My Irish Pilgrimage (Part I): Finding My Roots, History, and the Titanic

September 11, 2015

Before I begin this story, let me preface it by saying that this is 100% personal: an account not just of my adventures in Ireland, but of a long-awaited opportunity. I’ve spent months trying to put it together, partly afraid of publishing something so intimate and seemingly unimportant to anyone else. But that’s what writing is for – to share our experiences with others and help bring them to life. So I’m sharing this in hopes that you, dear reader, will both experience some sort of entertainment from my tale, and perhaps be inspired to share your own stories. And I thank you for reading mine.

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I’m Irish. No, really. My dad’s side of the family comes from Ireland, and I’ve grown up with a romanticized, dreamlike vision of the Emerald Isle, proud of my heritage and the stories that surround it.

When I was little, movies like Darby O’Gill and the Little People and The Luck of the Irish (remember those?) intrigued me with their beautiful images of Irish countryside, the salt-of-the-earth lifestyle of the people, and the legends and folklore that permeated the ancient hills. I love (and believe in) leprechauns. I used to search my backyard for four-leaf clovers. I watched Leap Year (that cheesy movie with Amy Adams) and replayed the scene where she and Declan climb up the fog-shrouded hill to the ancient castle ruins like 20 times. I’m a sucker for Ireland, and everything about it.

When I finally got the chance to visit the country with my boyfriend, it didn’t feel real. I had the tickets and the flight, the date was on my calendar, and still I went about my life as if it were just an impending business trip to San Francisco. Every once in awhile, I’d be sitting somewhere and the realization would strike my heart and my stomach with flutters.
I’m going to Ireland.
Sure, I’d mentally counter-argue. Like you’ve been so many times in books and movies.
No, I’m really going!

It wouldn’t actually sink in until I was standing on Irish ground.

I’m happy to say that Ireland, that beautiful, green, leprechaun-dotted, sheep-filled, legendary country of my ancestors, did not disappoint. In fact, it exceeded my expectations in every amazing, emotional, heartfelt way possible.

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Flying into Dublin was an internal battle of emotions. Straining to look out the windows, I caught tantalizing glimpses of vivid green – just what I expected. This is real, I kept telling myself. You’re actually here. The images outside the plane window were real. And yet they might as well have been manifestations from my own childhood dreams.

Walking down the smoothly paved sidewalks of modern Dublin, my jet-lagged brain could still hardly comprehend the reality. It wasn’t until we checked into our hostel and met two fellow guests, already drunk at 11am, who asked us to join them at the bar down the street, that I finally grinned and looked at Trevor. “NOW it feels like we’re in Ireland!” My heart was soaring.

We had beers with those guests, two early 30-somethings from Northern Ireland who were in the city for a birthday party. They were both friendly (and one far drunker than the other, which proved to be an endless source of entertainment – have you ever tried having a conversation with a drunk Northern Ireland-er? The accent is hard enough to catch when they’re sober.) And they ribbed us about our “Yankee” obsession with Irish blood.

“Oh, yeah, I know the drill,” one laughed. “You’re like, 5% Irish, on your great uncle’s cousin’s brother’s neighbor’s side, right?”
I raised an eyebrow, ready to defend my Irish blood, which is way more than 5%. “Actually no, my great-great grandfather came to America from Ireland in the late 1800s.”
“Oh, wow,” he blinked, visibly impressed. “You really are Irish.”

Let this be known, and stand in recorded proof, that I am OFFICIALLY Irish: A true-blooded Irishman said so.

I found that I loved Dublin in a way that I haven’t really loved another foreign city – it’s humbly cosmopolitan, traditional and Old World, while still able to embrace the 21st century. You can still stroll down narrow cobbled-street alleyways, pop into music shops that proudly sell vinyl (a remnant of a bygone era in America), and take your pick of old-school pubs. Our toughest task in the city was choosing between Jameson and Guinness. After the sun sets over the cloudy River Liffey, the musicians come out, and “trad music” pours out of every pub and bar on every street. It felt like home – or perhaps a long-awaited homecoming.

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We had much to do, see, and accomplish in Ireland, but there were two goals for our trip in particular: visit the town where my great-great grandfather lived, and experience as much trad music and traditional pub nightlife as we could. I’m talking fiddlers, accordion players, soulful old Irish men singing ballads of love lost and country pride, the whole lot. Everything my cheesy, over-imaginative and romanticized brain had always dreamed of.

We had opted to rent a car instead of relying on buses to get around – a challenge for which Trevor was ready, but about which I was admittedly anxious. When the shuttle driver who brought us to our rental drove off, leaving us with a white Ford in the famous Irish drizzle, I panicked. We sat inside the car for several minutes, trying to adjust to the steering wheel on the right, learning where the controls were, and laughing out loud about what seemed a very poor decision for two young Americans who had never driven in a foreign country — let alone one where the citizens drive on the opposite side of the road.

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But Trevor did very well – in fact, he only knocked someone else’s side window in once, as we squeezed down an impossibly tiny alley where cars SOMEHOW still found it fit to park. And we watched in our rear-view mirror as the easygoing driver simply popped the window back out, much to our relieved surprise. Oh, the Irish.

Despite the anxiety over those narrow alleyways, driving on the wrong side of everything, having to remember to look the opposite direction before making turns, and the impossibly unnerving single-lane country roads that hold two directions of traffic, I’d still recommend touring Ireland by car. You’ll never get into the country’s delightful crevices and hidden spots if you don’t. (And frankly if we can do it, anyone can.)

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We stopped endless times on craggy coastal roads to admire the views, with the Atlantic mist soaking our faces and the wind cutting right through our clothes. Even on the Ring of Kerry, which we inadvertently scheduled for the windiest, darkest, stormiest day, we weren’t disappointed. In fact, one of my favorite memories from the whole trip is in the tiny deserted village of Portmagee on the southern fringe of Ireland – where we hunkered down inside a warm, dimly lit pub and ate the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, sharing the restaurant with about five other people as the boats rocked in the tiny harbor outside.

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Indeed, the frequent rain did very little to dampen our spirits – partly because we were prepared for it, and partly because it seems to make the land even more magical. We were drenched in a freak downpour at Glendalough, where we ran into the visitor’s center to squeeze the water out of our shoes, then ducked into the ruins of the 1,000-year-old monastic settlement to wait out a second round. Instead of feeling inconvenienced, I was full of glee. The rain falling on the ancient stones felt appropriate; the wind whistling through the crumbling walls felt unearthly and spiritual, as if it allowed me to get closer to the spirits of the monks that lived there so long ago.

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Our obligatory visit to the Cliffs of Moher was punctuated by a wind that felt like it could lift us right over the cliff-side barrier (which, by the way, was only recently installed.) We could see the ominous rain clouds approaching from over the wild ocean, but we didn’t exactly run. The cliffs seemed right in this element, their dark greens and blacks enveloped in fog and seaside spray.

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I was in paradise, exploring this ancient land. But my trip wasn’t complete until I had found my roots, so to speak: and by that, I mean that I had to visit the town where my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Francis Myles, lived and grew up. His parents, and their parents before that, and so on down the line for centuries, had resided in Ireland, but I was particularly interested in Thomas’ story. Thomas was born and lived in the tiny town of Fermoy, just south of Cork. After graduating from St. Coleman’s College, he sailed from Liverpool to India aboard a cargo ship and visited Bombay and Calcutta, then later traveled to America and sailed the Mississippi River. (Yet another travel-loving ancestor I can thank for my adventurous spirit!) He decided to settle in America, presumably to escape the Irish Independence War, though he had no money to his name. He built a home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, married, and had nine children – six daughters and three sons.

In 1911, he returned to Ireland to bring his mentally-ill brother home to America with him and settle the last of the family estate/affairs. As fate would have it, his original ticket on another White Star liner was invalidated due to the coal strike; his re-booking on the Carpathia was also cancelled because the ship was over capacity, and so he ended up with a second-class ticket on the Titanic.

Thomas never made it back to America. (And his daughter later told her great-grandchildren – my father and his brothers – stories of waking up on the night of April 14, 1912, from a nightmare that her father had died.)

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(P.S. My dad looks JUST like him.)

I’ve known this story all my life, and it’s been the subject of many a genealogy/ancestry/what-cool-things-happened-in-your-family conversations. It’s also part of the reason I’ve so desperately wanted to visit Ireland. I knew there wouldn’t be much to see or do about my great-great-grandfather’s childhood home in Fermoy, but I had to at least visit. I had to see the town, and bring to life a manifest of my imagination. Of course, Fermoy today is far different than it was 150 years ago, but driving through it was still satisfying – almost eerie.

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I wondered, randomly, if there was a Titanic museum in Ireland that would mention Thomas – I’ve seen the traveling exhibit in the States, but I hoped an Irish one would have more information about one of its own citizens. Google brought up my answer: there was a tiny exhibit in Cobh, Cork’s main port. I knew Thomas had boarded the Titanic at the Queenstown port. Then Google came through again: Cobh is the new name for what used to be Queenstown. It was decided immediately that we would visit that museum, and I was a strange combination of nervous and excited.

Cobh (Queenstown) was the last place at which the Titanic docked to pick up passengers before setting sail for America, so it’s historically significant in more ways than one. And much to my delight, the Cobh Titanic Experience focuses on the 123 Irish passengers that boarded there, specifically.

We found the teeny exhibit built right on the old wooden dock at the port, and were given boarding pass replicas of passengers on the ship (I got a girl in third class.) A costumed guide led us through the small, humble, but impressive exhibit with minimal theatrics and a matter-of-fact narration that I appreciated. I think I had goosebumps the entire time, especially when we stood out on the old wooden boarding ramp – where many of those 123 Irish passengers, my great-great-grandfather included, touched ground for the last time. I stared out at the harbor, at the spot behind a small island, where the guide explained the Titanic sat waiting for the ferry boat to bring the passengers to her, because the tiny dock we were on was too small for the massive ship. I could hear the horn blast. I could see the smoke from the smokestacks. I could smell the coal.

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Inside, we were led through video demonstrations of the sinking; models of first, second, and third-class staterooms; and finally, a room with a scale model of the ship surrounded by panels of information on every Irish passenger. There was Thomas Francis Myles, second class passenger, on the ‘passengers lost’ list.

I asked the girl at the ticket counter if I could possibly have a copy of Thomas’ boarding pass. I barely mentioned his name, and she knew instantly that he was in second class – but, unfortunately, they were out of second class replicas. Instead of waving me on my way, she took down my name and U.S. address and promised to send me one as soon as they came in. (I will share once they do!)

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We left the museum in agreement that it had been a worthwhile experience, and I felt a strange sense of peace – almost like closure. All my life I’ve dreamt of walking up to the house in Fermoy where Thomas lived, maybe asking the current tenants if I could explore it. Maybe just walk the street and see the house from afar. Instead, I was humbled to experience something much more personal, much more intense, much more authentic. And it was an experience that brought my ancestry to life in a way I never imagined. I knew my family would be jealous. I was exhilarated, humbled, and honored.

We walked back through the town to our car in silence, and as we drove off, I glanced out over the sweeping harbor, glistening in the late afternoon. A cruise ship was anchored just near the ruins of the dock. Tonight, she’d carry entertainment-seeking vacationers off on some adventure, with a very different fate than the one that waited here over 100 years ago.

Beyond her, past the small island, I swear I saw a sleek black ship steaming out, her red smokestacks puffing, on course for the setting sun.

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7 Comments
    1. Becky, that was beautiful. As I read it, I could almost picture everything you wrote about. What a wonderful experience for you!

    1. OMG Becky……that was an amazing narrative…now more than ever, I too would like to find my grandparents ancestors…I too am Irish and so looking forward to our trip…Thanks for “breaking the ice”. Amazing!!!

      1. Thanks so much, Trish! I hope you do enjoy your trip! Let me know how it goes! 🙂

    1. That was awesome Becky, not often do I end up with eyes welling up with tears when I finish a story . great job !

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