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:

thataway

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:

"Castle."

“Castle.”

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).

Anyway.

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.

I AM GOING TO MEET A LEPRECHAUN, I thought.

“”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.

thepool

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.

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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

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

How Lisa Kudrow proved I’m related to Madonna and Ellen (and other genealogy adventures)

I am a genealogy geek. I even did the Ancestry.com DNA test a few months ago, which essentially means I paid some money to spit into a tube so a computer could tell me “You are a white lady.”

Rachel's DNA results

But 2% of me is inscrutable.

I am obviously Irish. I’m also a Minnesotan, which probably explains that Scandinavian and Finnish-Volga Ural business.  But frankly, one of my favorite parts of my background doesn’t really get a fair shake from this chart; although I think genetically attributed to “British Isles,” my maternal grandmother was all Acadian.

If you don’t know what that means, here is a totally accurate history lesson: In the late 1600s, a bunch of French people came to Eastern Canada, called it Acadia, and proceeded to marry each other and the occasional Mi’kmaq for three hundred years. In the late 17oos, some of them were displaced to Louisiana, where “Acadians” became “Cajuns” and started experimenting with spicy foods. But MY people stayed the hell put, making more and more French-speaking Catholics and naming them all Joseph, Pierre, Marguerite or Marie.  Eventually some of the Pierres and Maries decided it was time to spread the genes apart and migrated to exotic locations like Massachusetts, where they married Irish Catholics with names like Patrick, Joseph, Brigid, and Mary. They made many children, mostly named Joseph and Mary. From there sprang my mother, who went totally off course and married a Lutheran (descended from people named Ole, Thea, and Anna Maria), and created the genetic mutt you have before you now. And one of my names is Mary.

So anyway, I basically knew this much due to a family book tracing my grandmother’s family history. But what I didn’t know is that I am not the only Acadian with an obsessive interest in genealogy. In fact, I think we all might have that in common. There are tons of websites (and even books) about this section of people and their progeny. My theory is that at some point, someone looked at all their neighbors in Prince Edward Island and said, “Why do we all have the same face?” Or perhaps they started to wonder just how far off the island they’d have to travel to find a non-cousin to marry. The Irish faced a similar dilemma, I think.

The point is, this made a lot of research pretty easy for me, since hundreds of people have already done the hard work. And as far as I can tell, I am related to Canada. And some others displaced Acadians, which brings us to:

I am related to Madonna and Ellen Degeneres and I learned about it through Phoebe from “Friends”

You’ve probably suspected for years now that I have the Fame and Fortune gene, but Valerie Cherish just proved it: Martin Aucoin is in their family trees, and he is also in mine. Although there’s room for error, it appears that Madge is my 10th cousin, and Ellen is actually my 7th through a different line.

If Ellen is reading this and would like to know about this other line, I’d be happy to come on your show and explain it. Madonna can come too, or we can just dance to Madonna songs. And scare Taylor Swift! I’m not related to Taylor Swift I just really like it when you scare her. We can also give money to people who deserve it because that is one of my favorite things and you seem to do that a lot, but it might have to be your money.

Get back to me.

Next time on Barely Related To Famous People: Cousin Biebs and His Twitter Army!