Ireland intrigues and calls me because it forms the root of who I am. My mother’s family arrived long ago from County Cork (my Dad’s family deeming them – having arrived earlier and finding marginal success – to be “Lace Curtain Irish”). However, the county of my paternal grandparents’ birth is the place which has long beckoned me. Both my grandfather, John, after whom I am named, and my grandmother, Margaret Mary, known to her friends as “Magwan” (“Blond Maggie”), emigrated from Galway over a hundred years ago. They met in New England, where she worked as a domestic, married and raised a family in a Massachusetts town populated by many other Irish families. My grandfather saved his money and used his funds to bring family members to America, but he never returned to his village, Moycullen, or his family cottage. It reportedly still stands and continues to bear our surname. He told my father that, having faced hunger and misery in his younger years, he never saw a reason to go back. However, he regularly talked of the harsh beauty of the land and revisited it, at least vicariously, via the only movie he ever attended in a cinema, “Man of Aran.”
My grandmother, virtually unschooled, but exhibiting the learned wisdom of experience, was a strong woman who lost her parents in successive years and was soon placed on a ship, at the age of twelve, along with her fourteen year old brother. Her journey epitomizes the story of many who left their native soil to begin life anew. She and John crossed the Atlantic with only a hope to find an uncle, reported to be residing in Portland, Maine. During Prohibition and later the Depression, with many out of work, Magwan hand-built a copper still and concocted her family’s ancient recipe for Irish whiskey, which she called Poteen. When the “Treasuries” were rumored to be coming to town, the local police (many of them fellow Irish) would knock on her door and advise of the impending arrival. My father, then a boy and ironically later to become a state police officer for three and half decades, would be tasked with digging the hole to bury the still. He was also expected to ride in a baby carriage, until the age of six, to transport the product to various shebeens and social clubs in the community. When Dad’s Uncle Bartley was asked where he acquired the smooth whiskey he always seemed to summon on command, he attributed it to a “fine little Lithuanian fellow” who lived in the “Flats,” another poor section of town. No one apparently thought to ask the logical question of where such an Eastern European gentleman had acquired the recipe for the Irish beverage that slaked the thirst of the local community. Reflecting her Irish outlook on life, Magwan later opined to her adult daughter Mary, who became one of the country’s first telephone operators and used her savings to buy an early car that had orange spokes: “Well, we can’t go to a funeral in that car!” Indeed, weddings, wakes and funerals, as well as all activities at St. Catherine’s, formed the milieu that continued the Irish heritage, language and stories among my grandparents and all their extended family and many friends. I only later realized the depths of those common histories. Growing up, my father would routinely advise me that another kid in school was actually a cousin of mine to some degree or another (sometimes adding the “story” that invariably followed that particular brood).
I never had the opportunity to meet my grandparents, being the youngest in a large clan, but feel kinship through such stories and I marvel at their lessons of perseverance, with shots of humor thrown in for good measure. I have never been to Ireland, but envision traveling to that cottage in Galway, hoisting a toast to my forebears (Slainte’ John and Magwan) and thanking them for making their courageous life’s journeys, whose individual roads rose, met, merged and thereby created my own life’s path. If life truly comes full circle, my trip would close that loop.
Many people travel in order to connect with their heritage in some way, and the Irish culture is so rich that traveling to the Emerald Isle makes for a truly life-altering experience. Authentic Vacations has been sending thousands of travelers on Ireland Vacations, as well as to Scotland, England, and Wales for over 25 years!