LAST WINTER, a year after my husband died, I decided to take my first trip to Ireland, birthplace of my ancestors. I don’t have many regrets in my life, but not finding a way to take my father, Edwin Concannon, to Ireland will always be at the top of my list. There were always reasons why I couldn’t do it — raising a child, financial, not enough vacation time, and then his health.
On my flight to Shannon Airport, while many people were sleeping on the plane, I had my nose pressed to the window like a child, taking it all in. As the plane began to descend, I took out the picture of my father, which I had in a clear protective sheet, and held it up to the window. I knew it would be emotional for me. As I got closer and my view of Ireland became clearer, I began to cry.
Growing up, my father would tell me and my sister, Eva, all about the history of Ireland. Because of him, even as a young child, I was very proud of my Irish heritage. He told me how proud and strong in spirit the Irish are while always keeping faith and hope.
He played his Irish records on his old Victrola, and Eva and I would march proudly behind him throughout our railroad apartment in Guttenberg as we giggled. I waited for “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen” to come on, knowing he would sing it to me and tell me again how he named me after that song.
Watching him as he sang along to “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,” a song of a mother’s love so strong, tears would form in his eyes, and I too felt his sadness over the loss of his mother, Bessie Creegan Concannon, who died giving birth to his brother when he was three. He was left orphaned in New York City when his father died a year later. Many times he told me: “Maybe one day you’ll go to the town where she was born.” At the time, it never occurred to me that I might.
Thanks to a series of coincidences and magical chance encounters, I did.
My first time on Irish soil
As I held up my father’s picture that morning on my flight to Ireland, I noticed on the back side I had placed the 1885 birth record of his Aunt Anne — his mother’s sister. He’d had it for many years. I took this with me, as an afterthought, to honour her.
Although my father, who died in 2001, and his four siblings were never able to visit Ireland, they repeated the stories their mother and Aunt Anne told them about where they came from. All four of my grandparents’ ancestors came from the west and northwest of Ireland, but Bessie was the only one who was born in Ireland, in the village of Cloone in County Leitrim.
One night from my hotel in Galway, I Googled the church in Cloone where Aunt Anne was baptised and was surprised to see what I thought was the tower from the church still standing. I asked my niece, who had accompanied me to Ireland, if she would mind taking a ride there with me the next day. Many people tried to talk us out of it, explaining how difficult it is for people not familiar with driving on the left side of the road to navigate narrow, rural roads. We were without GPS, and what we believed to be a two-hour trip took us at least four.
I had no expectation other than to see the tower and touch the church doors, which were still there. After many stops for directions, we made it there just as the sun was setting. We took a few pictures and I got to touch the church doors. We walked through the small cemetery and saw the Creegan name on many headstones. I was beyond excited to feel this connection and know that my father’s family walked on the same ground.
“Oh yes, you’re a Creegan Red. You’re ours.”
As we were getting into the car to head back for the long drive to Galway, I happened to look across the street to the only pub in town. The sign was in Gaelic, but it resembled “Creegan,” I told my niece. I walked in and the only person in the pub was the owner, Tommy Creegan. I joked that maybe we were cousins, and he rang his sister, Dolores Creegan, on the phone, who came right over.
She took one look at me and said: “Oh yes, you’re a Creegan Red. You’re ours.”
She invited us back to her house, and on the walk there I kept whispering to my niece: “I love her.”
As we entered her beautiful, warm home, she threw holy water on us, a ritual used to protect against evil, several times. She took Aunt Anne’s birth record and looked through her own paperwork as I watched. I began to pray that she was related to me because I felt an instant connection with her and wanted to see her again.
After several minutes of flipping through pages, she turned to me and threw her hands in the air and exclaimed that we were related: her grandfather and my great-grandfather were first cousins and best friends.
My niece quickly took a photo as I cried and hugged Dolores.
I’d suddenly found new family members
Having so few family members growing up and then losing my mother, sister, father and husband, all before their time, I’d suddenly found new family members I didn’t even know I had. Yet, I felt as though I’d known them my whole life. I felt an immediate kinship with them. I felt like I belonged. I had the intuitive feeling of predestination — I was fulfilled.
On the plane home, a man sitting next to me asked if I had family there, and again I cried when I answered, “Yes, I do.” After I returned home, I received an email from yet another relative, who said her mother, Mossi Whelan, who is 85 years old, actually knew some of my father’s family members.
She said that the next time I was in Ireland, Mossi would take me to their old homestead. I flew back with my daughter, Kelly, a few months later.
Mossi met us and gave me a file of old papers all about my family. As promised, she took me to my family’s old homestead. Standing on the land where my great-grandparents and grandmother Bessie lived and played gave me a deep connection to Ireland and an even deeper bond and connection to the father I adored. I wished I could share this with him and I wished he could see me there.
I gathered up some stones, and when I returned home I placed them on his grave in Fort Lee. This got me wondering where Bessie was buried. I didn’t know where any of my grandparents were laid to rest. I found a note from 1933 that Aunt Anne wrote stating that she just purchased a plot in a cemetery in The Bronx where her sister is buried. I went there three times trying to find her.
On my fourth trip to the cemetery, a caretaker met me and he finally found her.
Honouring my family
Poor Bessie was in an unmarked grave since 1933. All around her were beautiful headstones and flowers left on graves — symbols of love and respect. I felt terrible for her. I walked across the street and bought her a beautiful headstone as grand as the others. I added shamrocks — lots of shamrocks.
As I walked into the office to straighten all of the paperwork out, the woman behind the desk told me Bessie was buried with her sister Anne. How wonderful that I found her too — after all, it was her birth record that led me to Cloone in the first place.
As I turned to leave, the woman said: “There’s room for one more in there, you know.” I turned and told her to save it for me. I walked back to the headstone shop and added Anne’s name along with mine. Bessie never knew a grandchild and I never knew a grandmother, yet we were connected by her little boy — my father. I thought that would be a nice way to honor my father, Bessie, Anne and the rest of my father’s siblings.
My heart was pulling me back to Ireland and my newfound family there. I flew back on New Year’s Eve, which happened to be the two-year anniversary of my husband’s death. I was able to obtain Bessie’s original birth record from Dublin and I can now apply for dual citizenship. During this last visit, I purchased a home — the second home of my cousin Delores — in Aughavas, a village next to Cloone. Sometime in the future, I plan to move there.
In addition to the stunning beauty of County Leitrim, the people have been so welcoming. Wherever I go, they say: “Welcome home, Kathleen. You’re home now.”
I’ll carry the love my father gave me in my heart forever and I’ll continue to feel his gentle hand guiding my way.
As I hum the end of the song he sang to me so many times, I fondly recall the words:
And I will take you back, Kathleen, to where your heart will feel no pain
And when the fields are fresh and green, I will take you to your home Kathleen.
Kathleen Maloney is an administrative assistant with The Asbury Park Press in Neptune, New Jersey. Kathleen is writing Twice Lost, an autobiography addressing the challenges of caring for a loved one who is suffering with an untreated severe mental illness while battling stage IV cancer. When Kathleen’s life was turned upside down by events recounted in Twice Lost, she became an advocate for mental health reform. Kathleen can be reached at email@example.com and her website is www.twicelost.com
This piece originally appeared on The Asbury Park Press.