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“This is the old cottage, where Maggie grew up,” said my cousin Dominick, in his soft, twisty accent of the Mayo countryside.

I spread my hand against the cool, whitewashed stones. Stones my ancestors hauled by hand from their fields. Dominick, while making repairs a few years ago, discovered a stone set in the chimney etched with a date: 1845. The year which began An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger.

The early April breeze caught strands of my hair, carrying the smell of thick green grass, thick Irish mud.

This is where she came from, I thought. Grandma. This is where I come from. Where it all started. These are my people.

The fields around us expanded into a thousand acres with the endlessness of time. The stones felt worn, strong. Solid. I stroked them.

“We used it as a farm building until recently,” said Dominick, “but this room was the original house. Come in, watch your head. The hearth was here, against this wall. This is where they lived.”

Breathing deeply, I bowed my head and stepped through the doorway into the damp earthiness. And waited a moment for my eyes, and my heart, to adjust.

There was not much to see other than old stones, damp, and a few pieces of rusty farm equipment.

But I felt them all: all the ones who had gone before. I heard children chattering, echoes. Sensed the heat from cooking pots on the fire. Inhaled the earthy smell of stews made from whatever could be found, whatever would grow.

I turned to Dominick. “Thank you,” I said, my vision sparkling. “Thank you for caring for it, for sharing it with us.”

He smiled at me, this cousin I never knew I had.

* * * *

Six months previously, I wrote eight letters in my best penmanship: one to each house in my grandmother’s township. I explained who I was and that we were hoping to reconnect with the families of her siblings. We were searching for descendants of those who stayed behind after she and two sisters emigrated to the United States.

I mailed my letters, skeptically thinking of the global economy and how unlikely it was that anyone would still be living at the home my grandmother left a hundred years ago.

But a month later, I received a reply. Family still lived there! And we were welcome to visit; they would love to meet us.

* * * *

Over the course of the week we spent in Ireland, we slowly got to know my grandmother’s family, and ourselves.

They taught us to play Gaelic football, and in return we gave lessons in American football. We purchased Mayo jerseys and gifted Red Sox tee shirts. We discussed the merits of Irish whiskey versus American bourbon. We discovered that Guinness, as my college-age cousins tell me, is for “old people.” (The beer of choice for young people, apparently, is Carlsberg.)

We learned that speaking Irish is now not only welcomed, it is encouraged. No longer thought of as a peasant’s language (the reason my grandmother never spoke it after she left), it is now being revived and venerated for being part of Irish heritage. Irish is now a mandatory subject in schools, and all road signs are printed in both English and Irish.

We also gained a newfound appreciation for the miracle of genetics.

In the U.S., redheads (or, as the Irish say, “gingers”) are few and far between. My son, being the only redhead in our U.S. family, had always felt his uniqueness keenly. As a boy, it had taken a toll on his self-confidence; it seemed that girls who were redheads were considered beauties, but boys who were redheads were simply . . . unfortunate.

He kept these feelings well hidden until he met his cousins, and immediately realized—he belongs! He belongs because he looks just like them. It was uncanny; he and one cousin in particular looked like they could be brothers. The picture I have of those two—their smiles a mile wide—same smiles, same hair, same height, same mischievousness. Instant bonding, and belonging.

* * * *

Emigration is ingrained in both the Irish and the American identity.

In the U.S., we often think of our ancestors’ emigration as a positive thing: folks came over to have a better life here. And so, we think, they all lived happily ever after. In a rush to chase that happiness, we allow memories of past hardships to fade, and with them, memories of the people and experiences that shaped us and who we used to be before we became American. When my grandmother emigrated, she tried hard to raise us to fit in, to speak properly, to have good manners. And we obeyed; we did not want to be thought of as anything other than American. We wanted to belong.

In Ireland, emigration is intertwined with grief.

So many were forced to leave, facing an unbearable choice between poverty/malnutrition/starvation or the heartbreak of tearing themselves from families they loved for the chance to survive, and hopefully thrive. Those who stayed understand this; they protect and pass down the stories, folklore, and traditions inherited through the generations.

I’m beyond grateful that I was able to find my family and reopen this connection; it’s helped me understand a lot more about who I am, what my ancestors endured, and what it means to give up one life for another. Culturally, once we’ve been here for a generation or two, we tend to forget that we all have this in common: We are a nation of immigrants. But it is this commonality that makes us so strong: it takes bravery, courage, and sacrifice to make such a profound change, to give up everything you know for a chance to flourish rather than merely survive. And this bravery, courage, and hope for the future is our greatest inheritance. Let’s remember this, and come together with it. In bravery, courage, hope, and connection we will find healing.

Heather Shaff

Heather is a book designer based in Boston who, when she’s not writing or taking care of the fam, can be found racing her bike, enjoying nature, or just daydreaming.

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