On the Bridge: Coming home again to Irish soil


LEE -- In 2009, Ann LaBier of Lee first went to Ireland, on a 10-day trip in March, and she spent St. Patrick's Day in the town where her grandmother was born.

Her grandparents -- her father's parents and her mother's father -- came from Ireland to Brooklyn, N.Y., in the early 1900s.

Her grandmother came from Balinrobe, County Mayo in Western Ireland.

The town is about as large as Lee, a downtown area sorrounded by farmland and sheep. LaBier saw the holiday parade there. St. Patrick's Day, she said, is a national holiday in Ireland and a religious holiday. Many people go to church in the morning after their chors are done.

"There are parades everywhere," she said, and people dressed in costume, holding banners. The processions had themes like the recession, events shaping the town and communities.

"It was breathtaking," she said, "to be standing on a street with 2,000 people and wondering how many were my relatives."

At the South Mayo Family Research Center she asked about her maiden name -- Dulin, from the Irish town of Doolin -- and family names, O'Malley and Feerick.

O'Malleys, she was told, "were block deep."

She and her husband went to Doolin too, on the Atlantic Coast near the Aran Islands. She remembers stone walls marking field borders, thatched roofs, piles of peats drying for fuel, and the bright colors of the houses, vibrant purples and yellows and green. Those colors, she was told, show independence.

"The government owns the houses," she said, "and once people pay them off, then they can paint them."

Ireland has gone through difficult times since her grandparents left, though their entry into the EU has helped recently.

"Their stability is based on people coming," she said.

Jo Grossman of Housatonic has been coming often, for many years. She works for a foreign literary rights agency and travels often -- and Ireland draws her back constantly.

"It envelopes you," she said. "It makes you feel you belong there."

She fell in love with the idea of Ireland when she was 12, she said. She has no Irish blood she knows of -- her family is Jewish from Hungary and Germany -- but she has loved the country for decades and visited many times.

On her first trip, in 1993, many of the most famous sites were open, and she could walk right up to them. She saw the green mounds at New Grange, she said, earth domes over passage graves. A small rock window sits above the low door, and at the summer solstice the sun shines through.

Now tourism is growing, she said, and people are coming in. In Dublin, she learned to say "thank you" in Polish from a young man who filled her car with petrol.

But she likes the country and the smaller towns.

"You battle sheep," she said. "They think they own the road."

It mists often but rarely rains hard, she said, and "even when it rains, the colors look brighter."

In June, the days stay light until 11 p.m. in the long, northern dusk. Music at the pubs starts late, she said.

On the road, she finds herself stopping to explore what catches her eye: old, thatched houses, one with an old stove and flowers growing out of the thatch.

One woman saw her looking at her house and invited her in. Another helped her in a downpour to find a B&B so hidden the woman didn't know it existed in the town where she was born. She and Grossman are now fast friends.

Grossman has talked with caretakers at medieval abbeys and at the old armory in Kinsail, overlooking the water. She has talked with guides giving tours, a librarian who told her that more than 5,000 Jews emigrated through Ireland in World War II, a man on a bicycle who recommended the town's Chinese restaurant for dinner.

LaBier savors the memory of Irish food -- lamb stew, fresh eggs, blood sausage, fruit breads with sweet butter, strong tea, nd the seafood.

"The fishermen are out catching what you're eating that night," she said.

She had not known her grandparents. She is the youngest in her family, and her grandmother died the year she was born.

Her mother's father, she said, came to the U.S. when he was about 14, at the turn of he 20th century. He worked odd jobs, she said, and during Prohibition he ran a speakeasy.

But her family has not handed down stories about her grandparents' lives.

But she thinks about them: about how brave they must have been to leave everything they knew and come to a city neighborhood when American businesses used to hang signs outside saying "Irish need not apply."

And something of Ireland seems to have come down to her. She has red hair, a Shamrock bracelet and an insistence on respect. And the country draws her back. She remembers how she felt when she stood there for the first time.

"It was a sense of the first time you felt like you were home. When we landed" --" she took a deep breath and let it out slowly -- "something felt like where I want to be."

On the Bridge

Multicultural Bridge and Berkshires Week have partnered to create a column and a blog that will share voices and stories from all corners of the county and the world.

Meet a professor of languages from South Sudan, a mother from Peru, a rancher from Becket and many more neighbors, at www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.


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