PHOTOS - Dr. Kevin Cahill on the powerful pull of Irish roots and family history - slideshow

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:

PHOTOS - Dr. Kevin Cahill on the powerful pull of Irish roots and family history - slideshow

“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.”

At age 19 John D. left the farm to go in second-class steerage on a seven-day ocean journey from Cork to New York. They had an “American wake” before his departure, for the reality of the time was that he might well be gone forever – a new life in a new world was balanced by the loss and sadness, and usual permanence akin to death, in his native land. You will note on the ship’s log that he listed his native country as Auniskirtane.

(Figs. 3 & 4) Within a few weeks after arriving in America he found a job as a clerk at Lord and Taylor, a large clothing store; he was paid $5.00 a week. These were lonely 4 years, full of memories. He once wrote a poem entitled The Exile From Auniskirtane, and I read but two stanzas:
The river flows through our farmland. The hills lie all around. Since I left that simple valley I’ve naught of comfort found.

The river ripples through my brain. The hills inhabit my heart. O, I that left the hills and river Have burst my soul apart.  Just a few years later he passed the examinations for the ultimate dream of the Irish immigrant, a position as a patrolman in the New York Police Department (NYPD). (Fig. 5)
John D. steadily progressed up through the ranks of the NYPD, retiring as a Captain and the first Chief of the Communications Department. His personal life, however, knew tragedy that tied him even more closely to Irish relatives and a support system that flowed both ways between New York and Kerry. His wife died in the birth of their third child, and this remarkable man, with the help of an Irish cousin, made certain those children realized the American dream through education. Although he had never graduated from secondary school he learned Latin and Greek so that he could check his son’s homework. He also made several trips back to Rathmore and Auniskirtane, so that his offspring knew the people and the land from whence he had come.

My father, also named John D., became a physician; one generation of hard work by an immigrant from this county had produced a professional man of stature in the medical world of New York. My father also never lost contact with Kerry; my brothers, sisters and I had to memorize the poems, and even sing the songs, that reminded us of our ancestry. And we, also, returned to Rathmore with our father.

My own links with Kerry are deep and long-standing. After I was engaged to be married I spent a period in London on a fellowship at the Royal Free Hospital. I hoped to share a brief Christmas holiday with my fiancé without crossing the Atlantic. After much discussion with Kate’s family – for customs at that time required that if an unmarried (though engaged) couple were to spend time together, even with relatives in Rathmore, there were proper negotiations to be held. All was finally approved, and a most memorable part of our courtship was dancing in barns, and getting to know the lovely Sliabh Luachra area. (Figs. 6-8) For the next four years, as I worked as a U.S. Navy physician in a medical research unit, first in London and then in the Middle East, Rathmore became almost a second home; Vincent and Joan Cahill made sure we were always welcome. (Fig. 9)

As the years unfolded good fortune allowed me to develop professional bases in both America and Ireland, and to forge close friendships, particularly with the Irish artistic community.  The American Irish Historical Society (Fig. 10) provided a most elegant platform on Fifth Avenue in New York for Irish poets, writers, painters, crafts people, and politicians. Almost simultaneously I began a program on this side of the ocean at The Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin (Fig. 11), building from scratch the largest Tropical Medicine and International Health Department in a medical school in Europe.

PHOTOS - Dr. Kevin Cahill on the powerful pull of Irish roots and family history - slideshow

During my thirty-six year tenure as a Professor at the College of Surgeons I taught over 4,000 medical students. Those were wonderful years; with the energy of youth I commuted between Dublin and New York four to five times per year. The only negative in this period of our life was that, as the College of Surgeons’ demands grew, the trips to Kerry became more rare. But fond memories never fully receded.

Soon after being appointed to the College Chair in 1969 I established an annual lecture series in Belfast; those were, as you may recall, very troubled times, and these trips from the Republic to the North were quite dangerous. Several of my good friends were killed for trying to use the neutral discipline of medicine to build bridges to peace. Many of my writings in this period were collected into a book for which Louis le Brocquy created a memorable jacket cover (Fig. 12) showing, as he phrased in a letter to me, two streams of people (the Nationalists and the Loyalists, Catholics and Protestant) learning to overcome the obstacles implied by the spine in order to blend into one community. 

Several other events continued to bind me to you. The leaders of the local historical society, Cumann Luchra, elected me as the Uachtaran of the organization. (Fig. 13) Years later, when I was appointed as the Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade New York in 2000 - the only physician ever selected to lead that great parade in its 250 year history - my cousin Ann brought a contingent from Rathmore to cheer us on. (Fig. 14)

I also feel it appropriate to share with you an unusual experience when I was able to translate a period of service into something important for Ireland. As my friend, Tim O’Connor, noted in his introductory comments today, I cared for Pope John Paul II in 1981 after he almost died from an assassination attempt. As he was recovering we had long talks about many subjects, including my discovering the absence of any modern Irish Art in the Vatican Museum. The Holy Father, being a good Pope, did not want to issue a directive that might offend the museum curators’ prerogatives.

He suggested we form a Committee and submit a formal recommendation (Fig. 15), the usual resolution in any bureaucracy, but he promised me that he would subtly guide the process along.

Needless to say, that help resulted in the Museum accepting our Committee’s donation of a large le Brocquy tapestry, thereby allowing Ireland’s art to be officially recognized at the Vatican. Today my five sons and seven of my nine grandchildren are here at this Gathering. They maintain, in their generation, close bonds between those who are in Ireland, and the vast diaspora that represent you all over the world, from America to Australia. My third son, Christopher, has been the TV commentator for the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade for more than ten years. He is the Executive Director of the American Irish Historical Society and, appropriate for today’s festivities, is the author of Gather Round: The Best of Irish Poetry. (Fig. 16) Brendan, my fourth son, is on the Advisory Board of University College Dublin’s Centre for Humanitarian Action and works closely with its Clinton Institute. I am proud to say that my other sons, Kevin, Sean, and Denis also have close intellectual, emotional and cultural ties with Ireland.

Now it is time for the grandchildren to begin – each in their own way – to identify with you, and to build those bridges that transcend time and oceans, linking us together not only at this Gathering but in meaningful – and even unknown – ways in the future. My final words are of thanks to you, the people of Kerry, for showing by this Gathering that a very special relationship with the scattered family of the Irish overseas continues to matter to you. History, geography and circumstance have meant that thousands of people, like my grandfather, had to leave this beautiful place to build a life and a home elsewhere. But for many, like my grandfather, this place never left them – rather to paraphrase him, the hills of Ireland continued to inhabit their hearts. This Gathering is an acknowledgment of the pain and the loss involved, not just for those who left, but for those who stayed behind as well. But it is also a recognition that through that kind of death, that American wake, came new life, new beginnings and new possibilities.

The closing of the circle that is the Gathering, therefore, holds a powerful message for the future – for my grandchildren who live in the New World and for their cousins who continue to live in the Old. Something of the magic, and the mystery, of the streams, hills and vales of Auniskirtane continues to unite us as family no matter where we are in this global, complex, challenging yet continuously wonderful world we inhabit. That fact constitutes a precious gift that transcends distance and time – the gift of being Irish together and of being community to each other. By understanding that gift and accepting it, we enrich each other in a profound way, supporting each other as we continue the great journey forward, wherever we may be and wherever it may take us. And never forgetting those who have gone before us. We salute you, John D. may that soul of yours, burst apart by exile, be resting a bit easier this evening.

PHOTOS - Dr. Kevin Cahill on the powerful pull of Irish roots and family history - slideshow