Bloodlines - A Story of Heritage
For many of you, your family and ancestors have come from the country that you now live in, and can be traced back for generations. For others, a recent ancestor took the gamble in leaving the country of their birth to find better conditions.
Whether for economic reasons, or to flee a terrible regime or famine, they left it all behind to start again in a brave new land.
Whilst like me, you are proud to live in these lands, contributing and integrating with the communities of these nations,there is always a pull to the lands of old, and to celebrate and honour the ancestry of these people.
I do this through writing, recording the old stories before they die with their tellers, and photographing these places that were integral to my family's lives before they crumble to ruins.
In a change from writing about the history of others, I would like to share with you a little of the story of my family. It is a year since my last visit to Kerry, Ireland, and "cumha" pulls at me to see the old places, with a longing almost like homesickness. Life is good here, I am not complaining, but I have been trying to understand why I am having these feelings.
In this article, you will read about the impact this place has had on my life, and the struggles my grandfather went through. Leaving rural Ireland behind, he became one of the "deoraithe" an exile of sorts. Later in his life he could not speak of the country of his birth without being deeply moved. I had only seen tears in his eyes twice; once when we returned to his parents' grave, and again when we talked about the old places in Ireland. As frailty of old age crept in, the realisation that he would never return in this lifetime must have upset him greatly.
I live in England, and the Jones part of my name comes from my husband who is of Welsh decent. I myself am one quarter Irish, one eighth Welsh, and the rest is a cobble of all the peoples that conquered Britain over the centuries.
My grandfather, Cornelius Ignatius Aloysius Herlihy was born in 1928 in the southwest of Ireland. His father Patrick (known as Mac) and his mother Ellen (known as Nellcon), lived in a small cottage in Meenscovane; a sparsely populated area of a district known as Knocknagoshel, located in north Kerry between the towns of Abbeyfeale and Castleisland.
Mac worked as a Water Bailiff, paid to patrol the local rivers and pools to ensure that no poaching or fishing took place without a permit. He also worked on road construction, taking jobs when the work was there.
Life was very basic. Turf from the local peat bogs would be cut and dried to provide fuel, and water was drawn from a well or else rainwater was collected in barrels. There were no such comforts as a toilet or bathroom. Even in my day, this part of Ireland was without more modern luxuries. I remember as a child visiting relatives out there, and taking water from a well which was a square cut into the ground in the corner of a field near a hedge. If you wanted a hot bath, water would need to be heated on a stove, and laundry would be done with a bar of soap and a bucket, scrubbing clothes over a wash board before wringing them out and throwing them on the washing line or even a hedge to dry.
When my granddad was growing up, the way of life in the cottage centred around a main living room, set out around the fireplace over which a cooking range would stand. A pot would hang above the range, which would be topped up with water, meat, and vegetables, so that it should never run low. Bread was cooked on the lid of this pot, and a salted ham would hang from a hook in the room to be sliced when a piece was wanted.
The other room would be the sleeping quarters, and in some abodes, this room would accommodate the entire family. My grandmother recalls seeing the drawers of dressing tables being pulled out at night, and used for cots for the infants of the house.
There were no phone lines, although the dwellings had electricity once this remote area was connected to the grid. There was no such thing as a local shop; a trip into town every few weeks was a major event, and would have to see you through until the next visit. Few people had a motor car.
People found their own entertainment. Mac would go to the crossroads on a Wednesday night for a "Dance-a-diddle". A few locals who could play musical instruments would play jigs and reels, and the men and women would dance wildly until the drink ran out or their legs grew tired. On a Friday, the cottage would welcome friends from the community to hear and share stories. Gossip, folklore, history, and legends, it was all here. There was even a song or two.
My grandfather left Ireland at around 1947 at the age of 19. Like many Irish folk around this time, he sought a better life. Wages and work prospects were better in England than in Ireland at the time, but it was not an easy step to take. Most Kerrymen had never been abroad before, and a fair few had never even left the borders of their own county. Even today in the more isolated parts, you will find people who have kept local their whole lives!
There were also prejudices to be faced. Some English were hostile towards the Irish, and vice versa following the Independence. Being used to a slower, more rural life, jokes would be made about the intelligence of the Irish immigrants. Some Irish would turn to drink to soften the emotional strains of leaving home behind, whilst others would return. However, friendships and communities were forged that would provide support for the immigrants through their whole lives, and their legacies continue to this day.
Cornelius was a stubborn and intelligent man, and his stout heart gave him the strength to endure and settle in a new land. He met my nan and they were married in 1952 when he was 24. They got stuck into setting up a family, and had four children including my mother. My grandfather worked as hard as his own father did, working two full-time jobs at the same time until finances got a little more secure.
As I grew up, I remember my granddad’s stories of his childhood in Ireland, and his songs.
His tall tales always raised a smile, and we were always enchanted by his account of how a circus once visited the local town when he was a child. He and his friends snuck away from home and made it to the circus. With no money to buy a ticket, they were only able to stick their heads under the tent. They saw a great creature, never seen before… an elephant! Terrified, and convinced it was a monster, the three boys ran all the way home.
Another of his stories was how he saw a banshee fly over one night when he was out late fishing in a creek. He hid from view in case her wails were meant for him or one of the family. He would love to share folklore and superstitions with me, demonstrating how to make a wish with a foxglove, and the correct etiquette when meeting one of the Good People.
I have been lucky enough to visit Kerry many times throughout my life, but it was when my granddad was in the twilight of his life, that I realised the significance of the tales he shared with us. Besides a great aunt in Canada, and some distant cousins in Ireland, he was the last direct ancestor linking me to Ireland. When he passed away, my living tie would be severed and I realised at that point, more than ever, the importance of preserving the heritage I have inherited for the sake of my own child.
As I grew up, I remember my granddad’s stories of his childhood in Ireland, and his songs. His tall tales always raised a smile
In 2014, I took my husband and small daughter to Kerry. Whilst we enjoyed our holiday with the usual activities such as hikes in the mountains and trips to the seaside, one day was set aside to explore the places that my grandfather grew up in. Thankfully we had my own father and mother travel up with us, who were able to direct us to these sites and describe their significance.
The first part of the journey was the most important; to pay our respects at the graveyard.
Seeing the gravestone of my grandfather’s brother and wife moved me deeply. Gaelic speakers, they lived in the house that Mac and Nellcon raised all their children in, until they died. Their cottage was a simple affair, painted white with yellow windows, with a shed on the side to store the turf, and a barrel against the drainpipe to catch the rainwater.
I remember how their home smelled of peat smoke, cooked bacon, and damp. The décor inside was a blend of slightly psychedelic 1970’s wallpaper and religious iconography; the meek face of Jesus watching down from a painting opposite the hearth. The stone floor had been covered with green linoleum which had been worn away to nothing near the oven and fireplace.They were modern enough to have a cooker and fridge, but there was no phone line or toilet.
Grandfather’s brother Patrick (known as Pats) was fairly tall and of slight build. The lines on his face and leathery hands spoke of a life of hard work. He was an old man when I knew him, and had lost all of his teeth. His set of dentures was a poor fit, and we all used to wonder if he had obtained them second-hand. They made it even more difficult to understand the fellow when he spoke, as his accent was so strong and he would fall into Gaelic frequently. His wife, Bridget (known as Birdy) was shorter, and had the kindly face of an old grandmother. To keep out the cold, she would wear many layers of clothing and it seemed as if she wore her entire wardrobe at once. She was house proud and humble; a quiet lady who spoke with smiles. She refused to replace her old frying pan with a new one, as food tasted better from the old blackened pan!
There was always a cup of tea offered, a most important welcoming ritual to the Irish. If we were lucky, there were even fondant fancies or Kimberley biscuits. Remembering Pats and Birdy with love, we laid a bunch of carnations on their grave.
We then travelled to an older burial ground to visit the graves of Mac and Nellcon. With no living relatives nearby, the grave had become overgrown with tall grasses and wildflowers. A briar rose had taken root and was thriving on the spot. Again, we laid flowers, and spent a moment explaining to our little one who these people were that slept beneath the ground.
I wanted to see the place where my grandfather was born.
We travelled to Meenscovane, following the single track road over a stream in which my grandfather would fish, and past the fields which bore the ghosts of other memories for my mother who would visit there as a child. Tall hedges of fuchsias lined the lane, with montbretias and ferns fighting for space along the mossy verges. Now and again we would see a ruined cottage and were advised to keep our eyes peeled, as one was the house in which Cornelius was born.
After a short while, we came to a white cottage. I didn’t recognise it at first. There was a gravel driveway and a satellite dish on the side of the roof. After a moment, I realised that this was the place where my grandfather grew up, and later the house that Pats and Birdy lived in with their son, Pa Joe. The sight of it under new ownership was a shock, as it had changed a lot since I remembered it. Gone were the turf shed, and the lawn around the cottage. The place of my memories was no more. Yet this was no bad thing. My grandfather feared that the cottage would fall into ruin after Pats and Birdy passed away, and it was comforting to see that not only did it still stand, but had been modernised and made fit for comfortable living.
We continued onwards, to the crossroads where the old cottage once stood. By the time I was born, this was already a ruin. By the time we visited this year, all that was visible was a low mound underneath the grass. I wondered how many homes that belonged to Irish families ended up in the same condition?
Whilst time wears what is left behind to dust and ruin, the descendants of those men and women who ventured to lands far away have forged their own destinies.
The past is remembered with nostalgia, and a mixture of fondness and sorrow. The older generations remember dancing the nights away to merry tune of the fiddle, the days when carts were pulled down the lanes by donkey, and when the hay was turned in the meadows into stacks. These stand side-by-side with the memories of the days when there was not enough food on the table, the children had to go barefoot, and there was no money to fix the roof and stop the rain coming in.
What did occur to me was this. That no matter where you are in the world, the blood sings in your veins. Ireland will always be there, even if these places crumble away to nothing.
My granddad passed away this time last year, after suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. I have begun to understand why I have felt this flood of emotion and the longing. As he lost his memories, so did we. By telling stories and recording them, we keep them alive forever.
And so I write.
© 2015 Pollyanna Jones