Thursday, 27 October 2011


A family in search of its Irish roots finds a country trying to hold on to its heritage

In America, Ireland can sometimes seem as much an idea as it is a place. Perhaps 45 million Americans claim Irish roots, usually with great pride, and they credit (or blame) that heritage for everything from hot-temperedness to a love of storytelling and music to a weakness for drink.

Enlarge The Times-Picayune In the desolate but scenic Doolough Valley, in County Mayo near the west coast, you see more sheep than people. The road through here was the site of the Doolough Tragedy in 1849; at least seven people -- and perhaps far more -- perished in the course of a march to register for aid during the Great Potato Famine. A simple plaque by the roadside is all that marks the event today. The Essence of Ireland gallery (8 photos)
But I've always been a bit cynical about Americans' relentless claim to Irishness, my own included. For most of us, it's a romantic notion. Having roots in Ireland, with its hard-luck history, hints at fighting the odds. (For some Irish-Americans, such as those growing up in South Boston, actual odds may have been fought.) Tell someone you have English heritage, meanwhile, and you might as well say you were born on third base.

Anyhow, while I've been kicking around the idea of Ireland, and Irishness, for about four decades, I'd never actually been there until this summer, when the perfect occasion arose. My best pal from college was getting married to an Irishwoman, and the wedding was to be held at a castle in County Laois (say "leash"), not too far from Dublin.
While there, I thought, I'd scout around a bit on some family history. My grandmother passed away earlier this year, and we planned a family reunion and memorial in May. One of my jobs was to see if I could track down any scraps of information about my great-grandmother, Nora Hurley, who emigrated from Ballinlough, County Roscommon, around 1900, to work as a domestic in Boston. (Not to say I've overcome long odds.)
So, here was the plan: We'd toast my friend, then spend a week or so cruising around the country, mostly the west coast, poke around Nora's old stomping grounds, and cap it off with a few days in Dublin.
We had the (mostly) good fortune of being there at the same time as Queen Elizabeth II, who was making the first visit to Ireland by a sitting British monarch since the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922, and President Barack Obama, who popped in to visit some distant relatives in the village of Moneygall. To the Irish, generally huge Obama fans, the queen's visit was nonetheless a far more momentous thing -- no surprise, given the fraught history between England and Ireland. Both visits, though, helped illustrate the elusive nature of Irishness.
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We got there before the royals, though the country was already on high alert. My 9-year-old daughter loved roaming the grounds of the castle where the wedding was held (really a manor house built by a wealthy Englishman). The ceremony itself was held in a small, centuries-old chapel in the nearby town of Abbeyleix, and it featured a reading of the Lord's Prayer in Irish Gaelic.
After the wedding, we were off to nearby Kilkenny, sometimes described as Ireland's best-preserved medieval town. It's a picturesque place, with a fantastic Norman castle looming over the river and an ancient cathedral. But it's no museum, either -- the downtown includes Smithwick's brewery (say "Smittick's"), makers of an ale that is the main alternative to stout, the Irish beverage of first resort.
The best part of the cathedral was the skinny watchtower next to it, built around 800. You reach the top via a series of impossibly steep ladders; you're supposed to be at least 12 years old, but they let my daughter up anyway. When you get to the top, you can almost picture a guy sitting up there a millennium ago, keeping a sharp eye out for Vikings.
In the center of town, we watched children practicing at the local specialty: hurling, a Gaelic sport that is sort of a cross between lacrosse and field hockey.


  • GETTING THERE: We traveled in late May, which was great in terms of crowds, but it can be pretty chilly. It never gets extremely warm (or cold) in Ireland, but we were surprised at how often the temperature dipped to the low 40s. Cold rain and gale-force winds were plentiful. Even though it's in a terrible economic funk, Ireland is expensive. Most prices looked about right ... until I realized they were in euros, not dollars. A euro is worth about $1.40.
  • WHERE TO EAT: Food in Ireland was apparently terrible until recently. (The comedian Denis Leary called Irish cuisine "penance.") It's not necessarily spectacular now, although Dublin is full of tasty food from all over the world. In the rest of the country, you'll find a lot of stick-to-your-ribs fare, but you'll find good food, too. We had a terrific Italian meal in Westport.
  • WHERE TO STAY: In most towns, the best bet on a budget is a bed-and-breakfast. Every one we stayed in was clean and acceptable, but they run the gamut in ambiance. The price isn't always a reliable predictor of what you get.
  • Dublin: The Townhouse Bed & Breakfast. A conveniently located godsend in a city that is both expensive and overbooked, it has nice old rooms at about $90 (for three of us); with a hearty breakfast included. Bonus: Lafcadio Hearn, a patron saint of New Orleans, lived here as a child. More info:
  • Kilkenny: Butler Court. Friendly owner, clean, convenient. Rooms about $90-$100. More info:
  • Westport: Linden Hall Guesthouse. Clean, charming old house, reasonable, close to the middle of town. Rooms about $90. More info:
  • Kilmainham Gaol: Home to Irish troublemakers over the centuries, from Charles Stewart Parnell to Eamon de Valera. It's a great place to go for a primer on Irish history, from the famine to the revolution. If you're traveling with kids, be warned: The tour is a bit long, and no grisly detail is spared.
  • St. Stephens Green: Dublin's signature park is a good place to stroll and watch the Irish in their natural habitat.
  • Famine memorials: The best ones we saw were the plaque in the Doolough Valley marking the spot of an unfortunate pilgrimage during the potato famine and a "coffin ship" memorial not far away, along Clew Bay. Both are in the vicinity of Croagh Patrick, a sacred mountain in County Mayo.
  • Newgrange: About an hour north of Dublin, this Stone Age wonder is well worth a visit. It's a huge mound that contains a tiny passage leading to a tomb that lights up only on the winter equinox. The passage is so small that only about 15 people can visit at a time, which means it can be pretty crowded.
  • Irish music: Traditional music, or "trad, " is everywhere, and it's worth checking out. If you're willing to eat a bit late, you can catch a meal and some music in a lot of pubs. Kids are generally welcome.
From Kilkenny, we headed to the Rock of Cashel, an outcropping overlooking the plain of Tipperary where Irish kings were crowned for centuries. It was off-limits to us commoners: Queen Elizabeth was coming (in three days), and the place was already being scrubbed for bombs by half the cops in Ireland. The fortress was still worth seeing from a distance, but we silently cursed the queen (and the remnants of the Irish Republican Army, for making everyone so jumpy).
We stopped in next at Cahir, which has perhaps the most perfect castle we saw in Ireland, complete with moats, drawbridges, and one of those massive doors with sharp points at the bottom that can be lowered by a winch in a hurry when the Visigoths show up. (It's called a portcullis, I found out.)
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From there, we pushed on to the west coast, considered by many the loveliest part of Ireland. And it is beautiful -- wild and rocky in its windswept way, although to my eye, California's coast is more rugged.
The west is also where Ireland's Irishness is most pronounced. It's a barren country, dotted with ruins, where the English had the hardest time asserting dominance -- and the least interest in doing so. It's where Oliver Cromwell, having triumphed in battle in the mid-1600s, sent the defeated Catholics, telling them they could choose "hell or Connacht, " the west's ancient name.
In the mid-1800s, it was the area most heavily impacted by the potato famine, and the countryside is now dotted with monuments to that chapter of Irish history. (My favorites: A sculpture of a "coffin ship" at the base of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, and a simple marker at the spot of the Doolough Tragedy, where starving Irish perished after being made to complete a long march to register for aid.)
These days, fairly large swaths of the west are designated as "Gaeltacht, " places where Irish Gaelic is supposed to be the primary language. In fact, it isn't; few people speak what the locals simply call "Irish" anymore.
At the same time, the old language is weirdly omnipresent -- across the country, road signs are bilingual, and in the Gaeltacht, they're only in Irish; county names on license plates are rendered in Irish; and a remarkable amount of radio and television programming is in Irish. Keep in mind this is a tongue that is completely unrelated to English, or any other language you're likely familiar with.
There's a palpable fear among some Irish that the country will lose -- or has already lost -- its fundamental essence. People talk wistfully of Irish children who sound "like Americans" because they watch too much TV, for instance.
There's other change afoot, too. When Ireland's economy went into overdrive in the 1990s, a tide of immigrants started arriving in a country that has always been an exporter of people. Most of them came from Eastern Europe, Poland in particular. Almost every small town in Ireland now has a Polish restaurant or store specializing in Polish goodies.
In a conspiratorial aside, an older man told me that the Poles were trying to pass a law that every sign in the country had to be in Irish, English and Polish. He was not happy about this -- whether or not it's even true.
The funny thing is that, to an American, Ireland -- outside of Dublin, anyway -- still seems as ethnically homogeneous a place as one could imagine. It's not just that the people are virtually all white. It's that they all look related, with fair skin, freckles and some kind of shared facial features that I couldn't quite identify.
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While we were in Galway, an agreeable city with echoes of other last-call port towns, I set out to find what I could about my great-grandmother, who grew up about 60 miles to the northeast. I had been able to track down a bit about her online, but I hadn't found her birth records. I didn't know her mother's maiden name, her dad's occupation, or how many siblings she had. I was hoping I'd be able to get some clues from baptismal records in her parish.
I called the parish priest in Ballinlough, Father Feeney, and told him what I was up to. He wasn't the least bit surprised to hear from me, and told me to come up to the rectory that afternoon.
The Irish have seen all this before, many times, and they take it with their characteristic good humor. I ended up meeting with three different priests in three parishes. Each one immediately stopped what they were doing to get out their ledgers of baptismal records.
Father Feeney actually spent about an hour and a half patiently poring over hundreds of (badly) handwritten pages with me. We came up empty. He sent me to Father O'Reagan in Loughglinn, a few miles north.
Father O'Reagan seemed especially delighted to see me, especially when he heard where I was from.
"There are only two cities worth a damn in America, " he pronounced with a sly grin. "New Orleans and San Francisco." I couldn't disagree.
But Father O'Reagan didn't have what I was looking for, and neither did the priest in Castlerea, where he sent me next. I left somewhat disappointed, but I did come away with a few clues: One, that girls named "Nora" were usually baptized in Ireland as "Honor, " and two, that my grandmother may have lied about her age so she could get the hell out of Connacht, to paraphrase Cromwell.
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After Galway, we headed up to Westport, a picturesque town in County Mayo. From there we drove back down the Atlantic coast, through Clifden and Connemara, perhaps the west coast's wildest section. We endured what felt like a miniature hurricane there, with howling 50 mph winds that didn't even warrant a name. We swung back through Galway and then headed back to the east. En route, we stopped at Clonmacnoise, a strikingly beautiful, wind-swept abandoned monastery overlooking the broad River Shannon. Our next real stop was Newgrange, part of a complex of megalithic "passage graves." It was totally cool -- a giant mound that features a tiny passage leading to a central chamber that is naturally lit up by the sun just once a year, for about 20 minutes, during the winter solstice. It was built around 3500 B.C., before the Great Pyramid at Giza and Stonehenge. Amazing.
We were there when Obama arrived in Dublin, where he gave a speech about the ties that bind Ireland and America, and the economic crisis, before a mostly adoring crowd.
Audience members wore T-shirts and carried signs hailing President "O'bama, " and he joked that he had come in search of a missing apostrophe. He wrapped things up by rendering his campaign slogan, "Yes we can, " in Irish.
Earlier that day, Obama had visited Moneygall, a two-pub village in the middle of the country where researchers had determined a branch of the president's family had lived.
The visit was without a doubt the biggest thing that had ever happened to Moneygall. The president kissed babies, shook hands and met some distant relatives.
What seemed to most impress the Irish was that the Obamas ordered Guinness at the pub, and drank it with apparent relish. (The president left a big tip as well.) This, to the Irish, seemed proof that the president was a real person rather than a cardboard cutout.
That said, they were fully cognizant of the weird subtext of the visit, which came on the heels of polls finding more than a quarter of all Americans said they didn't believe Obama was a U.S. citizen. Ironically, Obama went to Ireland in large part to prove to Americans that he was one of them. The irony was not lost on the Irish.
As for me, I never found Nora Hurley. But I can't say I didn't find what I came for.
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City editor Gordon Russell can be reached at Comment and read more at


N.B. If any of my readers think they may be able to help Gordon in his search for his great grandmother, Nora Hurley, please contact him via the email above. I know a number of SKS's research in Co Roscommon and Co Laois...great to be able to help a fellow researcher link to his family.
Thank you,

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