I failed to mention in my previous post (but was reminded when I found my initial draft on my iPad) that I had begun to feel a certain, unfamiliar type of hesitation around all this. It began while reading the guidebook in the library, and surged when waking up the next day.
Who am I to just roll into Ireland, to County Mayo, searching for *anything* that might help to fill the void that comes with being a “white” “American” male?
Up until recently, I had always sort of scoffed at white people “tracing their roots”. I took it as more of an escape, a way to bypass the wretched soup in the belly that comes with waking up to what it means to be, a “white” “American”. An identity forged with equal parts fantasy, brutality, and manipulative relational norms – and still very infant yet (when left unexamined) shamefully ignorant and full of denial.
I wasn’t convinced that I should be allowed to even see about tracing my roots until I gave a full go at getting intimate with my primary and known identity, “white”, “American”, male. (I’m not sure if I ought to put quotes around male, it seems fundamentally different than the constructs of whiteness and Americanness, but I’m fairly confused about gender and biological sex at the moment) ((I’m feeling like my tone thus far is very pretentious…until further revision please know this is ~90% reflection, ~10% projection, and ~0% judgement towards anyone else))
So – for the past several years I *have* been grappling with whiteness and Americanness and wondering if I haven’t tried hard enough because I’m mostly clinically sane, and I hate to admit that I’m able to sleep most nights even knowing what I’ve come to know. To my defense, I think sleeping often and wherever has been a handy coping mechanism for dealing with the exhaustion of trying to engage with the madness beneath all of this. Some glimpses of my attempts thus far can be gotten at www.instagram.com/white_vinegar_… (now I sound like I’m signing off at a democratic debate going on promoting my homepage [cry face emoji])
Alright I’ll get on with the day in Ireland, because even with the mounting hesitation, I *had* given myself permission (after much external and some divine permission) to finally go searching for new balms to apply to *the void*.
…After breakfast at the hostel and making my way to the car and taking a deep breath, I set out for Ashling’s Dollar Store ~30 minutes away in Newport. I walked in, exchanged “hiya”s with who I presumed was Ashling and proceeded to browse as if I wasn’t going to ask if she had any leads on the previous generations of Keane’s or Mulhern’s I might be related to. I grabbed a reusable water bottle (I seemed to have lost mine the day before) and walked up to the checkout.
I awkwardly got my questions out and she smiled and started running down a list of people who might be able to help. A mother and two daughters walked in to do some back to school shopping, and Ashling exclaimed to them, “hiya…this guy’s tracing his roots, isn’t that nice?”
I wanted to plead my case that I believed I had earned the ability to do this, that I was special, exceptional, not just trying to run away from an unexamined, subconcious fear of my white male Americanness; but before that thought even finished, the mother had nodded and turned towards her daughters who were excitedly rummaging through a stack of notebooks, trying to decide which color was the best color.
Anyway, at the top of Ashling’s list was Keane’s Meats next door, who might be able to tell if my line of Keane’s was connected to their line of Keane’s. (Our line of Keane’s was originally K-E-A-N-E, but changed to C-A-I-N at Ellis Island in New York for reasons I’m not definitively sure about. Apparently the Irish spell things differently on any given day and the people at Ellis Island didn’t really care about accuracy, so…) ((It goes without saying that I felt all the irony about being related to the town butchers…you can of course laugh about it as well))
So I stopped in to Keane’s Meats next door, nervously struck up the family conversation (after it was obvious I wasn’t looking to buy fresh mutton). The man, Richard Keane, slightly gleefully engaged and started asking for all the details that I knew. After establishing dates of birth and names of siblings etc, he thought there was a good chance we were related but there were some serious holes of information. He told me he’d make some calls and also told me to go have a chat with the woman at the local parish office “down at the end of the street, to the left, across from the plant store” to look for baptismal records of the ancestors I had a little information on (namely my great grandpa also named Richard Keane) and to come back after he had some time to make the calls. So I bought some Keane’s Marmalade, thanked him and set off to the parish office.
I couldn’t tell where the end of the street was and “local parish” didn’t register in Google Maps, and so I ended up at the Post Office. I picked out some post cards while in line (they say “the queue”) to chat with the attendant and noticed a large hard cover book about the history of the uprisings in Newport, County Mayo. I brought the book and post cards up to the counter and the attendant began explaining how significant the book was and how much of an effort it was for the local community to put together.
Another woman walked in behind me and joined the conversation. I told them I was looking for the parish office and any local Keanes and Mulherns, and the new woman informed me that Debby (at the parish office) is only in Tuesdays and Thursdays (it was Wednesday), but there *is* an old woman Mulhern a few blocks away and that I should jump in her car and she’d drop me off. Okay…but before leaving, the post office attendant also told me to stop into the chemist (pharmacy) and ask the chemist (pharmacist) to get the phone number of his father who loves helping people research family ties.
So she drops me off at a corner a few doors down from Ashling’s and points down a long street of houses and says Mrs. Mulhern lives “down there”. I walked down and back up the street and didn’t see any signs on any doors, and wasn’t about to knock on every door. I gave up on finding Mrs. Mulhern for the moment.
I was starving, so I stopped in to Kelly’s Kitchen next door to Ashling’s. It was packed and the hostess sat me down at a table with another solo man. He lived about an hour away and was traveling for work and we struck up a convo about history and politics and family lineage and working in the area. I also had my first proper Fish n Chips! (see pics) (I’ve come a long way since my strictly hard line vegan phase which is another series of posts…apologies to anyone who has felt judged about their dietary preferences along the way, unless of course it was warranted, I mean, sorry, moving on…)
I finished half the Fish n Chips, boxed it up and walked back over to Keane’s. Richard hadn’t had much luck with his phone calls and unfortunately his brother who might also know some useful information was out with a broken ankle. He told me the chemist was the next best option, which was right next door.
The chemist was happy to give me his father’s number and assured me that his father loves little research projects. He also told me to try finding Mrs. Mulhern, who lives “right on the corner just down there”…
…I nervously knocked on the door of a house on a corner and an elderly woman answered the door. She indeed was the Mrs. Mulhern on the block, but only a Mulhern through marriage, and she didn’t think she had any useful insight for me. Since the family information I had (see pics) stated the Mulhern’s I was related to originated in Glenhest – a smaller town ~15 minutes further down the road – she said I should just drive out there and ask anyone I could find if they knew anything, potentially someone at the church or the school if they were open, which I couldn’t miss on the left hand side of the road right next to each other.
This felt like maybe more than I could handle, especially after already asking several strangers in this bigger town for leads, but I resigned to the fact that I just had to head out to Glenhest, this tiny village that only showed up on the map if you zoomed all the way in.
I got back into the car, put Glenhest into my phone maps and took off. ~15 minutes (and maybe four songs by Kettcar, see soundtrack below) later and I past two buildings on the left, one resembling a church, the other a big rectangle that could conceivably be a school.
I stopped, reversed the car back to the church, parked, got out, creeped around the church a bit, concluded there were no humans inside, looked over and saw an elderly woman walking towards the door of the only building (presumably her house) between the church and the (maybe) school. She stopped and turned around towards me and proceeded to stand there watching me. I got back in my car, drove 20 yards to the (maybe) school – passing the woman’s driveway – parked, creeped around there a bit, concluded there were no humans inside, looked back over to see the old woman still watching me, got back in my car, drove to the end of her driveway between the church and (at this point safe to assume) school, took 10 breaths, got out and started slowly walking up the old woman’s driveway.
She stood there while her black lab dog mate ran towards me barking. She walked to her car and proceeded to honk the horn a couple times, I imagined to alert the town of my trespassing, so I stopped in my tracks. When the dog turned around and ran back to her upon hearing the horn, I felt like I still had a chance of being welcomed.
I finally reached the old woman and began explaining how I was from the states and apparently had Keane and Mulhern great grandparents who had lived in the area until ~1905 when for unknown reasons left for what had become known as America and I was in the area looking for any information that felt meaningful in some way and…she smiled, raised her cane to point across the street towards a tiny one lane road. “Go down that road”, she said. “Take a right. The first house is a man by the name of Joe Cain. Not K-E-A-N-E, but he maintains the cemetery. He might be able to help you out.”
As she turned to begin walking into her house I asked who the dog was and if I could pet the dog. She smiled and said “Sheba.”
I said hello to Sheba, thanked the woman again, and started walking back to my car.
Sure enough – the road across the street was the road to the local cemetery, and there was a house not too far down with a driveway that felt fairly open to the public.
With a slightly reduced nervousness than 15 minutes prior, I knocked on the door and a man with a very thick, extremely quick accent confirmed he was indeed Joe Cain, welcomed me in, and told me to have a seat at a table that another man was also sitting at, proceeded to pour me a cup of coffee, and feed an elderly woman across the small room some type of soup. He informed me that this woman was his mother and that she was ill.
The other man – Shamus – began speaking to me in an even thicker, even quicker accent, and I did my best to explain how I had found myself in their home. Shamus wrote down my information on a piece of paper while I told them both everything I knew about “my roots”. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were intentionally speaking so fast and thick to mess with me, albeit amicably, which would be entirely fair, and most likely very Irish of them, but maybe also very American of me to suspect? Regardless, I’m pretty sure I caught a couple smirks and glints of eyes as we continued getting acquainted.
They rattled off a number of names, where people had moved, who had died, and that if I was indeed related to Daniel Mulhern and Mary Forrestal (Mulhern) – who were my great great grandparents, the parents of Ellen Mulhern, who was the mother of my late Grandpa Chuck – that I would also be related to a Pauline Loftus – who was the daughter of Anna Mulhern, who was the (much younger) sister of Ellen, therefore a cousin of my Grandpa Chuck – who was still living not too far away. (At this point I was as scattered as you must be trying to read this) ((I’ve also included some audio of this conversation, which I asked permission to record for archival purposes))
Joe gave me Pauline’s number and said he’d also try to reach her before I left. He finished feeding his mother and told me we could head out to the cemetery. I was beyond flustered and nervous about what was to be found but managed to keep breathing and let go and let god…
We hopped in our cars and I followed him down the dirt road. He stopped in front of a house along the way and he told me to follow him over to check out the remains of a house that the Mulhern family lived in… (What?!?) I took some pictures and we were back on the road, pulling up to the cemetery in just a couple minutes more.
The cemetery was literally unbelievable, arguably inspiration for some Lifetime movie, and also just a routine visit for Joe. I attempted to keep up with him as he led me through the gate and down an aisle as he pointed to and explained where relevant areas would be. He stopped in front of the headstone of Daniel Mulhern and Mary Nee Forestal (the great great grandparents who up until then were just names that had been typed onto a document (by my mom’s sister, Aunt Lynn) that I had to keep referring to on my phone…). Seeing my frazzled state, Joe gave me some time to stand there and take a few pictures, and then he proceeded to show me additional family members who had been buried nearby. He invited me to take as much time as I wished, and that he had to go back to his mother.
While sitting with the graves considering what any of this really meant, I looked over and noticed a brilliant green field on the other side of a stonewall that I immediately recognized from dreams I’ve had as well as imagery that’s come up from the depths of my being in various EMDR therapy sessions. I had come to Ireland in large part with the hopes of laying in a field on a hill, and so far every field had been occupied by some type of four legged grazers. (which I would have happily laid down next had it come to that)
I accepted the fact that I had either gone completely mad, or was just in another dream, and still proceeded to climb over the stonewall and survey this glorious field. In a few moments I had picked out just the right spot, laid down, and soon found out that this field even contained a mossy bed underneath the grass that simulates what I imagine it would feel like to float in space.
Time proceeded to stop while I closed my eyes and just laid there, the breeze from the woods blowing over me towards the cemetery. I didn’t know how to know when I ought to leave this spot, but I didn’t need to decide because *something* reminded me that I had brought some of my mom’s ashes with me in the car and I felt that it was now okay to leave that spot and proceed to get my mom’s ashes and scatter some of them at the gravesite of her great grandparents Daniel and Mary Nee. So I did.
When I was ready to move on, I wanted to show my appreciation to Joe and Shamus somehow, and remembered that I had purchased two jars of marmalade at Keane’s Meats earlier in the day, so I headed back to Joe’s house to thank them again and head on my way. Joe informed me that he was able to reach Pauline Loftus (Grandapa Chuck’s cousin) and that I was welcome to call her to see about getting together. And after maybe another 30 minutes of clarifying all I had scribbled down in my notebook, I really was on my way, leaving the two jars of marmalade for Joe and Shamus.
It turns out the BnB I was moving to from the Croaghpatrick Hostel was just a five minute drive from Joe’s house, so soon enough I was able to check in, get acquainted with my hosts, call Pauline Loftus to schedule a tea date for the following day (very surreal), and head out to “Jack’s Cottage” for a “Rambling House” (a sort of traditional music jam session) that was part of the National Heritage Week, where I got to play a little drums and get acquainted with some of the locals.
At some point during this marathon of a day I realized that it was the birthday of a dear friend who past away in 2001 – Cody James Frisch – and I can’t help but wonder if Cody had some hand in orchestrating some of this, perhaps along with my mom and fellow loved ones in other realms. In any case, it was quite a day and in a very short time after the rambling house and subsequent community tea time at Jack’s Cottage I was back at the BnB and laying in a very comfortable bed and falling asleep while my spirit and body (of which my brain is a part) began to process all of this.
Tags: america grief heritage ireland maleness roots travel whiteness