An Irish homecoming

It's not true what they say, that you can't go home again. If you're Irish you can. You can even get help doing it.

During these days on the soft edge of summer, all the glens and valleys of rainy Ireland are drying out, awaiting the return of the celts – the arrival of all those foreigners with their itineraries quite specific and personal.

My brother and I learned of this odd migration during a visit to Eire not long ago, financed by a small sum left by our mother. We learned that if you are visiting Ireland and have an Irish name, strangers will ask you in which county or town your family lived.

That doesn't happen so frequently to Americans of German or French descent in Germany or France, but in Ireland the question follows almost reflexively on the introductions.

"So, where are your people from?" asked Teresa Shannon.

Jack and I, and our wives, were guests at her bed and breakfast in Doolin, a County Clare hamlet by the Atlantic Ocean, near the roaring Cliffs of Moher. Doolin is devoted to traditional Irish music. That evening when we went to enjoy some of this down at O'Connor's Pub, the same question was put by the bartender, Mary.

We were a little uncomfortable with this: It exposed an ignorance of our antecedents; clearly more was expected. So under the pressure of these expectations, I recalled my father telling a friend years ago that his people were from Tipperary.

"Tipperary," we would say after that.

"Of course," would come the smiling response. "All the O'Mearas come from Tipperary."

"O'Mara," we would correct. "No 'e.'"

"To be sure," and with the smile never dimming, we would be told the missing vowel had been "dropped, lost somewhere along the way," as if we had been careless with it.

From Doolin we drove north to Ballyvaughan and watched the sun go down on Galway Bay. It fulfilled the promise of the old song. We explored the treeless Burren, that geological exception in Clare, where Mediterranean wildflowers grow beside varieties from the Arctic Circle. Standing before the 6,000-year-old Poulnabrone Dolman, I fancied that perhaps the Neolithic chieftain that rocky monument honors was the ancestor of all Hibernians, us included.

Moving eastward, we crossed the Shannon River near Portland into Ely O'Carroll Country, a region rich in castles and ruined monasteries, such as Clonmacnoise and Monaincha Abby. The O'Carrolls, who lost their lands in the 17th century's religious wars, sent colonists to America, to Maryland. There the family regained its lost glory by producing a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, and the first Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll. Sadly, they lost their "O'."

In the town of Birr, an amiable hotelier named Willie Loughnane introduced us around as "the O'Maras, who've just come through Tipperary. You know, where all the O'Mearas come from." I thought he was going to say, "but they've lost their 'e' along the way."

Approaching Dublin, I began to feel uncomfortable, untethered from my past. How could this be? We were raised in a Philadelphia neighborhood manifestly Irish. We sang Irish songs. We celebrated St. Patrick. We hated the English. Even the neighborhood's informal name – Corktown, which recalled Cork City, the Irish port from which many had fled – told you what we were about.

Why did our father never tell us about his family, who they were, what they did? Resentful thoughts emerged, but were quickly stayed by other probabilities: Maybe it was because during those years before World War II my parents were too busy trying to get on, and didn't have the time or wherewithal that genealogical research demands.

My mother told me of her Irish friend who longed so tirelessly for the land of her birth that her American sons bought her a ticket home. She came back full of feigned praise and gratitude, and her pleased boys promised her a return trip. In my mother's kitchen she confessed horror at the prospect. She spoke of squalor, of pigs in the house.

Today, squalor is not a word associated with Ireland. Eire is a startling economic success, the "Green Tiger" of the European Union. Her emigrant sons and daughters are returning.

The Irish diaspora is immense. The Irish Genealogical Project counts more than 70 million worldwide who share Irish ancestral heritage; about 23 million are Americans. The IGP was founded in 1988 in Eire to help these people trace their family histories.

Offices await in every Irish county to assist these seekers, many of them Irish-Americans. They pore over church documents, property records, workhouse rosters. They visit cemeteries and dust the lichen from the stones. As with most tourists, they golf and climb the crenelated walls of castles. But many are also there to learn who they are, so to speak, and it is by these efforts they are familiar to the locals.

So the question we encountered everywhere we went was the most reasonable to expect. It was last asked in Belfast's Crown Pub, famous for its fine wood carvings of griffins and lions done by Italian artisans recruited to decorate the Titanic.

"Tipperary," we replied.

On the flight home I told myself I would return to find the rest of me. Maybe this year.

• Richard O'Mara is a former editor at The Baltimore Sun.

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