The new book is in the process of being published by the History Press! It will be available the first week of September and the grand launch and signing will be Thursday, October 15, 2015 at 6pm in Waterbury, Connecticut, at the Mattatuck Museum! Please see http://www.waterburyirish.com for updates and the book’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/waterburyirish/. Hooray!
©2015 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
I immediately gifted my first copy of Gabrielle Ní Mheachair’s at-long-last book, Ó Meachair, The Story of a Clan, but have just received two more copies–one of them also about to become a gift. Now, my belated but hearty cheer to Gabrielle, whom I have had the pleasure to converse with a few times over the years as we were both doing research and I asked her advice. For a while I subscribed to the newspaper, Midwest Irish Focus, published by Pete Maher, of Missouri, especially to read her installments of “Tipperary Tales.” As a native Irish woman she knows of what she speaks and has captured the history of our clan perfectly. Those interested in things Maher will find this book to be a “must own.” Congratulations to Gabrielle Ní Mheachair Woeltje on this fine book, available from Amazon.com!
©2015 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
Waterbury Irish: From the Emerald Isle to the Brass City is scheduled to be published by the History Press in the first week of September! More details will appear, as well as a link to a Facebook page, in upcoming weeks. For those who are within driving distance to New Haven, Connecticut, please come to my talk-with-images on Tuesday night, June 16 for the Irish History Round Table at 7:30 p.m., Knights of Saint Patrick Hall, 1533 State Street, New Haven.
©2015 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
It is with sadness for his passing and in gratitude for having been privileged to get to know him over a few years that I share a tribute to the life of Michael Maher. A largely attended and beautiful thanksgiving of his life was celebrated today in Annapolis, Maryland.
“Mike Maher, 85, was born in Houston, Texas to Alvin M. and Lucille Guillaume Maher. A graduate of Saint Thomas High School, he received a B.S. degree from Tulane University in physics and did graduate work at the University of Maryland. During the Korean War, he flew F-86s and F-94Cs in the 84th Fighter Squadron, Air Defense Command, United States Air Force.
He had an accomplished career applying science to real world problems. As a government contractor, he developed the phased radar system found in naval warships today. He played a major role in the design and manufacture of the Pegasus satellites which gathered crucial data for NASA’s moon missions. He later established a major environmental testing laboratory and in 1970 became its President and CEO. at the U.S. Department of Commerce he led the design of the Industrial Energy Conservation Program which assisted the manufacturing sector in improving its energy efficiency, reducing the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. At Potomac Electric Power Company, he designed and implemented a load control program for residential and commercial customers which contributed to the cancellation of a major new generating plant. In retirement, he consulted with the Electric Power Research Institute on the introduction of electric cars.
He lived life fully, enjoying good wine, Navy and Redskins football, ice cream, sailing, Dixieland jazz and the Big Band music of the 1940s, cherry pie, the newspaper comics, and lively political discussions. He was a skilled photographer. He read widely and was particularly interested in American and military history.
He was a past president of the Lindamoor Improvement Association, a member of the International Club of Annapolis, and an associate member of the Class of 1953, U.S.N.A.
He was a loving husband and his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were his greatest pride and joy…”
May God hold him in the hollow of His hand.
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
It’s hard to believe that I have not written here since June of this year, and for that I apologize. I do still intend to complete the series of essays about my magical pilgrimage to Ireland, however, the rest of my life intervened and I had to shift gears. For now, those who wish to continue to read my posts, please check out a new blog that I have just begun. It’s called “Trusting the Process: Getting There From Here,” and I hope it will be a means through which I can address more topics. Ireland is still at the top of my list and, especially so as I try to complete a new book by the end of the year. This one, to be titled, Waterbury Irish: From the Emerald Isle to the Brass City,” is in collaboration with a friend I made years back while researching “From the Old Sod to the Naugatuck Valley.” John Wiehn is the current president of Connecticut’s Ancient Order of Hibernians and is the director of the Prospect Library. With Mark Heiss, he produced the postcard series book, Waterbury, 1890-1930. He has been very helpful in finding some great old photographs and in gathering info on some of the topics that will be contained in Waterbury Irish, which should be published next May by the History Press. This book will not only condense and complete the work of “From the Old Sod,” but it will resurrect a history of Waterbury, Connecticut that has long been eclipsed and relatively few people recall or perhaps even know about. In my recent art exhibition I included the above image which is the last of a series from my earlier Naugatuck focus. This one evolved into what I felt to be a love letter to the ending of a project and an emotional nod to my hometown and my past.
Happy Thanksgiving to all, and thank you for all the attention you have paid this blog since it began in 2011!
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
Those who know me from many years back on Jane Lyon’s Y-IRL list serve or from my earlier web sites will no doubt recall my excitement about discovering Joseph Casimir O’Meagher’s Some Historical Notices of the O’Meaghers of Ikerrin, published in 1890. Its compilation of myriad facts and details became my bible, not only through which to learn about my father’s surname, but as a means to begin to study the history of Ireland herself. Names of places that had seemed so difficult to pronounce or remember eventually became familiar, and the differences between provinces, counties, baronies, townlands and civil or religious parishes, among a great many other things, also became clear. That boundaries and jurisdictions continually changed, as they do in all developing civilizations, reminded me to always note the time frame of an historical detail, as one decade’s information might vary greatly from another’s, some event having caused any number of ripple effects.
While we may know that the original location for the Meaghers was in northeast Tipperary, in and near the town of Roscrea, we also know that due to all the turmoil over the centuries individuals and families chose to (or were forced to) spread further throughout Tipperary, relocate to other regions, or leave home entirely. From the time of Oliver Cromwell’s entry into Ireland question marks pepper every Gaelic Irish surname’s history. O’Meagher’s text underpinned and provided a context for everything I had learned so far. My studies of surnames based in the Tippeary/Kilkenny/Laois area had brought me to a point of simply wishing to walk or drive through particular areas in real time, gaining a felt sense of the distances between places.
What of Roscrea, the main town within the barony of Ikerrin (Ui Cairin), associated with the O’Meachairs/Meaghers/Mahers? After all the dispersals, transportations, emigrations, deaths, how relative to a current Maher from another country might Ikerrin be? It was in this questioning state of mind that I looked forward to meeting Caitriona Meagher on my journey—someone with whom I had become an email correspondent in the past year. Caitriona, and her cousin, Anna, whom I was also delighted to have met the following week, are among perhaps very few members of the Meagher/Maher clan who know and can point to locations that show their family connecting back to O’Meaghers mentioned in Joseph Casimir O’Meagher’s work. Caitriona’s family still lives within an extended area of land upon which Clonan Castle once existed (“Clonyne/Cloyne” in Some Historical Notices, depicted on pg. 18). It was with great excitement that I went to visit her, and I am so grateful for the thrilling day we spent together.
We met at her mother’s home, and Caitriona immediately brought me outside to the perfect spot from which to look out over all of what used to be the barony, a wide circle recessed in the center, spreading out for miles. The base had been a lake with about a two acre island in it — Lough Cré (Inishnameo), the Island of the Living. Gesturing outwards she told me, “All the castles were along the ridge, around the perimeter,” and she pointed to the division where Ikerrin left off and the land of their kinsmen, Ely O’Carroll, began. Through binoculars we could slightly make out two partial castles directly across the way (which I found the following day). She explained that Clonakenny Castle (Caisleán Cluain an Chaoinaigh), toward our far right, was in the safest section, protected by all the other outlying castle communities. Although we did not see them, Caitriona said that evidence remains of ancient ring forts in the area too, and that farmers through the ages have avoided them, both for superstitious reasons and in honoring their historic importance. The image at the head of this essay shows some top portions of Clonan Castle at the horizon (“bumps” that interrupt the curve), evidence of the castle’s formerly great size, the top of which could be seen from within the town of Roscrea over a mountain.
A few days ago, when looking into the Tithe Applotment records of around 1826, I noticed that among the many Meaghers living throughout that extended area in the early nineteenth century, several clustered into townlands within the civil parish of Roscrea, and several clustered within the townlands in the parish of Bourney. I asked Caitriona about this via email and she explained, regarding the Roscrea area, “If you could imagine making a 3.5 mile diameter circle, and then walking out the front door in Clonan and putting it down on your left, then all of these places would be in it.” Regarding Bourney, she said, “If you made a similar 8-ish mile circle and put it down on your right, these places would be in it.” I love that there now is the memory of our standing in place looking out over it all, to which she can make such a reference that I, in turn, understand!
Despite all the dispersions, before the Great Famine there was once again a very large concentration of Meaghers/Mahers in the area of the clan’s origin. Given the Meaghers’ interconnected ties through fortuitous marriages with Butlers and other Norman Old English landlords, and their ancient claims to the lands in the area, not only would some of them have found their way back to their ancestral homes, but many from the laborer class may never have been forced to leave. We know that throughout Ireland there were instances of upper class Gaelic families having their properties taken, but being “allowed” to remain as laborers on what had been their own land. The newly planted landlords needed workers, and, especially within the midlands, many landlords became absentee, which left the locals much to their own devices as before the upsets. Some who had been transported may have later been able to return as tenants, sometimes through agreeing to suppress their religious practice or through the kindness of those whom Martin Callanan categorized as “friendly Protestants” (Records of Four Tipperary Septs, 1938).
Whether they remained in place or relocated, by mandate or by choice, all Meaghers, Caitriona confirmed, anciently came from this area. Although the surname has been scattered to the winds over centuries, for any Maher/Meagher looking into their Irish history, we can know that some deep ancestor had lived here at one time. Although I had felt this to likely be true in theory, I was so glad to hear her say this aloud! Yes, we all come from here. Period. And our line at some cellular level is, thus, ancient. In conversing about this later with Anna, she called it a dynasty, noting parallels to ancient lineages in other countries in which that term is commonly used. O’Meagher history was richly documented by Joseph Casimir O’Meagher, and there likely do not exist paper trails deeper than those that he found.
Caitriona noted that originally Irish land was not registered to a certain owner. This came later, with British rules. “We o Meachairs would have floated around the barony a lot before that. Then we began to settle in certain areas.” The ancient family groups (tuathas) worked their common lands together, moving into different fields as their own farming practices determined and using naturally occurring land formations as designated perimeters of their properties, which extended great distances. Early on, struggles would have been simply about trying to maintain or expand their holdings and protect them from encroachment by other native Irish.
The web site of Ireland’s Reaching Out group explains Roscrea’s “long and proud heritage” as “stretching back over six thousand years,” and O’Meagher’s “notices” bring us back to before the time of Saint Patrick’s conversion visit to Ireland. He referenced a seventeenth century text by Rev. John Colgan, a Franciscan friar in Louvain, who wrote of Saint Patrick’s travel in 470 A.D. to the area that became the barony of Lower Ormond (Butler), baptizing, Mechair and two other “brothers of that nation—men of power…the sons of Forat, son of Conla (son of Tadg, son of Cian, son of Olioll Olum).” O’Meagher explained the Milesian linage of the surname as descending “from Fionnachada, son of Connla, son of Cian, second son of Oiliol Olum, King of Munster in the third century.” (pp.13, 14)
Caitriona brought me to two ancient ecclesiastical sites of at least equal importance to others that are more well-known and have been somewhat restored. Both tie to the ancient history of the O’Meaghers/Mahers. The monastic site of Monaincha (Bog of the Island) and the Sean Ross Abbey, founded by Saint Cronan, brought more references in O’Meagher’s book completely to life for me, enhanced by recently hearing historian George Cunningham’s fascinating narration about them. (An MP3 version of his audio tour may be purchased here.)
To follow the growth of what Mr. Cunningham called “the cradle of Christianity” in this area, we look first to the abbey that 7th century Saint Cronan founded at Sean Ross, in a wild and remote section of Ikerrin. When he realized that the place was too far away for people to locate him, he moved into the main town and founded Saint Cronan’s Monastery in Roscrea. Here, his monk, Dimma MacNathi, scribed over forty days and nights the famous Book of Dimma, contained in the collection of Trinity College’s library. An ornate shrine was created to contain the book, financed by Lord O’Carroll, in the 12th century. Around the 1480s the monks wanted to get away from the bustle of the city and returned to the more contemplative location of Sean Ross. This became the parish of Corbally (Corville). O’Meaghers continued to be priors, and O’Meaghers were buried in the graveyard there. Remains of a medieval church are also still there, however, the area is now known more for its special education school for those with learning disabilities, Saint Anne’s, which was begun in 1971. Its earlier modern incarnation, beginning in the 1930s, was as a convent home for unwed mothers. It was there that Michael Hess and his birth mother, Philomena Lee, tried to find each other. This heart-breaking story was made into the film, Philomena, last year, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
O’Meagher’s book contains an excellent map that shows the island of Monaincha (formerly Inchanambro) without the lake, revealing two amoeba shaped ends connected by bogland containing an Abbey Church, Abbot’s apartments, two churches, surrounded by “the ancient Wood non-a Bog” and remains of the Abbot’s orchard. O’Meagher explained that Thaddeus Meachair (Blessed Thaddeus) had become Bishop of Cork and Cloyne after the resignation of William Roche in 1490 (pg. 16). One of the authors of the Annals of the Old Masters in 1664 added a reference to the ritual of crowning O’Meagher rulers, noting that “the steed and battledress of every Lord of them belong to the Comarba of Cronan and Inchanambro…” He further explained that Saint Cronan was the patron saint of Roscrea, and Comarba referred to his successor. Inchanambro, “also in O’Meagher’s country, “was the name of ‘the island of the living,'” later called Lady’s Island. Signage from the Office of Public Works and their Destination Cashel explained that Elarius (St. Elair, or Hilary), who died in 807 A.D., had founded “an important monastery” on the Island of the Living, which began to follow Augustinian rule in 1140 A.D, where the monks remained until 1485. Monaincha’s high cross base was created in the 9th century, but the Celtic cross head dates from three centuries later. Around the grounds of the church are several old graves, including some small Famine Stones. Inside there are still some monuments for a few of the primary people that had been associated with Monaincha. Much of the bog was harvested for fuel over the centuries, leaving only the footprint of a small raised landscape supporting this once quite significant medieval sacred site, two large trees seeming to bravely protect what is left.
Giraldus Cambrenis, Gerald the Welshman, wrote about The Monastery of the Island of the Living (Mainistir Inse na mBeo) in 1187. He said, “There is a lake in North Munster with a large island which has a church of an ancient religious order. No woman or animal of the female sex could enter this island without dying immediately. This has been put to the proof many times by means of the cats, dogs and other animals of that sex, which have often been brought to it as a test, and have died at once.” O’Meagher noted that Cambrensis visited there in 1185 (pg. 13). P. W. Joyce explained in 1911 that the miraculous tradition was that it was said to have not been possible for anyone guilty of a great sin to die on the island. Even if they were very ill, it would not be until they left the island that they could actually die. Likewise, if people tried to bury on the island “an unrepentant sinner” who had died somewhere else, there would inevitably be some problem that would not make the burial possible. Even after the monks left the island, the church and its grounds were frequently visited. “About two centuries ago,” Joyce wrote, “the owner drained the lake, forbade all pilgrimages and burials, destroyed the tombs, and had a circular fence built around the church.” (LibraryIreland)
Caitrionia explained, “At Móin na hInse we have a long series of documents from the Holy See dealing with the Priory in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It was a place of importance and its Prior one of the more outstanding dignitaries of the diocese, so that very many Papal Mandates are addressed to him to deal with the unfortunate disputes which were then so common in the struggle of laymen to gain control of the clerical revenues. The connection of the O Meaghers of Ui Cairn and their control of the Priory is almost continuous throughout the whole period…In A.D. 1350 the Pope issued an Indult to Thady O Meagher and his wife to choose their own Confessor…No doubt the O Meagher succession and control continued up to the Reformation.”
We also had a look from a distance at Clonakenny Castle, recently privately purchased, and Caitriona brought me to see an honorary plaque in a local church cemetery for Marty Maher, about whom a John Ford film was made (The Long Grey Line, 1955). We ended back at her mother’s home, where we had a wonderful visit and enjoyed tea and scones at a beautifully laid-out table. Caitriona’s brother and his daughter also stopped by. I am grateful to Mrs. Meagher and her family for the warm welcome, and to Caitriona, who parted the veils for me in such a way that I felt, “OK, I can go home now!” only partway into my journey. I look forward to building a friendship with Caitriona and Anna into the future.
A recent green-energy effort has established a large section of windmills in the area, named after the area’s sacred site. They may be a disturbing hindrance to some local residents. They proved, however, to serve as excellent landmarks for me, as I recalled seeing them from Clonan, and various other angles as we drove around. I found myself in the following days near some of the spots that Caitriona introduced to me, each in various relative proxmities to the windmills. More about Tipperary in Part 5!
Thank you to Caitrion Meagher for her contributions to this piece!
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
During the first days before my clothes arrived I learned to drive on the left side of the road and navigate with increasing ease through the country. My second AirBNB hosts proved to be the ideal support system. Margaret O’Farrell and Alfie McCaffrey were very helpful in following up on my lost luggage and with my puzzling through various technology issues—getting my phone to transition properly, figuring out if my throw-away phone from three years ago might work with a new chip, trying in vain for my GPS to kick back in (which it never did) and even helping me arrange visits with people I was trying to meet while my phone was in limbo. After three days I felt that I was leaving new friends. In Lorrha, Northern Tipperary, this couple has been renovating a large, stately home with their own tender loving care. Like so many a place in which good personally-grown food and fascinating, friendly conversation is a staple, Margaret and Alfie’s kitchen is at its heart. (Pay the extra to have dinner with them at night, which became extend visits in our case, lasting until 11:30 or so.)
Outside, chickens and roosters wandered as they will among the grass, flowers and trees, joined by their two dogs, with additional sound effects from a drove of pigs in the back. Frisky fellows, the pigs sometimes rule the roost, getting out from their pen and requiring hours of tracking and coaxing back to their own digs. From the kitchen porch, which runs the entire width of the house, it is possible to see the *Devil’s Bit section of the Slieve Bloom Mountains—the landmark for things Maher/Meagher. We had the most enjoyable breakfast looking in its direction on my last day, shared with a friend of Margaret and Alfie who had volunteered to help repair the woodshed roof. Pure bliss to eat outside amid so much beauty and such excellent company!
While navigating the way back and forth to their home in the woods (follow the signs for Birr and Portunma), I was able to venture north into Offaly County and into and around Roscrea, my primary destination on the first part of this Maher-related journey. Alfie had recommended also seeing Birr Castle, with its impressive Science Center, including a 72-inch long reflecting telescope built in 1845, and its note-worthy gardens. I came into Birr too late on the day I was venturing in those parts to do more than a drive-by, so this is now on my list for a hoped-for Next Time. At the end of my journey the following week I learned that the castle, owned by the Earls of Rosse, had once been owned by Meaghers. (More research needs to go into verifying that.)
* The Small Gap of Ely, in the parish of Barnane-Ely was written about by Joseph Casimir O’Meagher in 1890. (The O’Carrolls ruled over Ely, with close ties to the O’Meaghers of neighboring Ikerrin Barony.) He explained the nickname for the dip in the mountains with the following tale: “The Devil, driven to frenzy by his want of success among the inhabitants of Ikerrin, took a bit of their mountain in revenge, but finding it too heavy was obliged to drop it in the ‘Golden Vale,’ where it became the Rock of Cashel, afterwards famous as the residence of the Kings of Munster, and the site of one of the finest cathedrals in the west of Europe. The rock would about fill the gap in the mountain. Another story is that he dropped the bit in Queen’s County, and that the Rock of DunaMase was thus formed.” (Some Historical Notices of the O’Meaghers of Ikerrin, pg. 127.) (That there is a large cross at the top of this mountain was a surprising parallel, I thought, to that of the locally famous one in my hometown in Connecticut, of the same vintage, recently restored to great success and celebration. Had I more time I would have taken a hike to the top of the Devil’s Bit—#2 on my Next Time list.)
Another place that was closed during my visit, but seems worth a tour if staying so nearby was Redwood Castle, especially for those with Egan or Kennedy roots. (With that in mind, I include here an image of a place I passed on the way out of Limerick. For those with Killduff roots, here is a photo of a former Killduff Castle, now on the grounds of St. Anthony’s Nursing Home, Pallasgreen, Limerick.)
Clonmacnoise (Cluain Mhic Nóis) was part of my reason for staying in North Tipperary, as we had not ventured into that area on my last trip to Ireland with my husband. I wanted to see the place that had been mentioned so often in my studies about Ireland’s ancient history. This settlement, which dates to just before the death of its mid-6th century founder, St. Ciarán, grew to be the most desirable conquest for invaders over the centuries. Wealthy monasteries throughout Ireland were targets for their valuable ceremonial objects, and Clonmacnoise was also known as the primary site of achievements in literary and artistic high craft production during the centuries of religious rivalry in the country and in relation to Rome. Its location on a high ridge overlooking the Shannon River made it a major intersection of trade and travel.
There had been distinct roles with which Gaelic families were associated. Those that included members of high-ranking religious status had their own ecclesiastical settlements, centered upon a family church around which an extended community worked and lived. The once vast settlement of Clonmacoise contained not only a cathedral and a round tower, but a nuns’ church, and ones associated with St. Ciarán and the surnames Kelly, McLaughlin, Dowling, McLaffey, Connor, and Finghin. There are also remains of several other kinds of buildings, a castle, a sacred well, four high crosses, and other many other artifacts, including a section of an ogham stone and more than 600 portions of ancient grave slabs.
Three of the high crosses have been removed for their protection from their original location to an on-site museum. Replica ones have been in their places to weather outside since 1992-93. Portions of three additional high crosses from the site are preserved in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, along with such masterful art objects as the Crozier of the Abbots and the Shrine of the Stowe Missal. The Cross of the Scriptures (replica shown here) is considered to be one of the best of Ireland’s historic crosses of this extensively decorated kind. It honors the King of Meath and King of Tara, thus High King of Ireland (879 to 916), Flann Sinna mac Maelshechnaill. At the turn of the 14th century the Gaelic clans regained control of Clonmacnoise from the Anglo-Normans, and power shifted to the MacCoghlans until the 17th century—a time of devastation in Ireland as the formerly Catholic England and Ireland were re-envisioned by King Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell.
On the day I visited Clonmacnoise I was met with a powerful silence and stillness. Although there were far more people wandering the site with me than I expected, we all seemed to be held in a trancelike quiet as we individually absorbed an awe-full sense of the former importance and immensity of this place, now a relic of itself. Ireland’s Office of Public Works has done an exceptional job in stabilizing this and many other irreplaceable sites, touchstones to the country’s stature and nobility in the ancient world.
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
All Rights Reserved
As I pick back up most of the rest of my life, I’m trying very hard to hold onto the memory of these last two weeks. While the Baltimore sun glared down on me yesterday I found it especially pleasant to recall being wet and even a bit chilly at times, needing an additional layer or two. With the loss of spring, Baltimore’s weather quickly becomes the kind that my mother used to say “takes the starch out of you.” Yesterday I willed myself to remember, instead, my feet sloshing within my sneakers, pants glued to my legs as I plunged into the high grasses of a graveyard coated with the remains of the previous downpour as Jane and I looked for a particular stone one afternoon. Mind over matter worked like a charm.
When driving along quiet roads in Ireland one nods or raises one’s hand in greeting, actively looking into the eyes of another. In Ireland people also talk about the weather. A greeting and mutual acknowledgement of a beautiful day is common, or comments about yesterday’s beautiful day as we mutually anticipate the current weather to change. And change it does, constantly, which accounts for perfect weather in my book, including the rain. I love the description of misty Irish days as “soft,” and I love the cloud-filled skies both before and after the rainfalls, one set made up of velvety grays, another set an endless array of postcard-worthy compositions. I have been waking these past few mornings thinking I’m still somewhere in Ireland. I welcome this sensation for as long as it takes for my soul to completely make its own journey back.
On my first afternoon and night in Ireland I came upon some contrasts—other realizations beyond the island’s contemporary and ancient beauty. The economy is indeed in dire condition, as I’d known from the global news. But several times throughout my trip I heard the statement voiced, “There is no money in Ireland.” When I shopped at Penny’s that first afternoon, trying to find something to put on other than what I’d been wearing for three days in transit, the place was packed with women and girls shopping. The amount of activity was surprising. There seemed to be more people inside that store than had been on the sidewalks. Were the more expensive clothing stores as well-populated?
After I got back to the place where I was staying, showered, changed and re-emerged, considering an attempt to find someplace to eat, I encountered even less, and different, outside activity. I wandered around the area, passing a small group of twenty-somethings drinking beer on a church’s steps, one woman’s face covered in bruises, then headed across a bridge into a neighborhood. When it turned out that the likely eating establishments were closed, I asked an elderly woman who was walking with packages from recent shopping if she could tell me where I might find a cafe nearby. She seemed startled that I addressed her and hurriedly told me there was no such place there, to walk in the other direction, and proceeded to get herself home. Along the river toward the next bridge I passed another small group of young people who seemed oddly threatening. Soon I was near Penny’s again. Turning to walk up the block I almost came face to face with three young women prancing in my direction in skimpy clothes and make-up so overdone that they looked to be in costume. Just beyond was a group of about twenty young people, mostly male, hanging out aimlessly.
Soon there seemed to be utter desolation of a kind I had only experienced in American inner cities. The streets twisted and turned with only an occasional figure darting quickly into a doorway, a few pairs of men talking to each other outside corner bars, and a couple or two wandering as I was, with deer-in-the-headlights expressions on their faces, and maybe one on mine. There was no grime or litter about, however, only an absence of activity and a feeling that the area had been abandoned. Perhaps this was the kind of neighborhood about which Frank McCourt wrote and I hadn’t wanted to believe existed. Eventually someone walked in my direction who looked kind, and I asked him to direct me to my landmark, which proved to be not too far away. I decided to call that day’s adventure to an end and simply headed back to my room. It would only be upon my last night in Ireland that I learned of the bustling center of Limerick, with many a business that would have appealed to me, only a few blocks further had I walked in the opposite direction.
The feeling of emptiness occurred in other ways afterwards, though, thankfully, without including a sense of potential danger. It seems that throughout the midlands beautiful towns are closing up shop as nearby malls have attracted business away from the small locally owned ones, and the population itself moves to larger cities or other countries. In Shannonbridge, County Offaly, I wondered if I had arrived in the town too early in the day. Where was everyone? Besides the few cars that were parked or had passed me on the road I only saw two men out repairing a wall. They assured me that the tourist office I stopped at would open in a couple of minutes if I waited. Did it actually ever open that day?
Having not yet gotten the hang of the routine of recharging my camera and phone batteries each night, downloading pictures and thus making ready for my tomorrows, I had arrived in Shannonbridge with a full camera and had left my phone (which takes great snapshots) back in the room charging. I’d hoped to find good postcard versions of the beauty I was seeing right then, but had to suffice with the still images I captured in my mind. This lovely town with its own view of the River Shannon drifting past, flowing under the bridge for which the town was named, was the homeland of my great aunt’s husband and his family, the Martin’s. It was the first of many small towns that I visited in order to locate my research in a physical form that I could feel directly and observe at first hand, imagining my ancestors in place.
The landscape of the Irish countryside would once have been full of communities and teeming with people. The Great Hunger and several other famines and epidemics denuded huge swathes of territory over the centuries, but the global economy throughout more recent decades has continued to take a severe toll. Dr. Irial Glynn, a Marie Curie fellow at the Institute for History in Leiden University, explained much about the current Irish emigration problem in an online podcast he made for the History Hub. He explained that more than 400,000 Irish have emigrated since the Famine and that now the country is losing its young at a disturbing rate—particularly its male population, who have difficulty finding work in their own country. Unemployment is over fourteen percent today, up from six per cent in 2006. Currently about forty per cent of Ireland’s 15 to 19 year olds are out of work, as are more than twenty-five per cent of her 20 to 25 year olds and sixteen per cent of her 25 to 34 year olds. Immigration was just over 13,000 in 2007, but had risen to more than 40,000 in 2011.
Many Irish immigrate to Great Britain and send money back to their families, reminiscent of the nineteenth century era of immigration into the United States and other countries. Dr. Glynn explained that after World War II, almost all countries had “boom” times, except for Germany and Ireland, in which there was never an industrial revolution. Irish workers could find seasonal employment and many settled in the greater London region. Today, however, when there is a global economic slump, it is difficult to find work anywhere. I heard upon two separate occasions during my visit about young Irish men going, or considering going, to work in the mines in New Zealand or Australia. As in centuries past, here once again young Irish men are taking on the most difficult manual labor opportunities to afford themselves and their families a better future. One women I met revealed that of her several children, some of them have emigrated to the United States, Canada or Australia. As Dr. Glynn quoted, “in times of crisis Ireland tends to spit out its young.”
Aideen Sheehan, wrote in December for Independent.ie that almost 250 people per day leave Ireland in search of a more stabile financial future. United States immigration data suggested to Sheehan “a brain drain of talent as they include 1,171 Irish people with ‘extraordinary abilities or achievements’, as well as 1,259 athletes, artists and entertainers.” In his article was embedded a poignant video of families being reunited at the airport during temporary trips home for Christmas. Meanwhile, as they do in every other country, political parties vie for power and promise that they will fix the many problems. Local elections were being held during my stay, and telephone poles everywhere were covered with posters for political candidates.
In trying to understand what I experienced during my first night in Ireland, I was told that the young women I saw might have been Travelers, a minority culture with early Irish ancestry. I recalled the biography of Nan Donohoe, published by Sharon Gmelch in 1986, about an Irish traveling woman who lived this entirely different kind of life in our own times. Gmelch is a professor of Cultural Anthropology and other topics at the University of San Francisco. My memory of her book was of awe for the hard life that the Traveler population of Ireland survived in their own insular universe. Working for cash doing hand labor included “tinkering” for the men, the repairing and producing of metal products and other types of small commodities for sale. The tightly knit families would move from place to place continually through the seasons and when forced to leave by people settled in areas they encroached upon. Having pulled Gmelch’s book down from my library, I intend to reread this, and to seek out her other books about Tinkers and Travelers: Ireland’s Nomads, Irish Life and Traditions, and a new book co-authored with her husband, Irish Travellers: The Unsettled Life, due out in October 2014.
My host at one of my AirBNB locations (a service that I heartily recommend, even given my first night’s experience) explained that Travelers may be found all throughout Ireland, often setting themselves up in places like abandoned railroad bridges. Apparently, they might be able to claim a parcel of land permanently if they successfully remain in place there for ten years. No longer a horse-drawn carriage society, they live in mobile homes and small trailers. Some have acquired a great deal of money and live in mansions. While traveling between towns in Tipperary, I suspected that I may have driven past a Traveler cluster, a cropped portion of the presumed encampment photo included here. Although I had watched the 2007-2008 television series, The Riches, which I stumbled upon on Netflix, I had imagined that the premise of the series was an entire fantasy. I had not been aware that this culture also took root centuries ago in the United States and in other countries, and that there are Traveler settlements in such places as Murphy Village, South Carolina, and White Settlement, Texas. The stories in modern times are far from romantic.
I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of Irish politics, its economy, its immigration situation nor its Travelers. Nor do I profess to even comprehend the complex workings of my own country’s equivalent social and political concerns. Being in another environment in a manner beyond that of a tourist, however, did help to bring new awareness to my own various micro and macro realities. Perhaps there is too much about the global present that unsettles me, leading me continually back to a relatively safe fascination—the searching for links between the dead and the living in undeniably beautiful places to which I have some personal connection. It is upon this aspect of my journey that I will concentrate the rest of my Pilgrimage posts.
©2014 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair
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