Monday, October 20, 2008

Dublin 22.6.1998: Country Churches, Surly Priests

Kilkiernan’s a lovely place, down a hill on the hillside from the main road. As we left, I noticed cows watching with bovine half-curiosity from a field adjoining the holy place. Larks sang and swooped in the air.

John and Maura talked of some trouble over who controls the site. Apparently it was wild and overgrown until a local farmer, abetted by an American, cleaned it up. The American toiled a whole summer rebuilding walls and installing gates.

Then the ministry of national monuments stepped in to claim ownership, accusing the shrine’s rescuers of meddling. John R. himself got accused of interfering, since he apparently knew this cleanup was taking place. John and Maura said the work’s at a standstill, unless local people do it surreptitiously by night.

A pattern had just been held at the holy well. Maura tells me a pattern need not be a procession in honor of a saint, but can be a graveyard-working for those buried in the cemetery surrounding the well. Bright flowers in bunches were around all the graves.

After Kilkiernan, a lunch of salad at the R.’s, and to Mullinavat. Fearing the priest wouldn’t be at home, though we’d made an appointment, I called to tell him I was coming. “Hello,” he said rather brightly, “is this Kevin?” I explained who I was and said we’d be on our way. The response was a glum yeah.

We got to Mullinavat in good time, and Msgr. M. came to the door—having a wee dram taken, Steve and I thought. He ushered us into the rectory office—an old dining room with a wobbly square table in the center, dark with aged varnish, and a few rickety chairs about it. All was sad—disarray, a feeling of the . . . extrinsicness . . . of the church to people’s lives today. On the walls faded pictures of former pastors, stains running out at angles on the wallpaper behind them.

Msgr. M. presented me with one of those computer printouts that now seem to function as parish books in that part of Ireland, made a discouraging remark about “the sort of people who left Ireland in the Famine” and the paucity of records for them, and left. I flipped to the Ryans, and there they were—my Kate, baptized on the day of birth I have from her tombstone, her brother Patrick, and others I had never heard of—an Ellen, a John, the Val Jr. I'd already found.

I was stunned. Years of searching, and I’d found the end of the road. Why Rothe House told me they had no record of Kate and Patrick—despite money I’d sent for the search—is beyond me. And I had written Msgr. M., enclosing money and asking for a copy of the marriage record, only to be sent a transcript of what I already had, with a brief note saying he was unable to copy the record. No thanks for money enclosed. A copy machine stands in the rectory office.

When I found my Ryans in the printout, the monsignor warmed a bit and yielded to Steve’s insistence that we be allowed to see the original records. Steve further insisted on copying the originals, at which Msgr. M. bristled a bit: I was to promise to black out all other names on the page.

What’s the likelihood of my sharing information about illegitimate ancestors of parish folk in the 1830s and 1840s?

After the records search, a careful perusal of the parish graveyard, with John and Maura’s invaluable assistance. I found only one Ryan grave that seemed promising, a flat tombstone mentioning Glendonnell, a “suburb” of Mullinavat, and going back to the 1740s. I believe the Ryans of this stone are the ancestors of those in Buckstown.

Then to Buckstown, which is across a bridge and west of Mullinavat proper. There we talked to a young Mr. McEvoy, a teacher, who said he knew the Ryans often “stood for” McEvoys in church records, but weren’t related. He told us a Mary Ryan had been the last Ryan in Buckstown, and had given her farm (the family farm) to a Daniel McEvoy who took care of her.

He directed us up the road to his cousin Ann McEvoy G., who lives beside the old Ryan place. He also warned us to be careful that she might be suspicious of Americans coming to claim ancestral land.

Tom (or was it Pat?) McEvoy told us, too, of an elderly lady who’d just had a stroke, who grew up in a little house attached to Mary Ryan’s house, and of a Petey somebody, a man in his 80s who’d surely know of the Ryans, since he lives in Deerpark near Glendonnell, and the Ryans over there were kin of the Buckstown ones.

We trekked up to Ann G.’s, passing the old Mary Ryan place—now all overgrown—in the process. Ann G. was at first non-forthcoming and brusque. I thought I’d interrupted her tea and apologized for it, she saying nothing to the contrary, though I later learned she’d finished.

She told me the same Mary Ryan story, and said she believed the Ryan-McEvoy connection was that the Ryans and McEvoys had been neighbors from time immemorial, the Ryans having lived in three houses on the old Mary Ryan place, the smaller two now gone. (Tom McEvoy had told us the McEvoys came to Buckstown ca. 1820 from Fahin? on the Kilkenny-Tipperary border, and bought their land from a Mr. Walsh [pronounced Welsh in these parts] who was much given to drink.)

Ann G. also told me Mary Ryan was a single child, daughter of a Tom Ryan, and that Daniel McEvoy was her (i.e., Ann’s) uncle. I showed her the McEvoy names I’d copied from the computer version of the parish records, and she brought me inside to the kitchen to see papers she had, with the same information. As we talked, she told me there were no Tobins in Buckstown—never had been, it seemed—and that all the Tobins were from Listrolin-Tullogher way. She also said, significantly, that the Tobins are related to the McEvoys. Perhaps that explains why Ryans and McEvoys are always standing for each other in the parish.

Then to Mary Ryan’s. We climbed a rickety metal fence and went to the house, the bottom floor of which has been used to stable animals. Had to stoop to get through the door, it’s so short.

Inside we found two rooms, one atop the other. Where plaster had peeled from the walls downstairs was stonework that seemed old to Steve and me, though John Ryan believed the house is 20th-century. There were an old fireplace with an iron arm to hold pots and a built-in oven beside it, both now cemented up.

The stairs going up were very precarious, worn thin, and shifting in places. Two windows upstairs overlooking the road, with shutters inside. Sticks of broken furniture here and there, but no other signs of human occupancy for many years.

Outside we detected beneath elder, bramble, and vine an old stone animal pen with a high narrow window, and the remains of old stone walls. I picked a foxglove to press into this journal.

I felt that here, I was on ancestral ground, even if it seems that the Mary Ryan house is not so old. John Ryan said it’s curiously constructed, tall and narrow and unlike other farmhouses in the region.

And goodness! How could I have forgotten the time in the church, after our graveyard search? St. Beacon’s was built in 1802—early for an Irish country church of the penal years. That means that in this very church my ancestors were baptized, married, buried.

I looked again at the altar with its red Corinthian columns running to the ceiling, surmounted by a red and gold triangle depicting what? The Holy Spirit? God’s eye? I can’t recall.

It’s a plain church, a plain country church with white balconies in the—what’s it called, nave? The only statues are one of Mary, one of the Sacred Heart, either side the altar.

I sat for awhile, letting it all sink in and crying. The sadness of their leavetaking, which was so definitive. This church, the one I was seeing with my own eyes, was the same one they’d have seen, one final time, before leaving.

I thought, too, of the years I’d searched for this, of my grandmother and how she’d have loved to see this place. I thought of how this search had led me to Catholicism, and wondered in what sense I’m Catholic now, after all that’s happened. I thought of how the end of a long search, a long journey, is bittersweet: there’s the satisfaction of seeing one’s efforts rewarded, but the emptiness of the quest laid to rest. There’s also that nagging sense that no journey short of death (and even then?) is ever really definitively over. Every new end leads to a new beginning.

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