A Reunion of Strangers

I arrived early at the Cobh Heritage Center, eager to meet Christy Keating, the resident genealogist, but oddly nervous. It was a sunny Sunday morning and I knew this was my last chance to connect to my grandmother’s ancestors. Nanna had been my rock as a child, the person who I now realize is largely responsible for who I am today.

Her name was Madeline Holmes. She was the oldest of three children born in Boston to Catherine Treacy, an Irish immigrant from Cobh, County Cork, Ireland, in three consecutive years. Not an easy way to start a family, but in the 1890s, Madeline’s mother had a plate full. Catherine Treacy, my maternal great-grandmother, struggled to work and support her children, and apparently to cope with an errant husband, who allegedly “took to the drink.” The story I was told is that Catherine returned to Ireland with her three children so they could stay on her father’s farm while she established herself back in America. Her two younger brothers returned earlier to Boston, presumably because they could find work. But Madeline remained on Great-Great-Grandfather Treacy’s farm for six years, from the age of nine until she was sixteen.

Those six years had a profound impact on Nanna, much as the summers I spent with her each year in her cottage in Scituate, Massachusetts. She spoke often and fondly of her grandfather and her aunt and uncle, who also lived on the farm. She would tell me about the thatched roof cottage and how she got an education in Ireland that impressed schools in Boston when she returned. The farm in Belgrove was a refuge for Nanna, an opportunity for a peaceful childhood where she was loved and didn’t want for the necessities her mother in Boston was struggling for. My childhood summers with Nanna had provided me with a sanctuary from struggles less obvious, but as real.

I had been told the farm was gone, although I hadn’t paid attention to the details about that or the other information Nanna continued to get throughout her 106 years in letters from Ireland. I was too busy and couldn’t see the relevance. I do now.

Christy greeted me with a broad Irish smile and asked about where I thought my family was from. Armed with a stack of printouts from Amnesty.com and half a dozen other sites, I told him I thought I was from Belgrove. “I’ve got people out there. Walsh’s too,” he said looking at the document I had given him that showed my great-great-grandmother’s name was Ellen Walsh. He turned to his computer, hit a couple of buttons and within a minute showed me that my great-grandmother was one of ten, seven of whom I hadn’t known existed. “I don’t think there are any Treacy’s left out there,” Christy said. I was surprised when he picked up the phone. “Treacy, aye, Treacy. Good then,” he said into the telephone.

“Can you come back tomorrow morning? I may have something for you, but don’t get your hopes up.” He handed us a map and showed us where the Treacy farm had been and wished us luck.

For four and a half hours, the Eagle Scout (my determined husband) and I combed Belgrove, a section of the island of Cobh, rich with farmland running down to the water. We walked the local cemetery, disappointed to confirm the Treacy family was likely too poor to afford gravestones, or at least ones that would last through the ages. We passed the local pub, The High Chaparral, a name that perplexed me. We drove so many times past a small rocky beach I knew Nanna must have gone to, I named it “Nanna’s Beach.” We kept returning to this one spot Google maps pointed to. The Eagle Scout confirmed the longitude and latitude. I got out of the car and stood on what appeared to be the location of the farm, which now seemed to be part of a private estate.

The sun was shining, the verdant pastures and cornfields went on forever, topped with a blue sky enormous and puffy white clouds. I felt triumphant being where Nanna had lived and loved.

The next morning, I returned to the Heritage Centre with no expectations. I was grateful for what I had found the day before. I saw Christy sitting at a table with another man whom he introduced as Dave. “So would you like to meet your family?” I was stunned.

We followed Dave in our car out to the spot where I had stood the day before. He turned onto a road we had been up and down countless times during out search and into a driveway where a lovely home sat.

The rain poured down as we stepped out of the car and were introduced to my cousin, Tom O’Sullivan and his wife, Bridie. They ushered us in to their parlor where family photos waited for us. We sat in front of a fire while Tom told me about the stories he had heard about Madeline. His grandmother had been Madeline’s mother’s sister and he knew about Madeline’s time at the farm because a portrait of her sat on the wall. We figured out some of our connections during a conversation that became increasingly easy and injected with comments filled with Irish humor. “You can never refuse to have tea when invited by the Irish,” I was told by Dave. I had no intention of refusing tea or anything these gracious people had to offer. Bridie showed us a picture she had painted of the old farm cottage with the thatched roof. Tom pointed to the half door that roosters would sit up. His brother had been an Irish priest who’d come to America and who had visited Nanna often. His son was still farming on land that you could see out the window on land that had been part of the original Treacy farm.

The familiarity I felt sitting and chatting with people I’d only met an hour before amazed me. But I was most struck by the fact that Tom bore an unbelievable resemblance to my favorite cousin at home. Even Bridie was taken by the likeness when I showed them photos.

I left the O’Sullivan home feeling full and grateful. My pilgrimage had been motivated partly to honor Nanna. But I also discovered that by understanding her story better, I had learned more about me because Nanna’s story is part of my story. And so on…

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