To set the mood for writing this Irish yarn, I am sitting here drinking a pint of Guinness and listening to the Chieftains, picturing green pastures and Jack Dillon, my Irish-Catholic New Yorker grandfather (who ironically cared neither for Guinness nor the Chieftains).
Whether they were born there or are many generations removed, people of Irish descent feel a real kinship to the island, which makes it all the more special to be there and reconnect with one’s roots.
Growing up with a mother in the airline industry I spent much of my free time travelling, first, in Latin America, then to Western Europe. Since graduating from university I have been on the road living and working abroad, mostly in Asia. But throughout my travels I have been waiting for the right moment to get back to my hereditary homeland.
This notion of returning to my Irish roots has been in my head since I plucked my first four-leaf clover at the age of five. I even went through a stage in middle school where I spoke with an Irish lilt. (You can imagine how popular this made me in the rural south; fortunately it was a short phase!)
This notion of returning to my Irish roots has been in my head since I plucked my first four-leaf clover at the age of five.
When the wheels finally touched ground on the great green isle for my first visit, I felt something many people feel when they return to their ancestral home: an uncomfortable familiarity. Everyone looked like a cousin of mine, and I looked like a local—a stark contrast for someone who had lived in China for seven years.
My task was twofold: I was to find out information about the family history and genealogy of a traveller who would be coming on a B&R bespoke trip in a few months, and I wanted to do the same for myself and trace my own family’s roots.
In Search of Broods with Brogues
By coincidence (call it luck o’ the Irish), the region in which I’d be searching for the traveller’s lost relatives, from County Galway, through County Mayo and up to County Sligo, was the same area my great-great-grandfather hailed from.
On our trips to Ireland we stay at the Lough Inagh Lodge, and Dominic and Marie, the GM and owner, respectively, helped me out with some wise words. They told me to go to the pubs or to the churches. Both places documented people and provide a written history of the country; whether through births in the church or bets at the pub, between the two they knew all the dirty secrets of this north Atlantic isle.
So search I did. And let me tell you, it was a heroic task to scour the churches and pubs from Galway to Sligo. After the first few pubs, though, I started to see a trend that would help cut my work in half. If I waited for the correct time of week and day, I could find the church in the pub—a priest with a pint! And in Westport, in County Mayo, I found just that: a friendly priest in a pub told me he knew some farmers with the same name as my travellers, and from the pub phone I called and asked if I could come over the next day to meet!
I was overjoyed to find the B&R travellers’ long-lost cousin in only a few days, and was able to arrange a special event in which the travellers met their family on the first bike ride of the trip. They even had scones and tea in their cousin’s country home!
My personal family history, however, proved a bit tougher to dig up. After a few more days of asking around in small towns all over western Ireland, I came across the proverbial pot of gold in Cong, a tiny town in County Mayo. It was raining—of course—and nearing the end of the day; I was tired and decided to pop down to the pub, which like many pubs in Ireland rested at the bottom of a hill, to warm up and see what I could find. I made it into the pub but had taken a spill on the way, so in addition to being soaking wet, I was now covered in mud—quite the sight to see, as you can imagine.
Searching for long-lost family at both the bottom of a hill and the bottom of a pint, I asked the bartender if he knew any Dillons in the village.
“Dillons!?” He replied with a scowl, “Sheep thievin’ bastards!”
And at that moment, so much of my family history began to make sense.
My search ended, I ordered another pint to wait out the rain.