Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Going Home Again

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Going Home Again

Article excerpt

I just got back from a trip to Ireland, the second in six months. Lest you think I fly to the land of my ancestors on a regular basis, I should say that before this year I hadn't been to Ireland since 1971, and I really had no desire to return. My parents, who were born there, were long dead, and whenever I thought of Ireland I felt a twinge of sadness. I pictured going there as just turning that twinge into full-blown pain, and besides this, I had lost contact with all my relatives. In addition, there were so many other places in the world to explore. Then the Internet intervened. I received an e-mail from a cousin in Belfast who had found my name on Google. That message put me in touch not only with her and her two sisters but with her 90-year-old mother, my mother's first cousin. I had had great visits with them when I was a teenager, and this new connection with them made me long for a visit. So off I went the first chance I got, which was last January--not the ideal time to visit a damp, northern island, but the weather was great and the visit even better.

Since the peace accord of 1998, Belfast has revived, and my cousins were proud to tell me that Belfast even had a tour bus, which we boarded. It took us to the sectarian areas where the worst of the violence took place for 30 years. The major reminders of those times are painted murals and a "peace wall" dividing the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. The best part of the tour was a visit to the docks where the Titanic was built. During the 20th century, Belfast was embarrassed by this connection, but now, to lure tourists, they are taking a different tack, with the slogan: "She was alright when she left here."

On returning from a great week in Northern Ireland, I picked up my mail and found a letter from Ireland, this time the "south" or Republic. It informed me that my sister, a cousin, and I were inheriting my uncle's farm. I hadn't thought about Ireland in almost 40 years, and all of a sudden I was not only visiting, but actually owning some of it. This was beyond a surprise, and involves a convoluted saga that has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with family intrigue. Suffice to say that I am not going to be rich, and will be lucky if I don't end up owing something to the Irish government. However, to settle this matter, my sister, cousin, and I went over in June for the auction of the property. I saw this event as extremely sad since my uncle, my father's brother, was the last of the eight children in the family. However, I have to admit that it did have its comical--and quintessentially Irish--aspects. The auction was held in Malachy Burns Pub, and Mr. Burns is, in addition, the local undertaker, so he was involved in arranging my uncle's funeral last year, hosting the "party" afterwards, and dispensing refreshments during the disposal of my uncle's land.

In any case, I fled the auction itself and walked up to Mayo Abbey, the local church with its attendant graveyard, to examine the ruins of the original abbey, which dates to the 6th century. In its shadow rest the remains of some of my ancestors. That is the wonder of Ireland, the way layers of history rest side by side, and added to these layers are the layers of my own personal history residing in the folds of my brain. The last time I visited Mayo, I had just earned my master's degree in biology, but I wouldn't say I was a biologist. It took several years of teaching to make me that, so on that 1971 trip I didn't really look at Ireland through the eyes of a biologist. This time things were different, and you are probably relieved to learn that I've finally gotten to the biology in this column.

Wildflowers & Wild Land

The first evening of the trip, I was walking along a road and was struck by the variety of wildflowers. Hedgerows rimming fields are allowed to be much thicker and more profuse in Ireland. In fact, they are not cut back until late in the summer so birds can nest undisturbed. …

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