Hundreds of years ago, the kingdom of Ulster was in chaos. The kingdom, which covered the northern region of modern day Ireland, was coveted for its fertile soil and access to the ocean. Now the king was dead and many people laid claims to the throne. Who would rule?
To answer that question, a race was held. Each contender for the throne must sail along a course set across the wide, calm Strangford Lough. The first man to touch the finish line on the opposite shore would be crowned king.
The competition began. Boats tried to edge past each other but they were too closely matched. The distance between the competitors and the end of the course grew shorter, with no clear winner. Time was running out.
Suddenly, one of the sailors had a crazy idea. Taking a knife, he began to hack away at his own wrist. He sliced through the skin, then through the bone. Blood flowed freely onto the ship’s floor and into the water. Finally separated, the man cast his disembodied hand overboard. It landed on the winning shore.
The one-handed man was crowned king and his family, the Uí Néill clan, ruled over Ulster for hundreds of years. From then on, a red hand (known as the Hand of Ulster) was pictured on the family’s shield.
That man is my ancestor.
Like many Americans, I have Irish heritage. During the past year I discovered a distant tie to the handless king (the Red Hand of Ulster sits atop my own crest, likely due to a marriage between my family and the Uí Néill clan). Using online databases and original documents, I located the exact Catholic parish and eventually the exact town that my ancestors left when they immigrated to America.
This new knowledge inspired me to visit Ireland and the town my family once called home. I applied for the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship so I could afford an internship in Dublin. When the award came through, I was elated. I would finally go home to Ireland.
A Different Story
Thomas McGinnis left for America for the same reason many did: times were hard. It was 1740, the era of a widespread Irish potato famine. People fled the infertile countryside for the city. Grandpa Thomas went even further, immigrating to Frederick, Maryland. Every subsequent generation of my family has moved farther west across America. McGinnises, it seems, have never been content to stay in one place forever.
When I landed in Ireland almost 300 years after Grandpa Thomas left, I quickly learned that, culturally speaking, Irish Americans and native Irish have very little left in common. I had expected to slide right in, my last name a calling card that would earn me at least one “Welcome home, kid!” But as an Irish American, I had very little culture in common with native Irish people despite that Hand of Ulster on my crest.
Even the folklore that native Irish and Irish Americans share isn’t exactly the same. Take leprechauns. Most Americans know them as wee men in green who hide gold at the end of rainbows. But to the Irish, leprechauns are one of many fairy creatures they hear stories about as children. Their leprechauns carry gold in purses and don’t eat sugary cereal (barely anyone I met in Ireland had heard of Lucky Charms). Many Irish adults believe on some level that fairies actually exist. You’ll be driving along a highway in County Cork and see a tall circle of trees emerge from an otherwise plowed pasture. To this day, natural tree rings (believed to be a fairy’s portal to the other world) aren’t cut down. Better an imperfect field than bad luck cast upon your house courtesy of the Fair Folk.
Learning to Listen
As soon as I arrived in Ireland, I was mentally prepared to go to Downpatrick, Grandpa Thomas’s hometown, but first I wanted to visit some of the country’s historical sites including the Belfast peace murals and Dublin’s bullet-scarred General Post Office. If I was claiming an Irish heritage, it only seemed proper to know about Ireland itself.
One of these trips was to Kilmainham Gaol (pronounced “kill-main-em jail”). The jail is perhaps best known as the site where Irish prisoners fighting for independence from Britain in the 1922 civil war were executed by the Irish Free State (despite its name, the Irish Free State favored an arrangement where Northern Ireland remained under direct British rule and the rest of Ireland became a satellite nation of Great Britain). Such violence against groups supporting British rule continued long after the civil war ended, fueled by religious differences between the mostly Protestant British rule groups and the mostly Catholic home rule groups. This tumultuous period, known locally as the Troubles, continued into the 1990s.
Apart from its connection to the war, the gaol is also famous for providing shelter to many victims of the Great Famine. People purposefully committed crimes to land in Kilmainham; in prison, you received a meal every day and had a roof over your head. Outside, maybe not.
It’s surprisingly cold in the gaol. The oldest cells are constructed almost entirely from limestone. Visitors’ steps echo against the metal bridges separating the floors. Two lines from The Rebel, a poem by Irish poet and activist Patrick Pearse, are engraved over a doorway: “Beware of the Risen People that have harried and held, ye that have bullied and bribed.”
There was more than a feeling that history had taken place here among the stone walls. Call it faith, call it legacy, but to me this place felt familiar. Someone had died here, someone of mine. I’ve never found evidence proving a long-lost ancestor ever called Kilmainham home, but my heart told me that someone had been waiting for me to come back.
While the tour moved ahead, I lingered in the hallway. “Where are yeh?” I whispered in my newly adopted Dublin accent. Of course, no sound came from the walls. Still, I added, “I’m here.” Not knowing why, I made the sign of the cross on my chest. Then I caught up with the rest of the group, more desperate than ever to visit the place where my family began.
Finally, I made it to Downpatrick, the largest city in Down parish in County Down, Northern Ireland, and likely where my ancestors lived because of the city’s preeminence in the parish. Downpatrick itself is still small enough for old men to have conversations with each other by yelling across the street. The town’s claim to fame is its connection to Saint Patrick; his remains are kept at the city’s Down Cathedral.
Visiting Downpatrick felt much different than visiting Kilmainham Gaol. I drastically stuck out here with my AC/DC t-shirt and short hairstyle. I felt like just another American visiting Ireland. Just another one “tracing back her heritage,” which, the more I thought about it, seemed like a silly notion.
In Downpatrick, I finally faced an obvious truth about my family’s history: hundreds of years ago, the McGinnises left Ireland. They left. Ireland wasn’t my home because it wasn’t theirs either. To pretend otherwise would be to betray their choice to come to America for a better life.
Once I realized this, I spent the rest of my weekend in Downpatrick like any American tourist would. I paid my respects at Saint Patrick’s grave and had a drink at a local pub. I attended a theatrical production of Melmoth the Wanderer, an Irish legend about a man who sells his soul to the Devil to live for 150 extra years. The catch: he must find someone to take over his burden of extended life, to haunt the world in his stead. It felt strangely appropriate. He, like I, was a wanderer who did not find meaning where expected.
Throughout my travels, most Irish people I met seemed fine with Americans visiting ancestral homes. They weren’t offended by me coming back to learn about my heritage. But being truly Irish means more than finding a grave with your surname. It’s the pride you feel when you say you’re from Cork, Belfast, or anywhere else on the island. Being Irish is having a connection to the land from whence you came and knowing you can always go home. I never felt the longing for Ireland I saw in the eyes of my Irish friends when they described where they grew up. That was the difference between us.
The next morning, I left Downpatrick. It was time to go back to Dublin. To continue on, as we McGinnises do.