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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)

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