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Tuesday, July 04, 2006


We’re back home after a wonderful eight days in Ireland. We’ve sorted through the mail, done five loads of laundry, returned most of the messages on the answering machine, and printed our pictures. So now it’s time to reflect on the trip and try to sum it up in a blog post.

A highlight for me was visiting the counties where my grandparents came from, Cavan and Longford in the Irish midlands. In Cavan we only got to see the church my grandmother would have attended and the beautiful green hills nearby. In Longford, however, we tracked down my mother’s second cousin, a woman who lived with my mom when she first came to the United States fifty years ago. I knew the two women had stayed in touch, but I couldn’t find a phone number and didn’t know if she’d mind me showing up unexpectedly with my crew. We chanced it, flagging down a postman to find her house. As it turned out, Bridie was thrilled. She gave me a big hug and said, “Oh, is that Megan and Luke?” It seems my mother had been bragging about us for years, and she knew all about us, down to my politics. We had a lovely 3 ½ hour visit, met Bridie’s daughter, who is about my age, and arranged for Megan to become pen pals with her fourth cousin!

I have always felt a strong connection with Ireland, and this time I gained a deeper appreciation of the history. When I studied in Dublin for a semester in the 1980s, people were still reluctant to talk about the Irish potato famine that killed somewhere between one and three million people and drove at least another million to emigrate. Since then, Ireland has marked the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the famine, cracking open the “conspiracy of silence” that observers said enveloped the Irish after the event. The most interesting exploration of it was a museum dedicated to the famine, set on the grounds of an old glamorous estate.

First we went on the guided tour of the mansion and saw the room full of antique toys and the kitchen where fresh marmalade was made each morning for the landlord’s family. Then, right next store, the Famine Museum explained how the Anglo-Irish landlords (who had been given huge estates as part of England’s plan to control Ireland) kept eating their marmalade and exporting their livestock while their Irish tenants starved. I had always heard that the English had been indifferent to Irish suffering, but on this trip I learned how landlords actually took advantage of the famine to clear their land of the inconvenient peasants. Some offered their tenants boat fare to America, rather than food. Within a few years, the country’s population was cut in half.

I actually knew much of this before, and I knew that my father’s family probably came to the US around the time of the famine. But in trying to look up the place my maternal grandmother came from—Lurgan, a name that’s not even on the map—I discovered another possible link between my family and the famine. While Lurghan is only a church surrounded by fields today, it was actually a town in the seventeenth century. It was one of many towns in Ireland that vanished back into the bog, taking stories and ghosts with it.

We met a woman who worships at the Lurgan church and works in the County Cavan Museum. Even she didn’t know Lurgan had been a town until I read it to her from one of the books in the museum gift shop. I’m not surprised she didn’t know. I don’t know much about what happened on my spot of land in Philadelphia a hundred and fifty years ago, or what ghost lay buried here.

Leaving Cavan on our last day and flying back to Philadelphia, I was aware of being a tiny link in a long historical chain. From the ancient people who built stone temples on Irish cliffs, to the early Christian monks, the famine victims, and the emigrants…through me to the daughter who takes Irish dance lessons and wants to correspond with her fourth cousin, as well as see the Fourth of July fireworks this evening. It’s good to go home, and it’s good to come back again.


Anonymous Deirdre said...

I was pleased to hear you enjoyed your trip to Ireland. I live in a town called Lurgan County Armagh but it is obviously a different Lurgan that you are referring to

9:37 AM  

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