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Come back to Erin, mavourneen, mavourneen.”

That’s the first line of an old song my grandmother, Margaret, used to sing when I was a little girl. She often spoke about going back to Ireland “when my ship comes in.” I knew that meant when she got her inheritance from her Auntie Mary.

Auntie Mary’s husband, John, had left her many acres of rich farmland in southern Minnesota.

Years later, after the ship had brought much less than hoped for -- Mary left most of her money to a convent in Ireland -- I realized that my grandmother not only would never go back, she had never been there. The child of immigrant parents, she had been orphaned at 8. Taken in by a kindly couple, she grew up in an Irish community where people talked and sang a lot about the land they left behind.

It gave me much pleasure some years ago to send both of my grandmothers to Dublin by Federal Express for $50. I wrote a play about Grandma Margaret as I knew her during World War II when she was struggling with her soldier son’s alcoholism. My other grandmother, Bridget Ann, appeared in the play as a ghost. I entered the script in a contest for an Irish-American play sponsored by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. I didn’t win. In fact, nobody won.

The contest committee wrote that none of the many entries met their standards. The plays had too many stock Irish characters, too much alcoholism, too many ghosts and sorrowful mothers. My play could have been the poster child for the plays they hated most. And, they said, there was little satire, political or religious. When I told my mother, she said, “They don’t know the half of it.”

I think the committee didn’t want to dwell on how much sadness the Irish found in their new lives in America. I think they wanted success and things to laugh at -- the John F. Kennedy story as told by Woody Allen.

I went to Ireland several years ago, Grandma would be pleased to know, to attend a week-long summer school on the life and work of playwright John Millington Synge (pronounced Sing), who wrote in the early 1900s and whose best-known works are “Playboy of the Western World,” a comedy, and “Riders to the Sea,” a tragedy. The Irish have many summer schools to sing the praises of their writers and musicians and their lovely land.

The school was held in a little village called Rathdrum, 50 miles south of Dublin. After mornings of speakers and midmorning breaks for tea, the staff would take us to explore the wonders of County Wicklow. We saw lakes and ruins of castles and abbeys, weavers, young girls step dancing, grand old houses and charming smaller houses with lace curtains and pots of geraniums in the windows and bright painted doors. We went to a horse race high in the mountains.

After summer school ended, my friend Carol and I and a couple from Australia that we met at the school rented a car and spent a week traveling in a big circle to the West, the South and back to Dublin. The couple had traveled in Europe, and the man knew how to drive on the left side of the road. You can drive from Dublin on the East Coast to Galway on the West in a day with a stop at a pub in a village called Horse Leap for a lunch of fresh-caught salmon, and we did.

We took a ferry to the Aran Islands, the westernmost point of Europe. They say the next parish is in Brooklyn. The three islands are bleak, almost barren rocks where fisher folk long ago made small plots for raising potatoes by gathering bits of soil and seaweed. The largest of the islands, Inishmore, has a few houses, a ruined church, a hostel where we spent the night, and Dún Aengus, the ancient semicircular stone fort on a cliff edge high above the ocean.

We walked in a rose garden in Tralee, where Grandma Margaret’s mother came from, visited a small stone oratory on the Dingle Peninsula, saw workers thatching a roof with reeds from the Shannon River and a farmer in a tweed jacket digging peat.

I was reminded of the trip when I saw the color and black-and-white photos in The Encyclopedia of Ireland, which describes itself as “an A-Z guide to Ireland’s people, places, history and culture.” Published by Oxford University Press ($39.95), its 390 pages contain 19 essays on a variety of topics in addition to hundreds of short entries.

I especially like the quotations scattered throughout the book. For example, this by flautist James Galway: “It is next to impossible … to toss a brick in the air anywhere in County Galway without it landing on the head of some musician.” Or this by playwright Brendhan Behan: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” And this, from Titanic Town by Mary Costello, included in the section on Belfast: “It’s starting to rain. The boys will go in now. Let the Brits lie out in it and get saturated. A man’s army. It’s spoiled the garden, all this running in and out through it with guns and army-issue boots.”

Essay topics cover almost anything you might want to know: the Viking and Norman invasions, agriculture, tracing Irish ancestors, the early film industry, cinema in the ’90s, step dancing and “Riverdance,” folklore, the Celtic tiger (the transformed economy), Northern Ireland’s complex history, the Great Famine, the Irish diaspora, great moments in Irish sport, and social change as the republic grows more outward-looking. There are maps and there are chronologies for Belfast and Dublin and for the island itself. Ireland’s chronology begins with the hunter-gatherers of the Middle Stone Age appearing in Ulster about 7000 B.C. and ends with the Northern Ireland Assembly being suspended in February of 2000 and reconvening that May following stalemate on the IRA’s decommissioning of weapons. In addition to all this, there’s a list of 124 Web sites beginning with Abbey Theatre and ending with Yeats, W.B.

On our road trip, I carried a little book of poems by Yeats, W.B., purchased in a Dublin bookstore. I read a poem to my companions whenever I got the chance. We ended our road trip where we started, at Mrs. Potter’s bed and breakfast in Black Rock, a Dublin suburb. Next day, I stood in Mrs. Potter’s shower and sang “Come Back to Erin” to myself and cried about all the things that deserved crying about and then I came home.

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor. Her e-mail address is pmccarty@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001