Last month I went to Ireland to visit my daughter and her husband. One rainy Sunday, on what the Irish call a soft day, I found myself in the small town of Scartaglen in County Kerry chasing the ghost of my paternal grandmother. A woman of many names according to the legal documents she left behind that list her as Kathleen, and Katherine, she is buried in Calvary Cemetery outside Boston as Catherine. A trip to the Irish Life Center on Lower Abbey Street in Dublin confirmed that it was as Catherine she was born on the 25th of November 1882 the daughter of Cornelius and Ellen O’Connor.
We drove white-knuckled through the Irish countryside on roads grudgingly forced to accommodate two cars to Scartaglen where the Post shares a home with the petrol station. We told the man behind the cash register we were trying to trace my grandmother whose name was Catherine O’Connor. He told us that we might try O’Connor’s Pub ‘just along up the road.”
It was now about 10:30 on Sunday morning. Opening the door to the pub, we took a step back in time. In a cramped dark space, smelling of peat we found three men who would not see seventy-five again sitting around the bar nursing their pints. The barkeep was a woman who identified herself as Joan. We told her that we had been sent there in search of Catherine O’Connor, daughter of Cornelius O’Connor who had once been the parish clerk. She conferred with her three patrons. In a conversation dotted with Irish, they decided we must mean Connie the Barrister who had been the clerk at St. Gertrude’s, the old chapel. His house, they informed us, was up the hill. Joan disappeared for minute and then returned to tell us she had called a classmate whose mother lived in the house of Connie the Barrister. The lady had put on the kettle and was waiting for us. After a receiving a set of elaborate directions that included, passing a green field once owned by a lad who went to America where he died of a broken heart, we walked up the hill to find my personal piece of Irish history.
The lady of the house, Julie Brosnan, (yes, indeed, she IS his cousin) was waiting for us along with her son, Paddy. Julie showed us the room where Connie died and she believed that my grandmother was born. The house was tiny. It was instantly clear why Catherine, James, Patrick and Mary had left for America. Walking back down the dirt road they traveled as they began their journey, I thought about the controversy surrounding immigration today. I realize that this is a complex issue. However, I think people often lose sight of the fact that so many Americans are descended from people who also came with only what they could carry in search of a better life. And if they had not made that brave journey, where would we be?
A reader once asked me if I had to do much research into the Irish culture in order to successfully write MacCullough’s Women. In fact, I did no research as the ghosts of my grandparents have always been in the background of my life . Their courage and sacrifices created the foundation for the lives their grandchildren live today. As far as Catherine is concerned, the trip to Scartaglen brought this lovely dark-haired Irish woman who died when my father was a toddler a little bit closer.