After 25 years with Dix.Hite, my accent still sometimes throws people off when I answer the office phones. Though I’m an O’Connor, my accent comes via Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born and raised. My husband and I settled in the US over 34 years ago.
Before our move to the US, I married a Trinidadian with royal roots to Ireland. He can boast this lineage as a descendent of Turlough Mor O’Connor, Monarch of Ireland (I dare you to look it up—it’s all true). My husband’s great, great, great, great grandfather, James Lynch, an Irish surgeon in the British navy, came to Trinidad in 1817 for some R&R after the Battle of Waterloo and never left. Who could blame him for choosing a serene Caribbean island over his country wrought with unrest during a difficult period in history. So, exploring our Irish heritage was always on our bucket list, and in May 2019, we were able to do just that.
It must be said, first and foremost, the majestic beauty of the emerald isle is simply undeniable. Picture checkerboard farms and rolling hills freckled with white sheep wearing straggly woolen coats. The adorable baby lamb peeking through the fence – soon to be a braised lamb shank at someone’s dinner table. From the moment we landed, my husband and I drank in all things Ireland, from the Guinness that seemingly flowed from the faucets, to the street musicians belting out Irish folk songs, and let’s not forget the traditional Irish breakfasts of eggs, sausage, ham, black and white pudding, tomatoes and toast, a meal fit for a king (did I mention we’re royalty?). Irish coffee at 1 p.m., or 1 a.m., so tasty every time yet no replacement for the pint at the local pub. Medieval castles and cemeteries with gravestones so old they are worn with time. Ancient churches around every corner. Every village or town has a church and a pub. The churches are mostly empty though. The game of hurling, not even an Olympic sport, played with such pride by an entire nation. Statues of Jesus, and his Mother Mary, in backyards and grottos at the village corner, or on the side of a winding mountain road warning drivers of the perilous conditions. The significance of the Catholic and Protestant religions is everywhere, as is the division between these two.
I wish I had educated myself more on the political history of this small nation. The potato famine, a time when 1 million people died, and another million emigrated to other parts of the world, most of them landing up here in the US. The famine was about so much more than the potato crop dying from blight, rather, it was about the suppression of one nation by another, a man-made famine. We learned about the significance of the Easter Rising in 1916 which would change the course of history for the Irish people, a step towards independence for most of the island. The IRA, a terrorist organization no doubt, but one formed out of desperation when a people are treated as second class citizens, leading young people to grow up with so much anger that they feel there is no other option but to inflict fear and commit murder. Too many people died during the “troubles”, a tragedy now spoken of in whispers.
So we did as we were told – we toured the famous Guinness storehouse and kissed the Blarney Stone, we gawked at the Rock of Cashel and the Cliffs of Moher. We took it all in, these must-see attractions that fill the tourist guides and the tour buses, but in themselves, that’s not what provided us with the biggest thrills of our trip. No, it was the unexpected and unplanned that more often than not provided the most lasting memories. From happening upon a majestic cathedral overlooking the ocean to a spirited Sunday hurling match in a quaint village, enjoying fresh, locally caught lobster, castles on the cliffs that resembled sandcastles, mural-lined streets of cityscapes and being awe-struck at the sight of the Slieve League cliffs of County Donegal—Ireland was full of little surprises.
We road-tripped along Ireland’s side streets and winding roadways, avoiding highways in favor of the scenic route. Along the way, stone walls and manicured hedges flanked many of these roads. We wondered how we never saw anyone clipping the hedges, then it dawned on us that the hedges were shaped by the white-knuckled tourists over-compensating for the fact that they were driving on the wrong side of the road. Car rental insurance is very expensive in Ireland – we now know why.
Because we spent the trip in various B&Bs, often in picturesque villages and small towns, we got a real feel for these places and the people who call them home. Clean and so well cared for, this is a country of national pride. Poverty was not evident but we know it exists. If someone had told us about the crystal blue beaches as beautiful as the islands we grew up on, we would have laughed. We knew the people were friendly but friendly is an understatement. And by the way, they told us it rains all the time - - we don’t believe them. The Irish people choose to preserve what makes these places naturally unique and beautiful, while also making them their own. I know our team takes the same approach to their designs, and it was validating to see that concept “across the pond” in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Back to work, it is easy to forget that this is a country still struggling with its identity. Northern Ireland is dealing with the fallout of Brexit. The day might come where the border, which at this time is only recognized by a highway sign changing from KM to Miles, will once again be closed to the “foreigners” across the road or up the street. It’s a stark reality and continuation of a story so difficult to understand, yet too compelling to ignore.
Though Trini blood runs through my veins and I am an American by choice, my namesake is Irish and it’s there that I left a piece of my heart.