Time Capsule

Time Capsule

Finally Going home: An Irish-American recounts an eye-opening first trip as a young girl with her mother to the Emerald Isle.

On the Mauretania dawn arrives at around 4:30 in the morning. So on the day we were scheduled to land in Ireland, Mammie and I crept out of bed at 4, put on our arrival outfits and scampered upstairs to the main deck to see the dawn on the hills of Ireland.

“Mammie, it’s a fine day.”

And it is. A dreamy, gray-apple-green day, made sweeter with the knowledge that it could just as easily be a dark, dank, rainy one. In the chilly dawn, stewards are walking around with trays of steaming hot cups of tea, mixed with milk and sugar. In the distance is the rocky Kerry coast. I can barely make it out.

“Mammie, do you know where we are?”

“By the Skelligs. See there? See the top of that rock?”

Then she gets silent. She’s looking way beyond the horizon. She’s looking way, way over there. Beyond the Skelligs. Beyond Mangerton Mountain. Beyond the Lakes of Killarney.

“Mammie, what’er you looking at?”

“Oh, I’m looking Home. Home, Alice M’rie. Dave and Father Bob are just getting into the cars to meet us.”

As the Mauretania inches near the coast, we start picking out outlines of stone cottages. First one, then another, then another would light up. Men are going out to the “haggard,” or barnyard, to milk the cows. Women are putting the kettle on for tea. All over Ireland tea is being poured into cups, just as it is on deck. At that moment everyone on land and on sea is united by this wonderful drink, this balm that warms the hands as it warms the heart. This cup of tea.

Silence. Oh, the silence of all the passengers. The rich and the poor. The tourists and the Irish diaspora clutching cups in the early-morning damp. Hoping, all of them. I see it in their faces. Me, too. I’ll be glad, and Mammie’ll be glad that we’ve finally come Home.

Announcements are made to board the tender, a flat-bottom boat designed to take passengers from ship to port. Bang! The class system ends. Cheek by jowl, passengers from all three classes jostle. We’re all going home to Ireland.

Mammie’s gazing over to the cathedral in Cobh harbor. She seems different. Yet she looks the same. There’s her oatmeal dress. There’s her white straw hat. There’s her gloves. Yet my mammie’s going through a metamorphosis. She’s becoming Irish again. Irish, I tell you. Like Dark Rosaleen, Maud Gonne, Queen Maeve, and the Fll-take-you-home-again-Kathleen-girl, all rolled into one.

As the tender approaches the dock, we can see Irish people waving at us. They all look so dour. Tweeds, caps, jackets, dark, dark, dark. Mammie and I look like Christmas trees. The man with the melodium starts playing Irish songs again, and all the Irish begin to cry. I feel a part of it all, yet a stranger to it all. My head is spinning. I am Little Alice, the little maid. And Alice M’rie. And Alice Carey. I don’t know who I want to be here.

Mammie spots her brother Dave on the dock. She’s waving madly.

“Dave! Dave! We’re here!”

She’s completely Irish now. And me? I’m … Irish-American. No, I’m not at all like those Americans eager to wear green, kiss the Blarney Stone and soak up the culture. I’m a New i Yorker. And I’m Irish. Just like Mammie.

From the October 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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