borders

For their fiftieth anniversary in 2006, my parents brought the family to Ireland. It’s one of those things that a certain generation of descendants of Irish immigrants do. They’d hit a certain age or milestone and know it was time to make a pilgrimage to the homeland, to see the Ring of Kerry and all forty shades of green. They’d visit pubs to try real Guinness, learn (and later butcher) a few simple phrases in Gaelic, traipse through drafty, stone churches, look up their family names in local phone books, and knock on the doors of distant cousins, the descendants of the ones left behind, with a mix of curiosity and pity. They’d return with suitcases filled with thick, scratchy, cabled sweaters (which would appear all at once in that year’s Christmas Card photo), Waterford crystal, Connemara marble crosses, Connemara marble rosaries, Connemara marble paperweights, and stories about how friendly everyone is, how kind everyone is, how everyone suddenly looked like them.

If these ventures functioned as pilgrimages on one hand, on the other they were demonstrations of intergenerational success, proof that escaping the famine or the poverty or the oppression paid off, that the Irish landed at the feet of Lady Liberty and (eventually) thrived. After decades of “No Irish Need Apply” restrictions and anti-Catholic sentiment, one of their own ascended to the Presidency of the United States, and his cousins (the rest of Irish-America) occupied the homes, clubs, and offices that once excluded them. They were doing so well they could bring their families via airplane (not the lower decks of a ship) to walk the paths of their ancestors and drop a little cash along the way, a kind of indirect compensation for being left behind and a direct incentive to keep Ireland cute, charming, and above all welcoming to their American cousins.

The centerpiece of our trip was a two-day sojourn through Cork. My parents hired a bus and driver to transport all thirty-three of us to meals in various parts of the county. No, this was not a gastrotour — Ireland is not particularly known for its cuisine. The logistics of transporting and feeding the whole crew dominated our itinerary, and it never occurred to anyone to just let us split up and feed ourselves at appointed intervals. That, or my dad didn’t trust that everyone would return at the appointed hour to stay on schedule and make it back to the hotel for cocktail hour. Either way, the experience felt less like a family vacation and more like the progress of a royal court, subjects trailing and appeasing their hosting monarchs as they visited and dined throughout their realm. Our driver had what is known as “the gift of the gab,” and he was only too happy to have a mostly polite (and very trapped) audience in his care. His stories about Ireland and the local culture were colorful, even though most of their details were negated by a quick flip through my guide book, and the only break we got from his jabber came when he realized he was lost and had driven us a solid 40 minutes in the wrong direction.

We’d arrive at a town or a castle or a view, my father would announce, “You’ve got 10 minutes,” and we’d all scatter from the bus in search of bathrooms, souvenirs, pints of stout, and photos before piling back into the bus. Then we’d drive some more and arrive at lunch or dinner where service for 33 (plus a very chatty driver) would absorb two or three hours. Then we’d drive some more and arrive at a town or a castle or a view, my father would announce…well, you get the picture. Though most of our time was spent in the bus, admiring the blurry countryside, and sitting at long tables in small restaurants waiting for another round of poached salmon (and extra potatoes for the vegetarians) to emerge, we got to kiss the Blarney Stone (after a rapid sprint from the bus to meet Dad’s 20 minute allowance), drink a pint in an actual pub (which made the next leg of the journey and its ensuing sprint for bathrooms a wee bit uncomfortable), and experienced a bonafide celebrity sighting (after my niece asked, “Isn’t that the coach from Bend It Like Beckham?,” I walked past Jonathan Rhys Myers twice — to and from the men’s room while waiting for my poached salmon and potatoes during an epic lunch in Kinsale).

For my mother, the high point of the trip was Cobh. She and my dad had visited Cobh a few years before, part of a day trip during a cruise through the British Isles. It was the place from which her grandparents had left Ireland. Her grandfather and two of his brothers sailed to the US — one stayed in Boston, where they landed, the other went on to Philadelphia, and her grandfather settled in Chicago. Because they couldn’t read or write, they never saw or heard from each other again. Her grandmother worked as a maid in a grand home in Chicago — I like to imagine she’s one of the kitchen or ladies’ maids that lives in Julian Fellowes’ imagination. They found each other, married, and raised two children. My mother’s aunt worked for the A&P for 50 years, and when she retired her bosses gave her a dozen roses and a sheet cake. “Very nice,” my mother observed every time she told the story, “but how did those men think she was going to get a bouquet and a sheet cake home on the streetcar?” All I could think when I heard the story was, What’s a streetcar? Her grandparents put her father through college and law school, a particular and deserved point of pride for any parents, but an especially poignant one for immigrants. He never practiced law, though, because on the day he passed the bar exam an old classmate from elementary school, an old classmate who by then was known to work for the mob, offered him “some work.” “Oh, I just did this as something to fall back on,” he explained (in my mother’s retelling), knowing that neither working for nor refusing to work for his old friend were options he could live with. “So Daddy never practiced a day of law in his life — he was so afraid of those gangsters.” And I’d always marvel at this detail of the story, gangsters?

The stories weren’t new — my siblings and I had heard them hundreds of times before — but they took on a new significance for my mom as the bus, by now nicknamed “The Handbasket to Hell” by a few of us, made its way into Cobh. For weeks, she’d built up our expectations about a moving and beautiful immigration museum dedicated to telling the story of why, when, and how people left. It was a sacred narrative for her, but the museum couldn’t tell the story of how it all turned out — that was Mom’s job. She primed us to see our grandparents and our ancestors in the exhibit, to feel a tangible connection to the experiences, especially the suffering (I mean, #irishcatholic #amiright), that paved a path to our lives. This would be our origin story, the final stone laid in the foundation on which our grandparents, parents, and we built our lives. This would inspire awe, admiration, respect, humility…

Then we arrived.

At least it was an hour off of the bus.

The “museum” of my mother’s description was a series of posters recounting the history of Irish emigration to North America in the lobby of a shipping terminal. The posters led to a room of life-size dioramas, each depicting a phase in the journey to the “New World.” The first featured a glimpse into the poverty that followed centuries of political, religious, and cultural oppression compounded by a blight on the potato crop. Children were in rags, parents were gaunt and distressed, and a hidden speaker issued the sounds of a crowded home. The next diorama depicted the journey itself — it recreated the lower decks of a ship, filled with filthy passengers crowded into bed bunks and hunched over buckets. James Cameron’s Titanic it was not. Instead of fiddles and festivity, we were treated to the sounds of people retching and moaning with crashing waves and the creaks of the ship in the background. It was charming. The final scene depicted the same figures scrubbed clean, dressed properly, and projecting an air of confidence and comfort. This was the American dream fulfilled, it suggested. Then we scurried to the bathrooms and to grab a snack before my dad rounded us up for the next hour’s journey to dinner where we enjoyed poached salmon and potatoes and three hours of lovely conversation with the locals.

The “museum” reminded me of a memorial in Boston (where I lived at the time) that commemorates the Irish famine and ensuing immigration influx that delivered so many Irish to the city in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The memorial is a small park with two sculptures. The first depicts a family; they are gaunt, clothed in rags, and melodramatically performing their suffering. A small boy is kneeling, about to topple over, the father is seated and hunched, his face collapsed into his hand, and the mother is on her knees, shaking her fist and screaming out to the sky. I wouldn’t be surprised if the park planned to install a speaker so we could hear her wails of “Why, God, why?” A few feet away, the second sculpture rehabilitates the family. They’re in clean clothes (though, inexplicably, only the father wears shoes), their bodies are strong and their hair kempt, and they seem to be moving forward, the mother casting a final glance over her shoulder at the misery they left behind. Among memorials in Boston, the Irish Famine Memorial is probably the worst. Unless their mothers dragged them into the tourist hub of Downtown Crossing to pay homage to their long-suffering ancestors, I doubt many descendants of Irish immigrants in Boston spend much time contemplating these statues.

For me, the first point of resonance between the “museum” and the Boston memorial was the caricatured and dramatic depiction of the people at the center of the story, but what really stuck with me was the common narrative that made it all so simple and straight-forward: the Irish suffered; they came to America; it got better. However, neither provided sufficient context for understanding the complex relationship between Ireland and England, one that included through the centuries often brutal rule, cultural eradication, and religious persecution. Neither acknowledged the experiences of the folx who stayed, the ones who survived the poverty and starvation, of their descendants who won independence from the English crown, of their descendants who found themselves in a civil war that divided the island between “republicans” in the south and “loyalists” in the north. Neither does much to stoke sympathy for today’s immigrants, despite obvious parallels of economic, cultural, and social barriers that still makes integration into American society and equitable access to resources and political representation difficult. Though intended to spur connection to the Ireland left behind and pride in the impact of Irish-Americans, neither exhibit does much more than pat descendants of Irish immigrants on the back.

Our family’s trip reinforced a feeling of connection to Ireland and Irish culture, but not the way my mom intended. In high school, I’d been part of the Ulster Project, which brought groups of teens from Northern Ireland to stay with American families for a month. Both groups (the visitors and the hosts) were evenly divided between boys and girls, Catholics and Protestants, and we spent almost every day together. Most of the month was touristy — trips into the city to see the sites, a day at Great America, a Cubs game — but at various intervals and for an overnight “lock in,” we’d lean into the reason we were together and talk about difference. The Irish kids would educate us about the very real social divisions between Catholics and Protestants and recount the experiences of threats and attacks, of family members and friends wounded or killed in conflicts at the hands of terrorists. We were amazed and baffled by what we learned, but their stories helped us to see the inequalities in American society and in our daily lives that were driven not by the Catholic-Protestant divide but by racial animus and prejudice. The purpose of the Ulster Project was for our Northern Irish visitors to cultivate relationships with each other that they could bring home to heal their inherited hatred and to build a just and peaceful society, but the gift they gave us was both a window to the world and a mirror to see the actions and structures that perpetuated injustices in our own country, something (perhaps the only thing) of which this group of teenagers had been deprived.

At the end of the month and amid two days of very tearful farewells, several of our new friends made us promise to visit them, and, a year later, a small group of us traveled to their small town in Northern Ireland. They organized two weeks of adventures for us — touristy things, like a day trip to Dublin (including a scintillating passport check by serious and seriously outfitted border guards) and an adventure to the Giant’s Causeway, and opportunities to better understand the history of the Troubles, ongoing conflicts, and the burgeoning hope for peace that would lead to the Good Friday Agreement six years later. We toured the Shankill Road neighborhood, the predominantly Protestant neighborhood that was the target of violent attacks for decades. Murals throughout the neighborhood memorialized people killed in the Troubles and depicted masked and armed loyalists to stoke pride and rage. Murals in other, predominantly Catholic neighborhoods did the same, except with virulent anti-loyalist and anti-British sentiment. In my experience, the primary function of a mural is to mark something from the past, to remember a legacy or to celebrate the contributions of a particular group, but when we visited in 1992, the Troubles were still raging. A year later, two members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army bombed a fish shop that we’d walked past on Shankill Road. The bomb killed ten people, including two children, and injured over fifty. Its number of casualties surpassed any other attack in the neighborhood, and it sparked a series of retaliatory attacks, including a mass shooting at a crowded pub during a Halloween party that killed eight and injured nineteen.

We got an education about life in a warzone in mundane moments, too. While shopping at Marks and Spencer in Belfast, where I discovered chocolate muesli and Cadbury Flakes, the store was evacuated because of a bomb threat. My American friends and I (there’s no other way to say it) freaked the fuck out. I felt myself turn pale while I scanned the floor for exits or immediate threats, but our local friends kept shopping, feeling or picking up items while slowly moving toward the doors. Once outside, we saw the bomb squad arrive with a battalion of fire trucks and police cars. I asked (urged, really) if we should walk farther, at least to the end of the block, but one of the locals sat down on the sidewalk and popped a stick of gum into her mouth. “This happens all the time,” one explained. “We’ll be back in the shop in a few minutes.” I looked around and absorbed a detail I hadn’t even glimpsed before. The police, whose presence was visible throughout the city center, even before the bomb threat, wore camouflage and helmets and carried automatic rifles. A government building down the block had a barricade that was sturdy and reflected the evidence of frequent attacks over the years.

One afternoon, I sat and had a cup of tea with the father of the boy we hosted, whose dry and gruff exterior matched his wry and gravelly personality. He was not warm or gentle — there was no wink or subtle smile that followed a biting comment — but he was smart and sociable and eager to hear my impression of Northern Ireland. I hadn’t really formed an opinion yet, and somehow we got to talking about religion. “I’m an atheist, you see,” he explained, while talking about the Catholic-Protestant conflict that dominated the local culture, “because I live here. Who could believe in God after living this life?” Except for a few melodramatic friends who claimed the label to be interesting or oppositional, I’d never met an atheist. Or at least someone who publicly, earnestly and sincerely, identified as such. He didn’t say it to be provocative, to convert me, or to challenge me in any way. He stated a fact, not an argument. He only wanted me to see and hear what I came to Northern Ireland to see and hear, the impact of generations, centuries of violent oppression and religious conflict. Who could believe…? looped through my mind for months after our tea.

Mid-July, we learned, the time of our visit, was typically the time that Catholics in Northern Ireland went on holiday. They’d cross the border to camp in Donegal, or they’d plan a trip to the continent, or find whatever adventure would get them out of Northern Ireland. You see, July 12 marks the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, in which William of Orange defeated James II and ensured Protestant rule. Like the American Fourth of July observance, in the preceding days we saw decorations go up and heard plans of parties and parades, but when I donned an orange rugby shirt, my friend raised an eyebrow and warned me that it wasn’t a good idea. This was a time for Protestants to wear orange and celebrate, and a Catholic, even an oblivious American Catholic teenager, wearing the color would invite outrage. One of our friends was marching in a parade, and we watched from a hill above the parade route. Even with vertical and horizontal distance from the crowd lining the street, I could see in my (Catholic) friend’s eyes that even this distance felt uncomfortable. One of us joked, “Should we shout Erin go bragh?” The Americans giggled, but our local friends, very seriously, cautioned us. “That’s not a good idea.” That night, bonfires would be set throughout Northern Ireland to celebrate King William’s victory. In the past, those bonfires whipped up anti-Catholic feelings and inspired some to use the commemoration to intimidate and attack Catholic neighborhoods. When we returned from the parade and saw the look on my friend’s mother’s face, a mix of anxiety and relief, I understood why they took a vacation in July.

One night, my friends hatched a plan to visit a local club. Though most venues were 18+, they knew which one was lenient with the rules (or that would welcome American passports, and dollars, at any age). We each had a drink, we danced a little, and then we were due at the pub. Well, not all of us. My friend’s father longed for the chance to take his son to the pub…but he had three daughters. My visit was the best chance he’d have to enact this rite of passage, so after the club, I was to be delivered to the pub where his other daughter’s boyfriend and I would be his sons and he’d be our proud dad (for the night). When I arrived, he turned to greet me at the bar, revealing a pint of Guinness and a shot of whiskey. I was 15, tall, lanky, and had had exactly five alcoholic beverages in my life, the fifth just a few hours before. “Oh, you won’t have to finish all of that,” he said, referring to the beer. Throwing back the whiskey, however, wasn’t optional. One shot of whiskey and five sips of Guinness later, an older man in a black suit, black bowler hat, and crisp white shirt tapped my shoulder and said, “So ye’re the Yank, eh?” My dad-for-the-night saw the confusion on my face (my buzz made his accent all the more impossible to navigate), put an arm around my shoulder, and said, “I told yer man here…” My memory of the rest of the conversation is sketchy at best. Dad-for-the-night explained I was visiting, the old man had questions, he told stories, he told jokes. I understood little of what he was saying, so I laughed when it was time to laugh, looked serious when he seemed serious, and took a sip of my endless pint of Guinness when I wasn’t sure what was going on.

I returned to Northern Ireland in 2001 for a friend’s wedding. I was grateful to be able to walk a bit after a long trip, but my connecting flight from Heathrow to Belfast departed from the very last gate in the terminal, at the end of a long and increasingly sparse concourse. Someone explained later that the airlines kept flights to Northern Ireland at a distance from the main terminal in case of an IRA attack (this was three years after the Good Friday Agreement). Because my luggage went to Düsseldorf, I needed to find a suit for the wedding, so the groom took me into Belfast, to the same block where I’d once experienced my first bomb scare. The barricades were still up, but the only camouflaged, rifle-bearing police I could see guarded the entrance to a government building. I stayed in a B&B whose host prepared a full, fried breakfast for me every day despite my request for just a cup of tea and some toast. Both Catholics and Protestants joined the wedding festivities — the morning ceremony in the stone church, the drinks, the food, the drinks, the dancing, the drinks. I ventured into Belfast and visited the two gay bars in town, The Kremlin and Parliament, and heard about a gay bashing that happened after a guy left one of the bars the week before. No one mentioned whether he was Catholic or Protestant. I visited Shankill Road — the murals were still vibrant and unsettling, but the mood was softer. During my first trip, I was an observer, a witness to a historical moment, but in 2001 I was just another tourist snapping pics of the murals that recounted a history everyone wanted to (but never would) forget.

By the time my parents brought the family to Cork in 2006, my visits to Northern Ireland had already dismantled the nostalgic portrait of Ireland that my parents, The Quiet Man, and the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade had generated, so I wasn’t keen to tap into their largely sentimental impetus to return to the homeland. I wasn’t impressed by our hotel, an old manor that had been restored and converted into a hotel and golf course to lure Americans and about which the staff summoned dubious details about the history of the place. I wasn’t charmed by the gift of the gab and the famous Irish hospitality that Americans expected. I didn’t see a paradise lost or left behind in the rolling hills and forty shades of green. Instead, I noticed that most of the hotel’s management were Irish but most service staff were Polish, immigrants who landed in Cork from another corner of the European Union to find work and opportunity. I paid attention to the ways other Americans, including members of my own family, treated locals more as safe and charming exemplars from an idealized world, less as people with complex histories and aspirations.

In 2011, I went to an American friend’s wedding in Donegal. I’d planned to fly to Derry (in Northern Ireland), rent a car, drive to Donegal (across the border, in the Republic) for a long weekend, and then return to Derry and on to the next stage of my trip. When I arrived at Derry’s small airport, though, I learned that, despite my reservation, only vehicles with manual transmission were available. This was not, I thought, the moment to learn how to drive stick, so I asked the guys at the rental counter about how to get to Donegal. “I can drive ya,” one said. The other followed, “But you’re in the middle of your shift.” The first, without breaking eye contact with his colleague, drew out his timecard and punched it in the clock on the wall, saying, “Not anymore.” He was chatty and upbeat, likable without being overbearing, but because I was out of practice with the Northern Irish accent, I understood about a third of what he said. Thankfully, my ears were still plugged from the flight, giving me some cover while asking him to repeat what he’d just said, but as he slowed down the pace of his speech it was clear that he appreciated my struggle with our language barrier.

As we neared the border between Counties Tyrone and Donegal, the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, I remembered crossing the border by train years before and the camouflaged and rifled border guards who walked through the car and inspected each of us and our passports. When I dug my passport out of my backpack, my new friend and driver gave me a puzzled look and said, “You won’t be needing that.” He didn’t even have to slow down as we crossed the border and passed signs wishing us farewell from the UK and welcoming us to the Republic. Before he left me at the manor hotel that hosted wedding guests, he told me he’d be back on Sunday at 2:00pm to get me back to Derry for my flight to London. My friend’s wedding was in a small, stone Presbyterian church, and the morning ceremony was followed by several rounds of Pimm’s Cups, lunch, more drinks, more food, more drinks, more food, lots of dancing, and, well, more drinks. I made it back to my room in one piece, which is more than I can say for a few of the groomsmen who decided to go for a swim after the dancefloor closed. They made it through the woods around the hotel to a small lake and stripped their elegant kilts and coats, but not all of the clothes returned. At dawn, one of the groomsmen returned to the hotel with only two hubcaps that had been discarded at the side of the road — he held one to cover his front, one to cover his ass. They were the only things, as the quickly-spreading story recounted, he could find to return to the hotel with any semblance of dignity.

Thinking back to it, I don’t remember whether the groom’s family was Catholic or Protestant. It wasn’t a question on anyone’s tongue. As promised, the driver returned. He reminded me of my call to him at 11:00pm the night before and teased me for my slurry explanation that I wasn’t sure what, exactly, he’d said about a return trip. We chatted the whole way back to Derry, and I asked him to repeat himself. citing a mild hangover (which, I’d decided, would replace the buffer of airplane ears), only once. I told him about the wedding — he had a good laugh about the groomsmen’s skinny dipping fiasco and shared a few of his own past antics at weddings. I told him about my first trip to Northern Ireland and my memory of camouflaged police and our nerve-wracking border crossing, and he replied with a list of the places in the US he hoped to visit. The Grand Canyon? Really? Why does everyone want to see the Grand Canyon? I told him all about the places I’d lived and encouraged him to make sure Chicago, Boston and New York City were on his list. “What about Hawai’i?” he asked. “Oh, I’ve never been,” I said. “It’s too far.”

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Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator | billhulseman.com

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Bill Hulseman

Bill Hulseman

Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator | billhulseman.com

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