Ireland proved to be both an extraordinary escape to the past and a tourist trap. The former experience came from unexpected places: a pub we found by accident; a trail run ascending into the seemingly ever-present mist.
For example, everyone goes to Ireland to see the Cliffs of Mohr. Understandably, as they are spectacular.
But I found The Burren to be the most phenomenal thing I saw on the trip—and maybe ever. One hundred and sixteen square miles of limestone sprawl across the hills as a checkerboard of green and grey with the Atlantic Ocean breathing clouds in the distant horizon.
My mom and I came to Ireland to see such world wonders, yes. But primarily we sought the graves of our ancestors. My mother’s mother’s parents skipped across the pond from the rogue British Isle.
So we traveled back across the Atlantic to find the tombstones of those they had left behind. Thanks to my aunt’s years spent digging up records in archives like the Salt Lake City Mormon Church, she uncovered not only the names of many of our dead ancestors, but the living ones. Like, the fourth or sixth or whatever removed cousins still speaking in musical Irish accents.
Thus we drove northwest, stopping at the Knowth passage grave on our way. That’s where Neolithic people from around the 20th century BC century buried their dead. Yep — that’s right. These mounds with underground passageways are over 4,000 years old and still structurally sound.
We eventually made it Castlebar, and seeing the frankly lackluster downtown, the town painted blah with globalism, we decided to get a snack at a superstore and bust outta there to the quaint BnB I had reserved on the coast.
In the superstore, though, my mom gained a renewed determination to find where these estranged relatives live. She asked the security guard and by golly yes, yes he knew the McAlpines. Well, in fact. I’m sure their kids played rugby together or something.
And that’s what I mean by discovering an antiquated past in unexpected places. There I was, in some Walmart knockoff, and the security guard shooed away a clerk informing him someone had shoplifted. (Seriously, that happened.) This was freaking important. Lineage was important.
He drew up a map on the back of a receipt and animately descried the route. My mom and I get in the car and immediately began debating what he had said. I’m still not entirely convinced the Irish speak English. We managed to find our way regardless.
It was a pretty little farm, truth have it. Green rolling hills, tower ruins in the near distance, sheep munching away: a picture for a calendar.
My social anxiety promptly flared up when we parked the car outside the one-story beige house. What, exactly, did we plan to talk about? Would this great aunt two times removed actually be excited to meet us?
We knocked on the door and…no one answered. We knocked again and again—I mean, in theory we had come all this way for this moment!—but no one was home. I could feel my mom’s disappointment. Or maybe it was my own. She wrote a scrunched letter on the back of her business card and left it wedged into the door.
We went to the graveyard and spent an hour looking around for tombstones. It was a fun game of seek, the reward being the McAlpine name carved into rock.
I took a few minutes to look at each grave, wondering how James had lived in the 19th century, or what had tickled Anne’s bones back in the 1950s. I decided my ancestors and I would have a hard time finding common ground.
Though I think my mom and I both felt a little underwhelmed by the Great Ancestor Hunt’s results, the trip overall brought me a greater appreciation for and understanding of lineage. Sure, we found the graves: mission accomplished. But when I think of my Irish lineage now, I think of those giant earth mounds and how people had lived on the island for centuries—people with advanced architecture skills and rich spiritual beliefs.
I think of the dynamic communication of land and ocean on the coast, and how this conversation between water and earth must have informed the people’s way of thinking and being.
I think of Kings and Queens, witches and saints.
I think of castles and abbeys, of centuries upon centuries of conflict and reconfiguration, war and reconcilation.
You see, lineage, I now believe, extends beyond relatives. Place creates DNA, quite literally—sustenance from the land offers the sugar, nitrogen, and phosphate that build DNA chains. Story, too, creates DNA, in that stories inform beliefs, beliefs guide action, and action shapes the body, ultimately altering DNA chains.
We went to Ireland because as an American WASP, I often find myself craving a greater sense of connection to lineage. My ancestors uprooted and replanted, like so many of us living here now. And though our DNA continues to evolve, absorbing new homes, incorporating new stories, I found my concept of self expanding through a more tangible connection to the past.
We sought the graves of my ancestors, and what I found was alive and thriving: that is, landscapes magical in their wildness and my own wild wonder for history. Maybe now more than ever, with internet-phones literally changing the way our brains work, it will prove vital to reconnect with our ancient roots—to remember the mystery and expansiveness of our existence.