Planning new trips and learning new things is exciting; it gives us inspiration and direction. Travel makes us smarter and gives us a sense of connectedness to the world. It dissipates old prejudices and creates understanding. We are better people for our travels.

Charles & Sue Wells

Holiday letter

When I returned from Ireland on New Year’s Day, I found a small stack of holiday/end-of-year letters waiting for me. Often these involve a recap of the previous year’s travels.

Journeys have been defined as “travel with a profound purpose” or “mission-driven travel.” Travel can turn into a journey, just as a journey can turn into a pilgrimage, and the sum of all becomes part of our life’s odyssey.

Journey was the unifying principle of my trip to Dublin, the final week of 2019, to attend a destination wedding. “Destined nation” is more like it for both Irish and Irish Americans, “wedding” serving as the overarching metaphor. 

So many intersecting journeys wedded here. “The road goes ever on and on,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit, “down from the door where it began — on both sides of the Atlantic. The road goes there and back again from Ireland, where the population is 6 million plus, down from 8 million, when the potato famine struck in 1845, falling to 4 million as starvation and emigration exacted its grisly toll. Due to the ensuing diaspora, some 70 million people worldwide claim Irish descent, including numerous families that miraculously came together in America, the Trainors and Mooneys, McEvoys and Simpsons, resulting eventually in yours truly. Twenty-two U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, who had a great-great-grandfather from Offaly, Ireland, and revolutionary Che Guevara (Lynch), who was of Spanish and Irish descent, trace their origins to the Emerald Isle. As coach Al Maguire observed, “God invented whiskey so the Irish wouldn’t take over the world.”

But they took the world over anyway, judging by the Irish Emigration Museum, appropriately called “EPIC.” So many Irish left sadly, but their descendants return gladly. As Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, put it in 1995, “I have become more convinced each year that this great narrative of dispossession and belonging, which so often had its origins in sorrow and leave-taking, has become, with a certain amount of historic irony, one of the treasures of our society.”

Dispossession and belonging — such a painful history, but somehow “a terrible beauty was born,” as W.B. Yeats put it, and the expatriates employed “silence, exile and cunning” as James Joyce wrote, along with a generous blather of blarney, aka “the varnished truth,” otherwise known as “gift of gab,” to survive and even prosper the world over.

Robinson started the tradition of keeping a candle lit in the window of the president’s mansion in Phoenix Park to welcome back the descendants of the dispossessed and let them know they still belong. Returning means more than just an influx of tourist dollars. A lot more.

The holidays are a good time to visit Dublin because so many returning emigres reunite with family. The weather is chilly, but we were blessed with rainless temps in the 50s, balmy by Chicago standards.

Shaun Dunne, one of those returning emigres, left for the states, as many still do when they finish college, and found in Chicago his beautiful bride-to-be, Mary Claire Moran (pronounced MORE-un for the duration of this visit and Mo-RAN back in the states). A group of us followed the handsome couple to Dublin, in the process reaffirming our Irish descent (or wishing it were so), a very particular sort of homecoming. 

The bride’s father, our classmate from high school, and the rest of our group of lifelong friends and life partners, defined a satellite journey, catching up, getting reacquainted, in some cases even reconciling. We brought our life’s journeys along to this reunion. As the Irish say, the thing about the past is, it’s not the past. 

A dizzying criss-cross of journeys to be sure, wedded by one wedding, the church service accompanied by a single harp, the symbol of Ireland. But a more apt symbol might be the loosened tongue because the Irish love to talk and they’re good at it, endlessly honing their natural wit. When Shaun disappeared behind a curtain for a few moments during the reception at Clontarf Castle to retrieve a floral bouquet for his Nanny Cate, some wag in the back called out, “He’s going out the window!”

 Dublin is a wonderful place to wander during the holidays. Everyone is out. The Grafton Street mall was packed, as was the Temple Bar District. Sadly, we missed the National Leprechaun Museum as well as the Irish Whiskey Museum, where a line formed out front at 9:40 a.m. on Sunday. We did pay our respects to Oscar Wilde, reclining lifelike on a boulder in Merrion Square, whose last words, allegedly, were, “Either this wallpaper goes or I go.” Ten years after the great economic downturn, the city seems on the upswing. It’s no longer the quaint “old country.” Google and Facebook have headquarters here, housed in fancy modern glass towers. Blessed with the most appealing accent in the English-speaking world, and the women, a particular brand of pretty, Dublin is an arrow to the heart.

Tolkien, who also wrote about the “fellowship of the ring,” elevated “journey” to the level of “quest.” Our small group followed his lead, forging a fellowship of the rings (marital variety) and on our last night together forming a ring of fellowship at Bewley’s, an 1840 bakery/teahouse/restaurant for Irish stew and Irish coffee and the world’s most amazing scones. We read aloud a wish by Irish philosopher/poet John O’Donohue (“May you treasure your friends. May you be good to them and may you be there for them; May they bring you all the blessings, challenges, truth and light that you need for your journey”). As the crowds outside made their way to the New Year’s Festival of floodlights and fireworks over the River Liffey, we opened a bottle of champagne and talked about where we’ve been and where we might still go.

The journey goes ever on and on, you see, down from the colorful Irish doors where it began.

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