• February 2011

Rediscovering in Ireland What My Mother Has Always Stood for — Love

By Bruce Northam

In 1922, my grandfather, James O’Sullivan, a captain in the fight for Ireland’s independence, emigrated from Ireland to the United States via Canada — one year after the partition of Ireland and simultaneously with the death of his associate Michael Collins.

He traveled west, laying Canadian rails and working as a cowboy in Montana, then he hitchhiked to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he opened the popular O’Sullivan’s Chophouse — in a neighborhood of Irish bars — for 35 years. Shortly after establishing himself in New York, his wife-to-be also emigrated from Ireland.

With that in mind, Mom and I visited Eire in tribute to her parents.

We also wanted to see if the Irish would reciprocate the hitchhiking hospitality James O’Sullivan enjoyed in 1925 America.

In this land of fiercely independent people who value their poets as highly as their warriors, our strategy was to be road-warrior day-trippers and elegant country inn evening guests — upscale vagabonds.

At first, she waved at cars to request rides, but the drivers only waved back. We needed a hitching sign, so I crafted four cardboard appeals: Mom, Angel, Innocent, and Pub, which worked best at small town intersections.

“So Mom, where should we venture today?”

“Never ruin a hike with a reason,” she winked.

At that moment a car — piloted by an 85-year-old woman — pulled over.

We rode on narrow, stone-walled roads past thatched cottages, castles, fortresses, churches, and other noble dwellings.

A prime-time radio talk-show host mused about gardens and the comings and goings of birds in the yard: “In the last 50 years it’s been fashionable to sneer at tuberous begonias” … “Magpie birdhouse raids scaring off other birds” … “The tits will come along quickly.” Real-world news. Then a “lost pet alert” followed by a stolen bicycle appeal. Mom reports, “Dad won’t put out bird seed. He thinks it’s welfare.” The rain comes again. Our driver acknowledges, “The rain is fond of Ireland.”

The landscape changed to sheer cliffs, wet meadows, rocky moonscapes, and roofless abbeys. We pass a damp, lush, lime-colored farm teeming with cattle. Pointing to cows, Mother chimes in with “mootopia!”

This enchanted Atlantic island foray reminded me of some of my mother’s many traits — unconditional love, kindness, safety — and introduced me to others: She snores a bit!

We were in for a shock — we are dropped off at a pub, even though we were picked up using the “Angel” sign. We ease into the social glue of pub life with a Guinness. Mom sits closer to the band playing music by the fireplace. Foot tapping gives way to knee slapping; soon she is dancing.

Then it dawned on me — the sign I forgot to make for her, representing what my mom stands for: Love.

“Wherever they may in the distance roam, this country is never forgotten by its born,” said the barman, looking over at my mother doing the Irish jig to live pub music.

“Hugs remind us of who we are,” replied my Mom.

About Bruce Northam

Bruce Northam, the writer and host of American Detour, has reported (mostly good news) from 125 countries on seven continents. His keynote speech, Street Anthropology, is a hit on campus and at corporate events and Governor’s Tourism Conferences. A National Geographic Society “Destinations Rated” Panelist, his book, “Globetrotter Dogma,” is an award-winning ode to freestyle wandering. Visit www.AmericanDetour.com.