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Spring break, Part the Second

March 17, 2008 – Dingle, County Kerry

Today is Saint Patrick’s Day. Back home it’s a peculiar day, a day for people whose only salient claim to Éire are the two capital letters in their last names to proclaim their heritage and corroborate it with the consumption of dark stouts. A day for the rest to wish and pretend they could make such a claim. Erin go bragh, they say, drinking to the ancestors they’ve never met. The Irish Prime Minister is the honorary grand marshal of a massive parade in Boston or Chicago or New York or some other American city that was thanklessly built by the Irish.

But I’m not home, I’m in Ireland. And the fact that I’m here when I am is a coincidence; I didn’t come to Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day — I’m not one of the thousands of Americans that make that profane pilgrimage. It just so happens that spring break coincides with St. Patty’s, and it just so happens that the most opportune time for me to go to Ireland coincides with this holy day, and it just so happens that this holy day coincides with Holy Week, and therein lies a subtle irony that absolutely scintillates.

It’s a Monday and I hop the bus into the center of Cork City. The parade is marching through. Kids are on parents’ shoulders, girls with painted faces and everyone and everything seems to be splashed with green and white and orange. It’s immediately evident that it’s a holiday more akin to the Fourth of July than to the sloppy mess we have back home. I’m given a pin to remember those that died in the 1916 Easter Uprising and all the Irish dead.

My thoughts wander to the Saint Patrick’s Days of my childhood. Mom makes sure I’m wearing something green. You don’t want to get pinched, she says with bright eyes and a soft smile. Lunch hour rolls around and I open the small feast she has packed for me. My peanut butter and jelly sandwich is wrapped in wax paper, and to the outside of it is a green Post-It note, and on it is written in dancing green penmanship, “Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Love, Mom.”

The years pass and I begin to understand that, for many Americans, St. Patty’s is a day for the drink. But I’m Irish, aren’t I? I mean, my mother is the daughter of Irish immigrants, and the Gosnell name can be traced through Ireland, so I reckon I am pretty Irish. Why has it never been presented to me as a day of soaked revelry? Mom speaks. She speaks of how she looked forward to Lent every year, when for six weeks, Grandpa wouldn’t have a drop. She speaks of the massive stereotypes, often grounded in truths, that worked against the Irish, stereotypes which took decades to overcome. And this lack of celebration becomes a sublime point of pride for me, pride in a more transcendent Irishness.

But I’m not home, I’m in Ireland. If I were home, I’d likely be hanging out with bacchanalian Bucknellians, defending my roots. But today I prepare myself for an early evening with tea, conversation and my copy of James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Then my cell phone rings. It’s my cousin, Rónán. Truth be told, I hadn’t actually met Rónán yet — in fact, this was the first we’d ever spoken — but he’s 25 and we speak the same language and it’s clear from the get-go that he’s a cool dude. He and his girlfriend, Sarah, are going to Dingle this afternoon to — get this — surf. He invites me to come along, and subtly assures me that there will be merriment to be had. Of course, I accept.

So I exchange farewells with Tim and Mary and we hit the road in Sarah’s four door hatchback. The conversation comes naturally and it’s not long before I feel totally comfortable around my cousin and his girlfriend. He’s pursuing a master’s in oceanography at a university in Wales; she does work with the Irish school system. And all the while the Irish countryside, like the first act of an ancient drama, slides back and forth around us with a melancholy sort of beauty

We arrive at Inch in County Kerry, which has a sizable beach on Dingle Bay. Rónán nods to the south and says “On the other side of those mountains is Killeenleagh, where your grandmother is from.” Then he and Sarah put on their wetsuits and trot off toward the water.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, I’m in Ireland, and I’m watching my cousin surf. Surf. In Ireland. It’s the last thing I would have expected, but I’m loving it. I take pictures and breath deeply. I meander off to a little beachside cafe, order a pint of Guinness, sit down, and write.