THE ROAD HOME
By ANDREW MCGINN
Betty Kuebler sometimes feels like she’s between a rock and a hard place — specifically, Plymouth Rock and the Blarney Stone.
She still misses her native Ireland something fierce, even after a lifetime in the United States.
“A lot of homesickness in my days,” Kuebler confessed on this day, her lingering accent the perfect complement to a green sweater, a scarf dotted with shamrocks and an emerald necklace.
Ironically, though, whenever Kuebler returns home to Coleraine in Northern Ireland’s County Derry, she begins to long after a while for Jefferson, her home of more than 60 years.
St. Patrick’s Day — which is once again upon us Tuesday — may just be the greatest day of the year for Kuebler, if for no other reason than it brings home home.
“Everybody’s Irish over here,” Kuebler explained. “It’s nice to see.”
On any other day in the U.S., one in 10 Americans claim Irish ancestry, according to census data. Come Tuesday, it will seem more like seven. (Nine after the first round of green beer.)
“It’s lovely to see it. They’re all Irish that day,” said Kuebler, whose kitchen refrigerator sports a magnet imploring guests to “Drink Like You’re Irish.”
No matter how Irish you think you are, though, no one in Greene County will ever be as Irish as Betty Kuebler, nee Connor, eldest daughter of the former Molly McGrillis, a fine lass who lived her life till the age of 99 years and five months.
Not even the residents of Cedar Twp., near Churdan, who care for multiple statues of St. Patrick at the historic Catholic oratory bearing his name, can compete.
Kuebler’s Northern Ireland homeland was St. Patrick’s old stomping ground. And, while Kuebler is shy to have her age printed for all to see, it’s worth noting that their paths never crossed.
Patrick is said to have “evangelized heathen Ireland” in the fifth century, establishing his very first church in present-day Northern Ireland in the year 432. (According to legend, he also drove Ireland’s snakes out to sea, but that’s likely fiction.)
St. Patrick is today buried outside of Down Cathedral in Northern Ireland’s County Down.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was strictly a holy day, according to Kuebler — a day for wearing fresh shamrocks and going to Mass.
She wouldn’t see green beer on St. Patrick’s Day until she moved to Jefferson, where she tended bar by night at the old Redwood. (By day, Kuebler spent 42 years inspecting parts at Frigidaire.)
“All month long she’ll be wearing her green,” observed Colleen Newell, Kuebler’s daughter and a lifelong Jefferson resident. “She loves St. Patrick’s.”
Even Newell is amazed that her mom’s Irish accent has never wavered in the nearly 63 years since she came to rural Iowa.
“It’s just amazing how everyone knows her and loves to listen to her talk,” Newell explained.
Newell particularly loves watching her mom interact with her family on visits to Ireland.
“It gets stronger when we go over there,” Newell said of the accent.
Betty Connor was 18 and fresh from primary school in November 1957 when she stepped off a train in Jefferson, the end of an epic trip that initially took her from Belfast to New York by ship, an eight-day journey.
Waiting for her at the depot was her American uncle, Lee Coles, who would take her a few more miles to the home in Scranton he shared with his Irish wife, the former Sadie McGrillis.
Sadie Coles was busy prepping for something called Thanksgiving.
Kuebler had never heard of it.
“Didn’t have a clue,” she recalled.
Lee Coles had been stationed in their hometown of Coleraine during World War II when he fell for a local girl, Sadie, who was one of 13 kids in her family.
“I was just coming over to see what it was like,” Kuebler said, recalling her visit to see Aunt Sadie.
“I’m still sittin’ here,” she added.
Despite some initial shock — “Scranton ... it was so tiny,” Kuebler says — she found a home far from home in County Greene.
“Everybody’s been wonderful to me,” said Kuebler, who became an American citizen 11 years after her arrival, thinking it in the best interest of her daughter following a divorce.
After Lee Coles passed away, and with no kids to keep her, Aunt Sadie finally succumbed to homesickness and lived the rest of her days in their native Coleraine.
By and large, Kuebler escaped the Troubles, the name used to describe the years of violence in her native Northern Ireland between the Catholics who sought a unified Ireland and the Protestants who wished to remain subjects of the British Empire.
The British Army arrived in 1969.
She does recall the sight of British soldiers milling about the airport on trips home and having her pocketbook searched on her way into shops, lest she be packing a bomb.
It’s still rather complicated.
Northern Ireland makes up just one-sixth of the island of Ireland, but remains part of the United Kingdom. The 26 southern counties gained their independence in 1921. Even today in Northern Ireland, the Irish flag — known as the Irish tricolor — can be a divisive symbol.
Kuebler’s remaining two brothers and a sister are technically British, but it’s the Irish tricolor, not the Union Jack, that sits today atop Kuebler’s fridge.
“In my eyes,” Newell said, “she’s totally Irish.”
And in Kuebler’s eyes — those Irish eyes, so famously evoked in song — Greene County is home, but so is the emerald isle.
“I still like my old Ireland,” Kuebler said. “It’s a lovely country.
“It’s still home.”