With two Irish movies, multiple Irish actors, and talent across a plethora of film categories nominated for the 2023 Academy Awards, it seems likely that we are at the brink of another Irish Renaissance. Tourists will rush to Achill Island and the Aran Islands to see the movie sites. Cabled fisherman sweaters and all things Guinness will once again become the rage.
In the early nineties, independent films like the Secret of Roan Inish and Waking Ned Devine entertained scores of dreamers and Irish seekers. Irish themed restaurants rose like mushrooms in spring across the United States and abroad.
At the time, my husband was traveling to Finland and Germany for work. His hosts brought him to Irish pubs for meals and entertainment. It appeared that the world was learning what so many of us already knew, that Ireland was steeped in charm.
Having grown up in a Chicago neighborhood, many of my friends and classmates were of Irish descent. My best girlfriends learned to dance the jig in Sheila Tully’s garage. They never danced competitively, but to me they were great; their freckled cheeks grew pink with effort in the cold March air as they enjoyed teaching me a step or two during recess in our grade school parking lot.
Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade
As young teens, we attended the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I wore an Irish sweater that my dear friend Michelle gave me for warmth. She told me to keep it as a gift. My friend’s grandmother Ellen from Stradbally, County Waterford knitted it years before and gave it to her, but Michelle’s limbs soon grew too long for the sleeves; too precious to remain folded in the closet, she knew that I would treasure it always, and I have.
Forty years later, I still have the sweater and wear it as soon as the wind chills in early autumn. I always think of my friend and how we navigated the joy and tumult of adolescence with laughter and tears.
As my husband is a first-generation Irish American with family living on both coasts of Ireland, my children have had the privilege of wading in the turquoise waters of Keem Bay before Condé Nast Traveller ranked it as one of the best beaches in the world. Watching the sea birds fly, my mother cuddled beneath a fleece blanket with her seven-year-old granddaughter on the rocks of Keem Beach and declared it the most beautiful beach that she had ever seen.
A still frame frozen in time, I remember my youngest son donning caterpillar rubber boots and standing proudly by the shore, looking out at the sea with his dad. The only sounds were the cry of the gulls, the laughter of my oldest son as the cold waves lapped upon his bare feet, and the phantom voice of my father-in-law.
Before his death, he loved to bring us to the beach and tell us stories of the powerful sea: how whales would wash up to the wonder of the villagers and that the house above the strand was a WWII lookout site. In keeping with tradition, each time my family visits Keem Beach, we tell the same stories, shutting out the din of the modern world, and listen to the voices of my husband’s past.
Now on any given day, lines of campers clog the road to the once little-known beach, the smell of sausages on the grill melds with the ancient scent of kelp and salty sea spray. While I am proud that the beauty of our treasured spot is now recognized the world over, I am glad that I had the privilege of experiencing her beauty when she was still an unknown star.
Even though the children have grown into adults, we still try to visit Ireland as a family as often as we can. The children are no longer playing “catch the rainbow” in the fields behind their uncle’s house, but they still enjoy listening to the bleating of the lambs on every hillside in spring and the excited turn in their stomachs as the road from Shannon narrows and the familiar hills of Mayo fill the Irish skies.
When we travel to Ireland, we all have our favorite indulgences. Some of us enjoy the ice cream more than the Guinness, while others enjoy sticky Maynard’s Wine Gums more than crispy Taytos. All of us, however, enjoy the smell of a turf fire and the camaraderie of family.
Whether packed into a busy Westport pub for traditional music, a favorite Newport establishment on a Saturday night, or just sitting around the kitchen table for morning tea or late-night sandwiches and more tea, the laughs never seem to end. While the films acknowledged for the Oscars are poignant and artistic, thought-provoking and necessary, illuminating the talent of Irish directors, producers, actors, and more, the Ireland that our family knows is one of laughter and joy, love and devotion.
Our family waltzes in the kitchen and sings at the table. I always enjoy a jovial “step down the line,” giggling my way through a rudimentary reel with Uncle Gerry, while the aunts and uncles, grandmothers, cousins, daughters and sons – family one and all, smile at my silliness and toast another round to visits that never last long enough, and family that lives just an ocean too far away.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at su*******@ya***.com.