A Spoonful of History Makes Ireland Come Alive

Dublin, Ireland
August 2009 
My 12th grade world literature teacher was obsessed with Ireland. Sporting an extremely Irish surname-McGheean-every day in class, he would somehow talk about something Irish related. He spoke with the most fervor when he recounted how on his visit to Dublin,  he had placed his hands where bullet holes from the Easter Uprising of 1916 still remained at the famous PO (post office). He passed by Chekhov and Sumi with a fleeting glance but when we covered Yeats and Joyce, his whole being seemed to come alive. Seven years later when I would travel to Ireland myself for a vacation, Mr. McGheean’s words about his beloved ancestral homeland were constantly heard in my head.

My fiancé and I didn’t have all the funds or time in the world to journey about the entire country. Although we had been considering going on another cruise to the Caribbean, when I came across a package deal on Expedia, $750 for roundtrip plane tickets and five nights’ accommodations in Dublin, I asked Darryl if he would be interested in going. Having never been to Europe before, he replied yes but I could see that he was a bit leery of the idea. But when I stressed (over and over) what an incredible deal it was, how airfare in Europe during the summer is usually that amount alone (we were going to be traveling in August), he agreed more or less to go. 

That year for my birthday, Darryl’s mom had gotten me a guidebook of Ireland. As I passed through the pages with the many wondrous sights we were to see, I couldn’t believe my luck. As I was attending graduate school full-time, and only working part-time at an unpaid internship, I never thought I would have the opportunity to go to Europe again. I thought that after graduating from college, during which I studied in three different countries and visited numerous more, my traveling days were over. Thankfully they were not. 

Upon landing at Dublin’s airport, I immediately started to look around for red-headed people, for the legendary Colleen (an Irish person with red hair and green eyes). I wasn’t finding any. Ever since I was a child, I had always heard how all Irish people had red hair except for those with black hair, since they are supposed descendents of Spaniards who settled in Ireland after the doomed Spanish Armada. Growing up in Philadelphia, a city with an extremely large Irish population, I had many friends with Irish surnames and even more flaming red hair than either my brother or I. I always found my and my brother’s red hair to be somewhat of a funny novelty since we weren’t 100% Irish. In fact we hardly had any Irish blood at all, although someone told me as an adult that red hair is prevalent throughout the British Isles where a significant portion of our ancestry is from. 

After arriving at our hotel and resting for a bit, we set out for the city center. When we passed by the Molly Malone statue, a folkloric figure in a famous child’s song involving cockles and mussels, I wondered to myself whether Molly Malone was a red head? Did she fit the stereotype involving Irish people? Later that night at dinner in a local pub, our waitress had an accent that clearly wasn’t Irish and a sub-Asian appearance. Hmm, Ireland really didn’t seem very Irish anymore. 

At the restaurant we ate at the next day, a place called “Nude” (only in Europe), none of the waitresses were Irish. When talking amongst themselves, it sounded as if they were speaking an Eastern European language, either Czech or Polish. (It made me think of 2008 smash hit Irish indie film, Once that is essentially a love story between a native Irishman and a Czech woman.) On our way into Dublin from the airport we passed by numerous storefronts bearing signage in languages other than English. In cities like New York, London, Paris, cities with enormous populations, I had always considered them to be large ethnic melting pots, because that has indeed always been their history. But I never thought a city like Dublin I never thought was one. I know in more recent times, many Americans have immigrated “back” to Ireland, but white Americans. On our final day in Dublin, we wanted to eat inexpensively so I suggested we try a place I had heard about, the Epicurean Food hall, a complex with an array of choices that was located on the North Side (the area of the city north of the River Liffey). Although there was a Leo Burdock’s Fish and Chips stand (a quintessential Irish meal, as well as being mentioned in James Joyces’ masterpiece Ulysses), most of the stands were non-Irish and very “ethnic.” There was Turkish, Middle Eastern, Italian and Greek among many other cuisines to choose from. The skin color of the food hall workers varied greatly, but it was indeed a melting pot smack in the middle of Ireland. 

I had heard about the 1916 Rebellion walking tour when I first started researching Ireland. It was mentioned in numerous guidebooks, with each one bestowing heaps of praise on the tour leaders, Lorcan and Conor. Ever the history nerd I was completely game for it. It explained the events that took place in April 1916, when a small band of Irish men and women attempted to overthrow British control there. My fiancé, having already been sated with tours of both the Guinness Storehouse and the Jameson Distillery, was amenable to whatever we did. The directions on how to join a tour were extremely informal-show up at such and such pub prior to the start of the tour. When we arrived at the pub, we were immediately greeted by a jovial man who introduced himself as Lorcan, one of the guides. In typical Irish custom, we were invited to go inside and have a pint if we chose to do so. Seeing as how it was only ten in the morning, we abstained from drinking and instead perused the handout on active participants in the famous uprising that we had been given.

I was shamefaced to admit that Michael Collins was the only name I recognized out of a list of sixteen, and that was only because of the 1996 film Michael Collins starring native Irish son Liam Neeson. I had never seen it as I was only a small child when it came out, but Michael Collins’ role in the 1916 uprising was very small and it was some years before he would be elected president of the young republic. It seems in America that while the great Irish writers are covered in English classes, Irish history is not considered a worthy subject. I feel that most American children grow up thinking that the only thing that ever happened in Ireland was the great potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century, which prompted the great wave of its citizens to America’s doorstep, and that Ireland is just one country, and not the two it has been for more than half a century.

As the tour began, I learned just how disastrous the Easter Uprising was for those who participated, as well as for the Irish men and woman who wanted nothing more than their oppression from the British Empire to end. A band of fighters, the majority with no military experience, attempted to go up against what was considered to be the world’s mightiest empire. 

When we arrived at the famous post office on O’Connell Street, I placed my hands in the bullet holes that were still there ninety four years later, having never been filled in, a constant reminder for future generations of the battle that waged for days, right in the core of the city. As I was doing so, I could still hear Mr. McGheenan’s voice in my head, all those years later. 

The tour concluded at Dublin Castle, which until 1922 was the center of British rule in Ireland. It was there that Lorcan described how one of the leaders, James Connolly, was so badly injured from the fighting that he had to be tied to a chair and shot, as he was too ill to stand before the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, another of the uprising’s leaders, married his sweetheart in jail only hours before he was executed. 

It would take the Irish close to a decade more before they would be free from British rule but even then, becoming independent led to a civil war between those who wanted to be completely rid of the British, and those who wished to remain united with Great Britain. The “troubles” as they became known, continue to this day for some people.

Although I only came across a few redheads during my time in Ireland (one of them an American like myself), I still managed to experience some quintessential Irish moments including eating an Irish breakfast (a boatload of food that includes eggs, toast, bacon, pudding-not American pudding, baked beans and stewed tomatoes), drinking a pint of Guinness in the city’s well known Temple Bar area, seeing the type of countryside that gives Ireland its nickname of the “Emerald Isle,” and lastly, reliving in person the passionate words that for years I had heard spoken in my head.  Ireland is an incredible country with incredible people. It is a country that does not disappoint, as it truly does have a little bit of everything for everyone.

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