The week started off inauspiciously. A quick greeting at the airport as the guests walked into the arrivals hall, red-eyed from the over night flight from Newark and clearly in dire need of caffeine. The five Americans really didn’t know what to expect from Ireland. Earlier emails advised them not to wear Aran Sweaters, unless of course they wanted to be mugged or boycotted in public. They had been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast and were becoming adept at converting Fahrenheit into Celsius. Other than that they may not have known what to expect of this small green island, a place of which they had heard so much, a place adrift in the North Atlantic, battered by winds and storms, invaded, conquered and freed, a land for whom many were prepared to die for, a land that had scattered so many of its children to the four corners of the world, like thistle down on a soft breeze. They were Irish-Americans, they were my cousins, on a maiden trip to the mother country, a voyage of connection, a journey of discovery, a trip into the unknown, a homecoming.
Their Grandmother had left Ireland in 1903, a slip of a girl with beautiful porcelain skin, a new world beckoned for her, America! America, the land of opportunity, where dreams can come true. She left behind a three roomed house in the West of Ireland where she and thirteen other siblings were born. The story was similar to many West of Ireland families at the time. Twelve of the siblings survived infancy; five of them would go on to make their home in America. Today their descendant’s number in the hundreds and are spread across the US from North and South and coast to coast .
We booked a hotel in Dublin but it was too early to check in so I took the group north to the Boyne Valley, the cradle of Irish Civilisation. But first a quick stop by Drogheda for some coffee. I told them all about how Cromwell had massacred most of the town’s inhabitants after the siege of 1649 and how poor old Arthur Aston, a captain in the garrison was beaten to death with his own wooden leg. I told them how the ‘lucky’ ones were deported to the sugar plantations of Barbados where many died from disease or just exhaustion. It was bad but it was better than hell, only just. I was doing my job of putting Ireland in in its proper cultural context and it would be remiss of me bit to bring up Cromwell! We then visited St. Peter’s Church where we viewed the macabre yet beautiful head of St. Oliver Plunkett. America might have some nice churches I thought, but how many have a three hundred and thirty four year old decapitated head on public view. As we sat for a while in the quiet of the church a local man approached the statue of the blessed virgin and began loudly remonstrating with her about some omission or indiscretion by either him or her. It became apparent that he was ‘duine le dia’ or as one of our group said ‘crackers’. This was confirmed a few minutes later when he began putting his hand and forearm in the naked flame of the blessed candles. It was time to leave.
We took a short journey out through the Boyne valley, through the battle lines of 1690 the mother of all defining moments in this islands sad history. When King James fled the field here above the village of Donore he brought with him all of the old Gaelic worlds hopes and future with him. We passed the place where the wise druid Finegas spent seven long years fishing for the Salmon of Knowledge, ‘An Breadan Feasa’ in a dark pool in a bend in the river. When the fish was finally caught Finegas was happy for his student, young Finn MacCumhaill, to prepare and cook the fish, warning him not to taste or eat it. When Finn arrived with the cooked fish Finegas noticed a change in the boy’s demeanour. He asked Finn if he had eaten any of the fish and the boy replied that he hadn’t and would not dare disobey him. However, Finn told him that as he turned the fish he noticed a blister had formed on the skin which he then burst with his thumb. The resulting burn was painful and he instinctively placed his thumb in his mouth to ease the sting. Finegas had heard enough, he was heartbroken but what could he do. He told Finn that he would now have to leave this place as Finn as by tasting the fish he had gained all the knowledge of the world. Finegas then went to bed muttering something to Finn about ‘not letting the door hit him in the arse on the way out’, or words to that effect.
We drove to Slane where St. Patrick had first lit the famous fire on the hill overlooking the river crossing. That was one thousand six hundred years previous, a light that signified the start of Christianity in Ireland. We doubled back through narrow roads with high hawthorn ditches until we rounded a corner and there was Newgrange, the great Neolithic tumulus built over 5,500 years ago. History and the appreciation of time is always something that is very different on either side of the Atlantic where the US is a country only just over 200 years old. When I tell the group that Newgrange is a 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid the antiquity of the site is appreciated a little more, I think.
We then headed for the City of Dublin and checked in to the Hotel. That night some of us went to a few of the hostelries, including O’Donoghues, The Dawson Lounge and Nearys. Next morning a mini tour of the near deserted Sunday morning city, before like the sun, we headed to the west. Over the next few days we went to a Tug-o-War contest, a Gaelic Football Game and Fr. Mychal Judges family homestead. We walked up Shop Street in Galway, had pizza in Fat Freddy’s, admired the old Quad in the University in Galway. We drove through the fields around Athenry, watched cattle graze on the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, along with busloads of people from “Jersy”. We ate fresh scones in Kinvara, Mussels and Hake, garlic cheese chips in Supermacs. We viewed Galway Bay from Dunguaire Castle, crossed the Burren, drove up and over Sliabh an Iarrain, close to where our ancestor ‘Ultachs’ settled, we viewed Lough Allen and the beautiful Shannon, saw the smallest church in Ireland, stood where the rebels of 1798 were hung, looked over six counties from atop the Curlew Hills beside a Gaelic Chieftain on horseback. We got used to the rain, one of us got a cold, we realised just how over-rated the Guinness Storehouse is, ssshhhh!!! We brought brollies, lost brollies and bought some more. We took a train to Dublin from the platform where our grandmother stood on the 16th May, 1903, a place where she probably shed tears but now we shared moments of joy and uproarious laughter, the laughter of people comfortable in each others company. We met cousins we never knew we had, but who knew of us, and of the bonds that bind us, cousins who opened up their hearts and homes and fed and watered us with the humble generosity of the Gael. The one couple amongst us renewed their wedding vows in a quiet country church with a bouquet plucked seconds earlier from the Churches flower beds. We visited Mullaghmore, the beautiful harbour where the dark stain of the dead Lord Mountbatten is slowly receding in conciliatory times. We “cast a cold eye” on the mystical Ben Bulben, sheltering the grave of the national poet below. We drove up mountainy paths where sheep stared at us in their “Will ya look at this crowd, where do they think they are they going” looks, and after realising we were on a less travelled and ever narrowing cul-de-sac, we then endured the same sheep on the return leg giving us the smug“I told you so” look. That night in a small but atmospheric church, we listened to John Spillane singing ‘The dance of the cherry trees’ and playing ‘Carolans Fancy’ and ‘Sheebeg and Sheemore’ on his guitar. Meanwhile outside the chapel and across the street stood the last of the Gaelic Bards, Carolan himself, sat in statued bronze, beneath a cherry tree, strumming his Harp.
But more than all this we found where we came from, figuratively, literally and spiritually. We visited the birthplace of our grandmother, and the birthplace of her father and mother before. We stood where they stood, in the modest three roomed house, where we wondered where fourteen children somehow lived, breathed, ate and slept together. The property is now beautifully renovated and restored by a kind English couple. We buried a mass card of a brother that didn’t make it to Ireland like we had, but who no doubt would have told many people growing up that he was Irish. Part of him is forever Irish now. We carried throughout the ashes of a loving mother, dead now these two years past. We brought her all over Ireland with us, and the only complaint she can have is that we didn’t bring her into the Galway Crystal or Beleek China factories. On the last day we buried her ashes in the grave of her grandparents. In the summer of 1930 she and her mother and brothers had come to Ireland to visit her grandmother, she was just ten years old. My own grand-mothers letter to her in 2001 recalled that 1930 was a wet summer, raining every day, however the children from New York revelled in the freedom of a small west of Ireland farm. When it was time to leave my great-grandfather, grandmother and Granduncle left them to the train on the 1st September. My Grandmother described the scene with an economy of words that conveys the emotions of the moment; she simply says “it was a sad parting”.
Now the ashes are placed with the elders in the same graveyard where so many family members lie, facing the rising sun in their eternal sleep. It was this moment of all the memorable moments of a memorable week that encapsulated what was happening. Whilst the soda bread recipes may have been a little different (never heard of caraway seeds as an ingredient) the kinship was the same, the familial bond is strong, renewed and come full circle. They say to truly know where you are going you must know where you have come from. I hope my dear cousins may now have this knowledge, for like Finegas and the boy Finn, I cannot tell them any more than they already know within.
This is for them. John Spillane ‘All the way you wander’