SANDY GRISHAM: When Irish eyes are smiling

By Sandy Grisham

“Are you the couple that takes in international students?”
She was a tiny woman with an Irish accent, and explained that she was working on her doctorate from Brown University in Rhode Island. Her topic was ethnomusicology, and she was studying Clear Creek Missionary Baptist Church out west of town. We asked Therese Smith to come in, and later that day she moved her things in and shared the upstairs with Ben Yeo and Barbara Born. Our fridge definitely had an international flavor – Irish, German and Chinese.
And now, we were on our way to see the last “child.”
As we flew over Ireland, it was evident why it is called the “Emerald Isle.” On a sunny day, the entire country is a beautiful green – from fertile fields with irregular stone fences, to even the urban gardens – green, green, green. I have never seen another nation that looks like that from the air.
As with the other “kids,” we recognized her immediately. Today, Therese is the Department Chairman of Music at City of Dublin University, and has published her studies in a book about our part of the country. “Let The Church Sing, Music and Worship in a Black Mississippi Community” (including a CD of their music), describes the melodies at the church and its grounding in the culture, and the CD includes some of their songs. Members who remember her will be happy to know she is planning to return to visit both the church and us.
In the ensuing years, she has also married. Dirk Kohler is a former East German athlete who also studied at Brown. His Ph.D. is in history, and he is currently a teacher in a German/Irish school. Their children are Ben, 11, and Sarah, 8, both full of life and exceedingly Irish.
This is my third trip to Ireland, and never once have I felt like an outsider. My great-grandparents were both from here, one from the North and one from the Irish Free State. I wasn’t conscious that I was being raised with “Irish” traits, until I made the first trip here.
“I feel so at home here,” I told Vaughn, but with his Swiss and German background, it did not seem to have the same familiarity for him. The second time I brought my mom, and again, I felt at home, but still didn’t yet know why. Well, this time, as we “lived” with the family, I realized their forms of interaction were the same with which I was raised. Lots of chatter, lots of verbiage, lots of mental sparring with the vocabulary – aye, that is an Irish home. At least it was mine, and it was theirs.
Besides chattering for a week, we did do some sightseeing. We saw Dunlaoghaire – the port where the ferries to the UK used to land, we saw Dalkey Island, climbed Killiney Hill, looked down on Dublin Bay and the coast towards Bray Head and County Wicklow. It was a beautiful evening, there were a few brave souls in the cold water, but several were walking along the path halfway between the road and the shore. The sun stayed up until near 10 p.m., so we got a good feel for the place.
Our next trip included Therese, her mom, Vaughn and I. Our destination was a 6th -10th century monastic settlement, Glendalough. The ruins were near two lakes, and had become a place to picnic, take the kids, and share some Irish history as well. Wandering among ruins that had been there for over 1,500 years, with graves from all periods midst the buildings, had a spiritual feel. You could almost see the monks doing their work as you looked up at the tower beyond the settlement. On the walk toward the lakes, we passed close to those Irish streams that seem darker than any others to me: the tannin washes down under the heather and peat towards the water, and, though the water itself is clear as can be, the tannin stains the undergrowth. It was a great place for Therese’s parents, cycling all the way from their home near Dublin, to bring her and her six siblings on an outing. They would picnic, play by the lakes, run through the ruins, then board their bikes and go back to town. I am sure after the day at the monastery, those kids went to bed without any argument.
We lunched at an 18th century home with wonderful gardens. We also drove past a German cemetery that was set aside by the locals after WWII so the prisoners of war would have decent gravesites. The peace of that place and its nearby rushing stream set a tone for reflection about war and peace.
The most beautiful part of the day was the drive over the Wicklaw Mountains, where we saw the places where the peat had been harvested, where the bog cotton grows, and where wild blueberries can be found in great abundance. The wind blows through your hair, and, for this daughter of Ireland, I felt free.
We learned to take the tram to downtown Dublin, and for two days we walked the center of the city listening to street musicians and watching tourists, but there is so much more to see. Their pedestrian shopping area is special, and one I wish we could imitate in Oxford. One evening we engaged in the Literary Pub Crawl that celebrated their well-known writers who frequented the urban taverns. The actors who guided us spoke the words the authors had penned, and told tales of when they were patrons. Oscar Wilde, among others, wrote a treasury of “wise” sayings; for instance, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” Or, “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
Ireland’s people laugh easily, and they make jokes often. (“What’s the difference between summer and winter in Ireland? Sometimes the summer rain is warmer.”) They love music and literature, and their country is beyond equal for its sheer green beauty. Their president, some years ago, lit a candle in the window of the official residence for all the Irish in the world, wherever they may be, and it still burns. These things make me proud to call myself a daughter of the old sod.
Next stop – Chicago, USA!
Sandy Grisham and her husband, Vaughn, live in Oxford. She is filing a weekly report from their around-the-world trip. The Grishams are retired educators. Her email address is