Pilgrimage to the Auld Sod

Visiting the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary during my week in Ireland. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

I knew I was Irish from an early age. The story was that my surname had been O’Feeney in the old country, then Feeney when English language schools were imposed, and finally Finney once the family reached America. When I delved into genealogical research in the early 1990s, I discovered that some of this was true. The parish records I obtained from Tulsk and Elphin in County Roscommon listed my great-great-great-grandfather as John Feeney in 1840 and one of his sons as James Feeney. By the time James and his son George were listed in La Crosse County, Wisconsin in 1870, the surname was Finney.

More research revealed a sadder story. While tenants, the Finneys (Feeneys) were Catholic “middling farmers” who had enough money of their own to get out of Ireland before a terrible blight ruined the potato crop and led to catastrophic disease and starvation. My other Irish side, the Lynches of County Clare, did not. Records show them arriving in Canada in 1849 on a “coffin ship,” a filthy ex-slaver put to new use carrying hordes of desperate Irish famine victims as ballast. Many of them died of cholera or typhus on the hideous journey, including my great-great-great-grandmother and one of her sons. But the other children survived, including 13-year-old Mary Ann Lynch, who settled with her father and remaining siblings in Chicago and married James Finney in 1856.

This dramatic personal story became the core of a decade-long obsession with Irish history and culture. I devoured every story and song I could find throughout the 1990s. This was a decade in which things Celtic were very popular. Tartan was back in. Irish pubs proliferated. Movies like Titanic, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, and Braveheart drew huge audiences, as did the stage show Riverdance. Irish bands U2, the Corrs, the Pogues, and the Cranberries dominated the charts. French Breton harpist Alan Stivell, already popular in Europe for mixing traditional Celtic music with progressive rock (I first became a fan in Boston in 1984), enjoyed a revival on both sides of the Atlantic with a series of new albums.

Since early 1992, I had been listening weekly to Fiona Ritchie’s The Thistle and Shamrock on my local NPR station and collecting books and CDs. I read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1962) and books on the Ulster Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, the Penal Laws, the 1798 United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, the Irish diaspora in North America and Australia, the Land League, the Fenians, the Gaelic Revival, and the Easter Rising of 1916. I learned Irish songs and a little of the Irish language and held boisterous St. Patrick’s Day parties every year. I couldn’t get enough of “the Auld Sod.”

So when the opportunity to actually go there in person presented itself at the end of the decade, I leapt at the chance. By that time I was teaching high school, and a colleague of mine, who was also Irish American and an avid fan of Irish history, helped me organize an educational tour for our spring break in April of 2000. We signed up twenty kids and seven of their parents and grandparents and even took along a friend of ours who was a bagpiper. The itinerary included tours of greater Dublin, the Ring of Kerry, Galway City, Limerick, the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, Powerscourt Gardens, and the Waterford Crystal factory.

What interested me the most, of course, was the opportunity to see the land of my ancestors and visit notable historical sites. I read up on many of these as we flew over the Atlantic and landed in Shannon Airport on the western coast of Ireland. I was overcome with emotion as I stood on my ancestral ground for the first time after so many years of study and anticipation. Fulfilling a promise we had made to an Irish priest back home, my colleague and I knelt and kissed the ground, much to the amusement of our traveling companions.

We did not linger in Limerick. We boarded a short flight to Dublin and were soon walking the busy streets of the Irish capital. I took in the road signs, the eclectic crowds, the tall buildings, and especially the streets, where driving on the left took some getting used to as both a passenger and a pedestrian. Our tour guides wasted no time. They took us into the very heart of the city, where we walked the stately grounds of Trinity College and marveled at the intricate knotwork of the medieval Book of Kells in the majestic grandeur of the Long Room. I had been studying the Book of Kells and Celtic knotwork for years. I couldn’t believe I was now seeing it with my own eyes.

Our hotel was located along the banks of the River Liffey across from the famous Guinness Brewery in St. James’s Gate. From there we visited Kilmainham Gaol and stood on the site in the stonecutter’s yard where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed. We went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, founded at the end of the 12th century and the heart of the Anglican Church of Ireland since the Reformation. The inaugural performance of Handel’s Messiah was held there in 1742 when the great satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was Dean. The cathedral holds Swift’s tomb as well as King William III’s chair and the battle flags of Irish regiments who served in the British Army.

Later that day we went to Glasnevin Cemetery with its forest of Celtic crosses and majestic O’Connell Tower, dedicated to the “Great Emancipator” Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) who fought for the civil rights of Irish Catholics. We paid our respects to several other notable figures of Irish history who are buried there, including Constance Markievicz (1868-1927), Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), James Larkin (1876-1947), Roger Casement (1864-1916), and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915). At the grave of Michael Collins (1890-1922), our bagpiper played a lament, attracting an appreciative audience of cemetery visitors and staff.

The next day we visited O’Connell Street and the General Post Office, where Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and the other Easter Rising leaders had made their headquarters. Bullet holes could still be seen in its walls, and a bronze plaque commemorated the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. We walked across the Ha’Penny Bridge and lunched at the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub (founded in 1198). I was enthralled by the architecture, the street buskers, the shops, and the statues and monuments to historic figures. On the way back to our hotel, we walked past the neoclassical dome and columns of the Custom House, where a fire set by the IRA during the Irish War of Independence burned many priceless historical documents in 1921.

Neoclassical collonade of the Custom House in Dublin, designed by architect James Gandon and completed in 1791. The building and many of its vital records were burned during the Irish War of Independence in 1921. It was rebuilt and renovated with Irish limestone in the 1980s. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

From Dublin we headed west across central Ireland. I marveled at the legendary beauty of the rolling green landscape, even more enchanting in person than it had been in pictures. No wonder Irish people are said to be able to distinguish between the seventy shades of green. In County Tipperary we visited the Rock of Cashel, an impressive medieval castle church and traditional home of Irish kings. As we drove west, we stopped in quaint little towns and stopped on several occasions while herds of sheep crossed the road. The wooly animals were painted with different colors to identify their owners and separate them when they returned home in the evening. These “commuters,” our tour guide informed us, were known locally as “an Irish traffic jam.”

After several such charming delays, we arrived at last in the international city of Galway. I was particularly interested in seeing this part of western Ireland, as I knew that my Finney (Feeney) ancestors hailed from Connaught. Some came from the windswept, barren mountains and lakes of Connemara and others from the green farmlands of County Roscommon. In Galway City we visited colorful storefronts and pedestrian thoroughfares of the Latin Quarter and Shop Street. Here I heard native Irish (Gaelic) speakers for the first time when I passed two elderly gentlemen in woolen golf caps, wreathed in pipe smoke as they conversed. I felt I was hearing the voice of ancient Ireland at last.

Dunguaire Castle near Kinvara in County Galway, named after the legendary King of Connaught. The 16th century tower has been featured in several films over the years. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

We headed south from Galway and drove through the Burren to see the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, where we climbed the O’Brien Tower and listened to our bagpiper serenade the birds above and the crowds of tourists below. A strong Atlantic wind whipped his hair and the tassle of his pipes out like the pennant on a ship. As I watched the waves crash against the cliffs, I remembered seeing this stunning vista in one of the scenes from The Princess Bride in 1987. The Cliffs of Moher have been featured in many other Hollywood movies in the years since then, including the popular Harry Potter series.

The breathtaking Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. My great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Lynch (1836-1905), was born near there and emigrated to Canada with her family in 1849. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Returning to the area around Shannon Airport, we visited Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare and enjoyed climbing its narrow staircases. We toured the shops and a dirt-floored pub called Durty Nelly’s and then attended a musical show at a nearby restaurant. The band allowed me to step to the microphone and sing “She Moved Thro’ the Fair,” a traditional Irish lament I had performed a few years earlier when I sang with a progressive rock band in Sacramento. It was an unforgettable moment. The band leader smiled when I finished the song and said, “I can hear Ireland in your voice.”

Traditional Irish phone booth in County Clare. Ireland was still using the pound (punt Eireannach) as its national currency when I visited in April of 2000. They changed to the Euro in 2002. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

We continued on to Muckross House near Killarney and drove into the sweeping landscape of the Lakes of Killarney. The bilingual Irish road signs and rugged slopes of MacGillicuddy’s Reeks filled me with awe and stirred the imagination. As we drove through a rocky landscape filled with the ruins of 19th century cottages, I thought of my Lynch ancestors and the pain and suffering they must have experienced as they faced the decision of leaving their native land. We passed the childhood home of Daniel O’Connell and monuments to Brendan the Navigator and victims of the potato famine. This entire stretch of Irish countryside filled me with a deep sadness.

Bilingual road signs in Irish and English in western Ireland’s Ring of Kerry. Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Moving into southern Ireland, we visited Blarney Castle in County Cork, where most of our party climbed the stone battlements and allowed ourselves to be hoisted upside down to kiss the famous Blarney Stone. Whether or not we were granted the legendary “gift of gab” as a result, most of us were certainly chattering excitedly when we saw the showroom of the marvelous Waterford Crystal factory on our way back to Dublin. The stunning Times Square Ball, constructed from over 500 crystal panes for use in the recent Millennium New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City, was on display and being worked on by the skilled Waterford artisans.

The final leg of our tour took us to the elegant Powerscourt Estate and Gardens, impressive in their grandeur but also a solemn reminder of the powerful Anglo-Irish “Ascendancy” class that ruled the country for centuries. The Grecian and Asian themes of the gardens were well designed and maintained, but certainly not Irish in the traditional Celtic sense of the word. I felt like Tommy in Brigadoon, already slipping away inexorably from the fairy tale land of my dreams. But my reverie was interrupted by last minute duties as chaperone. We stayed our last night in a fine hotel near Killiney Bay and boarded our plane home to the United States the next day.

I watched from my window seat as our plane departed from Irish soil and kept my eyes fixed on the receding landscape as we ascended. Passing clouds obscured my view, but parted just long enough to catch a final glimpse of the verdant peninsulas of Galway and Kerry stretching their fingers of land into the Atlantic, as if they were waving a poignant farewell. My feelings in that moment were profound grief mixed with gratitude. Perhaps I had somehow accessed ancestral memories during my week there. My forebears loved their green native land, as I had come to do during my visit, but were undoubtedly thankful to escape its sad history and embrace a new life in America. I returned to my own native land strengthened and inspired by their example.

Monument to the victims of the Great Famine in County Kerry. More than two million Irish perished or emigrated in the years between 1845 and 1850, including several of my ancestors. Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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