A homecoming to the Emerald Isle
Uptown Girl Abroad
More than any other country I've visited so far, Ireland has brought family to the forefront of my mind.
I have always had the unfortunate luck of being the teensiest bit behind the rest.
When I started high school, my cousins were graduating.
When I began university, they were starting their first jobs.
When I was forgoing weekends out in favour of saving for my OE, they were arriving home in droves.
My brushes with family since arriving in Blighty have been wonderful, but intermittent: a lovely, albeit freezing, weekend with my cousin Elizabeth and her husband in Cambridge, a night out in London with my cousin's Welsh wife, Claire. (Cousin-in-law? Is that a thing?)
Ireland has given Mark and me a big, healthy dose of family. Part of the draw of Bushmills - beyond the whiskey distillery (in all seriousness, if you're ever in the neighbourhood, do the tour: very good, and you get a wee dram at the end) - was that it was the home of Mark's great-grandfather.
With instructions from his grandparents back in Invercargill, Mark and I found the last place James McNeill lived in before emigrating.
For Mark, it was surreal to be standing in front of the house his great-grandfather had left behind, knowing he was unlikely to see it again, the coastline home to the Giant's Causeway visible in the distance.
Fast forward a few days, and we arrived in Co Galway, where we were lucky enough to stay with my cousin Cory, his wife, and their three ridiculously cute kids.
Though this branch of my family tree is on the non-Irish side, I still got to hear stories I'd never heard before: like tales from muttonbirding with my granddad Alec, who died around the time I was learning to walk.
Finally, we headed further south, to Caherdaniel in Kerry, for the tail end of our trip.
This was where my dad's family, the O'Connells, were from. I was here to see the place for myself and attend the O'Connell clan gathering, to be held that weekend.
I got my history buff on well and truly, attending a series of lectures (much more interesting than it sounds) on topics ranging from Irish folklore and Daniel O'Connell's place in it, to the justice system and modern-day religion in Ireland following the horrific child abuse scandals.
I was also rubbed on the arm, Buddha-like, by the woman manning the genealogy roadshow truck, when she discovered I was descended from the Great Liberator.
(Hopefully not a sign I've indulged in too many potato-based dishes of late.)
All that learning tends to make people thirsty, especially on a Saturday, so that night was spent mingling with the locals at The Blind Piper.
Apparently, the whole village had the same idea.
The big draw may have been the Irish coffee, which I deemed the best in the country. (After two weeks, I feel I was suitably qualified to make this proclamation.)
As always, each place I've visited since venturing overseas has given me a memory or two.
But I'll probably treasure none more so, than seeing the old family homestead for the first time.
Mark and I had just begun a wee tramp, along what is known as the Mass Path: a walkway used centuries ago, trudged along in all weather by those forced to practice Catholicism in secret when it was outlawed in Ireland.
Before the breathtaking views of the bay set amongst vivid purple heather; before the slippery, boot- worn stone steps leading up the hill; before the cemetery with names the same as those I was familiar with from headstones back home: Derrynane House.
All throughout my time in Ireland, I hadn't quite understood what they meant when they said, "welcome home".
I do now.
* Images, top: The beautiful Derrynane Bay, and right, Alana pictured outside Derrynane House, near Caherdaniel in Co. Kerry, where her family lived.
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