An áit a bhfuil do chroí, is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú
“Where your heart is, your feet will bring you there.”
I think a piece of my heart has always belonged to the Emerald Isle. For as long as I can remember, being Irish has been a central part of my identity—with a name like Maeve Kelly O’Connor Moran, you might understand how it would’ve been hard to escape. I am a product of the Irish diaspora, one of almost 36 million Americans who claim Irish as their primary ethnicity.
My family has always reinforced to me the pride I should take in this heritage. My hometown is jokingly referred to as the 33rd county of Ireland. I was in Irish dance classes from kindergarten, and it wasn’t long after that I was brought along to watch the storytelling and merry-making in my family’s Irish pub. My childhood imagination was fed by stories about Ireland: the rolling green hills, the myths of my namesake Queen Medb, the pure warmth and friendliness of the Irish people. Whether Yeats or Bono or Rory McIlroy, Irishmen were the heroes I was brought up to revere. Nevertheless, for as much as I feel tied to Ireland, I recognize that my ideas about it are probably just as romantic as Yeats’s poetry.
After just a week here in Derry, however, these romantic notions have been challenged by tangible experiences, and it has been so exciting to see how the two can be reconciled. Some of the Irish stereotypes have been reinforced almost immediately; for one, the generous, kind, and welcoming spirit of the people here is palpable. Never in my life have I felt so comfortable in a new place so quickly, and so much of that is to do with how willing everyone here is to talk to you. From the clerk at the supermarket to the bus driver to locals in the pub, I have had more conversations with complete strangers in just a week here than in a lifetime in Philly, about everything from the weather to sports to politics and philosophy.
Furthermore, the sheer loveliness of the people here is surpassed only by the beauty of the physical landscape. We have been on two hikes already, exploring the stunning scenery of the coast of County Donegal in the Republic. The verdant fields next to the perfectly blue water have made it clear to me that there truly must be no place more beautiful in the entire world than Ireland.
I think what has struck me most of all is how much Derry actually reminds me of home. In a literal way, the cityscape of Derry is familiar. In one of our class sessions this week, a Dublin architect came to speak to us and explained how Derry and Philadelphia were actually designed at the same time in the same style. The grid plans of Derry and Philly, both sandwiched on either side by two bodies of water, are nearly identical. Furthermore, we spent time exploring the different neighborhoods of Derry, and I was particularly struck by the Bogside, the heart of the Catholic/Irish republican community here. Everywhere you look there is a mural, with most making reference to significant figures involved in The Troubles (plus one of Netflix’s Derry Girls!). With these, I was immediately reminded of home—murals are such an integral part of culture in Philly. Even as a small child, I remember my parents explaining the political and social importance of the murals and what they represent to the communities in which they are painted. It was so interesting to see how this same idea translates in a different community. Beyond the superficial similarities, however, there is something almost indefinable for me that connects the two. If I had to isolate one thing, however, I think there is an underdog spirit in Derry of social activism and engagement, coupled with the majority working-class population, that perfectly evokes the spirit of Philly for me. This, alongside the friendly nature of the people here, has made my transition easy.
I couldn’t have asked for a better first week in Northern Ireland. My search for authentically Irish experiences has seen me Irish dancing with one of the country’s best fiddle players, swimming in the beautiful but freezing cold Boyeeghter Bay, and delving into some of Ireland’s greatest literature. I am excited to continue to form my own opinions, to reconcile the Ireland I have been taught about from my family with the the Ireland I will come to know. I am here with an open-mind, knowing that every lesson in Irish music, literature, and history, every hour spent hiking through the highlands and headlands of Donegal and Antrim, even every pint poured over good conversation with a Derry local—they are all steps bringing me closer to the most authentic version of that Irish piece of my heart. What could be a better way to spend my summer?