“It’s a great day for the Irish – it’s a great day for fair” soar millions of Irish voices around the world on St Patrick’s Day. In the USA celebrations take on a dimension Ireland’s patron saint could never have envisaged. In big cities and small towns, huge and colorful parades mark the occasion. For the Irish and those of Irish descent it offers the opportunity to ‘don the green,’ salute the Emerald Isle and celebrate their heritage. Most likely with pint or two of Guinness.
My Irish ancestry dates back to 1851 to the small village of Elphin, County Roscommon. It was there that my great-great-grandmother Sarah Lambert married John Nash in St Patrick’s Cathedral. After Sarah’s death in 1871 her husband and children migrated to New Zealand.
They settled around the eastern half of the lower North Island. Many of Sarah and John’s children went on to marry the children of other Irish immigrants. Hence the maternal side of my heritage is awash with legends of disappearing leprechauns, fairy folklore and myths of magical proportions. No family celebration was complete without my mother’s many brothers entertaining the gathering in their strong baritone voices with fine renditions of Irish songs. By age five I would sing along to “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” St Patrick’s Day was held in a reverence akin to Christmas Day and Good Friday.
And it was on St Patrick’s Day in March 1991, in Denver when I was able to capture first-hand the significance of how the occasion is celebrated in the USA. It was also the occasion of a St. Patrick’s Day miracle, through which a missing young man would eventually be reunited with his family.
Arriving in Denver on March 15, I scheduled a two night stay at the Youth Hostel before embarking on the next leg of my journey back home to New Zealand.
Leaving the Youth Hostel mid-morning on March 17 to catch the Greyhound bus to Albuquerque, NM I was waylaid by the St Patrick's Day Parade. Captivated and enchanted by the singing and dancing and delighted by the amazing display of the endless number of floats, I decided to ‘embrace the moment’ and thus delayed my departure until the following day.
Back in the Youth Hostel kitchen, and lauding the parade, I started chatting to a young man named Michael from Iowa City. Just over eighteen years of age, Michael was tall, good looking, intelligent and charming. He was the epitome of every parent’s’ dream of a son. Having recently stayed with friends in Iowa I was interested in continuing our conversation. My Iowa friends, living in a small rural Iowa township, had a brother Joseph, who was a High School teacher in Iowa City.
The expression “It’s a small world” never rang truer. When I mentioned Joseph’s name Michael told me Joseph had been his biology teacher at High School in Iowa City. He added that having completed one semester at the University of Iowa he was now taking some time off before returning to his studies. He was living, on a temporary basis, at the Youth Hostel and working in the building industry.
An incredible coincidence! A traveling kiwi over 7,000 miles from her home meets a young man, almost 800 miles from his home, at the Youth Hostel in Denver Colorado, and both know the same person in Iowa City. Two more weeks passed before I was to discover the importance and sheer impact of that coincidental meeting.
From Denver I traveled south to Albuquerque for a few days then onwards to Los Angeles to catch the long haul flight home to New Zealand. Prior to leaving Albuquerque I sent a postcard to my friends in Iowa telling them of my meeting with Michael.
Back home in New Zealand and settled once more into a daily routine of eat, work, sleep and play, I called my friends in Iowa thanking them for their hospitality and letting them know I had arrived home safely. It was then I found out just how life changing my meeting with Michael was.
Upon receiving the postcard from Albuquerque my friends phoned their brother Joseph in Iowa City and told him of my meeting with Michael. His response was a few moments of stunned silence before he asked if they realized who Michael was. He asked had they not seen how the television channels of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin were showing photos of Michael at regular intervals? He was listed as a ‘Missing Person’. For the past few months he had neither been seen nor heard from. He had disappeared. Michael’s parents were distraught and shattered with worry and grief. Private detectives had been hired to help in finding him. Numerous weird and not so wonderful cults and communities had been investigated and checked out in their pursuit of finding their son.
Joseph immediately contacted Michael’s parents and recounted the story. Like Joseph they too were stunned. They too struggled to believe what they were hearing. Their son was alive and well and living in Denver and a visitor from New Zealand had ‘found him’? The following day Michael’s brother took a flight from Iowa City to Denver. He waited for Michael to return to the Youth Hostel then simply walked up to him and said “Come on Michael – it’s time to come home.”
Michael’s reasons for leaving the family home and ‘disappearing’ were many and varied. His reasons for not returning were due in part to having been gone for so long he did not know how to go back.
As St. Patrick’s Day was commemorated around the world by millions of Irish and their descendants, a chance encounter took place at the Youth Hostel in Denver – a chance encounter that ended the nightmare for a family in Iowa City.
If the formal canonization of St. Patrick was reliant on a miracle then surely this must qualify. For without the interruption of the parade on this day of celebration I would not have returned to the Youth Hostel. Had I not met Michael, who knows how much longer it would have been before he contacted his family or was found by someone else?
With St Patrick’s help – some may say divine intervention – Michael and his family were reunited.
Marie Ashdown has lived in Taupo (New Zealand) for most of the past 35 years – interspersed with overseas travels. She credits her five years with Toastmasters International as her writing skills ‘awakening’ time and has recently completed a Magazine Journalism Course with NZ Writer’s College. Her publishing credits include a regular column in a local community newspaper and success in Short Story writing competitions.