St. Patrick’s Day is here and those of us of Irish descendent tend to get a bit sticky, playing “Danny Boy” and forcing corned beef and cabbage on the unsuspecting.
It’s in our nature. Nostalgia is every bit as Irish as optimism is American. Storytelling is in our souls. And that is why I’m asking that you bear with me for one more bit of Irish reverie, in honor of the day.
Many of us trace our family’s roots, finding out who our great-great-grandparents are and how they happened to take that big venture across the sea from Spain, Sweden, Somalia or Singapore. It helps us understand who we are.
We had traced some of ours to Downpatrick in County Down in Ireland, the very spot where St. Patrick began his work and where his body is buried. It’s in Northern Ireland, but when we arrived there last spring, we found no evidence of the Troubles that have so long plagued those few counties. It was a beautiful spot: serene, green and lovely.
We checked into a wonderful, modern hotel that was practically deserted. Prices were modest and we wondered why, earlier, when we asked if there was a hotel nearby, three townsmen had strange looks on their faces. “Well,” they said, “you could try …”
We learned the next morning, after a peaceful and undisturbed night, that the place was supposed to be haunted by the monks from a nearby monastery. We were rather disappointed that they hadn’t chosen to grace us with their presence.
The evening before, as we ate in the hotel’s deserted dining room, I had sat looking out a window at a hill covered with the greenest grass I’ve ever seen. The wind was blowing it about, creating emerald waves. I don’t know why, but the sight filled my eyes with tears.
Could some ancestor of ours, some ancient McCraw, have seen this same wind-blown hill? Was he frightened to be leaving this beautiful place — or longing to make a new life far away? What was the journey like across the sea? What happened that caused him to flee?
I wondered: What would my life have been like if I’d grown up here? Would my family have been touched by the violence that is the all-too-familiar fate of Northern Ireland?
We drove a short way down the road and came to the ruins of an abbey which family legend says was the spot where some tragedy occured that caused a McCraw to leave abruptly so many centuries ago. We don’t have the details, but we believe a son did something wrong and his father sent him away to freedom in Scotland. One of his descendents made his way to America after being on the losing side in a famous battle against the English.
But this abbey was, as far as we have been able to learn, a place where we could trace our heritage. It was a silent place; you felt very close to the past.
Across the crest of a hill, a large black dog came running towards us, a keeper of this lonesome place like some wraith from another time. He became our guide. Wherever we mentioned wanting to go somewhere, he immediately turned and started toward it, as if he could understand our words. He disappeared suddenly, gone from somewhere near the cemetery. It was a mystical experience, a bit of Irish magic.