Apparently it takes a pandemic to get me to write a new blog post…
I should be wrapping up a family trip to Ireland right now. The whole gang had synchronized our calendars. My dad’s eternal question, “When are we all going to Ireland?” finally had an answer. That was until COVID-19 seeped into our lives.
Given where things are now, it is strange to think that just a month ago we were on the phone with Jimmy and Helen, our Irish cousins, planning day trips and nights out. I couldn’t wait for my brother Matt and his family to finally meet Jimmy and Helen. COVID-19 was in the news, we even joked about the need to quarantine while we were there. Helen quipped, “Ah sure, that’s no problem. Ye can stay at Tess’s place.”
Eleven days after that phone call, Trump announced travel bans and overnight the idea of a pleasure trip became ridiculous. Helen reported panic-buying and growing fear in Ireland. They were told that they were on pace to be the next Italy. Museums and historic sites closed, pubs closed. I waited for Aer Lingus to cancel our flight so I could get a refund. That happened on St. Patrick’s Day.
We will get there later this year, I say now. In a few months, that statement could seem as naive as our light-hearted discussion of minibus tours, pints at Tuohy’s, and quarantines seem today. Right now, all I want is for there to be enough ventilators and for everyone I love, here and there, to stay safe and sound.
Not to stay, just for a visit. For the first time since I was just a squirming, bald-headed baby, members of the Irish branch of the McCormack family are coming to the Twin Cities.
Jim, Eileen, Regan, and Aine McCormack – Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1972 (photo by Paddy Kelly)
Paddy Kelly was on a GAA tour of the States in 1972 when he swung my great-aunt Nellie Marrin’s home in South Minneapolis. That’s where he snapped this photo. The photo resurfaced in 2011 when the four of us in this photo had dinner with our cousins the Kelly family in County Laois. I kind of like the idea that this snapshot of us had been in Ireland for most of my life. Even in the years I was not aware or relatives in Ireland, that photo sat in some album or box, like the old photographs of my great-grandfather who left Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century.
But in less than a month, Martin and Marian McCormack will be joining us in Saint Paul. We’ve met up with them in Ireland when we visit, but I can’t wait to see them on our turf.
A bunch of McCormacks in 2011 at Lisheen Castle County Tipperary (Martin and Marian are on left end, front and back)
This is not their first time to the States, but it will be their first trip to Minnesota. I think the Twin Cities will show off pretty well in the September weather. Marian said she wasn’t interested in shopping, so I think we will skip the Mall of America. Several years ago Martin expressed that he didn’t need to see another pyramid or temple so I won’t suggest a tour of the Cathedral of Saint Paul.
Luckily, there are plenty of other things to do and see here, so I am not worried. I wonder, though, what other Irish people who visit the United States like to do while they are here? Or what do they find unique about America? I know what I like to do in Ireland, but I wonder what Irish people like to do when they are here?
My dad, Jim McCormack, finished his book: The Ballyedmond McCormacks in Ireland and America. I am proud of him and in awe of the achievement.
The author and his cousin sharing a laugh outside McCormack cottage in Ballyedmond
What I am most impressed with is how Dad went the extra mile to tell the stories of ALL the McCormacks who came from Ballyedmond, near Rathdowney in County Laois, Ireland. He could have told the story of his grandfather and great uncles who came to America in the 1870s through the 1880s. That would have been enough for most family historians and genealogists.
But Dad included the stories of the McCormacks who came to America the generation before his grandfather. This is such a well-researched book. It seemed as though every few months Dad would say he had just met a new cousin. He got to know so many cousins, learning their stories, identifying photographs, and filling in the gaps. The book explores the strong links between the American and Irish branches of the McCormack family – links I have talked about on this blog.
What Jim has to say about the book…
This labor of love was almost 20 years in the making. I drew on resources in America and in Ireland, including family oral tradition and memoirs, verified wherever possible, church and civil records, newspaper accounts and a few secondary sources. The result was a 240 page volume including about 300 photos and charts.
It’s time for me to gush over my other favorite Irish American niece, Ainsley Marie McCormack. I told you about Ainsley’s older sister, Maryn, on her birthday earlier this month – click here to read the post. You and Ainsley will get along just fine if you understand a couple of things: yellow is her favorite color and she is always Belle when you play Princess.
When she was a baby, Ainsley liked to build towers of blocks and knock them down. Now, at nearly five, Ainsley LOVES crafts. Pretty much anything that involves coloring, cutting, and taping paper is big in Ainsley’s book. Flowers and kites are her favorite things to create right now. Ainsley has an awesome imagination and she uses it when she tells you one of her stories. Mom and Dad might need to watch out for this talent in years to come!
It is so cool to see Ainsley grow up, and because Maryn is just fifteen months older than she, it seems to be happening quickly as she tries to keep up with her big sister. The way her mind works is fascinating to me. She explores complex themes, such as crime and punishment (“Will I go to jail if I…?) and scientific processes (“You see, metamorphosis is when things change…) Ainsley loves dancing, hopping, running, and showing me how strong she is when we go to the gym. She loves to swing high on the swing-set, and says she will go sky-diving and on hot-air balloon rides with me when she is old enough, “But,” she told me, “we will have to get outfits first.” Looking good is always a priority for Ainsley – she is very stylish.
2012 Dance Recital with Maryn
My favorite Ainsley quote? Once I picked up a hairbrush and told her I would fix her hair. Ainsley stared at me, slowly blinked her big blue eyes, and said, “This hair doesn’t get brushed,” as she shook her red curls back from her face. Well, well, well…
Ainsley (and her hair) baking with Maryn at my house
On November 9th The Gathering Ireland announced its latest tools to attract visitors next year. From the Press Release…
The Gathering Ireland 2013 has partnered with An Post to distribute postcards to 1.8 million households in Ireland this November.The postcards are being distributed to encourage Irish families to invite someone home for the Gathering Ireland in 2013 and should land in people’s houses over the coming days. The initiative is an important part of the Gathering campaign in order to encourage invitations to be sent to the four corners of the world. Everyone is being asked to use these postcards to send a message to family, friends and loved ones abroad and invite someone home next year for the Gathering Ireland 2013.
In theory this is a great way to spread the Gathering word. There are a lot of people in the United States who have not yet heard about The Gathering. For example, I had dinner with an Irish-American friend last Saturday and when I mentioned the Gathering, I saw a blank look on her face. She had no idea what I was talking about. My friend has Irish heritage on her both maternal and paternal sides of her family tree, she visited Ireland for the first time as a high school student as a participant in the Irish American Cultural Institutes‘s Irish Way program, and she later returned to Ireland with family. My friend loves Ireland and looks forward to returning one day. She (and her family) are exactly the Americans The Gathering should target. A postcard inviting her back to Ireland might be just the incentive she needs to book a trip…
How do those in Ireland feel about the postcards? Will you send them? And who will you send them to? Do you feel pressure to send the cards (see Emeralds blog post about the cards)? Please share your thoughts on this initiative – leave a comment.
On the receiving end, I would love to hear from anyone outside of Ireland who finds one of these postcards in their mailbox. Let me know what you think of it – will you take them up on the invitation?
I hope my Irish cousins don’t waste one of their postcards on me. I have never waited for an invitation before to visit Ireland!
I am extremely excited for my trip to Ireland next month. We have quite a bit on the agenda, but will be wrapping the trip up with a week in the heart of Ireland, County Laois.
My great-grandfather Andrew McCormack came from Ballyedmond, County Laois in the late 1880s and settled in Minnesota. My father has done extensive research on his McCormack lineage over the past fifteen years.
I had no hand in this research, but I have enjoyed all the fruits of my father’s labors. Click here and here to read about the fun we have had connecting with our McCormack relations.
My dad won’t be along on this trip, so I may need to don the family historian cap – if only to keep my sister straight on who’s who! I had better review my dad’s printouts…
While in Laois I am planning a visit to the County Archives and Local History Department in Portlaoise. It may have taken a while, but I have learned that a good first step when looking into the history of your Irish ancestors is to go to the County Council website.
The council website for any given county in Ireland will have all the information necessary to live in that county – from where you should dump your trash to the operation hours of the local branch of the library. But they are a great resource for visitors as well. Often these websites provide extensive history and heritage information, including details on genealogy, archives, and special collections.
Like any good researcher, I plan to do my homework before showing up on the archive’s doorstep in September. It looks like they have quite a bit to offer. Maybe I will even find some emigrant letters in some of the personal collections listed on the Laois Archivespage.
The Local History Onlinelink brings you to the Ask About Ireland website. This is a very cool site, a must-visit for anyone interested in what the libraries, museums, and archives of Ireland have to offer.
AskAboutIreland and the Cultural Heritage Project is an initiative of public libraries together with local museums and archives in the digitisation and online publication of the original, the unusual and the unique material from their local studies’ collections to create a national Internet resource for culture. (from http://www.askaboutireland.ie)
Ask About Ireland also features Griffith’s Valuation, the first valuation of property in Ireland, published from 1847 to 1864. You are able to search the Valuation, and of course the more information you have, the better.
Returning to the Local Studies Department, we find an extensive collection of newspapers, cemetery records, photographs, maps, local files, and folklore. All are available to view by appointment. Bridget told me that the microfilm machine is a much sought-after appliance, so set your appointment early to ensure you will have access to the newspapers and records available on microfilm.
I am definitely looking forward to my visit to Portlaoise and the Laois County archives and local studies department. Can’t wait to see what I can dig up!
Several years ago, the following essay won second prize in the Kansas City Irish Fest writing competition. I think there were three entries…
With Saint Patrick’s Day fast approaching, I know I think about my Irish heritage a bit more than usual. How about you? How do you define your Irish-ness? Complete the form at the end of the post or add a comment. I would love to hear from you!
It was usually around Thanksgiving when the teacher would tell us to sit down in a circle and we would take turns sharing our ethnic background with the class. The goal was to show how America had welcomed people from all over the world to form the great melting pot. As my classmates struggled to piece together their intricate heritage pie charts (“I’m one-eighth French, one-eighth German, one-half Swedish, one-fourth Norwegian…”), I waited patiently for my turn. I had it easy.
“I am 100% Irish.”
Although I was proud to be Irish-American and liked the ease of being 100% something, I had never given it much thought.
I was not cognizant of it, but early in my life, my dad defined Irish for me. He was passionate about Ireland– from the history and the music to the legends and the poetry. He would sing along to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem as he worked at his desk. I can remember his favorites like “Roddy McCorley” blaring from the stereo speakers in his den.
My dad is a bit of a romantic with a flair for the dramatic. He gets misty-eyed when reciting a poem by Yeats or when recounting the struggles the Irish have faced throughout history. Sometimes the music was a little loud and my dad a little sappy, but this is what I knew of being Irish.
One Spring day in 1981, I came home to find an Irish flag draped across our front porch. I could only imagine what my dad was up to, but when I went inside, he was not home. I found my mom and asked her why Dad put up the flag. She told me it was to show support for Bobby Sands and his hunger strike in Northern Ireland. My mom explained the situation to me – the IRA, Sands, and the unjust treatment of the prisoners. Sands just wanted to be recognized and treated as a political prisoner.
Well, that certainly sounded like something my dad would get behind.
“But, Aine, your dad didn’t put up the flag. I did.”
Now this was a surprise. I had not even considered that my mom would do something so bold, so dramatic. She barely hummed “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra”. It seemed my mom was just as Irish as my dad, just in a different way. I began to pay attention to what it meant to be Irish-American, and I realized there is not one neat definition. I have embraced the complexities of my heritage and thankful for such a rich and diverse background.
Looking back, it was the other kids who had it easy. I doubt many of them spent time wondering what it meant to be Franco-German-Swedish-Norwegian-American. They could quantify their heritage. They had a pie chart.
The first time I visited Ireland in 1988, I was struck by the number of derelict farmhouses dotting the countryside. “Why doesn’t someone just tear those old houses down?” I wondered. “That’s what we do in the good ol’ USA…we don’t leave houses to fall down on themselves. If we don’t want or need them, we get rid of them and build something new and better…”
Abandoned house near Ballyedmond, County Laois (all photos by Regan McCormack)
This sentiment came from a teenage girl from the city who spent more time in the countryside during six weeks in Ireland than she had in sixteen years back home – in the “good ol’ USA”. I thought I was so smart…
Fast-forward twenty years and I am closer to home, driving the country roads of Tara Township, crisscrossing its thirty-six square miles in Swift County, Minnesota. My maternal great-great-grandparents were among the pioneer 1870s settlers of this township on the vast prairie of Western Minnesota. This was my first visit to Tara. I had traveled three thousand miles from home on a number of occasions to visit Ireland, my “ancestral homeland”, yet I had never bothered to drive a few hours west to see where my people settled when they came to Minnesota.
Granted, as far as vacation destinations are concerned, Ireland is a bit more attractive than Western Minnesota, but it turns out, the two places have some things in common.
There are the obvious similarities in place names in this part of Minnesota. Bishop John Ireland established several colonies of Irish Catholic settlers with names like Avoca, Kildare, Tara, and Clontarf. Hundreds of Irish families from cities and communities in the Eastern United States seized the opportunity to own land and live in a community with its own church and priest, surrounded by fellow Irish Catholics.
The Depression came early to rural communities and persistent crop failures and changing farming practices combined to make farming unviable for most small farmers. My relatives moved to Minneapolis, as did several other Tara families. Some of the original Irish settlers had left Tara even earlier, moving further West, always in search of better land.
So, I wonder why I was surprised to find this in Tara Township?
Section 22 of Tara Township – the McMahon place
On nearly every section of land in the township stands an abandoned farmhouse, or at least a grove of trees planted by the original settlers to protect a house. And this in the “good ol’ USA” where we tear things down!
Folks in Ireland and Tara Township have the same reaction when I ask them why they don’t simply tear down the abandoned houses. They shrug and say that they are no bother and they can be used for storage. That is the practical response, but I wonder if there is something a bit more sentimental lurking beneath?
The abandoned houses got me thinking…A similar hopelessness that drove millions of Irish to America during the 19th and 20th centuries could be seen in rural Americans who fled the farm for the city in the 1920s. Major difference, of course, is there was not a famine like Ireland experienced, however there was tremendous poverty, crops failed miserably, families were split up, and life changed permanently and dramatically.
I am rather ashamed of my sixteen-year-old self for not being as smart as she thought she was. She should have realized that the same reason this stands today in Ireland…
Near Ballyedmond, County Laois – 2011
might be why this…
Cahir Castle, Tipperary – 2011
Rock of Dunamase, County Laois – 2011
Johnstown, County Kildare – 2009
are still here today. I doubt that the farmhouse ruins will have the staying power of the castles and abbeys of centuries gone by, but in the meantime they can remind us from where we came. Whether it is a farmhouse in Ireland or Tara Township, Minnesota.
Now, if I could only get Jimmy to fix up this old house…
Two Jimmy McCormacks at old family house in Ballyedmond – 2009