Finding My Irish Family

For St. Patrick’s Day here is the text of a talk I gave to the Maryland Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians in March 2019. I was scheduled to present it again at the Maryland Irish Festival in the fall of 2020, but for obvious reasons that never happened.

My display table at the talk

I’m going to tell you about a long and winding road of research and travel in search of my Irish family. But first a confession, unlike perhaps most of you I’m not Irish-American, I’m Irish-Flemish. I grew up in England with an Irish father and a Flemish mother. My mother grew up during the Nazi occupation of Belgium and my father was born to Irish immigrants in the northern English town of Manchester. My parents met when my father was a soldier with the British troops who liberated my mother’s town of Ghent in Belgium after D Day. They had a classic wartime romance, married in Ghent in 1947, and settled in the suburbs of London. My brothers and sister and I are quite proud of our unusual heritage. I once met a Flemish history professor from the University of Louvain. Of course I told him I am half Flemish. He asked what was my other half? When I told him Irish he reared back in mock horror and said “What a volatile combination.” Both peoples are known to be hot-headed and argumentative. Anyway that’s my family’s excuse for any number of sins!

Bridie Byrne

Growing up in England my Irish grandmother Bridget Byrne lived with us. I knew her maiden name was Carney, and that her family had called her Bridie. We knew her as Nanny. She was a very quiet, nervous woman, very religious. Her bedroom was like a little chapel, full of religious pictures and statues. She had a statue of a rather obscure saint, St. Philomena, by her bed. Later on I would learn its significance. Every morning before school we would kneel by her bed to say our prayers and then she would give us a mint, holding the round white candy out to us almost like the host at Mass. She never talked about Ireland or her family. When I was about 12 she had a nervous breakdown with paranoid delusions that my mother was going to run away and take us to live in Belgium. She was in a mental hospital for a time and when she recovered she went to live in a convent retirement home. My mother told me this was perfect for her; when she was a girl she had wanted to be a nun but her family couldn’t afford the dowry you had to pay to convents in Ireland in those days.

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The Manchester Martyrs

On November 23rd 1867 three Irishmen, William Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, were hanged on a hastily built scaffold outside Salford Gaol in Manchester. The execution was a botched affair, carried out by William Calcraft who was…

notoriously unable to calculate the correct length of rope required for each individual hanging; he frequently had to rush below the scaffold to pull on his victim’s legs to hasten death.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

This is what happened to the unfortunate Larkin. O’Brien suffered a lengthy ordeal when the attending priest prevented Calcraft from dispatching him in the same way. He hung twitching on the rope for three quarters of an hour as the priest held a crucifix before him. Allen was luckier and died instantly. 

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Leaving Ireland

Emigrants Leave Ireland by Henry Doyle

They left to escape the famine, poverty, an oppressive colonial government, then the violence of rebellion and civil war. They left to find work, to send money home to their families, to find opportunities in the big industrial cities far from their small rural cottages. Some sailed east to England, some west to America, and some south to Australia. Many, like my grandmother, never spoke of Ireland again. So I have had to piece together my Irish family’s history from snatches of conversation overheard in childhood, bits and bobs of story learned from relatives, facts discovered in online archives, and a box of Continue reading “Leaving Ireland”

The Cousins Lunch

Cousins Brian and Rita at lunch in New York

“Let me get this straight,” said my husband as he dropped me off at our local Metro station. “You’re going to New York to meet a guy you met on the internet?” We laughed. What he said was literally true, but it wasn’t quite as foolish as it sounded. I did meet Brian on the internet but it was on, not Tinder or some such shady meeting place. Though I suppose statistically a long lost second cousin is just as likely to be a serial killer as any random stranger. But Ancestry declared us a DNA match and we have nuns in common on our family trees. Surely a sign of divine favor. So I waved goodbye to Continue reading “The Cousins Lunch”

A Funeral and a Turf War

Bog Land, Twelve Pins, Connemara by John Francis Skelton (1954-)

The newspaper clipping is yellowed with age but carefully folded and preserved in a box of papers left by my Irish grandmother. The box was inside a larger one with an assortment of family papers that sat in the back of my closet for more than two decades. I would have opened it far sooner if I had known all the little treasures and poignant stories held within: my father’s British Army ID card, congratulations telegrams sent to my parents on their wedding day in 1947, my Flemish grandmother’s passport stamped with all her visits to England when I was small, annual receipts my Irish grandmother kept for the upkeep of the grave of the baby she lost to pneumonia before my father was born. The yellowed newspaper clipping my grandmother kept so carefully all her life was the announcement of her father Hugh Carney’s death in 1913. Continue reading “A Funeral and a Turf War”

On My Bookshelf – The Cailleach of Sligo

The Cailleach of Sligo

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day I pulled from my shelf this book of Stories and Myths from the North West of Ireland by Michael B. Roberts. Last summer I bought it at the Liber Bookshop in Sligo just a few days after we had the privilege of touring ancient sites in the area with the author. Roberts is an anthropologist and storyteller who has dedicated his life to preserving and renewing the myths of his people for future generations. We could Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – The Cailleach of Sligo”

Cul Dreimhne – The Battle of the Book


What do you think of when you think of monks? Silent hooded figures praying in a shadowed cloister perhaps? Or the ethereal sound of Gregorian chant? You probably don’t think of a violent battle leaving thousands of dead and dying strewn on a blood-soaked field. Yet this is part of the story of a famous Irish monk named Colmcille, or Saint Columba. His Gaelic name means dove of the church, but Colmcille was far from a dove of peace when it came to Cul Dreimhne, the Battle of the Book. I heard about this strange episode in Irish history while staying in the village of Drumcliffe north of Sligo, in sight of the slopes of Ben Bulben where the sixth century Battle of the Book was fought. Colmcille instigated the battle in the aftermath of a legal dispute that is the first recorded case of copyright law. Continue reading “Cul Dreimhne – The Battle of the Book”

The Spanish Armada – According to the Irish

Armada map
Map of the Spanish Armada shipwrecks in Ireland

Along with every other English schoolchild I learned the story of the Spanish Armada. In 1588 Philip II of Spain sent the largest fleet ever seen to conquer England, depose the heretic Queen Elizabeth I, and restore the Catholic faith. But luckily a storm blew up driving the Spanish ships off course. Trying to make their way back to Spain many were shipwrecked on the west coast of Ireland. Good Queen Bess was triumphant and England saved. End of story. Later, when I studied history for my degree, I learned the more nuanced version, setting the Armada story in the full context of sixteenth century European power struggles and religious conflicts. The story ended the same way though, with English triumph and Spanish shipwrecks. Not a word or a thought to what happened to the Spaniards who washed up on Irish shores. But I discovered in Ireland that the end of the English Armada story is where the Irish story begins. A story of Continue reading “The Spanish Armada – According to the Irish”

In Yeats Country

Yeats mural in Sligo

Our boat slowed and began to circle the little island in the lake. Then over the loudspeaker came the voice of our captain, George, reciting the W. B. Yeats poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. We were circling that very island. We were in Yeats country, “the land of heart’s desire” around Sligo in the west of Ireland. This was just one of the magical moments we experienced in my first visit to my paternal grandparents’ country. And George was just one of the marvelous characters we met who made Irish history Continue reading “In Yeats Country”