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Wednesday, March 7, 2001


It ain't easy being green: Irish or just full of blarney?

Each time I grin into the mirror to find a hunk of seaweed wrapped around my teeth, I am reminded of my family background.

And the punch line is not that, like free-floating kelp, our clan languishes about life's crashing tides without any roots. Rather it is that we are partially green. As in half-moored in Ireland.

"The only part of you that's Irish," snits my wife, "is that you're full of blarney."

Sure 'n' begorrah! How can she say that? Don't I wear my fake-emerald tie tack each and every St. Pat's Day? Don't I listen to Enya? And haven't I often talked of starting an individual retirement account -- my very own IRA? Need I even mention, then, all the neat limericks I know?

Of course, if all American claims to Irish lineage were true, the Statue of Liberty would be wearing an Irish kilt. Such hyperbole, however, fails to keep my Irish eyes from smiling; for the name "Dillon" is as stout in Ireland as Guinness.

Unfortunately, my U.S. family has traced its history back only as far as some dirt farmer in Indiana. Yet, isn't that the same state as Fighting Irish football?! What further proof is needed?!

So, like many a vagabond American, I draw pride from a past I might not actually have. A past that I routinely attempt to plop on my two sons, whose Japanese heritage, on the other hand, pools out clearly from their soft, walnut eyes.

"You're part-Japanese, part-Irish," I try to tell them.

"Isn't that some sort of setter?" asks the older boy.

Or rather, he asked back when he was a wee lad and his little brother was even wee-er. Back before airlines began to count them as adults and stopped letting them fly for half-price. Back when I decided the time was ripe for the whole family to pack off to the Emerald Isle and take a vacation in the culture of my motherland.

Ireland is one of those places that can only be reached by first going someplace else. Thus, we arrived in Dublin with German and British stickers on our luggage and both kids having already set world records for most whimperings of "I wanna go home," a litany my wife had started to echo.

As for me, I had found the pot of gold at the end of my rainbow at long last! I plucked along the streets like an Irish harp in concert.

"If you see someone who looks like me," I squealed, "stop and ask their name! Maybe it's a relative!"

"Or upon further reflection . . . ," jabbed my wife, "perhaps just a mirror."

But my spirits could not be sunk. "What shall we do? Go to a pub? Hunt for leprechauns? What?" One by one, I polled the family.

Both boys wanted to stuff themselves at McDonald's and then fly home. My wife, however, preferred to search out a Japanese restaurant, eat, and then find another such restaurant and eat some more. After a week on the road, that's how she hoped to tour Ireland -- from sushi plate to sushi plate.

Instead, I rented a car and aimed west for the Shannon River, rolling down the window as I sped past fields of green.

"Breathe that air! The air of my ancestors! Why . . . I have that air in my bones!"

"Smells like manure to me," snizzled my wife. "Mixed with rain."

But there are worse things than driving across the lovely Irish countryside in the rain. For example, getting lost while the rain swells into a storm.

Still -- later rather than sooner -- we dripped into a charming bed-and-breakfast where the hospitality of our hosts won over the entire family, even though they served up neither Big Macs nor sushi.

"Do I look familiar?" I sought. "I mean, do you think you might have seen my face someplace before?"

"Why?" the landlord questioned back. "Are you wanted for a crime?"

The days passed and, like the Ancient Mariner, I stopped and queried patient lads and lasses throughout the land as we shamrocked our way around the isle. Only in pubs -- and only when I was buying -- did a few squint back and admit, if they had better light, I might look a bit Irish at that.

More important than this, I was able to find and purchase an authentic Irish key chain embossed with the name "Dillon." Irrefutable verification of my roots.

So on our final Irish morn, we sat bright-eyed in an eatery in Galway, all well-pleased with our adventure to Ireland. The scenery, the music and especially the people had won over even our wriggling children. I tapped the menu.

"You know . . . we haven't had Irish coffee yet. Let's try some."

For a man of supposed Irish heritage to reach his late 30s and not know such coffee comes fortified with whiskey says a lot about my sheltered life. That the waitress didn't even blink at our 8 a.m. order says just the opposite about life in Ireland.

After one sip, my wife reeled in her seat. "Wow. I've never started a day like this before!"

I reeled back, coughed, and fought to focus. "You don't have to drink that," I told her.

Yet, swallow by swallow, she gulped it all away, licking her lips at the end. Proving my Japanese wife may have some Irish blood as well.

However, only one of us has an authentic key chain.

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