The Undercover Nun—Page 2
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

Ireland fishing

Mom's journey from a convent runaway to Manhattan ultimately led her to my dad, an avid birdwatcher. She relied on a few supposedly Irish traditions to keep her sons in line, including washing our mouths out with soap for swearing and attempting to use a wooden spoon on our behinds—a course of punishment rendered fruitless by a fugitive dance around the dining room table. But it certainly wasn't all tough love. An Irish relative, Sister Eileen, visited us when I was nine. She pinch-hit for mom as a bodyguard, deflecting older brother attacks. She also never minded when I waltzed into her room unannounced when she was sans habit. And, she didn't notice my English-descended, Thoreau-loyal father peering curiously at her when she prayed before every meal.

With castle magic in the rear-view mirror, we steered for the City of the Tribes. In one of Galway's many inviting pubs, a patron commented on the current state of Ireland: "No texts, tweets, or emails coming from above or below—so live now." That said, Irish nuns, and nuns the world over, are still doing work that most don't consider: running orphanages and caring for the homeless. Many nuns and priests in today's Ireland are from South America, Africa, and the Caribbean. "They take on Irish accents," that same pub philosopher swore, clinking my mug with his.

A Different Kind of Charity
Though my mom never became a nun, her charitable nature was a given. My earliest memories of her include righting environmental wrongs, driving disabled seniors to their medical appointments, and never giving up on integrating black and white students in the divisive late 60s and early 70s. Before moving to the next town, we lived in Hempstead, NY, a predominantly African-American town that lived the Black Power Movement. She shared her heart—as well as clothes, lunches, and time for tutoring. Nobody ever had to define this undercover nun's "mission."

Goodwill must be passed on. My grandfather, a former Irish Republican Army captain, owned an Irish pub on New York's Upper West Side. The mahogany bar was the city's longest and an Irish Mecca for immigrants just off the boat in search of work. He paid for the burials of down-on-their luck patrons destined for anonymous burials in the "Potter's Field."

Ireland countryside

Ireland is proof that pride needs no flag, and that magic cons reality. An island reminding us to unfold our days like maps, understanding that we rarely refold them the same way. If life is a slowly evolving painting, Irish brushstrokes spread lasting memories. I continued the dandelion bouquet ceremonies until I was seven and literally picked up where I left off this past Mother's Day. While strolling by one of Ashford Castle's gardens, we chanced upon another patch of pretty weeds. I picked a bouquet of bluebells—dainty purple wildflowers flopping off green stems—presented them, and thanked her for letting me roam out of bounds. In a glorious ancient setting, but now only partially beholden to an ancient text, she's blessed by that slightly wild streak that inspired her journey…and mine.

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If you go: is an amazing resource including suggested itineraries, festivals, and events.

Bruce Northam is the author of Globetrotter Dogma. The Directions to Happiness, a 125-country quest for gritty wisdom, comes out soon. See more at American

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Related articles:

Finding Old Ireland Alive in Place, Words, and Song by Michael Shapiro
Modern Day Druids at the Hill of Tara in Ireland by Ian Middleton
Setting Foot on Celtic Sod by Becky Garrison
A Different State of Mine in Canada's Yukon Territory by Bruce Northam

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