I was once an exchange student in Dublin—the first semester of my senior year in high school, during the fall of 1973. That Dublin—the Dublin of ’73—was a place of great foreignness to me, a then moderately well-traveled 17 year old from a comfortable background who--when not on this Irish adventure--attended a small, progressive private school in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I knew very, very little of Ireland’s strengths—her native sons’ and daughters’ towering literary achievements might never have been published given the illumination they had provided me before my time in Dublin. I had read Wilde, Swift and that then great favorite of disaffected youth, Samuel Beckett, but none had acquainted me with the essentials of being Irish---how deeply different being Irishwas—and is—from being English. Those that might have helped with this understanding—Joyce and Synge, in particular—were still in my future.
I also had only the barest grasp of Ireland’s traumatizing political history. I was at least marginally up on my facts. As I recall I did know the date of Irish Independence—December 6, 1921—thanks to my high school’s very strong history department. What I was not up on—what I had no inkling of—was the residue left by centuries of humiliating English domination. Experiencing the freshness and depth of the enmity most Irish felt towards the English was as bracing as a slap. This was bone-deep and utterly elemental stuff with absolutely no correlates for a kid from the American suburbs of the 1970’s.
My Protestant background was a source of further opacity and consternation. While in Dublin, I attended a Catholic girls school where even my Southern manners worked against me. My form of highest respect—‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’—seemed to be nothing short of an excruciating insult to the nuns. Unfortunately for all involved, very rarely was my first response the appropriate/expected ‘yes, sister’ , ‘no, sister’. I persisted with ‘ma’am’ until the end. Not out of spite but out of a nervous desire to please--not that the nuns knew or cared. To them, I was clearly simply a bold creature for whom there was no hope or redemption.
And finally there was the ‘material modesty’, for lack of a better phrase. I had grown up in that great era of American plenty, the post-war years. I was used to so much. My family was, indeed, solidly comfortable but no more than that and so the difference was not in wealth, per se. Nonetheless as an American I was just accustomed to so much. Our cars were so big. Our houses, so big. Our everything, so big. Ireland was then the poorest country in Europe and while I saw little outright poverty in and around Dublin, I was constantly aware of a carefulness in regards to every material thing. This was a final source of constant contrast between what I had known before and this other life being lived by apparently every person in Ireland.
I was so homesick during that fall that at any given moment--for the entire stay--I knew exactly how many days I had left in this strange place—how many days before I could go home. I had figuratively if not literally gone a very long way out from shore, from the shore of home, the known and the comfortable. It was a big experience and I was really just a kid, after all.
Despite all this though and in a very real way, my experiences in Dublin mark the beginning of my abiding appreciation and love of travel.
When I finally returned to the US a few days before Christmas in 1973, home seemed different—everything seemed different. America literally hurt my eyes—its bigness was now too bright. Strangely, it had only taken four months to become unaccustomed to all I had ever known.
An old cliché has it that ‘travel broadens the mind’. After my experiences in Ireland that long ago fall, it has always seemed more accurate to say ‘travel broadens the world’.
Next week, a bit more about Dublin—this time as the present day gorgeous and rewarding cultural destination it has become…