I love the sea (just ask my family and friends). Not only in a way that some people enjoy a seaside vacation, or playing in the sand, or jumping waves…although all that is fantastic. My love, my fascination, my attraction to the sea is so deeply rooted in my psyche, it’s hard to put into words. I love the smells, sounds, sights, and yes, the feeling of that sea salt on my lips and skin. Every chance I can I head to the ocean. It’s my happy place, my go-to when life gets overwhelming or doesn’t make sense. Being by or on the sea births certain emotions, an inner peace, an awesome appreciation, an addiction that produces a visceral reaction every time I get to be in its presence.
It’s why I choose to spend 8 months of my extended study leave in Portugal and Spain…by the ocean.
I grew up by the sea in a beautiful town called Bangor in Northern Ireland and loved to visit our grandparents who lived an hour down the coast in Annalong, a small fishing village. What I loved about both places was the location…right on the Irish Sea. My Uncle Artie was a fisherman, his ‘office’ was a fishing vessel on the wild Irish Sea, an area that is notorious for having some of the roughest seas around Britain. Our family vacations, whether in the South of Ireland, England, Scotland, or Ibiza were always by the sea.
Today we had another amazing experience that has added to my rich memory bank of adventures on the sea…this time a different part of the Atlantic Ocean, off the shores of Albufeira, Portugal. To celebrate our 4th grandchild’s 13th birthday, the 10 of us joined with 8 other travellers for a 3 hour expedition in search of dolphins (which, to our delight, we found!), then to cruise the coastline as we marvelled at the many caves and spectacular beaches, many of which are only accessible by water. Even though it was a rather cool, damp day (very Irish), the experience was breathtaking and exhilarating.
Once more I was transported to that special, happy place. A feeling of wonder and insignificance in such a vast body of water, and yet deep peace and contentment. It really was one of those transcendent moments.
Even though, or perhaps because, I grew up by the sea, I have a very healthy respect for the power it holds, and the need for warning signs that guide ships and small vessels to safety. Warnings that can be relied on, depended on, warnings that are constant.
Warning signs that if ignored can end in catastrophe.
My Uncle knew what he needed to look for to avoid imminent danger on those days when the swell of the water threatened to swallow the vessel. Before the global positioning system (GPS) was created in the late 1970s, fishermen like my uncle depended on the beacon of a lighthouse to guide them to shore, steering them away from being dashed against treacherous coastlines. They knew they could trust the lighthouse, that it was reliable, constant, a lifeline to guide them into the safety of the harbour.
As my research continues to focus on leading in uncharted waters, I wonder what warning signs might be ignored by men and women who care so deeply about those they lead? I wonder if perhaps in their desire to feed and nurture others, they become too busy to notice their own needs, only to find themselves dangerously close to the rocky shoreline, having ignored their own warning signs?
Where is your happy place? Where do you go to hit ‘pause’, to recalibrate? Where do you go to get life back in perspective, to find balance, to get grounded? What refreshes and rejuvenates you so that you can continue to be the person those in your circle of care and influence draw on for encouragement, support, and leadership?
It’s amazing how life happens, and great intentions get pushed aside. That’s what is happening to my blog…life! (be prepared, this is a long one!)
However, our family hit a milestone yesterday that simply screams for reflection. October 1, 2020 was our 50th anniversary of immigrating from N. Ireland to Canada. 50 years! I can hardly believe it. How life has changed over that time. And what a courageous decision for our parents to make – they sold everything and packed up 3 kids to fly across the ocean to embark on a new life. Landing in Ontario early October brought with it the most picturesque autumn colours…little did we realize that we were being lulled into the transition of Ontario winters.
I recall the first snowfall while living in Bracebridge, Ontario. We had never seen that much snow, 6 feet of pure glory (at least that’s what we kids thought). The downside was the freezing temperatures that came with that white wonderland; the gooey content in our noses froze shut as we walked what seemed like 10 miles to school.
There are so many stories I could share of the adjusting, adapting, re-learning, culture shock, missing family and friends back in Ireland. Still, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. That ‘starting life over’ decision made by Dad and Mum lay the foundation for such amazing opportunities for me and my siblings. We have all chosen different career paths, live in different parts of Canada, but share a common bond and love for all that Ireland instilled into the very core of our beings.
Obviously, this immigrant family of 5 grew over the past 50 years. Our parents started a clan of what now includes 3 amazing in-law spouses, 7 wonderful grandkids, and 15 of the most adorable great grandkids. Sadly, Mum developed early on-set Alzheimer’s and didn’t live long enough to meet any of her great grandkids…such a loss for her, and her grandkids. Dad hasn’t fared much better, vascular dementia and geographical distance presented a barrier we just couldn’t beat. He is now in a care facility.
Sadness and loss aside, life has been amazing! As I was reflecting on this major life re-direction, I was struck by the thought that while this immigration greatly impact my brother, sister and me, it might also have had an impact on our kids…so I asked three of the grandkids, ‘what difference do you think it made in your lives having a parent raised during their formative years in another country?’ I love their responses so thought I would share them with you (with their permission of course).
Shannon (mother of the youngest great grandchild): My mom was born in Ireland and due to that I have always had a fascination and a small sense of pride for the country. It had always been my dream to travel to Ireland and experience the culture myself. I have now been 3 times, with the most recent trip taking me to the city where my mom was born, Belfast. At that time, I heard a bit of the history which created so many questions creating the need for a conversation with my mom; it left me wanting to know more from her perspective. Since visiting there, I have a greater sense of pride for Ireland; even though I wasn’t born there I feel Ireland is part of me. Having had a parent born in a different country, which they love and have many fond memories of, means I have two cultures to celebrate.
Nathan (father of 6 great grandkids): My mother’s Irish-ness was revealed to me in subtle ways as I grew up. Despite many attempts, I could never get her to talk in an Irish accent, and I heard very few stories of what her years in Ireland were like. Even still, I knew that her childhood was a deep part of her, even if it was a secret part of her. I’d later learn how much she felt a need to establish a new identity once she arrived in Canada, and how that sadly meant suppressing some of the very things that made her, her. It would be many years before I’d come to see how deeply Ireland was part of my mum.
As an adult, I moved to Ireland with my wife and children. Mum and dad’s first visit allowed me to begin to get to know my mother’s ‘secret identify.’ Whether it was in the way she approached the Irish Sea with holy reverence, or the way she cherished Guinness as only an Irish born woman can, or even in her deeply emotional reaction as we drove through Belfast and felt the deep fear held in memory by the murals depicting the fighters of “peace.”
I suppose for me, without really knowing it, Ireland has always been a part of me because of her, and I knew this to be true the first time I took in the rolling green hills and wild seas myself. I felt…home? No, not home, but at least I felt like I belonged there, just as she always will.
Alicia (mother of two great grandkids, and oldest grandchild): Growing up I really didn’t think anything of the fact that my dad had spent his formative years in Northern Ireland. It wasn’t like he looked different, or even sounded any different than any of my friends’ parents. I mean, I guess the red hair (what was left of it at that point), and the freckles that cover about 98% of his body did stand out, now that I think about it. And then there were the odd expressions…I remember going to someone’s house with him, and he told my brothers and I to go “knock the door”. My smarty-pants (can I say smart-ass) brother inquired where exactly we should knock the door to? And then there’s the cutlery. Heaven forbid you eat a meal without a knife! How on earth could you get food on a fork if not for a knife? I jest.
In all seriousness, having a parent raised in a different country informs so much of how we were raised. Going to Grammar School in Northern Ireland created in my dad such a strong work ethic. Schoolwork and grades were always something so important and such a priority for us. Thankfully, he didn’t adopt the strict rules he grew up with in school, and thankfully he never implemented the Ruler as a form of punishment either. For my dad, growing up meant soccer, or more accurately “football”, and seeing him instill his love for that sport, as well as rugby, in my brothers and myself, is something that has fostered in us a love of sports, and competition. Being born and raised in another country, and then as a family choosing to leave that country and come to a new one, starting a brand-new life is such a huge decision. While that wasn’t my dad’s decision independently, but rather his family’s decision, it is still something that informed so much of who he is, and how he and my mom chose to raise their family. I see that through that uprooting, family becomes so much more important, something not to be taken for granted. And while, we may not have always lived close to family, we have always been intentional about being a part of each other’s lives. It was also always so fascinating to see my dad refer back to his Irishness, his lilt if not a full accent, when we were with his extended family. It was like we got to see a bit more of his true self. My dad fought hard not to stick out when they moved here, his aforementioned flaming red hair and freckles, as well as the fact that he was tiny after having been skipped ahead a couple of grades made him stand out. And so, he tried to blend in, tried to fit in, tried to lose his accent. And while, as a teenage girl I totally got that – that need to assimilate – as I grew up, it also made me want to stand out, to be proud of being half-Irish. Perhaps as a result of that, and my love of that accent, it has pushed me to really embrace my Irish heritage. I am proud of the choice that my family made to leave Northern Ireland, but I am also proud to be Irish.
We are a truly blessed family, and even though we are spread out across the globe, there is a deep love for each other and an immense gratitude to Dad and Mum for their sacrifice. And we are, and always will be, Irish at our very core.