Irish-American in Ireland
Continued from posting of 8/19/11
There wasn't enough time to find out more about my grandfather Jack before we left. My uncles said that their father didn't talk about his family or his youth, and I didn’t press them. I was confident of the orphan journey story, though, and Ken said we would do some research in Ireland, with original sources in the National Library in Dublin. We spent three days in Dublin, walking everywhere, so entranced by the buildings (many of them elegant, and drenched in the history of colonialism and of the revolutionary years), and the people (welcoming and talkative) that it seemed a punishment to spend any time in a library. We went to pubs in the evenings, where everyone from grandparents to children seemed to go, talking and drinking Guinness and listening to traditional music. We got up late, what with the late evenings and the jet lag; we bemoaned our short time.
We dashed into the gorgeous and ornate 1920s library an hour before closing time on our last day in Dublin. I took on my grandfather, and Ken my grandmother’s family, so he could find land tenancy records. A librarian in the genealogy department showed me how to search the 1901 census; my grandfather would have been ten then, and living with his grandparents. I searched any John O’Donnell in Ireland, age ten, living with grandparents, and found two: one in Dungloe, Donegal, and the other in County Tyrone, which is now in Northern Ireland. But the Tyrone child had a younger sister; my grandfather was an only child.
It’s him, it’s him! I told Ken; now we know it’s Dungloe we need to look. Dungloe is a small village on the very northern tip of Donegal, right on the Atlantic. Ken was skeptical; he said that people said nearly anything they could get away with in census surveys. Ages varied, names varied, and districts shifted. The record only said Dungloe district; we would have to research what that district included in 1901. It’s all we have, I said, I want to try. And the library was closing.
We left Dublin the next morning, heading northwest towards Donegal. Ken navigated the unfamiliar round-abouts (our traffic circles) while driving on the left side of the road, and did it with calm skill. We stopped in Kells for picnic food, and bought the best brown bread I’ve ever eaten. A man we met on the street took us to see the grey stone eighth-century church, monastery, and round tower, built for defense against the Vikings. The round towers weren’t much use and the Vikings triumphed. We spent the night at a bed and breakfast in Enniskill, in Northern Ireland, and arrived in Letterkenny, the biggest town in Donegal, by midday the next day. Creeslough and Church Hill, my great-grandparents’ homes, were nearby, but we needed ordinance maps and local help to pinpoint the farm on which Mary Toner was born. For James Callahan, we only had the general area in which his parents’ farm was located. It had been 150 years since their births; boundaries and names may have changed.
Letterkenny’s cathedral secretary was kind, and tried to be helpful, but their parish records didn’t go back as far as the 1860s. We slacked off for the afternoon and visited the cathedral, built in 1900 when Irish Catholics began to have enough money for such grand endeavors. Immigrants sent money home, too, for the buildings. Catholicism had been outlawed by the English from the early 1700s through the 1830s, and it took decades to rebuild the Church’s internal and external structures. We had dinner at a pub first opened in the 1890s, and then drove out of town to pub with a locally- renowned traditional band playing. We talked and listened for hours, until it was past eleven and dark, and Ken drove along the narrow, unlighted roads back to our bed and breakfast.
When we set out for Church Hill the next day, we were half-way through our short time in Ireland, and I was pessimistic about what we could find in just a few days. We only had some garbled place names for Mary Toner’s family farm, and even less for James Callahan; we knew that the Callahan’s were thick around in Church Hill. But I underestimated the weight that history has there, and the long memories of the people of that place. We stopped at the parish house near Church Hill, and Father McHugh invited us in. He gave us a history of immigration to Philadelphia from the people in rural Letterkenny district, and directed us to the post office in Church Hill. The elderly postmistress in the tiny town told us the turnings we’d need to take to get to Charley Callahan’s farm. He’ll know, she said, where all the Callahan’s are. Many we met seemed to have personal memories that stretched back two hundred years; the result, I think, of an unbroken connection to the land, for those who had not immigrated.
A slim, active-looking man in his mid- 60s was working on a van in a driveway when we drove down his narrow road to ask where we could find Charley Callahan. I am he, he said, and immediately invited us inside. In his large comfortable kitchen, he gave us tea and shortbread, and told us that the farmhouse in which we were sitting stood of on the site of generations of farmhouses belonging to the Callahan family. It wasn’t our branch of Callahans, though. He knew all the names of his forebears and their siblings, and my great-great grandfather John wasn’t one of them. He took us to see an old farmhouse built of field stone, with some of its walls still standing. It had been where his great grandfather, Edward Callahan, was born in the 1840s. He told us that our branch was likely the Callahans of Tulanascreen a few miles away. It was already past three in the afternoon, though, and we wanted to get to Creeslough, ten miles north, to see if we could find Mary Toner’s farm. We had only a day and a half left in Donegal, and I wanted to get to Dungloe on Jack O’Donnell’s trail, too. Thank God for long, long light until eleven each night. We promised each other that we would return next year, for the Callahans of Tulanascreen.
On the way to Creeslough, we stopped at the cemetery Templedouglas, the name an Anglicized version of the Gaelic name for the place. Ken, like a good genealogist, took pictures of all the Callahan gravestones so he could fill in his family charts. We stopped too at the church were my great grandfather would have been baptized; the old building was replaced by one from the 1920s, which was locked up, a grey flat stone building with windows so high we couldn’t look in. It was paved all around for a parking lot; no one was there. It stood in a breathtakingly lovely spot, overlooking a lake with low mountains in the distance. It was eerie, though, and had a deadened feel; we hurried away from it.
While we were in Ireland, several life-long devout Catholics told us that the raging priest pedophile scandal had finally turned them away from the Church. The front page headline in the Irish Times the day we left Dublin was: Church refuses to cooperate in priest pedophile scandal. Was the scandal putting the last nails in the coffin of traditional and unquestioning Irish Catholicism? The church in Church Hill looked as if it had been deserted long before.
To be continued next week...