Reconnecting with the past and meeting family in Ireland can be an emotional and rewarding experience.
In today's guest post, William, a reader of Irish American Mom, tells the story of his family's pilgrimage to Ireland.
I hope you will enjoy this immigrant tale.
Let me hand you over to William...
June 1996, the West of Ireland
The rented Opel groaned as it cornered around the camp that was crowded into an angle of the ancient stone wall of a long ago abandoned meadow. Fresh laundry, hanging on lines that stretched from one “caravan” to the next, fluttered and snapped in the breeze.
“Oh my god, look quickly! Over on the wall.” We all glanced to see two boys with bare backsides hanging over the wall relieving themselves in full view. Their act was more mundane than mischief.
Lillian’s voice betrayed a blend of shock and scandal at the incongruous sight.
“Mother, don’t be that way. They’re not harming anyone, just making the best of their lot,” said Betsy with a chuckle. Our daughter, Carrie, recently retrieved from her semester abroad, and I echoed the sentiment. Soon, even gram was sharing the mirth of the moment.
We continued our journey from Westport, Ireland toward the town of Kiltimagh. The heavy rain of the night before had abated and the sky was breaking up into that familiar Irish mix of bright sunshine and low-hanging puffy clouds. The result was a patchwork of glint and shadow dancing a ballet on the sodden but warming landscape.
On more of a pilgrimage than a journey, the four of us quieted with anticipation at the prospect of a visit to the birthplace of Gram’s mother, Elizabeth Cannon, who had died when she was but a year old.
Our story was fragmentary, at times, conflicting, but we were hopeful there would be more to learn in Kiltimagh itself. Indeed, the sketchy data that Betsy and her mom had gleaned from the internet and several trips to the Sylvio Conte Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts had been bolstered in the local genealogy shops that had become a cottage industry catering to the army of Irish-Americans searching for their roots and long lost relatives.
Finding that Kiltimagh itself was the birthplace, was fruit of our most recent stop. In addition, we had unearthed names of Elizabeth Cannon’s extended family. We could only hope they might still be alive to meet and talk with.
Kiltimagh, County Mayo
The sign announced, “Kiltimagh, County Mayo, Republic of Ireland.” The excitement, albeit tinged with a fear of disappointment, was palpable. I parked the Opel in front of Holy Family Church. We got out and walked to the cemetery across the street.
The graveyard was expansive and included stones reaching back a century or more but many of more recent vintage. We found several Cannons, however, our information was still too thin to identify, with any certainty, Gram’s relatives. Her longing only seemed to grow the closer we got.
More powerful was Lillian’s visit to the church as we crossed back from the cemetery. Holy Family appeared to be the town’s only church and her pace quickened as she approached the door. She entered ahead of us and we held back to allow her privacy. She moved to the front pew, genuflected and sat in solitude for nearly half an hour.
She had to be imagining her mother attending mass, receiving her first Holy Communion and witnessing the baptisms of her younger siblings. She arose and slowly walked back down the center aisle taking in the fragrance of incense and the sight of flickering candles. She explained later that she felt the presence of her mother for the first
time in her life.
It was the only place she had been where she was sure her mother had also been.
A Chat With A Wise Old Gentleman
The sign over the door read “Iron Monger,” an irony given that the clerk facing us was a pert redhead in her late teens. “ You need to talk to Jerry Walsh in the “Raftery Room” just down the way.
He’s over ninety and knows everybody who’s ever lived in Kiltimagh.”
We entered the “Raftery Room”, a rural Irish pub complete with the odor of smoke and stale Guinness. We sat in the dim light at a table sticky with beer, ordered three cokes and a pint of ale and asked the bartender if Mr. Walsh was in.
“He’s always in. Whom may I say is asking?” He replied.
We told him of our mission and the clerk’s referral. He sent a regular to fetch the old gentleman. Jerry Walsh appeared minutes later, walking gingerly down the stairs. He was bent over and frail, but had a face alive with red cheeks, darting eyes and a welcoming grin. We didn’t know it yet, but we had found our Holy Grail.
“I’m told you’ve come all the way to Kiltimagh to inquire about the Cannons,” he said. “Actually, there have been many, and I have been acquainted with them all.”
We introduced ourselves and explained our quest to find Elizabeth Cannon’s family. We told him of everything we had discovered. He waited for us to finish and, with a wink that reminded me of Barry Fitzgerald, he began.
He wove a tale of the Cannons and the Brodie’s of Develeash (pronounced devilish) once an estate now little more than a crossroads two miles south of town. In fact, he had grown up with Elizabeth Cannon’s younger sisters and brother. Further, although he was but a young lad at the time, he remembered Elizabeth’s sudden departure
for America. He told of cousins and quarrels, marriages and births, emigrations and deaths. Edward Brodie, who all had suspected of being the father of Elizabeth’s unborn child had “gone west” in the muddy carnage of the Somme during World War I.
“Best of all, Lillian, you have two cousins who still live nearby,” he said with a grin. “Let me ring them up, and see if I can arrange a meeting with each of them.”
We were astonished with our good fortune. It was far more than we could have hoped for.
Mr. Walsh set up visits with both Martin and James Cannon for that afternoon. It would not be possible to meet with both men together since, as Jerry explained, the two men were first cousins to each other and to gramma as well, but there had been a family dispute over a parcel of land some fifty years before, and they had not spoken
Our first visit took us through the dappled countryside to Develeash itself and the home of James Cannon. It was the “high house” that had once belonged to the Brodie’s. A portly housekeeper met us at the door and invited us into a formal parlor of where gram came face to face, for the first time, with a relative on her mother’s side.
Mr. Cannon was tall, tweedy and reserved. I discreetly set up a video camera as the two cousins exchanged greetings. At first the conversation was awkward, but soon the two warmed to each other and chatted for nearly an hour over tea and biscuits about their common roots and an Ireland of long ago. Gram’s face showed a delight that
was obvious. It was as if she had discovered a buried chest and relished each piece of treasure as she removed it.
We thanked cousin James and the two embraced. Gram looked reluctant to leave, perhaps sensing that she would not return to Devileash where her mother was born, grew up and left for America. We strolled around the small cluster of farm buildings and abandoned hovels. We took some photos and speculated which may have been her family’s and returned to the car to move on to the home of Martin Cannon. This would prove to be a more complicated adventure.
An Aromatic Guide
“You’re the lass I’ve been looking for all my life,” bellowed Sean Murphy to Gram as he squeezed into the back seat of the Opel. His putrid stink was overwhelming. Jerry Walsh had sent us to find Sean so that he could bring us to the secluded farm where Martin lived with his son’s family.
Sean Murphy, you see, was a pig farmer just in from the pens. He was clad in a pair of rubberized bib overalls more often associated with deep-sea fishermen. They were encrusted with bits and smears of things we were afraid to ask about. He had a bulbous nose, fiery orange hair and a playful demeanor. His price was a ride to Raftery’s in return for his services as our guide. It seems that he had lost his license after one too many rides home from the “Raftery Room.”
Sean’s banter was charming but not quite enough to divert us from his scent even after we rolled all the windows down making the ride seem all the longer. Upon arrival, Sean introduced us to Martin and his daughter-in-law, herself an American import, and returned to the car to await his ride to the pub.
These Cannon’s were farmer folk, rough-hewn but very welcoming and friendly. Once again we were treated to “tea” and tales of the Cannon family. This was a humble, working farm, and it soon became clear that this side of the family had been on the losing side of the aforementioned land dispute.
The facts of Martin’s story were essentially the same as James’, but his telling was warmer and more jolly from the start. He seemed to be honored that we had sought him out and very pleased to meet his cousin. They appeared to connect immediately and we actually noticed a family resemblance.
Mrs. Cannon surprised us with a tattered old family photograph album that allowed Gram to put faces to the names she was learning of lost cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. She was overcome with emotion needing to wipe away tears of happiness. She was just collecting herself when Martin culled several of his treasured pictures from the book and presented them to her. This time she fell into full on sobbing. It was an incredibly powerful moment for all present including Martin’s two grandchildren playing on his lap.
This parting was even more difficult than the first, but the sight of Sean Murphy sitting in the back seat, lightened the mood. We said our final goodbyes, and set off to keep our part of the bargain. He entertained us along the way, and I gave him a few pounds for his first couple of ales. His eyes twinkled as he thanked us, and Gram gave him a grateful hug despite his state.
After one last detour to Develeash, we drove slowly back to our Westport B & B. About five miles outside of Kiltimagh, Gram asked me to pullover to the roadside. She got out and peered wistfully back toward the town and her discovery.
When she returned, she announced with calm conviction, “This has been the most wonderful day of my life. I want to thank you all for this. I don’t know if you realize it, but l have always felt like an orphan. I won’t, ever again.”
Lillian corresponded with James and Martin for a couple of years but then stopped, fearing she would hear sad news. She often said that she would like to return, but when offered the chance, she declined.
Advancing age was her reason. Rather, it seemed to us that she had the wisdom not to disturb the sweetness of her memories of that cherished experience.
A Bittersweet Stopover
Years later, Betsy and I returned to Kiltimagh and Develeash as part of a whirlwind road trip through Ireland. Jerry, Martin and James had passed. The Raftery Room had closed its doors. The pub like many in the land had fallen victim to strict legislation regarding smoking in public places and driving under the influence. Indeed, only one of
Kiltimagh’s public houses had survived.
It was a bittersweet stopover. Remembrance of our first visit flooded back but was coupled with a sadness at the passing of yet one more generation and the realization that we had moved to the front of the queue.
Many thanks to William for sharing his precious family story of reconnecting with family in Ireland.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)