Wild Colonial Boys, Home from America


It started as a gifting problem.

My father was turning 70. Not your run-of-the-mill birthday. A landmark. The usual gifts — a history book, golf shoes — just wouldn’t cut it.

Then a lightbulb went off: a trip to Ireland. The old country. He’d always wanted to go. And it seemed so simple: I’d pen a gift certificate (“This entitles you to one trip to Ireland, with chauffeur”), pop it in the mail, and wait for the goodwill to flow. Out on the West Coast my brother Brian, also stuck for a good gift, signed on too. Dad got choked up when we told him. We had a hit, and we’d take it on the road come summer.

Now, Ireland and me are old friends, going back to my student days there in the 1980s, and though I’d only been back briefly since, I was, after all, the travel professional. I began to sketch out a route.

But my father, I found, had his own plans.

On his side, our family is 100% true-green Irish, immigrants who settled in New York’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood at the turn of the 19th century. On my mother’s side, the blood may only be half Irish but the temperament is nothing but.

And, my father knew, we still had relatives over there. Letters — at least a few of them over the last quarter century — had proved that. Two we even had addresses for, and would contact. It was just a matter of finding the others.

D-Day, July 28: US Airways flight 70 touches down at Shannon Airport, and we hit the road. Our route would take us south to counties Limerick and Kerry, then hug the west coast northward to Galway (with a side-trip to the Aran Islands) then continue north to Donegal. From there, we’d cross into Northern Ireland to visit the scenic Antrim Coast, then shoot southeast for a short visit to Dublin before flying home. It was an ambitious itinerary, but still allowed time to linger in all the counties from which our ancestors had emigrated. And to find those cousins, of course.

But we didn’t have to: They found us.

The message was waiting at our first B&B, which we’d reserved ahead of time. Sean O’Sullivan of Drumcolliher, County Limerick, requests the honor of a visit from his American cousins.

And three hours later, jet-lagged and dazed, there we were: meeting his family, sipping tea in his kitchen, looking through family photographs, examining century-old marriage contracts, connecting our stories. Then an inspiration, and we’re making the short drive from his farm to another, where we unlatched a gate, drove down a long, muddy path, and found ourselves standing at the homestead where Lizzie McCarthy was born. My great-grandmother.

There wasn’t much left. One thick stone wall, facing rolling farmland. To one side, a stone kiln where they baked lime into whitewash for their walls. I imagined the thatched-roof cottage that once stood here. That’s how my great-grandmother lived.

“I couldn’t stop thinking,” my father said later, “what a beautiful place she’d left, and how her life changed when she emigrated.” From there, she went to a slum in New York, where she raised her five children and four foster kids all by herself, after her husband died. My father shakes his head. “She was a strong woman.”

The following day, we met Paddy McCarthy, age 82, son of Lizzie McCarthy’s brother Bill Dan, son of the legendary Big Dan.

“You take after the old McCarthys,” he said by way of greeting, looking up at the three of us. “Oh, they were powerful big people.”

He was the first embodiment of old Ireland we met, a living genealogy with a tweed cap, a walking stick, and a memory that held onto every member of the family going back 200 years. He spoke as if he’d known them all, and at Knawhill (“The Hill of Bones”) he led us to their graves and told their stories.

He talked of those who had emigrated to the States and then come to visit over the years, and of them all he said the same thing: “They came home.” Us too: We’d come home. As if even though our people left a century ago, and we ourselves had been born in America, we’d only really been visiting there. Our real home was here, in this place.

It’s like the old joke about an Irishman proposing marriage: “Mary, how would you like to be buried with my people?”

It was a strange sensation, this sense of roots, made stranger still when Paddy would point from the window toward a house along the road and say, “Those people over there, they’re your cousins too.”

It was a motif that repeated throughout our trip.

In Castlemaine, County Kerry, setting of the Irish ballad “The Wild Colonial Boy” and home of the Hannafin family, B&B proprietor Mary Murphy took us aside after we checked in. “I know your family,” she said. “Your great-grandfather’s brother James lived right down the road.”

And sure, he had. And sure, there were people in town who remembered him. Richie Boyle, owner of Boyle’s Hardware, was a boy when James (“We called him Hayes, because he was a great fan of a footballer by that name”) came to work for his family.

“We were in the pub one night,” he recalled, “and someone remarked how a certain player had kicked the ball in a match that week. Hayes, he said, ‘Sure, it wasn’t like that at all,’ and he jumps up, takes a two-pound sack of sugar he had, and drop-kicks it to show how it was really done.” He paused, laughing at the memory. “Oh,” he said, spreading his hands wide, “sugar flew aaaall over the room.”

Far from having trouble finding our roots, they were fairly reaching out to snare us.

Aside from the emotional high this kind of travel inspires, we soon realized that planning an itinerary around these kinds of small towns has another advantage: exclusivity. Often, we were the only visitors, and thus privy to an Ireland far removed — and far more authentic — than the country’s more popular tourist cities and towns.

Bustling Galway, for instance, is a vibrant, international city that could be anywhere in Europe. But twenty miles to the north, somewhere outside the small city of Tuam, our maternal cousins Roger and Joseph Glynn were living as if the 20th century had only just arrived, never mind the 21st.

“You’re going to visit Roger and Joseph?” said Mary Harlowe, a second-cousin who’d learned we were in-country through some mysterious Irish bush-telegraph, and had tracked us down at our B&B. “You’ll never find it. I’ll have to lead you.”

And she did. Down unmarked back roads, past the ruins of a castle where my mother’s grandmother played as a little girl, all the way to the farm where that little girl’s nephew, now age 84, lives with his son.

They greet us at the door, both dressed in rough work clothes and boots, both courtly though — or maybe because — they receive so few visitors. We exchange stories, Roger’s going back to the days of the Black-and-Tan paramilitaries, sent by the British in 1918 to suppress the Irish rebellion.

They sit for a photo, both ramrod straight in their wooden chairs. We show them our old pictures, and Roger squints at one through poor eyesight. He point to a child of two sitting beside his grandmother and younger brother. “That’s me,” he says.

That night, we meet Mary again for dinner. She and her husband are my age, hovering around 40, and live in a modern Ireland far removed from Roger and Joseph’s rural time-machine. Yet even in them there’s that powerful sense of home and connectedness, most evident when Mary takes us for a visit to her uncle Patrick’s farm. There, behind the house, we stand looking out over forty acres of fields that stretch over a hilltop and out of sight.

“This is our place,” she says.

(Originally published in the Boston Herald, November 2003)

Matt Hannafin