I left Cloonbulban, Ireland filled with emotions that surprised me. I hadn’t expected to feel the strong connection to my paternal grandmother that materialized when I stood on the soil she had once toiled.
I’d come to Ireland, in part, to find answers. Now I was filled with questions and not just about me and my family story. I was exhausted and starving by the time we reached the local restaurant in Ballyhaunis where we were staying that night. Inside Val’s Bar and Bistro, what I considered an unlikely name for an Irish pub of sorts, a warm glowing fire and a bartender waiting to pour us a drink greeted us. Our waitress didn’t hesitate to make suggestions from a huge menu filled with Irish comfort food, which may be why it was my favorite meal on our trip. Locals trickled in as my husband and I watched and listened in silence. The two older women with a much younger woman celebrating something that called for a lavish dessert drink made of Jell-O. The three women, all married (I looked for their rings), joining each other for fried fish and potatoes, none drinking alcohol. Why not, I wondered. The prettiest one had teased hair, which I haven’t seen since, well, I can’t remember. What were their stories? Where did the men who were now streaming in work?
We continued north the next morning and stopped at W.B Yeats grave in County Sligo, which I had told my husband was obligatory. But once I arrived at the cemetery, I was far more interested in Drumcliffe Church next to it. I saw the names of the congregation members posted on its wall as a reminder of their birthdays. Who were these people and what were their stories? Had they been present when Prince Charles and his wife came and planted a tree to mark a time of healing?
Our two nights in Donegal Town couldn’t match the sheer majesty we experience when we spent a day driving along the Slieve League, cliffs three times higher than the Cliffs of Mohr, just less famous. I liked them better for their lack of notoriety and for the wonder of people living along them in houses sometimes miles apart in rugged isolation. How do you survive living so far from “civilization?” What happens when you run out of milk or toilet paper and there is no 7-Eleven to run to? How many days pass without exchanging words with another human being? Who chooses to live there and why?
The Slieve League barely prepared me for what I was to see in Connemara. We meandered from Donegal along the never-ending Wild Atlantic Way over narrow roads winding up and down mountains along streams and lakes, sometimes not seeing another car for miles. The sheep that were fenced in everywhere we had traveled until then now roamed freely on the roads, sometimes taking a nap. Occasionally we’d pass a farm and I’d think, how to you live out here and why? I tried to picture myself existing in the natural beauty and solitude of Connemara.
There are endless stories in this wild land. The Doolough tragedy is one no one has forgotten. During the Irish famine, 600 people, including women and children, walked fifteen rough miles in cold and damp to a lodge where they were told they would find food. Instead, they were turned away, while the guardians of the lodge enjoyed lunch. Many died along the walk back. We stopped at a memorial where I discovered I was angry and began to appreciate the roots of discord in Ireland.
By now, I was filled with the stories of the Irish, both the real ones and the ones I couldn’t stop imagining. By the time we reached Lough Inagh Lodge, I was exhausted and totally surprised to find myself in an old fishing lodge that transported me back to 1880 when it was built. Filled with gracious period furnishings, we were greeted by a blazing fire in the sitting room where we were served coffee. From that moment, I was living a life I was meant to live, the one like the characters in all of those historical novels I have devoured. Every detail was attended to, yet there was never an air of pretension. Thomas, our greeter and apparent factotum of the lodge, entertained us with his own stories as only an Irishman can.
In two days, the lodge at Lough Inagh had restored and relaxed us more than week long vacations we had taken in the Caribbean. After a drive to the picturesque village of Clifden and a visit to the nearby Kylemore Abbey, which only fueled the sense I was experiencing some version of time travel, we realized we had two days left in Ireland and they were unplanned. Other than to explore family connections, our trip had been uncharted by design.
“If you’d like to go back to Cobh and finish finding your grandfather’s farm, I’m good with that,” my husband said, even though he was signing on to a 4 ½ hour drive back to where we had started. “I think you need to do that.”
Within ten minutes, I’d reserved a room at Knockeven House in Cobh and booked a meeting with the resident genealogist at the Heritage Center.
My own Irish story hadn’t ended yet.