Picture of cliffs in Donegal, Ireland

Slieve League Cliffs, County Donegal.

Photograph by Radius Images, Corbis

By Liz Beatty

We find the emerald pastures of great-great-grandfather’s farm an hour and a half northwest of Dublin, just “beyond the Pale” in medieval Irish terms, near the rural market town of Cootehill in County Cavan, Ulster. Our road trip begins here, bound for the northerly shorelines of this region, composed of Northern Ireland plus three counties of the Irish Republic—a region at times divided by religion, but forever fused by deep roots in ancient Ireland.

With their 85-year-old grandmother, my sons, Mack, 11, and James, 18, pick small cut stones from the ruins of a well, the last vestige of our Beatty homestead. Mom is humming “Irish Eyes,” as the three huddle from a steady drizzle under her red drugstore umbrella. Standing at the farm gate, I picture William Senior setting off from here with his young family, bound for timber reaches in far-off Upper Canada in 1835, ten years before the start of the potato famine. I knew coming here would feel this way, as if we are their emissaries, making the return journey that they knew they never would. If there’s such a thing as shared genetic memory, the idea of three generations summoning it together just seemed important. From County Cavan, we head west and then north, soaking in the primal vibe of the Donegal coast. At Slieve League, we brace against 55-mile-an-hour gusts to glimpse some of Europe’s highest ocean cliffs, dropping nearly 2,000 feet to an angry sea. We then wind through a wild, deserted mountain bog to the top of Glengesh Pass—breathtaking and bleak. The road hairpins out of sight. I’ve completely misjudged our travel time to the northern village of Dunfanaghy. This long day isn’t over. The skies blacken, and the heavens open. Mother hums “Stormy Weather,” and, with 30 miles left, all the road signs turn Gaelic.

At Dunfanaghy, a rising tide fills the wide shallow harbor just outside Arnold’s Hotel. Inside, Mack presses for another family story before bed. He’s our lore guy, for years collecting tads of our history the way a robin gathers bits of twigs. Tonight it’s great-grandfather’s cousin Sir Edward, the grandson of a Cootehill farm boy who became head of a global transportation empire, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Mack recalls the picture of him in our living room. He is standing beside the Prince of Wales in 1930 on the maiden voyage of the Empress of Britain—an ocean liner sunk by a German U-boat in 1940, just miles off Dunfanaghy’s shores. We vow to find a good lookout tomorrow to see what we can see.

By morning, everything has changed. The sun shines. The breeze is warm and gentle. We hike to Tramore Beach’s vast empty expanse; the boys race down its massive dunes, formed in the great storm of 1839; we ride big-boned Irish ponies across the Dunfanaghy tidal flats. And in one brilliant, no-granny-left-behind mission, James insists that he and his dad half-carry my mom up a steep, craggy path to the highest, most westerly lookout of Horn Head peninsula. As they reach the summit, I see in James’s eyes a satisfaction born out of wisdom far beyond his 18 years. His grandmother’s joy is palpable, infectious, as together they survey what feels like the northwest corner of the universe—the Atlantic and bloomin’ heather as far as the eye can see.

Three hundred miles later—including one golf game with two slices into the North Atlantic—we ponder how best to kill seven hours before flying home. Sleep? Pshaw. Like any self-respecting Irish progeny, we go to the pub.

Mack tosses five euros in an open guitar case to seal the deal. The bandleader introduces Mom. She’s surprised but doesn’t hesitate, squeezing up to the mic through a cheek-by-jowl throng of Gaelic football fans at Dublin’s Oliver St. John Gogarty pub. This Temple Bar hub pulsates with revelers, their beloved “Dubs” having just recaptured the championship after a 16-year drought.

“If you don’t know the words, you can’t sing the song,” yells the banjo player as Mom taps the mic for a sound check.

“Just say the words here,” she instructs as she points to her right hearing aid. Eyes roll as the band proffers a few bars of a familiar lead-in. The song: “Danny Boy.”

What follows is transcendent. As she leans into her audience, lyrics flowing seamlessly in one ear and out her mouth, her classically trained, freakishly youthful voice sends this Celtic gem soaring. At the end, band members hug her and locals line up to shake her hand. “Imagine what she could do if she knew the feckin words!” shouts the banjo guy over deafening applause.

Later, in that quiet descent to slumber, I replay this moment. Yes, her voice, but more her pluck, her fearless embrace of the moment.

It’s a delightful end to a journey that has revealed so much—for sure, illuminating bonds with those long gone, but mostly, reconnecting us to the very best in us here and now.

Canadian writer Liz Beatty wrote about Ontario’s War of 1812 events in the October 2012 issue.

Read more essays from writers who return to their ancestral lands in Sicily, Angola, Krakow, and Taipei.

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