Chinese New Year 2020, Year of the Rat, has come and gone. The Chinese traditionally venerate and pay respect to their ancestors while celebrating a new year. Some add an ancestral tablet to their household altar, participate in a Ghost Festival, or hold reunion dinners (family attendance mandatory). Our Irish/Welsh family has no such traditions, although a family member accused me of enshrining my dad when I took a fraying silk smoking jacket he’d brought back from Siam (Thailand) and pressed it behind a large glass frame I hung in my living room.
In the memoir I wrote about my father (2 chapters from Sage of Severed Mountain posted to blog), I lamented that after his death, the sticky glue that held his family together, dissolved. We were left with some mementoes/heirlooms, scrapbooks, grainy 8mm images, and a gazillion questions about our ancestors. I have wondered if 50 years from now, a flea market treasure hunter might find the jacket and wonder about its provenance. My grandchildren have expressed no interest in ancestral artifacts so far.
My brother and I got serious about preserving our heritage a decade ago. We collaborated on a massive genealogical project, including the creation of trees that reached from the early 1700s to the present day. We posted our extensive trees to Ancestery.com and other geneo sites, plied living relatives with questions; researched origins and juicy stories via Newspapers.com, Census, and foreign record bureaus; obtained death certificates from US Vital Record offices; wrote bios; and begged, borrowed, and pilfered old family documents, pictures, and artifacts. The project is ongoing.
One of the best things we did was to take multiple fact finding, commemorative trips to Ireland and Wales. On the third of these epic trips, in October, 2017, my brother, a leftie, bravely navigated the other side of the road in the Republic and in N Ireland. We tried to leave no (grave) stone unturned, and sometimes managed to pull the genie out of genealogy. I present an enthusiastic narrative of that trip in hopes that if you’ve put off asking about or researching your ancestors, you’ll start connecting dots and plan a journey to the place of your ancient origins (before some Eejit tears it down or blows it up). Do it for those passed, present, and to come…
Post 1: ‘wander woman’ reporting from the cockpit of a rental car barreling towards Belfast. In the wee dark hours, we drove to local TN airport, bound for a JFK layover and Dublin/N Eire sibling triathlon ramble challenge…fly, drive, inbibe/survive… I shouted a ‘heads up’ to Brit and Irish friends, providing fair warning we were driving north, into the sun, to Belfast & (eventually) Malinhead. It’s good to escape the south, to go from down to up, from right to left, from US to Ulster, Donegal, and Monaghan; from the Smokies to Mourne mountains…
Post 2: Leave it to the Irish to bring back the flying cocktail party. On other recent flights, people wanted to sleep; not this flight…there was musical laughter & animation, knocking down whisky straight, bubbly, and gin martinis…ladies uncoifed, men shed suit jackets and ties; I took notes. Is air glamour returning or is alcohol and altitude glamouring us? One guy pretended the sleep mask he was given was a too small bra; another guy said he liked his Jim Kirk (Star Trek) command seat, while a young woman flexed toes and nose…For a few hours, I forget about sleep, people bombing, slashing, and shooting each other. I soaked up remembered glamor of flying across the big pond in a shiny metal tube with a 3 leaf clover grinning tail as a lucky charm! After a few scenic miscalculations, we arrived at Stormont, Belfast in time for a delightful afternoon tea!
Post 3: Belfast, (from Irish Béal Feirsde) occupied since 1177 when John de Courcy arrived. We feel at home in this place of pagan reality…I’ve often linked the Irish with Native Americans. Both revere nature and think the land belongs to all. Normans (1170) turned land and forests into private property, and floated the woodlands away. Original Belfast settlement was a small village, based around a marshy ford where River Lagan met the river Farset. Today, it’s where High Street meets Victoria Street. A terrible battle was fought at the Ford of Belfast in 665…one of many. Until 16th century, this was O’Neil territory. Mentioned in the “Four Masters”—the king’s residence is about 10 miles from Belfast near a great fort called Rathmore 680 ACE. We feel welcomed by both the people and land. We hear whispers, and Eire teaches and taunts as well. We’re on a ‘coddiwomple,’ a purposeful journey towards a vague destination.
Post 4. Postcard from over the gorse hedge: It’s hard to choose one–views are so vibrant; even the best card only scratches the surface; beneath it all is a solid bedrock of pagan splendor… Straights of Moyle, only 12 miles between Ireland and Scotland. This is where the Children of Lir, transformed into swans by mean aunt Aoife (who was turned into demon by Bodb Derg of Tuatha de Danan), had to hang out for 300 years, or perhaps they’re still there? To this day, swans are protected in Ireland. The mode, the center of Ireland, moves with us, like a floating Scottish cousin Brigadoon. In the center fires ever burn, the moon is always full, and if you’re swift enough, the salmon might impart both wisdom and warning salmon enchanted evening.
Post 5. My dads’ ancestors left Ireland for America and Australia. Dad left Philly, toured the world as I have, moved us across the US, up and down and back, and settled atop a mountain in Maryland stained with civil war blood. I fled MD at 18 and eventually alighted (I’m an air sign) in E Tennessee. I grapple with issues of place, exile, invasion, and familiarity in my novel Remains to be Seen. When we left the land that nurtured us and our ancestors we paid a price. We return as foreigners. To the Irish, I am a ‘blow in,’ despite my atavistic sense of knowing this isle over many visits, and its traits and wounds. I know that from sundown Tuesday until sundown Wednesday the fairies are resting, but always appreciate an offering of fruit, booze, or bread.
Post 6. Slemish, extinct volcano… Cushy den, at foothills of Glendum (1 of 9 Antrim glens) resembles an old Cornish village. Local caves were featured in Game of Thrones. We skip over much photographed Kings Road dark beech hedges (Ballymoney) originally planted by Stuart family, possible distant ancestors. King James 1 granted land to Stuart cousin, who drowned before stepping foot on property. Land passed to William Stuart, grandson.
It all converges here—unspoiled Eire, the divine presence of ancestors, wee folk, and dew falling from the sky and numerous pub taps… we go in search of musical seisuins, seanachais, and hooley dancers…of old Ireland. Roads of past invasions, battles, and culture conflicts run parallel to the road we travel today. We are drawn to paths of ancestors footsteps… “To know who you are you have to know where you come from…” Carson McCullers. We sigh; from here we originate.
Post 7. Going for ‘brogue’…Near Muckish Mountain, in Gaeltacht district of Cloughaneely, is a small stone bridge known locally as ‘Droichead na Caointe’ (The Bridge of Tears). In the 19th century, before the railway was built, local people immigrating to America, Britain, and Australia crossed this bridge on their way to port of Derry. They were accompanied by family and friends only to the bridge, then crossed to the opposite side alone. This walk had the finality of a funeral, as most never returned.
We learned roads in N Ireland are classified as either highway, motorway (shown by M followed by a route number), A-road (letter A followed by a route number), B-roads (letter B followed by a route number) or other designations. There are two types of A-roads: primary and non-primary. Motorways in the Republic are similarly classified, and there are national roads (letter N followed by a route number), regional roads, and local roads (letter L followed by a route number) and local ways of providing directions! There are no Roman roads in Ireland, however a few iron roads have been excavated, as well as bog roads, and cow/sheep paths… (a few of which we found). Railways were the dominant form of land transport from mid-19thc until first half of 20thc when motorized road transport began to take over.
Post 8. Derry to Strabane to Enniskillen Lough Erne…Can I drink an Irishman under the table? …like him, I have trained for this event for generations… though his nose is redder than mine. While we watch the river dancing, I do a liver dance of my own with inn made G&Tonics. Did you know there were 900 pubs in Dublin? I was in Irish handcuffs multiple times (i.e., drink in both hands). Our time grows short…. As Samhain approaches, I’m reminded of Tory Isle Donegal tale, when Nemedians had to pay tribute yearly on Halloween to Formorians in form of 2/3s of their harvest and child sacrifices. We experience a Disneyesque version of Dunwich Horror…”the road rises out of woods and there are strange silhouettes of stone pillars crowning a darkening sky…” Dawn’s come & gone; it’s misty damp and we’ve squeezed everything out of this experience; the highway’s summoning trucks and us, travelers heading towards what?
Post 9 👻. we’ve inhaled lanolin whiffs of wool, toasted peat, salty sea air, and the nutty aroma of dark beer and whisky neat. We’ve converted from miles to kilos, from euros to pounds, and from black, green, and orange to blue, white, and bloody red. We hoped for a bit of locus pocus as we broke all the driving rules today, got any new ones we can break? Very interesting stop in Strabane where we met John Hannigan and heard about his bro Mark, killed in car accident (or was it?)… involved in the ‘troubles…’ Are we related? At times, as navigator, I felt as helpful as a blister on a hike; still we managed.
Post 10. Dublin. Joyce said he wanted to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city was to disappear, his words alone could conjure it anew. We’ve been North thru Ulster and norther still to Malinhead; saw the lush Glen’s of Antrim and the Dannyboyness of Derry and Tyronne, as well as the aching ruggedness of Eires NE shoreline. We know when you hear, ‘so an Irish person walks into a bar…’ there’s no ending to that tale. And though we are reluctantly ready to leave ancestors, lyrics, landscapes, legends, and all the intangibles behind, we know it’s not really a goodbye. It’s just a wee pause in the cause, a mere blip till the next trip.
Final Post, DUB to Atlanta. Thanking my lucky charms and awesome designated driver we’re still in one piece after this ambitious road trip. I’ve drunk copious quantities of the ‘water of life,’ sampled tastes that went down cruel easy or resembled edible fire (thanks Poteen)…“the night was bitter, stars lost their glitter; it grew colder, I felt older not bolder, cause I let the little man (and his pot of …) get away.” Sometimes what was made in Eire stays in Eire. Sad to think I may not return again any time soon. It’s time and I must go, I bid you all adieu, the open highway calls me forth to do the other things I do. So when I’m trampin’ far away I’ll hear your call and answer you, dear ol Donegal… Slainte!.