In 1965, my father, at the age of 60, decided it was time to find his Irish roots. The only problem was that one of his daughters was to be married late that summer. My mother declared he could go, but to give her some relief, he would have to take their youngest child with him, which was their 11-year-old daughter. This is how I came to ride shotgun -- on the wrong side of the road -- throughout Ireland in the summer of ‘65 while my father relentlessly searched for his Irish roots.
Today it is easy to find a summer holiday house to rent in Ireland with a few clicks on the internet. But back in 1965, the only resource available to Pop was The Irish Echo – a tabloid printed to serve the Irish-American community in New York City. The last page had a “Houses to Let” column; this was how my father found and rented, for the first three weeks of August, a thatched roof cottage in the middle of a bog in County Galway, with neither running water nor electricity. Pop was not just going to find his roots; he would re-live them.
The cottage had a large central room with a bedroom off each side. Each room had an open peat fire; Irish summer nights can be chilly. The main room had a “loo” added on to the back, but it more closely resembled an outhouse to an eleven-year-old from New Jersey, so I used it as little as possible. My father quickly arranged with the landlord for a housekeeper, Evelyn, who would arrive by bike around 11 or 12, fix the “dinner”, tidy up, and then cycle away down the bog road till the same time the next day. Evelyn filled the cottage with herself and her engaging stories as she moved about the cottage preparing the dinner of boiled potatoes and onions over the open peat fire, using water from I-do-not-know-where.
There were two ponies which the landlord, Mr. Lynch, kept in the back field. Upon learning that I once took horseback riding lessons back in the States, Mr. Lynch, several of his eight children, and his bachelor brother, Tom, arrived the next day with a plan. The pony was saddled and a couple of old tires were stacked across from each other, holding a long pole across the bog path for a “pony-jump” – Mr. Lynch’s words. The pony had never actually jumped before, and all were very interested to see if I could get him to do it. I did, but that was a minor event compared to the crack (Irish for fun) of putting it all together with that crowd.
Mr. Lynch was not just in the holiday house business. He was also a farmer, and all his sons and daughters helped to “make the hay” on August evenings. As I had become friends with his two oldest daughters, who were my age, I was included in this activity. We were driven out to the field around noon, for there is no reason to start anything early in an Irish summer as there is light till nearly eleven o’clock. We three girls were given a corner of the field and directed by Mr. Lynch to rake the hay into the center of our corner. Tom then arrived to our corner and helped turn the hay into a haycock secured to its spot by a rope made of hay by Mr. Lynch. His daughters delighted in watching their “Daddy” do this; I delighted in all of them. Born and bred in New Jersey, I had no idea so much fun could be had while getting a good set of blisters on your hands.
When I wasn’t riding ponies or making the hay, I was sitting shotgun in my father’s rented car eating Cadbury fruit and nut bars while Pop relentlessly searched for his Irish roots. He bought six Cadbury bars at a time just to hush me on these endless forays into the Irish countryside. His search for his mother’s people had not gone well, so Dad strategically switched to the paternal side upon hearing Evelyn’s story about an O’Dea castle down in Clare. Her directions to this shrine were to-the-core Irish; “Oh, just drive your fancy car down to Clare and ask anyone where the O’Dea castle is”. We asked farmers in their fields and women on their bikes how to get to the O'Dea castle, and proceeded down one-lane roads splattered with the remnants of the herd of sheep which had preceded us. I was certain we were lost when we finally spotted the ruins of a castle in the middle of a field. The entrance was boarded up, but we walked around it once or twice. We had no other information about this place other than that it was known as the O’Dea Castle, but this was not an issue for my father. I can still see him standing there, with his hands planted on his waist and a cigar planted in his mouth, looking up at the O'Dea castle. Clearly, he had found what he was looking for.
The Celtic Tiger has changed some things about Ireland. The house my husband and I rent each summer has a designer kitchen with appliances I have yet to have in my own kitchen. There are tony equestrian centers scattered about the country where you can rent a fine looking horse and gallop along deserted strands for the better part of a most memorable day. The O’Dea Castle is now the Archeological Centre of County Clare, refurbished and showing a video of all the battles between the O’Dea clan and anyone who threatened them. How my father would have loved that!
I return each summer, as some things have remained the same, among them Ireland's kind-hearted people and their inclination to the craic.