The “Titanic” blog—not “enormous,” just a disaster (for me)

I’m back from Ireland, back in my home in Spello, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell this story, write this blog. The day after I met my Irish cousins in Limerick, I was picked up by Martin (one of my cousins) for a day of visits to family heritage sites near Newport, County Tipperary.

Tessie and the senior Martin Moloney, with Grandmother Eleanor Crowley, children Mary, Lucy (white bow), and twins Angela and Martin in the pram, plus an aunt

An explanation, for starters. Each night I have been downloading the photos from the day onto my laptop (which I carried along through Ireland), and sorting the photos into folders before I write and then illustrate the blogs with the photos I have taken. That memory card is wiped clean, the battery to the camera is recharged overnight, and the memory card is used the following day for more photos. I also stayed in one small B&B with very minimal wi-fi service, and I had multiple problems keeping a connection, uploading photos to a blog I had written, or even getting connected at all. Still I blame myself for somehow losing the photos most important to me of all that I had taken in Ireland—the ones of the day that Martin and I spent together in the cemetery near Newport, County Tipperary, at the peat bog nearby, and in the town of Newport, where he showed me the old home of my great-grandfather, Daniel Ryan, before he emigrated to California in 1877 at age 22.

When I discovered that my hundreds of photos from that day were gone, I was sick. One of the most important goals of this trip to Ireland for me was to bring back as many photos and stories as I could to my family, and pass on our family history from our Irish cousins. But the photos were gone, and somehow didn’t copy to my laptop—and then I wiped the memory card clean and used it again. When that camera ran out of battery power, I switched to my big Nikon and continued shooting—looking at the display and confirming that the exposures were good. When I downloaded the photos from THAT camera, there were only 3 on the card, not the 100 or so that I had shot and seen on the display of my digital camera.

I think it may have been leprechauns. Or gremlins. I’ve never lost an entire day of photos before, and these ones were so critically important to me. I’ve had a few days to settle myself down, give up on another round of futile searches for the lost photos, and now I know I am destined to return to Martin and Ireland, and give myself another chance to collect photos to bring home for my family to share.

Mary, Martin and Angela (Lucy could not attend our luncheon that day)

Martin and Aileen Moloney

Mary (Moloney) and Martin Sheahan

We started our day by heading for Ballymackeogh Cemetery, where the Ryan family members who stayed behind in Newport were buried. I had spent time the day before with three of the cousins, filling in a family tree for their side of the family—each one in the tree descended from the sister of my great-grandfather, Anne Ryan O’Neill. Martin had loaned me a wonderful book that had photos of every stone in the cemetery, with the inscriptions printed out on the facing page—a way to document the history before the crumbling headstones were illegible. Fortunately, I did have those photos from the day before, so that I can trace some family history through one marker.

Wonderful book of headstones photographed and with transcripts of the inscriptions of each marker

Photo of the O’Neill marker in the cemetery–from the book above

Inscription of the O’Neill marker–including (at the bottom) two sisters of Daniel Ryan, Mary and Ellen, who stayed in Newport, never married.

Complicated a bit, but my great-grandfather’s sister, Anne Ryan, married James O’Neill, and lived in Newport, County Tipperary, just east of Limerick. Their daughter Eleanor O’Neill married Daniel Crowley, a cooper (barrel maker). One of Daniel and Eleanor’s four children was Tessie Crowley, my cousin Martin’s mother—and she married the senior Martin Moloney and had four children: Mary, Lucy, and twins Martin and Angela. Lucy was not able to join us for our lunch in Limerick, but I met the other three cousins, and Martin was my guide for the day in the countryside near and in Newport. It took over an hour to fill out the entire Ryan/O’Neill/Crowley/Moloney family tree during out lunch, but I needed help with the Irish names of some of the youngest children, using Gaelic names I would never have been able to spell or pronounce (Siohban, Cian, Maeven, Aoife, Eoin). There were dozens of Ryans in County Tipperary and Newport, a common name for that area of Ireland, it turns out. For that reason, the many Ryans were nicknamed–and Daniel was known as “Ryan Anthony.”

Heavy traffic on the roadway to Martin’s home

On the way to his home, Martin took me to a local bog—where peat is harvested for use in stoves and fireplaces, and provides 20% of the fuel used in Ireland. I was excited to have such a good opportunity for photos—Martin knew several people there stacking the peat “bricks,” introduced me to them, and showed me the portion of the bog that belonged to his own family. He explained that a big milling machine comes and stirs up the dark brown peat several feet down, mixing the layers, and then compacting and extruding long “bricks” of compressed peat onto the bog surface. These were being stacked by many groups of people taking advantage of the beautiful weather and the bank holiday, in piles that allowed the air to pass through and dry the peat so that it could be burned. Walking on the bog, even over the grassy layer of areas that had not been harvested yet, was like bouncing on a mattress—the earth giving softly beneath my feet, springing up behind me—a fun experience. Bogs are made from compacted vegetation, most often sphagnum moss, in poorly drained marshes with acidic water. The vegetation compacts over centuries, but decomposes very slowly in the acid environment—and archaeologists have found many artifacts and “bog bodies” hidden and preserved under the peat. “Cashel Man” was a young adult male, and is the oldest fleshed bog body ever discovered (and with short-cropped hair, still intact), found in 2011 in Cashel Bog in the Irish Midlands, with carbon dating placing him in the early Bronze Age, about 2000 B.C.

In the small town of Newport (too small for a B&B for me), Martin pointed out his own former Moloney family home on Main Street, and we walked to the old home of the Ryans nearby, where my great-grandfather Danial had lived with his family until he left for America. Martin then walked me to the local constable’s gated (still) former office nearby, and told me the story of Daniel’s final day in Ireland. It seems he was a bit of a poacher, and was known to the constable for fishing where and when he was not allowed. During the early morning hours of the day of his departure to board the boat to the US, he went out fishing illegally, and brought back five large salmon. He quietly approached the constable’s iron gate in the dark, and placed a fish on each of the five points of the gate, hooked through the gills. Just in case the constable was unclear on the culprit, he left behind a note taking credit for the prank, and daring the constable to find him now—since he was long gone on his trip to America before the constable awoke to find the fish and note hanging from the gate.

Martin took me to see vast rural property formerly owned by the Ryans, but taken over by the English many decades ago—and changing the fortunes of the Ryan family. (Could this be why Daniel left Ireland?) Every stone of the oldest house has been removed and reused in building elsewhere, but Martin was well-versed in the family history and special locations around Newport, and could bring that family history alive for me.

Name of Martin’s home in the gate post–in the countryside, there are names, not numbers, for the homes

We ended our day at his home, Ernach (pronounced “erna,” which means “eel” in Gaelic), where Aileen had spent her day off from her job as a nurse preparing a feast of a lunch for us, down to the two desserts—a strawberry cream cake and an apple pie. Martin and I continued going through old family photos and documents (which I photographed—and then lost the files), and finally he returned me to my hotel in Limerick, when our day together was ended.

Martin and Aileen’s beautiful home in Newport, County Tipperary

It was an unforgettable day of being IN the places of my family’s Irish history, with a guide from another branch of the family who still lives in the same small town from which my great-grandfather departed, 140 years ago and three generations distant from me and from my cousin, Martin (he and his twin sister, Angela, are 8 months younger than I am). I can only conclude that “the Universe” was plotting to make certain that I’ll return to Ireland by taking my photos from me, assuring that I’d need to return to see and photograph those places once more. Now that I have survived my terror of having to learn to drive on the left side of the road, and remembering to get into the car on the right side (the side with the steering wheel), I think I’ll be much more inclined to make another to Ireland in the near future.





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