When I visited Cashel, Ireland in the fall of 2003, my friends and I stayed in a comfy, rural hostel that seemed more like a bed and breakfast. There was a separate floor for men and women, a kitchen where people left their extra food when they left, and a living/smoking room where I watched a soccer game with a few Irish travelers. I don’t remember the exact teams that were playing but it was essentially Ireland vs. England. The room was thick with emotion, perhaps the beer aided the excitement.
One friendly Irishman sat down next to me and asked who I was rooting for. I told him I was currently living in England, but as I was visiting Ireland I would be happy with either winning. This was the wrong answer. Slightly drunk and with tears in his eyes he gave me an Irish earful about how he felt about England transplanting protestant English people to live in Ireland and augment the widely held catholic beliefs, how it damaged part of Ireland’s national identity, and how he could never forgive England for it. It was as if this sporting event could either redeem his homeland or drive another nail in its coffin. The conversation took place over 10 years ago and I can’t remember his exact words, but I remember the tears in his eyes, the smoky smell of that room, and especially that heavy sadness, the terrible feeling of something very special taken away. In a 2011 talk for Global Washington, Rick Steves said: “People have struggles, people have heroic struggles that we’re pretty much clueless about, and when you travel you gain an appreciation for that” (30:54).
Sitting with that Irishman in the smoking room, watching the soccer game was my first introduction to the harsh realities of the relationship between England and Ireland. Years later, for a project in a Nineteenth Century Literature class, I was browsing old copies of “The Times of London” looking for advertisements that shed light on the culture at the time. My eyes fell on one from June of 1846, nestled in the text of the ad was this: “No Irish Need Apply.”
When I went back to Ireland in 2010 with my husband, and pregnant with my son, we walked through part of the National Museum of Ireland – Collins Barracks. The “Soldier and Chiefs” exhibit tells many stories of Irish fighting at home and around the world, including letters, replicas, and Irish military memorabilia to show how war affected the lives of Irish people. I read so many of the letters on display, of men that knew they were going to die, but that THEIR Ireland was worth dying for – to retain their heritage, for honor and freedom. My Irish friend from the hostel flashed in my mind and I understood the letters so much more deeply than if I had never met him. In Debby Lisle’s book The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing she argues that the very nature of travel writing is from a superior perspective, whether we are trying to glide graciously away from imperialist sentiments or not. “Think of it this way: travel writers must go somewhere else and meet strange people for their work to be considered ‘travel writing’ in the first place” (260). The core idea of travel writing assumes authority over those that are written about. She raises the question of why do we have the authority to represent them – “What right do I have to speak for others?” (269).
Some nations are proud of their heritage and their ability to rise from the bottom in order to recreate their identity – without outside help. In Sheikha Al Mayassa’s TED talk “Globalizing the local, localizing the global” she says: “Qatar is trying to grow its national museums through an organic process from within. Our mission is of cultural integration and independence. We don’t want to have what there is in the West. We don’t want their collections. We want to build our own identities, our own fabric, create an open dialogue so that we share our ideas and share yours with us” (5:52). They want to define themselves.
I have many stories to write of the travels that I have done over the years. I’m trying to situate myself in a way that is respectful to the people and places I visited, but showing a true depiction of the things I saw. I have opinions about them too, many of them have changed since first visiting a place. Sometimes digesting what has been seen after arriving home creates a better picture of what was actually witnessed. But in almost every case, I go home with deeper compassion for all people, knowing just a little bit more about other people’s struggles for honor and meaning.
Beneath the small daily trials there are harder paradoxes, things the mind cannot reconcile but the heart must hold if we are to live fully: profound tiredness and radical hope; shattered beliefs and relentless faith; the seemingly contradictory longings for personal freedom and a deep commitment to others.” Oriah, The Invitation