I had never considered myself to be remotely Irish, even though my mother’s maiden name practically screams its origins with an unsubtle brogue and a fanfare of haunting pipe music blasting from across the Atlantic carrying the tune straight from Éirinn’s green hills. Her family has been here for generations, and not even the oldest in her family is likely to remember any ancestor cooking a traditional Irish dish, or chasing leprechauns, or muttering in Gaelic when someone tracked mud into the house.
I used to complain to her that she couldn’t understand the misery of having a surname that kids found easy to turn into insults, and she quickly corrected my ignorance by telling me that kids in her day rhymed her surname with “baloney.” I still thought I had drawn the shorter straw, because my pain affected me, and her long ago pain was not mine.
To be certain, I had no idea about the origins of “Barnes.” The children on the playground, however, were very certain they knew where the name had originated, and it was not a country. Frankly, I was afraid that their guesses might end up being more correct than I was willing to admit on the mean streets of the playground. While it was easy to refute the implications of “being born in a barn,” and the suggestions that my heritage might not be entirely human, I had uneasy feelings about the humble origins of the ultimate derivation of my last name, and I really didn’t want to offer any additional ammunition to those merciless monsters of mockery.
And here I am many <mumblecoughyears> later, learning that my Barnes ancestor likely came here from Ireland. Like my mother’s ancestors, the Barnes family has been here for centuries, and if there was a family recipe for colcannon or boxty, well, it’s been lost. Possibly on purpose.
While I always had hoped that I might go and see Ireland, I never expected to have any sorts of actual roots there. Any kinship I have felt with the land has been with those crafters of stories and words that have come from that far away place. I often think about how “the snow was general all over Ireland,” and how it fell “upon all the living and the dead.”
I have thought about the legends that have inspired me in my formative years, of a place where magic and mystery lingered in the very rocks and trees of an ancient land where children might find a snowy wood and a lamppost in the back of a wardrobe.
In short order, I will see those “dark mutinous Shannon waves,” and lonely churchyards with “crooked crosses and headstones,” and perhaps see upon them names that look like my own. I will wonder about their stories and what they knew of the mysteries that lurked in these places they called home. Perhaps they will share some of their stories. I just hope they don’t feel the need to leave the churchyard.