Though my name means Ireland, I had never visited my namesake country until this summer. Family ties were severed in 1870 when my grandfather’s grandparents were forced to leave like millions of others who suffered through the lingering agonies of the Famine holocaust. All I really knew of Ireland is what vacationers reported: it’s green and wet and its 5 million citizens are charming.
As we headed into yet another brutal summer of record high temps, the promise of wet was most enticing. For 16 summers, Skip and I have worked in the fields through July — shading, mulching, watering and weeding to keep plants alive and the soil cool. Most days begin before sunrise and continue until heat-induced nausea or headaches kick in around noon. Work often resumes in the evening. “I don’t know how you do it” becomes the refrain from neighbors working indoors.
Being a farmer means working through difficult times and caring for what’s vulnerable. That’s why you likely saw Skip dragging hoses across the farm to drought-stressed trees or me filling water bowls for insects and birds.
What got us through the worst of the killing heat was knowing we were going to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary by finally taking a long vacation. Wet Ireland was our Mecca. But leaving requires caretakers: for my mother, who has lived with us for eight years and whose Alzheimers was worsening; for our farms; and for our livestock and pets. Fortunately, Morgan Urich took on the farms, several friends promised to visit Mom now in memory care, and neighbors agreed to watch our retinue of geese, chickens, dogs.
All we had to do was piece together cheap travel. I signed us up to WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming) at farms like Bumblebee Flower farm,trading free room and board for field work. For my first week, I found $40/night dorm rooms at St. Patrick’s seminary, a short 45-minute train ride to Dublin — a city as expensive as New York City.
Lack of rural public transportation meant our largest expense was renting a (hybrid) car. These wheels gave us the freedom to explore the “Wild Atlantic Way’s” rugged and stunning west coast. We drove its famously narrow roads hemmed in by hedgerows overflowing with blackberries to visit farmers and chefs; explore fishing villages and ancient stone tombs; and make pub pals as we stopped for our daily Guinness. The natives could not have been more welcoming.
Our most northern destination was Sligo, the Maine of Ireland and home to my Flynn and O’Grady ancestors. We meandered through lush Kenmare and rugged Dingle, then on to Achill Island, the western most tip of Europe. Here we stumbled on Keem Beach — voted one of the world’s most beautiful. Skip couldn’t wait to scamper up the mountain, the last cliff between Ireland and Newfoundland. While the hills summoned Skip, I stayed put to savor this remote and enchanted cove, (currently featured in the new film, The Banshees of Inisherin).
As I sat on the hillside, I thought about how my Texas beach trips tend to feature enormous pick-up trucks and RVs, offshore rigs on the horizon, oil tankers, jellyfish, Confederate flags and blasting boomboxes. Here, overlooking Keem, the only sound was of fat sheep grazing around me, ambling up to snooze on the narrow lane that twisted down to the cove. Heather-heavy breezes rolled off green velvet mountains rising out of a pure blue sea. No billboards or cruise ships or motor boats. No rich man’s folly squatting on mountaintops. Here, nature ruled. My fellow beachmates and I were delighted and dazzled, mesmerized and subdued, in this cathedral of untouched beauty.
Taking in this simple scene, my mind wandered back to Austin. For seven years we’ve helped transform the historic Bergstrom farmstead into the first-of-its-kind agrihood. Village Farm’s 120 tiny homes around an oasis of organic food and flowers is becoming a vibrant community. We are so ready for this project to fully blossom! Despite years of beeping bulldozers, the vision set out in TBG’s site plan of four farm acres in production and a new farmers market building has not yet been achieved. I want this to happen soon, especially given our concerns about farmland preservation and the likelihood of more storms like February’s Uri.
Every day Austin loses 16 acres of farmland to development. And one rarely mentioned ripple effect of this permanent loss is that farmers are leaving because they can’t afford land. Though Texas is vast, finding affordable good soil with water and nearby customers is difficult. That’s one reason why Central Texas needs farmland conservation districts. Vermont’s 30-year-old Intervale is an excellent example of what should be done, instead gorgeous fertile soil is being devoured by gravel mines and subdivisions.
To ease my rising eco anxiety, I took a quick plunge into the bracing Atlantic. I spotted Skip nearing the mountaintop and thought about how a long marriage shapes you. In a good marriage, I think, you gently (and sometimes not so gently) wear away at each other’s rough edges. The reward being that both people tumble onto new shores like sea glass, worn and polished…kind of like the silver rings we handcrafted with British/Irish jeweler Tiffany Goldsmith. To celebrate our journey thus far, I attempted to create ocean waves on my silver band, while Skip captured three mountains, including Benbulben, made famous by W.B. Yeats, Ireland’s most famous poet.
Despite getting waylaid by our first bout of Covid upon our return, I came home feeling that Ireland, so wet and welcoming, was no longer just a pretty name I shared but a country whose DNA is now wrapped around me as securely as our new rings. Our spirits were revived and I was reminded of how fortunate I am to have married Skip 25 years ago. As we ready for the next chapter in our marriage, my admiration for him grows — for his vision, compassion, determination, risk taking and kindness. He is a good man who makes the world a better place and gives me hope for the future.