We awoke to a cold morning today, so rather than put on a light sweater or my fleecy sweatshirt, I grabbed my South Carolina winter coat—the black-zippered leather jacket I’ve had forever. When I stuck my hands in my pockets, I felt something which made me smile. It was not forgotten money, which is always so fun to find, but rather two small smooth stones from a grave. I was immediately transported back to London 2014–the trip Dad and I went on to honor a very distant who died many years before I was even born.
My thoughts first went to the man who gave me them to me—an Irishman named Ernie Sweeney. He called me “cousin” when I told him that Aunt Peggy had Sweeney relatives on her tree. I later learned that Ernie liked to collect stones as remembrances of places he visited. So he shared that tradition with me.
I remember walking into the hotel lobby with Dad and being approached by the man I had first reached out to during the summer of 2011, another man from the Castlebar gang—Brian Hoban. Brian and I had exchanged emails ever since my initial contact and we recognized each other from our Facebook photos. Dad and I had no expectations about the trip, but we figured if the ceremony did not happen, we still were vacationing in a city we loved.
When Brian approached us and announced to the others in the hotel lobby that “Karen and Gene are here,” I felt relieved and confident we had not come in vain. The next few days were a whirlwind of activities, and the group from Castlebar were among the nicest people I ever met.
Our dinners were spent, of course, in Irish pubs. When someone learned we never had an Irish coffee, two glasses appeared at the table. We went on a train ride through the English countryside to the small town of Gillingham, which is where my cousin Louis Brennan lived over a hundred years ago. We toured the town which had a Louis Brennan “wall of honor,” visited the library where we saw an elaborate display dedicated to Louis, and had lunch with our new friends.
We didn’t know any of them before the trip, and they did not know us, yet they were so welcoming to us and made us feel like old friends. How I wish Aunt Marian was with us, because she was the original family historian, not me. Without her hard work and the family Bible which was given to me after her death, I may never have gone.
It should have been her, not me, standing up at that London church saying a prayer in honor of Louis and laying a wreath on his grave. I can just imagine how thrilled she would have been to have met the Irish Prime minister. I can picture her chatting casually with him at lunch after the ceremony at the cemetery. She was always so at ease making small talk with just about anyone.
We learned that the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal is bacon and cabbage, not corned beef and cabbage. We saw the dedication of a group of men and women who worked tirelessly to “right an 82-year wrong” by erecting a monument for one of the most famous leaves on our family tree. We witnessed the joyful celebration at Flannery’s Pub as everyone erupted in song after lunch just like in an old movie.
I have kept in touch with Brian and another wonderful resident of Castlebar named Ann. I hope to someday travel to Ireland to visit them, where Ernie told us in his wonderful Irish brogue, “We’ll roll out the red carpet for you.” After meeting them all, I believe they will, but a red carpet from them will need only be a hug and a shared meal. No wonder Grandma has always so proud of the Irish!