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Varner Visits Ireland Over Summer, Researches Family Roots

Sean Varner
Features Editor

Italy. Brazil. South Africa. New Jersey. Of these countries, I have visited none. In fact, prior to studying in Ireland this summer, I hadn’t ventured outside of Eastern Standard Time. I didn’t even know there was an alternative to Eastern Standard Time.
Not that you would have been able to spot this ignorance upon seeing me on departure day. For, disguised as though I had been traveling the world since my mother spat me out back in ‘90, I had harnessed to my back (in true world-traveler fashion) a Kelty 4750—a 70-liter behemoth of a backpack stuffed full of the necessities that six weeks travel would demand: seven t-shirts, two long-sleeved button downs, two pairs of jeans, two pairs of shoes, a pair of khakis, a jacket, a bungee rope clothesline, a first-aid kit, a pack-towel that absorbed four-times its own weight in water, and a pair of underwear.
(Now, the quantity of that final item may have some eyes bulging from sockets and some throats sounding choking gasps. All symptoms should subside, however, when I reveal that this particular pair of underwear was odor-resistant and dried within an hour of being washed; I would wash them in the sink at night, allow them to dry as I slept, and don them once again in the morning, fresh as a springtime daisy—simple, efficient, and only minutely disgusting.)
The flight over the Atlantic drink was largely unremarkable. The single facet worthy of remark was the slumber situation, and the remark is this: there was no slumber. This came courtesy of the seven-year-old girl who screamed and kicked my chair the nightlong. Thus it was bleary-eyed and kicked within an inch of sanity that I stepped off the plane the following morning and traveled by bus to the program site in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, where I spent the next five weeks with forty other students from schools all over the United States.
I took three classes—Irish Traditional Music, Gaelic Language, and Irish Genealogy. The first two were interesting in their own regard (I can now play “Concerning Hobbits” on the tin whistle—even though I think Lord of the Rings is utter pap—and carry on in Gaelic something that loosely resembles a conversation). The genealogy class, however, was the true highlight, for it led to the most significant experience I would have abroad.
Through my research, I discovered the precise plot of ground on which my great-great-great-grandfather lived 200 years ago and, following the conclusion of the program on the fifth week, traveled to the small town of Kinnegad, near which that land lay, and managed to walk the very ground.
Kinnegad itself was not large; it was one street, filled to the brim with the most pleasant apple-cheeked villagers in all Ireland. Margaret, for instance, was a kind woman who owned a local restaurant at which I ate. She sat down and chatted with me about my family, gave to me her phone number and address, and said that, if I should ever return, she would lodge me free of charge. Brian, meanwhile, was a hearty fellow who owned the local bed and breakfast at which I stayed. Not only did he allow me to watch The X Files in his living room for a few hours while I waited for my bus, but he also brought me tea and cookies regularly. Together, they asked around town about my family, if anyone could remember any stories about them or mentions of them.
Having returned home little more than a month ago, I find that it’s people like Margaret and Brian who press on the mind more than the experiences do.
I did some neat things in Ireland: I leaned over the edges of the Cliffs of Moher, hiked a mountain in the rain in Connemara, ate a nun-cooked lunch in an ancient abbey, took an Irish dancing workshop, learned how to play the tin whistle, spoke Gaelic, walked the land on which my ancestors lived, saw the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, kissed the Blarney stone (even though there’s an urban legend that the locals sneak in at night and urinate on it), and saw lots of donkeys standing on the wrong side of fences, looking confused as to why they were standing around on the wrong side of said fences, and it was all excellent.
Yet what makes me pause most are the people I met along the way—people like Mark and Linda, two bicyclists from Canada who were taking a few weeks to ride across the country; Sam, a recovering alcoholic who lead AA meetings in a small chapel in Galway; and Peter and Mary, a married couple that helped me find the university in Galway on my first day, when I was wet and lost with a 40-pound backpack hitched to my spine. I wandered for 10,000 years before crossing paths with them. I asked for directions to the National University of Ireland; what I received instead was their company for the entire walk. They walked a good thirty minutes out of their way, through the rain, to make sure I arrived properly. (This was not an anomaly. Weeks later, as I searched campus for a piano to play, I asked directions of a girl, Olivia, who went about giving them to me in the same manner.)
“Listen,” they said, “we have a young one of our own. We’d hope he’d have some help.”
“Thanks,” I said then, and it’s what I still feel now—not solely for that particular kind gesture, but thankful for the whole experience, the pleasure of it all.

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