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Day 3: McCools Kick at Mud + Digging Seamus Heaney

in which your author re-visits a most-likely not ancestral mud patch and reads at a master's grave

semi-overcast 70 °F

So, where were we? Attempting to recall Day 3 of this whirlwind trip, I begin this entry in Galway, expecting I’ll only complete a few paragraphs before we launch ourselves back along the Southwest coast in our trusty Renault.

Day 3 began in Magherafelt. Neither Dan nor I slept very well, having stayed up too late the night before either writing or attending to political Facebook groups presently raising bundles of cash to turn America blue. [Fun interjection from the present: Dan holding up a ten Euro bill in Galway and saying, “oh I thought this was trash.”]

We pack up the car, park, and drop into a friendly breakfast place, where Dad and Dan have their first traditional Irish fry, with curling chunks of bacon, eggs and sausage. (The vegetarian of 20 years opts for a raspberry white chocolate scone.)

Dan is experiencing some strange jaw pain so he runs across to a pharmacy to get some heating compresses. (“Are ye havin’ a wee bit of payin?”) We drop by Bryson's Bar, built in the early 1860s, and site of my first true singing experience in an Irish pub, captured by my dear friend Amy for posterity. It's nice to show Dad this place, and Dan and I remark on how small it seems these years later.

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We make our way to an area on the outskirts of Magherafelt called Toberhead, where John and Olivia McCool set up a farm back in 1730; it was this homestead that initially led me to this town back in 2014, and this will be my 3rd time there. We drive up the long dirt path and walk up the muddy lane to where we can see one of the old houses in the distance; everything in this part of the world is very spread out. (A recurring joke between Dan and I on this trip characterizes the same rural Irish types who asked "MacKooule? MacKooule?!" on our last trip, saying "Aye, it's moahre MacKooules over to look at some muck.")

Robin, the farmer who owns the land comes out with his teenage daughter, wondering about what these odd trespassers are doing staring off behind a fence on his property, and I re-introduce myself. He’s a friendly man and we chat with him for 5 minutes or so – the thick rural dialect is just as I remember it. On the way out, we spot a better view of the farmhouse and take a few good selfies, then stop at the sign boasting “McCoole’s Road” on the way out.

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Next stop is Bellaghy, just up the road a bit, birthplace of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I’ve been following the Heaney HomePlace on Facebook since it open just over a year ago, as I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the man’s work and presence, and a couple years ago had the chance to perform some of his work in an event led by the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge. (Poets’ Theatre director Bob Scanlan was a close friend of Heaney.) There’s a characteristic light Irish mist in the air as we pull up.

The Centre is organized in two floors, and begins by introducing small displays on people who the poet featured in his early poems. Throughout the exhibit, there’s a deep sense that although this was a man who gained access to the highest, richest perches of creative language, imagery, and metaphor, he was ever rooted in his hometown and the colorful, characters who inhabited it. Every description extols him as not only a true artist, but an eminently decent and humble human. Many poems are posted alongside visual representations of the persons or themes discussed in the poems; I’ve never been to a museum dedicated to a poet before, but this seems a spot-on solution for how to lift something off the page and turn it into an experience. Heaney’s poems placed people and experiences on the page, so in a way making this transition in reverse makes perfect sense. There are videos one can sit and watch that feature people either describing their relationship with Heaney, what Heaney’s work means to them, or reading their favorite passage of his, and in most cases doing all three, with a wide range of interviewees from Bono and Bill Clinton to schoolchildren from this area.

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We pause at a lovely café upstairs – Dad comments that this is the best food he’s ever had at a museum. I can’t recommend this place highly enough if you’re in the area, and even if you’re not in the area, it’s worth a day trip. There isn’t too much else around this region in terms of tourist attractions, so I imagine (and hope) the Heaney Centre will become a solid anchor for economic development. I splurge in the gift shop, wanting to support the fine work of these curators and Heaney’s extraordinary legacy. I hope to make it back some day.

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On the way out of town, we stop at Heaney’s grave, where I visited two years ago. It’s lightly raining now just as it was then. I read Heaney’s “Digging” as well as a piece in honor of Mom’s good friend Sheila who had passed away within the week, a piece that our dear friend Dan, who passed away last year and whose memory we carry with us on this trip, has emailed around after the death of Ted Kennedy. I take a beautiful wet leaf that had fallen on the grave, and leave another in its place. The Heaney stops are real highlights of the trip so far.

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We press forward and make the trek to Stranorlar, a place I first visited ten years ago this month. (There are some bittersweet emotions being back inside this place, to be honest.) I booked us a room at the Kee’s Hotel, built in 1845, a rustic place that is as opulent as anything could be in this area. We have dinner (excellent food) in the restaurant, and have a long chat about work life – Dan and I are following very untraditional, self-created career paths, often very rewarding, but with many unorthodox challenges. As ever, I feel extremely fortunate to have this support system. Dan and I round off the night by having a pint and a whiskey (omg it’s so cheap here) in the hotel bar, then walking across the bridge that runs over the River Finn, past the Sean Mac Cumhaill football pitch, to a bar I recall hanging out at ten years ago, now closed. There are many old ghosts here.

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We’re getting our sea legs with the trip, and writing these words from Clonakilty days later, I can vouch for this: the best is yet to come!

Posted by coolmcjazz 18:16 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged donegal bellaghy stranorlar Comments (2)

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)

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