In the summer of 1993 Suzi and I took my mother to Ireland to celebrate her 80th birthday. Her father was born, raised, and ran away to sea from Greencastle in Donegal; at the mouth of Lough Foyle, the choke point leading to the port of Londonderry. Her actual birthday was in September and on her birthday I sent her a letter recounting some of the stories we heard in Ireland. Many of the stories are the ones I grew up with, but we heard them from a different perspective and told a century after they happened.
My grandfather said his stories were always true even if not always factual. I didn’t really understand that until I became a storyteller myself. People claim I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone. True enough, but my storytelling is genetic. I get it from both grandfathers, my paternal great grandfather, my dad and even my mother, who became a storyteller in her own right only after Pop died. When I’m in Ireland I meet people like me, who come from the same storytelling tradition, who cherish conversation, the sound of a sentence, ironic wit, understatement and, when necessary, overstatement.
Here, with some edits to remove very personal things and with additions to explain things that I would have no need to explain to my mother, are excerpts from that letter.
Our cab driver in Dublin was verbally fluid. His words, flowing with metaphor, ride with the traffic. He filled for a traffic jam and edited to make a light. His one-way conversation rolled with the wheels.
Our Dublin barman came over and asked us if we were the Alaskans he had heard were staying at Bushwells. We admitted to it and he recited, from memory, the shooting of Dan McGrew, with proper respect of cadence and modulation. What can I do but reply with William Butler Yeats. More terrible than beautiful, I fear.
In Dublin there are all sorts of enterprises that will sell you information about your very own Irish heritage. At Trinity College, Dublin, there’s a kiosk with a young man and a computer. Give him your surname and he will print out your family history, guaranteed authentic Irish. There are identical computers throughout Ireland. Suzi asked the man to search for her mother’ authentic Irish maiden name, von Nyvenheim unso von Nykirken. Yep, the traditional Irish computer at Trinity College Dublin says she’s Irish. Next time we’re in Ireland we will look up Spadaccini.
Mom, Suzi, and I met with Mr. Liam McCormick (one of Ireland’s most noted architects and a great talker himself) in Greencastle, the old home place. He had a score to settle with me. My great-grandfather had arrested his grandfather. In the 1890s Ireland had a blue law that denied drink to all on the Lord’s Day, except for the confirmed traveler who needed more comfort than the mass could provide. The confirmed traveler was one who ventured more than 3 miles from the comforts of home. Conveniently, if not coincidently, many road-houses were located just three mileposts from town lines. The towns of Moville, Greencastle, and Stroove are located 3 miles from each other eliminating the need for roadhouses. Every Sunday after mass, outside of Lent of course, the towns happily exchanged populations and offered each other the hospitality of the open road.
My great-grandfather was Greencastle town constable and a temperance man. He disapproved of drinking on the Lord’s Day and did his best to discourage the increase in the number of confirmed travelers on Sundays. Mr. McCormick’s grandfather and great uncle lived in Stroove, just 3 miles from the Black Dog Pub in Greencastle. They shared a thatch roofed long house with two separate doors. One Sunday great-grandfather arrested both McCormick brothers for drinking without being confirmed travelers. The brothers protested claiming travelers’ privilege because they were 3 miles from home. “Any idiot knows Stroove is 3 miles from Greencastle.”
There wasn’t much other crime in Ireland in the 1890s, so great-grandfather was easily able to find two other constables from neighboring towns in need of something to do, and the following Monday took a surveying chain borrowed from the ordnance survey that mapped Ireland a decade before. The chain was 1 rod long and they paced off 3 miles. They picked up and set down the chain over 1000 times, like 100 American Sunday football referees but, as McCormick said, without the striped shirts. The final length of the chain fell between the brothers’ front doors. One was acquitted while the other, Mr. McCormick’s grandfather, served the following Sunday in jail.
The price Mr. McCormick named to settle the score, a bottle of Jamison Irish Whiskey. It was Mr. McCann, who owned the B&B, who provided the same. McCann asked if we wanted water with the Jamison. He then looked at my mother with a wink and reminded us “to remember the commandment. ‘Thou shalt do no murder’—Margaret?” We each refused the splash. But as the evening wore on each of the men, McCormick, McCann and McClear, took a little water — on the side. My mother took it straight.
We arrived in Greencastle a day late, the day after our last living relative in town, Bobby Morrison, was buried in the churchyard at St. Finian’s (C of I). St. Finian’s figured prominently in my grandfather stories. It was the church where he passed each New Year’s Eve, on his knees in prayer or singing the praises. Today praises ring out as loudly as they did a century ago, although the congregation is much smaller. The church installed a loudspeaker system that pumps out hymns sung by recorded choir, augmented by the few voices left in the congregation. We passed a pleasant afternoon with the Rev. Mr. Gilmore, who found the family birth records and told us something of the parish, especially of one of his more eccentric predecessors, the Rev. Mr. Swanzee, the very priest who baptized my grandfather.
My grandfather often talked about the Rev. Mr. Swanzee. Greencastle had no national school. The nearest was in Moville and, not wanting to get the schoolboys started on the road to Moville lest it lead there on Sunday, the Rev. Mr. Swanzee decided that Greencastle needed its own school and he ordered one by mail to be shipped from Scotland. The town was amazed when it came, unloaded from a boat in Moville and delivered by four horse carts to St. Finian’s churchyard. The carts brought books, pencils, slates and a corrugated metal building that so impressed the parishioners that they assembled the school in one Sunday afternoon. Better to work on the Lord’s Day than travel to Moville.
From then on the Reverend Mr. Swanzee attended to the education of the parish youth in what became known as the Swanzee School.
Greencastle is a town of ancient buildings. The castle was built in the early 1300s and St. Finian’s itself is over 200 years old. Unfortunately mail order school buildings are not built to outlast the education they provide, and the building gave way to the Irish coastal winds. No one bothered to report to the bishop in Derry that the school collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century. The Rev. Mr. Gilmore recently received a letter from the bishop’s office inquiring about the school, more specifically asking if he could sell it to realize some money for the maintenance of the church.
Greencastle sits on the coast were Lough Foyle meets the sea. For generations Greencastle sent its sons to sea to harvest fish. Others became the pilots who brought the ships into Derry Harbor. Those who couldn’t work the fishing or pilot boats did what my grandfather did; they ran off to sea or to America. The constant stream of boats leaving Molville and Derry, crossing through the narrow mouth of the lough before heading for America, Scotland or England, was just too seductive. Charlie McCann is a fourth-generation harbor pilot guiding boats into Derry Harbor. His son runs the pilot boat that takes Charlie to the bigger ships and will take over as pilot when Charlie retires in two years. Recently Charlie guided a boat loaded with Irish grown Sitka Spruce headed for a pulp mill in Finland. At the end of the Second World War he, as an officer of a neutral nation, took surrender of a wolf pack of German U Boats and guided it into Derry Harbor. He has the photo of him in the conning tower in his front entry.
The guidebooks say that Greencastle has a remarkably uninteresting harbor. It’s uninteresting only to someone who doesn’t understand boats or fishing. In the harbor different gear groups get ready for an opening. If you go at the right time you can see illegal monofilament gill nets quietly loaded onto boats. As one pub man said, “you have to make a living somehow.” In Sitka trawlers are the villains. Greencastle trawlers are small wooden boats, not the floating factories from Seattle, Yokohama or Vladivostok that destroy the bottom off Sitka and regularly snag the submarine telephone cable cutting off our calls until the telephone traffic can be rerouted to the satellite channel that brings in our television. When that happens our incoming television can be preempted– another reason to hate trawlers. My favorite Greencastle trawler is named “Random Harvest.”
My grandfather told the story of one of the Morrison clan who sailed to America out of Moville and came back with his fortune to the port of Cobh, or Queenstown as it was then called. The ship he sailed home on was over 700 feet long, unheard-of in Lough Foyle, although Harland and Wolfe over in Belfast were already putting together the plans that would become the Olympic, and her sister ship the Titanic, at over 800 feet.
This particular Morrison uncle was so impressed with the ship that he erected two cairns of stones along the road to Moville. One marked the bow, the other the stern. He insisted on walking each visitor who came to Greencastle the entire length of the ship. On Sundays they walked 7 and a half times the length of the ship on the way to Moville. People put up with the cairns and the repeated story. He was rich after all, and often stood the drinks.
People put up with a lot to live by the sea. Last winter the fog horn at Point Dunagree Light, near Stroove, malfunctioned and started to sound randomly. It sounded all night at intervals. It would start just as people were getting to sleep. Mrs. McCann said it was so bad “we were all demented.” The problem was that the lighthouse is manned and no one wanted to call the lighthouse service for fear that the lighthouse keeper would lose his job. So no one complained until one night the whole town of Stroove “got demented” at the same time and everyone called.
Well, actually Mrs. McCann tried to call the lighthouse keeper first to complain but he said he couldn’t understand her over the phone because the foghorn was sounding and his hearing was shot. The lighthouse keeper had tried to fix it but it was an intermittent short-circuit and he couldn’t track it down. He had called his supervisor at the lighthouse service but he had set fixing Point Dunagree lighthouse as a low priority because it had been malfunctioning for the better part of a month and no one had complained.
Uncle Bobby Morrison was an old Irish bachelor farmer. I met him when I went to Greencastle with my Grandfather in 1961. One Greencastle wag said he was very “Christ like” because when he was 30 he was still a virgin and still worshiped his mother. There are enough old Irish bachelor farmers that they have become the punch line of many a joke. In Dublin we saw a play based on the theme of the Irish bachelor farmer called “The Chastitute.”
I don’t understand why there are so many OLD Irish bachelor farmers. Irish food is designed to clog the arteries, and shorten the life, of any male. Ireland is the only place where you’re served lemon meringue pie with whipped cream on top. The most appropriately named restaurant in Ireland is “The Ubiquitous Chip.” I initially thought it was a computer store. It was the only restaurant that didn’t automatically serve chips with every meal. Every other non-breakfast meal we had in Ireland came with chips. I had chips served with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and new potatoes; chips with lasagna; chips with chicken curry served on the bed of rice; and chips that sat right on top of the rice with tandoori chicken. Why are they called French fries and not Irish fries?