When I was 11 years old, my father took me to Ireland for the first time. I was not aware at the time that I was accompanying my father on a mission. This professional Irish-American, my father, was going to find his roots. He had already written to Mr. Carthy of Loughrea, in southwest County Galway, where his “people’ had come from, making his enquiries.
January 19, 1965
My dear Mr. Carthy:
In New York City last night I met a young lady from Loughrea who so kindly referred me to you in my quest to find any relatives I may have in Loughrea. My maternal grandmother, Anne Mullen, was born in Loughrea about the year 1845. She was apparently of a fine family in Loughrea who were reluctant to her marriage with my maternal grandfather , Thomas Willis of Woodford. My grandfather was probably of a poorer farm family than my grandmother. During this courtship he would walk from Woodford to Loughrea barefoot carrying his shoes under his arms, putting them on at Loughrea to take my grandmother to a dance and then taking them off and carrying them home to Woodford barefoot, to save them from wearing out. My grandmother, Anne Mullen and grandfather Thomas Willis eloped, married, and came to the United States about 1870. My grandfather’s mother gave him a red heifer to take to the fair and sell for himself. It was with this money he was able to get married.
At the turn of the century my grandparents returned to Galway for a visit and both met their old friends and relatives. They had with them their youngest son, Benedict Patrick Willis, then about 12 years of age. My grandmother Anne Mullen of Loughrea must have had brothers and sisters whose grandchildren would be living in Loughrea. Likewise, my grandfather Tom Willis of Woodford must have brothers or sisters whose grandchildren would be living in Woodford today.
I plan to come to Galway soon to find my relatives – the Mullens of Loughrea or the Willises of Woodford. When I do I hope to have the pleasure of your assistance. Perhaps in the meantime you may know some of these people who would be interested enough to help me find such relatives in advance.
I trust I am not imposing on your time with this lengthy letter or your kindness in seeking such personal assistance. Be assured if it is any trouble I do not expect you to go out of your way for a stranger.
Thanking you in anticipation of helpful information you may find available, I am,
My father sent this letter from his chambers at the Bergen County Court House in Hackensack, New Jersey. My guess is that Mr. Carthy might have filed such a letter away, as the Irish are inclined to set things aside for a while. However, the letterhead on my father’s stationary told Mr. Carthy an American judge was asking for his assistance. His rather quick reply only furthers this theory of mine.
January 26, 1965
Dear Judge O’Dea,
I am having enquiries made here in Loughrea in an effort to trace the relatives of your maternal grandmother, Anne Mullen, and a friend of mine, Councillor Franks Mullins, Woodford, is having the records examined in Woodford. When our enquiries have been completed, I shall get in touch with you again and let you have whatever information we happen to come across.
Incidentally, as far as I know there is no “native” Mullen family in the Loughrea area today, and the surname Willis is non-existant in the Woodford area, according to Councillor Mullins. Councillor Mullins told me that there were two families of that name living in Bolag, Woodford about fifty years ago.
To satisfy my curiosity, you might wet me know the name and address of the lady who told you to write to me. I was in the U.S. last October for a holiday and met many people from Loughrea while I was over there. Two of my sisters live in New York where I also have many relatives.
With very best wishes,
I can remember what seemed like endless forays that summer into small, quiet towns and villages and out into the country following the trail to the Mullen and Willis relatives. This finally ended at a small cement bungalow built very near the edge of a country road in Bolag, an area just outside of Woodford. An elderly woman lived there with her two college-aged sons, who were not in college but worked “the farm.” These young men eyed us and seemed slightly amused. Then we followed this woman around back and across a rock-strewn field, splattered with cow and sheep dung, to a cluster of low shrubs, within which there were the meager remains of an old brick fireplace. Of course, this was the fireplace that my father’s ancestors had left when theyemigrated to America. Pictures were taken, we got back into our car, and I never saw this woman nor her sons, our Irish relatives, again.
My recollection of this event is that it was awkward. Dad had finally found something
to give him closure on his quest, but in actual fact he had very little to say to these people and
they to him. The ride back to the thatched cottage, which he had rented for the three week
visit, must have been tough on Dad. At 11 years of age, I was oblivious to the feelings he
surely was trying to sort out.
About a week later we took yet another ride south into County Clare to see a castle which was, supposedly, the O’Dea castle. Dad had strategically switched his search to the paternal side. This quest was getting old for me, and I think I had reached a point where I was not really buying into this search any more. But Dad was determined to have one more go at it. There were no road markers to the castle. I recall stopping along the road and asking farmers in their fields and women riding their bikes how to get to the O’Dea castle, and going down one-lane farm roads splattered with the remnants of the herd of cows which had gone before us. Just when I wanted to suggest we turn around, since I thought we were lost again, we spotted the ruins of a castle in the middle of a field where sheep were quietly grazing.
The castle was a rectangular-shaped structure which stood about eighty feet in the air. There appeared to be randomly placed windows on three sides. The fourth side was falling down in ruin. The entrance was boarded up, so that no one could enter. We walked its circumference once or twice, and I walked away and took a picture of my father standing before it, with his hands planted on his waist and a cigar planted in his mouth, looking up at the O’Dea castle. I think this moment was the closest my father ever got to finding his rightful roots. We had no other information about this castle other than that this place was called Dysert O’Dea.
I recently returned from a three week visit to Ireland, thirty years after that first visit with my father. On the day I visited Dysert O’Dea, my seventeen-year-old son was with me. As I drove along the same narrow lanes I had travelled with my father, I asked him to read the signposts for me since I had lost my glasses the first week in Ireland. I could sense the same unease from my son that I remembered when traveling those same narrow roads with my father. But in those thirty years there had been one change. There were signposts to Dysert O’Dea , which was now billed as the “Clare Archeology Centre.” I was curious as to what was going on there now.
Mr. John O’Day, an American from Wisconsin, bought the ruin in 1970 and with the help of a person named Risteard Ua Croinen restored it. The castle was then opened to the public and houses both the history of the O’Dea clan side by side with archeological artifacts from the surrounding countryside. Walking through the restored rooms of the castle, I learned the history of the castle and the O’Dea’s who lived there.
The castle was built between 1470 and 1490 by Diarmuid O’Dea. One of those randomly placed windows I had noticed over thirty years ago was actually a murder hole. The O’Dea clan used the murderhole over the front doorway to discourage unwanted guests by pouring hot tar on them as they approached the doorway. In 1570 the Earl of Ormond took the castle from the O’Dea’s by force, but by 1584 it was back in the hands of the family. Conor O’Dea fought the Protestant Bishop of Kildare for the castle, and Conor fought for the place again during the reign of Charles II. Conor’s sons, Michael and James, supported James II, and through this, lost their claims to the castle. At that time the Synge family took over the lands and the castle gradually fell into ruins. Mr. O’Day purchased the ruin from the Synge family.
The tour of the castle includes a video which explains in detail the battle of Dysert O’Dea on May 10, in 1318. Richard De Clare marched his army of 600 horses and 2000 foot soldiers toward the Dysert O’Dea, the O’Dea clan being, at the time, one of the most powerful clans in County Clare. De Clare divided his army into three parts – the third of which was to attack O’Dea’s stronghold. At Macken’s Bridge, which crosses a small stream near the castle, the O’Dea’s pretended to retreat over the ford and De Clare’s army rushed across after them, cutting themselves off from the main army. The O’Dea men, who lay waiting in ambush, then attacked and killed De Clare before he could be rescued by his own men. Conor O’Dea, the video states, used his own ax on De Clare. For the following two centuries County Clare remained free of English domination.
The restored grounds are splendid with a map which guides you to the 11th century round tower as well as St. Tola’s Church, which is the resting place of Joan O’Dea, wife of Michael O’Dea , who was the last chieftain of his clan. I also saw St. Tola’s High Cross, a remarkable Celtic cross, numerous stone forts dating from the first millennium a.d., and Tobar Oireachta, which is a sacred spring well. As I walked around the grounds, my son went off with his camera and every once in a while our paths met. He seemed immersed in the process of taking pictures of what he found interesting.
My thoughts on the road as we left Dysert O’Dea were of my father, and how much this would have meant to him back in 1965. I know his Irish-American heart would have beat a little harder when the video got to the part about Conor O’Dea driving the English away. Dad would have read every word about the place and walked every inch of the landscape, explained in detail in the walking tour of the grounds. Finally, Dad would have been able to read the Latin inscription over Joan O’Dea’s tombstone, which states: “Death comes to all without regard for station, weak and strong all come to the funeral pyre of death.”
When my father did not link with his Irish relations in that small cement cottage in Bolag, he did not give up. He hired a tutor so that he could study the Irish language, and he learned all that he could about Irish art and Irish history. Over the next ten years, he would travel to Ireland every summer to study more, and during the academic year back in the States, he would teach night classes on the subject so dear to his heart. However, my father’s innate desire to connect with his own ancestors would have been even more fulfilled for him there in the chancel of St. Tola’s Church, built into the same earth where O’Dea’s had lived for centuries. I could feel my father’s presence close to me as I walked the grounds of the Dysert, watching me as I watched my son make his own way around these ruins rooted in the soil of our ancestors.
And I remember falls in Virginia, when I would rake leaves, leaves, and more leaves until around Thanksgiving I just gave up. I would look up at the oak tree in our back yard, and there on her branches would be even more curled-up brown leaves which still refused to fall down. The oak tree does not loose all its leaves in the fall. It keeps the dried remains of dead leaves on her branches throughout the winter. So even after a snowfall in January, you can see an oak tree leaf being blown around the snow-covered backyard. Even as spring erupted around me, I could look up at that oak tree, and there, hanging onto the branches were the withered forms of last year’s leaves, so dry they would crack in your hands if you held one. The oak tree will hang onto a few of last year’s leaves, even as the fresh new growth of spring appears elsewhere on the same branch.
It was a few years later that I found myself standing under an enormous old banyan tree in the back yard of our house in Cuba. Banyan trees do not have the traditional root system like the oak. On the contrary, as the banyan’s branches grow out and up toward the sun, a vine will sprout from the branch and make its way from the branch to the ground, where it will root. Through this natural rerooting system, the vine grows to form another supporting trunk for the tree. As a result of this, one banyan tree will appear, at first sight, as a stand of trees until you get under it and look up, only to discover it is but one tree.
A pattern of clarity itself to me in this canopy. Stories I’d been trying to understand are now understood. There are some things in my life that I need to hold onto, as fast as the oak tree holds onto last year’s leaves. There are other things I seem to naturally grow toward, as the banyan tree repeatedly reaches for the sun and the blue sky, rerooting herself along the way. My life is a journey of growth, reaching out to touch something yet unnamed beyond the blue sky, dropping low for those nutrients found in the loamy soil of my ancestors, holding fast the stories of those who journeyed before me. And where ever I am, whenever I want to, I can close my eyes and I can see them - my ancestors- Barney, Lady Anne, Susie, Jerome, Catherine, Daniel, Bessie and Arthur. I can see them all, dancing under the banyan tree.