Finding the missing links to a father I loved and had once thought lost to me forever.
My dad died when I was seven. He had made sure that I was named Clare, after Co. Clare, where he'd been born, and it felt like a special connection to a man I barely knew.
I was raised in Chicago by my Mayo-born mother, surrounded by the families of her brother and sister, who had also emigrated to Chicago. I knew my mother's childhood stories well. I grew up with them. But my father's half-siblings lived in Ireland and England. I knew them only through cards and letters, seeing them in person only a few times in my life. His only full brother was a missionary in India, who visited every five years until he wasn't well enough to make the trip.
So many of my father's stories were a mystery to me. There was a photo of him at seventeen, as a best man at a wedding. But his was the only face I recognized. I'd hear the names of his relatives, his cousins in Ireland and their children, but as years passed and I went from childhood to middle age, those relatives stayed just names.
In late 2014, I visited Ireland for the first time in years. I was researching a novel, a mystery that wove Irish culture through the story. I was focused on walking the streets my characters would walk, and accurately describing the sites I'd encounter.
But I also had plans to meet up with Mary O'Donohue, a second cousin on my dad's side, while I was in Dublin. We'd met only briefly before so I was expecting awkward politeness. But dinner went long as we talked about our lives, realized our similarities, and laughed that her older brother Kieran sounded a lot like my older brother Dennis.
In Galway, when I met Kieran, we hugged before we'd even said hello. We shared the same strong nose, the same humor. He showed me photos of the beautiful made-to-order rugs his Connemara-based company made, and I saw that my love of hand-made things was a family trait.
I learned that Kieran was my dad's godson, and he had photos of my father I'd never seen. In the pile, though, was one photo I did know, the one of my seventeen-year-old dad as best man. It had been taken at the wedding of Kieran's parents. There were finally names to the faces I'd stared at as a kid.
On that visit, I walked the streets of Ennistymon, the same ones my dad had walked as a kid, and I visited Lahinch, where he and my mom honeymooned. I made plans with Mary and Kieran to visit again, and I have - this time with mom, my brothers, and their families in tow. These distant relatives, just names and fading photographs, have become flesh and blood family, as well as dearly loved friends.
I had come to Ireland in research a mystery - a fictional one about spies and murder. Instead, I solved one, finding the missing links to a father I loved and had once thought lost to me forever.
Clare O'Donohue is the author of Beyond the Pale, out May 8th
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