Arriving here on July 3rd, I nearly missed the symbolism of the balloons hanging from the airport passageway as I headed out to catch my rental car shuttle. Ireland’s relationship with the U.S. has been complicated ever since the first immigrants arrived on American shores in the 1840s, victims of the awful famine that set in with the failure of the potato crop. The Irish were the first wave of immigrants to arrive on American soil during industrialization, pushed into exploitive laboring in the factories and the mines until the next group came along, willing to work for even cheaper wages. But the Irish kept coming with each bout of economic downturn, seeking hope or at least a living at the Golden Door.
My maternal grandparents were part of this migration. They arrived in the 1920s, although my grandmother, an American, was returning home, with her Irish husband and two young children. They eventually settled in a very rural area of western Pennsylvania, where my grandfather, a mining engineer, headed a small limestone mine deep in coal country. They built a rather grand house (the plans indicate maid’s quarters, although the maid never materialized) at the edge of what had been a utopian community established by John Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge. Ironically, Saxonburg, population 600, turned out to be much more isolated than had been their existence in rural Co. Kildare, but my grandfather had spent his years after Trinity College as an entrepreneurial engineer in what was then called the Klondike. He was only pulled reluctantly back home as the eldest son and therefore heir to the family farm; it took him over a year to return after being summoned by his increasingly frantic mother. He must have welcomed the wildness of the countryside and the pioneering spirit, although possibly not the utter lack of fellow countrymen in the heavily German community in which they settled. My grandmother, who outlived him by 20 years, made the best of it.
I suspect that my grandmother (I never knew my grandfather, who died before I was born) would be surprised at my annual migration back to the place she willingly left. But I have made seven trips here now, and spent many July 4ths. On this one the morning radio program announcer asked the question, What has America ever given Ireland besides the George Forman Grill? The question subsequently got lost in the welter of interviews, but the answer does seem obvious: a place at the other edge of the ocean from which to miss home.