Dysert O’Dea : Where My People Are From


DSCN0951When 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,

Cordially yours,


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 remain,

Yours sincerely,

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 marks the monastery built on the site, which gives the area the name Dysert.  this word Dysert, similar to desert,  marks holy places in Celtic lands to which monks retreated to be alone with their Creator. The ruins of this small monastic village include stone structures from the first millennium A.D.,  St. Tola’s High Cross as well as Tovar Oireachta, the sacred well. Within the ruins of the monastery lie the remains  of Joan O’Dea, wife of Michael O’Dea , who was the last chieftain of his clan.

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 coming  to his own understanding of the place much as I did on my first visit to Ireland with my father when I was eleven years old, and  as perhaps my Uncle Ben did with his parents upon his first visit to Ireland when he was twelve, which was around 1900.

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. It would appear that after all our exploring, some how we do wind up where it all began.

Follow Us