© 2008 by Janice Byrd

Janice Byrd: Irish eyes are smiling

North Texans share a special bond with Ireland
Friday, July 20, 2007

Back in the spring I spoke at a local book club. The president asked those present to answer roll call by telling where their ancestors had emigrated from. It turned out that 24 of the 30 present were Irish or Scots-Irish.

Even though I'm part Celtic myself, through the McCluney side of my family, I was surprised to hear so many claiming similar roots right here in Collin County. I knew the Irish had settled in Savannah and Boston. I figured there must be Irish in the Midwest because Notre Dame is located in Indiana. But Dallas?

I did my own little survey, and very unscientifically discovered that quite a few of my neighbors and friends were Irish. Who knew?

I've just returned from a week in County Donegal on the northwest coast of Ireland, where I went with a group from my church. I expected the countryside to be beautiful, the epitome of picturesque, and I was not disappointed. The harbors housed a host of colorful boats; the sheep ruled the roads, and I've never seen so much green. I was fascinated by the rock fences that had been constructed in a seemingly random grid and by the nursery-rhyme stiles that straddled them.

It rained every day, but that did not dampen its charm. In fact, the weather made sense of our preconceived notions of misty moors, golf greens, fishermen and peat bogs. One man instructed me to look up at the nearby mountain. If I could see the peak, it was going to rain soon. If I couldn't, it was raining already.

Ireland still has a pastoral appearance, but changes are coming. Everywhere we went new homes were under construction, and every other person we met was a tourist. The economy is booming, and for the first time ever, immigrants are settling in Ireland.

I'd been to the cities of Dublin and Belfast as a tourist, but this trip afforded me the opportunity to get to know the people. We visited in their homes, frequented their stores and pubs, ate their potatoes (cooked in every conceivable way), and danced the nights away in the village of Dunfanaghy. All week long we invited folks to come to the Texas-Ireland Festival we were hosting on our last night in town. And come they did.

We taught them how to line dance and how to make soft tacos. In return, they gave us "Riverdance" lessons (just kidding) and served us scones with strong, hot Irish tea. (The Irish consume more tea per capita than any country in the world, or so they say.) We sang to each other – think Johnny Cash meets Danny Boy. We laughed about each other's word usage, and we swapped stories.

I told them the legend of the Alamo and why it is that we "remember the Alamo," the loss at San Antonio, more than the victory at San Jacinto. (The defeat made the ultimate win possible, I explain.) I like to relate the saga of the Alamo to the story of Jesus and how his seeming defeat at the crucifixion made possible the victory of the resurrection.

Part of our "mission" in Dunfanaghy was to encourage the Irish to read the Bible and to relate the truth found in its stories to their own life experiences. Our common culture and Christian heritage were conducive to spiritual conversations, and because we shared a common language (sort of) and a mutual admiration for each other's accents, getting to know one another was absorbing and often amusing.

I learned an Irish proverb from the back of a sugar packet: An rud is annamh is iontach. "What is strange is wonderful." Maybe that's why the Irish treated us so kindly. No matter. My week in Ireland confirmed the musical cliché, " ... they're sure to steal your heart away."

Janice Byrd of McKinney is library director of the First Baptist Church of McKinney, a book performer and a Voices of Collin County volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is Janice@JaniceByrd.com.

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