The Ireland that fills my heart

With more than 11 million annual visitors kept home by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tourism Ireland has released a short video to remind prospective travelers they “can still dream of future holidays and adventures.” The campaign, titled I will return: Fill your heart with Ireland,” arrives at the 20th anniversary of my first visit in May 2000.

And that recalls my dearest experience of Ireland.

At Dublin Airport, I handed my new Irish/E.U. passport to the customs agent, having obtained citizenship through foreign birth registration. He waved me into the country without question. Then, as I waited for my luggage, I thought I heard my name called on the public address system.

“That couldn’t be me,” I thought. “Nobody knows me here.”

I took a taxi to my bed and breakfast in Portmarnock. The room wasn’t ready, but the innkeeper secured my suitcase and I took a mid-morning walk on the nearby strand.

When I returned, my host answered a telephone call.

“Yes, he is here,” he said.

It was for me.

Eithne

The voice at the other end of the line–and it was still a line–belonged to a woman in her 60s, a retired school teacher, the unmarried daughter of a North Kerry man. His brother was my mother’s father, who emigrated shortly before the Easter Rising.

My grandfather married a North Kerry women in Pittsburgh, where several of their siblings and other relations also lived. Because of these connections to Ireland, deepened by the citizenship through decent process, I shared my travel itinerary with my mother. She passed the details to her sister, who maintained regular contact with the woman on the phone, the one who had me paged at Dublin Airport. Her name was Eithne.

My plans to meet the Irish relations were unformed, something to be figured out during the trip, if any of them even cared to meet me. A holy trinity of Irish and Irish-American women assured those introductions. My plans changed within an hour of my arrival. Eithne insisted that I lodge with her.

The B&B host graciously released me from my booking. Eithne’s Jack Russell Terrier, named Beano, sniffed me suspiciously, but deigned that I enter the house on Griffith Avenue, Dublin, near Corpus Christi Catholic Church. I was very welcome in Ireland.

***

In the 50-second “I will return” video, edited from earlier campaigns, only a few people are seen among the verdant landscapes and historic sites; mostly from behind, all of them individually, none in groups. A few turn to the camera and motion as if to say “come over here,” suggesting an unseen companion outside the view and a metaphor of the “return to Ireland” dream theme of the promotional work. Like them, I have enjoyed solitary walks along Ireland’s “wandering lanes, and rugged cliffs, her fields laced with streams”, as the narrator intones. Conspicuous by its absence, however, are scenes of people-packed pubs and festivals. 

Over the last two months, relations and friends on both sides of the Irish border have shared their quarantine stories with me. Long term, I can’t imagine a socially-distanced Ireland. I want to be crowded around a Galway city busker, surrounded at an Abbey intermission, bumped into by other bookstore browsers, elbowed by relations around a kitchen table.

The “I will return” narrator is confident of being “welcomed in at every turn, into her kind embrace,” the pronoun a reference to Ireland at large. That welcome does not come from solitary exploration of unpopulated landscapes, lovely as they are. The Céad Míle Fáilte, the hundred thousand welcomes, comes from the Irish people. 

Before she died in 2016, Eithne introduced me to dozens of relations. I have enjoyed spending time with them during nine more visits to Ireland, three with my wife, whom I had not yet met in 2000. I’ve added new friends and professional contacts on my own. And I’ve enjoyed random encounters with farmers and merchants, archivists and waitresses, and many others working in the island’s important tourism industry. 

Collectively, they are the Ireland that fills my heart. It is to them I will return, to once again hear my name called in welcome.

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