I was asked this week to answer some questions for a nice lady reviewing my book. Thought I would include my answer here. My interest in Ireland is very much about my Grandfather Jerry, who came from the small part of County Kerry that juts out onto the Beara Peninsula in Ireland’s southwestern corner (in a little town called Gurranes, near Allihies). It’s a little story that I assume mirrors that of lots of other Irish-Americans.
How did you get involved in Ireland?
I think I became interested in Irish culture when I was quite young because of my Irish grandfather. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1913, and was a pretty unusual person. He didn’t fit the typical Irish stereotype – didn’t drink much for one thing – but he has this amazing sense of humor. When my granddad was 95 years old, he was still an absolute blast to be with. He was a modestly educated person who had an intelligence and a wisdom about him that I still think of as inspirational.
It’s ironic that he got me interested in Ireland, because he never had any desire to go back there. He saw it as this impoverished backwater that no one would ever go to voluntarily, which I guess it was at the time he left.
I first visited my grandfather’s hometown in 1975 when I was doing a term of college abroad in England. It’s tough to convey just how backward Ireland was then. I stayed in the home of my granddad’s step-sister, who was the only one of his eight brothers and sisters who did not leave Ireland. She was in her seventies and was actually a little bit behind the rest of Ireland even at the time. She lived in a simple cottage with no running electricity or running water, decorated only with a lovely picture of The Pope in the middle of the living room wall (that was one of only three rooms in the house, by the way). She was so accustomed to the heavy brogue of her neighbors that she could not understand my New York English at all initially. Meeting my aunt Maggie was truly like meeting someone from a different century. Like so many of the other people I met there, she had a limited education but was outgoing as could be, smart as a whip and full of good humor. I absolutely adored her.
I would go out to a pub with her nephew Pether and it would be full of men with the same ruddy complexions all wearing the same black cap. They would listen carefully to what seemed like local secrets they were telling, nod their heads and say again and again “ooooh definite.” I think it was really about the end of the time when southwestern Ireland felt like one of the most remote places in Europe.
I returned about nine months later, and had another great visit, but then didn’t get back again for a long time. In 1999, when my wife and I decided to take two boys, age 9 and 13, to see Ireland. Although the Celtic Tiger was only starting to hit at the time, I could tell the minute we pulled out of Shannon that the place had gone through some changes. The hills were covered over with new houses, most of which seemed incredibly ugly, and things generally seemed a lot more homogenized, or alot more Americanized, depending on your viewpoint.
At first I was pretty disappointed. It seemed as though the Ireland I of my memory had been wiped out. But gradually, I started to see that under the modern surface, there was a definate eccentricity that I now view as the real culture of the place. It’s something you can’t quite touch but you recognize every time you interact with an Irish person. That’s what got me hooked on Ireland a second time. Since then it has been a hobby to me to learn as many things as I can about Irish culture. I love both the historic and the contemporary stories of the place. Working on my book and my website tends to make me feel like I have a connection to the place even though I can only visit occasionally, and I like tha feeling.
Not long after our trip in 1999, I created a newsletter for Irish-Americans called “The Irish Letter.” In time that became a website called ireland-fun-facts.com. It’s a huge compilation of proverbs, quotations, travel stories, basic facts, odd news stories from the Irish press; all kinds of different facts and trivia. Some of it is fairly serious, but there’s quite a bit of humor. The website basically makes no money, but is visited by a pretty large number of readers. So I thought it would be fun to put the type of information I collect for it into a book you can read on a train or a flight over to Shannon. Hence “The Great Little Book of Things You Probably Don’t Know About Ireland.”