An Irish Girl in the World

When I spent two weeks traveling throughout Ireland in the summer of 2011, I encountered a curious shared sentiment among the Irish I met there.  Before I describe this experience, though, I feel I need to first provide some background.  I was born and raised in the United States, and my last direct relatives to live in Ireland were my great-grandparents on my mother’s side.  So am I Irish?  Technically, the answer is no.  I have never held an Irish passport, nor had I ever been to Ireland until my 2011 trip (upon which I will elaborate shortly).  I do have red hair and my favorite holiday is St. Patrick’s Day, but that is as close as this American girl has ever gotten to “being Irish”.

Despite all of this, I have always strongly identified with my Irish heritage.  My mom’s family is one of those supremely organized families, with biennial reunions held in the small town in rural Pennsylvania where our Irish ancestors originally settled.  I swear Saint Patrick himself frowns on you if you miss the Kinsley family reunion!

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Kinsley family property in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania. The Kinsleys were one of the founding Irish families of Wyalusing.

Genealogists have traced our family roots back hundreds of years in Ireland. I know the exact county and village they emigrated from on their way to America. I know the family crest, and the origin of our surname. In fact, I would venture to say that I know more about Ireland and my Irish ancestors than the majority of Irish citizens today:

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Kinsley Family Crest. Kinsley comes from the Irish “Kinsella”, which is an anglicized version of the Gaelic name “Cinnsealach.” The earliest records of the name come from the Southeastern part of Ireland in the modern day County Wexford, in the second half of the 12th century

So when someone asks me (as is not uncommon to hear in the United States), “Where is your family from?” or “What are you?” I do not hesitate to include “Irish” as one of my identifiers. To me, being “Irish” is no less a part of me than being a redhead, a soccer player, a writer, or a woman.  I know that many of my American friends share this strong identification with their own heritage, be it Irish, Italian, Chinese, Dutch, or any of the myriad of nationalities that have immigrated to this melting pot of a country at some point in history.

Back to Ireland for a moment.  My best friend and I spent months planning a backpacking trip through Ireland (more like “roll suitcase-ing”—we love adventure, but hey, we’re still girls!) that was to be our graduation present to ourselves.  We are both history nerds, so Ireland was the perfect place for us. We even attempted to teach ourselves some Gaelic, in order to fully appreciate the Ireland that we were about to see.  And I was ecstatic to finally be able to see the place from which my family originated. I had heard so much about Ireland that it felt like I wouldn’t just be visiting, but more like I would be coming “home.”

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Margaret and I at the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, Ireland

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The beautiful Irish countryside, as seen from the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary

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Learning how to properly pull a pint of Guinness

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Biking through the Irish countryside, Co. Kilkenny

Multiple times during the trip, I made a point to engage in conversation with locals about Ireland and what their views were on American tourists in the country.  After all, almost 900,000 Americans visit Ireland each year, a massive proportion of the approximately 6.4 million yearly tourists to the small island nation. The almost universal (and unexpected on my part) response was that Americans were lovely, smiling people, but that they were obsessed with pretending they were Irish.  The locals were utterly confused by the waves of Americans that come to Ireland for the sole purpose of connecting with their past.  Some even seemed to hold a sort of disdain for these American imposters, as if it were blasphemy for the Americans that visit to proclaim Ireland as their own.  In their eyes, Americans are just that- Americans. They were curious as to the allure of Ireland for visitors from the United States, and could not understand the enthusiasm that we hold for rummaging through dusty piles of records trying to find mention of our ancestors.  This revelation did not bother or offend me in any way when I heard it.  To me, it merely represented an intriguing cultural difference between the two countries.

I did not think much more about it until very recently when I came across a blog post on the subject by a Dutch woman living in the United States.  The post details the author’s annoyance at Americans who announce themselves as “Dutch” but in reality are long removed from their connections to the Netherlands.  For the first time, I considered the notion that this disdain for Americans who assert their ancestral connections could be a widespread sentiment, and one not limited to the Emerald Isle.

The thing I cannot fathom is what exactly is so wrong about an American identifying with a different place.  The United States was founded on a culture of shared ideological values, not developed from age-old traditions.  Because we have only a short history in comparison to much of the rest of the world, American traditions are invariably formed from a mash-up of the various ones brought from immigrants to the U.S.—cultural syncretism at its best.  Many American families have roots in dozens of cultures, to the point where it is difficult to say where they came from at all.  In some cases this is a blessing.  But I would argue that it is only human nature to know our past, particularly with respect to our own personal histories.

Being “American”, while wonderful, does not necessarily provide that feeling of being rooted to the earth, of having that place that is so ingrained in our being that we feel we belong.  So we adopt a culture. Usually this is the culture of our immigrant ancestors.  Perhaps an American who calls themselves “Italian” cannot speak the language and has never tasted a pizza cooked in a wood-burning furnace in Naples, but that does not make their experience as an Italian any less real.  Who really has the right to decide whether someone is [insert relevant nationality here] enough or not? I dare say that the author of that post will still consider herself Dutch if/when she becomes a U.S. citizen.  Yet at this point, she will also officially be an “American”. Where does the cut-off occur then?

Americans are the brunt of many stereotypes around the world, with the “ignorant American” only one of the most prominent.  Yes, some of these unfortunate stereotypes contain an element of truth (something I am ashamed to admit, yet have often observed in fellow Americans while traveling).  However, if an interest in one’s cultural heritage (no matter how distant) results in even one American learning something more about the wider world around them, then that is something to be admired, not lambasted.

Slainte!

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Falling for Fall

In seventh grade English class, one of our class assignments was to read S.E. Hinton’s 1967 classic novel, The OutsidersI would be lying if I professed to remember much of the plot of the book, but there is one scene that has stuck with me ever since.  When Ponyboy and Johnny are hiding out in an abandoned church, Ponyboy recites Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I have never particularly enjoyed poetry, and am certainly no expert on the subject, so it is hard for me to figure out why that poem continues to resonate with me.  Every year though, when the leaves start to change and the weather turns crisp and cool, I am reminded of it.  Maybe it is the perfect harmony of bright colors in fall, as if the trees are channeling every last bit of energy into one transient splendor before shedding their leaves for the winter.  Or perhaps it is the mountain air while hiking on fall mornings, so crystal clear that you feel as if a single restoring breath could propel you above the clouds.  Or the fact that fall represents a refreshing hint of the winter to come after an interminably hot and muggy Virginia summer, when it finally becomes cold enough to break out the sweaters, sip a mug of apple cider, and curl up in front of a wood-burning fireplace. All of these things make fall one of my favorite times of year, even more so because of the knowledge that perfect fall days are fleeting.  Perhaps it is true that “nothing gold can stay”, and the beauty of fall will soon give way to the dark, freezing days of winter, but that very fact is what makes the season so beautiful.  And Robert Frost forgot that the golds of fall return every year.

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Fall in full swing on the grounds of UVA in Charlottesville, VA.

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The Chapel at UVA

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Fall colors in the afternoon sunlight

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Driving in the Blue Ridge Mountains on a clear fall day

 

Procrastination Station

It seems that procrastination will be the death of me.  Or my writing, at least.  The longer I take to write, the harder it has become.  I have so much to say, yet the words spin round and round my head until it becomes impossible to know where to begin.  So while I am sitting here in bed recovering from wisdom teeth surgery, I’m going to try and bring everyone back up to speed with the goings-on in my crazy life.  Fair warning: if this post seems a bit random, blame it on the pain meds!

You may or may not be aware that I am no longer in Europe at the moment.  I had planned to stay in the Netherlands until I was able to apply for my residence permit, but due to unforeseen circumstances I realized I would need to go home to take care of some details before I could come back and make the Netherlands my new residence.  Within a week of finding out that I needed to return to the U.S. temporarily I had left Tilburg, plane ticket in hand, and was on a flight to the east coast.  I’m not going to lie; I harbored a mixed bag of emotions on the 8 hour flight to Washington.  I was sad that I would be 4,000 miles away from my boyfriend for months, and both frustrated and bitterly disappointed that even after all of my planning and research I still had not managed to sort out my job and visa situation as I had expected.

At the same time, I was looking forward to seeing my family and friends, eating my favorite foods again, celebrating my favorite holidays, having access to a car, and I was happy to be in a place where going about daily life does not require so much effort.  After not having stepped foot in the U.S. for over 10 months, I couldn’t wait to walk into a grocery store without worrying that it would be closed at 4pm on a Sunday.  I was excited to strike up a friendly conversation with a cashier or a neighbor without struggling to make myself understood in a foreign language.  But mostly, I missed those little things that make home, well, home.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a girl who loves and craves nothing more than going new places and experiencing new (albeit sometimes uncomfortable and awkward) things.  But the more that I travel, the more that I appreciate how important it is to have that comfort zone, that place where you don’t have to be on your guard, and where you can ultimately recoup for your next grand adventure.  So that, my friends, is what I am doing now.

More soon on happenings back home!