Ireland: Exploring roots and finding a sense of home


Just as Ciaran Burke had told us in his family's pub that morning, the view from the top of Mount Gable was spectacular.

In fact, you could see most of the places my sisters and I had visited, driving around the west of Ireland that week:

To the west were the Maumturk Mountains, and poking up behind them, the mountain peaks of Connemara, one of which we'd climbed on Kathleen's 60th birthday.

To the south, across Lough Corrib with its hundreds of islands, you could just barely make out Galway City, where we'd spent an afternoon walking around the medieval city center.

Beyond that was Galway Bay, the limestone heights of County Clare, and off to the right, a glimpse of the Aran Islands, where we'd toured the smallest one, Inisheer, in a horse cart just the day before.

But for all the beauty of that view -- and all the places we visited in the west, and later in Dublin -- what I'll remember most from my visit to Ireland is the people who made us feel at home there.

Mary, Kath and I had been sitting in Burke's Pub and Restaurant in Clonbur that morning, drinking tea, checking e-mail and waiting for the village garage to replace the tire we'd flattened on a potholed County Clare highway the evening before, on our way back from the Arans.

We'd been staying all week in a little cottage a few miles outside of town, across a rutted road from a pasture full of bleating sheep, and using the place as our base of operations. On the recommendation of a Galway storekeeper we'd adopted Burke's as our home pub.

It was a friendly place, made livelier that week by the fact that hundreds of teachers in training were in town for a required three-week intensive course in the Irish language. We'd been to one of their ceilis -- Irish social dances -- and on Kath's birthday, a group of them had sung to her in Gaelic.

Anyway, that morning was the first time we'd met Ciaran Burke, 77, whose son, Tomas, is the pub's proprietor. As so many people did during that week, Burke came over to engage us in conversation, and as usual, it lasted a while, covering among other things the history of the pub (in his family since 1922), and his preferred response when the subject of Ireland's Catholic/Protestant troubles comes up (just don't talk about them).

On the subject of our recent travels around Counties Galway, Clare and a bit of Mayo, he offered this pronouncement:

"Ye don't need to be driving all over Ireland. There's plenty to see right here around Clonbur."

And then he brought out a photocopied map to show us a hiking trail up the back of Mount Gable, and told us where the parking lot was for the trail, and that when we got up top we'd see at least five lakes.

That afternoon, we followed his directions, saw the spectacular view and, even better, had two more wonderful conversations -- one with a driver who stopped on a road and admired the scenery with us, and another with a teacher from Dublin who was cleaning up her family's summer house after renting it to eight teacher-trainees when we walked by on the way back from the climb.

She invited us in for tea, and we discussed everything from life in the village (her husband had grown up there, and by coincidence we'd chatted with his mother a few days before) to the effect of the recent serious economic downturn on Irish people's sociability (not entirely bad, she thought, because they're not so busy these days and have time to talk).

We had other memorable chats on the trip, including lunch with a Galway County Council employee named Colie Gavin, who told us his daughter realized as a student at Cambridge University in England that she wanted to learn Gaelic; she's a TV journalist on an Irish language station in Galway now.

And breakfast with Mick Murray, a retired trade unionist from Kilkenny, who joined our table at our Dublin hotel and offered extensive advice on what not to miss on our last day there, and a brief explanation of the game of hurling, which was in the midst of its national championship.

I had always wanted to visit Ireland. We are, after all, mostly Irish.

But before going, I'd wanted to know exactly where my forebears came from, so I could look for distant Toolin relatives (our great-grandfather had changed the name from Toolin to Tolan, supposedly so he could cash his Michigan iron mine paychecks). There's a family story about a trip to Ireland our grandparents took back in the 1930s, during U.S. Prohibition; they visited my grandfather's ancestral village, having heard the family had a pub there.

My grandfather, especially, was quite thirsty that day. But when they arrived, there was a big sign: Toolin's Temperance Tavern. "All he got was sarsaparilla," the story goes. But nobody alive today remembers where that village was, so I put off going until I could figure that out.

But then my sisters started planning a trip and e-mailing me to come along. Mary had a year's sabbatical from her teaching job in Arizona, and wanted to spend as much as possible of it in Ireland. Kath, on summer vacation from her college teaching job in New York, was tagging along for a couple weeks in August. She had come to Milwaukee to celebrate my 60th birthday the summer before, and now hers was coming up. It would be the first time in Ireland for all three of us. My wife and son were OK with it. Hard to say no, so just a few weeks before the trip, I said yes.

The trip ended up sort of a sampler -- I arrived with a quickly assembled list of 19 places I wanted to check out, while the two of them were already in the midst of a more nature-centered tour, long walks exploring the countryside (the kind of visit Ciaran Burke recommended, now that I think of it).

It took some sorting out, but we saw a lot. I did try to track down ancestors, visiting the National Archives and the National Library in Dublin in search of a great-great grandfather named Stephen Flanagan. The search ended up at a dead end -- though an interesting one: The Flanagan whose birth record I found turned out to be a different guy, but his son, John Flanagan, became a journalist at the Times of London, who debunked some of the great figures and events of Irish independence. No big loss to the family tree.

But even without locating our roots, I came away feeling more Irish than I'd ever felt, and quite at home over there. Thinking about it since then, I've come up with a couple of reasons for that -- I mean, in addition to the fact that everybody there seemed to want to make us feel at home.

First, many of the people we met have relatives in America that they visit regularly. In fact, in Clonbur, we were a few miles from a little village called America, so named because so many people had left it for overseas. Hearing these things made us sharply aware that we are part of the Irish diaspora, the vast group of people worldwide descended from the Irish emigrants who fled famines and British persecution, and made new homes all over the world.

Second, I think being from Milwaukee helped. In terms of population, Ireland is almost exactly the size of Wisconsin, if you include the north -- about 5.8 million -- and metropolitan Dublin is almost exactly the size of metro Milwaukee, 1.7 million. It just seemed like about the right size to me.

But more important, we have a habit in Milwaukee, perhaps more than any other American place, of celebrating our ethnic roots, and thinking about ourselves in terms of them, and I think I brought that habit with me.

When I came back home, it was time for Irish Fest, and I had a gig pouring beer there for my friend Mike Brady, in the pub where all the musicians come to jam with their Irish instruments. You could close your eyes and feel like you were back in Clonbur.


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