This has been another tumultuous year globally, and I am surely not alone in having said farewell to important people within my personal sphere. One such loss was my cousin, Alfred Edward Sullivan, whom some knew as “Sully”. Al was a strong, enthusiastic and loving spirit who lived an emotionally rich and fully engaged life. His quick, irreverent wit and sharp memory accompanied a deep knowledge about a wide array of topics. At ninety years old, Al was my last family elder. Having served as the Connecticut clan’s official genealogist, Al shared information with me about our Sullivan family line which linked my Maher side of things from Tipperary, Laois and Kilkenny into County Kerry. My husband and I made a point to visit some of his favorite places on our first trip to “the Ol’ Sod”, though even into my fifth visit I was reticent to try to meet all the people Al had urged me to “look up”. Al’s parents and one set of my great grandparents are among the members of the Sullivan family depicted on page sixteen of Waterbury Irish: From the Emerald Isle to the Brass City.
A lifelong Democrat, Al Sullivan was proud to have been named after the first Catholic presidential candidate, Alfred E. Smith, upon his birth on Election Day in 1928. Trained as a medic, Al served post-World War II in the United States Army, primarily in Japan and the Philippines. A proud “Fighting Irish” alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, his degree in Commerce led to a productive career, extensive travel and a fully-enjoyed retirement. His devoted wife, children, grand and great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, extended family and friends around the world are better for having been graced with his presence in our lives. We will always remember that conversations in person and on the phone with “Cuzzin” Al invariably included laughter and often invoked a forgiving roll of the eye. May Al Sullivan’s spirit continually remind us to take ourselves lightly and never forget the importance of caring about those we love.
My long hiatus in writing may be over, if only to share in stages some glimpses of my fifth pilgrimage/journey to Ireland. Although so much of my scholarship in relation to this place did not neatly fit into a conventional academic trajectory, it nonetheless led directly to teaching for one month in this most special and beautiful place. My science colleague/friend and I began a new study abroad program! Since life does not always wrap up chapters of our lives fluidly, I am especially grateful that my sense of true north that prevailed over the years transitioned me in this way to a point of great change.
Returning to Ballyvaughan, not as an artist-in-residence this time, but as a professor bringing students to share experiences and learn in a deeply meaningful way felt somewhat to me not like being in Ireland initially. We group of Americans doing a certain kind of work, albeit in a different place, seemed strangely familiar, as every new semester is accompanied by its own sets of uncertainties. Without benefit of a car or solitude I needed to be in this familiar area in a new way and dispel the transformative memories that continually arose seeking attention I could not afford to give them. It was necessary to pare down my expectations and become utterly patient. Perhaps after another very intense year of work this was what all of us needed. Extraordinary leaders of our field trips, however, revealed in their own ways aspects of the magic that wasn’t perceptible to me at first, and allowed my friend and me to share new and direct experiences along with our students. I so appreciated the time and poetic, eloquent sharing of information that many individuals, especially Patrick McCormack, Gordan D’Arcy and Eddie Lenihan offered us.
I explained to my friend, who was visiting Ireland for the first time, that when in this place I tend to feel as if I am a character in a fairy tale. Practical difficulties must be dealt with at first as I search for my bearings. I must shed much of the drive and focus that brought me to the first leg of the journey. Once begun, it then takes on a life of its own. I must ask directions, follow instructions strangers provide and pass through one challenge after another, each seemingly more complex and unexpected. There is a learning or re-learning of even simple things—bus and train systems, denominations of money, making it through a shortcut path in the woods without getting lost and figuring out SIM cards and hotspots. With each challenge passed the reward seems greater, the emotional impact is stronger and eventually it becomes possible to feel present and comfortable. This time it was necessary to perform a role within the unanticipated restrictions and complexities that, thankfully, came to a truly satisfying and successful result. Four weeks went by very quickly and a new group of individuals were embraced by the resident community, experiencing more and different things than any of us might have imagined.
During one week more my friend and I became tourists and transitioned into the kind of free-form wandering that I love best to do. This is how I feel most spiritually at home in Ireland. My cells and soul had recognized a deep connection to the midlands from my first visit. My intellect finally caught up with emotions and sensations about all of Ireland and her history. All of myself now works together there. I have walked and driven over so many miles that I can envision a web created over years that a tracking device might have been able to illuminate. (Perhaps someday I will draw some version of this, like delicate crochet.)
Deep and wide research, digging, seeking multiple sources for every fact, acknowledging doors that might never wish to open was necessary in exploring my mysterious ancestral history with its many Irish surnames. Being in contact with living people has been utterly necessary in order to fully perceive what my quest has been about. With each detail of the possible stories that have come into focus a calm, settled feeling has taken hold in me—and even miracles have occurred! I have felt that the ancestors dropped sequential clues, made themselves slightly more clear in stages as if acknowledging my effort paid forward while trying to learn about them. With this visit my visible and invisible teachers provided a true treasure!
With only two days left, my friend and I found ourselves driving along a winding road in Kilkenny that led higher and higher up a mountain to what we expected would reveal the small townland in which one of my great-great grandmothers had lived pre-immigration. Before leaving America someone had already confirmed my research. The Internet had provided the location of the ancient cemetery associated with her parish. The road, however, led instead to a farm at the top of the world, looking out over the other counties between which my questions had continually been weaving back and forth. Suddenly we were being invited into my ancestor’s former home! The joy of the current owner’s family regarding an American relative’s return deepened this gift exponentially, and my friend’s presence allowed me to fully feel the profundity of our visit. She had the wherewithal to take notes and snap photos while I was overcome and could only concentrate upon conversing with these gracious individuals as best as I could manage. Feeling entirely blessed by them it appeared that this portion of my quest had come to an actual fairy tale ending. I am thrilled to know that I now have a new family of friends to add to the dear ones we also visited on this trip.
It is about the people with whom and within the places in which I’ve had soulful experiences that my interior world has been created. As with friends and relatives in America, the return to a person and a place is a constant. What we do together, combined with our solitary explorations, continues to build upon the truths we’ve shared. When apart a psychic web remains.
Ireland is no longer a foreign place to me. I continue to study her history and pose new questions about her with as much curiosity and excitement as ever. Actual friends are there, even if I do not see them often. One has visited me in America. I hope that others will. Through my immersion in the homeland of my ancestors my experience of the world has grown and deepened. The awareness of connections held in energetic space has made it more possible for me to trust that the Universe provides what I need, moment after moment. I feel that our last week in Ireland provided the firm grounding from which the rest of my life will proceed.
Having not mentioned “Maher” at all yet, I’ll share that when handing over my passport and answering the airline worker’s questions before our departure, I habitually spelled out my always mispronounced and unfamiliar last name, then my friend’s. The attendant smiled and pleasantly replied, “There’s no need to spell those names here!” Laughter and joy, we belonged!