Ireland part I: return to the homeland

Greg Schieber

The last time I wrote I was sporting cowboy boots, western shirts and working on a Wyoming dude ranch for the summer.  After six consecutive summers working at summer camps and ranches — expending long hours to facilitate summer vacations for others — I decided that this summer it was time for a vacation of my own. Eager for a new adventure, my family and I packed our bags and boarded an Aer Lingus flight bound for Ireland.

With Irish ancestors in every root of my family tree, a trip to Ireland served not only as a scenic get-away, but an opportunity to get a flavor for the land left behind by our family five generations ago.

McKenna, O’Neil, Sullivan, Flanagan, Maloney, Conoley, Gleason and Manning, among others, are the names of my great-great and great-great-great grandparents that emigrated from Ireland to America in and around the 1860s, pausing first in New York before finally settling in southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa. One can assume their story is similar to that of many of this region’s early Irish settlers. Though their arrival is now many decades distant and their culture largely assimilated into the American melting pot, their unique legacy is still evidenced by the names of the places  – Wexford, Iowa; Irish Hollow, Irish Ridge, Cork Hollow, etc – the names of the people, the region’s traditional foods and the heartiness and spirit of this region’s inhabitants.

While I wish I could report we were welcomed into the open arms of, and immediately fed a hearty Irish breakfast by distant relatives we found by scanning the local phone book upon our arrival, this was not our experience. Connecting with unknown and distant relatives takes more effort than I was able to invest prior to our arrival. Nevertheless, we were able to navigate the island in our small rental cars, experience the breathtaking scenery, soak up the Irish mist, meet friendly locals, learn about Ireland’s history, visit sites of cultural significance and, of course, stomp along to traditional Irish pub music while enjoying Irish whiskey and beer. For those interested, I share some of our experiences and my impressions in this column. Whether you proudly trace your roots to Irish ancestors or not, whether you have visited the Emerald Isle or hope to one day visit, or whether you are simply curious as to why people of Irish ancestry are so proud of that connection, I hope in the next few weeks this column will take you to Ireland’s green shores and shed some light on Ireland — as best as words can describe this land across the pond.

Central to the Ireland’s history and the primary cause for the massive outward migration from Ireland to America is, of course, the potato famine. The potato was the central source of nutrients for most Irish poor, and some estimates suggest that working men consumed up to 60 potatoes per day. Many of the potatoes planted came from a single variety, the Irish Lumper. Potato crop failures were not uncommon in Ireland prior to the famine, but the famine marked the most sustained, widespread and devastating crop failure, stretching from 1845 to 1852.

The blight and subsequent famine caused one million Irish peasants to perish, and an equal number fled the country during that period reducing Ireland’s population by 25 percent. The Irish continued to immigrate to America in large numbers after the famine, and an estimated 3.5 million Irish arrived between 1820 and 1880. It was during the latter part of this period this region was settled by Irish immigrants.

Most Irish immigrants traveled to America in what are now known as “coffin ships.”  With death rates during the six-week voyage commonly reaching 20 percent, one can understand how these vessels inherited that ominous name. While it may have taken our ancestors six weeks to make the voyage, today a six-hour flight from Chicago to Dublin can get you back across the Atlantic. Even accounting for the guy in the seat next to you hacking and coughing all over your personal space, your odds of surviving the passage back to Ireland in good health are substantially greater.

When one studies the living conditions of steerage passengers, suddenly the obtrusive airport security, the cramped seating on the plane and the unpalatable microwave dinners become insignificant.

It is with this background our wheels touched down in Dublin for a 10-day adventure that would take us around most of the country. From Dublin to Belfast, Bushmills to Galway, we hit the big tourist sites as well as many lesser-traveled roads inbetween (and not all of them on purpose!).  Next week the journey begins — on the left side of the road. As they say in traditional Gaelic, slán go foil (goodbye for now).


Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, IA.