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Entries about derry

Day 4: That Craic in (the) Derry Air!

in which your author doesn't do very much at all then makes up for it in the wee small hours which is his preferred manner of travel

semi-overcast 65 °F

I've made 60+ posts on this blog and this is probably my most advanced title yet, amirite? #dadjokes

I slept in big time on Day 4 due to exercising my patriotic American muscles staying up to watch the fantastic DNC speeches. By the time I headed out to get some writing done – did I mention I have a massive academic paper due very soon so I’m wedging in time here and there to work on it and this is perhaps a not-great thing to combine with travel? – it’s after 2pm. I do a bit of work at a very cute bakery; vegetarian options aren’t much of a thing up here but I make do with a flat white and caramel square. Eventually I get hungry for something more filling and end up at Mary’s, the gorgeous establishment we had been in the previous night. Mark meets me there after my meal and we head back to his place. We’re off to Derry with a few of his friends for some music and patented Irish craic! Nothing like it in the world.

Mark’s married friends Rory and Andrea pick us up and with the addition of Mark’s friend Ciara we embark on the hour-long trip to Derry. The ride is great fun – Mark’s friends are a riot. Rory is a guitarist and singer (a very good one), set to play at this fairly posh club called Blackbird, and he plays a mix of American and Irish songs (including “my” song – actually Luke Kelly’s, “Raglan Road”) as we have a drink in the bustling-but-still-relaxed lounge environment. Someone announces “let’s go!” and we’re off to explore a bit of Derry.

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We end up at a wildly fun pub with live Irish music – the first great trad music experience I’ve had on the trip so far. Even for a Tuesday night, it’s a boisterous and joyful scene, and the music (which features a number of vocal songs), is amplified through speakers. The atmosphere really lifts everything, and I take some video to show to my classes which begin in September, saying something along the lines of: “Hi guys! You don’t know me yet, but I’m recording this video to show you how amazing it is to be in Ireland and hear the music get made right in front of your eyes!” Mark walks past and he makes a cameo, explaining what the world craic means!

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We pop over to the pub next door where there’s a more relaxed musical vibe, including an excellent singer who I end up chatting with about her tour to the US next year. We head back to the original pub and end up chatting with a fellow from Atlanta who just arrived that night. We walk back to the original pub where Rory has finished up playing, and after a furious late-night eating session at McDonald’s (where apparently they bring your food out to the car like a 50s drive-in diner), we’re on our way back to Magherafelt.

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Not surprisingly, I stay up again until 5am watching the second night of the DNC – the timing on this trip isn’t a great match for my political junkie nature! Even though we were only in Derry for less than three hours, this is one of the first really wild and serendipitous nights of the trip!

NOTE: Although the iPhone photo quality has come a long way since July 2010 when I started this blog, I know these pics aren’t up to the level of some of my previous entries on the blog; I’m being careful about where to bring my good camera! It definitely starts making a bigger entrance a bit later on in the trip. ☺

Posted by coolmcjazz 18:27 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged music irish derry Comments (0)

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 Comments (7)

Day 6: The Luck of the Irish Tourists

in which your author sleeps in, almost sees belfast, makes good new friends, and makes his irish pub singing debut!

semi-overcast 45 °F

It’s never a good sign when the first two words out of your mouth on a given day are “Ahhh CRAP.” Up til 3am finishing a blog post, I sailed past my ambitious 9:30am alarm and woke up at 12:30pm, putting us pretty significantly behind schedule for what was penciled in (on the printed-out itinerary?) as “Genealogy Day” in Donegal. The others wake, grab quick showers, and pack up; Romy has left on the local radio and Danny and I hear some good tunes played by a singer of a local band who is guest hosting the show.

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We also wanted to pick up some cider for Romy in thanks for her hospitality, and at least drive around to see a bit of Belfast. Considering we don’t get out the door at about 2:30pm, the first half of the day was already spoken for. Trying to stay positive, I tell the others that the keyword of the day is “serendipity” – we don’t know what’s going to happen or what adventures we’re going to find, but we just need to stay open to the possibility!

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We amble into town (“toyun”) and grab some coffees (yay Starbucks), pastries and Mexican food, breeze past the famous Crown Bar and Hotel Europa (described to us earlier in the week as "the most bombed hotel in Europe") and naturally, get very, very lost trying to get out of Belfast. We can’t figure out how to put in town names on our rental GPS and we don’t figure out how to reach the highway until stopping in a residential neighborhood and asking for directions. Amy and Graci compliment the companion of the kindly direction-giver on her haircut.

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I’m frustrated it’s so late in the day – by the time we get on the highway out of Belfast, the sun is setting. We eventually get out on the big road toward Central Northern Ireland, driving through County Derry, heading toward my first stop, the tiny town of Magherafelt, about halfway between Belfast and Derry.

I’d come across lots of references to a branch of the McCool name called the “Toberhead” McCools, along with references to an old homestead that dated back to the early 1700s, all centered around this small town.

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As we roll up into Magherafelt, Danny spots a pub called “The Flax Inn” and we decide to pop in to hopefully make a phone call and start our search for McCools.

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We’re greeted by a young chap wearing a sports jersey setting up the bar; we're the first patrons of the night. Danny and I order pints of Guinness and Graci settles in by the fire.

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The friendly bartender, Mark, lets me use the office phone to call a fellow named Tommy Mccoole, whose contact info I received from Charles McCool, expert travel guru, overall nice guy and possible distant cousin. (Charles and I met up for lunch in DC last year, and he’s traveled extensively through this area doing quite extensive genealogy work.) I get Tommy on the phone, introduce myself, and ask him about visiting the homestead. Unfortunately, he lives about 30 minutes to the north in Coleraine, and because the homestead is located on a private farm, explains how permission to visit must be secured from the farm owners beforehand. Tommy invites us up to Coleraine but the logistics seem too difficult to manage. Further, the Couchsurfing place Danny has booked for us is hours away in upper northwest Donegal (possibly surrounded by storms), probably 2-3 hours driving away on windy, dark roads. That seems too far to reach given our present state of exhaustion. I try to book us an Airbnb in Derry while we shoot darts and get to know a few of the locals who have filed into the pub.

Slowly, everyone starts to loosen up and that familiar Irish craic starts to flow. Graci learns to pour a proper pint of Guinness, and is made honorary head bartender of "The Flax."

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Mark makes us an offer we can’t refuse – we'll stay at the house he lives in with his Dad, just up the road! I ask him about hearing good local music – a pretty big request on a random Sunday night in January – and as he gets off at 7pm, says he’ll take us out to the perfect spot. Serendipity seems to be extending us a big hand! We decide first to go to a local Indian restaurant Mark recommends (he wasn't wrong) and we stuff ourselves with the first sit-down restaurant meal we’ve experienced on the trip.

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We drop our bags at Mark’s house – first thing we see walking into the house is a piece of art with the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, so Danny feels at home – and Mark puts us in a cab he has thoughtfully called ahead to reserve.

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The cab, driven by a cheerful older fellow named Robert, takes us to Bryson’s Bar, where music and fun await. The place has only 5 or 6 patrons when we walk in, and we're greeted with handshakes and helloseveryone seems friendly. This is your typical small town Irish bar]], big enough to only fit about 25 people, a place where stories and good times past seem to seep from the walls. The band playing – we later find out they’re called Altagore – is quite good, and they start to tailor their set toward “our American guests.” Danny goes up to sing with the band, and decides on “Dirty Old Town.” He’s still sick so doesn’t have his usual vocal chops, but it’s fun to see him rocking out in a real Irish pub. Graci also takes a shot behind the guitar.

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I approach the bandleader about singing Raglan Road, my go-to Irish pub song which I first heard all over the country during my first Ireland trip in 2008. It’s one of the most popular Irish pub songs, so I’m a bit intimidated to sing it in a real Irish pub, especially as an American tourist, but the atmosphere is festive and relaxed and supportive. It went better than I could have hoped – I remembered all four verses without a problem, which was a bit of a first – and I found out afterward that Amy had captured it all (save for the first or so 10 seconds) on video! So happy to have documentation of this, as its easily one of my trip highlights and something I’m sure to remember well into the future, even more so given my potential ancestral connection to the town. As I’m leaving later that night, both Tom the Postman (who I attempt to accompany on the Dubliners’ hilarious “Seven Drunken Nights”) AND one of the band members tell me separately that it’s their favorite song and they had never heard it done better. Could I be any more ecstatic about how this went over? (Note: can't seem to get the video to auto-load below. Here it is.)

Our cab driver Robert arrives at 12:30 to take us back to Mark’s place, but we’re not ready to leave! Mark invites him to join us in the bar, where he dances with Graci and sings a song. (File under: things that would never, ever happen in America.)

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After what is easily our most spontaneous and serendipitous night in Ireland, hours of dancing and singing and loads of craic, we leave the pub and are escorted back to our Mark’s cozy house. We can see about a billion stars in the sky. If a roving band of Americans had a professional tour company put together a tailor-made evening out in an Irish pub, it wouldn't match the fun we had that night.

Amy and I greet Mark’s father in the kitchen, and he offers us tea and hears about our plans for the morning. As a former truck driver he knows the local roads and sights as well as anyone, so he offers to accompany us! We stay up even later talking about the area and genealogy and Irish history and so many other things.

After a few years experience as a traveler, I’ve come to realize the best, most memorable experiences, are the ones you don’t see coming. the excellent people you meet and the ways locals extend themselves to ensure visitors have what the folks around here would call a “grand time.” Like the stars above Magherafelt, it’s people are just brilliant!

Posted by coolmcjazz 18:23 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged belfast derry magherafelt Comments (0)

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