For many years I have hoped to visit Ireland, and that wish came true in May! I'm glad that two of my grandparents were Irish, and very grateful that they passed on the Catholic faith to my father. Here's a picture of Dad standing in front of the Catholic church in Knock where Mary appeared in 1879 to about 15 villagers. Knock is located in County Mayo, about thirty miles from our grandfather's village.
Cathy, Dad, and I enjoyed touring the west of Ireland. The weather was beautiful and the coast enchanting. The Cliffs of Moher stand 700 feet high over the Atlantic. We arrived in Shannon airport and drove about an hour to this breathtaking sight.
Just a few miles from the cliffs was a bed and breakfast called Ballylachen Castle, a perfect place to recover from the overnight flight. We treated ourselves to afternoon naps, and then explored the grounds overlooking the Atlantic and Galway Bay, surrounded by meadows blooming with buttercups.
I toured the ruins of O'Briens castle, situated behind our bed and breakfast, with spectacular views!
We enjoyed a delicious meal at the restaurant on site, and then went to find traditional Irish music in the town of Doolin. The musicians in the pubs often don't start until nine p.m. or later, and at the time we visited it didn't get dark until after ten at night!
Cathy acquired the knack of driving on the left of the road in no time! Renting a car gave us the flexibility to do some spontaneous exploring. The roads were narrow, and when we had to pass a tour bus, with no shoulder on our side, the ride became more bumpy. When we pulled over a few miles later we saw our flat tire! We had the assistance of a young married couple, Michael and Kate, who helped to install our spare, and 95 euros bought us a new tire. Never a dull moment!
There were so many incredible views and wild beauty in the West of Ireland-counties Clare, Galway, and Mayo. In the rugged mountains of Connemara, Kylemore Abbey was built in the 1800's as a private home, situated on a lake and surrounded by well groomed gardens. It was converted to a Benedictine Abbey by nuns seeking refuge during World War I, and has been a private girls school for decades.
This mountain in County Mayo, called Croagh Patrick, is a site of pilgrimage for the Irish. St Patrick spent the 40 days of Lent in 441, fasting and praying for the people of Ireland. Every year people climb to the summit where there is a chapel to pray.
In county Mayo, Cathy and I had the thrill of meeting Dad's first cousin Ann Kearney, and her husband Tony. They were so hospitable, and shared lots of stories and photos. We were feeling very connected to the old country! Ann shared some happy memories of her summers spent in Ballycastle, where her mother and my grandfather grew up.
We arrived in Ballycastle, a town located on the Atlantic Ocean, eager to explore our family history. We drove about a mile from town to Doonfeeney Graveyard and searched for our great grandparents' gravestones. It was quite an adventure wading through the knee high grass, occasionally sinking down a little too much, and finding lots of McDonnells listed on gravestones but not our grandfather's parents.
Our grandfather John McDonnell was a strapping young man, six feet two, and we know he went fishing from this harbor in Ballycastle. He and his brothers were very active in the Irish resistance fighting for independence from the British. His brother Martin was imprisoned for a while, but our grandfather and his brother Michael left for the United States. Although Michael returned home a few times, our grandfather never did. He must have missed his family, and watching his younger sisters reach adulthood, and the incredible beauty of his hometown. He also never experienced firsthand the freedom of the Republic of Ireland, which he passionately fought for. However, it's providential for us that he left and met our grandmother in the United States, Annie Mullen, originally from Pomeroy in County Tyrone.
A great highlight of our trip was experiencing Dad's great pleasure in the old beautiful ballads sung in some of the pubs. These musicians delighted Dad, especially when they played "Go, Lassie,Go", his personal favorite!
Dad and Kevin became instant friends, bonded in their love for Irish music! The pubs have a great atmosphere where the musicians spontaneously gather for the joy of making music together.
The rugged beauty of the region in County Mayo near Ballycastle took our breath away!
The parish priest at St Bridget in Ballycastle graciously let us search the leather bound parish record books for our relatives. It was thrilling to find our great grandparents' record of marriage on Feb 23, 1895, when John McDonnell married Mary Connor. Our great great grandparents' names are Anthony Connor and Mary (Keane) Connor, and Michael McDonnell and Margaret (O'Donnell) McDonnell. Our great grandmother Mary Connor McDonnell was baptized on March 2, 1873 in Killerduff, close to Ballycastle. When Dad was about 10, living in New York City with his family, he remembered his father John crying inconsolably at the news of his mother's death, whom he had not seen for twenty years. We found the record of Mary McDonnell's death on March 31, 1942.
We searched the books carefully and found the baptismal records of all six children born to Mary and John McDonnell: our grandfather John, May 1997, Michael, baptized June 12, 1898 (almost Irish twins!), Martin, October 10, 1900, Mary, baptized Dec 7, 1904(nicknamed "May" who married Joe Little, no children), Anne, baptized Aug 14, 1907, nicknamed "Nan", married Mark Pryal and had son Paddy, and Bridget, baptized Jan 3, 1912, who married Pat Fleming and had two sons and a daughter Ann, who is the wonderful cousin we met.
We went to our great grandparents' farm, knocked on the door and were graciously received by the owner Desmond Langan. Next to his home is the site of the original stone farmhouse, which he tore down about 25 years ago and replaced with this shed.
This is the view towards town from our great grandparent's farm.
Another view from the farm is the Atlantic Ocean.
Polke's is a general store in town that has been serving the Ballycastle folks for many generations. Brian Polke , the wonderful proprietor in his 80's, remembered our relatives and was friends with Paddy Pryal, our dad's cousin. After our great grandparents' deaths, our great aunt Nan and her husband Mark Pryal and son Paddy moved into the farmhouse.
This is the view of our great grandparents' farm from the beautiful little town of Ballycastle. Their farm is located above the building in the center of this photo, where the grass is a lighter shade of green.
There's not much traffic in Ballycastle these days!
On the last night of our trip, we had dinner at a restaurant on the grounds of Dromoland Castle, a hotel and golf course. After dinner Dad heard some singing at the bar, and immediately went over and introduced himself to the singers. Cathy and I hung back until Dad insisted we come over to meet his new friends, Tom and Sue. Sue, who grew up in England , very graciously said
" Your father is a love! As I saw him walking towards us, I thought he might be a military man. My two uncles died in Dunkirk. I never was able to thank them for their sacrifice." Sue's next words to Dad were powerful: "I want to thank you for your courage in serving your country, and your sacrifice!" Dad was beaming at her expression of gratitude. She made me consider the heroism of Dad's Marine Corp career, and that his hearing loss is a permanent reminder of his service. We ended our visit on a high note, touched by Sue's kindness and the warm welcome we received.
I hope to return to explore my grandmother's family roots in Northern Ireland!