A Travellerspoint blog

Day 7: Old Homesteads! Rainy Graveyards! Dan McCools!

in which your author traipses through ancient, muddy mccool lands, generally gets rained on all day, and fulfills a six-year old promise!

rain 42 °F

Day 7 began with the first legitimately early morning of the trip, significantly aided by our new Irish friend Mark practically leaping into the living room where Danny and I struggled to sleep (not out of lack of comfort but out of the fact that for some reason it felt impossible to sleep more than a couple hours at a time this entire trip). We have a quick breakfast (I am obsessed with Weetabix, which seems to be everywhere in Ireland – why cant we get this magnificent cereal in the States?), grab quick showers, and start out on our way. As Danny and I plan to do some serious cemetery visiting, Graci will go off with Mark and meet us that night in Galway. Perfect!

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Mark’s father Leo volunteers to shepherd us around to all the historic cemeteries he knows in the region; starting with the McCool homestead just up the road in Toberhead, we plan to make stops in Dungiven and Stranorlar. Toberhead is only about 2.5 miles down the road from the Flax Inn, and I’m interested in seeing the McCool Homestead I mentioned in my last post. A number of McCools in America claim connections to this lineage: John McCool, born 1670 and his wife Olivia lived here in the early 1700s. (In my extensive research I’ve yet to make any definite connection to them, but establishing one eventually is certainly within the realm of possibility.)

Danny, Amy, and I pile into Leo's car and after a quick stopoff at a pharmacy.

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Danny realizes he doesn’t have pounds to buy much-needed cough medicine and while he's out hitting a cash machine, Leo very generously buys it for him!

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We head off to the farm where the homestead is located. We find the turnoff road with no problem, as there are two signs with “McCoole Road” planted at either end of the road – I remember seeing this sign in some of my online research. (Many of our 18th century ancestors spelled our last name with an “e.”)

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Leo pulls into a spot next to a farm, and a stumpy, elfish man with a thick rural accent gives him directions for how to get to the old building, which he claims dates to 1735.

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We wind around and end up in front of a rickety stone edifice blocked off by barbed wire and loads of mud. We manage to climb over and walk around the abandoned building.

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Danny and I grab small leaves and we take a whole bunch of photos. It starts raining rather furiously. I climb through the building and see that it’s used only as a storehouse for old tractors; clearly no one has used this building for a very, very long time. (Note: I need to check with the afore-mentioned genealogist Charles McCool about what this building actually was – I had been looking for a plaque that said “McCoole” but never saw it. Is what we saw not the actual homestead but the smaller house that John built for his son? Probably. Either way, it’s a fascinating place to drop by.)

We head back to the Flax to pick up the rental car – a meter maid is only feet away when I walk up to it – and follow Noel out of town toward Dungiven, about 30 minutes away to the west. Dungiven is interesting to me based on a photo I came across only a few weeks ago, that of the headstone of one Elizabeth McCool, "Born in the Parish of Dungiven, County Derry,” and wife to Adam McCool. There aren’t very many McCools in Rhode Island to be found in the early 1800s, so the fact that this grave is in Providence, RI, not far from where my ancestors would have migrated, means that a connection is at least somewhat likely.

We pull into an old cemetery and Leo asks the priest (who says “Good man” to me, one of my favorite phrases heard often in this region), who sends us to the secretary, who tells us to look on the list of family names in the cemetery. It’s raining steadily and quite windy at this point and the list of names reveals no McCools, so we battle the downpour and head on our way.

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We stop at one more old graveyard in town and while the others stay in the car I scour it for McCool graves. After 15 minutes or so I DO in fact find one, a very old grave on which the only legible writing reveals the name “John McCool.” Could this be the grave of the original Toberhead McCool, or someone related to Elizabeth McCool of Providence, RI? No way of knowing just yet, but it’s fun to imagine.

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Leo takes us down more windy roads and we end up at the ruins of a tiny 11th century stone church called Banagher Old Church. It’s pouring heavily but I make my way around the ancient house of worship, laden with grass and surrounded by graves made anonymous by the ravages of time and weather. There’s a grave of a 12th century saint (St. Muiredach O'Heney) which resembles a small gingerbread house, and Noel insists Amy and I both find the sands, which are renowned for their miraculous curative powers. (Alas, the sand has turned to mud on this day!)

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We part ways with Leo, who gives us directions for the turnoff toward Stranorlar. We follow him around windy roads and the landscape increasingly opens up to reveal Donegal’s trademark gorgeous green vistas. We’re so incredibly fortunate to have run into these people; without Leo's help there’s no way I would know where these potentially McCool-related spots might have been.

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We stop at a drugstore where Danny mentions we’re looking for McCools; the cashier prints out a Wikipedia page on Seán McCool, a local IRA hero and football player who died in the 1940s. (Is anyone not friendly and helpful in this country?) We pass a number of signs on which the "London" part of "Londonderry" is crossed out; Dan jokes about how one fella must traipse around Northern Ireland "crossin' out Londons" every day. I see a sign for Raphoe, which I recognize from my research, so we turn that way, about 6 km up the country road.

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We get out and use the restroom in a tiny bakery, where we chat up the owner, a big boxing fan whose boxing past seems a funny contrast to the apron he presently wears. He sends us on our way with free samples of buttered Irish soda bread which are fluffy and simply divine.

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Amy and Dan check out the simple old Catholic Church across the street while I breeze through the graveyard, finding no evidence of McCools. Dan asks two construction workers in the church lobby if they know of any McCools and they seem to quiz each other on the name : “McCool?” “Aye, McCool?” “McCool?” “Aye.” “No, don’t know any McCool.” It becomes one of our favorite referenced impressions for the remainder of the trip.

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Having found nothing outside of friendly folks and delicious soda bread in Raphoe, we head out toward Stranorlar, a town I had visited on my first Ireland trip in 2008. It’s one of my most piquant memories of that trip, mostly due to the characters we met and one outrageous night when a group of traveling people (locally called “gypsies”) came very close to assaulting my ex-girlfriend and I outside of our hotel, the window of which was all smashed up the following morning. We stop off at one cemetery holding the grave of Irish Free State founder Aaron Butt – a grave I remember photographing six years ago – and make our way into town, passing by Kee’s Hotel where I stayed those years ago, and parking outside the McCool funeral parlor. A helpful woman in the office next door gives us contact info for Gerard McCool, local undertaker, and for Dan McCool (his first cousin), a local sawmill owner who I met up with for a drink those years ago, and a fellow I very much wanted to introduce to my brother.

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The woman tells us Dan McCool will be found at his sawmill and she gives us directions. (This is the sort of town where everyone really knows everyone else.) On the way, we stop off at Sean McCool park, spelled in the original Irish of our forefathers.

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It’s pouring rain as we park and climb up a hill where I can hear the buzzing of a saw. I spot Dan McCool, age 71, wearing a bulky jacket, and approach him. He turns off his saw and I say “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me but I’m Jason McCool – I met you almost six years ago and I told you one day I’d bring my brother Dan back to this town to meet you. Well, here he is.”

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The elder Dan McCool’s face opens out into a gigantic grin and incredulously shakes my brother’s hand. We stand and chat with him in the rain for a good 25 minutes or so; he tells us about his son who passed away suddenly within the past year, and it’s very moving. He takes us on a short tour of the mill he has owned with his brother for over 30 years. My brother compares stories about what it’s been like to be called Dan McCool; neither of them had ever met anyone with the same name. It’s easily one of the highlights of the trip for all of us: for me, because it’s a completion of an idea I had years ago; just seeing the expressions on these guys faces made the trip to this town more than worth it.

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We part ways and head back into downtown Stranorlar, passing by many things I recognize better than I would have thought I might. We pop in at a betting parlor owned by another McCool – I had stopped in here in 2008 to find the owner not around but this time he’s there and we take a selfie with him, also saying hello to his son. (It’s a personal goal to shake as many McCool hands as I can in this country!)

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There’s one more thing I want my brother (and poor, patient Amy in the back seat, entertaining herself with her book this whole time) to see, and that’s a McCool sign that I photographed in 2008. I’ve told this story probably 50 times, about when I stopped into a random town in Ireland based on the preponderance of McCools in a Griffith’s Valuation census from 1857, and the very first thing I saw was a rickety old barn with “McCool’s” emblazoned on the side. It takes a few minutes and I’m not certain I’m going the right way, but eventually we find it. The sign, however, has been removed! The windows have been boarded up as well. Still, a special place and I've hit yet another place I wasn't sure I'd ever make it back to.

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I want to make one last stop, at the house of McCools which lies up behind this structure; the well-known local undertaker Gerald and his wife live here. (I had knocked on this same door in 2008 to no avail.) This time, his very pleasant wife May answers the door, and Danny and I explain our visit to her – shortly, her son Gary and her husband Gerard show up, and we have a really nice chat in their kitchen. Mary mentions that they’re big fans of the Kennedys, so I give her a JFK mass card that I picked up at the JFK Library in Boston on the 50th anniversary of his death last November. Gerard takes us out back to see the white metal sign I had photographed those years ago, and tells how his father had constructed it sometime in the 1940s. My photo of this sign has been passed around by dozens of McCools in America; just recently I noticed it used as a Facebook cover photo for a girl I had no connection to!

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It’s terrific to meet these nice people – possible distant cousins, who knows – and we eventually follow Gary toward his house where he will direct us to the main road out of town. At some point I lose my treasured Red Sox winter hat which has accompanied me on a number of European trips – but when I get back to Boston I find out it has been located on the driveway of Gary’s house! Am hoping to reunite with it soon. Gary draws us a map to get out of the area and we head out on our rather imposing long drive to Galway where we will meet up with Mark and Graci. I drive for about 45 minutes but am starting to drift, so Amy takes over for the rest of the trip.

We arrive in Galway and check onto the fine hotel Mark has recommended; this website “Laterooms” is really a good find for locating last-minute discounted hotel rooms. We drop our bags and stretch out and eventually head out to meet our friends in town, walking about fifteen minutes through rainy Galway, where I stayed in 2008, and recognize the general layout. We’re all very exhausted.

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We make our way through a few pubs and hear some music, and I drink a delicious "Galway Hooker" (local pale ale). The town is noticeably sleepier than how I remember it; January seems the off-season of the off-season in this country! Mark performs a hilarious impression of Americans in which he states "I love American football!" a qualification which of course no American would EVER say (haha!) and we eventually call it a night around midnight.

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As Amy and Danny walk back toward the hotel, I decide to seek out a pub I had heard some great music at in 2008 (what is this thing I have with finding places I once visited?). A bouncer tells me that this pub, which I identify from a guidebook as The Crane Bar, was about a 15 minute walk, but I feel plenty safe as the streets are mostly deserted. I grab a caramel “twistie” (sundae) from a fast food place and cross a bridge looking over the furiously rushing river; halfway there it begins to pour but I’m undaunted in my quest! I find my way to the pub, which is closed, and snap some photos. It feels strange, like walking into a postcard memory from years ago; I pass by the street corner where my ex and I talked to the singer Gerry Shannon (by then quite intoxicated) who had sung solo in the pub, where I bought a CD from him and we realized he was probably sleeping in his car. It’s a bittersweet visit but I’m glad I made the solo, wet pilgrimage – it’s also nice to be on my own for a bit, and I’m reminded that pretty much all of the traveling I’ve done over the last few years has been alone.

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I walk back to the hotel, soaked to the bone, take a warming shower, and collapse into a too comfy bed. Tomorrow is a very early morning, followed by a cross-country drive to Dublin and a flight to Edinburgh. What a full, unique, satisfying last final day in this amazing country.

Posted by coolmcjazz 13:48 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged donegal galway derry

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Comments

Phenomenal, Jason! Indeed, I believe you visited the second (smaller) home on the McCoole property in Toberhead, believed to have been built for a son of John and Olivia. Inside that house is the stone inscribed with the year 1735 (my pictures at http://mccoolstuff.wordpress.com/2008/12/03/mccool-homestead-in-northern-ireland-part-2/).

You can see both of my posts at http://mccoolstuff.wordpress.com/tag/toberhead/

Included is a link to the google map of the area showing the location of the two houses.

We (kids and I) got a nice batch of thistles from posing with the McCooles Road sign. Nice to see the sign is still surrounded by the rugged flora.

by Charles McCool

Hi Jason, I've enjoyed reading and seeing your pictures on your recent visit to Ireland, I was born and live in Liverpool! My father Albert McCool, and my grandfather also Albert McCool (both deceased). As far as I know were the only family of that surname in Liverpool (apart from my first cousins) My brother (also Albert) has traced family history and found our descendants: the McCool's came over to Liverpool England from Raphoe in Donegal. The sad thing is I've never been to Ireland! It's only a few hours away on the ferry across the Irish sea from Liverpool to either Dublin or Belfast! I'm friends with Tim McCool also Charles through All Things McCool on Facebook along with some of my family members who are on Facebook. I hope you and your brother enjoyed your visit. Sorry to hear you had trouble a few years ago with the (Gypsies) but I suppose that could have happened anywhere in the world! I hope it didn't mar your visit to the Emerald Isle! take care Pat xxx

by Patricia McIntyre (nee McCool)

Hi Pat! Thanks for writing! Yes, there seems to be some McCool history in Raphoe which is why I wanted to stop in there, though unfortunately we didn't find any evidence of any McCools there in the hour we spent. (Doesn't mean it's not there were we to look further!) You should make a trip! Especially in Stranorlar the McCool name is known and well respected. Cheers, distant cousin!

by coolmcjazz

Sorry to have missed you whilst you were here Jason. You seem to have got along just fine in any case. It appears that you missed the actual John and Olivia McCool home site. That was unfortunate as it is situated just a couple of hundred yards from the one which you visited. Incidentally....I've never found a connection with the Donegal McCools, but I'm sure if we could go back far enough it'll be in there somewhere. Glad that you found a few helpful folks to make things a little easier for you. Maybe next time, many blessings, Tommy.

by tommy mccoole

Hi Tommy! Yes, we ended up having a grand time in Magherafelt, but sorry to miss you – next time I'll let you know in advance! And yeah, I had a feeling we weren't at the actual home – but it's something to see next time I pass through, whenever that might be. Am hoping to establish connections to living McCools in Ireland so would love to compare notes with you at some point. Be well!

by coolmcjazz

Loved your post. My sister Carol and her daughter Shayna met Tommy and his lovely wife a few years ago. tommy took them to John and Olivia's original home site . It was really exciting for my sister to see our ancestral home. Hopefully my husband and I will get a chance to visit soon.

by Mearl McCool Santos

Thanks for checking in, Mearl! A visit to Toberhead and to that somewhat lonely part of Ireland is well worth the trouble. A wise man once told me "You never regret the money you spend traveling!" If you make it to Magherafelt (under a mile from the McCool homestead), stop in at the Flax Inn and tell them you're a McCool from America. We had great craic with the young bartender named Mark!

by coolmcjazz

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