The Irish in America


Connemara Welcome

Wall in Maumeen (2009 Regan McCormack)

Before we met up with the McCormack relatives in County Laois (read Part I and Part II) we visited another branch of our family tree in Connemara, County Galway.  The McDonaghs are related to my great-grandmother Mary Hannon, who came to America in the late 1800s.

On the second day of our visit in September of 2009, we left Spiddal in the afternoon and drove west.  The landscape quickly became more rugged and less inhabited.  The quiet and the desolation made it feel like we were traveling back in time.  The roads narrowed as we made our way through the group of small islands connected by bridges and causeways, located in the southwestern reaches of Connemara.  Our intermediate stop was a shop where we were to call for Michael McDonagh to come and guide us the rest of the way.

Michael arrived at the shop on cue, and after introductions, lead us to our final destination.  When we arrived at the McDonagh farm in Maumeen, Lettermore, County Galway, we were greeted by Michael’s brother Joseph and their sisters Monica and Kate.  Michael and Joseph are bachelor farmers in their fifties.  Monica lives next door to Michael and Joseph, while Kate is married and lives nearby.

View from Maumeen (2009 Regan McCormack)

When we sat down at the table for tea, it was official – we had stepped back in time.  My family was momentarily confused; there were only five places at the table.  Monica assured us that they had already had their tea and we should get comfortable, as she and Kate readied things in the kitchen.  Michael and Joseph sat nearby in their chairs.

Once Kate and Monica had delivered the heaping plates of sandwiches, salad, and scones to the table, and filled our cups with tea, they sat down nearby.  Our awkwardness diminished with the lively conversation.  We all chatted, getting to know one another, and Michael would get up every few minutes to retrieve a book from the bookshelf or a news clipping from the other room for us to examine.

After tea, Monica brought the ladies out for a stroll around the garden and down the lane.  Michael, Joseph, and my father stayed inside, and (I can only guess!) they talked about genealogy, history, and sports.

Me, Eileen (mom), Eileen (aunt), and Monica (Regan, as usual, took the photo)

The McDonaghs were the perfect hosts.  I wonder how many American relatives they have welcomed into their home over the years?  Michael and Joseph are so open to learning about relatives from all over, and they are genuinely interested in what happened to branches of their family tree after they abruptly broke away three or four generations ago when relatives emigrated.

Another view from Maumeen (2009 Regan McCormack)

If you are reading this Dad…let me know if I have the place-name correct…it was confusing with all those little islands!


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Well now, of course they did!

When I read the headline, How the Irish Saved Thanksgiving, on, I was curious, but not surprised.  After all, what aspect of American culture and society has not been influenced, and quite often saved, by Irish immigrants and their descendants?

Everyone knows that the Kennedy clan changed the face of American politics, and it is impossible to imagine American business and industry without Henry Ford, but did you know that the co-founder of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, is of Irish descent?  Or Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, claims a couple of Irish grandparents?  Perhaps they did not “save” the airline industry and home pizza delivery, but these two Irish Americans have had tremendous influence on how business is done in America.

While the story on was entertaining, I am not certain I agree with the premise that the Irish saved Thanksgiving.  The contributions of Irish immigrants have definitely made America a better place.  And not just for inexpensive, home-delivered pizzas…

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Week of Welcomes: McCormack Style, Part II

I was relieved when the party in Ballyedmond drew to a close, that meeting my Irish relatives was neither traumatic nor depressing.  In fact, it was quite the opposite!  We had a perfect evening full of great food, stories, laughter, and teasing (read about our welcome party and my family’s attempt to throw a party in Ireland here.)

The next day as my mother, sister, and I rehashed the details of the party, I felt some of the old apprehension creep back.  Certainly, we had a fabulous time, but did the Irish side of the family share our enthusiasm?  They seemed amenable to a party later in the week, but maybe it had nothing to do with us, after all, who doesn’t like a party?  My mother was the real hit with the relatives, she and Jimmy exchanged friendly banter all night long, but even she questioned whether the relatives enjoyed themselves as much as we did.  We decided not to dwell on it, and figured the next time we would see the relatives would be at our party later in the week.

Jimmy and Helen showing us something at the old house

If we annoyed them or were impositions, then the McCormacks were gluttons for punishment.  On Sunday, my dad and aunt attended cousin Jenny’s camogie match, and we met for dinner later that evening at an Italian restaurant in Urlingford.  Helen brought us two cell phones to use during our stay, since she knew we had trouble getting service with ours.  We joked that she wanted to keep tabs on us.  Helen chuckled and said that she surely did; she wanted to make sure she had warning before we showed up on her doorstep in the morning expecting breakfast!

The next afternoon we received a call on one of our new cell phones from Jimmy inviting us down to their local pub, Touhy’s in Rathdowney, that night.  Touhy’s is fantastic – a tiny place filled with dusty Western American paraphernalia (cowboys, Indians, etc.)  When the musician invited others to come up and give a song, our cousin Ellen’s husband Nicky sang a couple of tunes, wowing everyone at the pub.

My dad spent quite a bit of time at the farm with Jimmy that week.  Allegedly, he helped Jimmy move cattle, but we all knew that Helen did most of that!  He helped dig potatoes in the garden, and picked carrots for our party on Friday.

Friday was a busy day.  Paddy and Maura McCormack (Paddy and my grandfather were first cousins) had us to their home for tea and we had to stop at the grocery store for last-minute party shopping.  We were running short on time, we needed to get back to our house and get cooking – Helen was doubting the roast would be done in time.  Read about our stab at entertaining in Ireland here.

They hired a mini-bus to bring them to our party...

Saturday we were set to leave for a week in County Cork, but Jimmy had one last thing for us.  It was a gorgeous late September day in Ballyedmond, and the gardens looked beautiful (Helen made sure we knew it was all for our benefit!)

Jimmy and Mom supervising tree planting

The plan was for the Irish sisters (Jenny and Sarah) and the American sisters (me and Regan) to plant a tree in their garden.  Jimmy chose a California Redwood, we each took a turn at placing a shovel full of dirt by the tree, and the ceremony was complete.  Such a neat idea and perfectly executed!


Cousins planting a tree

That wasn’t the last we saw of the McCormacks.  They joined us for a night in Youghal, County Cork and we drove up to Lismore, County Waterford the next day.  When they left us, and we left Ireland a couple of days later, we were very blue. I had anticipated feeling depressed upon meeting my Irish relatives, not leaving them.  It was definitely bittersweet.

McCormacks in Lismore, County Waterford

Can you see why I think the folks at the Week of Welcomes could benefit from a few pointers from Jimmy and Helen?

Next time I will share another experience from this visit to Ireland, when we venture to the Gaeltacht of Connemara…


Week of Welcomes: McCormack Style, Part I

Over the past twenty-two years I have visited Ireland six times, and it wasn’t until my last trip in 2009 that I actually spent time with my Irish relatives.  My heritage is completely Irish, but I was always hesitant to establish a connection with my Irish relations.  While this attitude may have its roots in a general feeling of shyness, it was cemented by experiences I had in Ireland.  I was content to remain a casual visitor who had a great time in Ireland and leave the sentimental homecoming production to other Irish Americans.

Two examples of encounters I had in Ireland explain why I chose to forgo the pursuit of my Irish family.  The first occurred during a visit to Ireland when I was sixteen-years-old on a summer program for American high school students called The Irish Way.  On a free day from classes, I  accompanied a friend on a day trip to visit her relatives who lived in the village where her grandmother was born.  My friend was anxious and excited to meet her relatives, the family of whom her grandmother spoke so fondly.  The entire situation made me nervous, but I was only a spectator.

Sixteen and somewhere in Galway in 1988

The afternoon was a complete disaster.  Meeting the family did nothing to calm our nerves.  They weren’t rude, just not very  friendly, and for some reason they seemed suspicious of us.  We both felt uncomfortable, unwelcome, and overly scrutinized.  There was no connection; no family chemistry.  My friend was disappointed and hurt – she had expected a warm welcome by people just like her grandmother, but instead received the cold shoulder.

The second encounter that stayed with me was a conversation I had with a wonderful woman from near Belfast.  We were chatting one evening at the Nesbitt Arms Hotel in Ardara, County Donegal.  She told me that Irish people dread the sight of Americans on their doorstep, searching for their grandmother’s birthplace, or trying to locate cousins they hadn’t heard from in years.  I can hear her saying with a laugh, ” You hear the doorbell and look out and see a couple of Americans in their khaki pants and runners, looking so pleased with themselves…”

I certainly did not want to be one of those Americans, nor did I want the disappointment of meeting my relations only to have them be disinterested, unfriendly, and annoyed.  So, I remained content to visit Ireland, have a fantastic holiday, and leave any notions of locating relatives to my imagination.

I provided the background so that you might better understand why I was caught off-guard by the Week of Welcomes (to steal the phrase from the pilot program described here) my family experienced in 2009 when we visited Ireland.  Actually, it was nearly three weeks of great times with relatives and friends all over Ireland, but I will begin with the warm welcome offered by the McCormacks of Ballyedmond, County Laois.

Our week was punctuated by two great parties – one at the beginning, and one at the end.  My father, mother, aunt, sister, and I arrived at the home of Jimmy and Helen McCormack late in the afternoon on Saturday and immediately received ribbing for our late arrival.  My father had done extensive genealogy research and had reconnected with the McCormacks in Ballyedmond about ten years prior to our visit.  Irish Jimmy and my father Jimmy are second cousins – their grandfathers were brothers.

The Jimmys having a laugh outside the old house in Ballyedmond

Read the story of our parties with the McCormack clan here.  In my next post, I will share the details of our week with the McCormacks, including a trip to their local, a tree-planting ceremony, and what I learned along the way.


Ireland Reaches Out: A Visit Home

I saw this item in an email from this morning and I had to find out more information…

Irish economist, writer, and broadcaster David McWilliams is behind a project called Ireland Reaching Out, which aims to bring emigrants (and their descendants) back to their home parishes in Ireland for a visit.  This is  a pilot program focusing on thirty parishes in southeast County Galway.  An article in the Connacht Tribune says that the plan is to contact 44,000 emigrants from parishes in places like Gort, Portuma, and Loughrea, and invite them back for a “Week of Welcomes” in June of 2011.

This “Week of Welcomes” will include a program of activities in the parish of origin, including lectures, tours, and samples of local culture, food, and drink.  The hope is that these visits will provide a short-term boost to the local economy as well as promote future investment in the region.

County Galway (2009, Regan McCormack)

I read some comments from recent emigrants who seemed angry and bitter and wanted nothing to do with a program like this.  Maybe for these individuals, their feelings about having to leave home are too raw; the wounds of emigration are too fresh.  I cannot tell you how many times I hear Americans engaged in family history lament that the older generations of immigrants never spoke of Ireland.  In my own family story, all we were ever told was that they came from Cork.  Many, many Irish immigrants in America came from Cork, and practically all of them left from Cork.

Further removed from emigration, you will find Americans eager to make a connection with the place their family came from in Ireland.  Granted, in light of the recent economic downturn Americans may be taking fewer vacations overseas.  But there are Americans who, if given the chance to have a pint at the local pub their grandfather frequented before coming to America, would seize the opportunity to visit Ireland.  I know it sounds a little corny to Irish people, but the attraction of Ireland to Irish Americans is undeniable.  It makes perfect sense for the Irish to capitalize on this pull.  These days it may take more than the Blarney stone to lure American tourist dollars.

Mr. McWiliams describes the program in his own words in his piece on – click here to read the editorial.  In my opinion, the fact that a program like this is underway in Ireland is proof that although the bubble may have burst, the Irish people are using their strengths to imagine their future.  A future deeply rooted in history…that’s nothing new for Ireland, is it?

Near Erke cemetery, County Laois (2009, Regan McCormack)

Next time I will share a bit about our most recent visit home.  By the way, Mr. McWilliams if you are reading this, you must hire my cousins Jimmy and Helen McCormack of Ballyedmond, County Laois as consultants for Ireland Reaching Out. You will have to read my next entry to see why…