When we knocked at the parish house door, the priest let us in at once. In Donegal, wherever we went, everyone was in, had time for us, and was unfailingly welcoming. We’ve come to see if we can find my grandfather in the confirmation records, I said, in about 1903-05. He led us to his office and took several thick ledgers from a cabinet. “’Tis a pity,”he said. The confirmation records only go back to 1913 in Dungloe. He asked for my grandfather’s name. John Thomas O’Donnell, I said. “More’s the pity,” he said. “The O’Donnells are thick on the ground here, and Jack O’Donnell one of the most common names about.” How about Daniel Francis O’Donnell and Emma, his parents, in the 1880s? He scrolled through computerized parish records from the 1880s to the first decade of the 20th century, and showed us the thousands of O’Donnells listed. It would be impossible to know which of these might have been my family, without more information. “Now, Emma,” he said, “that wouldn’t have been a Catholic name then. If she were Protestant, she was unlikely to be from Dungloe in those years.”
I was deeply disappointed. All our success in finding my grandmother’s parents’ lands seemed to pale beside this break in our link to my grandfather’s past. We went back to Main Street and began to walk down from the top of the street, looking at the buildings and shops – O’Donnell Pharmacy, the O’Donnell Building. The stores were mostly closed now, at 7 p.m. We were looking for a pub, and found one – the Town Bar. It looked at least a hundred years old, with its black and white painted sign in the lettering of the 1880s; the door was open. We could see a long hallway that opened into a room decorated in the style of a turn-of-century pub, with a woodstove and high-legged tables for standing and drinking pints of stout.
We walked in, and a man came out of a room off the hallway to greet us. “Can I help you?” he said. We asked if the pub was open. He said, sorry, the Town Bar wasn’t a bar, and hadn’t been one for many a long year. But come in, and welcome, he said, my mother lives here. This had been his family’s pub for seven generations, until about 50 years ago, when all the children of the house immigrated, to England, the US, and New Zealand. He grew up in England, where his mother had gone to find her fortune; she had returned in her 70s to Dungloe to live in the old house.
No, we won’t come in, pardon our intrusion, we thought it was a pub, we said. No, no come in, he said, we are glad to meet you. So we did; we sat for an hour or more with the Meehan family in their sitting room that looked like it was directly from a Dickens novel, with a view of the sea from the window. Mary, the owner of the house, and her brother Daniel visiting from the US, and Mary’s son Philip and his wife Irene, with their three young children from Glasgow – we felt like we too were family, and very welcome. We told of our search, and they of their emigrant stories. My great-grandmother Mary Toner had the same name as Irene’s grandmother, and they both came from the lands not far from Letterkenny; since Toner is an unusual name, we must be related, we said, and exchanged email addresses to follow up.
How is it that people here have so much time for visiting, and for meeting strangers? Perhaps it is because they are at peace, already arrived at where they want to be. The children, 12 and under, served us tea and biscuits, cheerfully, and listened with interest to the conversation. This family was so happy, so secure in each others’ love; it seemed to me, that it spilled out to all around them. They hadn’t had to emigrate because of poverty, they had no tale of parents dying young, they knew the stories of their ancestors. In that happy house, with roots that led back at least 250 years, I felt a weight of sorrow about my own family’s emigrant fate, and how pain as well as joy transmits down the generations.
We said goodbye to the Meehan’s and set off towards the lands around Sligo Bay, where we would spend the night in the shadow of Benbulben Mountain’s immensely strange and primordial heft. I was leaving behind in Dungloe the chance of learning about my grandfather’s life; more, I felt I had lost the chance of connection. It seemed then that Ken and I were the ones leaving all behind in Dungloe, to emigrate.
We drove across the country the next day to Dublin, and saw Brian Friel’s play Translations at the Abbey Theatre that night before we left Ireland. The play is set in 1830s rural Donegal, when the British have sent soldiers and surveyors to map the wild country and Anglicize the Gaelic names. Most of the country people fear the soldiers and hate their work to turn the Irish land into English land, but a few welcome them as bringers of modernity. But the welcomers are deluded; the British will never see them as part of any future that makes sense to them. The British may bring modern times with them to remote Donegal, but those times will crush the Irish. The only response for many Irish was to emigrate, or to die. In that way, my family was triumphant after all; they chose life.
Post script: My husband uncovered some of my grandfather’s story after all, in the month since we returned from Ireland. Jack O’Donnell was born in Philadelphia as I thought, but his parents didn’t die when he was two, and his father wasn’t born in Ireland. My great grandfather Daniel Francis O’Donnell was born in Philadelphia in 1863, to Henry and Sarah O’Donnell, who emigrated from Ireland likely in the mid- 1850s when Henry was about 25 and Sarah was 15. She may have come with her parents, or alone. We don’t know where they immigrated from, yet.
Henry and Sarah married in Philadelphia, and eight children, only two of whom survived past age five: my great grandfather Daniel and his sister Elizabeth. Some of the children lived a few days or hours, but two of them died in their fourth and fifth years. Henry was a laborer and driver, and his son Daniel began his own career as a driver when he was 17. Daniel married Emma (we don’t know her last name yet); she gave birth to my grandfather in 1891.
By the time my grandfather was nine, his mother was missing from the census records of the family, although Daniel still listed himself as married. One of my uncles told me that he heard the whispered story that his grandparents had divorced or separated. Another uncle said that Emma had been English and had returned to England; it would have been a scandal in the family to marry a Protestant. Daniel died of pneumonia at age 43 when his son was 13, and my grandfather was raised by his only remaining relative, his aunt Lizzie.
So there was no Dungloe connection; if there is one, it will be an astounding coincidence. There are many thousand small towns and farmlands in Ireland from which Henry and Sarah may have immigrated. But I’m pulling for Dungloe. Stay tuned.
This poem by the Irishwoman Eavan Boland speaks directly to my family’s history and the history of many immigrants who come with only hope and the old songs, and nothing to lose.
The Emigrant Irish
By Eavan Boland
Like oil lamps, we put them out the back —
of our houses, of our minds. We had lights
better than, newer than and then
a time came, this time and now
we need them. Their dread, makeshift example:
they would have thrived on our necessities.
What they survived we could not even live.
By their lights now it is time to
imagine how they stood there, what they stood with,
that their possessions may become our power:
Cardboard. Iron. Their hardships parceled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering
in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.
And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.