by Keri Brady-Benzing
Though I’d never even been there before, my mom’s cousin Nora refers to my trip to County Mayo, Ireland as a homecoming. She brings me and my travel buddy turned best friend, Annie, to see where my grandmother was born and where Annie’s ancestors came from before they moved to America. We drive slowly through the county our first day, making stops in towns along the way before spending the evening with my great uncle in his tiny town of Ballycroy where there’s only a pub and a post office.
This morning started with a walk through the Ballycroy farmland. We pass by houses every now and again. Nora points many out to be empty, their owners having immigrated to America – in almost every case Cleveland, like my grandmother. The rain comes and leaves, partial rainbows appearing and disappearing across corners of the sky. More rainbows already in that hour long walk than I’d seen in my three months in Ireland so far. The land is flat and meets the sea. Across the calm water, you could see the mountains of Achill Island.
Nora wanted us to see the cliffs on Achill – Croaghaun. They are the tallest sea cliffs of Ireland and Britain, the third tallest sea cliffs in all of Europe. The view is best appreciated by a walk along the beach to look upon them. The first time we get out of the car, rain pours over us. We run for cover in the car and explore more of the island before coming back. The second time, the sand on the beach is wet and shiny. The sky is cloudy and grey, dull.
The beach is huge – it doesn’t seem like we’re far from the cliffs, but even as we walk and walk we never seem to get closer. We stay suspended between the shore and the water, not near either, in a space of sand that stretches endlessly each way. The three of us are the only ones on the beach and I feel so small in its vastness.
The rainbow appears in pieces. A streak appears out of the dark mountains along the horizon parallel to the beach, on the side of the island away from the ocean, away from the cliffs. The streak of rainbow, a segmented chunk, begins to grow like it is climbing its way to heaven only to decide it wants to stay on earth and fall back in a perfect arch. The colors are bright and vibrant cast against the dark sky. We are walking, but we stop.
There’s this association with Ireland and rainbows. Walk to the end and you’ll find a pot of gold. Maybe you’ll see a leprechaun. You’ll get the luck of the Irish. Rainbows, though, they happen everywhere – in the United States, in England. Somehow, Ireland is the one with the special connection, the symbolic presence.
The rainbow does not stop at the horizon. It moves in a circle, it reflects down onto the wet, sandy earth until it meets back up with itself. A circle of rainbow. The three of us in the middle.
Three months before this, I moved to Ireland with two students from my school. They were my roommates and I knew them a little bit and while excited to get to know them, I was also excited to meet new people. Through a mutual friend, my roommate and I met Annie who lived downstairs in our apartment complex. “Yeah, I’m from Cleveland,” she said proudly. I told her I was born there too and we share pride. Within a few weeks, we were planning trips across Ireland and across Europe while spending our week days and nights exploring our city of Galway.
A second rainbow starts to appear over the left side arch. It climbs its way up, mocking the slow rise of the first. It tries to be a full rainbow and achieves for less than a minute to be a full double rainbow, not only across the sky, but reflected too across the sand.
A few weeks after visiting Achill, we will chase the northern lights in Norway. The thing on everyone’s bucket list. The tour guides tell us the importance of a single moment. In just one moment the northern lights can flare up across the sky and be gone four seconds later.
The second rainbow recedes into fragments that hang over the first rainbow. The first rainbow holds strong, its colors bold, its structure perfect from end to end. I take a step back, trying to get a better view, trying to capture it end to end on my phone. The circular rainbow looks like the eye of god staring wide open at us.
A few weeks will pass from our Achill trip and our family back home in Cleveland will see our photos. Relatives of mine who’s names I’ve heard tossed around will talk to Annie’s grandmother about seeing the two of us in Mayo – the place where both families began generations ago. We didn’t even know any of our family members knew each other.
There’s a crowd now on the beach, more than twenty people. I don’t know where they came from, but people stand out there with their families and their friends staring like we are. Surfers in wet suits run out to catch the perfect wave. I don’t feel so small anymore.
I chose to study abroad in Ireland because this is where my family originated. They grew up not far from here on a little farm, this island in view. Every time I talked to family at home, they’d ask if I made it to grandma’s childhood home yet and they’d talk my ear off about how beautiful it was. Mom told me try to visit Achill, said it was gorgeous. No one ever told me it was magical.
Nora, too, grew up on the farm that keeps this island just in view. Annie’s Irish blood goes a couple generations back, no family remains here but they’ve traced their roots back to one place: Achill Island. She almost has tears in her eyes as she mentions her grandfather, who passed away recently, and says that this is his way of showing her that everything is going to be all right. After she gives it words, I know I feel deep down what she does too, though through different family, different history, different friendships, yet still linked in just the right places.
The rain comes then, hard and unexpected, but not unwelcome. The sky grows a little darker and the rainbow dims. It will be gone soon, but that’s okay.