The search leads to a sad farewell and an ancient castle
Researching my family history in Dublin, boarding a famine ship in Wexford and discovering an ancestral castle in Cork: These were just some of the highlights of my trip to Ireland to connect with the land my ancestors left behind more than 200 years ago when they journeyed to British North America (now Canada) for the chance of a better life. I was on what genealogist Helen Kelly describes as the “goose bump trail” to walk the ground of my ancestors during Ireland’s Year of The Gathering. And, yes, there were goose bumps indeed…
Continued from Part One
It was the next day that I drove from Wexford to neighbouring Cork, and to the port of Cobh, where there is a large museum, The Cobh Heritage Centre, on the dock to recreate and honour the emigrant experience. More than 2.5 million Irish left Ireland from Cobh (formerly Queenstown) during the famine years (1845-50). My ancestors left many years before, but I am sure the experience was very similar.
There is also a Titanic Museum in town, as Cobh was the location of the White Star Line office and the last port of call for the doomed ship before it embarked on its fated voyage across the Atlantic
I was in Cobh on an overcast day, and the atmosphere in the Victorian seaside town was evocative. I walked through the museum, past the statue of Annie Moore — the first Irish emigrant processed at Ellis Island in the USA — and along the waterfront to the existing piers. No doubt these were not the same piers that existed in 1800 when John and Clara walked them to board a ship for British North America (now Canada). But the layout of the town and even some of the buildings and churches was the same.
So I walked the street and the pier thinking of them, and I found it to be a very emotional experience. It seemed incredible to me that 200 years after they left, I could easily fly to Dublin, drive a car to Cobh and walk in their footsteps. I felt like I was closing a loop; or reconnecting to my past in a visceral way.
I stopped and ate seafood chowder at one of the many quayside pubs; and picked up some sweets in a traditional Irish sweet shop. And I couldn’t shake the feeling I had stepped back in time. I liked the quaintness of Cobh and the distinctive atmosphere, and would love to go back and stay at one of the old hotels that face the harbour.
But I had to move on for there were more goose bumps to come.
The Gathering 2013
The Gathering is a year-long festival of events all across Ireland to entice and entertain visitors, especially the Irish diaspora. It’s a celebration of Irish culture, history, people and places. To learn more visit The Gathering website; The Gathering Facebook page; and check out the travel offers on the Ireland Tourism Canada site.
Walking into the past
After driving through south east Ireland, visiting the Dunbrody Famine Ship and the Cobh Heritage Centre, I already felt full. But still, my big Gathering moment was ahead of me, because a day or two later (after a much needed two-day stop at a writer’s retreat, called Anam Cara, in the Beara Peninsula that I will write about in a separate post). I drove to Castletownroche, north of Cork City.
Though I enjoyed many sunny days in Ireland — contrary to expectation — the day I drove into my ancestral village was somewhat overcast. My excitement was high as I drove along the main street and stopped to park in front of The Spinning Wheel pub.
I had called ahead to make an appointment to see Blackwater Castle, and owner Patrick Nordstrom suggested I make a point of seeing The Spinning Wheel, as it was founded in 1791. That means my ancestors were living in Castletownroche when the pub opened. Incredible.
The small rooms were crammed with paraphernalia, and indeed some of it did look 220 years old! I couldn’t help note that a photo of the 1916 Easter Rising Martyrs held pride of place above the fire: Cork prides itself on being the “rebel county.” I chatted with employee (and former owner) Majella O’Connell, who said she knew several Roches in the village; and crossed the street to visit another old pub, called the Rockforest. Proprietor Michael O’Riordan told me it was only about 100 years old. That’s practically new in this part of the world!
At the suggestion of these local people, I walked down the hill to the edge of town to visit a stark, old church in a gloomy and frankly spooky cemetery. I still don’t know how I worked up the nerve to open the gate and enter, completely alone, to visit this lonely spot. My mother would have loved this experience — she delighted in the dark side — so perhaps she was quietly bolstering me from the other side.
The graveyard had lots of very old tombstones, from before the time when Catholics were allowed to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. The names were long gone, eroded by time, but still I felt some ancestors must be buried there. I walked reverently through the graveyard and spoke quietly to any residing spirits there. I said, “We are all fine. The voyage to the new world was a success. They founded a big, healthy family, and we are all doing well.” I cried as I mouthed these words, aware of the dreadful sorrows that lurks in these old places in Ireland.
From there I walked to the other end of town to visit the new and central Catholic Church. I hoped the Parish Priest could help me with church records, but alas, no one opened the rectory door; and the church was empty to. I went in, and grabbed a small bottle of holy water, though.
“I’m the queen of the castle!”
My final stop in Castletownroche was to visit Blackwater Castle. Owner Patrick Nordstrom met me and gave me a tour of the refurbished castle, that he now rents out by the week. The first thing he told me was that Blackwater was a Roche Castle; and it was at the centre of a huge land area called Roche’s Land many hundreds of years ago.
I immediately got goose bumps because I am descended from Roches. Today, the castle sits on 45 stunning acres, right on the edge of Castletownroche village. It is a green oasis surrounded by rich farmland. As we walked around the picturesque property — surrounded by ancient forest, at the edge of a bluff above the beautiful, lush Blackwater Valley — Patrick told me the history of the castle that his father bought on a whim in 1992, when real estate prices in Ireland were at a low.
Settlement on the site where Blackwater Castle sits dates from more than 9,000 years ago. The present castle was begun in 1170, and it became the seat of Lord Roche, Viscount of Fermoy. When Cromwell’s forces attacked Ireland in 1650, Lord Maurice Roche was away and his wife Lady Ellen Roche bravely defended the castle. However, it eventually fell to Cromwell’s forces and Lady Ellen Roche was eventually hanged in 1652 (possibly on trumped up murder charges). In 1666 Lieutenant Colonel John Widenham received the Castle as a reward it was thus renamed Castle Widenham — ending the reign of the Roches.
Patrick is a loquacious speaker who kept me entranced for hours with stories about the castle and the region as we walked the grounds. I got goose bumps when he told me about Ellen Roche — possibly a namesake? And decided on the spot that Blackwater is “my castle.” (In fact, it could be mine, for a week at least, as Patrick rents out the castle to groups. It has nine bedrooms, sleeps 23 and is in good condition and nicely furnished, too.)
I walked up to the top of the 12th century tower, up very worn, narrow, slippery steps, past rooms filled with cobwebs and an ancient Sheela Na Gig. From the top, I could see Castletownroche, the mill and the countryside, billowing fields of green and gold in every direction. It looked like rich land, and a sense of prosperity and peace hung over it. I found this very gratifying.
I also found being at the top of a castle tower tremendously fun. I looked down at Patrick below and yelled, “I’m the king of the castle and you’re a dirty rascal!” Couldn’t help it. Felt like the right thing to do. And feelings of joy and serenity arose. And completeness. Being on top of that castle was the peak of a satisfying experience.
With my eyes I saw the land my ancestors left. With my heart I felt the trauma and sorrow of the journey. And with my mind I made connections to the culture and the people that helped me understand myself better — especially my love of lyrical writing and my innate rebellious streak.
We ended the walk in the orchard, where I picked a small bag of apples for the journey back to Dublin. And as I ate them on the train, I felt completely satisfied that I had “walked the ground” of my ancestors and truly experienced the spirit of The Gathering.
To read the entire Gathering story, click here for Part One!
Posts in this series
- Going Home to Ireland
- The Journey from Ireland and Back
- On the Whelan Trail in Eastern Ontario
- In Search of My Ottawa Valley Irish Roots
- My link with Ireland: Nana
- Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part One
- Journey to Ireland for The Gathering: Part Two
Genealogical Resources for finding your family history in Ireland
Thank you to Failte Ireland, Ireland Tourism Canada and The Gathering for making this trip possible.
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