My Mother's Ireland

Cliffs of Moher/Image: Sue Carswell

A writer journeys to Ireland, retracing her mother’s footsteps…

When I was still young, my parents bought an eight-millimeter movie camera and projector to show us the home movies they took of the faraway places they visited when they went off on their own vacation every year, just like honeymooners. I suppose that’s how my brothers and sisters and I became aware of the greater world beyond Albany, NY. Even if we never left our living room, when my mother flipped the switch to start the projector, we traveled the world with them — or mostly with her, because she was our world.

We saw Barbados, where my mother learned to play the steel drums with the dark men of the island. And we saw the redwood forest of San Francisco with its trees so big they made the elms along our street look like twigs. In all the images, in each frame — whether it was in Ireland, where a flock of sheep surrounded their rented car on a winding country road, or Rome, splashing inside the Trevi Fountain, or London in front of Buckingham Palace — what I distinctly remember most is that image of our mother waving to us, her children back at home. My father, holding the camera in one hand, would direct my mother to walk in the direction of whatever landmark, vista or monument they were visiting, turn and smile at the cameras, and then wave to us, almost as if she was pulling us to come travel with her too, perhaps not when we were young but one day. 

Sue Carswell's Mother

I have found by retracing my mother’s steps, visiting the places she traveled, I feel connected to her again. But I prefer to do it alone because it is my time with my mother. This past summer I went back to her Ireland. I went back to the one I remember her showing us on the projector. I take great pleasure in planning these trips for me and my now-imaginary mother, but off we went as soon as I had picked Dublin as my central place. Dublin would be the city I would come home to at night from my days of far-reaching trips, only to have a Guinness and relive my day as I looked toward the darkening skies above the Liffey River, talking to my mother so far above.

I had a wonderful six-night stay at Bono and The Edge’s quaint Clarence Hotel in Wellington Quay. Once there, they upgraded my room, simply because they were nice and saw that I was by myself. I unpacked my clothes and my mother’s Mikimoto pearls, which I wear so that I feel I’m bringing a piece of her along with me, as well as the crumpled green leaves in a ziplock bag from the tree that grows in her name in Albany. My mother’s tree was unveiled the summer after she passed away from the wretches of breast cancer at the age of 63. My mother — the tree — is now almost 13 years old.

Fears. My mother had them and I am a tranquilized soul on many medications for depression, anxiety and being bipolar. One night back in the mid-1970s my mother looked out her plane heading to Ireland only to see that they were turning back an hour in as they had lost an engine. I cannot imagine how scared my mother was. When my father much later in life said it was one of the scariest things he had been through, I was given a better scope into her own feelings of panic — and mortality. When the plane landed at Kennedy an abundance of fire trucks and ambulances swarmed the runway.

It took everything in my mother’s being to muster going back on the trip even though another couple (friends of theirs) bowed out. My mother went onto Ireland, but she did so with trepidation. She had desperately wanted to see the jaw-dropping beauty of the Cliffs of Moher, but because the winds were so fierce on the day of her visit, she sat in the visitors lodge just looking at the photos as my father headed out to see what my mother called “The Eighth Wonder.” When my father asked if she would like to see Belfast, her fears again enveloped her. “John, my heart breaks for the bloodshed.” And so they didn’t go, but toured the safe passages of Ireland.

I decided it would be my fate — to overcome my mother’s fears — and I would go where she could not. And I would do it for her, alone.

I, too, so many years later journeyed to the Cliffs of Moher, five hours away from my hotel. I braved some mighty winds to stand on the rock upon which I believe she would have stood if she could. I am fearful I will jump, but I don’t, and I overcome that fear because I need to do what she couldn’t and this trip is all about her. I head the next day to Belfast some six hours away, where the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, my mother taught us, took place. I travel to Londonderry, the site of Bloody Sunday, where I see a bridge that only years earlier had a lane for Protestants and an upper lane for Catholics. On another day, my tour bus, heading into the Dublin countryside, is overtaken by a flock of sheep just like her car was. She was scared then that they would attack her. Now, the sheep swarm our small bus but I only see beauty and thoughts of a nice wool sweater from their sight! In the end I am back in Dublin, doing what she loved — but I have always feared — shopping. I feel that much closer to my mother having visited Ireland, the land she loved for her roots. In the end, I threw the leaves from her tree over the side of the Cliffs of Moher, through the cannons in Londonderry, and on top of the sheep’s head in the countryside.

All of my photos of my mother’s Ireland are seemingly artistic, I believe; there’s always an angle that is different and interesting as I keep going, journeying my life away, retracing my mother’s adventures. But never once through my travels will you see an image of me. For I am the one who travels alone, albeit with my mother’s memory by my side.

And she’s with me today, as we head out for a pint of Guinness

Editor’s Note: Sue Carswell is a reporter/researcher at Vanity Fair. She is also a ghostwriter and speechwriter. She has worked as an executive editor at Random House, Inc., and is a former senior producer for “Good Morning America.” She was a contributing launch editor at O: The Oprah Magazine, and is a former People Magazine correspondent.

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