March 6, 2012
Returning to Kerry – the Flahertys and the O’Donnells
My cousin Dan Flaherty died twenty years ago at age 53. As he left us, he was doing what he loved: tending his sheep atop the mountain overlooking the farm below that he shared with his wife Eileen and daughter Margaret. I love all the Flahertys, but I reserve a special place for Dan. He was a community leader, a regular in the Castlemaine players group, and a much-loved performer in his neighborhood musicales. And from our first meeting almost 30 years ago, he was my friend. The following account of that first meeting with our Irish family members was published 29 years ago and I dedicate it now to Dan Flaherty and the cousins in County Kerry and beyond.
REACHING back into the past and confronting your beginnings has grown compulsively popular and very much the buffed personal journey to take in recent years. Much of the allure of the genealogical mania has rightly been attributed to Alex Haley and his book and TV series “Roots.” But for Irish Americans who have found the excellent Irish Catholic Church records compelling, and the proximity of their native land a boon to ancestor-hunting, the roots of the old country have long held a potent fascination
John F. Kennedy, as president, visited his forebears’ homestead in June of 1963 and the photographs showing him with his Wexford cousins quickly became the focal point of his Irish pilgrimage —and front page, happy-time news around the world. Who can forget the beaming young world leader standing near the humble Dunganstown home of his grandfather surrounded by his equally delighted Irish relatives. That image contributed greatly, at least among the American Irish, to the upsurge of interest in Ireland and those who came before us.
Yet despite all that and a personal, quiet longing to someday visit the birthplace of my mother’s parents, Tadgh Flaherty and Annie Griffin Flaherty, I had resisted the temptation on many earlier Irish trips to “intrude” on ordered lives and separate worlds. The attempt to connect with ancestors in Ireland was simply something I would get to later. I had no idea, of course, if any Irish relatives were still alive and living in Ireland, and if so, what their reaction might be if a “Yank cousin” and his trailing family actually presented themselves at their front door.
Just a kernel of family lore
I knew from early on that my maternal grandparents had come to this country from Ireland around the turn of the century. I could vividly recall the difficulty I had as a youngster trying to decipher my grandparents’ brogues on our Sunday excursions to Dorchester from Somerville. But beyond that meager kernel of family history, I knew nothing further. But this year, 1983, I told myself on our annual visit to Ireland with my wife Jean and daughter Erin, it would be different.
The trail began close to home in Dorchester, when my mother’s brother Timmy handed me two long-forgotten Irish registry certificates. The papers confirmed that both grandparents were born and baptized in the district of Castlemaine, a small farming community over the Slieve Mish Mountains from Tralee in County Kerry.
The next portion of the link was St. Gobnait Parish in Castlemaine. The church pastor, Father Casey, who, when we knocked on his door, didn’t seem at all surprised either at our visit or our request for information. After introductions and cold drinks for his three visitors, the priest produced from a nearby cabinet what looked to be a Dickensian ledger book, the official record of baptisms in the parish. Almost before the good Father could complete his apology about the parish’s “poor record-keeping,” he was tracing his finger along the neatly scripted entries of a century ago. It was all there: both my mother’s parents’ baptismal dates and godparents’ names. All the godparents would show up later as sponsors of a succeeding generation of new births.
All told the entire process, exclusive of the hospitality, at the parish office had consumed less than ten minutes. Our next stop, as directed, was at the “Keel Church” some two miles away on the main road where Tadgh and Annie were christened; Tadgh in 1875, Annie in 1878. I couldn’t keep my eyes off a large, ornate crystal baptismal font where a century earlier both, as infants, had been christened. I had difficulty reconciling the two elderly Irish I knew from Lafield Street in Dorchester and the two babies that began their lives on St. Gobnait’s altar here in Kerry in the late-19th century.
But now, leaving the church, it was time (ready or not) to meet the cousins, who Father Casey told us were only minutes away. Our first stop was a small farm at the curve-end of a slim dirt road in the Shanachill section of Castlemaine. There a man pitching hay listened patiently to our story, nodded knowingly, and directed us to a farm building up the road where, he assured us we would find “your cousins, the Flahertys.” And so we did.
We wouldn’t meet Dan, who was in Tralee, until later that evening, but his brother George, a bachelor who owned and worked a nearby farm —another second cousin (our grandfathers were brothers) welcomed us with conversation, tea, and open arms. George introduced his mother, Margaret Flaherty, widow of George’s father Dan Sr. George explained that he had long expected cousins from the states would someday come calling, and there we were. During the following talk-filled hours as we sat in the farmhouse kitchen we discussed decades-old leavings and homecomings, births and deaths, and the sudden-new family history of both the stateside and Kerry Flahertys.
‘Extended family’ time
Photographs of Irish relatives I had never met nor would ever meet, were taken down from the mantle and the term “extended family” took on a new dimension. I would learn from George and Dan the adventurous lives of the peripatetic Flahertys of Ireland. I discovered that four brothers, Matt, Tom, Dan, and Tadgh (Tim) had emigrated to America in search of that better life. One brother, Dan, father of the Dan I was sitting across from, homesick for the gentle, rolling farm country surrounding the River Maine, would return home after nine years in America. The other three brothers, including my grandfather Tadgh, would never return.
We also learned during the tea-driven revelations, that we had additional cousins in the states, sisters of Dan, George and Tom, now married and living in Buffalo. As we sat around the table that evening talking of the past and what our respective lives had been, there was muted surface excitement, but little to indicate the inner satisfaction and sense of fulfillment of the two sets of cousins, one American, the other Irish. We had covered the miles and the years to a moment of homecoming none of us would forget.
After returning to Boston —safely distanced from the stark emotions of that familial encounter —I thought about those long, comforting hours in Kerry and what I had left there and, more importantly, what I had left with. I remember even now that look on Dan’s face when he first discovered who we were. I recall the softened but still discernible disappointment when the brothers spoke wistfully of their father, Dan, Sr. who had died six years earlier, always hoping to meet the American cousins that would surely come some day.
Months later I can still hear Dan’s voice, the evening milking chores finished, on our last night in Kerry, saying in a near-whispered aside, “I will never forget this.” And neither will I.