Home away from home: there is beauty, pain in connecting with roots

Photo courtesy of Harper Leigh Roberts

By Jenna Fitzgerald | copy editor

With the surname “Fitzgerald” and a propensity for sunburn, it’s no secret that I have Irish roots. So when ‘Baylor in Budapest’ morphed into ‘Baylor in Ireland’ just months before the scheduled departure date, I was hit with a wave of excitement; I would finally have the opportunity to embrace a culture that, although different from mine, holds a special place in my soul.

My grandmother, Yvonne Tighe, grew up in a house in Blackheath Park in Clontarf, a small coastal suburb of Dublin. Just up the street, his parents owned and operated PG Tighe & Co, the family butcher shop. Within sight of this corner store is Holy Faith High School and St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish, Home School and Church. My visit to Clontarf ended with a trip back to Dublin and a visit to the Gresham Hotel – the place where my grandmother was working as a receptionist when she met US Air Force officer James Fitzgerald, who would one day become her husband. In a single day, I was able to experience the first two decades of my grandmother’s life.

Prior to this trip, I had heard so much about the beauty of connecting with the roots, and for the record, it was all true. In some inexplicable way, I felt like I belonged. I knew to look for Club milks and fruit drops in the candy aisle of the grocery store. I used to hear the distinct Irish accent, which my grandmother never lost after emigrating. I have asked for a nice bowl of beef stew every year for my birthday. Without a doubt, the joys of living with Irish culture all day, every day have been more fruitful than I could have ever imagined.

However, before this trip, I had heard nothing about the pain that can come with the beauty of connecting with the roots. My grandmother died of pancreatic cancer in March 2009, and exactly two weeks later my grandfather died (of a broken heart, my father always tells me). However, since I was only in first year, I don’t remember much of either. When I’m in Texas, it’s easy to forget and live my life like they’ve never really been there. When I’m here, however, it’s impossible to detach. I had a cup of tea at the reception of the Gresham Hotel, right where my grandfather first spoke to her and invited her to the cinema. I stood on the sidewalk in front of his childhood home. I walked down the aisle of St. Gabriel’s Catholic Parish, just as she walked to join my grandfather at the altar on their wedding day. Although I loved meeting my extended family, there was a part of me that felt something was wrong – as if it was wrong that one of my grandparents wasn’t the one showing me around these places of such great family importance.

Five weeks of exploring Ireland certainly made it a home away from home for everyone, but to me it meant something more. It gave me the chance to get to know parts of my grandparents, walk where they walked and experience what they went through. More than connecting with my vast heritage, it was about connecting with them – finding out who they were by living in their place, since I didn’t get to know them when they were alive. Although Ireland has beautiful scenery, amazing architecture and deep history, to me nothing compares to those few everyday sights in Clontarf and Dublin.

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