Exploring Irish roots adds to travel experience
May 8, 2013
WIESBADEN, Germany - I never had an interest in researching my ancestry until I found out what my great, great grandfather did for a living.
He was a stonemason, which is not particularly exciting until you consider that five generations later, so is my brother. My brother fell into the profession first by helping a stonemason in our hometown in New Hampshire, and then by picking up jobs of his own. As far as I know, no one in the family has worked in the profession since my great, great grandfather.
The discovery made me wonder how many of my own characteristics I might owe to my ancestors. So when I found out the old address of my great, great grandfather in Cobh, Ireland, I knew I had to visit. That someday became April 7-12, when my sons were on spring break.
I'll get to the specifics of our trip below, but before I do, let me mention that this year is the year of The Gathering in Ireland. A marketing genius realized there are more than 70 million people out there with Irish roots, and so the country is inviting everyone back home for a visit. Normally I might scoff at such a plea for tourism dollars, but in this case I can only recommend you see www.thegatheringireland.com and go for a visit.
Ireland is a must-see country to visit even if you have no Irish ancestors. The people are friendly, the views are stunning, the food is good and there is wonderful music everywhere. I do think, however, it adds to the experience when you're going back to see where your ancestors used to live.
In tracing my Irish roots, I was lucky. A second cousin twice removed (his grandfather and my great grandfather were brothers) did all the research for me. All I did was enter a name or two on ancestry.com and up came his research.
If you're not so lucky, The Gathering website has information on how to trace your roots, and what is going on when and where throughout the country this year. There are also other sites out there, such as ancestry.com, heritagequest.com and archives.gov, to name a few.
As for our trip, we booked tickets to the Kerry Airport through Ryan Air, and it cost ,296.66 for the three of us (including ,55.47 in travel insurance). My husband did not come with us because he was deployed. To get to Cobh, which is beside the ocean south of Cork, I decided to drive. Not everyone would want to make the same decision.
People in Ireland drive on the left side of the road, and the cars there have a steering wheel on the right side of the car. Not only that, but most cars have a manual transmission, which means you're shifting with your left hand. The only cars available with an automatic transmission at Hertz were larger cars, and given the narrowness of most of the roads, I was glad to have a smaller car.
We managed alright, but it took all my concentration to make sure we were safe. I did not dare turn on the radio in case it would distract me. On the upside, I found Irish drivers to be mellow (even around Cork, the country's second largest city) and the roads outside the city easy to navigate without a GPS.
There are trains throughout the country though, and some people might find that mode of travel easier.
Our first excursion after parking and checking into our hotel was to find my great, great grandfather's former address. It turned out to be no problem. It was a three minute walk from our hotel, and the first building off (Patrick) Pearse Square, only five doors down from the Rob Roy Bar. A plaque on the wall outside the bar says the Easter Rising hero James Connolly visited twice (once to escape an angry mob, and twice to say thanks for the help). Pearse, of course, was one of the main organizers of the 1916 Easter Rising, which later became instrumental in helping Ireland gaining its independence.
Cobh has other ties to the Easter Rising as well. The entrance to the harbor is where the German Capt. Karl Spindler sank the gunrunning ship The Aud after British forces intercepted it and were escorting it to the city. The ship was carrying a large number of rifles and rounds of ammunition for the rebellion. Archeologists recovered the ship's anchors last year and plan to put one on display in Cobh for the Rising's centennial. Another square, Roger Casement Square, is named after the man who organized the gun run and, in addition to Pearse and Connolly, was executed by the British for his role in the rebellion.
The next day, we set about exploring the town. Cobh is also known for its connections to other sunken ships. It was the last port of call for both the Titanic and the Lusitania, and the Titanic Experience Cobh and the Cobh Heritage Centre document the tragedies. The heritage center explores the experience of the large number of emigrants who left Ireland by way of ships docked in Cobh. My great, great grandfather had packed up with his wife and two children and boarded one of those ships in 1889.
There is also the Cobh Museum, which is housed in the former Scots Church. While the other two museums are big on multimedia presentations, this museum is much smaller and contains older artifacts.
Members of my family believe my great, great grandfather lived in Cobh because he was working on St. Colman's Cathedral as a stonemason. I tried to confirm it by looking at construction records, but the only book available was from 1879. There were listings with my great, great grandfather's name, but he had a common name, and he would have only been 12 at the time. Some workers were listed as "boy," which means the contractors did employ children, but there was no listing like that next to what might have been my great, great grandfather's name. Maybe 12 was too old to be considered a boy? We might never know.
While I was at the church I got a copy of my great grandfather's baptism certificate, as well as his sister's. The church personnel were friendly and it only took a moment to look up the information.
Right up the road, we visited the Fota Wildlife Park, which had giraffes, kangaroos and an assortment of other animals. In addition, we took a drive up to Blarney Castle, where my elder son and I kissed the Blarney Stone. My youngest wasn't interested.
On another day we visited Cork and the Cork City Gaol, which once held the Countess Constance Markievicz, who was an officer in the Easter Rising, and many other Irish Republicans. Since I wanted to be near the airport our last night in Ireland, on our way back we explored the Killarney National Park and drove part of the Ring of Kerry. The scenery was beautiful.
While I did not come to any major epiphanies about myself or my family during the trip, I do think I gained a partial understanding of why my great, great grandfather decided to leave. I believe watching all the ships in the harbor and talking to emigrants must have spurred him - at least partially - to board a ship himself.
Given how busy we were on our trip, and how many places we did not get a chance to see, I have come to the conclusion that you could visit any part of Ireland and have a great time. I found the same to be true when we visited the Dublin area for two weeks a few years ago.
After our return I found a brochure in my bag that listed all The Gathering recommendations for the Cobh area. There are 15 listings in the brochure, and they do not include Blarney Castle or anything in Cork. The Gathering website also has interactive maps that allow people to view events by county.
I look at it this way: A sign at the Blarney Castle explained the difference between blarney and baloney. Blarney is the varnished truth - it is truth dressed up to look a bit better - while baloney simply is not the truth.
Ireland might be participating in some marketing blarney with The Gathering campaign, but it is not baloney.