When I traveled to Ireland in the early 80’s, in the days of cheap Euro-rail passes, I went by myself, which looking back was a gutsy thing to do and certainly out of character for me, a reserved introvert (and I might add the one and only time I traveled by myself). None of my family or friends were interested in Ireland, but it was one of two places I wanted to see when I graduated, the other being New York city. Ireland was not then the popular tourist destination it is today. I remember it as a dismal country, full of small dreary towns, but I had Irish ancestors and even at a young age I was the family historian. It was the stories that interested me. In addition to researching the family history, I had booked a week at an English-riding academy, as a promise to my younger horse-crazy self. This was in the days when Glamour magazine (my fashion bible) had the travel section, which profiled said establishment and promised a glorious week in the Irish countryside (I remember the exact wording) with lovely walks by the sea. I must have envisioned riding to the hounds or galloping along the cliffs like Poldark, something which appealed to the poetic me. After spending a few days at the Dublin Library going through old microfilms of land records (computers and the internet had not been invented), I located a section of Leitrim County where there seemed to be a large concentration of Patricks and Marys and Johns with my last name, spelled with an a and not the more common o. My dad said it was always with an a, but you have to be careful with genealogy records as variations in spelling can sometimes be the recorder’s honest mistake.
My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary had immigrated to Canada in 1846 at the start of the potato famine and their 14 year old son John came a year later through New York. For more on their story check out last years St. Patrick’s Day blog – Irish Roots.
Patrick and Mary – (tintype)
Their son John below, sitting in the chair, aged 80 yr in 1912.
John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912
Patrick was proud of his Leitrim County heritage and had it inscribed on his tombstone when he died in 1880, where it is barely legible today.
After sight-seeing in Dublin, I took the train around Ireland, staying in B&B’s and doing some side tours, the usual ones, The Lakes of Killarney,
The Lakes of Killarney
the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula (the only sunny day), and the Cliffs of Moher. Readers of my long-winded posts might find it hard to believe but I bailed out of kissing the Blarney stone.
The medical me was horrified at the unhygienic aspect, especially considering my general lack of immunity to foreign germs, plus the thought of reclining backwards over the parapets at that height was not exactly appealing. (see picture under Wikipedia link)
It was September and the weather was gloomy – it rained every day. If it wasn’t raining, it was overcast. (I forgot to put film in the camera, thus missing a whole role of dull gray skies). Central heating was mostly non-existent. I was cold all the time, and wore both of the Irish sweaters I had bought in Dublin the first week.
It poured rain on the Cliffs of Moher and I got thoroughly soaked, then the bus broke down and we sat for hours waiting for a mechanic to arrive. It was a scary drive back to Cork in the dark with no headlights. Fortunately, my very kind B&B owner met me at the station, as she wondered why I hadn’t returned at 6 pm as planned. She turned on the bedwarmer/electric blanket and after I had a hot bath, brought me tea and cookies, while I sat in bed writing in my journal about my dreadful day. I guess you could say Ireland is where I first started to write, as I kept a travel journal and wrote in it at night if there was nothing else to do. Although it was easy to meet people in the B&B’s, I wasn’t much of a party person and there are only so many pub/Celtic music nights you can handle over a three week period. Looking back over my journal entries, they’re not half bad.
The glorious week at the equestrian centre turned out to be one lesson in a drafty old riding ring, listening to a rude female instructor yell at a group of tweens, horses and myself, in that order. I wasn’t sitting up straight enough, and even though I have a bit of scoliosis, she showed no mercy. Towards the end of the lesson, when the horse sat down on me, I got off and went back to the B&B just down the road. So much for that expensive pair of riding boots I had bought in Dublin. The next morning I woke up with a terrible cold, but luckily I had a nice B&B to convalesce in. The proprietress kept insisting there were some lovely walks to the sea (perhaps it was she who had supplied the Glamour advertisement), but I barely left the room, sleeping and reading, and being entertained by their talkative twelve-year old daughter (a carbon copy of Anne of Green Gables complete with red pigtails), who kept me amused with her drawings and music collection. I would surface for supper with the only other guest, an older lady from Dublin in search of a holiday and some company. She talked non-stop. I listened, nodded, and after a spell by the turf fire, went back to bed.
When I was sufficiently recovered, I took the train to Carrick-on-Shannon. Leitrim County (see Wikepedia) is located in central Ireland near the northern border. It’s definitely off the beaten tourist path, but I wasn’t brave enough to rent a car as there were white crosses on the roads marking the spots where tourists had died from forgetting to drive on the left side of the road. I found the local parish and the priest said there was a church in Fenagh and they might have records. He said he didn’t have any records, that I’d come at the wrong time of year and that the area was ‘polluted’ with people with my surname. I didn’t have time to reply that it was spelled with an a, before he slammed the door in my face. (Sigh….they must get tired of tourists).
While I had been blessed so far with lovely B&B’s, the one I booked into must have been the worst in all of Ireland. It was undergoing renovations, there was doggy do-do on the stairs, no hot water or heat, and the not very nice landlady told me I had to have breakfast by 8 or I wouldn’t be getting any at all. She did however make arrangements for a driver to take me out to the parish church. There was only one Catholic church in the outlying area and only one cab driver in the town. The next morning when the driver (your typical small Irishmen), showed up he was dressed in a tweed suit and tie and not a day under 85. He looked frail, but the B&B lady had assured me he was in good health, just a bit senile, and unlike most Irish people not much for conversation. The only word I remember him saying was ‘aye’.
It was a very foggy morning as we drove out into the countryside and all I could see were hawthorn trees and piles and piles of rocks, swirled in an eerie mist. It was the most desolate place ever, and I kept thinking no wonder they left. The west parts of Ireland around Connemara by the sea are rocky but picturesque – but this was just plain bleak. When we got to the church, it looked like a new modern church, right in the middle of nowhere.
An old priest answered the door. His eyes were red and rheumy and he looked hungover, but he opened the church so I could take some pictures. He told me the church had been built in 1840, (so perhaps my ancestors had worshiped there), but the records only went back to 1855 because of ‘the fire’. There were a few Patricks and one John listed in his old book but the dates weren’t right. The church had been renovated in 1970 and there were about 700 people in the parish. We certainly hadn’t passed any houses so the parish must have taken up a large area of the countryside. (We hadn’t passed any cars either, so perhaps I could have driven on the right side of the road).
When I went back to the car the driver had fallen asleep, so I woke him up and we drove down to the church cemetery which was about a mile down the road, just outside a small village which consisted of a pub, a store, a few houses and a school. The church graveyard was at the site of an old monastery (Fenagh Abbey) which originated around 500 AD and held the ruins of two churches which dated from the 15th century.
There were some newer tombstones, most with the o spelling, a few Patricks and Johns, and lots of crumbled old stones which were impossible to read. I wandered around for awhile taking pictures – it was a strange experience being in the place where your ancestors might have stood and could be buried. The atmosphere was certainly mystical.
Patrick and Mary’s parents, being too old to travel, had stayed behind, and I assume John must have stayed with them when all the others left. Maybe they died in the famine and so he had no choice but to leave a year or two later. They probably wouldn’t have had a proper burial place as in 1847, the worse year of the famine, corpses littered the fields and roads and there was no one left to bury them, nor any coffins to be had. Tombstones were only for the rich.
I recently read a book by John Kelly, The Graves are Walking, which details the horror of that era of Ireland’s history.
The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John KellyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars A scholarly well researched history of the Irish Potato Famine, this book is an important but disturbing read, especially for those of Irish descent.
Having read it, I’m having difficulty with the decision of John being left behind, but then they left in Sept 1846 when the potato crop had failed but before the worst of the famine hit, and if it was John’s decision to stay behind and go to school, then perhaps 14 then wasn’t the child it seems today. Someone must have paid for his passage and put him on a ship to New York, the poor survival rate on the coffin ships to Canada being well known by then. (NB: there is also a Famine Museum in Roscommon Ireland, a tribute to the national disaster).
When I went back to the car the driver had dozed off again and I didn’t have the heart to wake him so I wandered around some more, snapping pictures. Finally I had to rouse him as I had to catch the train to Dublin. The fog had burned off by then, so I could see more of the countryside on the way back, poor rocky land, the odd house, a few cows and sheep here and there. It was September which would have been harvest season if they had been able to grow anything at all, even potatoes. We passed a small lake, perhaps they fished?
The Irish tourism site says that Leitrim County, at 32,000, is one of the most sparsely populated counties in Ireland. It was certainly a godforsaken place. At the time of the famine it had a large population of over 150,000, many of whom emigrated. When we arrived back at the B&B I gave the driver 15 pounds instead of the 10 he requested. I was just glad he got me back in one piece – that we hadn’t driven into a bog someplace where I might have been preserved for centuries like the famous bog man in the Dublin museum.
Certainly, it was a surreal experience to visit the land of your long lost ancestors. Now that we have Ancestry.com and numerous online resources, and personal genealogists who will do all the searching for you, I might go back some day, with a more specific plan in mind. For it has certainly occurred to me, that I possibly wasn’t even in the right place. A few years ago, a distant relative tried to do further research and came up empty-handed. There are so few records, that I may have to remain content with my “lost in the mists of time” experience.
A friend brought me back some souvenirs from her Irish trip last year, a Leitrim County flag and a miniature bottle of whiskey, which my leprechaun is enjoying here.
In the thirty five years since I was there, Ireland has prospered, every small town now a picture of tidy charm. Her photographs were gorgeous, but then cameras have improved too. Sensibly, she went in May and had two weeks of solid sunshine and balmy weather. The clerk in the tourist shop inquired why would you want a souvenir from that place – nobody lives in Leitrim County. Well my ancestors once did. I placed the flag on Patrick and Mary’s tombstone in our church cemetery, as I thought they might enjoy the fact that a great great granddaughter was thinking of them and their old homeplace. I hope their Irish eyes were smiling down on me.
A few weeks later, the flag was gone, blown away by the wind, or removed by an unappreciative grass-cutter or priest, someone trying to obliterate the past.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Postscript: When I got back to Dublin, I booked a hotel on Grafton Street which had central heating, plenty of hot water and lots of shopping nearby, then switched to a B&B the night before my flight. My suitcase was so full of souvenirs that I had to leave the riding boots behind in the B&B. I simply could not cram them in, so I left them there beside the bed. I hope someone else found them useful – but I have regretted that decision to this day, as there are many times when I’m mucking around in the garden in the spring when they would have come in handy!