I’ve been to Ireland four times, and the visits were always fun. But for me, the fourth time was the charm. This visit was more than a tourist visit….it was the culmination of a lifelong dream to find my Irish ancestors, and connect with any Leary family still in the Emerald Isle.
The sojourn started in Dublin, on a somewhat cloudy and rainy day as we took a brisk four-mile walk to the Guinness factory. Along the way, I passed a beautiful church, St. Augustine and St. John, built in 1874. It looked identical to my parish church, St. Matthew's in Conshohocken, PA, the home of many Irish Catholics back in the late 1800's. It had vaulted ceilings and beautiful side aisles.
We next walked around the corner to the Guinness storehouse and factory -- which is a trip unto itself. The tour explains everything that goes into making Guinness (you don’t call it beer). The tour is informative, enjoyable, and the view from the Gravity Bar on the roof shows you all of Dublin, including the Wicklow Mountains, where Guinness gets its water (and the fictional location of “Ballykissangel”, the hit BBC show that ran for many years).
Thursday night was a return to one of my favorite places in Ireland - The Brazen Head restaurant and pub. This was my third visit, and I knew the food would be great, the ambiance wonderful, but it was the show “Food, Folklore & Faeries” that was the highlight. Ollie Grace, entertainer extraordinaire, is a masterful storyteller and singer, and made the evening such fun.
Friday had us heading to the O’Leary reunion (in Ireland, Leary and O’Leary are synonymous) in Inchigeela, County Cork. We took a road that took us past the Donaghmore Famine Workhouse Museum in Donaghmore, Portlaoise, County Laois, a bit of a drive from Dublin. I had only recently read about Irish workhouses started by the English in 1841 to give the destitute Irish a place to live, but from 1845 to 1851 they were vitally needed during “The Great Hunger."
But on to happier environs -- and the culmination of a dream. I had no idea what to expect upon arrival at Inchigeela, the location for the O’Leary reunion, which has been going on for over 20 years. Inchigeela is the home of the O’Leary’s and Leary’s. I literally knew no Leary family in Ireland, but I hoped that by the end of the weekend, that would change.
Upon arrival at Creedon’s Hotel, we were greeted by the charming owners, Joe and Ann Creedon, as well as the O’Leary Reunion Committee that included Richard Fensome, Diarmuid O’Leary, and Eugene O’Leary. There were a few Leary’s already here – Rosie Ni Laoghaire and her husband, Eamonn Keane; her mother and dad, Marie and Tim; Joe and Joan O’Leary from Wisconsin, Patrick and Norma Mulligan from San Francisco, Anne Brady from Colorado; Maire ni Laiore from Cork, Ireland, and quite a few others. Interestingly, I knew no one when I walked into Creedon’s Hotel, but the warm embrace I received was enough to make me feel like I was already home.
Joe Creedon, who I call “the mayor of Inchigeela” took us on a walking tour of the village, giving us dates, facts, and historical memories. As I was walking the land that my forebears walked, I felt a connection that was palpable — that this was my land. As part of the O'Leary reunion, we visited the O'Leary Castle built in 1500 -- quite a beautiful edifice.
If anyone would have told me I would have walked across a bridge that was less than sturdy, had tree branches fly back into my face, jump down into two feet of mud and climb a 100 foot castle tower, I would have said never. But when in Inchigeela…do as the O’Leary’s do…and I did.
After having a delightful dinner and engaging conversation with my new family, we were greeted by Eugene O’Leary, who was born in Ireland but now lives in the UK. Eugene thoroughly loved his new Irish relatives from America, and graciously introduced us to all things O’Leary and Leary. Both Joe Creedon and Eugene told us what to expect for the weekend, and that they would answer any questions we might have. There was a slide presentation by Dr. Gillian Boazman on “The School of Ross and the O’Leary Clan” in medieval times. The evening ended with another Creedon — Conal Creedon — author, playwright, and adjunct professor at UCC, who published a book on his relative - “Michael O’Leary, V.C”.
Saturday morning started with a bus tour of the area. We were taken to the area ring fort, which was used in medieval times as a sort of village that was built somewhere between 800 and 1000AD. They were literally circles of earth where three or four families would live. If there were three circles, a leader would live there. The more rings, the higher the prestige. Fascinating to think of my ancestors and how they lived, and survived.
Kinneigh Round Tower was our next stop on the tour. Most interesting as it is a hexagonally built tower – architecture you don’t see. A lovely spot, Ross Carberry, was next. We also saw that beyond the River Lee was the Atlantic Ocean -- and that in 1912 -- the gorgeous but doomed ship, Titanic, sailed by.
Carriganass Castle was the next lovely spot we visited, and it is the home of the O’Sullivan/Sullivan clan, and my great grandmother was Hanna Sullivan, so between the Leary’s and Sullivan…my ancestors most definitely walked this land!
The final stop -- and the absolute keeper for me was Gougane Barra. I had never before experienced a feeling as I did here -- complete and utter peace; my nirvana, my Bali Hai. This was the place where my heart and soul became one, connected to the Auld Sod -- and came alive; I was meant to be here.
This area is a settlement, west of Macroom in County Cork, where St. Finbar (patron saint of Cork) formed a monastery here in the 6th century. The name means “Rock of Barre”, and this beautiful island was, and still is, considered sacred ground to all Irish. Because of its remote location, this was an excellent place for mass to be said during the Penal Laws as mass had to be performed in secret, away from the English. These laws, which lasted from 1607 to 1920, denied Catholics self-improvement, holding office, being educated, and especially practicing their cherished Catholic faith. I was informed that as far back as the 1800’s all Irish, especially those with the name of Leary/O’Leary/Sullivan, and O’Sullivan, would come here and make a pilgrimage with their families. Knowing these facts brought tears to my eyes, as it is very likely my great grandparents, John Leary and Hanna Sullivan, and great great grandparents, Edward Leary and Julia Sullivan (no relation) were here. In addition to the beautiful church of St. Finbar, the monastery is still here, and people come from all over and pray. Spiritual healings are frequent. I cannot explain, but there was a tangible feeling that I was meant to be at Gougane Barra on this date…to feel….to immerse….to connect....to believe…..to know….my ancestors. There is such serenity here as it's so obvious why people come here: …to pray….to meditate….to give thanks….and to wonder at the beauty that surrounds them.
We headed back to Creedon’s to prepare for our gala dinner, that included speeches, live music, entertainment, and dancing. Dinner was lovely, and everyone was in a most festive mood.
Our last day in Inchigeela started with a great talk by Rosie Ni Laoghaire on Albert and James Leary in World War I, followed by a discussion of the O’Leary’s and Leary’s by Diarmuid O’Leary. We then headed over to St. Finbar and Holy Angels Church in Inchigeela for mass. Before mass ended, there was a presentation of the Michael O’Leary plaque, and father blessed it.
After Mass, we walked down to the cemetery and made a visit to the grave of the O’Leary reunion founder, Peter O’Leary. It was a beautiful, warm, sunlit day — just what you would expect on your last day in Inchigeela being surrounded by newfound family and an essence of God’s grace in getting you there, and fulfilling your father’s dream -- and now yours -- of family in Ireland. We then headed back to Creedon’s Hotel for a sad farewell to our family from England, Ireland, and all over the United States. This reunion may have been going on for years, but for me, it was my first time, and the start of a new chapter in my life: to finally meet Leary and O'Leary family in County Cork.
This whole weekend was amazing, but the minute I set foot in Gougane Barra…something magical, spiritual, and fantastic was dawning. And what happened next will make Part II of my Ireland journey even more amazing.
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