My grandfather, Frank McGowan, left Ireland in 1890, to seek his fortune in America. He was a post-Famine Irishman, raised on his parents’ memories of the Gorta Mór, or Great Hunger, of the 1840s, when millions of Irish starved to death in the wake of a recurrent potato blight.
Post-Famine Ireland offered little for its children, and they fled in the millions. He returned to Ireland on a trip in 1923, years after his parents had died. A photo shows him, his wife and several relatives in front of the mud-walled, white-washed, thatched roof cottage where he had been born. How often I gazed at that photo as a boy, knowing only that the house was somewhere in Leitrim, in a townland called Lisdarush.
With that information, I set out early on a Monday morning 22 years ago from Galway, on my first trip to Ireland, to do two things. First, to meet my father’s 99-year-old cousin Paddy, the last of my family still living in Ireland; and second, to find where that cottage hopefully still stood. It was several hours drive, without benefit of a morning cup of coffee, but as I drew closer to my destination, I felt a strong sense of belonging, like I was coming home.
When I reached the market town close to my grandfather’s birthplace, I was directed to Collins’s Pub, a small place “up the road” where I was sure to find a cup of coffee. On the way there, I spied a road sign pointing up a narrow track that climbed into the surrounding mountains: “Lisdarush.” Intriguing, but I pushed on to Collins’s anyway, where I met a young farmer named Michael, his wife and five-year-old daughter, enjoying a late morning pint.
“A tourist, are you?” asked Michael. “What are you doing out here, in the back of beyond?”
My Irish raised up. I explained that in the rest of Ireland I might be a tourist, but here in Leitrim, I was coming home. In fact, I told him, I had seen a road sign pointing up a hillside to Lisdarush, where my grandfather was born.
“Why, that’s my townland!” Michael exclaimed. He asked my name again, and I gave him a thumbnail sketch of the family history, and how the house and small plot of land had been sold in the 1940s when the next generation of the family moved to England. Michael’s eyes went wide.
“You won’t believe this, but my father bought that farm from your relative, and it is indeed up that road, and I live next door,” he said. “The place is all a ruin now, though if you had been here 12 months ago the walls would still be standing, only my brother Henry came back from England, and he knocked the place down to build a big house across the road. I told him it was a sacrilege to do that, to knock down someone’s home.”
Michael promised he would take me to the site, and I was happy beyond belief.
Just then a big fellow walked in and passed us with a grunt. Michael was silent. The barmaid pulled the big fellow a pint.
“That there is my brother Henry,” Michael said loudly. “Henry,” he continued. “You knocked down this man’s house, and he’s come all the way from America to find out what you’re going to do about it.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.
“It’s sorry I am,” said Henry, “that I knocked down your house. But it was of no fecking use to me.”
Now, “fecking” is a common term in Ireland, more along the lines of “bloody,” and not the foul language we strive to avoid here.
I told him it was all right, and if I could just get up there and retrieve a stone from the ruin, I would be happy.
“Ah, if you’re after stones, sure, that’s all there is there. It’s why they all left in the first place.”
The rest of the day was magical. I worked a flagstone from what remained of the kitchen floor, and carried it, hidden in a knapsack, onto our return flight without being searched and questioned. I met cousin Paddy, who was a gem. And I still have that stone, which the voices of my ancestors have echoed upon for at least several hundred years.
When I go back for my next trip, early next year, I just may stop by there again, and have a coffee at Collins’s Pub, where the strangest twist of fate once brought me home.
Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.