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?

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.

The day after World Food Day and #bad2011

Yesterday was both World Food Day and Blog Action Day; probably it would have made more sense for me to write what I’m about to yesterday — but after an especially disturbing Vikings loss it seemed like a better choice to put it off and cheer myself up with Beverly Hills Cop.

Procrastination, football, and Eddie Murphy aside, I actually did make an effort to mark World Food Day: I volunteered at another special food packing session for the horn of Africa at Feed My Starving Children.  I brought along four friends who absolutely made my day by joining me, and the whole group of 103 volunteers packed enough food to feed 55 children for a year – in two hours.  That is completely amazing and I’m so proud to work with that group.


Over 30,000 children have died in the past few months in the Horn of Africa, and over 13 million are in crisis.  I can’t even comprehend that kind of loss and suffering in the “read about it in the history books” kind of way — but this is happening right now.

Sorry if you find this PSA offensive, I know not everyone likes Bono. (cheap shot)

But really. F*** FAMINE.  No matter your religion, politics, or nationality, if you are a human living on this planet, you need to care about this.  And you need to get involved in whatever way you can.

I’m going to keep dragging my (wonderful, amazing) friends to Feed My Starving Children.  I’m going to keep writing about this for all six of my “fans.” And I’m also going to keep volunteering locally — we may not have a famine, but hunger is a problem in every part of the world.

Which is why I just did this.

Walk to End Hunger logo

It was a rash decision to sign up for this, and once again my memorized credit card number has come into play late in the evening, but I think it’s a good thing for once.  Besides, Thanksgiving is usually just the holiday where all of my friends and family make jokes about Tofurkey at my expense.  I’m fighting poverty and hunger on my holiday time; TRY AND TEASE ME NOW, TURKEYS.

Well.  I absolutely can’t end on that note, so let’s pretend I’m not mean to the people who love and support me and am actually more like Mother Teresa, who said:

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

A Servant’s Heart, A Braggart’s Mouth

A few months ago, my mom gave me a copy of a scrapbook put together for my home church’s 125th Anniversary.  She knows I’m really interested in genealogy, and I have deep roots in my little hometown (and by that I mean we’re all related). I flipped through it with her, enjoying the old photos.

My grandmother is in quite a few of the pictures, but she’s always standing in the back.  “She was never one to draw attention for her good works,” my mom said.  “She had a real servant’s heart.”

That phrase has stuck with me lately.  For the past few months, I have been on the strangest, strongest volunteering kick of my life.  I mean, I never used to seek out volunteer opportunities, and I’ve gone on three so far this week.  The change is radical.  And positive (I mean, obviously), but I don’t really know where it came from.  Maybe spending so many years in the company of social-justice oriented nuns has finally had an effect on me.  Maybe I’m antsy.  Maybe I just like it when three-year-olds pull my hair and slam my head into desks while we color.

I’d like to pretend it has to do with having a servant’s heart, like my grandmother.  But let’s be real here.  The only reason I get in the back row of a picture is because I know what angles work for me (and that would be “mostly hidden”).  I can’t keep my mouth shut about anything I do, good or bad.  Whether it’s lookin’ awkward on TV for The Salvation Army or buying a Funnoodle from the Rainbow Foods in Uptown at 2:30 a.m. (hypothetical example), if I think it’s funny, I’m going to tell everyone and their internet about it.

Some things should be publicized: the famine in the Horn of Africa is one I have no problems harping on about and hyperlinking to in everything I write.  Prepare to be hit with some more Step Out to Fight Diabetes action as I prepare to slow jog a 5K this month.  And if you make it through 2011 without volunteering at Feed My Starving Children with me, we must not know each other in real life.  Tell me, how did you find my blog?

I’m trying to come to terms with wanting a servant’s heart and having a braggart’s mouth.  My compromise of sorts is to ask myself why I’m telling someone a story. Is it because I want them to think highly of me? Or is it because it involves something silly and might make them laugh?  I am going to try to stop myself from telling the first kind, but the second is fair game. All I really want out of life, and I mean this in the most serious way possible, is to live ridiculously for the amusement of others.  Because is there anything better than making someone laugh?

Oh, dear.  Does it matter why I’ve fallen in love with volunteering?  No, I guess not.  Let me put this argument with myself to rest.

There are things to be done.  And there are stories to be told.  For now, I’ll just keep trying to do both.

Best Things of the Past 2 Weeks and 2 Days

Here’s what I’ve been up to in roughly the last 16 days, Ma!

1. Volunteering and forcing my family to volunteer, too

Along with some alumnae of my college, I painted a fence and house in North St. Paul with Hearts and Hammers last week.  It was pretty fun — I mean, I don’t want to come paint your house, or anything — but getting to know different people and wearing my sweatpants in public without fear of judgment is always a good thing.  Until the next day when I could barely move my legs or neck.  I really, really won’t be coming to paint your house.

The next day I (somehow) went to Feed My Starving Children again, to another special session for the Horn of Africa!  This time I brought my mother and sister-in-law for some girl bonding.  There are no photos of this girl-bonding because no one looks good in hairnets.  Except, of course, my gorgeous sister-in-law.  I look even more ridiculous standing next to her, so really: no pictures.

2. Brewery Tour-ery

As alluded to in this post, I somehow managed to schedule myself for two brewery tours on Saturday: the Summit Brewery (again) and Flat Earth Brewery.  Did I have a great time? Of course I had a great time.  Was it a ridiculous decision? Of course it was a ridiculous decision!  Is there any other kind?


Well, Lacy and I went to the game.  That much is true.  And our seats were not really that bad — we could see every blown opportunity just perfectly!

Jared Allen

We could also see Jared Allen's butt perfectly, so that's something.

Actually, that’s not nice.  They played thirty minutes of great football!  And then whatever happens to them at halftime every week happened again, and it was like the second they came out of the locker room — with a 20-0 lead — everyone in the place felt it.  It was no longer a winning football game.

I still managed to have some fun.  Being there with Lacy, for instance, was great.

Rachel and Lacy at football

This picture was taken during the first half; notice the absence of tears.

The, shall we say, tight ends are always appreciated.  Seeing my name on the back of about half the people in the stadium is a weird kind of thrill, too.  Chris Kluwe’s ricochet-style tackle was about as cute as a tackle can be.  And Jared Allen showed up, even if some of the rest of the team (or coaching staff) didn’t.

My throat hurts from 3.5 hours of screaming; my soul hurts from a lifetime of caring.  I’m not a sports analyst (or a movie critic, clearly); I just love the Vikings a little too much.  I don’t know what’s going on with them right now, but I will continue to cheer them on, lose or lose worse, season after season, because that’s just the kind of idiot I am.

Who wants to go to the next game with me???

Football and Famine

There are really only two things on my mind this week.  The first, and I hope it’s on yours too, is famine.  I urge you to look into it yourself and decide if you can help in some way.  The link to the World Food Programme is still in the right sidebar of this page if you need a place to start, or you can sign up to pack food at a special session through Feed My Starving Children.  I went yesterday (and here’s proof that I look goofy in a hairnet) and will be going twice more in the next month.

I’m not going to spout off any more numbers or link to any more pictures today, I’m just going to share this, which I first heard at A’s Naturalization Ceremony:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

attributed to John Wesley (probably incorrectly, but what you can do?)

I said I had two things on my mind this week, and you can probably guess the other from the title.  Yes, when I’m not thinking about famine, I am thinking about football.

I once theorized that my relationship with the Minnesota Vikings is not unlike my relationship with men (why yes, this theory was developed in a bar!):  1) I care very strongly for them; they are basically unaware I exist.  2) I am always looking for a good tight end; they are always looking for a horny blonde.

Vikings Fan

Like that.

3) Eventually I’m going to have to stop pinning all my hopes and dreams on men who wear purple and tight pants and chase each other.  4) And finally, it’s all my father’s fault.

From age 2-6, Bonding With Pops meant watching whatever action movie was on television while falling asleep on the couch.  They have fused in my memory into one long action movie I like to call Crocodile Die Hard Jones and the Hunt for the Lethal Weapons Under Siege 2. From ages 7-12, Bonding With Pops meant getting outdoorsy and going camping and fishing.  Sadly, this camping tradition ended about when my dad woke up to me burning an entire deck of cards, one at a time.  I wish I was kidding; that is super creepy.  Ever since, Bonding With Pops has simply involved sports, and it started with the Vikings.

Together, we watched the 1998-1999 season with as much pride (and then overwhelming despair) as the rest of the state, and despite that famous miss, I was hooked.  In 2000, Pops took me to the Vikings training camp to watch a scrimmage.  The facts say that I was fifteen at the time, but the memories suggest I was closer to seven.  I was giddy to be there, with Pops, watching Cris Carter! Robert Smith! JOHN RANDLE! And we were in the front row, somehow; probably because Pops is early for everything (I did not inherit this trait), but at the time I was pretty sure it was because my dad was magic and/or secretly important.  I thought this might be the case when he perked up at some announcement and said, “I think that’s my cousin Rod doing the announcing.”

Before I could say, “You have a cousin Rod and why aren’t we using this relationship to get VIP treatment?” The announcer said, “and here comes the quarterback, Cunningham.  Uh, I mean Culpepper…”  To which the crowd gave a little boo and Pops said, “Yep. That’s Rod alright.”  I decided not to follow this lead for VIP treatment.

Despite needing to be the first person in his seat that day, Pops couldn’t stay in it for long.  He got us a bag of popcorn that (again, in my memory) was as big as me, and I was not a small kid.  He also ran off and bought me a Cris Carter jersey.  Again, I was not a small kid, but Pops overshot it a bit — to this day, we call that my “Cris Carter dress.”  I loved it immediately.

After the scrimmage, we went to the autograph line.  Pops plopped me next to the gate with my camera and my notebook and disappeared while I gawked, star-struck, as all the pros walked past me and the rookies stopped to sign autographs.

If you’re wondering what kind of father would leave his teenage daughter alone in a crowd like that, so was I.  I finally brought this part of the memory up to my dad last week.  “Where did you go?” I asked, thinking he ran away from the crowd to smoke.  He stared at me.  “I was right behind you,” he said.  “I had a hand on each of your shoulders!  Don’t you remember?  You were the same height as Denny Green!”  What kind of father would leave his teenage daughter alone in that crowd?  Not mine.  You’d think I’d remember being held in place by a large man, but no.  There is no large man in my memory other than John Randle.  I may be a terrible daughter with a foggy memory of one of the best days of my young life but eh! John Randle!

John Randle

Actual picture that I actually took of the actual John Randle. I am that bad of a photographer, and I was that excited. I'm still proud of this.

That was the last time my dad and I went to a scrimmage; as far as I know, he does not even own any Vikings apparel (but he could probably fit into the Cris Carter dress, too), whereas I’ve upped the ante with a “cousin” Adrian Peterson jersey, a Vikings sweatshirt, two or three t-shirts, and one of those sweet blonde-with-horns hats (I will fool you yet, men).  I was banned from The Boys’ apartment after Favre threw the last interception of 2010 and I let out a guttural scream that scared the cats.   And I once picked a fight in New Orleans, with a Priest, because he was wearing a Drew Brees jersey.  Pops and I haven’t watched a game together in years, and we’ve never been to a game together.  I’ve never been to a game at all.  But I’m still a huge Vikings fan, and it’s definitely all my father’s fault.

Love you, Pops.


Citizens of the world, how can we help?

Two days ago, I got to be part of an amazing experience: my wonderful, beautiful sister-in-law’s Naturalization Oath Ceremony.

naturalization ceremony

Being a natural-born US Citizen, I’d never been to a Naturalization ceremony before.  I had no idea what it would involve, or how moved I would be by the process.  Over 700 people from 82 countries took the oath that morning.  I teared up as a woman from Washington D.C. (I wasn’t paying enough attention at this point to remember her name) told her family’s immigrant story; again as they read through the names of all 82 countries represented and finally got to Kenya; and again as (I know) “Proud to Be an American” (I KNOW) played over scenes of immigrant arrivals and ceremonies through the years.

Being a genealogy geek, I couldn’t help but think of my own family’s story.  I’m a mutt derived mainly from Scandinavians, Acadians and (of course) the Irish.  Where else could this mix exist but here?  Some of my ancestors crossed the Atlantic in the mid-1600s; some didn’t make it here until the early 1900s, including my Irish grandfather in 1914.  What brought them here but a search for a better life?  Were they forced to look elsewhere due to poverty or famine?

Ringebu Norway history text

An excerpt on famine from "Emigration to America from Ringebu, Norway," where I have roots. I told you I'm a genealogy geek.

I don’t know the stories of the 700 people who took the oath on Wednesday, but I do know famines are still a factor in the world: there’s a horrific drought and famine in east Africa right now.  The images are disturbing, the fact are frightening, and all I can do is keep looking for ways to help from my very privileged life. I’ve added a link to the World Food Programme in the right sidebar of this blog.  I’m volunteering with Feed My Starving Children next week.  Doctors without Borders and the American Refugee Committee are also good places to donate.  I’m open to other suggestions.

I’m sure my ancestors came here looking to provide a better life for their descendents, and I am positive they found it.  And the same will hopefully be true for those 700 new Americans — and all of the people who need our help worldwide.  We are so privileged, living here — and we can help make the world a better place.

I’m going to end this post on an upbeat note (literally) with one of my current favorite songs: “Wavin’ Flag,” by K’Naan, who happens to be from Somalia: