Monday, March 17, 2008

Gumshoeing in Eire

Today is St. Pat's. If you say the title of this blog with a bad Irish accent, the last word sounds like "Nag." Which is horse. So, at the risk of beating a dead one, I thought I'd post an excerpt from my travel journals written while in Ireland in February 2005. I had gone out into the country in search of relatives who'd married in Maryborough in 1874. Maryborough now goes by the name Portlaois, a town best known for its insane asylum and prison...

Early the next morning, I headed for Portlaois. On the bus, the young couple who sat behind me looked pretty rough. I sat and looked out at the drab outer rings of Dublin lined with houses made of soda bread. Perhaps it was the heavy sky, or my sleepy eyes, but all looked desolate and lonely and I felt sick of travel. I should have been thrilled at my first sight of the Irish landscape, but instead I was unimpressed with the highway busy with trucks, and the bogs devoid of all but bare trees. Essentially, it looked like northern Indiana. Once off the highway, subtle aspects of the country's beauty began to appear, in the form of huge clovers lining a road at the edge of the forest. In Kildare, I giggled at the sign for the National Stud, picturing a suave guy with a nice pad. Beyond this, a couple open fields contained a surprising number of lambs. Two of them seemed betaken with a pig.

Minutes off the bus in Portlaois, I found myself at the Catholic Church where an Ash Wednesday mass was just beginning. I was hoping that this was where Brigid Comerford and Michael Dunne( my ancestors) had been married, therefore sharing a spiritual and temporal link. I queued for my ashes, then lingered around. For a 10a.m. mass on a weekday, it was pretty packed, including many students in uniform. I wondered how many people in here might be family. I lit a votive candle for Ken (my late son), then went to the sacristy to talk to the priest. I was worried he'd be too busy to talk and I kicked myself for forgetting that it was a church holiday. He seemed a nice guy, but rushed. He answered my questions in a three minute monologue, then brushed me off with a "Best of luck to you, Ted," Dougal-style. It wasn't rude. On the contrary, he dealt with my needs efficiently, yet lacking the time to ponder properly, he moved on. I liked the way he'd say something like, "Now go to the parish office, where Mary and Polly will look it all up on the computer." Personalized.
Back on the Street, I moved from the tourist office to library to court house to art center. I was looking for someone who knew local history, but everyone modestly recommended everyone else. I decided to stroll. At first, I didn't like the town much, a series of busy roads and shopping malls. (Including a health food store next to a butcher's, and a place called Abra-Kebab-ra.) Then behind this modern facade, I found the older center of town. Main Street was a cobblestone street of narrow sidewalks, shops, and pubs. Compared to England's rows of controlled uniformity, Ireland seems more organic, with varied structures of differing sizes. Smaller sized roads formed zigsaw puzzle shapes at the town center. I must've walked all the roads at least twice, past the ruins of two churches, past the beautiful stone train station, past the new Heritage Hotel (which had no heritage to speak of, but served as a nice metaphor for my day), past a WWI monument with a Private Dunne, past M. Dunnes' Grocery. There was a strong Chinese Connection here, with three restaurants all closed for the holiday. I'd seen a Chinese guy at mass this morning. Being both Ash Wednesday and Chinese New Year, he was having a busy day. I also saw many of the same faces and they no doubt noticed me, again and again, ambling without apparent purpose. In others, I saw my own face, and in many boys, I saw Ken's. Many schoolgirls seemed to be speaking what at first sounded French, but must be the local dialect. I also heard my Nana's vocal inflections in the conversation of three old women. It's amazing how that was passed to her in the new country.

I thought that the church ruins on Church Street were where Brigid and Micheal had been married, but in the records at the library I found an article saying it'd been abandoned in 1804, after having first converted to Protestant. It turned out to instead be the ruins on Church Avenue, a fact explained by the gals in the parish office. I had almost not gone in, but it was there that I found the most concise information, such as the villages where Brigid and Michael had come from. It left a small mystery since Comerfords are traditionally from around Mountmellick in the north, yet her town was south of here. Plus, the Dunnes are from here in Portlaois, but Michael's village is even further north than Mountmellick. The clan has a massive gathering near there in the summer. In any case, it was amazing to handle their wedding register from 1874.

Ultimately, the most amazing info came at a pub, which I'd chosen because it looked the oldest in town. I had a beautiful plate of chicken and potatoes, plus a pint of Smithwicks, over next to the hearth. The bartendress herself was from Mountmellick, and knew many Comerfords. When she'd asked me what I was doing there in town, I was embarrassed to be a cliche'd American looking for his ancestry. In fact, had I been asked directly if I were looking for family, I was prepared to answer with, "Yeah, they stepped out for smokes 130 years ago and I haven't seen 'em since." But this woman was quite friendly and told me that one of the older Comerford matriarchs had died last November, having had 15 children. She also said she saw a resemblance in me, especially around the eyes. I was thrilled to hear this. She took my contact info and said she'd pass it on. (Days later, I'd find an email from one of the clan.)

All in all, I'd had a great day, walking in the steps of my ancestry and playing detective. And the moral of my Irish parable is...
If the Church can't help you out, the pub certainly will.

On the turntable: Masabumi Kikuchi, "All Night, All Right, Off White Boogie Band"
On the nighttable: Ken Wilber, "A Brief History of Everything"
On the reel table: "Stroszek" (Herzog, 1976)

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