Donna Troy Cleary

4. Cork City

Donna Troy ClearyComment

I mentioned Rosari Kingston in a previous post.  Connecting with the preeminent herbalist in Ireland was only one of several "coincidences" that occurred during my trip to Ireland.

The residency in Ireland was an opportunity for me to understand and connect with my ancestry. When one thinks of Ireland, it's easy to think no further than the Celts/Gauls, ruddy cheeked warriors with tangled hair who fought naked and fiercely in the The Tain Bó Cualigne.  But a neolithic culture had long thrived on this land, prior to the Celtic invasion in 350 BC.  Irish have the highest level of neolithic genes found in contemporary humans. This culture's presence is forever marked by the sculptures they left in the landscape.  These includes alignments, circles and portal tombs constructed from impossibly large stones.  From a time that pre-dates Stonehenge, these sculptures served as site of community, ceremony and preternatural connection.  

During my stay in Cork City, the first 4 days of my trip, I wanted to experience the place where my my more recent ancestors lived, prior to fleeing during the famine.  My great aunt found the O'keefe family, (her last name, the last name of her sister - my father's mother and my grandmother) in Cork City when researching in the 80's. My father's brother maintained close connections with the O'Keefe's.  I met my father's first cousin and his daughter Ursula in Germany, when my uncle's son married a lovely German girl. Unfortunately, my father's first cousin died a few years prior to my visit to Ireland but I was able to unite with Ursula during my stay.  

On my first day in Cork City, I decided I needed to find the church where my father had a supernatural experience during his visit 15 years prior.  He often tells the story of traveling around the Cork City by car.  Deciding he needed to stretch his legs, he stopped in front of a church on the River Lee, leaving my mother and their traveling companions to sit in the car.  He recalls feeling "in a daze" while walking through the church. When he came out, the car was gone.  Knowing they would be back soon, he walked along the side of the church and up a set of stairs into a neighborhood of old homes.  One of the houses had an open door, so he knocked and poked his head in.  Finding no one there, he walked back down the stairs.  He found the car exactly where it had been. They had never left.  

Later that evening, they all met with his cousin for dinner.  My dad explained his odd encounter by the church. He was told that he had walked right into the ancestral home.  It was the house is where his cousin was born and where generations of O'Keefe's had lived.  

When I was planning my trip to Ireland, I reached out to Ursula about where to stay.  I asked if she knew where the ancestral home was.  She didn't.  She suggested I stay near the river so I found an Airbnb that suited my needs.  When I told her where I had booked, she told me her aunt, who recently died, had lived a few doors away.

On my first day, I visited nearly every church on the river.  The river forks to divert around the town center, an island, so there is a lot of waterfront and I found several churches.  Only one had a set of stairs to its left.  St. Fin Barre's.  So I entered the grounds, discovered a beautiful maze that forced me to slow down, look around and contemplate the space.  On top of a chimney nearby was a songbird, quite interested in getting my attention.  It was a call I hadn't heard before so I listened intently to its running lilt, a sequence of sounds that now reminds me of the indecipherable accent of Southern Kerry, where I later attended the residency.  When I looked beyond the bird, I found I was staring at an old wall that ran the length of a block coming up from the river.  A young man came through the maze and we chatted.  He told me the wall was actually a fort that was open to the public and he handed me a leaflet from his earlier visit.  

I walked around the cemetery of the church for a while.  Ravens (Rooks) were everywhere, quorking from trees and circling the sky.  We don't have many raven where I live.  Whenever I have seen them in the Northeast, I've be startled by their cavernous call and beckoned to pay attention.  The tombstones were covered in lichen and moss so I couldn't read most of the names but I felt a connection here.  I returned to the set of stairs and walked up into the neighborhood behind the church. It was lovely with its moss covered homes and mediterranean colors but I lost the connection.

I headed over to the fort and found a lively guide who told me about its history, (it was used in the 17th century as a defensive position against the repeated invasions by Normans and Anglo Saxons).  He shared some info about my family name and how to pronounce it in Irish.  Don't ask, I still can't get my tongue around it.  I walked around the parapets, gazed out onto the city below and that sense of connection returned.  Later, my cousin told me I was in the Protestant section of town, off track.  

That evening I decided to go to a pub.  I found Sin E' (pronounced Shin-Aye) on Yelp and went on my way.  When I arrived it was dark, crowded, filled with music, with not a place to sit.  I walked around to the back and found a few empty stools.  I asked if they were taken.  The second one wasn't.  When I sat, the man next to me asked if I had been to the fort that day.  He was the guide I had spoken to. We talked the rest of the evening about our new president.  I was surprised about the depth of knowledge the Irish had regarding American politics.  Later, someone at the residency explained that it was because so many Irish had emigrated to the States, that they felt it was their country too.  

The music was great.  Locals engage in pick-up music jams.  There was a flute, an accordion, mini bagpipes that are uniquely Irish, and a tambourine-like drum being played by a ripe-smelling man.  Anyone was welcome to join in.  The sound was classically Irish, tended toward repetition and followed its own logic.  The best part was when a few locals stood to sing a capella.  The last song stuck in my head for the entirety of the next day.  It had something to do with a woman wearing britches.  Rather sexist as I recall.  

The following day I continued on my quest for the church, after talking to my dad and confirming that St. Fin Barre's was not it.  The very last church I found in the city was St. Mary's.  It looked more like a government building - a rectangle with Grecian columns.  If I leaned back far enough I could see a statue of Mary on top.  I went inside, listened to mass briefly and then climbed the set of stairs leading up the hill, to the left of the church. When I got to the top, I realized I had driven my tiny rental car down this exceedingly narrow street, scratching the entire left side as I tried to make a turn.  Mind you, I was sitting on the opposite side of the car, driving on the opposite side of the road and shifting gears with my left, not my right hand.  I learned to drive on a stick shift so I figured I'd be fine. Not so much.

I chuckled to myself.   St. Mary's was the church my dad had entered, this was the neighborhood he had climbed to, the home of my ancestors.  My Airbnb was 5 houses away from where I stood. 

St Fin Barre's

St Fin Barre's

The maze with the wall of the fort in the distance.

The maze with the wall of the fort in the distance.

Some of the old tombstones.

Some of the old tombstones.

St Mary's

St Mary's

My Airbnb.  Bijou house in the Shandon section of Cork City.  Ancestral home, just around the corner.

My Airbnb.  Bijou house in the Shandon section of Cork City.  Ancestral home, just around the corner.