Home away from home: There’s beauty, pain in connecting with roots

Photo courtesy of Harper Leigh

By Jenna Fitzgerald | Copy Editor

With the last name “Fitzgerald” and a propensity for sunburns, it’s no secret that I have Irish roots. So, when ‘Baylor in Budapest’ turned into ‘Baylor in Ireland’ just a couple months before our scheduled departure date, I was hit with a wave of excitement; I was finally going to have the opportunity to embrace a culture that, despite being different from my own, occupies a special place in my soul.

My grandma, Yvonne Tighe, grew up in a home on Blackheath Park in Clontarf, a small coastal suburb of Dublin. Just up the road, her parents owned and operated P G Tighe & Co — the family butcher shop. Within eyeshot of that corner shop are Holy Faith Secondary School and St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish, the family school and church. My tour of Clontarf culminated with a trip back to Dublin and a visit to the Gresham Hotel — the place where my grandma had been working as a receptionist when she met U.S. Air Force officer James Fitzgerald, who would one day become her husband. In just one day, I got to experience the first two decades of my grandma’s life.

Before this trip, I had heard so much about the beauty of connecting with roots, and for the record, it was all true. In an inexplicable way, I felt like I belonged. I knew to look out for Club Milks and Fruit Pastilles in the candy aisle of the grocery store. I was used to hearing the distinct Irish accent, which my grandma never lost after emigrating. I asked for a nice bowl of beef stew every year on my birthday. Undoubtedly, the joys of living with Irish culture all day, every day were more fruitful than I ever could have imagined.

However, before this trip, I had not heard anything about the pain that can accompany the beauty of connecting with roots. My grandma died of pancreatic cancer in March 2009, and exactly two weeks later, my grandpa died (of a broken heart, my dad always tells me). However, because I was only in first grade, I don’t remember much about either of them. When I’m in Texas, it’s easy to forget and to live my life as if they were never truly in it. When I’m here, though, it’s impossible to detach. I had a cup of tea at the front desk of the Gresham Hotel, right where my grandpa initially chatted her up and invited her to the movies. I stood on the sidewalk in front of her childhood home. I walked down the aisle of St. Gabriel’s Catholic Parish, just like she did on her way to meet my grandpa at the altar on their wedding day. While I loved meeting my extended family, there was a part of me that felt like something was wrong — like it was wrong that one of my grandparents wasn’t the one to show me around these places of such great familial significance.

Five weeks of exploring Ireland certainly made it a home away from home for everyone, but for me, doing so meant something more. It gave me a chance to get to know parts of my grandparents, to walk where they walked and to experience what they experienced. More than connecting with my broad heritage, it was about connecting with them — discovering who they were by living in their shoes, since I didn’t have the chance to get to know them while they were alive. Although Ireland has beautiful scenery, astounding architecture and profound history, for me, nothing compares to those few everyday sites in Clontarf and Dublin.