Now a magic memory, July’s “Mystical Ireland” tour rests softly in our minds, offering reminiscence and reflection for many years to come.
Ask Tom from Wilkes-Barre, whose homecoming to a place he had never before visited made him feel as if he never left.
Some of his Irish relatives never did.
Generation after generation of Tom’s family sunk their native roots deeper and deeper into the soft emerald soil, raising families and becoming more and more Irish in the process.
At home in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Tom dreamed of one day making contact, of discovering more about his past and connecting with the flesh and blood life of his proud Gaelic heritage.
Tom kept his dream alive for decades. Day after day at work in the prison, he sometimes allowed himself to ponder the land where it all began for his family. Was Ireland as green as everybody says? Are the people really friendly? Would his relatives embrace him with those thousand welcomes you always hear so much about?
Not that long ago Tom managed to connect over the Internet. Pursuing genealogy is easier nowadays. And with the help of a Website here and an email there, Tom found a cousin in Westport.
Now retired, Tom took a deep breath and booked passage on his trip of a lifetime.
Excited to tell me about his discoveries and his dreams, Tom sat at the introductory meeting at AAA North Penn headquarters in Scranton and spoke of the land of his forbearers. Even as a seasoned traveler to the old country, I felt his excitement and wanted badly for him to see the Ireland of which he dreamed.
But, in tourism as in love, nothing is guaranteed.
Truth be told, I worried.
Connecting with family can be wonderful when it happens. But hurdles sometimes abound and sometimes life isn’t what you want it to be. Still, the risk of travel and adventure is always worth the effort.
My own father had put off his own pilgrimage for decades because of one reason and one reason only.
“Why,” I asked Shamus. “After all my trips and after all these years, why have you never come along?”
Shamus looked me in the eye with that two-fisted police detective look I knew so well.
“I worry that Ireland won’t be what I always imagined it to be,” he said.
I gave him my biggest grin.
“It will, dad,” I said. “It will.”
And it was.
Nervous about his own mission, Tom had no idea what to expect.
Nor did I.
Day after day in Ireland I’d watch Tom and his wife enjoy the itinerary – Dublin old and new, St. Patrick’s grave and the splendor of the lush countryside, Belfast’s troubles turned to hope and Derry’s strong people fighting courageously for their share of freedom drew Tom deeper into the Celtic spell. The new Titanic exhibition brought home the stark reality of fate and the majestic Giant’s Causeway overwhelmed us with nature’s power.
Then we arrived at Tom’s family’s hometown.
On our first day there, I spotted Tom across the lobby in the Hotel Westport and sensed that something was wrong. He looked a wee bit dazed, a wee bit wobbly and his face seemed flushed.
But nothing was wrong.
Everything was right.
Tom said that the young woman working the desk had listened attentively as Tom volunteered his story about looking for the past that would hopefully blend into the present with all the intricate connection of fine linen hand-spun on an antique loom.
She listened attentively, as she must have done countless times with countless Irish-American tourists. Then she politely told Tom and his wife that her shift was ending and asked if she might drive them to the old Westport church where many of Tom’s family members are buried.
Stunned by her gentle kindness, Tom and his wife joined the young woman who above and beyond the call of duty took them under her wing and guided them even closer to home.
At the young woman’s urging, the priest came out of the church, Tom said, and showed them family records and graves and the ancient hospitality that cemented the sacred bond that shapes the cultural core of traditional Ireland.
That night, I watched across the dining room as Tom and his wife – joined by his Westport relatives – sat hunched over the dinner dishes sharing stories from here and from there.
The difference between here and there is slimmer now.
Ireland was all that Tom thought it would be - and then some. Call it the luck of the Irish or just call it goodness. Call it what you will, because a little piece of mystical Ireland lives in us all – if only we give it room enough to breathe.