A tourist in Ireland found himself seated beside an older man in a pub one evening as they were both enjoying a couple of pints. Not long into the conversation the tourist asked the old man if he was from around here? The old man responded, “No, I grew up about six miles down the road.”
In many ways the Irish perspective is entirely different than our own. But travel six miles in any direction in Houston County and you will find yourself in the next township over and probably saying the same thing to a stranger. “I’m not from around here, I’m from . . .” (Mayville Township, Jefferson Ridge, Swede Bottom, Cork Hollow, and so on).
In Houston County our culture is influenced by our geography. The hardwood forests covering the bluffs provide us a small lumber industry and ample room for hunting whitetail, turkeys and morel mushrooms. The valleys and bluff tops leave room for pasture and tillable acres that give us a unique farming heritage distinct from the style of agriculture found elsewhere in the Midwest. The river inspires a lifestyle of its own, one of recreation, while the lasting winters nurture a population of hearty souls.
The Irish culture cannot help but be shaped by similar factors. The rocky ground, the rugged coastline, the rainy weather, all combine to form a country of wistful poets, resourceful farmers, imaginative writers, colorful pub owners and Guinness-drinking musicians.
Traveling the country, it is easy to understand why the small island has produced so many world-famous writers and musicians, probably more per capita than most other places on Earth. The landscape inspires. One cannot visit the Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s west coast without peering over the gusty edge with utter astonishment that such a landscape can exist. It is almost as if the island itself had been pushed heavenward straight out of the ocean floor, creating perfectly vertical cliffs rising 700 feet above the white-foam waves violently crashing below. There is no transition from land to sea. You are either in or you are out.
When you grow up with those sorts of forces at work outside your window reminding you daily of the power of nature, accented by 600-year-old castles reminding you of the storied history of the land, I imagine your perspective on life takes on a more reflective tone. And when you have the gift of gab or natural musical talents, as most Irish do, putting it all on paper or turning it into a heartrending fiddle melody comes second nature.
Yes, the landscape is different. The roads are different, the accent is different, and so are their sports, choices in beer, farming methods, weather, some of their music and at times their politics. But beyond these differences there still exists a common kinship that was felt every time someone paused in the day long enough to engage in a little small talk, every time I was served a plate of food that looked just like something from grandma’s kitchen, every time we saw a farmer doing what they could with what they have, every time an Irish fiddle had my foot instinctively beating time on the worn pub floor or every time when driving down the road I would see the oncoming driver toss me the one finger wave, of which we are all so familiar. I confidently conclude the passing of six generations since our ancestors left Ireland isn’t enough time to unwind the traditions, legacies, habits and culture that took centuries to cultivate.
Scottish and other Celtic musicians frequently perform a song titled “Caledonia.” This ballad speaks of a young man homesick for his homeland, the part of the United Kingdom the Romans called Caledonia, in what is present-day Scotland. The protagonist goes from reminiscing about Caledonia to deciding that tomorrow he is going to return, as “Caledonia has been everything he has ever had.”
Though perhaps more than a little ironic I would conclude a column all about Ireland by referencing a Scottish ballad, it does seem fitting considering that we were returning home to Caledonia ourselves. While once our Celtic ancestors would have thought wistfully of Ireland as they departed with uncertainty set out before them — probably having never been more than a few miles from home — six generations later we turn with gratification in the same direction, west. Thanks to their bold decision to make this journey 150 years prior, as we depart Ireland this time it is Caledonia, Minn., we already call home.
“Will you go back” is the question I encounter most often. It is a long plane ride and an expensive ticket. Perhaps, too, I dare not push my luck driving on the left side of the road any further. But finding another traditional jam session in a small village pub in rural Ireland — this time with my own fiddle in hand — will make it worth it all over again.
I offer a sincere thanks to everyone for reading these past few weeks. If you are interested in hearing more of these types of adventures, write the Caledonia Argus and request they sponsor me to go on assignment and I’ll even travel to a country of your choosing. Perhaps an even better idea, do what you can to save enough money to embark on an adventure abroad of your own. I am living proof that even a novice traveler like myself can get there and back with little more than a sense of humor, patience, a halfway decent GPS and a broken umbrella.
Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa