Lee (Sacred Space, Pine Hollow, 2014) recounts her first trip to Ireland in search of ancestral roots.
The author writes that she’d always been under the impression that she was of Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and English descent—a familial narrative that turned out to be inaccurate. She discovered that all four of her maternal grandmother’s grandparents were Irish, and a DNA test confirmed Lee’s Irish lineage, which stretched back thousands of years. Eager to unearth a genealogical line that her relatives suppressed “out of shame at being at the bottom of the cultural heap in anglophile America,” Lee organized a trip to Ireland with her two sisters, Liz and Jennie, and her cousin Josie. The four of them meet in the town of Lahinch in County Clare on the western coast of the country, and they set off on an exploration of their ancient homeland and on a search for distant cousins. Lee’s account eclectically and charmingly leaps from the personal to the historical, provocatively suggesting that the two can’t always be neatly separated. She provides a synoptic but companionably readable history of Ireland along the way, touching on its earliest inhabitants, its history of conflict, and the famine that ravaged its people in the 19th century. She also supplies a running commentary on its remarkably diverse culture, including its love of language and its quintessential cuisine, and she offers quirky, parenthetical sidebars, such as a note on the “high incidence of red hair in Ireland.”
Lee’s ambitious book is brimming with photographs; hand-drawn art, including maps and notable visual spectacles; and original poetry. Her lucid prose often achieves a delightful, pensive elegance: “It’s a strange phenomenon to emotionally attach oneself to a name and a place as I had, as if mystical filaments float out of the ground to the soul longing for connection.” Her research is impressively rigorous, and she tackles her trip with scrupulous zeal. The remembrance concludes with an appendix that seems designed to help first-time Ireland visitors, but it’s likely to be more helpful as a spur to future research; her own travel experience is likely too personally idiosyncratic for others to successfully emulate. Much of the memoir has an intimately confessional feel; for instance, the author candidly admits that she’s “afraid to be rejected as an outsider in Ireland” and anxious that the people of her newly discovered homeland won’t reciprocate her affections. Her memoir becomes a searching philosophical treatise on what it means for members of a diaspora to form a cultural identity: “Non-natives in America, Australia, and other long-time displaced peoples are characterized by this cultural amnesia. We are separated from our ancestral story as unnaturally as a shadow is separated from its body.” The narrative can be a touch disjointed, as the author moves quickly, and sometimes jarringly, from historical lessons to personal travel chronicles to family genealogy. However, Lee’s style is ultimately more eccentric than scattered, and her kaleidoscopic approach properly reflects her own arc of self-discovery.
A charming, informative, and creative memoir.