Pop-Pop Regan was a chemist before he practiced law; he said he knew what alcohol did to brain cells, so he didn’t drink. He was a tee-totaling leprechaun of a man. He had shelves upon shelves of books, all annotated so universally, it looked as if he’d underlined every line he read. Squirreled-away butterscotches were his gold coins. He had his own special charm: he named each dog he owned, “Ace,” and before every dinner, he said an Irish grace.
Our family would be just about ready to dive into a holiday meal, when someone—an aunt, an uncle, my dad—would begin the blessing, and while we all sat dutifully praying, Pop-Pop would be muttering from the head of the table, something that sounded like this: “Bannashinna-hannashinna-bannashinna-hannashinna.” When I was young, I was duly impressed—my siblings and cousins were too. But doubt grew with age. Pop-Pop, you are absolutely not saying anything down there at your end of the table. Not a single thing.
As an adult, I studied (a mixture of Irish history, literature, language) for three weeks in Galway. Ireland was a country that felt right to me upon contact. The sun refused to remain through a complete 12-hour period, but though I did get a wee bit tired of the rain, the stereotypical Irish mist didn’t ruin me, not in the least (even the Irish said it was a wet summer). Everything felt good.
I lived with a family during the weeks, and then traveled with my study group or on my own on the weekends. I stayed a week after the program ended. There are the Irish who like to tell a good story, but I cannot tell the story of my Ireland as big as it needs to be: the effect it had, the impressions it made of quaint towns, beautiful scenery, friendly people.
Kerry, Tralee, Dingle, Dublin, Doolin, Cork, Glencolumbkille. I took a soggy, rough boat ride to the Aran Islands, where I toured on bike to a fort built 2000 years ago. Sligo—Yeats’ country. I saw his Isle of Innisfree, his round tower, and by his grave, I snapped a photo of a most remarkably, colorful and confident rooster. The breathtaking Burren, landscaped with rocks after rocks and wildflowers. The Cliffs of Moher—and wasn’t the sun shining just for me that day, just long enough for me to take in the remarkable view. At a Bed-and-Breakfast outside of Kinsale, I had coffee cake and chamomile tea for dinner then took a walk to the ocean.
My Ireland tale is too big with small moments and quick exchanges—I went to mail letters at the post office and the worker said, “I’ll give these all the attention they deserve!”
One of the first lines in my travel journal: “Did a tour of Galway, started at an abbey and ended at a pub.” Pub life was rich. I would fill up on Smithwick’s and toasted cheese sandwiches, then over-indulge just by watching and listening. My favorite pub night by far happened only because I met a mother and son on the program who had family living near Galway. I went with them to a cousin-owned pub where cousins upon cousins showed to meet them. Soon enough, we were all singing. 90-year-old Eddie and his younger brother (at 87 years) sang Irish tune after Irish tune. If you could have heard those two reaching, then hesitating, then going for it—reaching again for the highest note in “Danny Boy” and the laughter that followed . . . you’d have turned Irish right there and then. I don’t care who you are, you’d have turned Irish.
My Ireland trip was in 1998—I didn’t have my iPhone handy. But I got my hands on a cassette tape and recorder. On one of the final days of the program, Breen, the language teacher, sat down to recite for me in Gaelic, a dinner blessing.
I have no idea. Pop-Pop had been dead for years, so there was no way of knowing. But my story is—it was Pop-Pop’s grace. As sure as the sun didn’t shine, I brought home his prayer.