“Beginnings” If you close your eyes and spread out your arms to embrace the world, Where do you

find yourself? What’s the land between your toes? What’s its texture, its scent, its story as far back as you know it? What sounds fill the silence of your mind? What’s the tempo of its song: its bird trill, its rustle of leavesits promise as far back as you know it? What’s the horizon just out of your reach? What’s its palette, its composition, its hope as far back as you know it? In a way, this story starts only here. There are so many, so many beginnings…

A tree begins to establish itself-to claim its space on this Earth by reaching upward. Once the roots have dug deep and taken hold, the spry trunk will rise; its lithe body flexing in the sun and the wind and happily accepting its surroundings. *** John Joseph Brennan was born on the 15th of May, 1875, the 8th of the 13 children born to Thomas Brennan and his wife Mary. John Joseph and his siblings were the first generation of Patrick Brennan’s line to not know anything but Illinois soil. Ireland had been sublimated to the realm of the unconscious-instilled only by their father’s memories and stories and written into their genetics by blood only. Their first-hand conscious experience of life would be of America-Illinois-only. *** The tree, sturdily growing, pulls that bit of Earth up into itself through its roots and makes that soil its own. The trunk melds itself into the landscape. That tree then stands there for a reason. The empty bit of land where that seed once fell is now inhabited by the habitual presence of that life. *** John Joseph married Catherine Alice (Kate) Whalen in Springfield, IL on January 31, 1900. Catherine was also a first generation Irish-American. The couple then lived in Elkhart and had a family of 4 children. As a farmer, John Joseph Brennan, or “Dad Brennan”, as my grandmother refers to him, would have known the land of Elkhartknown how to work the soil, break the land in his hands with the respect of someone dependant upon its graces.

*** The water the tree drinks is flavored with the distinct notes of place. Hints of the past mingle with newly turned topsoil making each bit of land unique. The roots, the trunk of the tree, carry the blood of these generations to the whole tree and tie its life to the land. It may take a while to really flourish into a commanding presence, but when left to its own devices, the tree will show its success in its multitude of branches, limbs, leaves, and flowers. *** Thomas Brennan’s decision to move to Elkhart, and John Joseph’s decision to stay there would directly influence the lives of his son, my great-grandfather Matthew, and my grandmother and her sisters. John Joseph was the first generation to really establish a life here, in Illinois, that was no longer in transition, no longer divided between two countries. This stretch of land, this soil, this place then would become the foundation for what all our succeeding generations have come to call home.

Dirt I. If I put my ear to the Earth, what will the dirt have to tell me?

II. Dirt smudging the bottoms of my feet, my handssettling in the creases. Where will I leave my footprint?

III. I pick up something of the fiddle in the dirta bit peppery, lively and enchanting and, sometimes, sonorous if you’re willing to listen that closely.

IV. How does the ant feel the dirt on its feet? How the bird? How do I?

V. How many spirits are in this dirt? How many are released when the Earth is turned?

The Airport Guys
Blinking, unbelieving, our surroundings are realoff the plane onto land into the every day life for these people.

We chose to drive ourselves through Ireland, but seeing as there was the matter of getting from the airport to the car rental lot, we did get to experience first-hand what it’s like to ride with an Irish driver. As with any airport shuttle service, the shuttle driver drives back and forth over a relatively short distance all day-Point A, Point B, Point A and back again. These people could probably make that circuit safely with their eyes closed. I’m sure they run it in their sleep-that dip of the road there, that turn there, 2,3,4... The cadence of that pattern beating out through their every workday. The landscape of this route is so thoroughly ingrained in them that even the craziest of Irish drivers got nothing on the airport shuttle guys on their domain. It’s startling how quickly they come to a stop just millimeters away from a body or ramp a curb-no problem-the very set of the concrete showing specific signs of wear. As kind and full of lively banter as these guys are, and as terrifying to American eyes as their driving is, the thing that is most riveting to me about these guys is their familiarity with place-their absolute certainty in where they are that they can careen around that bend at 60 kilometers per hour, hop out, open your door, and show you on the map-”the loveliest route to travel to your bed and breakfast.” Ask any Irish person how to get to your next endpoint, and, while their opinions on the most scenic route may vary, they will respond with no unwavering certainty that “you’ll get there sure enough.” The country is small enough that every Irish person knows their way from one end to the other and back. This kind of absolute faith in your knowledge comes from years of cultivated experience. Ask of anyone how they know the words to favorite nursery rhymes, and

they’ll say they just know. There’s no precise moment of learning; people have just grown up with some knowledge, and for the Irish, this includes a good sense of place and pride in their beautiful country. “Beliefs, traditions…the tale of someone’s life begins before they’re born,” says Michael Wood, a PBS documentarist. The story of the Brennans in Illinois starts with John Joseph and his siblings, first generation Americans with Irish heritage, first generation to not know anything but America-stories of Ireland with all her beauty are merely subterranean roots after this point. The reason I can write about and recognize White Oak trees, Pin Oaks, and Sycamores is mostly because Illinois is where my Irish ancestors decided to plant themselves, and partly due to the fact that the succeeding generations decided to reach out from there.

What kind of mood is the dirt in this season? Will it be gracious? I want to be present just for this: the moment the rain begins. The water the tree drinks is flavored with dirt from the past. When you’re buried, you become a part of things.

These early farmers-ancestors to us all, knew the sunrise, felt the rain on their backs, and were as much a part of the dirt as the dirt was of them. Much like the trees and grasses-they’d pulled the land up into themselves and learned to flourish there. While on our walking tour of Muckross, we stepped into the past of dirt-floored tenements. We smelled the burning peat and tasted the traditional rustic bread. We spoke with the “owners” of these thatch-roofed homes, who, when off work, went back to wearing their jeans and tennis shoes. Except for our jeans and tennis shoes we could have been in those sepia-tinted photographs of the past. Our ancestors from Ireland-as they would have been known from John Joseph’s generation on. It’s only when the farmer straightens to stretch and wipe his brow that he realizes where he is. Dirt is dirt anywhere until you stand and look around you. From Muckross, I was afforded a beautiful view of that lush patchwork landscape; from my backyard, as I weed my garden, I‘m afforded a view of the corn fields to the North and Oak trees beyond. There was a pig there-a large sow with her piglets playing tag around her. I took a picture of her as if I’d never seen a pig in my life. If Patrick Brennan had a pig-I bet it looked a lot like that one. If he stood to take in the view around him, I bet it looked really similar to what I was seeing right then. If John Joseph Brennan had pigs, I bet they looked a lot like that one. If he stood to take in the view around him, I bet it looked really similar to the view from my backyard.

Walking around town, no one knew I didn’t know where I was going. I was asked for directions by a woman with a French accent. Until either one of us spoke, we were both Irish. Where did we lose our Irish tongue? It may no longer be able to form the language of our ancestors, but it still retains its taste for beer and beautiful words.

If I was to move to Ireland, I would live in Carlow. I felt an easy familiarity with the place, especially on the second trip. This does not necessarily translate to me being able to very easily navigate the town while driving, but I did recognize landmarks, restaurants, and street names with the same kind of nostalgia I would regard my childhood hometown with. Carlow is not a town that can boast a real strong tourist pull but it’s where, I believe, I conducted day to day business as much as I would have had I been at home. I visited their library-not only for my genealogical research but just to have somewhere quiet to sit and read while I waited for the librarian to return. I also went to the grocery store there and bought my daughter sweet peppers and grapes for my son. These they ate at Ann’s, snacking on them, playing a card game with my dad, every bit as easy as if we were at home. The first time we were there, we ate at restaurants recommended to us by locals who would choose these places for their Friday nights out. Driving into town, to the parking lot, and back to Ann’s became ingrained into our personal navigational map as any frequently visited town becomes over time. People are drawn to the familiar and once something new becomes familiar, it becomes beloved in its own way. Land, space, a place-somewhere to identify oneself with, is important in the piecing together of the personal narrative. We spent the bulk of our time in Ireland on both trips in Carlow, staying just outside of town in Killeshin with Ann, because the Carlow county library was to be the center of my research ventures. And those days were among some of my best loved memories of both our trips there.

People don’t think on a daily basis about their town-their home, their physical space-where in the world they are inhabiting, but it’s as important to our daily life as the breaths we don’t think about either. These things are happening everyday-the Catholic school kids are walking the streets of Carlow in their uniforms and attending the library’s presentations on how to research a particular subject, or going to lunch. The checkers at the grocery store are checking people out. People are eating out or making breakfast. I saw the most of day to day life in Carlow. We were not among hoards of tourists while we were there. These were people doing their daily activities in their familiar lives and not thinking as much about where they were in the world as I was. When the car rental guys at the airport asked where we’d been on our holiday and we replied with Carlow, they promptly asked whether we had family there because there really isn’t that much there to recommend to tourists: no major castles, no really fancy attractions or particularly well-renown restaurants. Indeed, the whole county of Carlow only boasts a handful of bed and breakfasts and its only claims in the travel guides are excellent walking trails, some fishing, and the Brownshill Dolmen-an awe-inspiring pile of ancient rocks-the remains of an ancient portal tomb, but there are these spectacular glimpes into an ancient past scattered all over the country lurking nonchalantly in every corner of the land. I can imagine the people of Carlow, much like the people of Mattoon, Illinois, wondering why it is again that people holiday there. What’s here after all, but home?

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