This cause of ours, ultimately, is not about “borders, culture, and language.” Nor is it about this or that piece of legislation. When all the chaff is blown away, what really matters is the bones of our ancestors and the bloodline whose latest expression we are. “Race is the family writ large,” someone once said, and it is true. Through our own ancestors, we come to know our entire people … And once you know your ancestors, you are never alone.
In the spring of 2003 I drove to Texas from my home in California to settle my mother’s estate. My father had died a few years earlier, so in effect I was receiving my tangible inheritance from the ancestors. And this set me to thinking …
My wife and I had already planned a trip to Ireland over spring break. By squeezing and stretching her schedule, we were able to carve out eleven days in the land of Eriu. Claiming my material inheritance on the Texas trip had made me realize that the Ireland journey could be turned into a pilgrimage for receiving a deeper, older, intangible inheritance from my ancestral line.
With less than forty-eight hours remaining before boarding the plane in San Francisco, crisis entered the picture. Persistent chest pain caused me to see my doctor — who suspected an unstable angina and ordered me to immediately check myself into the local hospital.
Tests that afternoon and the next morning showed no sign of the angina, and I easily passed a treadmill stress test. The doctor explained the pain as muscle tension arising from pre-trip stress, and placed me on medicine for high cholesterol.
But I believe there is more to it than that. Crisis must come before pilgrimage. A spring must be compressed before it can project a missile. A spiritual crisis, symbolized in my case by chest pain, came before my personal odyssey.
Once I decided that this was a pilgrimage rather than a casual holiday, the cosmos responded accordingly … much to my discomfort.
From the hour of our arrival, Ireland was stressful. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road, having to shift with my left hand (eleven days later I was still missing second gear), not to mention roundabouts and inadequate road signs, made for misery. But there was more than fatigue and misery; over the course of the trip I had not one but two near-fatal accidents. The materialists among you may scoff, but I knew this one just one more part of the spiritual pilgrimage on which I had embarked.
Some fifteen hundred years ago, “Fergus, son of Nellan” was killed at a place now called Navan Fort. To Fergus and to countless other generations the site was called Emain Macha – the premier ritual and royal center of Ulster. The tales of Cuchulainn, Finn MacCool, King Conchobar, and the warriors of the Red Branch all revolve around this holy place.
“Fergus, son of Nellan” is the earliest bearer our family name, so far as we know. To this day, the center of gravity of the McAnallen clan is only a few minutes away.
Emain Macha is where my blood took a name. It was only right that I go there to receive my ancestral inheritance.
Sheila and I drive into nearby Armagh and called around to find a bed-and-breakfast for the night. The one we found — or which found us — was a fifteen-minute slow walk from Emain Macha. We did a daylight reconnaissance, and waited for dark.
The holy hill had pulled at my heart even in the daylight. At night, I was simply overwhelmed. Up the slope in the dark, a cup in hand and heart on fire, I trod. Again, Sheila gave me some minutes alone — but of course, I was not alone.
There was no rehearsed ritual, no words carefully memorized. They were not needed. I was with kin. I was home.
I drank toasts and poured libations of fine Bunratty mead upon the ground my ancestors had trod. One cup was to Fergus, son of Nellan, my oldest ancestor whose name has survived among us. Another was to the heroes who had trod this sacred soil, men like Cuchulainn, Finn, and the fighters of the Red Branch. Others were to the Holy Powers of Ireland and of the Germanic folk. I drank to peace between Saxon and Celt, for we are both People of Europe, and the blood of both runs in my veins.
The high point was when, with all earnestness, I flattened myself on the top of the hill of Emain Macha, buried my face in the grass, and asked for the blessings of my ancestors. What followed is between them and me, and there are no words for it, anyway.
I have been blessed by that moment in many ways, and it remains one of the very highest points of my life. But you, too can know the same experience and draw upon the same reservoirs of ancestral strength. Trace your ancestors, from whatever nation in Europe. Visit their graves and the places they walked. Go with an open heart, and sense those countless generations that gave you life, so that you in turn might pass it on to more like them. If I did it so can you — and you will be changed forever. Once you know your ancestors, you are never alone…
Men and women do not live their lives and die their deaths for dusty laws, nor for a “multiculture,” nor a political party. They live, and breathe, and — at their best — ultimately die, for more than that. Thomas Babbington, Lord Macaulay, said it best in his poem about Horatius: “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds/For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods,”
Feel the life of a thousand generations pulse through your veins and beat in your heart…then work, and sacrifice, and fight that the kindred peoples of Europe shall live forever!
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