An Irish Voice
I was always taught to be proud of my heritage. On my father’s side, we are third generation Irish Americans, and I grew up with a ton of Irish pride. So, when my college gave me an opportunity to study abroad in Ireland, I couldn’t say no.
Two months later, on my first day in the Doneghy’s home, my host mother, Fiona, asked why I wanted to study in Ireland. I explained that it was because I was Irish too. Fiona’s mother, Grandma Colleen, slammed her hand on the table. “Cailín amaideach! Nach bhfuil tú Gaeilge!” She struggled to rise to her feet, then limped to her bedroom, leaning on her cane. Fiona translated, a little red in the face. “Silly girl! You are not Irish.”
My blush lasted well into the next morning. Grandma Colleen stared at me across the table, looking daggers, I thought. Fiona’s sister, Aileen explained that Grandma Colleen came from a part of Ireland where Irish is still the primary language; as such, Colleen was very protective of what she considered to be the “Irish identity.” Suddenly, Grandma Colleen commanded, “Siúl liom.” Aileen translated: “Walk with me.” The Doneghy’s house was only about a hundred meters from the ocean.
Grandma Colleen leaned on my arm as we walked toward the shoreline. She began pointing at things. “Cnoc,” she said, pointing her cane at the hill to our left. She looked at me expectantly. “Cnoc,” I repeated. “Faoileán,” she said at a seagull passing overhead. “Faoileán,” I answered. We reached a gently sloping hill by the sea. Colleen sighed as she sat on a rock. “Farraige.” She gestured towards the huge expanse of the ocean. I repeated the word. We sat together on the rock for an hour, saying nothing, watching the waves roll in.
From that day on, Grandma Colleen and I took a walk together each morning. Every day she had new words for me. I started helping Fiona’s daughter, Moira, with her homework. Since Moira attended a Gaelscoileanna (a school where the instruction took place entirely in Irish), my language skills improved rapidly. Grandma Colleen began taking me for longer walks, telling me stories about Irish heroines. The more I understood the language, the more I began to see the traits of those heroines in the women around me—their bravery, strength, and perseverance.
One night, as I was studying with Moira, Grandma Colleen interrupted. “Ba chóir go cailíní na hÉireann a fhios ag roinnt amhráin Ghaeilge,” she said. “Irish girls should know some Irish songs.” Colleen pulled out her Irish harp. Fiona joined in with her pipes, Aileen played the fiddle, and Fiona’s husband played the bodhrán. We laughed as Moira taught me the words to “Dúlamán.” At the end of the night, as Fiona was putting away the instruments, Grandma Colleen gave me a smile. “Tá tú le guth na hÉireann.”
“You have an Irish voice.”
I reflect now on how I once thought that I knew what it meant to be Irish, just because I’d listened religiously to a few Celtic Woman CDs. I realize how foolish I was. Being Irish means that you can experience both great sadness and great joy, great passion and great peace. Being Irish essentially means to be strong. I learned that from Grandma Colleen.
I recently returned to Ireland for Grandma Colleen’s wake. After the viewing in the Doneghy’s house, there was music. I sang “The Parting Glass,” in tears. Many people complimented my voice that night, but the only thing I heard was Grandma Colleen’s ultimate praise: “You have an Irish voice.”