Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rower, 23.6.90: Irish Hospitality and Tales of Haunts

Writing this about 5:45 A.M. as full light comes. A generous wind is sweeping the trees, making me think as I lay in bed that it was raining. All the farm animals are coming to life, though I hear no rooster—cows lowing petulantly as if hungry, and perhaps chickens; some bird carrying on.

I did not write last night because drunk as a lord. Not really so, but we went to visit Sr. Margaret C.’s mother Margaret and oldest brother Jim and his family at Listerlin, Tullogher about 2:30 P.M. yesterday. They took us into the parlor and plied us with strong and huge drinks (me, whiskey; the others, brandy) till I, at least, could barely stand. We had had only breakfast to eat, so the drink went right to the head.

But I should back up some and talk about the day. Early morning Steve and I took an unpleasant bickering walk down the road to New Ross. Discovered later that the New Ross road divides between a branch to Inistioge and one to The Rower. We’re on the left fork, to Inistioge.

As we walked, we could see The Rower on the hillside across the way. It has a ruined church tower, Norman, and a new church appearing to be built in imitation of the old. The landscape is spectacular—green, green hills (lush because of the rain, the C.’s said) intersected by dark hedges full of all sorts of vegetation.

After our walk, rental car finally arrived (oh—breakfast, of course, only difference with England being its unselfconscious generosity and brown soda bread). We took off around 10:30 to Graiguenemanagh. Went to Inistioge and got off on a trail, South Leinster Way, to Graiguenemanagh. Glorious drive all along—down into the valley where Inistioge is located, along the Leinster Way following the Nore River.

The road of course forked and forked with no signpost, so we realized we were lost, and when a car approached to squeeze by, Steve rolled window down and asked. “You’re kind of after going astray,” the man said. He got us on the right road—to Thomastown—and from there we found our way to Graiguenemanagh.

Surprises about Graiguenemanagh: it’s a sizable village and full of life, full of people, of children. The old abbey is spectacular, and the restoration job just wonderful. The interior of the church is tastefully done—painted white, as a Cistercian church should be, and the sickly sweet 19th-century iconography people seem to want to keep is kept to a minimum and hidden away in corners. Otherwise, the church is appropriately plain, with a mix of plain glass and stained glass windows that I should say are modern, but beautiful.

The knight in mail in the church is mounted on a wall in a kind of restored church porch, and nearby is a glass-encased bit of the medieval fleur de lys tiling. There’s a side-chapel with an icon that has been named Our Lady of Duiske—painted by an Irish nun after a Russian prototype. An explanatory paper says the icon is especially dedicated to reconciliation—people to be drawn together as close as Mary holds the infant Jesus to her cheek.

I lit a taper and knelt and prayed. The difference in this Irish church and many of the English ones we saw—here people are really praying. The church had several worshipers as we walked about, one a woman holding an ice cream cone, another a woman who appeared to be doing needlepoint as she prayed.

I don’t want to give the impression the church was full of tourists. We were the only ones in town, so far as I could tell.

As we approached the church, an elderly priest came out. I asked re: records and he told me that he was retired and the pastor might help. He told me Duiske is so named because it’s on the Duiske River, and this means “black water”—dubh uisce.

As we spoke, the pastor, Sean Swayze, came up with a calligrapher who manages the museum off the church, Railtin Murphy. I asked about records, and Sean Swayze took me to the rectory and drew me a map to Newtown Old School, where all the records are being typed and indexed by some parish young folks. This was impressive about Graiguenemanagh: a new library has been built, the church museum, the church itself restored, and interest in traditional crafts appears much alive.

Fr. Swayze told me the Ryans are “the old family” of the area, and that they donated the land for Duiske Abbey. He also showed me a wooden table altar from penal days that has just been discovered.

Went to Newtown Old School, encountering a flock of sheep in the road en route. What a disappointment—the 1853 Graiguenemanagh Valentine Ryan appears to be someone else than my Valentine Ryan.* This leaves me I don’t know where. Fr. Swayze had suggested we drive to Ullard, which is, he said, “Ryan country.” Could my Valentine have lived there? If so, did I miss him on Griffith’s? Are there any records from Ullard church? Was it a separate parish in 1850?

Afterwards, strolled in Graiguenemanagh churchyard. The 9th-century Celtic crosses are very impressive and sadly worn. The corpus, what can be made out, is much like the one on Bridget Ryan’s tombstone—a kind of orans quality about them, frank forward gaze. As with the Ryan graves at home, all these stones in Graiguenemanagh mention who erected them, on whose behalf.

After Graiguenemanagh church, to the Duiske glass place, which appears to be very touristy, and then on to the C.’s. With the whiskey there, talk and more talk. Jim C. has wild flyaway gray hair and animated gray eyes. Mrs. C. (Margaret) old and lame, but with similarly alive gray eyes.

They talked of Sr. Margaret—Peggy—of this and that, prices in Ireland, the poor in New Orleans. I wish I had had a recorder—so much wit, all of it so quick and light. I seemed to be the visiting celebrity, which wore on me. I prefer sinking back and listening.

After the drinks, a very merry and loud tea of egg sandwiches, rhubarb tart, lemon pie. That sobered us some, but as I got up, Mrs. C. ushered me back into the parlor and insisted I take another big glass of whiskey. Then Jim appeared with goblets of Irish coffee—talk about hair of the dog that bit you.

We talked again, this time about how the old folks used to tell ghost stories and how frightened this made children. Then Jim said, very casually, that he believed in ghosts, and that a rock near Inistioge bleeds once a year. He said a young girl was murdered there, and than a story about a priest on sick call at night attacked by an evil spirit that assumes the form of a greyhound—sometimes a bull. All this in the most matter-of-fact way. He said the spirit is at rest but promised to return at a certain time a few years from now.

I’m tiring of writing, so will close. After all this talk and merriment, we came home and I went straight to bed. I don’t feel hung over today, just my usual dismal self. Will try to walk some now.

* I should explain what brought us to Graiguenemanagh. As the preceding sections of narrative in Germany indicate, this was a trip on which Steve, two friends of ours (a married couple a generation older), and I flew to Germany and then made our way across England to Ireland. It was my first trip to Europe. I was able to make the trip, in part, because I had gotten a grant to interview German theologian Dorothee Sölle in Hamburg. Through the kindness of a colleague there, who had read some of my work and visited us in New Orleans, an interview was arranged.

The friends with us were interested in going to Ireland, not to Germany, but had come along to Germany for fear that they couldn’t fly easily alone to rendezvous with us in Ireland.
In Ireland, we made a beeline for what I believed was the birthplace of my great-grandmother Catherine Ryan—Graiguenemanagh. From her tombstone and family stories, I knew she had been born in Co. Kilkenny, but my family’s recollection of her precise place of birth had vanished by my generation. Using Griffith’s valuation of the early 1850s, I had located what I believed was the only man named Valentine Ryan in the entire county at this period. Catherine’s father was a Valentine Ryan whose tombstone also states that he was born in Co. Kilkenny. This Valentine Ryan lived in Graiguenemanagh—hence my interest in that village and my keen disappointment when it turned out that the parish register showed this was not my ancestor.

In a roundabout way, however, the visit to Graiguenemanagh
did eventually lead to my discovering that my Valentine Ryan had been born in Piltown, and was living in Inchacarran townland immediately prior to his emigration to New Orleans (and then Mississippi and Arkansas) in 1852. As a later snip of narrative will show, on this same trip I happened to mention my roots quest to a bookstore owner in Kilkenny. When he learned that I was interested in Ryans who may have had ties to Graiguenemanagh (it’s possible the Valentine there was related to my ancestor the same rare name), he gave me the address of a retired teacher, John Ryan of Piltown, who had written a historical novel about Duiske Abbey.

Some years down the road, I screwed up the courage to write John Ryan, who turned out to be a prince of a man, and who found for me my own Ryan roots in Co. Kilkenny—another story that will be told in full in later pieces of narrative on this blog.
I should also mention the visit to the C. family at Listerlin. A year or so prior to this trip, I had taught an Irish nun in a course for the Institute for Ministry at Loyola University in New Orleans. She died, suddenly and tragically, as I was teaching the course. When I planned the trip to Ireland, I made arrangements to visit her family, who treated us royally well, as this journal entry indicates.

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