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Day 2: I Hear You Calling Me (To the Ancestral Lands)

in which your author explores rich ancestral piles of mud

semi-overcast 70 °F

Sleep! Glorious, transformative sleep! It’s astonishing how much more functional human beings become when they get it. I woke up a new man on Tuesday, ready and able to take on our Irish vacation with gusto after conquering the dreaded and inevitable jetlag. Plus, a wonderfully comfortable bed – way to go, Airbnb and local host with the tough to pronounce name ("Blaithin") who we never even met.

After packing up and saying farewell to the first lodging spot of our trip, we grabbed some quick coffees at a place on the other side of the bridge; Dan scorches his hands after a nasty spill from the back seat. We drive past Sean’s Bar (open at 11am!), and a man gives us directions (past a treacherous narrow passageway hosting a scared bird) to one final stop in Athlone – the childhood home of Count John McCormack!

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McCormack has been an increasing figure of interest for me over the past few years. I imagine that if I ever took classical vocal training seriously I’d end up with a voice like his – perhaps not approaching his magisterial flexibility, but at least somewhat similar in tone. I can pull off some reasonable facsimiles of his popular Irish pieces, however, and I’ve wondered whether writing a show based on his life might be a fun project someday. I hum a few bars of I Hear You Calling Me while standing outside his boyhood home, nestled amidst a rather non-descript bundle of short row houses in a lazily dense part of town. Perhaps let’s revisit this some day, Count John?

A major element of this trip is genealogy. I’ve been an amateur family historian (particularly on my father’s side, which is far less well documented than my Scottish/Cape Breton mother’s) for about a decade now, coinciding with my very first trip here ten years ago. I recently discovered specific details about my great-grandmother’s birthplace, as well as what is very likely the origin town of my great-great-great-grandfather, and first McCool of our line to come to America. Also, Dad is looking to complete his Irish citizenship for which he requires his grandmother’s birth certificate. (Unfortunately, they recently changed the laws that used to allow non-native born Irish citizenship to be passed on to children, but it’s still worth him getting this if he can.)

We make a first stop in Mullingar in seek of this document. After visiting a few different offices, we finally find out where the document should be – but the office closed 45 minutes earlier! Still, the kindly secretary advises us to wait, then she asks the records man to help us out by looking up the info. Unfortunately, it’s to no avail – dear old Bridget Creighton was born on the border of Counties Westmeath and Cavan, and Westmeath doesn’t have her birth certificate, even though I’m able to show the man the original birth record documents that I located online. I’ll need to do a bit more exploring to find this! Still, it’s nice that they took time to help us out, and Dad and the man have a nice chat about how civility is a fine option to take up.

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We press on to investigate the area of Westmeath Bridget came from – the combination of GPS and multiple maps helps us find an area called “Togher,” close to Finnea, Westmeath. (I know this place from the reference to “the bridge of Finnea” in the once-popular song [[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCBSjcYmCq0|Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff.)

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We’re out in deep farm country, and “Togher” appears to be nothing but an intersection of country roads, dense with thickets of greenery and rustic, crumbling stone edifices. I spot a man digging at the side of the road, pull up and ask him about Togher – he replies that we just passed it and “it’s really just a piece of road.” Who knows what part of this belonged to our ancestors prior to young Bridget’s emigration in 1882?

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Through a web of trees, I spot a tall, stonefaced structure slightly set off from the road, and decide to explore. We park and walk up to it; I hop the fence and take some shots from the inside. Who know what this building once was?

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We press on, and a blinding flash of colorful signs sticks out on the left side of the road. I stop the car to take a few shots and a jovial, trollish man bops over to the car, leaning on Dad’s windowside. He insists we get out and have a closer look. Hugh is a true and rare eccentric in the way that reminds you that the world is ever filled with strange, beautiful creatures, utterly unafraid to carve out their own way. He introduces himself as Hugh, chattering constantly in thick, near indecipherable Irish country dialect, and leads us through a brief tour of some of his eclectic, folk art-stuffed home. Dan asks if he’s ever been to Boston and he replies “Yes, I went there for my brother’s wedding but I HATED it! I’ll never go back!” He doesn’t explain why. We notice a row of scissors dangling from the ceiling. It’s a bit creepy (the dangling doll in the upstairs window doesn’t help), but there are safety in numbers and he seems harmless, if certifiably daffy. We say goodbye and carry on, stopping briefly at a nearby cemetery to look for Creightons; we don’t find any but do find plenty of Smyths, another family name connected to our Creighton lineage.

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We pass through Cavan, home town of an Irish theater friend in Boston, staying long enough to have a quick lunch at a cute little café – where a TV broadcasts exciting news that OUR PRESIDENT(S) Barack Obama and Joe Biden visited a bakery in DC together! – followed by coffees at a shop next door, where the barista from Michigan instantly picks up on our American-ness. (Perhaps it's the 1st place Red Sox hats we all seem to be wearing constantly?)

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It’s getting late in the day, and we still have to drop in to Clougher, Country Tyrone, which I only a couple weeks ago discovered is the likely origin spot of Edward McCool, my great-great-great-grandfather. It’s a bit of a hike over smallish, two-lane roads (Dad is justifiably skittish over these), passing through the architecturally intriguing town of Enniskillen.

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Eventually, we roll up into the hilly town, which is literally just one main street with a few options: pub, general store, restaurant, and a handful of other random small businesses. I park in front of a pub and catch two men , one mid-40s and another probably 80, locking up the general store next door; I ask them if they know any McCools – the older one says yes, there would be a few in nearby Fintona, as well as an old place known locally as “McCool’s cottage.” This is certainly intriguing.

We decide to have a wee pint in the pub, in part because it’s called “Whiteside’s” – Whiteside is yet another family name on Dad’s side! The barmaid is as friendly and chipper as can be, and is the granddaughter of the owner, named Whiteside. (Probably very distant cousins!) We chat about the US and what the area is known for – she’s home on vacation for the week but lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland as a school teacher. She refuses to take cash for our beers, saying “ye’s are family!”) It’s a lovely little personal keepsake of the town which is most likely where our McCools came from in the 1830s.

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We drive around a bit in search of the afore-mentioned McCool cottage – it takes us a few tries but we do eventually find a road that leads to a very rickety old industrial-type barn. No idea if this is “McCool’s cottage” (the older gentleman mentioned it had been refurbished and someone was living there, so I somewhat doubt it given the state of this place), but it’s an interesting diversion nonetheless. Genealogy feels very much like detective work.

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We continue on toward our evening destination, Magherafelt, home of good buddy Mark Madden, who I met on my third Irish trip back in 2014 and who I visited on my last trip. Unfortunate timing dictates that Mark has to fly out of Dublin early the following morning, so we won’t get to see him tonight. His peach of a human being Leo (who shepherded us around to rainy graveyards those years ago) meets us at the Flax Inn, site of the infamous “Flax 4” encounter. We have a couple pints and introduce Dad to this meaningful place, which is really fun. A couple lads down at the end of the bar (the place only seats maybe 10 at the bar) say “youse were the Americans who came in here four years ago, aye? We were in here that night.” It’s amazing – they actually remember us. We’re borderline famous in these parts! One had joined Mark on a trip to DC and he happily shows me photos of the trip.

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It’s a fun, lowkey time, and we head back to Mark’s place, where Dad and Leo talk about Catholicism. Leo gets out his beautiful guitar and the lot of us hack our way through a few songs in the living room.

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We’re starting to settle into the rhythm of the trip at this point, and having great fun with some excellent people in this amazing and beautiful land!

Posted by coolmcjazz 03:25 Archived in Ireland Tagged tyrone magherafelt westmeath Comments (0)

Day 3: May-lin-felt?

in which your author buys things and doesn't buy things and revisits another site of old glory

semi-overcast 63 °F

Day 3 – a travel day! Mostly. Especially after the previous night’s shenanigans at the middle-of-nowhere pub, I find myself still with the urge to sleep in; one of the great joys of traveling solo is the freedom to do this. After Tom whips up a bevy of suggestions for Madrid, I say my fond farewells to my terrific hosts and their rollicking trio of dogs. One of the great joys of being in the arts is having the chance to work with and meet such good and hospitable people. Get ye to Boston with the quickness, dear friends!

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The drive to Dublin is uneventful and I follow the suggestion to park the rental car in a lot. I only have a few hours here but am in the mood for slow browsing; the open St. George’s Mall provides this. I spend about twenty minutes at an antiquarian book shop; I ask for anything on John Doyle O’Reilly, whose memorial I had seen the previous day, and the proprietor brings out a massive first edition volume. Two hundred Euro is far too rich for my blood (not to mention this thing would take up half my suitcase), but it’s fun to look at. I also pass on an (overpriced) play version of J.P. Dunleavy’s The Ginger Man, a quintessential Dublin novel which I’ve been reading on and off over the past year. I grab some Mediterranean food in a box, then end up purchasing a red-striped shirt on clearance (5 Euro) from a nifty vintage store. It’s lightweight so will ball up in my suitcase nicely. I wrap things up with a pint of Beamish stout and an hour of writing at Grogan’s Castle Lounge, a relaxed traditional pub with dim lighting and more greyed men fixed at the bar like signposts. With about 40 minutes left before my rate kicks up another notch, I briskly walk down to Brogan’s Bar (these rhyming names do get confusing), where Jo and Tom took the Swampoodle cast on our last night in Ireland, and where a picture was taken of me that I still use as a profile pic. (I also visited here with Dan, Amy, and Graci on my last trip, capturing an photo of an unfortunate woman with toilet paper stuck to her jeans, and spent New Year's Eve with Amy at Peader Kearney's pub next door.) The bar is empty but the bartender is welcoming; I grab a half pint of Guinness, sit and write, surrounded by all manner of Guinness advertising. Just as I left the place. I take another selfie before popping in for a falafel to go next door – the Lebanese proprietor is extremely friendly and curious about my vegetarianism. I tell him I expect to see him still in business there in about two years.

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I race back to the car and after a wee bit of drama with the parking lot attendant I retrieve the car after four hours (16 Euro, ugh) and head out toward the North. It takes a good hour just to get out of Dublin on the M4 but once I’m on the motorway it’s smooth riding up through Belfast (including a stop to get a flat white and a delicious white chocolate Magnum ice cream bar) and on to Magherafelt, small town in County Derry and the site of the infamous “Flax 4” escapade of my last trip to Ireland in January 2014. Mark Madden – along with Jo and Tom, a sold contender for Ireland’s Resident Hospitality Ambassador – has become a great friend after that trip, having been to the US a few times since, where he was exposed (literally) to a French Maid’s race in Washington, DC, and the first Solas Nua in Boston staged reading I put up at The Burren in Somerville. It’s amazing the serendipity borne only of travel can form connections that last a lifetime.

I pass by and wave hello to The Flax Inn upon entering Magherafelt, about 45 minutes west of Belfast; the correct pronunciation of the town (Jo was coaching me) is something like “Marrafelt.” Mark has moved to a new house since last I was here, and I settle in. We head out and pop in at Bryson’s, site of the late-night music session where I serendipitously made my Irish singing debut in 2014. It’s so wild to be back here.

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We catch up and keep moving, next to Mary’s, an absolutely gorgeous and ornate Victorian-style pub with massive mirrors, French Nouveau art, and dim-lit corners with soft burgundy sofas. We get in an extended chat with the manager who gives me a tour and tells me to check out the Merchant Hotel cocktail bar in Belfast. (Which, time traveling ahead two days, is actually my next stop, as I’m writing this from the MAC in Belfast right now.)

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We close down the place – this being a Monday night we’re really the only patrons at this point anyway – and head back. I end up staying up until close to 5am watching the DNC speeches including Michelle Obama’s. She is such a gift. (#Michelle2024!) Getting to sleep this late doesn’t portend well for an early morning…

Posted by coolmcjazz 07:37 Archived in Northern Ireland Tagged dublin magherafelt maynooth Comments (2)

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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