Up, Up, and Abroad: The Rocky Road to Dublin

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The Rocky Road to Dublin – Samantha Kiernan

Spend just five minutes talking to me, and you’ll likely realize that I am loudly and obsessively proud of my Irish heritage. Now this passion never stemmed from a love of Irish cuisine or a deep knowledge of Irish history. It wasn’t fueled by kinship ties maintained across the Atlantic or traditions passed down from generation to generation. Instead, for most of my life, my Irish identity was tied to my family and the values they instilled in me.

It was my grandmother who taught me that the most important men in my life should be my father, JFK, and Jesus. It was my uncle who shared with me the key to longevity: leaving the table hungry, leaving the bed sleepy, and leaving the bar thirsty. It was my cousin who informed me that to be a proper diplomat, I have to be able to tell a man to go hell in a way that he’ll look forward to the trip. Raised to believe that blood is thicker than water; that being religious doesn’t mean attending Church, but practicing empathy and compassion; that insults are complements if they’re made by people you love; that conflict is rarely worth the hassle; and that the best laughs come from tongue and cheek humor, I have always considered myself Irish.

So, this past summer, when I had the opportunity to study and work abroad in Dublin, I was thrilled. In my family, it is somewhat of a rite of passage to spend time in Ireland; to connect with our roots; and to figure out what being Irish means to us. Thus, without much preparation or research, I jumped on the opportunity. I hopped on a plane and crossed the Atlantic. I was confident the summer would be perfect and that I would find a second home in Ireland. In fact, I was certain I wouldn’t even have a period of adjustment. I could skip that awkward process of cultural assimilation that most foreign students undergo because I already knew Irish culture; I lived it. To what could I possibly need to adjust?

But when my plane touched down on the runway at Dublin airport on June 6, something immediately seemed off to me. It wasn’t the people or the climate. It wasn’t the accent that hung thick in the air and, for the untrained ear, muffled words into incoherence.  It wasn’t even the fact that I was alone in a foreign country. It was the big sign above my head that read, “Fáilte go hAerfort Bhaile Átha Cliath.” I started blankly at the words, ones I had never seen in my life. All around me, on every sign in big, bright green letters were words from a language I couldn’t speak let alone identify.

I went over to a security guard and timidly asked, not wanting to seem as ignorant as I felt, what language was on the signs. He chuckled, patted me on the back, and asked, “Comin’ from the States for a visit, are ye? Well, ye’ll see a lot of this here. It’s Irish.”

Irish? I looked at the signs again. Did he mean Gaelic? I knew about Gaelic, albeit not as a living, used language. I had thought of it as similar to Latin, as a forgotten tongue with a few fun phrases, like póg mo thóin.

“Ah,” he replied. “Americans just call it Gaelic. But here, it’s Irish. First official language of the country.”

I felt my cheeks turn bright red as I thanked the man and pushed through the airport, all my earlier confidence and bravado gone. I felt a flutter in my chest, a weight sink to the bottom of my stomach, and a fear settle into my heart. Irish was the first language of Ireland, and I couldn’t understand a single word of it. In fact, until just minutes earlier, I had not even realized it existed. It’s one thing not to speak the language of your ancestors, especially in the United States, where most people speak English and have limited knowledge of second languages. But to not know an entire language exists? To not know it is the first language of a country? Of “your” country? That was a different kind of error–a more egregious, more startling failure.

As I left the airport, weakly dragging my bag behind me, I started to think. What else did I not know about Ireland? What other aspects of the culture had I completely ignored to fit my foreign understanding of what being Irish meant? Could I really identify with Irish heritage if my only connections to the culture were the values my family taught me? Was Irish culture even mine to lay claim to?

I looked up at the exit sign, a sign I couldn’t understand, and I wasn’t so sure anymore.

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