We walked down the side streets of Dublin, the kids and I. Liam and Olivia, fourteen and twelve, put up with window-shopping, for now. On side streets we walked only on the shady side looking in local stores’ windows, away from the midscale stores like Gap, Lush and Starbucks on tourist-bursting Grafton Street.
Down a quiet road we found a bakery, with plump, fresh meringues destined for melting in this rare and blistering summer heat, and a Woolens Shop, overflowing with loomed scarves and capes, sweaters and billed caps (or what the Irish call Tom Cruise hats since his character wore one during the film “Far and Away” which was shot here – A film known in Ireland as “Far and Away and the Further the Better”). Another store, O’Sullivan’s, had Irish souvenirs, of the claddagh ring variety, not T-shirts or Kiss Me I’m Irish beer mugs, but more traditional items, like antique Celtic knot jewelry and china tea pots with old Wexford patterns.
In this window propped next to a 9×13 photograph of Michael Collins, the hero of the Irish struggle for Independence, was a sign that said in large black letters: The Gathering. I skimmed it as we walked by, more interested, frankly, in the photograph. (I didn’t know that Michael Collins had been such a tall man. “Liam Neeson was born to play that role,” I thought. ) The plaque for The Gathering crossed my conscious only as a possible bit of signage for the shop owner who may have been having an O’Sullivan family reunion as far as I knew and showing her pride in the event.
It was the next day that our Dublin tour guide Chris talked about it. “The Gathering. Jesus, it’s a bit cringy isn’t it? I mean talk about just trying to get the tourist money in. They make it like it’s a big happy Irish dance and drink party here for anyone with Irish ancestry. All they want is the money. Yeah, a bit cringy in my estimation.”
We hadn’t heard anything about this big promotion. Later on our trip, I found a brochure laying on a pub table in Kinsale. It read,
“The Gathering Ireland is a year-long celebration of Ireland all that is great about this small but far reaching island. 2013 sees the Irish, and all those who call Ireland home, reaching out to our many millions of friends, family and loved-ones overseas…The Gathering Ireland is not just one big event, but hundreds of events, big and small, taking place throughout the country. Exciting gatherings have been planned across Ireland to celebrate and showcase what we are most proud of – our communities, families, sports clubs and businesses.”
The brochure was 10 pages of selling the point:
“Anyone can get involved – you don’t need permission!”
“Why not discover your natural heritage at the Irish Redhead Gathering in Cork…Or if you want to get off the beaten track why not consider some Bowling Round the Bog in Waterford or maybe you’d like to weave a little piece of history at Love in Loom in Foxford, Co. Mayo? …With so many people involved, no matter where you go in Ireland you’re sure to find a gathering to be part of.”
“With so many amazing gatherings taking place all over the country, as well as a packed calendar of sensational festivals and events, let 2013 be the year you keep that promise to yourself to let your hair down and have a good time.”
“The Gathering is organized in your honor and you are invited to be part of it. Now is the time to accept that invitation, make that trip and reconnect with Ireland.”
“The Gathering Ireland. Be a part of it.”
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a more poorly written promotional brochure. Saying the same thing over and over again on all ten of the richly photographed pages in the booklet, and telling the reader to be a part of something that she herself has to create:
“The Gathering Ireland is a people’s project, it’s all about you…planning special events that will highlight what is great about [your] community and Ireland as a whole.”
It was obvious to all three of us that the big promotion hadn’t taken root. In all my planning of the trip from America, I had never once heard of The Gathering. Nor, by the time I happened on this brochure, had we seen a single event in any of the towns we’d been in that had anything to do with the big reunion of people with Irish ancestry.
When we were in Dingle we talked to a man named Dennis Ryan about it. I mentioned the fact that our young Dublin tour guide had found it a bit “cringy.”
“I assume that means embarrassing,” I said. “I guess it’s to do with the fact that the Irish government is making such an obvious gesture towards getting the tourist dollar?”
“Well, it’s cringy all right, but not exactly for that reason,” said Dennis. “We Irish think it’s cringy because the one’s they’re callin’ home had to leave the feckin’ country they were born in and they left starving and crazed and penniless. The feckin’ government couldn’t support them! Maybe couldn’t stand up to the feckin English, maybe couldn’t make their own new government work – dependin’ on when they emigrated. That’s right. So the poor folk emigrate and now we’re sayin’, ‘Aw, come back sons and sons of sons! Come back, that’s right, be proud of yar heritage, and all. Bring yar family. And yar money.’ It’s the fact that the Irish HAD to leave. They HAD to. And now it’s a big party for them and their grandkids and great grandkids. Like nothin’ ever happened where they were starvin’ and broke. Ya see?”
I did see.
We left Dingle and headed up to County Clare to stay at Ashford Castle. Driving along I thought about what the country wanted from its visitors this summer. A reunion. An embrace. Some forgiveness perhaps. Definitely it wanted, in the most un-Irish of ways, to be intimate with us. I say un-Irish, from my own experience. My Irish Catholic relatives in Illinois are a band of merry makers, story-tellers, once-upon a time dairy farmers. But there is a code among them that has to do with not really letting someone all the way in, and in my trip research I discovered this is an Irish trait, not just a Graham family trait.
And yet, Ireland was calling its sons and daughters home to “connect.” I stared out into the farmland fields that surrounded the small motorway on which we were rumbling along on the “wrong” side of the road. Liam on the iphone in the back seat behind me, listening on headphones to his peculiar playlist of Kansas, AC/DC and Johnny Cash; Olivia next to me sleeping with her blonde ponytailed head propped against the window, the ipad fallen open in her lap with the WAZE map system kindly telling me in an English accent which direction to go at each roundabout.
Maybe for us, The Gathering had less to do with Ireland and more to do with the re-union of our trio. Me, Liam and Olivia. This was our second summer together as a threesome traveling with only one parent on board. It had started out rough and smoothed out with time. There were moments that we barely hung in there, just putting up with each other while gritting our teeth. During the intense 24/7 of being joined at the hip, including sleeping in the same hotel room, and often the same bed with my daughter, there had been many battles of two against one, one against two and three against three. There were differences of opinion and plenty of compromise.
Things like “Do you really have to be told to stop playing that video game and get your clothes on so we can go explore the town? LETS-GET-GOING!” was yelled several times. “Will you CHILL OUT MOM??” was yelled several others. And the bickering was often over smaller things than that.
There were times when I desperately wanted an adult companion to ease the journey, to share a beer with, or to enjoy the scenery together (something kids, even me – as I recall – can’t quite fully do). A companion to sit next to me and not scold me for singing “Wild Rover” aloud with the other adults in the pub. To not be the bane of someone’s existence, merely because that someone is 12 or 14 and has realized in their teenage wisdom that mothers are not cool, ever. A companion to understand the magic, and the stress, of the trip in the way that a child can’t.
For our Gathering, the moments of embrace came when we made each other laugh, when in spite of the heat and the wrong directions and missing opening hours, and pushing to get out and get going (or get to bed before midnight and get up before ten), and being homesick for friends, and the embarrassment of moms with teens and teens with moms, things happened that made us come together. When we enjoyed the same things at the same time, like the nighttime Ghost Tour in Kinsale, or tea and scones at the Shelbourne Hotel, or the afternoon boat ride to Inchagoill Island with Captain Patrick and ancient Martin the Accordion player. Or the conversation as we drove the long trek from Kinsale to Dingle:
“I feel so guilty, I’m the worst mother in the world!” I called out, breaking through their headsets.
“Why?” in tandem.
“Because here we are, driving through this beautiful countryside and you are both plugged into your screens and eating handfuls of that Irish Sweetshop candy, not even looking out the window! And I’m letting you!”
“Mom! Don’t you understand?” Liam laughed. “That means you’re the BEST mother in the world!”
I realized on the evening before our last, as we lay in one room together in Ashford Castle,an over-the-top and luxurious finale to our long journey, that this trip, in a very real way, may be the last time we will have this intimacy as a family, as a trio. Life will change very fast from here on out. Liam is going to be a High-Schooler after all. Olivia has already shown the beginnings of her break from me, the natural development she must go through and I must endure. It was important for all of us to embrace, forgive and relish in our experiences of the past three weeks. And to celebrate our little family.
Our Gathering, Irleand. I was glad to be part of it.