I studied in Galway, Ireland, in the fall of 2009. I had hoped that, at some point in those four months, I'd have a "stereotypical Irish adventure," which, to me, meant that I'd go somewhere and meet amazing people and have an experience that no guidebook could even hint at. When my fellow exchange student, Mike, told me that he was going to spend a weekend trying to find his grandfather's house, I had a hunch that this could be it. Somehow, I ended up joining him.
Our trip began Saturday morning at 8:30, as we walked to the bus station at Eyre Square and bought our tickets to Ballinlough, which required a 2 hour stopover in Knock. Mike told me more about his family history as we rode; how getting any information to confirm the family tree would absolutely delight his grandfather, who hadn't seen his childhood home in many years.
We arrived in Knock around 10:00, to find the place mostly deserted. Knock is a beautiful little town where, in the early 1900s, about fifteen people saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in the sky. Since then, a huge Catholic shrine has been built and Knock has become a place of pilgrimage. Shops on the main road sell all sorts of figurines and images of saints. Mike, a Roman Catholic, found all of this intensely fascinating. We wandered around the shrine, through the gardens and Stations of the Cross paths, while I, from a Protestant background, had the chance to ask him about all these traditions and rituals of which I knew nothing.
After visiting the shrine, we went to find a place to eat before the arrival of the next bus. One restaurant proudly proclaimed that it was open, so on we went, until arriving at the door to find it locked, all lights off. Amused, we moved on to a little coffee shop and got some drinks. Time ticked away and we began to get agitated, not seeing any wait staff to ask for our check. I looked out the window to see the bus arriving three minutes early. "Let's go!" I said, as Mike and I indiscriminately threw coins on the table, hoping it would be enough to pay the bill.
The bus drove away just as we got out the door. Still another minute until it was supposed to arrive. Mike muttered something to the effect of "Irish efficiency is either an oxymoron or deviously true" and we stood there at the bus stop wondering what to do next. Then our waitress came out and said, "Sorry, but you're two euro short." We imagined now that all of Ireland was laughing at our expense.
Paid in full, we decided there was nothing to do but start walking. What would have been a 20 minute bus ride would now take about 3 hours by foot. Thankfully, after about 10 minutes, a woman stopped to ask where we were headed. "Ballinlough," we said. As she happened to be passing by there, she offered us a ride. We put her just-purchased giant portrait of St. Someone in the trunk and climbed in. She was a quiet person, so we had an awkward non-conversation before arriving in Ballinlough around noon. After profuse thanks on our part, she drove off.
"So, this is Ballinlough at noon on Saturday," Mike said. Not a soul was out. No cars on the streets. No shops open - except, finally, a little newsstand, nestled amidst the larger storefronts. Mike asked for directions to Grange, a nearby region where the house was supposedly located. The clerk had no idea, and pointed us to the pub that had just opened. We crossed the street and entered, greeting the barman and explaining ourselves again. "Up that road about a mile," said he. "Take a left after the fuel station, and go another two miles; you'll find yourself near the right spot."
Turned out the fuel station was the only place to get lunch as well, which felt fairly Appalachian to me, although the fish and chips we had were distinctly Irish.
We continued our journey, hoping we'd stumble upon the house. After a short walk from the station, a woman suddenly appeared from a side road. We greeted her, to which she replied, "Oh, are ye strangers?" We conceded the fact and Mike explained our mission. "Oh, the Naughton house! Well, let me take you to the Burkes, they live just this way. Relatives of the Naughtons, they are."
Mike and I looked at each other, each thinking, well, why not? and followed. We arrived at the Burkes a few minutes later, and awkwardly stood in the driveway while the woman went to find Mr. Burke, who was tinkering with something in the shed. "Descendents of the Naughtons are here," she said, for apparently I was now grafted into the family. Mr Burke, to our astonishment and delight, was willing to drop everything and drive us to see the house Mike was looking for. Not only that, but he took us to several graveyards where Mike's ancestors were buried. On the way, he described the woman who had met us as "the odd bird in the village."
We arrived at the Naughton house, and Mr. Burke took us to the door. Our knocks were greeted by two brothers, who were happy to see Mr. Burke and looked at us as if to say and you are?
Once they determined Mike was a distant relative of theirs, they began collecting all the photos they could find while poring over the family tree Mike had in an attempt to correct errors and piece together missing links. Throughout the visit, they kept saying, "If we had known you were coming, we'd have gotten all this together already!" As if we would have been able to give them advance notice!
Soon, all five of us were seated in an dark, old kitchen with a wood-fired stove. The three Irishmen were smoking and I still hate myself for not taking a photograph of these three weathered men wreathed in smoke.
I also wish I had photographed the horse that decided to nose the front door open and walk right on in the house while we sat there. Especially since I had a second opportunity to do so not 10 minutes later.
After a grand discussion and several photographs taken for Mike's records, Mr. Burke took us back to his house, where we had tea and Halloween Brack (a kind of raisin bread) with him and his wife.
It soon came time for us to return to town so as to not miss our bus. Mrs. Burke, who had to take her younger daughter somewhere, offered to drive us. Gladly, we agreed. She took us on a short tour of the area, showing us the ancient church at Kiltirlough (Irish: Kil - church Tir - dry Lough - lake), and other remnants of past days. We went into town and stopped at Fitzmaurice's for drinks and a wonderful conversation with the bartender, as no one else was there. He told us uproarious stories of the two brothers we had met, imitating their thicker West Irish accent perfectly. "Did you hear about the magic tractor," he asked us, saying it was the favorite joke of one of the brothers. "It turned into a field."
We left after that, so thankful for the incredible hospitality of all the people we had met. The whole ride back, Mike and I rehashed the events of the day, laughing at the improbability and wondrousness of it all.