I was really hoping to find some dead relatives as I trudged through the dewy grass of a church cemetery in Banbridge county Northern Ireland, studying the names on the graves. I didn’t find any kin. At my sister’s initiative the whole family had come to Northern Ireland, to the town where just over a hundred years ago our great-grandmother and great-grandfather left for the shores of America. We were hoping to find a clue to who we’d been and what we’d done.
Before the trip, some of the neighbors in Zagreb assumed that I was going to meet distant family in Northern Ireland. One teased me to see if I had packed enough gifts, I guess she was gauging to see if I had become Croatian after all these years. I hadn’t even thought about meeting living family members. I explained that we had had no contact with anyone in the area in decades. We didn’t even know if our great-grandmother had kept in touch with anyone in Ireland at all.
Ancestors without family
During the whole trip I was thinking of the Croatian experience among the diaspora, of tracing their routes, and returning to the country. And it seems different than the Irish-American experience. I mean you have to understand that a lot of people in the US are of Irish descent (around 11.1 percent actually) and yet I’ve never heard of a single Irish-American friend returning to actually visit relatives, instead we just visit the ‘land,’ have a pint and buy a sweater.
A Croatian story
In Croatia it might be different. I remember a story I heard from Kristen, the cofounder of Seattle’s annual CroatiaFest. Her family is originally from one of the islands off the Dalmatian coast. And she explained to me that her grandmother (or great- grandmother), who immigrated to America, maintained a connection to those people living on the island, telling them about the family in the US and also told Kristen and her family about their relatives on the island. In the end because of these stories and this connection, no matter how tenuous it was, Kristen, after her grandmother’s generation had departed this earth, was able to visit her homeland and meet all the cousins. Now, more and more family members visit every year, and even participate in the olive picking!
Maybe losing ties or maintaining ties to the homeland is more a family story than a national one. But, then again Croatians seem to have a stronger connection to where they’re from than people from other parts of the world. After all in Croatia you can still be from the village your parents’ parents are from (even if you’ve never lived there).
As I crept between the gravestones reading names, I wished we knew something about why our family left, and more importantly who they left behind. But, as someone who has also emigrated, I know how hard it can be to maintain ties with the place you once lived. Memories become more intense, but their relevance fades, and as one generation passes I the connection can be easily severed.