I don’t have to dig too deeply into the roots of my family tree to find ancestors born in Ireland. My dad’s maternal grandfather, who helped raise him after my dad’s dad died in WWII, was the first to immigrate to Canada from Northern Ireland.
When my dad and his younger brother were but wee lads, their grandfather would regale them with stories of growing up in the Irish countryside. Over the years, the stories would include aspirations of taking them back to Ireland to see his homeland.
Sadly, that never came to pass in my great grandfather’s lifetime. And it almost didn’t happen in my father’s lifetime either.
The year my dad turned 78 he was diagnosed with cancer. A fairly radical operation was planned to remove the tumor, but before he agreed to under the knife, he was intent on getting to Ireland. He wanted to see, through his own eyes, the land he’d heard so much about from his grandfather.
As luck would have it (I’m part Irish after all) we were able to join my dad (and his partner Nancy) on his pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle.
Getting to Dublin was painless for us via a direct flight from Vancouver.
Cloaked in jetlag, we approached Dublin at a modest pace. There seemed nothing really distinct about the city itself, beyond what you’d expect from older European cities. Substantial stone buildings, cobblestone streets, and many pubs. I guess I was expecting green rolling hills, but there were none that I could see.
Trinity College was about a kilometre from where we were staying. It offered up beautiful buildings and grounds. We explored the library, which was a throwback in time. Two levels around the perimeter and open in the middle with shelves, upon shelves, upon shelves of books and the ladders needed to retrieve them. The library is also home to The Book of Kells, an illustrated gospel text from the nineth century.
While in Dublin we jumped on a literary walking tour. It was led by an Irish literature scholar and university professor. He paraded us around Dublin and read passages from the likes of W.B. Yates, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde to name a few. Our guide would stop at significant locations along the way and explain what life was like the days when these authors were penning their prose.
All that walking can make a person thirsty.
We hightailed it to the old Guinness factory for a tour and a pint.
The set up at the factory made for an excellent self-guided tour. The passages were well marked and there were plenty of interpretive displays along the way. The tour is cleverly designed to lead you from the base of the factory to the pub on the top floor where you are rewarded with a great view of the city and a pint. Even if Guinness isn’t your thing, the history and operations are fascinating – and they produce a few lighter ales if that’s your fancy.
On one of our nights in Dublin, we took in a live performance that was part of their Fringe Festival. It was an interesting show. It took place in a warehouse and the small audience had to follow the actors into various rooms/scenes to keep up with the show.
In Dublin, we secured a rental car for the remainder of our trip. Our next stop was to hop on the motorway and make our way to Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Even along the highway I wasn’t seeing any rolling fields of green. What gives?
A highlight from our time in Belfast was taking a Black Cab Tour. Over the course of about two hours, our driver took us to ground zero of “the Irish troubles.” We learned the history of the fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants: walls that separated them (and in some cases continue to today), curfews, bombing sites, lives lost and a myriad of other nasty business.
From Belfast we set our sights on the area of Enniskillen where my grandfather was born. Along the way, the roads began to narrow and those green rolling hills emerged before us. At last.
With no plan other than taking my dad to the church his grandfather’s family attended we pulled up to a gas station in Fivemiletown (population ~1,200) to ask for directions. That set the wheels in motion for a mini family reunion.
I asked a woman who pulled up to the station at the same time as we did if she knew how we could get a hold of the priest so we could take a look inside the church. Apparently the “Elliotts” (my great grandfather’s surname) had their own pew in the church and my dad wanted to see it.
She seemed to know that the priest wasn’t available, but when she heard that we were Elliotts from Canada, she said we had to meet Maisy Elliott. She jumped back in her car and asked us to follow her. A few kilometres down some very narrow roads and up a farm driveway, we were moments later meeting the wife of my dad’s cousin who has lived in Fivemiletown her entire life. Her husband had died a few years before, but she was excited to see us, and she invited us in for tea and toast. It was a bit surreal to find ourselves sitting in a cozy living room with a distant cousin hearing stories about common relatives.
MY DAD COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE THRILLED
Needless to say, the visit with Maisy surpassed any need my dad had to see the Elliott pew, although we did stop by the church yard to see where some of the dead Elliotts are buried. Morbid, I know.
We left Fivemiletown with moist eyes, big smiles and hearts full, setting our course back to the Republic of Ireland, where we stopped for lunch in Frank’s ancestor’s old stomping grounds: County Sligo.
From Sligo we made our way to Galway. Our plan had us staying a few nights and using our accommodation as a base to explore several outlining areas.
Traveling by secondary highways became more and more picturesque with each kilometre. The quintessential Irish countryside lay before us. Rolling hills dotted with sheep and cows.
Stopping to take photos was treacherous because the roads are very narrow and bordered by short stone walls on each side. In many places along the way, the posted speed limits far exceeded what was safely possible.
For the most part, our trip wasn’t hampered by rain. It did rain from time to time, but we had raincoats and umbrellas for those occasions. However, in Galway, on our 15-minute walk to a ‘nearby’ restaurant recommended by our AirBnB host, our umbrellas and raincoats were no match for the deluge of horizonal rain. In a matter of mere minutes, we were drenched from head to toe. It seemed to be a common occurrence – the restaurant didn’t even bat an eye as we created puddles beneath our seats during the course of our dinner.
It rains in Ireland. It can come from nowhere, and often sideways. You’ve been warned.
One of our Galway day trips was to the Cliffs of Moher. One of our dear friends from Argentina (who is originally from Ireland) happened to be on the Emerald Isle visiting her mom during our travels and she joined us for the day. Deirdre was a great source of travel tips. Helping us navigate where to get the best vantage point of the cliffs while avoiding the hordes of tour buses.
From our stay in Galway, we made our way to Killarney for a visit to Ross Castle. Then to Limerick for lunch.
Our final stop was just outside of Waterford where we would spend the night before having to get to the Dublin airport for an early flight the next morning.
The first part of our 10-day trip was action packed, touring around cities with much to see and then visiting long lost relatives. The last part of the trip was much more casual, much of it spent driving (thanks Frank!!) between points.
Prior to this trip (fall of 2018) my dad had never been to Europe. And after the leg in Ireland, he and Nancy went on to Scotland for more sightseeing.
When he returned to Canada after this trip, he scheduled his surgery and although the recovery was long, he did well for two years. Sadly, however, the cancer returned with a vengeance at the end of 2020. With no fight left in him he died in January.
Having lived across the county from my dad for my adult life it was rare for us to spend quality time together. This trip was just that. I’m beyond grateful that we were able to see my dad connect with his roots in Ireland.