Kissing the Blarney stone and seeing a fairy or two, were on my wish list when I visited Ireland last summer, but I never expected a West Virginia-style welcome.
My husband and I popped into a pub and upon venturing to our table, heard the live band singing John Denver’s, “West Virginia, mountain mamma, take me home, country roads.” Here I was 3,500 miles from home and feeling as welcome as I would at a tailgate party in the mountain state in which I’d grown up.
As I ventured from St. Steven’s Green in central Dublin to the remote Ring of Kerry to the East, quaint towns and majestic shorelines streamed by like flashes of postcards. From Wicklow County’s Blarney Stone that bestows eloquence on the one whose lips touch it to the Dingle Peninsula with waves no surfer would brave, my journey was filled with awe and the vague sensation that I’d been there in another time.
The smell of mystery—of ancient Gaelic traditions where Nature was more than one’s environment, it was healer and refuge—surrounded me. Castles offered a peek behind the veil to a time when people used herbs from their gardens to treat ailments and trees were revered for their medicinal value as well as their ability to inspire insights to many a seeker and rhymes to many a poet.
Ireland’s green pastures reminded me of West Virginia’s lush countrysides. Even the winding roads in the Celtic territory were similar to the ribbons of concrete wrapping the state that is referred to in Denver’s song as “Almost Heaven.”
One of those curvaceous, Irish roads carried me into the quaint town of Enniskerry, seventeen miles south of Dublin, where I strolled the grounds of St. Patrick’s Church—not the famous cathedral—a small stone church a stone’s throw from the town square.
The saint who is credited for converting the Pagan nation to Christianity must’ve had the gift of persuasive speech even though the Blarney stone tradition hadn’t yet begun. Legend has it St. Patrick explained the Godhood of the trinity by comparing it to a shamrock. Although considered one plant, it has three leaves just as the one God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three are equally important, just as is synchronicity of our own minds, bodies and spirits. For us to thrive, all three aspects of ourselves need to be nourished.
As I ventured from The Cliffs of Moher, the setting for one of the Harry Potter films, to the Newgrange megaliths that are older than Stonehenge, I fed all three of mine. I hiked and laughed and ate. I developed an affinity for fresh figs and learned that I loved black pudding even though it isn’t pudding at all. It’s sausage with oats and pig’s blood.
I also learned that the reason that the color green is associated with St. Patrick’s Day has absolutely nothing to do with the lush green hills or with the green shamrock. Green is a bitter reminder of over one million Irishmen who died during the 1840’s potato famine. Those who were starving resorted to eating grass. They died with green mouths.
When I heard this, I silently thanked God that I didn’t need to eat grass. I had pig’s blood in my belly.
I absorbed the views of cattle and castles and wished that those people who had perished, could’ve enjoy the bounty that now rises high on the sheep-filled hills and wheat-strewn fields. I stood hoping that before they had laid their precious, lifeless heads on the ground, green mouths gaping wide, that they had reconciled the three pieces of divinity represented by the shamrock and allowed the oneness of truth to herald them to their heaven.
I felt like I was already in paradise as I chatted with locals in the many taverns along the way. I learned a bit of traditional Irish language like “Sláinte,” posted on the wall means “Good health,” and “Go n-eiri an bothar leat,” means “May the road rise up to meet you.”
I’m not sure the road rose to meet me as the blessing states, but the tree branches scraping alongside my car window certainly did. The skies were wide, but the roads were so similar to the dirt roads prominent in rural Appalachia I felt it just as likely that the Mothman would swoop by as would a dragon. Even the Celtic legends of banshee, female spirits that wail at the death of a loved one, reminded me of a folktale my dad told me of a woman’s screeches heard by many a traveler on Red Lane in Mason County, W.Va. The story that echoed throughout the hills is that she and her baby had died during childbirth.
If despite the creepy tales, you should get bit by the Irish bug, you may want to check out West Virginia’s own town of Ireland where the first Irishmen to West Virginia settled and which hosts an Irish Festival every year—complete with a rock for kissing and an unique game of road bowling. Ohio also hosts the Dublin Irish Festival each fall where you can hear Mike O’Malley’s world-class Irish stories, hang your heart desires on the traditional wishing tree or choose a fairy souvenir from one of the hundreds of vendors and indulge in a bite of Guinness cake.
During my visit to Ireland, the fairies, if there were any, remained sequestered in the glens. I did kiss the stone that bestows eloquence on the person who ventures to do so. Had I known that the locals get a kick out of peeing on it, I contend I would’ve still dared to plant my lips—communication means the world to me.
I returned to the states, my mountain mamma heart singing. Both Ireland and West Virginia are almost heaven—and both conducive to balancing mind, body and spirit among the hills of green.
From the feeling that I’d lived there in another lifetime to the triskelia tattoo on my forearm, Ireland made its mark on me just as distinctly as did the Appalachian roots where I grew up.
May whatever road you find yourself on, rise up to meet you.
Michele Savaunah Zirkle is a native of Meigs County, author of “Rain No Evil” and host of Life Speaks on AIR radio. Access more at soundcloud.com\lifespeaks.