I was told a powerful family story from the past by a man living in Ireland. It helped me understand the Ireland of my ancestors, and how that past shaped the character of Irish people in both Ireland and those places to which they immigrated.
In 1902 in a small town in County Donegal on the western coast of Ulster, now part of the Republic of Ireland and the European Union but in 1902 still under England’s thumb, a decision was made by a family living on a farm outside the small town of Ardara. The oldest son, fast becoming a man and wanting to marry, would farm the land. As for the younger boys, there was little opportunity for them. Their small farm could only feed so many. Times were hard. It was decided the best course was for two of the boys to make the voyage to America. Travel arrangements were made, and they prepared to leave.
I assumed, why I don’t know, that Irish men and women who left their homes went gladly, hungry for adventure, thirsty for the chance to work, buy land, and prosper. That might have been the case for some, perhaps most, but this family told their story differently. The boys picked to leave for America didn’t want to go. They didn’t feel like lucky chosen ones. All the support they had ever known in their short lives came from the people on that small farm and the community around it. The feared life in a far-off place that didn’t include that support.
But they accepted the decision, boarded the ship, and after waving good-bye from the ship’s rail, turned their backs on those who loved them but sent them away.
Sixty-six years later a middle-aged woman made a journey alone back to Ireland. Guided by her father’s detailed directions she was dropped in the early morning by a narrow lane that wound through fields and farms on the way to Ardara. The lane intersected a larger road where she turned left as her father had told her. Walking alone she looked for a thatched roofed cottage at the base of a hill where her father told her she would find the farm on which he was born. Unsure of her whereabouts, she saw three men working in the field near there and made here way towards them.
An old man and his two sons were cutting peat. To take peat from the bog you first take off the heather, then the topsoil, no more than a foot or two, and any clay you find under it. When all that is gone the peat is exposed.
An old man at the bottom of the bog was cutting peat into rectangular sods with a special type of spade called a slane. His eldest son heaved the sods from the bottom of the pit to ground level. His second oldest then loaded the sods onto a wheelbarrow and took them to a flat accessible area where he stacked the turf. In the ground this fuel is peat, when it is removed and stacked it is turf. Think of it as coal in an early stage before it hardens.
They were cutting peat and stacking turf for the next winter. It would dry in the stacks for a full year. It was hard work, but it was how they warmed their house and cooked their food. Irishmen had cut peat and stacked turf on that farm every year for as long as they knew. 1968 was no different. The son stacking peat in the barrow spoke to the others.
“A woman has climbed the fence and is walking towards us.”
“Who would she be?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“Help me up.”
His father left his spade in the bog, took his son’s hand, and with his help hauled himself up and out of the bog. He put a hand over his eyes, squinted, and took a long look at her for himself. As she came closer, he yelled across the field, first in Gaelic.
“A Chuisle Mo Chroi! (O pulse of my heart!) I know who you are. You need not say a word. Welcome home.”
He walked towards her and they embraced.
“You must be my uncle. How did you know who I was?”
“As sure as I know the back of my hand, I can see my brother’s face in yours. You’re home with your family now niece, and us with you. Let me introduce you to your cousins.”
As she shook her cousins’ hands, one of them said
“Well it appears at least one of our uncles made it to America. Who would your father be?”
And with that the talking began and the stories flew. During all the years that passed since two brothers boarded the ship that day in 1902 there had been no communication of any kind between them and their family in Ireland. Then, in an instant, their family was whole once again.
That family has been in contact ever since, with letters and visits back and forth. From that story I gained an appreciation for the pain and heartache caused by the huge movement of the Irish to Canada, America, and elsewhere. And long ago my family was part of it. The world is a smaller place now, and the desperation that forced that migration, at least for Ireland, is largely over.
So, am I the first of my great grandfather’s grandsons to come back since he boarded the ship in 1860? How did Robert McClure feel when Ireland faded in the distance, the ship hit open sea, and he was gone for good? There is so much I don’t know.
Ardara is the perfect place to see both the old and the new in today’s Ireland. The town, with the help of the Irish government and the EU, has taken pains to preserve the buildings, the streets, the feel of the town as it used to be. They have a nice diamond, which we would call the town square, a nearby river walk, and narrow cobblestone streets. But their greatest resource is friendly charming people. I’m prejudiced, because I’m a farm kid who lived near a little town, and will forever be convinced that nothing beats the feel of a small community.
By sheer chance the three days we scheduled in Ardara (it looks like it would be pronounced R dar a, but the locals say R dra) coincided with the annual Johnny Doherty music festival. Johnny was a famous fiddler from Ardara. There is a statue of him on the Diamond. I took a picture of his statue but he looks gray, cold, and quite stiff in marble. Here’s a photo of Johnny in his later years. Life becomes him.
We heard live music every day. The festival headliners were “Four Men and a Dog”, a musical group from all over Ireland. We saw them play at the small downtown hotel ballroom. They were amplified, on a stage, playing both traditional and non-traditional tunes and songs, and they were terrific. The band (6 men, no dog) included an electric piano, accordion, two fiddlers, a great guitarist and vocalist, and a bodhran player. One of the fiddlers occasionally switched to a banjo.
We had seats in the front row near the speakers. We were blown away. They are famous in Ireland, but we had never heard of them. They get to the states at times, though it sounds like its mostly the east coast. Lots of talk about Boston.
The next night we saw the Friel Sisters, three young women who sing like angels. Anna plays the flute, Sheila the Uilleann pipes, and Clare the fiddle. They brought along a young man who played the Bozouki, a Greek stringed instrument played like a guitar. The sisters have roots in Ardara, so it was like coming home for them. They interacted so well with the crowd, sharing recent news about themselves.
Sheila explained the difference between Uilleann (Irish) and Scottish bagpipes. Scottish pipers are always blowing into a stem that fills a bladder they squeeze under their arm to force air through the drones which hang down around the bag and the chanter which they finger as you would a flute. Uilleann pipes use a bellows they pump with their right arm forcing air through a hose around their back to a bladder under their left arm. It allows them the freedom to sing. And of course, the Irish think their pipes are far superior.
I always thought of bagpipes as novelty instruments, used for marching, but those Irish Uilleann pipes were a key part of their small quartet. Sheila changed the tone of the instrument by raising and lowering the chanter, breaking a seal on a piece of vinyl on her leg. When she did it let out a louder wail. It was a haunting and beautiful part of their sound. They did pretty vocals, but they rocked as well. Especially Clare on the fiddle. We were upstairs in a room with maybe 75 people. Such an intimate concert.
Throughout our time in Ardara we would see people during the day on the street, and in the evening in the restaurants, whom we had seen at the pubs and music venues. They would recognize us and speak to us. One day we found benches on a river walk that winds through town and butted up against a motel.
The ball got away. I ran it down and threw it back to one of the boys. The father spoke to us from across the parking lot.
“Say, didn’t we see you at the concert last night?”
“Yes you did. You were sitting in the row behind us.”
“Great band doncha think?”
“We loved them.”
“They’re famous. Hard to see them. So good they came to Ardara.”
“Are you from here?”
“No, we live down by Kilkenny but my wife is from up the road. We’re here mostly to see the Friel Sisters tonight. These boys are their second cousins.”
He sensed we were Americans. How I don’t know. We asked him questions about what he was doing with those bats.
“My boys are on a hurling team. We’re practicing passing. Do you want to try it?”
I did. It’s like hitting a baseball, except you hold the bat cross handed. It’s a dead ball about the size of a baseball. My friend Ken tried it too. The boys laughed at us a little, and their Dad didn’t approve. One, the red head, lowered his eyes and blushed when his Dad gave him “the look.” His cheeks turned red as apples.
We talked for half an hour. Irish sports vs. American sports, where various sports are more popular in his country, Irish history, American politics. He figured Elizabeth Warren was the new front runner among the Democrats. He figured for sure the Democrats would elect the next president and relayed how shocked he, his family, and all his friends were when the current man who sits in the white house was elected. He was very well informed on the U.S..
It was a sunny afternoon. After a while the boys drifted away and resumed their game. We continued our chat about food, places in the U.S., you name it. Travel to countries where language is not a barrier offers great opportunity for visitors to really connect with others in the world.
On Sunday morning my wife and I went to Catholic mass in the old church on Ardara’s main drag. It is surrounded by graves. Good crowd at church. No music, no incense, no frills. Three altar girls and an old Irish priest. His message, on welcoming immigrants and aiding the poor, was refreshing. When we passed the peace in the pews we felt warmly greeted. I took communion. I always do. God has not yet struck me dead.
When mass ended, we ran into our host from the B&B who showed us his family’s graves and talked about those that occupied them. Ardara, like many towns in that area, was known for its weavers and their woolen sweaters and coats. I checked the directory of names that was provided at the entrance to the cemetery and then joined my wife at a shop across the street.
I bought a sturdy tweed sport coat. I think it will last me till I go out and even longer. As the shop keeper was ringing me up, I asked about the names in the cemetery.
“I checked the names on the map of graves for the cemetery and was surprised not to see my name. There were all sorts of Mc’s and Mac’s but not a single McClure.”
“No,” she said softly, “there wouldn’t be.”
“Why is that?”
“Well that’s a Protestant name, and you were in a Catholic cemetery.”
“You know just by my name that my family is Protestant? No chance of a Catholic McClure?”
“No, unless someone along the way converted. You may find McClures in other cemeteries, but you could look for a fair long time before you come upon one taking their eternal rest next to a Catholic church.”
I didn’t know what to say and she could see that. She went on.
“Remember now, we’ve had peace in Ireland since 1998. Twenty-one years. The troubles never affected us directly much here in Ardara. But we were and always have been keenly tuned, each to the other, as to religion. I’m very thankful that’s over, as all of us are, and we’ve relaxed in many ways, but habits change slowly. We can’t erase our past. We simply deal with it. Separating Catholics from Protestants, not only in life but also in death, was part of it. Still is.”
“Thanks for explaining. I might have figured that for myself if I had thought for just a minute.”
“Thank you, Mr. McClure, for understanding. Be glad you don’t think that way and ask as many questions as you like.”
Every day I was in Ireland I learned a little more. If you travel to Ireland consider visiting County Donegal. It is wildly beautiful, but its physical beauty is far surpassed by the loveliness of its people.