Ireland | Getting in Touch with My Roots

“I’m Irish, too,” I said to the cab driver on my way to Dublin from the airport after a few days in Lagos. “You were born here?” he asked, raising an eyebrow with his toothpick in his mouth. “Well, no, but I’m Irish, my dad’s 100% Irish.” “Oh. You have Irish ancestry,” he responded, looking back at the road, uninterested in chatting for the rest of the ride.

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I tried another approach later that night after MANY pints of Guinness outside of a bar with some older strangers with brogues and beards. “Hi!” “Where are ye from?” they asked. “Here!” I said with a smile. They laughed, “No. Where are ye from?” “No, I’m Irish. I’m from here. I was just at my family homestead last week near the Killary Fjord in Leenaun, it’s called Lettershanbally,” purposely pronouncing it in Gaelic as “Letter-shan-woy-ah”. They were confused and I was led away by my drinking buddies, who were laughing at me and shaking their heads. “You’re not FROM here, Erin.”

But…aren’t I? If I am from anywhere aside from New Jersey or NYC, I am from Ireland. I mean, my first name means Ireland. I still share the Irish last name of the great-grandfather whose Irish home I’ve been to (and I’m keeping it, if I ever get married). My eyes are the color of Ireland. Eh? Eh?

When I first traveled to Ireland with my family the summer before eighth grade, our most exciting adventure was finding out where my dad’s great-grandparents had lived. We talked to Farmer O’Neill, who owns the land in the valley where the homestead is, were given riding boots, and pointed up the hills on the sheep trail so that we could see the stone houses from above. I wrote at the time that it was “One of the most beautiful things I ever saw”. You can read a little more about this trip here, as chronicled in my shamrock-covered diary that I kept during that trip.

The reason I was in Ireland two summers ago goes back to when Facebook was invented and I friended someone in Connecticut with my last name. We messaged back and forth and realized we were related. Back when my family visited the ancestral home, word had gotten back to his father, Tom, who had been born in Ireland and still had a few siblings over there. Tom had found my grandmother’s contact info and called her. She thought it was her eldest son, who shared the same first and last name, joking with her with his brogue and she answered in a brogue, even though she was born in Carteret, New Jersey.

A few years back, some of my cousins and I went to an Irish pub in the city with Tom. My cousin Mike and his wife were in Ireland at the same time as him that summer and were the first in our branch to see the homestead up close and touch the walls. But despite the fact that Connecticut and Boston, where their family branch had settled, was not that far from NJ, NY, and Pennsylvania, where we’d settled, that was it. And then, in July of 2015, I received a message from my original Facebook friend saying there would be a family reunion in Ireland in July of 2017. I was in, and it was even one of the sparks that made me extend my original plan of one to three months of travel in between jobs to an entire year. I decided that Ireland would be the final trip of my year of adventure (though we now know, it was a little longer than a year).

Killary Fjord

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After heading north from Dublin, exploring Northern Ireland, and seeing as much as we possibly could in a week, my family finally arrived back in Leenane / Leenaun, where we were staying at the B&B of the farmer who sent us up the sheep path almost 20 years earlier. My dad ran into the visitors center where he’d originally found out about the homestead and talked to a woman whose now late father was the person who had helped us back then. It was surreal to be revisiting these moments that meant so much to us on our first international trip together.

We recreated some photos from the nineties, met up with Farmer and Mrs. O’Neill who actually remembered us, and we went to dinner along the fjord. I asked the waiter what was the most traditional, local meal, and he steered me toward the mussels, which were collected from the fjord earlier that day. As I was eating, I kept saying to my mussels, “did my great-grandfather eat your great-grandfather?!” causing my sister to roll her eyes repeatedly.

The Reunion

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The next day, we arrived at the church in Clifden in County Galway where a ceremony was being held before the official reunion. Over the previous year, I’d become Facebook friends with many of these extended cousins who had been following along with my travels, so I felt comfortable immediately. Also there were my dad’s first cousin and some of his family who we see in NJ/NY sometimes. The ceremony itself was touching and my eyes welled up when a sheep herding staff was brought up the aisle to signify the humble beginnings of our family.

At the reunion part of the day, a giant family tree was hung on the wall of the hall. We counted 102 people in my generation, who had come from just two people in the mid-1800s. All in all, with our parents, kids, and spouses, there were more than 100 people in the room. Granted, those two people had 11 kids, and some of those people also had 11 kids, so of course there were a lot of us. Looking around the room, I saw someone who could have been my uncle Dennis, someone with the same name as one of my frousins, and some whose lives I could maybe imagine myself in, had we all stayed.

The organizers of the reunion surprised us with performances by some of the top Irish dancers in the country. We also engaged in a few rounds of the Siege of Ennis, an Irish structured dance, which I got better at over time, but I inherited no Irish dancing skills. It was all good craic, and at no point did it feel like a room of strangers, since, after all, we were family.

The Homestead

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“The Americans are more excited about this than the Irish,” said one of my cousins to me as I gushed about seeing the homestead up close. “Are you going?” I asked. “And miss the football game?!” was a response I’d heard more than once at the reunion. Many of the extended cousins seemed to have no interest, despite it being a quick drive from where they lived.

Well, it turned out to not be an easy drive and may have been easier to hike from the O’Neill’s farm. We had a caravan of maybe twenty cars traveling down a narrow fire road that was covered in grass and floods of dirty water that were higher than the tires  of the rental cars we were all riding in. The sheep didn’t seem to care that we all had a mission and got in our way frequently.

Yes, I wore my brand-new Irish wool sweater with huge buttons that I’d dreamed of buying ever since I bought my flight and my Faherty Brand hat, even though we can’t trace the family connection to the twins who started a beachwear empire. We got out of our cars, cousin Sean unlocked the gate, and dozens of us flooded the scene. It was definitely meaningful to all of us, and perhaps even more meaningful to my family of four, since we’d been telling our story of seeing it from above for the past nineteen years.

It was such an incredible experience to actually walk into these stone buildings, to touch the walls, to see the scenic view (!) of what our ancestors saw every single day as they were taking care of the ancestors of the sheep who had tried to stop us from visiting. I definitely do not understand how more than 10 people slept in the one building that felt like it was half the size of my current apartment. The most intact building was actually the “piggery” so I guess it’s possible that some of the kids slept out there as well.

I was one of the last people to wander back toward the cars that day after trying to take in as much of it as I possibly could, like when you’re in yoga and you breathe deep and your instructor tells you to sip in a little bit more air, and then just a bit more. And honestly it still was, as my 13-year-old self had written in my journal, “One of the most beautiful things I ever saw”.

The Jameson Connection

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I took an extra week in Europe than my family took, simply because I’d had the time and I’m obsessed with Europe. My plans when I returned to Dublin after a few days in Lagos, Portugal had 100% been to read James Joyce in various Irish pubs while eating fish and chips. But then I saw my college drinking buddy was in town and we met up at the Jameson factory. Now, it’s obvious that I pride myself in being Irish, BUT, I can’t drink whiskey and I’m embarrassed by this. I just can’t stomach it and I’m not saying that it makes me sick after the fact, like a bad hangover…it, well, makes me sick immediately.

The main reason I want to be able to drink whiskey is because one of our family stories, best told by my 99-year-old grandmother, is that her grandfather, Matthew, was a groomsman for the Jameson family, taking care of the horses. Family legend says that Mr. Jameson (whichever one was in charge at the time) told him, “Matthew, you’re the finest groomsman we ever had”. I offer that up as a fun fact to any friend drinking Jameson, even if it’s just something Matthew made up at some point to impress his kids or his wife.

Despite the family connection, I hadn’t planned on visiting the Jameson factory until my friend, who we affectionately called “Ill Will” in college, said his group was meeting there. But I’m so glad I did. It was an interactive experience, where we learned the history of the Jamesons and the whiskey itself and learned about the process of whiskey-making which included us smelling a lot of things like malted wheat vs. unmalted wheat and whiskeys of different ages.

There was also, to my great distress, a taste test. We were given Jameson, a Scottish whisky (they don’t use the “e”), and an American whiskey to compare and contrast. I wanted to participate but I did not want to throw up my fish and chips, so I basically just touched each to my lips and flinched each time. “Ill Will,” meanwhile, basically went down the line and finished the whiskey shots for the whole group.

While taking the tour, I learned that the workers at the factory back in the day would receive a shot of Jameson after their shifts. People who had the “dirty jobs” would receive two shots. Presumably, my ancestor got two shots as taking care of horses gets you pretty dirty. After the tour, I mentioned the family connection to my guide who then gave me the email address of their Head Archivist who he thought might be able to give me some additional information.

My inside contact couldn’t find Matthew’s name in any of the wage books from the time so she thought that might mean he worked for the family at their home instead of the factory, which aligned with what we’d thought. She very kindly gave me some fun details about what his job would have been like.

He most likely worked 6 days a week for John Jameson IV at his home in Portmarnock. He would have accompanied the carriage whenever it was in use, which was a lot because there were many comings and goings for such a prominent member of Dublin society. He’d spend his time sitting at the front or at the back for balance (three groomsmen would typically accompany a normal-sized carriage). He would also have likely overseen the feeding and care of the horses in the stable next to the house. I’m not sure if a job for the family would have also necessitated shots of whiskey at the end of the day, but I like to think it anyway.

Maybe it’s a tradition that I should start, taking two shots at the end of each work day,  like a good Irish woman. I hope my ancestors wouldn’t mind if I drank tequila instead.

xx

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