I’ve noticed that when you tell people that you are going to Ireland, one of the first things they will ask you is whether or you are Irish. The answer to that question in my case is, “Yes I guess if you add it all up, I’m about twelve and half percent Irish.” Which 12 and a half percent, you ask? From a genealogical side, my paternal great-grandfather was born in Ireland as were some of my paternal grandmother’s ancestors. My father was deeply connected to Ireland from a spiritual standpoint even though he never had the chance to make his trip Home.
I’ve also noticed that so many who have any Irish roots feel a sense of connectedness to this magical island of green. Many have described a sense of returning Home when they first set foot on Irish soil. My wife Christiana has used these words often. One of our fellow pilgrims who arrives this morning for her first trip ever to Ireland has referenced the word Home in her recent correspondence. Even or host Rob Hayes, our Shaman friend sent us a message as we arrived yesterday saying, “Welcome home. Looking forward to seeing ye later this evening…”
What is it about Ireland that makes anyone with even a drop of Irish blood feel a pulling to experience this sense of Home? Well I could spend a lifetime trying to explain that concept and I am hardly an expert so I won’t even try. What I can do though is tell you one of my stories about why those of us with Irish roots need to find the soil that their ancestors stood upon, fought for and in many cases died on.
This story was originally published last September as a blog long before I knew I was going to go on to make storytelling such a huge part of my life. It also served as and as my Icebreaker speech last October as I was just starting my speaking career. Next month I’ll finish my Competent Communicator with my tenth speech at Toastmasters. It’s interesting to see how much has changed in both my writing and my speaking in the last year. Here is the story from last year as I would tell it right now:
My Quest for the Tower at Ring
Twelve years ago when I came to Ireland I sought out the village named Ringaskiddy. Locals call it The Ring for short. I sought out this village because it was the home of my great-great-grandfather James Henry Herbert and his wife Margaret Sullivan. They both died relatively early in life but before they did, they had a few children one of whom was my great grandfather Henry William Herbert. Henry was left without either parent by age 16 so he was then looked after by his uncle and some years later he emigrated to the United States via Queenstown, Ireland. Queenstown, Ireland has now gone on to reclaim the name of its heritage An Cobh (pronounced like the word cove).
If you are Irish and you live in America there is at least a 50% chance your relatives left from Cobh harbor because of the three million Irish emigrants who fled to the US during the period of heavy emigration from 1850 to the end of WWII, better than half left from Cobh.
My trip to The Ring twelve years ago left me wanting for much more. When I came twelve years ago I was in a different place and it was a different time. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to feel this place the way I’m capable of feeling it now at age fifty. The information we can access now through Google and Wikipedia and other search methods make it much easier to find the subtle connections on the map of dots we follow to find our answers. On my trip twelve years ago all I found about Ring was that it had become a heavily populated commercial area with Pfizer plants and Johnson and Johnson headquarters.
The local pub I found twelve years ago had only been there for about 30 years and it carried no history forward from days gone by. I had hoped to sit at a bar that one of my ancestors might have sat at and have a pint of Guinness. No such place even existed. My great-grandfather had published a book with our family history and many references to his youth in Ringaskiddy. I read the book before my trip twelve years ago only to discover that the Ringaskiddy of his day looked nothing like the Ringaskiddy of 2002.
So I came back to The Ring last year with a hope and a belief that that I could find a way to connect to the past a bit more completely. On the night before our arrival I pulled up a wikipedia search on Ringaskiddy. The only thing of note in the posting was the mention of a Martello tower at the top of the highest hilltop in Ring. This information wasn’t available to me twelve years ago. The tower has stood there for hundreds if not thousands of years. The wiki posting mentioned that you could access the tower from the Lough Beg road and that the spot offered panoramic views of Cobh harbor. I figured if the tower had been there as long as it had and it was at the top of the hill with views of the sea there was no chance in the world that Herbert men of days gone by with their love of the sea hadn’t climbed up their to smell the sea air and be mischievous. I had to find that tower!
The drive from our previous night’s lodging point to Ring was about two hours. I was excited but did not want to get my hopes up too high based on my experience from twelve years ago. No sooner than we drove into Ring, I immediately saw the sign for Lough Beg road. My heart began to flutter. Maybe it was finally going to the experience I had dreamed of!
We drove past the sign on our first pass, so I turned around and went back to venture down Lough Beg road. I turned down the street and drove for about one kilometer through a winding lane that was covered in fallen leaves. Sunshine streamed through the branches of the trees onto the hood of the car. As we came around a big bend in the road I could feel my anticipation bursting through my chest. Our rental car came up to a slight crest in the hill and as it did my eyes looked out and we drove right up to…
The gate to a Johnson and Johnson factory
My heart sank, only this time it sank even more so than it did twelve years ago because this time I truly believed and had some confidence that I was ready to find these answers. We turned and drove back to the main part of town, which at this point is all of a few houses and that one same pub that was here twelve years ago. I figured there was at least a chance someone would know more about the route to the tower.
As we were driving back to town though, I noticed a little stairway that climbed randomly up a hill that seemed to lead to nowhere except a bunch of old trees. I stopped the car and turned around to investigate more fully. Christiana asked me if I wanted to put on my shoes before I got out of the car. I drive in my stocking feet so I can get a better feel for the clutch and the brake than I can with my hiking boots. I replied, “No I just want to give it a look and see if it leads to anything more.”
I climbed the stairs in my stocking feet and I saw a very thin path that ran next to an old fence. The path was overgrown with wild blackberry bushes, but it was most definitely a path. I returned to the car to gather my shoes and Christiana. Much to her dismay, I jammed my leaf covered socks into my boots without brushing them off. We then together went back up the stairs and proceeded down the path. The further we got down the path the narrower it became, but that only made me walk faster. Christiana had on tights and a wool sweater so let’s just say the bushes were a bit less welcoming to her than they were to me in my heavy denims and hiking boots.
She pushed on nonetheless because she knew how much this quest meant to me. As we got nearer to the top of the hill all I could see peaking out was a tall series of electric wires and a wind turbine in the distance. After about ten minutes of winding and twisting through the thorns and berries I finally saw what looked to be an opening in the path. The opening led to a field of grass. I looked out across the field of grass and then I finally saw the piece of evidence I had been waiting to see for my entire life.
In the middle of the field of grass field stood the Martello tower. It was the most beautiful collection of old ruined stones I have ever seen in my life. I ran to the tower and climbed up the exterior wall and then I turned around and saw for the first time in my life the view of Cobh harbor that Wikipedia had promised just the night berfore. I saw the same view of Cobh harbor that James Henry and William Henry had seen almost 150 years ago. I knew this to be true with every fiber of my being.
On my trip last year I saw more than my fair share of sacred spaces, but to me that space was the most sacred of all of them.
On the way out of town we stopped at that same 30-year old pub, which I guess was actually 40 years old now. We had a pint of Guinness. It didn’t bother me anymore that none of my ancestors had ever sat there and had a pint. My tower quest was now complete.
As we drove out of Ringaskiddy I thought to myself, “I wonder if that pub will be there 150 years from now? Maybe my great-great grandson will have a pint there?”
We forgot to take the book to Ireland with us last year. The one that my great grandfather wrote with all his stories about growing up in Ringaskiddy. We wanted to take it but in our haste of last minute packing we just forgot. So when we got home last year I sat on my couch the morning after our fight home with a cup of tea and the book.
I read through the first 30-40 pages and then I came across this section where my great-grandfther was describing an afternoon of play when he was about ten years old in the late 1800s. Here is what the passage said:
“A Short distance away there were ruins of an old castle on a hilltop that were probably built during the time of Cromwell’s occupation. The ruins were hundreds of years old and they were surrounded by and old stone wall. The wall was overgrown with weeds and blackberry briars…”
For once and for all I had finally settled my quest. I had finally found my true connection to my Irish roots that I failed to find 12 years ago. I knew in my heart of hearts that the Ireland of my roots and all my Irish ancestors had finally welcomed me Home.