Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Ireland: Past, Personal, and Historical

For me, traveling through Ireland is a journey back in time to my own roots, a sort of “remembrance of things past.” Each time I return to Ireland, I feel like Oisin coming back from the “Land of Youth” (Tir na nOg”). Oisin’s former home felt both familiar and strange to him, since St. Patrick came and changed it utterly while he was away.

I grew up in Gort, in south County Galway near the Clare border, so I like to think of myself as from "real Yeats country," near his one-time summer home, Thoor Ballylee. My grandfather was the housepainter at Lady Gregory’s home at Coole Park, where the noted dramatist hosted the Irish Literary Revival. He brought Lady Gregory news of “the Troubles” in the Gort area during 1919-1923; he is quoted in her journals.

During our tours, we will visit the Aran Islands in Galway Bay for a taste of the old language and culture. Gaelic is still spoken as the first language on these fascinating limestone landscapes dotted with pre-historic ruins, but my Irish has become a bit rusty. Our trip to the land and sea of Galway will be a sentimental journey into the ancient past.

“Dublin” by Louis MacNeice is one of my favorite poems summarizing Ireland's capital and “all her ghosts that walk/and all that hide behind/Her Georgian facades.” The poem recalls Dublin’s history as “Fort of the Dane/Garrison of the Saxon/Augustan capital/Of a Gaelic nation/Appropriating all/The alien brought...” Perhaps we will sense some of those ghosts as we walk her streets. Here, we will walk in the footsteps of such geniuses as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Sean O’Casey, and James Joyce. The city’s Trinity College is home to many treasures, including the Book of Kells. Its students included Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Wilde, and Samuel Beckett. I felt their presence when I studied there for two years in the mid-seventies.

In America, I have been haunted by these spirits from the past. I have been a college educator for more than 25 years, teaching and lecturing students about Irish poetry, drama, and fiction, among other things. Much of my academic life in America has been a coming-to-terms with the personal and collective past of Ireland. I feel as if I have been living in two different countries spiritually for decades. I think of the saying, “the past is a different county—they do things differently there.” Denis Donoghue said that “Yeats invented a country and called it Ireland.” We all have our different “Irelands of the mind.”

Click here to learn more about our late summer journeys to Ireland. Click here to learn about 2010 Ireland tours.