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.

BridgeStreet

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.

ClareIsland

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.

GraceOMalley

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.

ClewBay

Next up: County Mayo God Help Us – Famine History

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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