Traveling to Ireland with My Mother: The Last Part

You can find all of the other parts here: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven. I’m long-winded.

Our last full day in Mayo took us on a few rainy-day adventures, starting with a trip to Rockfleet Castle, one of Grace O’Malley’s homes. This is how you find it:


Good luck.

Rockfleet was one of the last places Grace lived – and probably where she died. It is pretty much in the water, too, because of course it is. Grace loved the sea.

Rockfleet and the sea

Rockfleet and the sea

I put that slightly romantic (via instagram) picture first – here’s what it really looked like on the day, construction and our Happy Europcar included:



Anyway, after climbing all over things the signs specifically warned us against climbing, we drove on from the castle to the city of Castlebar and the Museum of Country Life.

The museum hosts some really excellent permanent exhibits about day-to-day, er, country life. (Eight posts in and the quality of description is just as sharp as ever, folks.)  My favorite part was a fascinating and horrifying Irish ‘headhunter’ exhibit. It is a stunning set of photographs of the native people of the west coast of Ireland in the 1890s (including some from my Clare Island, so of course I loved it). But they were taken for the gross reason of documenting a “primitive” race (the Irish), measuring their skulls to determine what made them lesser, or more likely to be criminals. The exhibit also talked about eugenics, and the portrayal of the “wild Irish” as far up as the late 20th century. Fascinating and horrifying.

We didn’t really get to stop in Castlebar due to the rain, which is too bad – I know my great-great grandparents spent the last part of their lives there, and are buried somewhere nearby. Castlebar was the return address on all the letters from g-g-grandma Bridget (aren’t they all) to her daughter Mary (yep, that’s the other name Irish women can have) in the states, letters made up almost entirely of heavy-handed hints that one of her sons should enter the priesthood. Luckily for us descendants, none of them did; they fought that Irish Catholic sterotype by living in Massachusetts and having lots of children with names like Patricia (and the trifecta is complete).


We spent the rest of the afternoon in doing a bit of shopping in Westport before heading back to our cottage. The owners of the cottage – who we had yet to meet – were going to come by, and mom and I were nervous.  We built up a fire out of bog turf and kindling – something we had tried to do for hours our first day at the cottage and had yet to master – and waited for J & M to arrive. We hoped they wouldn’t stay long.

Then they arrived, and we wished the would never leave.

First of all, they finally got a roaring fire going for us. Making heat out of logs of dried dirt is not something one learns in Minnesota, but it was second nature to our hosts. Then they chatted with us about everything we’d done, our connection to the cottage, their connection to it, and what they remembered about our relatives. They didn’t know my mother’s grandfather, being only in their sixties themselves, but thought maybe one of the neighbors might.

“The O’Malley girls?” M asked her husband.

“Yes, or maybe Seamus Balls,” J said.

“Oh, Seamus Balls, yes,” M agreed. “He knows all of that, he’s very old.”

“Yes, and is he 4 foot?”

“Four foot, he never grew,” M said. “You know? His arms are in proportion, but he never grew.”

At the tail end of a nearly perfect dream vacation, warmed by the fire and my nightly Guinness, I slowly became aware that these two delightful strangers with thick Irish brogues were speaking of an elderly Irish little person who might hold the answers to my family’s history – an Irish little person named Seamus Balls.


“”But he’s in hospital now, so you can’t see him,” M said. “It’ll be the O’Malley girls, then.”

J placed a call, got the “address” (aka end of which dirt road) of the O’Malley girls’ place and arranged for us to meet them before Mass the next morning. The evening ended with J and M refusing to accept payment for our stay. We’d been wondering all week what the charge was going to be (because, true to our ‘this will work out without any planning’ style, we hadn’t asked before), and had been anticipating a high rate because our stay could not have been better. And yet it was free, because we were, vaguely, family of someone they used to know.

After J and M left, my mother and I collapsed into giggles. Seamus Balls? Free stay? The delightful J and M and soon, the O’Malley girls? Our luck is beyond measure.

The next day, we had tea with the O’Malley girls, who were, of course, in their eighties or nineties. They also remembered more about our distant relatives than direct ones – those truths are with the small-but-proportional Seamus, I guess. We returned home to pack and take a trek out to a bend in the river just beyond our cottage that still bears our family name. We cut through a field (also “ours”) and visited the pool.


The wind chased us back inside, where we we packed up and said goodbye to our cottage, our path, our road, and our Irish home.

Goodbye for now.

Goodbye for now.

After one last stop – the church where my great-great-grandparents were married and my grandfather was baptized – we set out on the road. Our last day we simply cut across the country, stopping at a very nice but impersonal hotel outside of Dublin. There, I had another Guinness and my mother a cider and we got sadder and sadder as we realized it was over.  And it was – the next day was just car return, bus, airport, very fast Guinness, plane, airport, plane, taxi, home.

We’ve been home for six months. It’s a year since I asked my mother if I could take her to Ireland. And it’s only, I would wager, about one or two years until our next trip back.

Traveling To Ireland With My Mother: Part Seven

Today, it’s been 100 years since my great-grandmother left Ireland for good. It’s been four months since my mother and I went back. And almost as importantly, it’s been a full month since I started writing about a ten-day vacation. Probably I should wrap this up…sometime.

So, picking up where I left off (parts one, two, three, four, five, and – sheeshsix are here):

After learning about Grace’s descendants and the history of Westport, we turned back towards Louisburgh on a road that runs along the coast of Clew Bay. We stopped once for two sites. First, Croagh Patrick – the mountain where St. Patrick fasted and drove the snakes out of Ireland:

Patrick and his mountain, known locally as "The Reek"

Patrick and his mountain, known locally as “The Reek”

People are constantly making pilgrimages up this mountain. We climbed twenty feet to this statue and found it sufficient. Somehow, I’d never before realized this mountain was in Mayo and my grandfather was born essentially in the shadow of it.

Second, a famous “Coffin Ship” famine memorial at the base of the Reek:


Even the ship looks emaciated

One of the first things I remember learning about County Mayo was the phrase “Mayo, God help us.” As in the response to the question, “Where are you from?” County Mayo was one of the worst hit places of the Great Famine. That’s why this monument is here, but it isn’t the only one in the county.

We’d learned about an event called the “Doolough Tragedy” while on our travels: In 1849, around 600 starving Irish walked from Louisburgh to Delphi Lodge, 12 miles south, in hopes of receiving food or relief from the Board of Guardians. They were turned away, and many died on the walk back – some from starvation, some from falling off the edge of the path. It is said that hundreds died. They were buried where they fell, if they were buried at all.

There’s now an annual famine walk on this road, and a small monument about eight miles south of Louisburgh. Mom and I went in search of it (in our Happy Europecar, not on foot), and somewhere along the way realized it was our second perfectly beautiful day – and that despite its history, Doolough Pass is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.


Doolough Tragedy Monument

This picture is about 1/10th as beautiful as it is in real life

This picture is about 1/10th as beautiful as it is in real life

We spent about an hour or so wandering up and down the road, avoiding sheep and steep cliffs and saying little besides “Wow.” Then, feeling exceptionally lucky, we decided to do some grave hunting.

The first graveyard I chose (completely on a hunch) was haphazard, packed, and rocky – at least, I thought it was rocky; it occurred to me halfway through our trek that I was actually walking on fallen headstones whose names had completely disappeared. And we still managed to find an ancestor. The second graveyard was even more of a hilly, discombobulated mess – and we found an ancestor there, too; ancestors who lived in Mayo during the years of the Great Famine.

I still don’t know how they survived it, but I do know that when my family finally left, they were hoping to put hardship behind them. I look at where I am and all the privileges I have today, and I know they succeeded.

Next up: The end. Almost. Probably. Maybe?

Traveling to Ireland with my Mother: Part 6

After sufficiently freaking out about our cottage, mom and I decided to look for more of our roots in and around Louisburgh. We knew her father was born on Bridge Street; luckily there is only one Bridge Street, and it is approximately one block long.


We also put my navigational skills to the test (our British Lady was a little spotty on what passed for roads in this part of the country) and found Clare Island.


That’s the view from the dock of the ferry to Clare Island. In the non-tourist season, it runs once in the morning and once in the evening; this is as close as we got (this trip). My great-grandmother was born there, and generations before her.

This area is called Clew Bay; Clare Island is the largest of the many small islands in the bay. For centuries, this was known as the kingdom of Umaill. The ruling clan eventually took on the surname Ó Máille – now anglicized as O’Malley – and one of the most famous of the clan is thought to be buried on Clare Island: Gráinne Ní Mháille, or Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen.

Everything about Grace is fascinating to me, and not just because we have a connection to her. She was educated. She was fierce. She faced off with Queen Elizabeth. She was an independent, strong woman at a time when that was rare, and she is still remembered 400 years after her death. I know her life was probably harsh, and she was harsh, and to romanticize pirates is a silly thing – but still. She’s worth remembering.


That statue of Grace is displayed on the grounds of the Westport House, the estate owned by the 11th Marquis of Sligo – Grace’s direct descendants. We made a stop at Westport House our second day in Mayo after a brief stop at the tourism office. We had the whole place to ourselves – and it was quite the place.

To recap: direct descendants got this; descendants of those who fought for her...cottages and tenant farms.

To recap: direct descendants got this; descendants of those who fought for her…cottages and tenant farms.

Westport House is built on the remains of the dungeons of one of Grace’s castles. Rather unfortunately, the dungeons are now decked out with gaudy pirate decorations.  This was my favorite room in the house, called “the children’s room.” See how many horrifying things you can spot!

Personally, I like the doll hanging from the music stand.

Personally, I like the doll hanging from the music stand.

Actually, my favorite find from this morning was a framed quote by William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote in his Irish sketchbook:

It forms an event in one’s life to have seen that place, so beautiful is it, and so unlike other beauties that I know of. Were such beauties lying on English shores, it would be a world’s wonder, perhaps if it were on the Mediterranean or Baltic, English travellers would flock to it by hundreds, why not come and see it in Ireland.

I can’t say I disagree.


Next up: County Mayo God Help Us – Famine History

Traveling to Ireland with my Mother: Part 5

(Parts one, two, three, and four)

After the Cliffs of Moher, we drove north towards through a unique rocky landscape called the Burren.

100 even the simple is beautiful

We also stopped for a rain-soaked fifteen minute visit to Dunguaire Castle, which is pretty much just a castle on the side of the road. But still, it’s a castle on the side of the road. It’s neat.

Dunguaire Castle

We spent the night at a B&B outside of Galway, and the next morning started north for County Mayo.

County Mayo had already reached mythical status for me; it is a place I’d been hearing about my entire life from people who had never been there. I should have been very excited to finally reach it, and I was – but more than anything, I was nervous. You see, for every other part of our trip I had pre-booked a hotel or B&B. For this part, I had lined up housing in a different way.

Through my genealogy research and epic Google skills, I’d become somewhat acquainted with a distant cousin in England. She had recently gone to Mayo and discovered a cottage formerly owned by one of our ancestors, and had given me the phone number of the current owners (whom she had not met and who bore no relation to either of us) a few months prior. Being a chicken, I had asked my mom to call the current owners and ask if we could rent the place. Being overexcited, mom did so but forgot to ask what the place was like, what it would cost, or how to get there. And we didn’t follow up until we were already in Ireland. And then, again, we failed to ask the cost or what to expect.

We arranged to meet the daughter of the owner in a parking lot of a Tesco in Westport. A woman pulled up, said “follow me please!” and we did. For about fifteen curvy, country road minutes, during which time we a) wondered if we were even following the right person and b) told each other that if it was terrible, we would find a B&B.

Are you with me so far? A complete stranger from Ireland is leading two clueless American tourists into the middle of nowhere solely on the advice of a different stranger from England. I would say this is the beginning of a horror movie, but even horror movie characters aren’t this dumb.

And yet.

When we turned down the final lane (no street name, nonexistent to our British-lady-GPS, and marked only by a bike path and yield sign), we were greeted by The Cottage.

I won’t picture it here out of courtesy to the owners, but when you Google “Irish Cottages,” this is the cottage that comes up. When you go to a gift shop and buy a magnet of a cottage, it is this cottage. From the bright red door, the thick white walls, the simple wooden fence and the stunning view of the countryside – The Cottage was exactly as it should be and yet totally unexpected. Once inside, we were not met with the rustic conditions and/or horror movie situation I’d been fearing, but instead a lovely turf fire, classical music on the radio, and brown bread on the counter of an updated and well-furnished home.

Luck does not begin to explain it. This place, and how we got there, was a miracle.

And for the first time in our trip, we knew for certain — our family had been in this place. My great-great uncle lived there; we know his brother, my great-grandfather lived a few miles away. We can guess he visited this home. I’d hope their mother and father had at some point as well. Who knows? Maybe even my grandfather himself, as a baby.

The cottage may be updated, but the scenery has not.  Look one way, and see Croagh Patrick, the mountain where Saint Patrick fasted for forty days in 441 AD. Look another and see a field and a simple bend in a river that still holds my family name. A few miles down the road, Louisburgh, the birthplace of my grandfather. And beyond that, Clew Bay and Clare Island – more steps into my past. And all of it – beautiful.

I may not know how my family survived the famine in one of the worst-hit areas of Ireland, but I can see why they did not want to leave.

Clew bay back to Mayo

Next: Tracing our history and chasing a Pirate Queen

Traveling to Ireland with my Mother: Part 4

(Parts one, two, and three)

Have you heard of the Cliffs of Moher? How about the Cliffs of Insanity?

It’s no secret that I love-beyond-love the story The Princess Bride. So once I learned the Cliffs of Moher were used as the Cliffs of Insanity in the movie, I knew I had to visit. It was actually the first site I put on our itinerary after purchasing the airline tickets.

We drove north from Killarney, skirted around Limerick, and arrived at the Cliffs about mid-day. You can’t see them from the road, so we just took it on faith that we were in the right place – that and the signs and parking lot. It was a surprisingly sunny day, so when we walked up to the cliffs, they looked like this.

Even better in reality

People were surfing down there. Inconceivable.

There were immediate tears, and not from the one of us you would expect. Okay, yes, from that one, but the other one, too.

In terms of sheer gorgeousness, this was one of two perfect days in Ireland. We spent several hours there, walking along the edge first one way and then the other.  There’s a “path” for a while, but there’s really nothing to stop a person from going beyond it except a sign saying it’s crazy dangerous right next to a sign memorializing all those who have lost their lives at the Cliffs.  We were adventurous, but not too adventurous.  Aside from a brief flare up of my mom’s situational vertigo, it was a perfect day.



There’s not much more I can say about this; the only way this day could have been better is if Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes showed up to duel.

Next Up: Family History, Family Mystery in County Mayo

Traveling to Ireland with my Mother: Part 3

(Parts one and two)

After saying farewell to Cobh and getting into our only “fight” (which was really just me yelling things because I hit a wrong button on the GPS), ma and I started heading west. We stopped at a town called Macroom for lunch, finding a booth at a darkened pub. That was where we were sitting when the news broke of Margaret Thatcher’s death. I know this was news everywhere, but it was especially huge in Ireland for obvious reasons. Over the next few days and nights whenever we’d catch some TV, we’d learn more about how the Irish felt about Margaret Thatcher. Spoiler alert: not positively!

After Macroom, we were back on the road to Killarney. Now, our travel bible during this trip was Rick Steves’ Ireland 2013. It was a great guide, but Rick strongly hates Killarney for being too “touristy.” He’s right, Killarney is a tourist town, but there’s something to be said for towns built with sidewalks and crosswalks and nice hotels and shops. We stayed at the Arbutus Hotel, which was lovely and had a nice pub downstairs.


A favorite moment.

Anyway, we were really only using Killarney as our starting and ending point for the Ring of Kerry coach tour. I’m glad I chose to book us a coach tour rather than try to drive it myself, because we would not have known all the great places to stop, and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the views while driving. I would be too busy having a heart attack.

Actually, this is a great road, compared to some places I drove.

Actually, this was a pretty great road compared to some – two lanes and everything!

The Ring of Kerry tour took all day and was well worth the 20-ish Euros we paid. Our guide was charming and knowledgeable and said things like “there’s a castle well-clad in ivy” like it was not a very amazing thing.

One of the first stops was at a bog museum and featured live music and dancing. This would not be our last encounter with bog turf.

Some Irish chickens, for my friend Sara at The Daily Chicken

We also spotted some Irish chickens for my friend Sara at The Daily Chicken

The Ring of Kerry tour makes a loop around County Kerry (that much was probably obvious), stopping at ridiculously scenic points along the way. The pictures can’t really do it justice, especially since it was a bit foggy, but trust me when I say it was breathtaking.


We were in Kerry during lambing season, so we saw literally thousands of lambs (and I got pictures of none of them). They were cute, but ma and I were seated in front of a woman with a strong New York accent who wouldn’t stop talking about the cute lambs unless it was to berate her husband. I named her Debbie. At one point we were able to hold a lamb; ma and I chose not to, but Debbie did and continually said it was “the best paaaht” of her whole trip. Until, that is, a few hours later, when she realized she smelled like a farm animal.

I’m sorry for laughing at this, Debbie. And thank you for making me grateful I chose to rent a car and not have to put up with other people for our entire trip.

Anyway, the coast was just lovely:


But for us, “the best paaaaht” was Torc Waterfall:


You could tell me that the Garden of Eden is hidden somewhere in this national park in Ireland and I would believe you. Especially since we also learned that Michael Fassbender grew up near here. Sounds like paradise to me.

Next up: my life reaches its pinnacle at the Cliffs of Insanity

Traveling to Ireland with my mother: Part 2

Our third day in Ireland started with a farewell to our first B&B and a hello to our new traveling companion: our Happy Europcar!

happy europcar driver

We also sprang for the British-lady-voiced GPS. We would not have made it far without her. Frankly, we wouldn’t have made it out of Dublin without her.

Here’s what I would recommend about renting a car in Ireland: 1) Do it. 2) Go through Irish Car Rentals. 3) Get all the insurance. All of it. 4) Learn where everything is on the car before even taking it out of park. 5) Learn about Irish road signs before you even get in the car.

Guess which two of these things I did not do? I figured out how to turn on the windshield wipers ten minutes after it started raining, how to open the gas tank five minutes after we pulled up to the pump (and then only because a kind Irish stranger offered help), and how to switch off the lights two hours after I accidentally left them on. But I figured out the radio right away.

Then there were the road signs. Getting used to those was far more nerve-racking than driving on the wrong side of the road, from the wrong side of the vehicle. My favorite was one that read “Slow,” until I found one that said “Slower.”

Not. Exaggerating.

Not. Exaggerating.

Our first stop out of Dublin was Glendalough. My friend Aimee recommended we visit it, and we were not disappointed.


I took this picture. I know, I’m shocked too.

It was maybe an hour from Dublin (the way I drove), in the Wicklow mountains. We hiked to one of the lakes and climbed around some ruins and basically decided there are shades of green in Ireland that do not exist anywhere else on the planet. Even on an overcast April day.

Emerald Forest

Emerald Forest

After Glendalough, our British Lady took us on a meandering path through the Wicklow mountains, which is great for your first day of international driving. Actually it was fine, and I really enjoyed the scenery that was directly in front of the car. Whatever was out the side windows was completely lost to me.

It looked something like this, I guess.

It looked something like this, I guess.

The last part of day three’s drive was actually just freeway, and very easy (until it started raining and I couldn’t figure out how to see for a few minutes). We arrived at our next stop – Cobh – around 5 p.m.

We arrived with wind and rain and found our hotel – the WatersEdge – with no problem as it is literally at the water’s edge. I followed the directions to the car park and for a panicky second thought they expected me to pull onto a boat at the end of a dock, but no – just make a very sharp left and park underneath a building on the edge of the sea! We spent the rest of the night at the hotel – eating dinner, journaling, and listening to the wicked weather.

The view from our room (photobombed by a barge)

The view from our room (photobombed by a barge)

Cobh, formerly Queenstown, is a small town outside of Cork. I’ve actually been there before, but this time I knew what I was experiencing: the last stop my great-grandmother (Grammy), two great-uncles, and grandfather made in Ireland before they left it for good. My grandfather was just over a year, but Grammy was in her thirties and (as far as we know) had never left Ireland before. Cobh is also the port where Titanic stopped in Ireland. Call me a romantic, but the gloomy weather really seemed to match the history of the place.

The next day, we went through the Titanic Experience – and we were the only two people there, despite it being less than a week from the anniversary of the sinking. I know a lot about the Titanic because I was an obsessive 12-year-old girl in 1997 – you’ll get there in a second – but this time I tried to think less about Jack and Rose (there it is) and more about what it meant to the immigrants who boarded ships after the Titanic sank, like Grammy. I would find it terrifying, so it’s lucky Grammy was not like me, or I wouldn’t be here.

Annie Moore was the first emigrant processed through Ellis Island in 1892, and she departed from Cobh.

Annie Moore was the first emigrant processed through Ellis Island in 1892, and she departed from Cobh.

After the Titanic Experience, we went through the Cobh Heritage Centre, which is also right on the water. We learned a lot about the immigrants of various eras and the ships, including those full of famine victims and known as “Coffin Ships.”  For the first time I wondered how my family actually lasted in Ireland as long as they did.  Irish people had been leaving the country for fifty years by the time my family got around to it. How did they survive? And what finally made them leave?

Cliffhanger! We’ll come back to that, but next: Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, and How The Irish Feel About Margaret Thatcher

Traveling to Ireland with my mother: Part 1

Somewhere in between making everyone do my bidding for my birthday and attacking asthma with the Force, I went to Ireland. And I brought my mom.

Here is a summary of the trip: It was perfect. End of summary.

But just in case you are planning to take a trip to Ireland with your mother and she is exactly like my mother, or you are my mother and have been waiting months for me to write about this, here is a slightly more detailed summary.

Part 1: Pre-Travel Panic, Food Hoarding, and Dublin

Our first stop in Ireland was Dublin – but first we had to get there. My mother and I are nervous flyers, so I chose to go to happy hour the night before. Mom chose to stay at my apartment – and text me this:

It was cleverly hidden in my fridge.

When we did make it onto the plane, it was a short jaunt to Chicago. I will never again transfer through O’Hare. The distance between terminals can be measured in human misery. From Chicago, we flew Aer Lingus (I would definitely fly with them again), and our plane was called the Saint Patrick, which is a pretty special thing for us.

There’s a saying in my family: “They mean for me to have these.” My grandmother used to say it right before she cleaned out a restaurant’s supply of Splenda, Half and Half, whatever. Ma and I were unable to leave any leftovers, starting with the plain bread rolls on the airplane. We then carried our “food bag” from city to city to city.

Food bag, deconstructed

Food bag, deconstructed

Here’s some advice for you: pay attention to your arrival time. If, for instance, you arrive in Dublin at 5:00 a.m. and you can’t drop off your bags at the B&B until 8 and even then can’t actually check-in until 12, maybe hang out at the airport for a while. It’s warm there, they have coffee, and – is that a MN Twins game on TV? (It was!) If you choose to ignore this advice, your mother’s first view of Ireland is going to be dark streets, her first beverage will be a crappy coffee in a freezing train station, and her first activity will be surreptitiously thawing out her feet in a convenience store. This is not what you want.

But you will also get to watch the sunrise over the Liffey, if you are into beautiful things.

But you will also get to watch the sunrise over the Liffey, if you are into beautiful things.

We also tried to keep ourselves awake by visiting a library with a thousand-year-old Bible and shelves straight out of Beauty and the Beast. Mom was a good sport, but really only nerds like me or Lacy could possibly find this stimulating after being awake for 30 hours. And possibly Liz Lemon.

trinity college

This was my “So many different types of sparrows!” moment.

The rest of day one involved a nap, dinner, and a pint of Guinness at a pub populated only by cursing old Irish men betting on horse races. Guess which one of these things was my favorite.

Day two began with a visit to the Guinness Storehouse. I wanted to do it right away, just so my mother would know how this trip was going to go. Bonus: She also didn’t really want to drink her free beer at 11 a.m., so bonus black stuff for me!

Guinness Storehouse

When I pour stouts and want to get fancy, I draw an "S." I did not pour this stout.

When I pour stouts and want to get fancy, I draw an “S.” I did not pour this stout.

After Guinness and lunch, we tried to go to Dublin Castle, but it was closed to the public…and had been for about six months. I probably could have researched this before. Instead, we went to Kilmainham Gaol, which was fascinating. I don’t know if any of my ancestors spent time there, but we did find our family name mysteriously carved into a cell’s doorway which was good enough for me. And it is featured in basically every Irish period drama featuring a jail, which is basically every Irish period drama, which is basically every Irish movie you’ve heard of aside from Waking Ned Devine.

Next time: Glendalough, Cobh, and Driving in Ireland Without Hurting Myself Or Others!

This is my lucky day.

Today means many things to me.

Today means I’m Irish. It means I’m dancing, adding whiskey to my coffee, laughing with friends and family. I’m baking soda bread and thinking about the last time I saw Sister Nora. I’m calling my mom and talking about pirate queens and planning a dream vacation. It means I’m never going to stop wanting to know more about the people who came before me.

I’ve learned a little bit more about my Irish family in the year since I wrote this. In three weeks, I’ll be in the town where my grandfather was born 101 years ago today. I’ll visit the tiny island my ancestors called home, and find the grave of my great-great grandfather John, about whom this was written:

“He might be truly described as one of ‘nature’s gentlemen,’ for he was mild of manner, of genial disposition, and most benevolent. Those traits of character came to him down through the centuries, as he was descended from a renowned family, who gave their all to the aid of Grace O’Malley, the remains of whose castles stand stiff and stout along the Western seaboard. A good neighbour, a practical Catholic and a true Irishman, he will be missed by all who knew him, but none more than the people of Clare Island, of which he was a native, and all will join in praying earnestly that the Almighty may give him the reward of an absolutely blameless life.”

Today means so many, many things.

But mainly it means I’m lucky.

Irish-American Eyes Are Smiling

“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I am celebrating not just being Irish but being an Irish-American, a lucky feat if there ever was one.

One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Patrick was born in Ireland. His birthplace was County Mayo – a part of Ireland hit worst by the famine; my family tells me it was sometimes referred to as “Mayo, God Help Us.” I don’t know how earlier generations of my family fared (yet – my ancestry research continues), but I do know they were already preparing to leave by the time Patrick was born.

In 1913, my great-grandmother Mary and her three sons left County Mayo and traveled to Queenstown, where they boarded a ship bound for America. Mary’s husband was already in the states, so she spent the week’s journey with just her three boys, all under the age of four. I’m trying to imagine a worse experience for her, but they arrived safely and started a life in Massachusetts.

Patrick is my closest tie to Ireland, but his story is also very American.  He fought in WWII as a gunner in the Army Air Corps and later became a fireman. (Is it any wonder he came from the same island as Liam Neeson with an action-star pedigree like that?) He married a girl – not Irish, but what you can do? – and had five children who share a good sense of humor and a recipe for Irish soda bread.

To be an Irish-American is to have an immigrant story like this.  Our ancestors struggled through famine and fate and sought out a better life; we were “the huddled masses yearning to break free.” Luckily, we were welcomed. I exist because of America, and I love this country that can still be welcoming.

My grandfather Patrick died before I was born, but I was raised with a healthy respect for my Irish heritage despite not knowing much about it. I’ve been to Ireland just once: in 2006, while studying in London, I took a weekend trip to Cork to visit other students abroad.  We fit nine people in a six-person hostel, and several pub visits into just a few days. It wasn’t the sort of trip that made time for searching out family history.

On our last day, we had a few hours to spare and wanted to get near the water. The hostel attendant recommended taking a train to Cobh, so that’s what we did.  We wandered around the old buildings, drank Irish coffee at a cute pub, and I took a picture of an old dock.

A dock in Cobh

What I didn’t know at the time was that 94 years earlier, Cobh was called “Queenstown.”

I don’t think this is the same dock my great-grandmother walked down nearly a century ago. It’s possible, since this is the dock used by the passengers of the Titanic, something I (incredibly) did not realize either when I took this picture. But really, how lucky could I be to find the exact dock my ancestors walked across — by accident?

Well, I did find the last town my ancestors were in before they came to America. And since the Titanic made its last stop there in 1912, the town has been preserved to reflect life as it was 100 years ago. I saw the streets, the buildings, the pubs and the docks as they were just a short time later, when Mary took her children off, hoping for a better life in America.  And they found one.

That seems just lucky enough.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my mother, who gave me this pale skin and intense pride.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and 100th birthday to my grandfather Patrick, who died far too young.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my grandmother, who wasn’t Irish but enjoyed pretending she was, and I can respect that.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my brother, my aunts, my cousins, my great-aunts and distant cousins, including ones just discovered.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone who is Irish and everyone who just wants to be – so really, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone in the world.