The Vertical

Growing Up in Ireland

Mary Catherine Higgins

Prelude: 

My father, Kieran, was born just a town away from me in Queens. It is weird to think that if he had not moved to Ireland when he was young, we probably would have gone to all of the same schools. However, it did not work out like that. 

My dad was just one year old when his father suffered from an unexpected fatal heart attack. My widowed grandmother, Mary Jo, did not know what to do with herself and her four young children. Ireland was all she had known. It was where she grew up and where her entire family still lived. Being a young widowed woman in the 1960s was never part of her plan when she moved to New York to start a new life. She packed up their bags, sold the house, and left New York less than 3 months after my grandfather’s death. Mary Jo is one of the strongest and most selfless women I have ever known, who, despite her hardships, has always put her family before her. 

Fast forward eighteen years and my dad is out of high school, can’t afford college, and has been working odd jobs since the age of twelve for extra money. Being raised by a single mother in a house full of only sisters was extremely hard on him and his family. Despite being the youngest, he always put himself on the line to help be the ‘man of the family,’ as he still does today. With two hundred dollars and a plane ticket, my dad left for New York. He moved right back to the neighborhood he’d left when he was one. He moved in with his uncle and cousins, who were strangers to him at the time, but are now basically his brothers.

After spending a few years in New York, my dad was able to set aside money to visit Ireland. He decided to come back and visit for his twenty-first birthday. Because of his move to New York, my dad had no friends other than guys in his hometown of Castleknock, Dublin. But it was his twenty-first! He needed girls there. So, his best friend did what he could and asked his cousin in nursing school to come and bring a few of her “prettiest” friends. One of those friends was Moira Monahan, who in six years became Moira Higgins. 

My mother was born and raised in Donegal, a small town in the north of Ireland. Having attended all-girls’ Catholic boarding schools her entire life, she decided that for college she would move down to Dublin and experience the world for herself. Dublin was a sharp contrast from what she was used to in Donegal. She replaced her small-town square with a bustling city. As she pursued her degree in nursing, she never failed to visit her parents, Mary and Sean, regularly, as they had always been close since she was young and still are to this day. 

During her second year at nursing school, her friend Annmarie suggested that they go to a house party in one of the suburban towns right outside of the city. Having no other plans for that night, my mom complied and was on her way. She showed up to a party full of guys, being one of the two girls there.

Immediately regretting her decision, my mom sat down on the couch in the TV room, a big, red, ugly plaid couch that looked like it should have been thrown out years ago. As she was looking around the wood-paneled room that had obviously been renovated in the seventies, the guy sitting next to her caught her eye. That guy was my dad, the birthday boy with the most ‘epic’ twenty-first birthday party ever. They talked that whole night and hung out every day until my dad’s flight back to New York.

For a year they wrote letters to each other, maintaining their relationship. It was never anything serious, considering their distance. My mom moved to Spain for a few months, and got a boyfriend. The relationship officially seemed like a dead end, so my dad stopped writing back.

A few years later my dad and Uncle Brian (one of my dad’s cousins he lived with) were sitting in a bar in Forest Hills. My dad had just gotten out of another relationship and was complaining that nothing seemed to be working out for him. He was almost twenty-four and never met a girl other than Moira that he thought was, in his own words, “genuinely nice.” He always says that New York girls in the 1980s were either impossible to talk to or crazy. After a few drinks, my Uncle Brian dared him to call my mom and see if she would pick up. Thinking she wouldn’t, he did it, but she picked up.

By then, my mom was back in Donegal, done with school, and single. My parents talked for another two months, and eventually my dad convinced my mom to come to New York to visit him. She had never been to the United States before. She agreed to come for two weeks, in the summer of 1987. Those two weeks quickly became two years, and the next time my parents returned to Ireland was to announce their engagement.

Fairytale Mansion (6)

I sit there, marveling at the way her nimble, frail fingers dance across the keys of the piano as if she had been born to display this talent. The music thunders from this grand instrument in this grand living room in her grand house, ringing through my ears loudly, inspiring me to one day become a musician as great as her. My Great Aunt Sana has a way with the piano, and when she plays it, it is as if the two became one. 

I sit with her on that deep green velvet chair as she patiently tries to teach me new keys that my stubby six year-old fingers seem adamant about not learning. I can’t understand how it was so easy for her, but seemingly impossible for me. When the adults are done catching up in the other room, my mom loads us into the car and we head back to grandma’s house, more central in Donegal Town. At grandma Mary’s, I showcase my new skills, while my parents smile and videotape me. It’s in moments like these that the sound coming from the piano feels less like a terrible roar and more like one of the great melodies Sana tried to show me just hours ago.

I go in and out of Sana’s every few days and try again at the piano. Her old house creaks with every step. It is as if she is always surrounded by music. When I am not attempting to learn a new song, my two sisters and I run around her vast garden. This stone castle draped in vines and greenery makes me feel as though I am in a dream. The doves sing day in and out. The rolling hills she calls her backyard are painted with daisies, tulips, vines, and every color flower in between. Green bamboo shoots tower over my small body, making her backyard feel like a jungle.

When outside, my sisters and I search endlessly for four-leafed clovers, pluck wild flowers, and throw the dog sticks until his old legs can no longer keep up. We know our parents bring us here so we can tire ourselves out, but when we are here, we feel like fairies, and Sana’s garden is our kingdom. We make up stories and play pretend all day until it is time to head back to grandma’s for dinner. It is a feeling like no other, as if we step into the books our mom read us to lull us to sleep each night. When we are outside, Aunt Sana stays inside and practices her music. Every moment there feels so different than those we feel in Queens. We are alone, but not. And we are happy.

Rossnowlagh Surf Camp (8)

The winter comes and goes and soon enough it is summer again, meaning we are finally going back to Ireland. My younger sister, Fiona, has an unrealistic dream of being a mermaid. When she finally realizes the impossibility of that, the next best for her is to be a surfer. So, our parents sign us all up for a surf camp, including our cousins Una and Ceallachan. My mom and Aunt Roisin refer to it as “family bonding time.” Aunt Roisin loads us into her seven-year-old smelly minivan and we are off to Rossnowlagh beach.

It’s our first time arriving to camp and the five of us are beyond excited to learn how to surf. Not in California or Hawaii, but in the fifty-degree, stormy Irish weather. Once we walk into camp, we are quickly packed into the trailer like sardines. Girls in one, boys in the other. Our instructors come in and give us a rushed run-down of what we are going to do today, then hand us wetsuits on their way out. The wetsuits are soaking wet, and impossible to get on. Not to mention the wet-dog stench, stinking up the trailer as we try to shimmy our bodies in. How am I supposed to look cool in this get-up?

Once we are ready, we hit the ground running. The girls race the boys straight to the beach, while our boards fight against our bodies in thirty mile-per-hour winds. The sand is freezing and the water feels no better, even with a wetsuit on (in August). Rossnowlagh Beach is nothing like the beaches I am used to in New York, where it’s normally eighty degrees and crowded. Here, pale Irish families sit along the shore “tanning” on any day it is above fifty degrees and not raining. The beach is embraced by a huge cliff, only blocking more sun from the pale sunbathers. Families and couples pile in throughout the day, shivering in their small bikinis that won’t help them get a tan. Not only because it is freezing out, but also because the sun’s on the other side of the cliff, protecting their porcelain skin from burning.

The ocean meets us with waves bigger than I am, and I am tall for an eight year-old girl. The instructors scream directions to me as I try to stabilize myself on my board, but I can’t hear them as the crashing waves mute their voices. I hold onto my board as if it is my life boat and decide it is time to try to ride a wave back to shore. Two or three waves crash over me and I am completely winded. I feel like Rose from the Titanic, lying on a plank on the rough waves, uncomfortable and freezing. I let a few that seem to grow in size pass me, and eventually I see it. I see the perfect wave. I wait patiently as it makes its way over to me, preparing myself on my board. I slowly come into shore with the wave, and halfway through I find enough balance to stand. Just ten minutes ago I was swallowing more salt water than I could even imagine, but now I have beat the waves. I have overcome the waves. They are no longer thrashing me around; instead, I am standing on one. I turn around and see my sisters and cousins fumbling over each coming wave, and can’t help but feel like I have accomplished something.

Lunch time rolls around and my mom and Aunt Roisin come back for us. We sit along the beach, soaking in our smelly wetsuits while my mom and Aunt Roisin are comfortable in nice winter jackets. Aunt Roisin unpacks the lunchboxes and reveals chicken sandwiches. Disgusting. Does she really expect us to eat these with our frozen, sandy, wet fingers? My cousin Una and I stare at the sandwiches with the same look of disbelief, and then exchange glances with each other. “Uhhh mom, do you have anything else we could eat?” I ask, as my jaw chatters due to the cold air.

“Are you kidding me, Mary? I woke up earlier than anyone this morning to prepare these for you guys, then got you all up, drove you all the way out here, and have just been sitting around all day waiting for you to be done. Obviously your mom and I do not have any other food for you. You’re lucky we didn’t make you wait until we got back to Donegal,” Aunt Roisin snaps at me. I don’t even argue it; it’s not worth it. I’m so cold and hungry, and she’s right; I couldn’t wait to eat for another hour. I begrudgingly grab my sandwich and my sister Roisin laughs at me because I got yelled at.

“Shut up, Roisin, you have to eat this gross sandwich too,” I whisper through my teeth to her. She rolls her eyes and laughs more, because she knows I am right. I numbly bite into my sandwich while staring into the angry ocean. The wind seems to have only gotten stronger, and my body is quickly covered in goosebumps. My mom asks about our day and I boast about standing on my board. I stare back at the ocean, thinking about it to myself, and for a moment I seem to forget about the wind and the disgusting sandwich in my hands, and I am content.

Phoenix Park (9)

We get off the airplane and my aunts are excitedly waiting at the passenger pickup, as they do every year. My sisters and I immediately begin fighting over who gets to ride in Aunt Mary’s cool sports car and who gets stuck in Aunt Joan’s boring Nissan. Before the argument can continue, I quickly shove my sisters out of the way and force myself into Aunt Mary’s car. My sisters angrily get into Aunt Joan’s car as my dad groans while trying to play Tetris with our huge cases, fitting them any way he can into the tiny coupe trunks. He scolds me about how my suitcases seem to grow in size every year, just as he did this morning at JFK. I pretend not to hear him, again. We normally spend the first half of our trips to Ireland seeing my dad’s side of the family, and they’re in Dublin. I am starting to see the appeal in Dublin now; although my cousins aren’t here, my aunts give us so much more attention, and the WiFi connection is much stronger. 

We hurry inside the house as my grandma, Mary Jo, is already in position, standing at the door with a smile bigger than ever. She’s wearing her usual floral blouse and white jeans and offers to carry our suitcases, but we know she’s just being polite. Her hair sits closely to her head in tight curls as if she just got back from the hairdresser. I never seem to understand how she gets such short hair to look so perfect every day. These days, my hair is just frizzy.

We grab our bags out of the car and wheel them into the wood-panelled TV room. Or as my Grandma calls it, “the girls’ room,” because it’s our designated room each time we come. Roisin and I claim the ugly red pullout couch as our bed as always, and force Fiona onto the blowup mattress. It’s ok because she’s the youngest, so that’s what she gets. As soon as we are settled in, my grandma is quick to shove any and all Irish chocolate she has in the kitchen down our throats. Roisin politely declines after her second candy bar, but Fiona and I indulge to the point that we feel sick to our stomachs. We hang out around the house for the remainder of the day, catching up with our aunts and grandma. After we go to sleep, the adults stay up in the family room, drinking wine and talking about more serious matters.

The next morning, Fiona and I wake up at the early hour of eleven a.m. and find our parents and Roisin already in the kitchen working on lunch. My mom promises to take us to Phoenix Park, which my dad always refers to as “Dublin’s Central Park,” to feed the ducks, while my aunts take Roisin shopping to the local stores. Fiona and I have no interest in spending the full day shopping like Roisin does. We try our best to avoid it any time we can, and just pretend to like whatever it is that she picks out when she gets home and tries it all on. We quickly run back into our room, change out of our pajamas, and throw on anything that’s lying at the top of our suitcases. My grandma grabs a piece of paper and writes down the directions to Phoenix Park, step by step, as if it’s our first time. We walk hand-in-hand with our mom around each corner of Castleknock until we arrive at the grand gates to the park.

My legs begin to ache, and the weight I pull down on my mom’s arm increases. Soon enough, I find myself leaning on her completely for support, and I want to head back to grandma’s. Eventually we reach the pond and find a bench to sit down on. My mom pulls some seeds out of her bag that puts Mary Poppins to shame, and places them in my and Fiona’s hands. I forget almost instantly that my legs feel worn down, and Fiona and I sprint to the pond. We throw handfuls of birdseed in hopes that it will help convince the ducks to let us pet them. My mom sits back on the bench and watches us as we yell and squeal at the ducks to get their attention. 

We quickly run out of seeds and find a spot back on the bench with our mom, and for a moment, no one speaks. The sun is out, beaming down directly on our backs. It is as if this is the one day a year in Ireland that it is not overcast and raining. I begin to reminisce about days like today when I was younger and my mom would bring me into the city for “bring your daughter to work day.” We went around and talked to the other nurses all day. At lunch time, the two of us would head over to Central Park and go on a walk over to the pond. We fed the ducks there, as we did today, and it was just us. I didn’t know then that these moments were quickly fleeting, and I begin to wish I had taken a second longer to savor it. I had always looked forward to those days, and now I wonder what made them stop. Am I getting too old for things like these? Is there going to come a point that I no longer will have any interest in feeding the ducks on a pond as I pass by?

I sit there on the bench and the hot summer sun begins to annoy me. I wish it would just go away. I am already nine, almost ten, and I am scared. When will I be too old to do the things I love doing now? The thought of this always scares me, but at this moment, I feel more than scared. I feel achy, as if there’s a pit in my stomach. I feel like I am missing out on something I am currently experiencing. My head begins to hurt; there’s really no reason for me to cry right now. But I want to. I pinch my palm to distract myself from crying, a trick I learned when I read Pretty Little Liars last month. I suck it up and am the first to speak since we sat down. I ask if we could go grab something to eat, and blame my sudden bad mood on being hungry. My mom brings us to the closest ice cream shop, and the feeling fades almost as quickly as it came. 

Steve Madden (11)

It’s late July and I begin shopping around for our trip to Ireland in August. My suitcase, once again, is bigger this year, but I hope my dad won’t notice. August quickly rolls around and we are sitting on the six-hour flight. After visiting our family in Dublin, we head back up to Donegal.

My sisters and I set ourselves up in the same room we are always in at our grandma’s house, and fight over which person gets the single bed. Fiona and I, as per usual, are stuck sharing the same bed, which seems to get smaller every year. My Aunt Roisin comes by and brings us over to her house in Mountcharles, just fifteen minutes away from grandma’s.

Mountcharles is in the middle of nowhere compared to grandma’s. When we are at grandma’s, we can walk into town and go shopping and eat whenever we feel like it, but in Mountcharles it’s as if we are out in the country. The only thing available in walking distance is the beach; otherwise, we have to figure out which adult to beg to drive us somewhere. As we are getting older, my sisters and I begin to dread going to Mountcharles more and more. They don’t even have TV or WiFi. My aunt doesn’t allow it because she thinks it takes away from spending time with the family, and because Ceallachan has grown increasingly addicted to video games.

The three of us get out of Aunt Roisin’s car and shoot our mom a “please don’t make us spend the night here” look. It goes right over her head and we spend the next three nights there. We walk into the house, and as always, I am taken aback by how beautiful it is. My aunt is a painter and the house has beautiful pieces of art hanging all over. Both her and my uncle built their Mountcharles summer house about three years ago.

After we get caught up with the rest of our family there, Ceallachan and I decide to take a walk down to the beach, considering it’s one of the few things we can do. We are the closest in age, and typically end up doing most things together. It is finally a warm day so I slip on my newest addition to my growing shoe collection: my Steve Madden leather studded sandals. Ceallachan puts on a beaten-up pair of flip-flops, we grab the dogs, and head down to the beach. We rush over to the sand dunes, my personal favorite part of the beach, and compete to see who can run up each slope faster. We search for bunnies, collect fossilized rocks, and go about our typical day at the beach. Ceallachan has always had a fixation with finding random things on the beach, and he brings them all back. They just pile up in his room until he forgets about them. He never seems to notice that my Aunt Roisin throws all of this junk out after a few weeks.

Eventually, we walk far enough and make it to the creek, for which we built a make-shift bridge last year. Our bridge of rocks probably didn’t even last a day, but it doesn’t matter, as the water is shallow today. Ceallachan suggests we just walk through it. I make my way over, and then remember I have my new pair of sandals on and the creek could ruin them. “Wait, stop, I don’t want to go any further, can we just go home?”

“Why? We’re only at the creek. How else do you expect us to get to the bigger dunes? We might as well continue, we’ve already made it this far.”

I don’t want to admit the real reason I can’t go any further. I know Ceallachan will be annoying about it, but I can’t risk ruining my new shoes. Despite my efforts to dance around the subject, Ceallachan insists we continue walking. The dogs somehow are already on the other side, and stare back at us, waiting for us to come over.

“I can’t go any further; it’ll ruin my shoes, and these are brand new,” I say quickly, scaling his facial expressions, knowing he’s going to have something rude to say back to me. He stares at me, seemingly waiting for me to tell him I am joking, but I am not.

“You’re kidding, right? The girl who hates going shopping doesn’t want to continue to the bigger dunes because her shoes are at risk? Aren’t you the same person who just a year ago would rather run a marathon than be stuck in a mall?”

“They’re really expensive, I saved up for these!” I snap back at him. “They’re Steve Madden, they’re designer. Why can’t we just come back tomorrow and I can wear something different?” I regret the words as soon as they come out of my mouth. “Designer,” who am I kidding? I’m eleven years old; why does this even matter to me? Why is Ceallachan’s point making more sense to me now?

I stand there, waiting for him to say anything. He doesn’t; he just shakes his head and walks through the creek to get the dogs. We walk back and neither of us speaks for what feels like an hour, but really is only five minutes. The conversation continues to boil over in my head as I think more about it. I used to only care about being outside, finding cool things, exploring, hiking, and all of that. Have I really changed that much? I am a girl, isn’t this what girls are into? Why is it so wrong of me to mature? Roisin has always loved shopping, for as long as I can remember. I’m just growing up. This is normal!

I continue to justify it to myself the whole way back to the house. I can’t decide if I am upset about changing, or mad at Ceallachan for making me feel shallow. I just got these shoes, I can’t seem to understand the big deal about caring if they’re ruined. I try to put it out of my head as I go to sleep, but I can’t seem to. Am I sad that I have changed, or am I angry at Ceallachan for being so rude about me changing? I lie restlessly in my bed and Fiona hits me and tells me to shut up about it and to go to bed. Maybe I am just making a big deal over nothing.

Coming Home (19)

After the years I have spent in and out of Ireland, it is hard to imagine it as a place of vacation. Ireland was always a second home. A place I would go to yearly to spend time with my grandparents and the rest of my extended family. Now I am nineteen and going into my sophomore year of college, and for the first time, I am beginning to see Ireland for something more than I did in my younger years.

Growing up, the hustle and bustle of Dublin meant nothing to me. Being from Queens, this foreign city did not phase me or strike me in any different way. It was as if I lived there my entire life each time I visited. As I grew up, my days in Ireland felt nothing different than those at home. I still had to spend time with my family, we rarely went to restaurants, I still had a bedtime and so much more. Days there would mesh into weeks and before I knew it we were already on the flight back to New York. I never viewed Ireland as a vacation, or even sat back and took the country in for what it is. I am very fortunate to have been able to travel as much as I have, but Ireland is still one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited to this date. I just wish I knew this earlier.

My grandparents seem to have aged overnight, and are in and out of hospitals almost every month. My grandma Mary Jo just got diagnosed with cancer, so we head over to see her and the rest of my family. It’s crazy to think that one of the strongest women I know can even be hurt by cancer. Everyone always says she is “tough as nails” because she really is. For someone to have been through as much as she has, you would have to be.

We land in Dublin and my Aunts Mary and Joan are still there in the same spot they always are. They smile and wave for us as soon as the doors from immigration slide open, and we get into their cars. There are no more fights or games of Tetris with suitcases.

My grandma waits at the door, this time leaning on it for support, smiling as we pull into the driveway. Her hair sits loosely, her tight curls seem to have aged with her.  She no longer offers to grab our bags, but has fresh cups of tea and scones waiting for us in the kitchen. My sisters and I unpack the rest of the cars and then head into the family room where everyone’s already seated. We sit around and catch up, just as we always do. However,  now we stay with the adults, drinking wine past ten p.m. and talking about the world, the news, and any family gossip. Fiona no longer sleeps on the blowup mattress now that her feet hang over. Roisin, Fiona and I cram into the ugly red pullout couch that raised us in Ireland. The same ugly red couch that introduced our parents.

Now that we are older, this also means we have a lot more freedom than we once did. We wake up the next morning around eight a.m. and prepare breakfast for everyone in the house. Roisin, Fiona, and I decide to let our parents have the day alone with our aunts and grandma and we head into Dublin city to do some shopping. The three of us walk down Grafton Street, and like a wave coming over me, it is as if I am seeing it all for the first time. No longer am I here just to run errands, or to sit in a restaurant waiting for the adults to be ready to order a taxi home. I am finally able to immerse myself in this city and choose where I want to go and what I want to do. Almost within minutes, this familiar city seems so foreign.

I am at a new age, and so are my sisters, and the three of us quickly develop a new profound appreciation for this city that we are so used to, but have sparked a new love for. With its quirky small cobblestone streets lined with talented street performers, its twinkling lights and beautiful store-fronts, it is hard to think I ever overlooked such a lively little city. Every familiar corner we turn is like seeing it all for the first time again. The consistent crisp cold rain that I used to hate is now watering the overflowing hanging plants from each lamppost, making everywhere I look seem like a postcard. It is hard to believe that I once took all of this for granted.


       Mary Higgins was born and raised in Queens, New York.  She graduated from SUNY Geneseo in May of 2020, with a bachelor’s in Business Administration. Now, Mary works for her family business, alongside her sister. If she isn’t working or spending time with friends, you can always find her planning her next vacation. In “Growing Up in Ireland,” the reader is placed in Mary’s shoes as she travels back in time, reminiscing about visiting her family every summer. Photo credit: Mary Higgins