We began traversing Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, the Celtic version of the wild, wild west, in Kinsale after being brushed by Lorenzo, a rare hurricane that felt more like a familiar Nor’easter to two Massachusetts coastal residents. The Wild Atlantic Way felt magnificently large and bold, while also vaguely familiar. Wild waves splashed on enormous rock formations against a canvas of rugged mountains and placid pastures dotted with sheep and cows. With no agenda, my husband drove us into a maze of quiet contentment. We stayed in Dingle and Doolin, sailed to the Aran Islands, drank Guinness and ate fish ‘n chips. We discovered sticky pudding and vowed to test it wherever it appeared on a menu.
On the seventh day of our journey, we deviated from the coast to find the home of my paternal grandmother. Nora Mulkeen came to Boston in 1911, where she met my paternal grandfather, Eugenio Murgacich (renamed Eugene Muriaty by those who registered his arrival), an Austrian immigrant who was from what is now the island of Crys Croatia. They had a son (my father) and a daughter and settled into Roxbury, a part of Boston.
Nora died at the age 36 when my father was only nine after she slipped and fell on ice, hitting her head and suffered a subdural hematoma, even though the famous physician, Harvey Cushing, tended her to. I always found it sad that she fell walking home from the library. Book lovers shouldn’t suffer such ill fate.
While I spent every summer of my childhood with my maternal grandmother, Nanna, at her cottage at the beach and was closer to her than I was to any of my other relatives, I knew very little about Nora Mulkeen. Even my father’s brief memories of his own mother faded over the years. Nora was missing in the family album, a blur. As I grew older and became a mother and grandmother, I began to wonder about Nora and lamented her lack of presence in our family history. I wanted to know more about her. What prompted her to come to America, to leave family and the life she’d been born into behind?
We drove to Bekan in Mayo County with very little information, other than Nora had lived in a tiny area known as Cloonbulban. There was an odd shriek of triumph when we spotted the Bekan cemetery. The moment we exited the car, predictably a steady shower began to fall. One should never explore a cemetery in sunshine, I told my husband, who with good cheer started exploring grave, by grave for Mulkeens with me.
And we found them. No one who had lived recently, but enough Mulkeen ancestors to feel the presence of a family who had lived in the community. I was somewhat buoyed by the experience but wanted to find Cloonbulban. My husband, the Eagle Scout, turned to Google maps, a compass, and his sense of relentless determination.
He drove a short distance and turned down a country lane bordered by a few houses and expansive fields beyond. One house was in ruins, hidden under a heavy cover of brush and thorns. Another was for sale at auction in desperate need of work. A few others were occupied. One renovated, another dilapidated. Where had Nora lived?
The Eagle Scout drove up and down Cloonbulban, while I sat in awe having at least located the tiny area, not even a village, where the Mulkeens had lived. He looked on his map for closest pub, which we knew were some of the best sources of information. Within five minutes, we were sitting in Ronan’s sipping the two pints of Guinness that Siobhan, the owner, had poured us.
Sure, she knew the name Mulkeen and that they’d lived in Cloonbulban. The last two living Mulkeens she knew of were a man who moved to England and his brother, who was living in a nearby nursing home and who had… dementia.
My heart sunk when I learned in the same sentence that was still a living Mulkeen but that he was mentally incapacitated. He’d lost his wife twenty years before. They had no children. The most I could hope for was that Siobhan would know which house Nora lived in. I asked her a lot of questions, including what it was like to live Bekan today. The largest employer is a thriving chicken farm. Bekan had seen some tough times. I had observed the area to be more depressed than the areas we’d seen.
We went back to Cloonbulban and decided which house it was most likely Nora Mulkeen had been born in and lived until she left for Boston. I looked around at the farmland where she would be expected to do chores and remembered she came from a family of eight children. The family names I had witnessed repeatedly in the Bekan cemetery flashed before my eyes. And I knew a little more about my grandmother than I did before I came to Cloonbulban. Had she stayed, she would have married a local boy, had too many children with him, worked hard and died too soon on a farm. That she had the courage to travel by land over half of Ireland to board a ship and sail to a country she didn’t know made perfect sense to me as I stood where she lived. I was grateful to know she had a better life, as short-lived as it was.
I had finally found my grandmother.