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Back in the mid-eighties Chicagoans welcomed the Joy of Ireland, an Irish import store and tearoom, located on Michigan Avenue. Co-owned by Richard Kosmacher, it became the go-to place for wedding, christening or birthday gifts, meet a friend for a chat over a pot of Irish tea served in Belleek china teacups. A posh setting! It was also the era of the late novelist Maeve Binchy, who entertained a standing room only crowd at the Irish American Heritage Center. A time when the Bridget Award was established as a fundraiser for Concern Worldwide to honor distinguished women of Irish Heritage. Chicago, as it is now, was a place where Irish immigrants thrived and contributed mightily to politics, literary groups, academe, music, drama, medicine and business.

The late Dr. Rory W. Childers comes to mind, a pillar of the Cardiology Faculty at the University of Chicago for fifty-years. A raconteur, a man steeped in Irish history, physician to the novelist, poet, activist and controversial Brendan Behan. Dr. Childers was the son of Erskine Childers who entered Irish politics in the early fifties, elected in 1973 as the fourth President of Ireland.  Childers grandfather, also Erskine, was executed by the Brits in1922 during the Irish Civil War. Rory and his wife Michelle were movers and shakers, front and center in all Irish activities in Chicago. He regaled listeners with stories about Irish culture, history, literature,religion, societal richness and Irish humor, deliciously off-color. How often did he declare when Dail Eireann was in session it provided immense theatre and when friends visited Dublin he made a point to introduce them to the workings of the Irish Parliament. “Ireland never lets you down,” he was fond of saying.

And yet, in so many ways it did. Was it the Potato Famine, starvation, death and the lethal grip and torture of British landlords who literally drove the Irish out of Ireland? Liverpool provided a quick getaway out of misery and starvation to a job, despite posters that read, “No Irish and no Dogs need apply.” It was America and the Statute of Liberty whose welcoming promise of a new life served as a magnet for the Irish. Australia received its share, but it was the US open borders and Ellis Island beckoning the Irish.

Born in Ireland, I was ten, the oldest of two siblings when our father died. He was forty-five, our mother thirty-two. I discovered that Ireland could not support us, pulling our Mother away to Boston nine months following his death. Her sister became our guardian and American dollars provided our upkeep. Nonetheless, Ireland failed us, a reality that so often raises its ugly head. Despite living in the US for decades, providing me the right to vote last week for a new president and a life of fulfillment, opportunity, achievement and success, the failure of Ireland to keep us together clings like a ripe barnacle. And yet, I’ve learned that grief is the highest price for love, and Ireland has a strong emotional pull on all of her immigrants. It was folly to believe gold nuggets could be found on US streets, yet it was the land of opportunity. The Irish played a major role in the melting pot combining the richness of nationalities from sea to shinning sea.

It took nineteen years before I set foot in Ireland. That clinging barnacle was a reminder I had to assimilate to US ways. I smile recalling what Freud said about the Irish: We were the only people who could not be helped by psychoanalysis, adding “there can be no doubt of one thing: the Irish will never change.” It’s appropriate to follow this up with the comment uttered by George Bernard Shaw: For the Irish, contentious is better than loneliness.”

It was the month of July during the Bicentennial year when I agreed to visit Ireland with my US husband and three young daughters At the time, Boston offered charter flights to Shannon and Dublin on Aer Lingus, and although I dragged my feet pledging I had no intention of visiting my home town of Dundalk, County Louth. Two rooms were booked at the Shellbourne Hotel, still my favorite, and we slept off jet lag intending to take a tour of the city. I opened my eyes and announced “we’re vacating the hotel this morning and driving to Dundalk”. An unfamiliar passion seized my innards. In that instance it was emotionally consuming that I get to the town of my birth fifty miles away. Puzzled spouse continued to probe why the change? It was inexplainable. On the Dublin to Belfast road I saw the first Dun Dealgan (Dundalk) sign and wept with a deep familiarity. Growing up in a border town a safe harbor for men who fought relentlessly for a united Ireland, a town where mothers and fathers took turns riding riding bicycles for a day of smuggling crossing the border to Newry the first town in Northern Ireland. Goods were cheaper in the North, essentials like whiskey, cigarettes, butter. Smugglers faced a heavily guarded British Border to return home. Adults had ways of stacking cigarettes under tweed caps, or jammed into women’s knickers with nary a hitch. Few were caught.

Reaching the town I marveled how close were the mountains. We drove unannounced to my aunts house. Shock, delight, a cup of tea, a scone, a garden for the girls to roam in, my cousin Patrick delighted to see us “home from America.” Aunt May was determined we tour the town for so much had changed. It looked the same other than a new modern Catholic Church. Once inside I met Father Sweeney who plagued my teen years summoned when I questioned how Mary and Joseph could have the baby Jesus when they were not married. He’d take me into the parlor to preach supernatural beliefs, faith and charity while I stifled yawns and boredom.

He invited me in for tea, saying I was ahead of my time. I refused his offer inviting him instead to the Ballymacscalon Hotel for a drink. I was home and I was in charge!

Reuniting with my roots, friends and family was a gift of life! I reach out for that Irish fix regularly!

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