Personal Journeys


May 02, 2004|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

In search of an Irish grandfather

By Denise Barker


After many years of dreaming of it, I traveled to Ireland at age 60, on the trail of my grandfather, James Jacobus McHale, who left County Mayo sometime in the 1800s.

I knew only that he was in Philadelphia by 1890, and that others of his family had settled to the north, in Scranton, Pa. I learned that many Irish families from Ballina in northern County Mayo had settled in Scranton. So we would spend part of our trip in Mayo searching for signs of the 19th-century McHales.

Ballina is a medium-sized town dominated by a large cathedral. The River Moy runs through the middle of town. On the Sunday afternoon we arrived, people were strolling over the bridge in front of St. Muredach's Cathedral, watching as salmon leaped out of the river in front of the anglers who stood in the water in their hip boots.

Next to the cathedral was a ruin of a 14th-century abbey; the heavy stone walls were crumbling and overgrown. We picked through the high grass and shrubbery, through small, fallen rooms and searched on the tombstones planted among the walls for the name McHale. We found none.

As we headed out for dinner that evening past the cathedral, I chanced to look at the dedication carved in stone at the top of the steeple. I was startled to see a familiar name there. The cathedral had been built by a Bishop John MacHale in 1827. I felt some hope that I might be near to finding some evidence of my ancestors.

The next morning at breakfast, we spoke to an elderly couple on their second honeymoon who were staying at our B&B. I told them of my search, and they agreed that it was hard to track one's relatives because the records of that time are sketchy -- especially because so many people left the country during the famine in the 1840s.

We went next door to the church to ask about my grandfather. The clerk said she didn't think they would have the records there, because many who gave their birthplace as Ballina often came from small villages in the countryside.

I walked along the river, looking at the reflection of the cathedral, and I realized that I didn't need to find my grandfather. I could remember and honor him, and the entire generation that exiled themselves to save their lives -- and ours as well.

I could admire their courage reflected in future generations, and know that the sorrow they carried for lost friends and loved ones resulted in the survival of their children -- and mine -- in America.

I was walking the streets where these heroes had lived, and that was enough.

Denise Barker lives in Timonium.

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