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Finding my great great grandfather’s home after 170 years

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Fanad, Ireland

As my dad drove north on the M8 in the tiny rental car, I sat in the passenger seat completely unaware of the inspiration, emotion, and beauty that I was about to experience over the next few days.

I have been studying overseas in University College Cork for the past few months. Now I was about to connect in an incredible way with this wonderful country.

We were going to find the home where Kieran Kerwick, my great, great, great grandfather on my father’s side last lived before he immigrated to America in 1843.  My dad discovered the home on a prior trip to Ireland a few years earlier and the location was later confirmed using ancient tax records and maps.

So, when my dad came to visit me, he insisted that I see my ancestral home. We headed towards Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, driving through the narrow, curving roads of real Ireland—the Ireland to the left and right of the highway, the Ireland of hills and farms and cows and sheep that sprawls between the cities.

The miniature car’s tires grinded along as we arrived in the village of Castlecomer then turned onto Clogh Road.  We pulled into a small opening, not another street, but a mud and stone path leading to a dirt driveway.

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This was Crutt, a cluster of fields and farm buildings too small to appear on most maps. There was a large house surrounded by old, stone farm buildings and dogs. As I watched my father try to calm the five barking sheepdogs so he could approach the house I waited in the car, trying to mentally prepare myself for the awkward discomfort I was certain I was about to experience.

My dad disappeared around the corner for a moment and then came back into view with a smile on his face, waving at me to join him.  I took a deep breath, got out of the car, and we walked up to the house side by side, where a gentle-looking old lady with white hair stood beaming in the doorway.

This woman was Betty Owens. She was excited, surprised, and a bit frazzled.

It is rare for a foreign visitor to pass through Crutt, let alone stop for a visit. She invited us into her warm kitchen that looked like something out of an antique storybook.  She had two old stoves with kettles and pots boiling on every burner.

A batch of muffins was baking in the oven as another cooled on the large, wooden table.  Laundry hung drying from the exposed wooden rafters above our heads. She nearly pushed us onto the worn leather couch covered with a thick plastic sheet.

I watched as she flitted around the kitchen, grabbing a pitcher of milk from the fridge, turning on an additional electric kettle and cutting burnt tops off the muffins that I am ashamed to admit were singed due to the distraction caused by our unexpected arrival.

Her son, Michael, who lived with Betty on the farm, arrived shortly after us and the four of us sat—mother and son, father and daughter—in the cozy kitchen discussing The Kerwicks.  The old Kerwick home sat abandoned on an isolated piece of the Owen farm. We learned that the last Kerwick to live in the home was Jack Kerwick and that Betty and Michael remembered him well.

As a young boy Michael had run through the field over to Jack Kerwick’s tiny cottage where he drank tea and ate cookies.  He vividly remembered the garden and how Jack would share with them the many different vegetables grown in his tidy patch.  Betty allowed her son to do the talking, though she chimed in here and there with a happy memory of my relative. Michael was particularly clear in his memory of the attention Jack Kerwick paid to his hedges, and how he always noted the contrast between the finely trimmed hedges and the surrounding rough grazing  land whenever he visited Jack’s quaint retreat.

After lending each of us a pair of Wellie’s, Michael, my father, and myself trudged through the muddy fields over to the lonely Kerwick homestead.

There it was—a small, mortared stone cottage with a rusted metal roof, an upgrade from the original thatch.  The high grass and weeds crept into its broken glass windows, and moss grew on its walls.  It was beautiful.

Standing in the home of my Irish ancestor should be meaningful—an experience charged with historical and familial power, but to be honest, I expected to be underwhelmed.  I run from triteness and I considered the business of “finding your roots” to be cliché.   But it was not in the least bit.  It was powerful.  Thinking about it now is powerful.  Though Kieran Kerwick is long dead, I stepped on the same cold floor that he walked on, I smelled the same country air that he breathed, and my skin was covered in the same mud that was once under his fingernails.  My body bears his blood, but until that day, that blood was without context.

We returned to Betty in her kitchen for more tea with milk (the freshest you can get as 155 head of cattle are raised on the farm) and conversation. Just as the Kerwick home is engrained in my memory, I’ll never forget Betty, the tender, whimsical, and lovely old woman who invited my father and me into her home that day as if we were family.

The Kerwick house is dying to be revisited and I vow to do so, but popping in to Betty Owens’ kitchen will always be my first stop whenever I return to Crutt.

Although I found my experience in Crutt to be emotionally overwhelming, my heritage loop had hardly begun. A few days later my dad and I took to the highway once again to track down the McElwaine’s, my mother’s side of the family.

The McElwaine clan hails from Ballylar, on the Fanad Peninsula, in County Donegal.  During a prior trip to Ireland, my mother’s curiosity (spurred on by my father’s impulsiveness) resulted in an unexpected meeting with Tommy McElwaine, her father’s first cousin.  Again, there was no question that I would be meeting this part of the family before I left Ireland.

The drive to Donegal was long but unforgettable.  The surreal beauty of northwest Ireland—rocky shore to the left, mountains to the right—was made even more dream-like when we stumbled upon W.B. Yeat’s grave in Drumcliffe, engraved with the words “Cast a cold eye/ On Life, On Death/ Horsemen pass by.”

My mother’s family emigrated more recently than my father’s, her grandfather Patrick McElwaine from Ballylar and grandmother Maggie Helferty from nearby Termon left Ireland in the 1920’s, although curiously they did not meet until after their arrival in the States.

After attending mass in the church in which my great-grandmother was baptized, we drove even further North to Fanad to the McElwaine’s, who we had previously informed of our visit.

I am finding it difficult to adequately describe Fanad, not only because of its sheer beauty, but because of its serenity.  Its sparse population and undisturbed landscape make the area quiet in the most beautiful way.  We drove up to the post office, where Tommy’s son Ronan McElwaine currently serves as postmaster, and were greeted by his lovely family. Though we had just met, we talked about our families in an amazingly familiar way.

During the course of the day, we met  Tommy and his brother Hugh, their wives, two of Tommy’s son’s and their wives, and four of Tommy’s grandchildren, my third-cousins.

We were given a tour of the McElwaine homeland; I saw the house my great-grandfather was born in, the one room school house he attended as a child, and the house of my grandfather’s aunt, the somewhat mysterious Kitty-the-baker. I felt the same way I did when I saw the Kervick house, but the experience was enriched by the warm reception from living relatives.

Everything is more recent on my McElwaine side. It made me feel like I was really a part of it.

The entire McElwaine family—my family—was warm and inviting, but it was eight year-old Ciara who I bonded with most. Ciara and I were kindred spirits. The outward indicator of our connection was our manes of wild curls (mine brown, hers fiery red).

It was Ciara who made me laugh as we drove by a giant brown cow and she confided to me “I don’t like cows as much.”

It was Ciara who made me smile when she responded, “A wee bit” when I asked her if she liked school.

It was Ciara who surprised me when she boasted that she had climbed all the way to the top of the picturesque and historic Fanad light.

It was Ciara who made me want to be eight again so I could be best friends with the cousin I had just met.

As my days in Ireland begin to dwindle, I am flooded with memories of my recent past. Like Ciara’s and my hair, the fullness of the last four months has formed an unruly tangle of experience in my mind that will take a fair amount of time to unknot. Yet, some things are laid out nicely in my head, vivid and neat, and require little detangling.

Two of these things are Betty Owens and Ciara McElwaine.  Two Irish beauties. Though generations apart, they are what make Ireland unique. Politics, culture, and landscape aside, it is the people that make a country.

But the best part about it all is that in between the wise woman who has lived a long, rich life and the naïve young girl, still seeing life for the first time, there is room for me.  I can fit somewhere here, and for the past four months, I have.

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