I found myself standing on an empty beach a little outside of Galway. It had been misting consistently for the past hour, but I didn’t mind. Clouds overhead threatened heavier rain and the sea retreated further into the bay. And there I stood—my mom a few yards behind—taking it all in. I had finally made it to Ireland, and yet, as I stood on the empty beach, it was a different experience than I had expected.
I had originally discovered my love of Ireland as I neared the end of high school. My mind, cluttered with teenage dreams of backpacking through Europe and fueled by romanticized visions of the Jane Austen books I read and reread as a kid, envisioned a trip of a lifetime to discover my family’s Irish roots. My great grandparents had first stepped foot on North American soil over a hundred years before, and yet I still had a keen desire to immerse myself in this place where my family originated. I was excited to walk along the Cliffs of Moher, tour the Guinness factory and drink in the culture.
It was all planned out. First, I would graduate high school (check). Then, I would get into college (check). Then, I would plan this once-in-a-lifetime trip with my dad. A few years before, he had immersed himself in researching our family’s history—learning what Irish county he was from, what his ancestors did as a living, reading through old letters from even older family members and really trying to rediscover our roots. I could not wait to go on this adventure with him.
But while I was in the midst of planning our European vacation, something changed. My dad got weaker and weaker. Something wasn’t right. The man who used to never be tired was now always tired. At 18, I didn’t really know what was going on, but my mom asked me to put the trip on hold until my dad regained his strength. So I did. Then we got the news: cancer.
I waited through my graduation and my dad’s cancer diagnosis, believing he was going to get through it. As I went through college, my dad’s condition deteriorated quickly. In less than two years, my dad went from a routine outpatient operation to a stage 1 cancer diagnosis to hospice care to a funeral. I was gutted and emotionally shut down. Travel was the last thing on my mind. As a dealt with my grief, I grew up, graduated, got a job, adopted cats and moved into my own place. I put my dreams of traveling to Ireland so far aside that I honestly forgot that I wanted to go in the first place.
Then one night a few years ago, I was looking through my email and I saw a travel offer for a 10-day Ireland adventure. Kind of offhandedly, I picked up the phone, called my mom and asked her if she wanted to join me. Much to my surprise, she said yes. My mom was born and raised in Korea, and while she always supported my dad while he dug up family history and stories, she didn’t have the same ties to Ireland that he did. She was going to Ireland because I wanted to go.

The months leading up to my trip, I expected the same fantastical visions to flood my head. I was going to go, connect with family and feel a sense of belonging. But, call it age or a change of whimsy, I was no longer tethered to this intense longing to find my roots. I was just excited to go and experience the life and culture Ireland had to offer. I was looking forward to just “being” in this country I used to dream so much about. I was looking forward to exploring a country that I spoke about and bonded over with my dad.

So I went. I walked the Cliffs of Moher, sat at the beaches outside of Galway, cheered with my mom at the Guinness factory and ate my share of boxty and soda bread. What had started out as a father-daughter trip had turned into a mother-daughter trip and became a trip that brought me closer to both of my parents. And there, on the empty Irish beach, I felt as if I was paying respect to the parent I lost with the parent I had left.
By Cathy Flanagan