My appreciation for Ireland, unlike that of Germany (which was almost inborn given the Teutonic influence of an early friend and his family) seems to have arrived slowly. One of my earlier memories was seeing a poster of the country at cousin Terry's house and being underwhelmed. It depicted a tree-less landscape, overcast sky, and grey-stone fences. It was not my idea of picturesque at the time; I preferred lots of trees and sun, like the Great Smokies or the Amazon jungle.
Another early memory was seeing Gone with the Wind and I came to associate Scarlett's father, who went mad, with his Irish heritage. Irish had a gothic twinge for me, at least after seeing that movie.
But really there didn't seem much to Ireland, St. Patrick's Day notwithstanding. I was unfamiliar with the music and there weren't any famous landmarks. No Eiffel Tower, no Grand Canyon (the Cliffs of Moher notwithstanding). No famous Irish cooking or sunny beaches or cosmopolitain atmosphere. Irish whiskey, like all whiskey, held no interest to me. “There was nothing in him to draw the eyes of his contemporaries,” as was prophesied of Jesus in Isaiah. Sure there was literature, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats, but both were forbiddingly cryptic, at least at the time. And besides, you could read a book at home - who needed to travel for that?
But gradually my indifference faded. It seems like the major turning point was when I went to Boston with my uncle in 1994. We hung out an Irish pub and heard “traditional” Irish music, the most memorable being The Moonshiner by the Clancy Brothers. It was accessible Irish music, much like Guinness is an accessible alternative to familiar pilsners like Bud and Miller Lite. So just as Guinness was my entry point to more interesting tasting beers, so too was The Moonshiner a gateway to more interesting Irish music which culminated a few years later in hearing Tommy Makem's amazing Four Green Fields.
The jigs and reels grew on me too; I'd caught echoes of the bluegrass music I was starting to like after having discovered country music and going to Branson in '93. Turns out Irish music was in my blood even if I came to it via American bluegrass music, derived as it was from the Scotch-Irish bringing it with them centuries ago.
The next huge milestone was my uncle wanting me to go to Ireland with him. The London part of the trip was enticing and I can't be sure if that wasn't the major draw for me at the time. But now that I was actually committed to going to Ireland my interest took off. I read Irish books as if on assignment. I was charmed by Irish mythology and poetry. I even took a couple Irish language classes at St. Patrick's Church. I was fully hooked - there was something mystical and otherworldly about the olde sod and it was fueled even more by a rediscovery of Catholic apologetics which showed the religion of my birth had the added benefit of being the one True religion.
So the visit there in '96 lived up to all of what I'd imagined. If I had to pick a favorite of all my vacation trips, it would have to be that one. And now what's left but to forgive Ireland, forgive the swift fall from the grace of being the world's most Catholic country to being just like the rest of us. But still there's a magic, I think, hidden deep within the Eire soul, that one day shall rise again.