Some of my earliest memories are of Ireland: the smell of the turf fire, the sound of the stream, the joy of seeing my father with those he had left.Rosemary Griffin

In January, we asked IrishCentral readers to submit stories about their first trips to Ireland, with the four runners-up being published in the days leading up to March 1, the start of Irish American heritage month, and the first-place winner receiving $300. We have been absolutely blown away by the submissions and have so loved hearing about the first time you set foot in Ireland. Today we are proud to present the winning entry, from Rosemary Griffin, who so beautifully captured the awe of visiting Ireland as a small child and the way her relationship with Ireland and her Irish heritage has changed over the decades. The family photos that could almost be John Hinde postcards were an additional delight. 

These are some of my earliest memories.  The smell of the turf fire, the sound of the stream, the overwhelming warmth and familiarity of people I had never met…  

It was the summer of 1968 and my Irish-born father and Irish-American mother packed up my 6 year-old brother, my two-year old sister and my three-year old self to spend the summer with my Dad’s family in Athea, County Limerick.  He hadn’t been home in seven years, and this was the first time his family would meet us.  My mom changed us into pajamas as we crossed the Atlantic, and I woke up to the most glorious view of Galway Bay.

Photo: Rosemary Griffin

Photo: Rosemary Griffin

It is hard now to wrap my head around what a different place the Ireland of 1968 was.  We took our baths in a steel tub by the fire.  We watched my uncle herd cows and milk them by hand.  We took turns riding the donkey in the front yard.  And we ate chicken for the dinner that had laid the eggs we ate for breakfast!  

The very first day we arrived my sister bolted out of the car and, as she ran excitedly, fell into the well at the bottom of the stream that ran alongside my father’s home house.  Later we learned that the milk (and other adult beverages!) would be floated in the stream to keep them cold with the lack of indoor electricity.  The day my sister fell into the “refrigerator” is a highlight of family lore to this day.

Photo: Rosemary Griffin

Photo: Rosemary Griffin

Later that first week we went into town to buy the Wellingtons that everyone told us would be necessary to truly enjoy the fields for the summer.  I had seen the big, black rubber boots and was not impressed.  But the moment I laid eyes on that bright blue pair in just my size I was hooked!  My brother and sister and I ran and splashed and jumped and climbed with our cousins for six weeks.  They had to pry those blue wellies off my feet to get me back on the plane to New York.  

But what I remember most is the constant flow of family, friends and neighbors.  I remember the sound of the music and the taste of the Taytos as we all went to the pub on a Sunday afternoon.  I remember my grandmother making fresh bread each and every day.  I remember the burlap bag that my grandfather filled with turf and let me pretend to carry.  And I remember the joy of seeing my father with those he had left.

Photo: Rosemary Griffin

Photo: Rosemary Griffin

Sometimes I wonder whether my memories are real or sparked by the small, square, date-stamped photos that were taken to describe our summer to friends and family back home.  I’ve been back 18 times and Ireland today is, of course, a very different place.  I am not one who idealizes the past.  The Irish cousins who taught me to run through the fields are grown-up friends who have all not only been to visit us in New York but also have traveled the globe.  I don’t need the wellies or the turf fire or the cows to remind me.  Although I no longer change into pajamas, I know when I see Galway Bay that the memories are real.  I think I knew then that Ireland was not just a place.  It was – and is - a part of me.

Congratulations to Rosemary, and be sure to check out the four runner up entries as well!

I went to Ireland to meet my Irish pen-pal in 1990 – after 50 years we’re still friends

My Irish love story: Flying to Ireland to meet the man of my dreams

I visited Ireland for the first time in 1957, when I was 9 years old (PHOTOS)

I took my 80-year-old mother to Ireland to see the castles our ancestors built