“How long will you be with us Michael?” Not the kind of phrasing you typically hear from a customs officer. I told him 4 or 5 days I think. In a broad Irish accent he quipped “With a name like that you should have no trouble fitting right in!” I wandered off toward the exit with smile and a tear in my eye. The first of many smiles and many tears over the next few days. I was home.
I set my GPS to Kildare – just far away enough to be out of Dublin, and off the motorway – and discovered some things were true of all small Irish towns: they have a traffic problem. Built long before the car era, streets are narrow with houses close together. Village main roads have bends around tight intersections, and there’s nowhere to park in the centre of towns. So I parked on the edge somewhere, checked my route west and decided that the motorway was the best option for the next couple of hours.
I had read other travellers’ comments who were disappointed in Ennistymon because there was nothing happening there, but it was a wonderful first stop for me: a colourful main street, windy roads, and a stone bridge over spectacular rapids called The Cascades. Impressive as they were I was more interested in something in nearby Kilfenora – a town I’d not heard of until my brother suggested I visit a cemetery there to photograph a grave of Mum’s ancestors – the Byrts.
I pulled in at what seemed to be the middle of town, saw a church nearby and walked immediately in that direction as if following a pre-ordained path. And there it was right in front of me. As I read the words and the enormity of where I was sank in I dissolved into tears. Not tears of sadness; not tears of happiness. It was something much deeper: tears of connection. It felt like a profound crossroads in my life. For so long I had wanted to visit rural Ireland and I was finally here. In the land of my forebears. This is where half of Mum’s family had come from. I was among my own people. Again, I felt at home.
Overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I was feeling I called my brother. Thankfully he answered. Initially I could barely speak but he took up the conversation on his end and began to explain the significance of what I was looking at. It brought me back to reality and stopped the tide of primal emotion that came bubbling to the surface – all because he had suggested some weeks before that I visit this town to take a photograph of a family grave. It may take me months or more to plumb the depths of what I felt there, but it has to do with a deep-seated connection to that place, those people, and the past. I needed to know where I came from.
Our cousin Dennis had gone to some trouble to mark off an area of land on a local map that the Byrts had once farmed. This plot of land was in a place called Toreen where there was no village, and no signposts to indicate where it was exactly. Dennis’ map did have something called ‘Toreen Bridge’ marked on it so I set off to find it via narrow and windy country roads – L roads as they are known in Ireland. Toreen bridge was no more than about 6 or 7 kilometres from Kilfenora.
I was on the verge of turning back when I drove over a small creek on what was hard to see but was effectively a bridge. I got out of the car to feel the land round about and was enjoying some contemplative solitude when this cute, energetic Cocker Spaniel puppy bounded up to me out of nowhere and jumped up all over my jeans with its muddy paws. Obviously its owner was close by and soon this woman appeared quite unfazed that I was standing there in the County Clare equivalent of the middle of nowhere. I asked her if this was Toreen Bridge. She said, “This is Toreen. And that’s a bridge, so …. It’s a nice spot.” And with that she and her puppy wandered off leaving me alone to further contemplate that I’d accidentally stumbled across another ‘ancestral site’. Home again. Connection again. I did what I had seen my friend Marek do on a tragically sad day many decades earlier. As people began to throw flowers on to the lowered coffin of 7 year old Slawek, Marek bent down and picked up a handful of dirt. I bent down and ran some Irish dirt through my fingers …. It helped me understand something Marek said that day. “Now my son is buried in Australian soil this will always be my home. “
GALWAY TO WESTPORT
I had always assumed rural Ireland would be beautiful. I had never imagined it to be rugged. On my drive from Galway to Westport I wanted to avoid roads more likely to be travelled by tourists so I took a route less travelled. I was unprepared for the grandeur, the isolation, and the feeling of being somewhere so remote, so elemental. I knew, and have seen, parts of Scotland like that – spectacular, remote, and unforgiving, and this part of Ireland was the same. Tall, dark mountains, empty valleys, wind-washed loughs. And then there’s the coast – the Irish west coast. The Wild Atlantic Way. I had intentionally spurned the famous Cliffs of Moher further south – preferring to find my own little bit of west coast, and found it in a tiny hamlet called South Devlin. Not your classic and dramatic windswept cliffs view, but windswept certainly with a thundering surf that flung gobs of foam upon the rocky shore, and small jagged cliffs leaving you in no doubt where one misstep might find you. The sensation of finally experiencing the powerful natural forces of this remote and wild coastline answered a strange promise I made to myself as a young man: that I would one day seek out the world of Christy Mahon from JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. And standing there in that wind and spray it felt right; like a crazy dream realised. Maybe my longing to be in such a place answered some ancient DNA insistence that I needed to feel it for myself. Whatever it was, I’d answered that call and as I stood there in the unrelenting wind I jokingly thought, I can die now!
At breakfast in the hotel at Westport the waiter casually asked me what my plans were for the day. I told him I was heading out to Achill – Ireland’s westernmost island. He wanted to know if I had suitable footwear for the marshy swamps on the island and when I pointed to the shoes I was wearing said they wouldn’t do. Some 10 minutes later another waiter appears with a pair of boots in a plastic bag. “A little big for you probably but they’ll do you for the day!” When I said I wasn’t coming back to Westport he said no problem, just drop them off with Beatrice at the hotel near the bridge to the island!
Achill was breathtakingly majestic. Nature at its most powerful – blasting cold winds off the Atlantic on a road that caressed its way around the dramatic coast. It was difficult to drive for more than 10 minutes at a time – to resist the temptation to stop and get out and feel the elements in their raw state seemed foolish. “This is a place where it was impossible to feel anything but joy” I suggested to a fellow traveller as she got out of her car. She just smiled at me.
Hidden away in the hinterland of the unfortunately named County Offaly is Clonmacnoise, the site of a ruined monastery and graveyard dating from 544 AD. I arrived before it was open and had the joy of watching its ghostly outlines emerge out of a morning mist in solitude. Perched high on a hillside overlooking a lake it is dotted with carved stone crosses and old stone walls of the long-gone monastery. I enjoyed a joyous and contemplative hour with this extraordinary site to myself. I was about to leave and begin my journey back to Dublin as I glanced down at one of the gravestones inside the main monastery building and saw something that stopped me in my tracks. ‘RIP – The Coughlin Family’ it read. On another in-ground gravestone beside it was a list of all the Coughlins buried there. Now these Coughlins may or may not be connected to my tribe. No one has ever mentioned a family connection to County Offaly but it just served as one final powerful reminder that this is where Coghlans come from. Coghlans come from Ireland. Ireland in some deeply profound and elemental way that is very hard to articulate - is where I come from. And It seems Ireland was determined to not let me forget that fact. One final time I was full of tears and joy.
And with the enormity of this revelation resounding in my soul I drove towards Dublin airport. I finally understood something that has been a whisper in my heart all my adult life.