I’ve been home from Ireland for a few weeks, but am just now getting my feet back under me. I had hoped to post to my blog during my trip, but I found myself falling exhausted into bed each night instead. Every day was thrilling and overwhelming. I did take lots of photos, and over the next few weeks I plan to write about some of the research repositories where I worked. But there is one particular story that wants to be told first.
The day that stands out most in my mind was the day that my new-found Irish cousins, Ann and her brother Peter, took my husband and I out to Moycullen, a parish in County Galway, northwest of Galway City. My great-grandmother’s brother, Stephen Burke, married a Moycullen girl named Margaret Barrett. Margaret’s younger brother was Ann’s great-grandfather, Nicholas Barrett. That Ann and I found each other and wove the wandering threads of our families back together is a miracle that Internet communication made possible, but that’s another story.
Margaret and Nicholas grew up in a cluster of cottages that made up the Townland of Islandmore. It was an exquisite day when we set off to find this place. In a land of soft days filled with misty rain, this day was crystalline clear and warm, under a dazzling blue sky. Ann stopped the car along the side of a vine-covered stone wall. We pulled aside the vegetation that had overgrown the engraving in the stone that told us we had come home to Islandmore.
Ann drove down a dirt lane just wide enough for two tire tracks, and pulled up to a small farm house.
The owner graciously led us back, climbing through piles of hay bales, and pointed out the ruins of the original stone cottages. The thatched roofs were long gone, only scraps of corrugated tin that replaced them remained. Some of the stone had been replaced by cement blocks during the years that the structures had been used as barns and outbuildings. Vines and bushes had been hard at work reclaiming the former homes, but parts of the walls survived.
The vines and discarded remnants of more recent days vanished in my mind’s eye.1
Instead, my could see the kitchen in the center of the house, Margaret and her mother busily cutting potatoes and stirring soup. I imagined my great-granduncle Stephen arriving at the door, a blushing 20 year old, come to court Margaret.
Like they must have done so many years ago, we left the house to walk the land together. We climbed a narrow ladder over a waist-high stone wall into the open fields. We eventually realized that the seemingly random stone walls formed a huge circle, apparently a place to bring the cows in at night, or to keep them from wandering by day.
We hiked down to where the property ended as it met Ross Lake. It was wild and unspoiled, without signs of human progress. The cows in the distant fields observed us. Yet, it was not desolate. It was full of remembered ancient laughter, voices calling out and answering, families beginning, and families growing old.
While hiking we picked wild blackberries, perhaps from the same bushes as Margaret and Stephen ate from during their courting walks. I thought about the possibility that during the famine those blackberry bushes, and the fish in the lake, helped sustain Margaret and Nicholas and their siblings, then just small children.
The lake was beautiful beyond description. The water lapped at the stones on the beach as it had done for centuries, boring holes in the soft limestone before Margaret and Stephen were there, and long after we will be gone.
There was a memory cairn by the water’s edge, built by someone who also came to this place to remember. I climbed out to it and balanced another stone on top, making it mine as well.
This day was life-altering, heart-filling, and wild. I had studied the church register, valuation records, and maps of Moycullen. But as of that day, Moycullen is no longer a place on paper. It’s a place in my memory, in my life, in my heart. I met them there.
- The photos of the outside an inside of a typical Irish cottage illustrate what I imagined the Barrett house might have been like. The photos were taken by my son-in-law, Benjamin Wisehart, at the reconstructed historical village at Bunratty Castle. ↩