Discovering Ireland . . . and Finding Myself
Special thanks to my friend and fellow genealogist Susan Petersen for sharing this story of her “trip of a lifetime” to Ireland. Be sure to visit Susan’s Blog Long Lost Relatives.
From the time I was a little girl, I was fascinated by my connection to my Irish heritage. My mother, Patricia Kelly Petersen, told me stories of my Irish ancestors. The sepia toned photographs of these people I never knew captured my imagination. One in particular, John Fitzgerald, was not blood relation, but the son-in-law and brother-in-law of my Kelly men. He was the Warren Buffet of his day, Nebraska’s first millionaire and known for being a railroad contractor, banker and President of the Irish National League. I was young enough to believe my Mom when she said we were “probably” related to The Kennedys, something that easily was disproved once I began doing genealogy in my twenties.
It was no surprise when I was finally able to plan my first trip outside the United States that Ireland would be my destination. About a year ago, I saw a group tour to Ireland advertised on the University of Nebraska Alumni Association web site. The planning began, getting my first passport, getting TSA pre-check, sending in my deposit, shopping for electricity converters, doing online research about traveling outside the U.S., getting U.S. dollars converted to Euros, practicing with packing cubes to maximize space in my suitcase, notifying my bank and credit card companies of my travel plans. It truly took me a full year to pull everything together. Obsessed with organization and planning, I had to know what I was getting in to, every step of the way!
Since the tour was organized by a travel agency, I knew that there would be no time for family history research this time around. I was just thrilled to be visiting the homeland of my ancestors. I would not be visiting the exact locations where my ancestors had lived. I just wanted to step foot in the country where my people came from and made my life possible.
My family history research has taken me to the counties of birth of my second great grandparents on Mom’s side of the family. Ancestry and 23andMe concur that my DNA shows I’m 25-26% Irish heritage. This is all on my Kelly line, which includes surnames Kelly, Casey, Welch and Conneally. The counties of birth of my second great grandparents are Galway (2 people), Kilkenny and Roscommon.
My journey began on July 3, 2016 and I crossed the international time zone on July 4, my first time away from the United States on the Fourth of July. My flight landed at the Shannon International Airport. My itinerary had me staying in Galway, Killarney and Dublin. Daily excursions took me to the Dingle Peninsula, the Aran Island of Inishmore, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren, Kylemore Abbey, Blarney Castle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College in Dublin and all points in between. I viewed my itinerary as “Ireland’s Greatest Hits.”
With limited time at each stop, I soon knew I would be returning to Ireland. As the motor coach made its way through the narrow country roads of Ireland, I lusted after the cemeteries I saw from the window of the coach. “Stop here! Stop here!” I thought to myself, knowing that a future trip to Ireland would include time when I could visit cemeteries on my own.Fortunately, we stopped at a church and cemetery one day and I was completely giddy! I was so thrilled to get some photos of the gravestones and the iconic Celtic cross borne on so many of the memorials. Being in that cemetery served to whet my appetite to return and find the burial locations of my ancestors. I really felt that I had “come home” when visiting the Irish countryside. I felt a sense of belonging in the wide open country landscape of Ireland, more so than when I was in the cities. It really is true that Ireland offers forty shades of green. I’ve never been averse to rainy days, so the coolness of the Irish summer, sprinkled with rain nearly every day, was very calming to me. I loved the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the foods of Ireland. And the Irish people, of course.
Something I found amazing about the food was that every hot meal was not only served hot, but steaming hot! I’ve traveled to many locations in the U.S. and I’ve never been served food that was this hot. Many of our meals on the tour were pre-ordered for us, but I also had a chance to sample fish and chips from a pub in Dublin, smoked salmon (a new favorite for me), a burger from grass fed beef (probably the best burger I’ve ever had), Irish stew that I ate with a knife and fork, Parmesan cheesecake (no crust), steak and potatoes.
Yes, potatoes with a side of potatoes! Many of our meals were served with mashed potatoes and chips at the same meal. I drew the line, however, at sampling the “blood sausage.”Several of us commented that we were longing for some greens, kale, and any veggie or fruit other than potatoes! Another fellow and I nicked bananas at breakfast one morning to take along for a morning snack!
Since we spent long days traveling by motor coach with an informative and educational commentary by our tour guide/bus driver and our travel director, it was easy to feel cramped and stiff from sitting much of the day. We had frequent rest stops or sightseeing stops, but there were days when my legs and hips didn’t want to cooperate and function at a full 100 percent. Throughout the trip, I wondered from day to day if my legs would serve me once we arrived at Blarney Castle. Two days before that stop, we went to the Cliffs of Moher, which is probably the most spectacular view I saw in all of Ireland. None of the photos I had seen even come close to seeing the Cliffs in person. Physically, that was a good day for me and I had no trouble climbing up the steps of one of the hills to experience the view and take some photographs. The next day, I was mostly hobbling about.
Then came the day for visiting Blarney Castle. Kissing the Blarney Stone is something that is likely on the Bucket List of anyone with Irish heritage. Legend says that kissing the Blarney Stone gives one the gift of eloquence or the gift of gab. I had almost resigned myself to the idea that I might not make it up the 127 steps of the spiral stairway of Blarney Castle that day. As soon as I stepped foot on the gardens around Blarney Castle, I thought, “I did not come all the way to Ireland to NOT do this.” I have friends in the U.S. who have done it and had inspired me. There was no way I could not do it.
Before the trip, I had actually been “practicing” by doing the stairs in my apartment, so I knew I could easily manage 30-40 steps. I was determined to do this! The previous day I purchased a bracelet that is inscribed with the affirmation, “You are capable of doing amazing things.” At Blarney Castle, we were told we could turn back after five or six steps if we changed our mind. Wearing my bracelet as my guide and inspiration, I took the first few steps. And I kept going.
It wasn’t that easy for me. I pulled myself upward with the guide rope using my right hand and braced myself along the stones of the staircase with my left hand. I couldn’t turn back, so I had to keep going. I kept pace with the group pretty well until I was about 3/4 of the way up. I was huffing and puffing by this time. There was a little room where I could sit in a doorway to rest for a few minutes. Thank goodness that I did. I really needed to catch my breath and slow my heart rate. It seemed like about 20 minutes, but it was probably only five minutes that I rested. I was close enough to the top that I could see the sky. One of the fellows from my tour looked down at me from the next higher level and said that from where he stood, there were only about 10 more steps. I was in the home stretch! I got back in line, now considerably behind the rest of my tour companions, but I made it to the top!
Having been a shutterbug with my camera and phone all week, I was much too out of breath to take out my camera to capture some of the beautiful images of the scenery around the Castle grounds. I took only one photo of people standing in line ahead of me waiting their turn to kiss the Blarney Stone. It was beginning to mist and rain a bit and I was more concerned about not slipping on the wet stones at the top of the Castle.
When the last of my tour group ahead of me had kissed the Blarney Stone, I heard my tour director, Pauline, ask them, “Did Susan decide to go back?” One of the ladies turned and pointed at me and said, “No! She’s over there!” I could see my tour director smile and I hollered, “Are you going to wait for me?” and she said she would.
It was finally my turn and I lay down on the mat, scooted back, grabbed the poles, shut my eyes and followed the instructions of the most caring and kind helper. Meanwhile, our tour director was snapping photos of me like crazy with my phone. After kissing the Blarney Stone, I followed Pauline down the steps. I walked gingerly and carefully, again because the steps were wet from the rain. Once we reached the bottom, Pauline gave me the biggest bear hug and said, “I am so proud of you!” She knew that I had been struggling with “will I or won’t I?” all week, so it was quite a personal accomplishment for me to achieve this item on my Bucket List.
It didn’t take me long to post some photos on social media. A friend of more than 40 years had been following my adventure on Facebook. A world traveler who has visited Ireland several times, Vickey has a good friend in Cork named Alice who happened to be at Blarney the same day. Vickey texted me that Alice’s son was working at the Blarney Stone that day. Quickly, I texted her a photo of the nice young man who had helped me. She replied that she thought it looked like Brian, but the beard threw her, so she, in turn, texted the photo to her friend. Within seconds, I received another message that Alice confirmed that was her son Brian at the Blarney Stone! Soon, we were all texting and messaging back and forth about this synchronicity of events. I had to share with Alice that she had raised a very nice, caring and helpful son!
Years ago, I stopped believing in coincidences, so I knew that the stars and planets had aligned to bring me to Blarney on the day that my helper would be someone my long time friend knows. It truly is a small world.
My new affirmation bracelet received a few nicks and scratches as I climbed the steps of Blarney Castle. I’m glad of that, because they will serve as a reminder that I really am capable of doing amazing things. I let go of the apprehension and followed my dream up those steps!
The social media hashtag I used for posts was #tripofalifetime. It was that, and even more. I’m already planning my next trip to this beautiful island during the summer of 2017. I promised Ireland that I would return.