I find that traveling is most worthwhile when it is paired with some sort of powerful or essential human experience. That is not meant to be some sort of subtle shot at those who choose to spend their summers at the beach. I have simply found that the memorable vacations of my life involved soul-stirring, natural landscapes, or trips to see the places where history happened, places where human beings spurred the train of civilization onwards to new heights. But even more than that, I have found that the very most memorable trips involve landscapes that are inconsequential and history that is forgettable at best. These trips are about finding yourself and discovering who you are.
Ireland, to hear some describe it, is nothing more than a god-forsaken rock on the edge of Europe. It is really cold. It is really rainy. It is also home to my dad’s extended family, as well as the childhood home of his parents.
There is a lot of history in the winding streets of Dublin, although not the history about which books are written and movies are made. No decision made in Dublin changed the course of mankind. Nothing could have brought us to Dublin except for our family history, which, of course, might be the best kind of history, or at the very least the most personal.
The narrow streets of Dublin have been home to my family for hundreds of years. In little red row-homes, my ancestors were born, grew up, married, raised children, and passed on their legacies to subsequent generations. In the decaying old Guinness factory, just down the road from its sleek new descendent, my ancestors toiled for decades. The ghosts of my family’s past are everywhere. They are in the small Catholic churches, they are by the piers, and they are on the gray, windswept Irish beaches. Everywhere we went, some Coffey (my dad’s mother’s family) had been before.
The experience is difficult to articulate, and much easier to ponder about with vague thoughts like if my great-great grandfather had not left home to marry his bride, where would I be today? Or, if that guy had stayed in school, his life would not have been so difficult. Or even, if he had been able to get a job in Ireland, they might have never come to America. That last one is important. Hanging over everything in Ireland, the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room, is the fact that about 50% of Irish people have left home in the last 150 years and settled elsewhere. “Ireland’s greatest export,” my family was constantly told, “is its people.” It might be true. There are more—way more—people of Irish descent around the world than there are people in Ireland. Ireland has little in the way of natural resources, and even less in the way of land to work with. Allow me to repeat the point I made earlier in the article: Ireland is a god-forsaken rock. It is difficult to grow crops in rock. It is also difficult to grow crops in rock when virtually all of the rock has already been claimed. Ireland is not America; the American West is a very foreign and very intriguing object to most Europeans, especially Irish people, because there is just so much space. Conversely, there is no space in Ireland. So people must leave.
Leaving Europe for the United States has been one of the most heavily-studied odysseys in the history of mankind, yet the academic hodge-podge surrounding the subject has never shrouded the journey’s spiritual allure. Coming to America. Unless you are Native American, you are not originally from America. Your ancestors are from elsewhere, and they likely got here via ship. Coming to America. They could have left home for a variety of reasons, the most likely being a lack of opportunity in the old world, and a plethora of opportunity in the new. Coming to America.
The voyage might seem simple, but it is not. I stood on Ireland’s southwest coast with a group of second cousins, and looked outwards towards the sea. The frigid water crashed into the rocky coastline, spraying us all with cold froth, and the earth’s surface stretched endlessly in front of us. “I like to think,” one of my relatives started, interrupting my thoughts, “I like to think that just beyond this horizon, just on the other side of the water, that’s where America is.” And literally, that is where America lies. But in his literal observation, he may have missed the point, which is simply that America is a world away from this god-forsaken rock on Europe’s northwest coast.
America is the new world, and Europe is the old. I am from America. I am an American. My relatives are American. But we were not always American. We hail from somewhere else, somewhere smaller, from a city whose primary export is beer, from a country long ruled by a much greater country, from a medium-sized island, a mere rock on the edge of Europe. It is amazing to think how far we have come.