as a child. (I didn’t actually like the corned beef and cabbage that went along with our American version of the holiday, but I powered through.) Many of my school projects about family history centered around my Irish side – a history which was made even more interesting to me when I found out we lived in a castle during feudal times. I flew over Ireland when I was 17. I remember looking out the window on that clear night, and I could see the lights on the island below. My heart leapt. “Someday, I’ll be there. I’ll be back,” I thought. I watched the country pass below my plane window until I couldn’t see it anymore.
I don’t know why I’ve always felt so strongly connected to my Irish roots when I have so many different countries in my blood, and my birth certificate simply says “American”. Maybe it’s because green is my favorite color, or because I look more stereotypically Irish than a lot of people who actually are from Ireland. Maybe it’s something deeper. But going to Ireland was always high at the top of my bucket list.
Ireland drew me, just like the mountains have always drawn me. So, when I decided to take this winter to travel, I knew right away that I was going to Ireland. It was perfect timing. My friend Megan, who I was going to visit, helped me get the trip all planned out, and I booked my flight. Even so, it didn’t seem real. All the places I’d dreamed about and seen pictures of still seemed so far off, like somewhere I’d imagined but didn’t really exist. Like something from a dream.
When the plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Dublin, the sight of those rolling green patchwork quilt fields took my breath away. My eyes misted up. I realized I was really there, that when the plane landed, I’d get an Irish stamp in my passport. I’d be on Irish ground.
And for the whole week, I had to keep reminding myself that those were real shades of green. Those low stone walls were immemorial, not just built for the aesthetic of looking old. That the land there is so ancient, my brain has trouble fathoming the decades that have passed since my family was Lords of the Route.
The one thing I was dead-set on seeing during my visit was that old family castle. We needed to get to the north, and when the rental car didn’t work out, Megan had the genius idea of taking a bus tour, staying in Belfast for an extra day, then taking the train back home. So that’s what we did, and we got to see some pretty incredible things because of it. (We also got to live our Hogwarts Express dreams on the train…anything off the trolley?)
We stopped at several places throughout the North: The Dark Hedges, Carrick-a-Rede, Giant’s Causeway. And because we weren’t trying to drive on the other side of the road, we could just sit back and enjoy the scenery between destinations. At first, I was so upset about not having a car, but the change of plans just went to show me that sometimes things don’t work out the way we think they should, so that they can come together in an even better way.
Dunluce Castle was the last stop of the day. It was just about golden hour when we got there. Everything was backlit. The castle is built on a cliff that drops straight into the ocean, with waves crashing below. The turrets rose out of the rock like they were a part of the land itself, standing as a sentinel to the water. Reaching above like some sort of backbone built into a cliff. The backbone of a piece of my family history. It was so amazing to imagine my ancestors walking around in there, living their 12th-15th century lives. They lived there longer than America has been a country. I bet none of them ever even thought that one of their descendants would be looking at their home, after traveling across that very sea to get there. That journey would have taken months in those days, typically a one-way trip for most passengers. I made that trip in six hours, and did the same thing in reverse a week later. What are the chances that we’d have the ability to travel the way we can, when we’ve only had the opportunity to fly for a little over a century?
And what were the chances of me even having been born? All the exactly right combinations of people in Northern Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Germany, so many other countries in Europe had to meet, fall in love, get married, and have babies that would grow up to do the exact same thing, then cross the ocean and continue that same circle of life here in America, just for me to be standing there, looking at that old castle ruin on a windy day in February. It really humbled me, brought me back to my roots, and made me realize (once again) that nothing can happen by mistake. Everything we do teaches us something or gives us something of such importance that we can’t begin to understand it until much later. From that perspective, it just goes to show that we must be intentional in everything we do, for we don’t live our lives for ourselves. We live for others and for the future and for eternity.
The next day we spent in Belfast, with no real itinerary other than the suggestions of the baristas at a little coffee shop on the way into the city. I absolutely fell in love with Belfast, and I think I liked it because it reminded me of home. Belfast and Detroit are really very similar. There is so much rich industrial history in each city, be it building boats or cars, and each city is known worldwide for the Titanic, for Ford, Dodge, and Chevy. Industry continues, even though today, both cities are better-known for violence. And both cities recognize the fact that they’re not perfect. They both had tanks rolling down the streets fifty years ago or less. Both are known for roughness and blue-collar grit, division and troubles. Yet, turmoil produces character. And determination. The power to rise above the ashes.
Things are getting better. The cities are pulling themselves back up. Through it all, Belfast and Detroit have beauty – some retained from the past, some formed by the struggles they’ve seen. The walls of old buildings are now the canvases for new murals depicting the past, serving as a reminder of each city’s recent history. They’ve both established quality coffee and art scenes. They are promoting museums and tourism without ignoring or overlooking the lingering shadows of the past. Those shadows are part of each city’s culture, an important piece of history and a contributor to the arts. A tribute to the beauty of overcoming adversity. A reminder of how far we’ve come, and the distance we have yet to go.
And because of all the past’s darkness, you’ll meet some of the kindest, most compassionate people you’d ever imagine meeting. In both cities, it’s normal to smile and say hi as you pass a stranger. These people know what it’s like to feel down, or looked down on, because you’re from a rough city. And people from both cities know that they don’t want to make others feel that way. Because they’ve seen the dark, they know how they don’t want to be treated. I’d imagine if everyone showed that kind of compassion, the world would be a kinder place.
So you’ll see both sides of both cities. In Belfast, you’ll see Peace Walls, shopping centers, and the college Liam Neeson attended. You’ll see the docks and the Titanic museum, history and new hope. Across the pond in Detroit, you’ll see the abandoned buildings made famous by urban explorers, but you’ll also see Indian Village, the River Rouge plant, and a hip bar and music scene in Midtown. You’ll see it all the way it is – candid and honest, not trying to hide the past, but ready to move on to a better present and future.
All of this I knew in Belfast, because I lived all of it in Detroit. The heyday of industry past (on the docks or in the plants), the division of cultures (religious or racial), and the coming back together, knowing that we must not discount our shared past to continue working toward unity in the present. And I think the strangest thing about all these similarities is how part of my family came from this area of Ireland, so similar to my hometown. And somehow, I was born in Detroit, so similar to this area of Ireland. It must be hereditary, traits that are somehow in my blood from way back.
I could go on and on about the time I spent in Ireland. As much as I enjoyed the Republic, I guess this is my love letter to the North. The land is wilder, more rugged, just like the places my heart feels home in the States. My ancestors came from County Antrim. Blame it all on my roots, but I felt like I belonged, even though I’d never been there. I felt like I’d been there in another lifetime. I think there’s something to be said about going back to where it began, even if it was almost a millennium ago. You might find that it’s not too different from the place where you are today.
“They say mother earth is breathing with each wave that finds the shore. Her soul rises in the evening, for to open twilight’s door. Her eyes are the stars in heaven, watching o’er us all the while. And her heart it is in Ireland, deep within the Emerald Isle.” – Ireland by Garth Brooks