Doctor Kevin Cahill is one of America’s best known physicians and also Director General of the American Irish Historical Society which is located on Fifth Avenue opposite the Metropolitan Museum.
Recently Dr.Cahill took 14 members of his family back to Ireland as part of the Gathering initiative and spoke of his family roots before several hundred people in his grandfather’s native Kerry.
Here are his remarks:
I am delighted – and honored – to be part of this Gathering, to return with my family to the place of our roots, and to share some stories of our journey of life. People gather together to celebrate births, weddings, harvests and deaths. In Africa, India and the Middle East, where I have worked, whole communities spontaneously gather to see rain, to feel the first drops of the monsoon cool and nourish the parched earth.
We need Gatherings to sustain our cultures and traditions, to reinforce our memories through music and song, myths and stories, so that the tales of the past become part of the heritage of the young, so that they, in their time, will transmit and adapt and change legends to fit a new era. History is not merely the reciting of ancient poems or reading archives; it is an evolving discipline that incorporates past deeds into present activities, and helps fashion a more holistic future.
istory is being made right here today, in this lovely theater, at this Gathering.
When my wife died I covered her simple pine coffin with a tapestry created by a friend, the Irish artist, Louis le Brocquy. (Fig. 1) The tapestry was part of his Tain series. It was entitled, “A Gathering of the Clan.” The central heads are clearly defined, but they become more vague as they move to the periphery. This is true, and maybe inevitable, as time and distance makes us forget the details of even those we love unless there are Gatherings to bring us together, to remind us of the eternal ties of family and genetic identity. Kate’s funeral was a wonderful gathering of family and friends from around the world who came to honor a remarkable woman, and to help heal her family at a time of loss.
This Gathering in Tralee is a multifaceted event and my thanks to everybody involved in arranging it – the Kerry County Council, the team here at Siamsa, Minister Deenihan, and all involved with the Gathering Ireland project. I have been asked to tell the story of our own family odyssey, of migration and return. In some ways the American branch of the Cahill clan never fully left Kerry, for deep emotional links were nurtured through long letters, which were saved and are re-read to this day, through occasional telegrams, telephone calls, and periodic visits “back home.” The Atlantic was, to be sure, often a “bitter bowl of tears” for the emigrant, but those same waters became, with time, merely another obstacle that dreams and determination would overcome. The Cahill story for this Gathering begins in a small cottage two miles up the hills from Rathmore where my grandfather, John D., was born in Auniskirtane (Fig. 2). As a boy he worked on the rocky farm, caring for the cattle, helping his father with chores, cutting turf, fishing and walking the hills. Although he left school at 16 years of age he was obviously a natural gifted writer – I will read some passages from a letter he wrote to his children:
“I was born in a vale. I pity people who were not born in a vale, bounded by hills. You have your hills always in view if you choose to turn towards them; that’s the essence of a vale. There it stands right up above all the rest several feet above the sea. Wonder or not as you please, there are hundreds of such lying about Auniskirtane. The ground falls away rapidly on all sides. Was there ever such turf in the whole world! You sink up to your ankles at every step and yet the spring of it is delicious. A place to open a man’s soul and make him prophesy, as he looks down on the great vale in which he can trace for miles the road to Killarney and Rathmore, keeping straight along the highest back of the hills, such as the Paps. It is for those who care for vague old stories, about old gable ended farm houses, all good stone and thatched, and where the ghost was seen. We knew the country folk and their ways and songs and stories by heart.”
He also wrote of the hard work a rural woman did in those years to keep a home intact: o “Mother did all the baking. We had bakeovens for cooking and the turf coals were put on top. She made shirts for all of us by hand, made patchwork for quilts and spun the yarn and knitted the stockings, and milked the cows, made her own butter, candles and soap. I remember how she used to melt the fat to make the candles, and they were the nicest you ever looked at. I can see Mother now standing beside my sister Maggie, who was the oldest, and showing her how to spin the wool and saying, ‘You must pull the thread out smaller than that.’ There were six of us children, four boys and two girls. Margaret, then Denis. I was next, then Cornelius, Daniel and Nor, and I believe two babies died at birth.”