The mist and damp of an early September evening in 2021 eases over Meelick Cemetery in rural Swinford, County Mayo. Through the entrance in the stone wall and past the historic round tower, a petite Dympna Joyce leads a contingent that includes two fellow women from the Mayo Genealogy Group and an Irish-American visitor. The visitor she soon astonishes, stepping and hopping with grace and speed over the rough ground, overgrown plots and tumbled tombstones. She leads the hunt.
“Here they are!” she soon exclaims. She has found the side-by-side tombstones of the visitor’s ancestors, including his maternal great-grandparents. This creates a moment for him somewhere between confusion and awe, a reunion where familial love passes back and forth freely through decades — and between the living and the dead.
So many surreal moments like the one in Meelick Cemetery have been created in the months following the publication of “The Last St. Patrick’s Day” in March of 2021. Read the The Last St. Patrick’s Day story here
That is the story I wrote to honour a promise to my mother before her death in 2019. But even more to honour my maternal grandmother, who died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1922 under tragic circumstances, when my mother and her twin sister were 18 months young.
When the local genealogist Paddy Walsh introduced himself to me at Teach O’Hora’s pub in Kiltimagh, County Mayo on a Friday night in October of 2019, I never would have known the drama that awaited.
The spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 escalated the drama.
The year before my mom died, she told me my grandmother was buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery outside Chicago. I researched the cemetery and the location of my grandmother’s grave using the cemetery’s website. My late brother Brian and my sister Deirdre wanted to take my mother to the grave site.
Using the information I provided, Brian, Deirdre and my mom arrived at the cemetery on a summer day. The age of the cemetery, that the tiny concrete cylinders with block and plot numbers were missing, and the accumulation of decayed leaves from its old growth trees made their mission more difficult. Just when they were about to give up, Brian called me excitedly on his mobile phone to tell me they found the grave and were visiting Grandma Nora.
The sky darkens
In March of 2020 I was determined to visit Grandmother Nora’s grave for myself.
First I stayed at my parent’s house in a south suburb of Chicago. In the morning I visited the nearby graves of my parents, my aunt and two of my brothers. Then I pointed my car to Mt. Carmel Cemetery.
I arrived at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in mid-afternoon well before the cemetery was to close. Though the skies were clear there was a late winter chill hanging in the air that I wasn’t dressed well enough for. Equipped with the section number and plot number from the cemetery’s website, I began to walk back and forth along the rows of mausoleums, tombstones and grave markers.
Several of the tombstones I passed had fallen over with time, and small concrete statues of cherubs and angels were often broken into large chunks. If a tombstone had two small oval frames for photos of a deceased husband and wife, one photo was sometimes missing —perhaps because of a family rift or dysfunction that lingered after their passing.
I didn’t find my grandmother’s grave. For three hours I criss-crossed that section of the cemetery. My hands stiffened and reddened with cold as I noticed the names of the many Italian and Irish people buried there. My little idea of toasting my grandmother with a sip of Jameson whiskey became a thought balloon that burst. I was lost in the old-growth trees, and my grandmother’s grave marker was no doubt buried under the mess of last year’s leaves.
As I left the cemetery and headed toward the north tollway, the news on the radio darkened the sky. By this time the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. The trend of people who contracted Covid and died had spiked upward. Businesses in the United States announced shutdowns as the pandemic spread.
In Ireland, the government had already ordered the closure of schools, colleges and public places until at least March 29th. Two days before St. Patrick’s Day, the government ordered pubs to close.
Covid raged. I vowed not to be denied. I wanted my grandmother to know she was not forgotten. But I did not plan a trip to Illinois and Mt. Carmel Cemetery for months.
In July I felt the situation was safe to again visit my surviving brother as well as the graves of my parents, aunt, siblings and grandmother. I called the Cemetery office and spoke to a young man who identified himself with a hint of an Irish accent as Conor.
I asked if he could have a stake or flag of some kind placed near my grandmother’s grave site so I could easily find it. On the day I returned to Mt. Carmel Cemetery, I saw two traffic safety cones in the middle of the designated section, underneath the trees.
I didn’t know what my Grandmother Nora’s grave marker looked like. I cleared the ground of leaves with swings of my feet in a widening arc. After a few minutes, I found the simple flat grave marker that my mom and Aunt Dorothy had purchased about 40 years earlier. The grave marker read simply, ‘Mother/Nora Oates Shiels/Rest In Peace.’
“Hello Grandma Nora,” I said. “It’s me, your Grandson Tom.”
Piling on the complications
The balance of 2020 saw me pursuing the remaining records I needed to apply for foreign birth registration and attain Irish citizenship — a gift from my emigrant grandparents and the government of Ireland. Like finding my Grandmother Nora’s grave, the process wasn’t easy. No one put out traffic safety cones to indicate hey, over here. But I often received help through the commitment and care of others.
After an October 2019 meeting at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life with Paddy Walsh and members of the Mayo Genealogy Group, I had obtained certified copies of the birth records of my maternal grandparents at county offices in Castlebar.
Because my grandparents met, married and gave birth to my mother in Chicago, many of the records were in the Cook County Clerk’s Office and its Bureau of Vital Records. I searched at websites such as FamilySearch.org so I could identify and request them correctly. But I encountered some of the classic obstacles and detours experienced by family history researchers.
The names of my maternal grandparents had many forms and spellings across history. This made record searches time consuming. My grandmother’s name appeared as Honor Oats on her birth record, but was listed as Norah Oates on Ireland’s 1901 National Census Records. She was listed as Norah Oates on the passenger list for the steamship that transported her to the Port of New York and Ellis Island. Then Nora Otis on her marriage license of 1920, and finally Nora Sheils on her certificate of death, with the surname of her parents recorded as Oates.
For family history researchers, there is the vexing issue of English versus Irish spellings, and people handwriting names phonetically in records. In some cases people could not write their own names. Illiteracy prevailed in late 19th and early 20th Century Ireland. Many original birth records often display an “X” accompanied by “Her Mark” or “His Mark” along with parent and witness names entered by the registrar.
To make things more frustrating, a few of the records I requested were sent to me stamped “GENEALOGY PURPOSES ONLY.” This even though I requested in my cover letter the more official certified copies, to meet the documentation requirements of the Department of Foreign Affairs for Foreign Birth Registration and becoming an Irish citizen. And with people working from home and not easily available by email or phone, remedying mistakes was frustrating and time-consuming.
With Cook County’s Bureau of Vital Records, I resorted to finding email addresses for upper management and writing emails. I pleaded with recipients to send me what I asked and paid for.
One day, I received a phone call from a Bureau leader working from home. She realized what I was going through and what I needed for a process as official as registering a foreign birth. She resent me certified copies of the documents I needed. Yes, government works!
Of course, by this time the pandemic had also negatively impacted the offices of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. The Department website stated there was a pause in the Foreign Birth Registration Service due to the Covid-19 restrictions. I knew there was no point to sending in my application and supporting documents.
The best I could do was read on the Internet the news from Ireland and County Mayo. I wanted to become more engaged. I learned there was a GoFundMe campaign to replace Christmas lights on the streets of Kiltimagh. I donated to the campaign and watched a fun video posted on Facebook of a Christmas parade down Kiltimagh’s Main Street from a previous year. The video featured farmers driving their tractors, all decorated with blinking Christmas lights and ornaments. I wished I could be there.
Like many groups and businesses, the Mayo Genealogy Group had to adapt to the pandemic and its restrictions. And like many groups around the world the Group used video conferencing to maintain a sense of community; and to keep the information sharing going strong.
Paddy Walsh, whom you’ll recall I first met at Teach O’Hora’s pub in Kiltimagh, passed my name and email address on to Dympna Joyce in early 2021. Dympna Joyce is a co-founder of the Mayo Genealogy Group. With the pandemic raging and people in Ireland limited in how far they could travel from their home, Dympna began a weekly Zoom chat for invited genealogy enthusiasts.
When called upon during those first Zoom meetings I would introduce myself and explain my quest to learn more about my Irish grandparents, where they came from, and Ireland itself. Many of the attendees had read “The Last St. Patrick’s Day.” So they knew a little about me. Much of the conversation in these chats was about genealogy and participants helped each other with ongoing family research projects.
Soon the big question was asked of me: Had I taken a DNA test yet? No I hadn’t. Like many people I was worried about submitting something as private as my DNA to a commercial, public company who could share that information with anyone. Like my health records, I didn’t want to risk information getting into the wrong hands and being manipulated to the detriment of my family or myself.
After several Zoom chats and reassurances from the participants I promised I would take the test. I went online to Ancestry.com and requested that a testing kit be sent to my home.
Just as many people were doing during the pandemic I was cooking more at home. I made my first batch of Irish fruit scones the last week of March 2021, from a baking mix imported from Ireland. That was exciting to me. I could buy Irish cheese and butter from local grocery stores, but baking with Irish ingredients made me feel closer still to my heritage. I am a foody and not the neatest cook. If I am to make messes in the kitchen, let them be Irish messes!
While I was still digesting the scones I received the DNA test kit. With great ceremony I spit in the supplied tube and hustled off to the post office, posing with my Covid mask on prior to dropping the pre-addressed box into an outgoing mail slot in the wall. Ancestry.com would soon extract my DNA from my saliva, then post my results where I could log in via computer and view them.
I let all my Irish and Irish-American friends in the Zoom chat know I had received the test kit, sharing the photo of me dropping the test kit into the mail slot.
They spoke of a website, GEDmatch.com, where you could upload a raw DNA data file from your testing provider. Once uploaded, you could compare your test results to other people who had uploaded their data files. The comparison would provide a table of results that included names and email addresses. When my friends in the Zoom chat told me this, for fun, for craic, I added a twist. To whomever in the Mayo Genealogy Group and Zoom chats proved to be my closest relative, I would give €50 to the next time I was in Ireland.
This would be a good time in the story to give readers some counsel. As a noted genealogist said on a national television show in Ireland, DNA tests should come with a government health warning. I agree.
Like my experience with my grandmother’s death certificate, there can be surprises. When you follow through on uploading test results and contacting other people, you may find you had half-siblings you never knew you had; that you are not as Irish or Italian as you thought you were. Or that you have a country of origin you’re indifferent to; or you’d rather not acknowledge. In short, you are less or more than you’d hoped to be.
I received an email from Ancestry.com about eight weeks later, in late May of 2021, that my test results were available. I reached out via a stealth email to Seamus Bermingham, the Mayo Genealogy Group leader who had provided the overview of GEDmatch.com. I asked him to use the website’s test comparison feature to set up a Big Reveal, to share with participants in the next Zoom chat whom my closest relative in the Group is.
I love happy drama and happier surprises —and the mild adrenaline rush of creating them. So I had promised to give €50 to the relative who proved to be the closest relative as measured by centimorgans, a unit for measuring genetic linkage.
Remember Paddy Walsh? You’ll recall he is the gent who walked up to me in the Kiltimagh pub that fateful night in October of 2019, inviting me to the meeting where participants zeroed in on the birth records of my grandparents. Is truth stranger than fiction? You bet it is. And I’m not even to the end of the story yet. The Big Reveal was my closest relative in the group is Paddy Walsh. I shared the most centimorgans with him.
My quest for official records and answers about my Irish grandparents gutted me when I learned the circumstances of my grandmother’s death on St. Patrick’s Day 1922. But finding out Paddy Walsh and I are distant cousins put me back on the path to joy. Serendipity to the max.
Another active participant of the Zoom chats, Teresa Filan, proved to be a close second to Paddy Walsh in kinship to me. In fact Teresa grew up in Keelogues, a parish close to where my maternal grandmother grew up. There were several others in the checkerboard frames of the chat that were more remote cousins but still related. Overall I could look at the Zoom participants on my laptop screen and it felt like a family reunion.
Return to Ireland
I felt compassion for the people who chose not to get vaccinated for Covid-19. But I had too many reasons to move ahead with the initial shot and its booster. I wanted to visit my grandchildren and other family members and minimize the potential risk to them and people in their circles. Also, my work as a soccer referee includes a commitment to ensuring the safety of others. Getting vaccinated and adhering to our Return to Play guidelines followed naturally from this commitment.
And then there was Ireland. I wanted to see my new friends and recently discovered cousins in person. My initial trip there in 2019 was no more than a long weekend. I felt what many Irish-Americans refer to as a calling, the desire to connect with something deep and profound. I wanted to bring my grandparents and mom back home to Ireland through me.
I put together plans for a much more immersive trip to Ireland to take place in late September of 2021. I flew overnight from Chicago and landed in pre-dawn Dublin. I took a taxi to the hotel I booked. The hotel was close to Heuston Station so I could easily walk there and board a train to the west of Ireland.
After checking into my hotel and resting up a bit, I set off for Grafton Street and St. Stephen’s Green. I wanted to continue to fill the vacuum of knowledge I had on Irish history and culture. I bought a ticket for “The Green Mile Walking Tour” from The Little Museum of Dublin.
A young ex-pat American man marched us around St. Stephen’s Green. His historical anecdotes energised my imagination and appreciation for Irish history: The Easter Rising combatants stopped their shooting when the park keeper entered the Green to feed the park ducks? That is classy.
I also went to EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. A highlight was the interactive terminal where you could enter the names of your ancestors into an electronic wall — However I could, I was bringing my family back to Ireland. In the Museum gallery devoted to the spread of the diaspora, I was amused to see the Irish Fest held each August in Milwaukee, where I live, featured in a video montage.
My visit to my ancestral County Mayo could wait no more. I boarded a train on my third day in Ireland and was picked up by my recently discovered cousin Paddy Walsh. Paddy brought me to the rural home of his adult daughter where she lived with her two young children. I eagerly accepted the chore of loading turf blocks into a wheelbarrow and rolling it into the garage. I earned my cup of tea and the brown bread we had to go with it. More cultural immersion!
Over the next two days we went to two places of cultural and personal significance. These were The National Museum of Ireland – Country Life; and the Martin Neary Woodland Park.
The National Museum of Ireland – Country Life is located near Castlebar, County Mayo. Using our mobile phones and WhatsApp, the Mayo Genealogy Group called for a social gathering at the museum cafe. We wanted to celebrate the return to Ireland of several members of the Group, all of us from the extended tribe of Mayo diaspora.
We recreated the photo taken back in October 2019, when members of the Group found the birth records of my maternal grandparents; and gave my odyssey strong tail winds.
The Martin Neary Woodland Park is named for Martin Neary. We learned through my DNA test he too is a distant cousin! Cousin Martin donated the former 40-acre family farm to the government locality under an agreement that allowed him to be buried in the middle of the Park with his dogs.
The agreement also called for Cousin Martin and the locality to create a community woodland park that is a place for outdoor recreation and education. While walking with their families and dogs, visitors can learn about sustainable development and celebrate Irish heritage through native tree plantings matched with historical events. Experts recommend tree planting as one step we can take to fight climate change. This makes Cousin Martin a hero.
We also took a day trip to Rathcroghan, site of the ancient capital of Connacht in western Ireland. Historians and folklorists feel the festival of Samhain, the forerunner of Halloween, originated at Rathcroghan. The ancient Celts believed during Samhain, the beginning of winter they associated with death, the spirits of the dead could visit the living.
Near Rathcroghan we visited a legendary cave once described by early Christians as Ireland’s “Gate to Hell,” and entrance to the Otherworld. The entrance to the cave looked a little small for me to crawl into, and as we were there in early October, I assumed it was too early for the spirits of the ancestors and the dead to slip through.
The sky they saw
When retracing the lives and roots of ancestors who bravely emigrated, it meant so much more to me to see the places where they lived. Failing that, to see the sky, the countryside, the landscapes they saw. To breathe the air and imagine them being present to draw breath just as I was.
While I was in County Mayo that October, Dympna Joyce sent me an email saying she did some look ups for me, and she might have found where the Oates family came from.
We knew from the birth registry my Grandmother Nora Oates was born at Ballinamore, at the time the estate of the Ormsby family outside of Kiltimagh. My great grandfather was a herdsman on the estate. This was an important role as he would have overlooked the care of cattle and sheep, a skilled position vital to the business affairs of the estate.
Ballinamore is easy to find. Today it’s a nursing home for the elderly on a road outside of Kiltimagh. Dympna and I drove by there and I tried to imagine my great grandfather at the end of his workday, my great grandmother calling him home for supper. I could imagine the children of the family toddling around the Ballinamore property, minding the chickens.
Using the website for the Irish Newspaper Archives, Dympna also found an article in the Connaught Telegraph of Saturday, October 5, 1895, that was as good as finding a postcard from past relatives. The newspaper published a story that listed my grandmother’s older sisters, Mary Oates and Catherine Oates, as winners of prizes at The Connaught Exhibition in 1895.
Mary and Catherine won for a dozen white eggs and coloured eggs respectively. The Exhibition was officially known as The Connaught Industrial Exhibition and was held in Foxford, County Mayo, in part to herald and further promote the success of Providence Mill, the forerunner of today’s fashion pacesetter Foxford Woollen Mills.
See the article on the Exhibition here
In the context of Mayo and Irish history, the Exhibition was hugely important, stimulating interest across Ireland and Europe in many rural and industrial commercial undertakings. Judges for the competitions and 2,000 entries were noteworthy, celebrities by modern day standards, and many traveled from afar to be there. This promoted revival of western Ireland came when the spectre still lingered of The Great Famine of 1845 to 1852.
As trivial as my family’s connection to the Exhibition may be at first glance, to me it’s an exciting find. This is an example of a more pleasing surprise provided by genealogical research. I’m a foody. I feel different about eggs now.
But the research of Dympna Joyce also led to records of the next place the Oates family called home, and birth records that reflexively made me sad. Most likely as compensation for his role as herdsman for the Ormsby family at Ballinamore, John Oates moved with his family to a stone cottage, a herd’s house, and the surrounding acres of the townland of Cornanaff, approximately 20 kilometers northwest.
We took a chance on being welcome and went there one Saturday afternoon. Dympna, Cousin Teresa Filan and I drove up the property’s long access drive. The current house definitely did not date to the early 20th Century. We rang the doorbell and were greeted by the homeowners, an adult brother and sister. We introduced ourselves and briefed them on my quest, which opened a door to their past.
My great uncle James Oates had sold the property to the grandfather of the current owners. The brother remembered spending time as a youngster in the fieldstone cottage with his grandfather before a new house was built. He told me the ruins of the stone cottage were still there if I wanted to have a look.
The property is on the top of a hill with an incredibly scenic view of the countryside. In the eastern sky above the patchwork of hills and pastures a few jets approached Ireland West Airport Knock. Croagh Patrick anchored the southwest; Croaghmoyle and wind farms formed the west-northwest horizon.
We walked carefully across a rocky, ankle-twisting expanse of rush-grown meadow and through an electric fence to the ruins of the fieldstone cottage. A section of the corrugated metal roof hung down near what was once the door. Brambles were overtaking the cottage walls and underscored how forgotten the cottage had become.
But I could turn and survey the countryside, draw breath from the light hilltop breeze, and imagine my grandmother as a young girl doing the same, enjoying the view the day gave. I found it harder to imagine how a family with 9 children could live in a stone cottage that was maybe 15 feet wide and 40 feet long, or 600 square feet, 55.7 square meters in area.
Although I know historically emigration was a necessary family business as much as a rite of passage, perhaps the cramped living arrangements contributed to the desire of young Irish to emigrate when they became of age. I grew up in a small suburban Chicago home where five of us children shared a small bedroom. I understand.
The church ruins nearby
Still enthralled by my visit to Cornanaff — the graciousness of our hosts, seeing my grandmother’s childhood home, imagining her there — my cousin Teresa Filan and I left in her car and began driving down the N5 roadway toward Castlebar.
As we drove Teresa gestured up a hillside to the stone ruins of a tiny ancient church. “There’s church ruins there, they think maybe it dates back to the 13th to 15th centuries. It’s believed unbaptised babies are buried there.”
When you come from a country such as the United States where nearly all buildings are less than 100 years old, you get curious. “Can we have a look?” I asked. There was also something in what Teresa said about it being an old church, and that unbaptised babies were buried there. Something that resonated with the list of Oates family birth records Dympna emailed me before we set off that day.
Teresa had grown up in a cluster of rural homes above the ancient church, within the townland called Knockatemple. We parked alongside the road and with grazing sheep mostly disinterested, stepped cautiously through the sloping meadow over droppings and rocks nearly covered by grasses.
While old survey maps labeled the structure as Carrowleckeen Church, over the ages locals referred to the church as Knockatemple Church as well as the Church of St. Ciaran and Temple Sam. The ruins of the structure look medieval and off balance, a still-proud but time-battered monument. There is no roof, and its stone walls are mostly missing and decayed.
The inside of the church is about 10 yards by 5 yards or 9 meters by 4.5 meters. A short, thin wooden cross with a metal plaque stands at the center of the mostly intact north wall. The inscription on the plaque reads: “In memory of all the babies resting here….until we meet again may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”
On the ground around the site are uneven stones with uneven geometries: some may have once had their place in a wall; some are random rubble; some may mark the graves of unbaptised babies.
Teresa briefed me on the history and issue of cilliní as burial grounds for stillborn, unbaptised infants. The Catholic Church did not allow unbaptised babies to be buried in consecrated graveyards for fear their souls would corrupt those of baptised people.
When babies were stillborn, in the dark of night family members would often slip across the countryside in grief and humility to the cilliní and bury them. In cilliní there are no traditional, inscribed headstones. The family members just would place small stones on the graves.
And my sad family connection to Knockatemple Church involves that. Birth records show my great grandmother gave birth to a child that lived only an hour. With Knockatemple Church only a 10-minute walk across the countryside from their stone cottage, there is a likelihood that I have a tiny young family member buried there. My pilgrimage of 2021 to Mayo ended on a somber note.
The Mayo County Council sent a contingent of leaders and tourism promoters to the Christmas dinner held by the Mayo Association of Chicago, a social organisation, in December of 2021. The contingent talked up Home to Mayo 2022, the month-long series of events around County Mayo being planned for the next May.
I appreciated the opportunity to meet and greet people with Mayo roots so close to my home in the midwestern U.S. I was making friends among would-be cousins, connecting further in spirit with my ancestors and keeping the promise to my mom.
By March of 2022 Ireland boasted a higher vaccination and booster rate among adults compared to where I live in the midwestern United States. I read in The Irish Times that people were returning to their offices in Dublin, and the text on the Department of Foreign Affairs website regarding the registration of foreign births seemed a little more hopeful. On March 6 the government of Ireland lifted its Covid-related travel restrictions. I began planning to return to Ireland for Home to Mayo 2022.
First there was the issue of registering my birth with the Republic of Ireland, 64 years after it happened. After double-checking the list of required documents with what I ordered and received, I knew I possessed all the supporting documents needed. In mid-March I scurried off to a store that took passport-size photos. I needed four photo prints. As is customary with bureaucratic identification photos, I posed with no smile. But I sure felt a smile inside.
I wanted my registration process to be special, and even healing. Given that my Grandmother Nora died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1922, and how I connected melancholy to that holiday, I registered my birth on St. Patrick’s Day, 100 years to the day after her death.
I landed in Dublin early in the morning of May 4th. At mid-day I met a Dublin-area friend who organised a guided walk with her group of friends called The Culture Lite Club. We toured Dublin City Hall. I loved the mosaic on the floor of the rotunda, and the historic irony of the city’s Latin motto: “Obedientia Civium Urbis Felicitas” — the obedience of the citizens produces a happy city.
The next day I took a train south to Cobh Harbour. That’s where my Grandmother Nora sailed from in 1906 on the S.S. Baltic, when the harbour was known by its British name of Queenstown Harbour. The captain of the S.S. Baltic for that voyage was Captain Edward J. Smith. Six years later he would pilot another ship out of the harbour, the R.M.S. Titanic.
I hiked up the coast from the train station and once again found myself filling my mind with a lush Irish panorama. I imagined the ship navigating the gap in the harbour, steaming out to a waiting Atlantic Ocean, the passengers including my grandmother nervously and excitedly chattering among themselves.
After the stop in Cobh Harbour, home to Mayo. I liked the sound of that.
Honour the children
Starting with a poetry reading in Kiltimagh during October of 2021, I had become more engaged with Irish culture and my family history. I felt I could still do more to honour my family’s heritage.
In a phone conversation with Cousin Teresa Filan preceding Home to Mayo 2022, I brought up the idea of rededicating Knockatemple Church.
I was moved by the history of the Church as the location of a burial ground for unbaptised babies. I thought we could organise a ceremony where we paid our respects to the children buried there long ago, knowing at the time their families couldn’t give them a more traditional funeral and burial. We could bring people together to honour the children as well as their families.
Teresa Filan is also chairperson of the Keelogues Heritage Group, a registered charity seeking to safeguard the structure into the future. Teresa rallied members of the Group to identify needs and define roles so the event could happen successfully.
The Mayo County Council had already booked Teresa as a speaker at a Home To Mayo event at The National Museum of Ireland – Country Life. Her topic on Saturday, May 14th was the Group’s efforts to protect the Church. Teresa announced the rededication event at the Museum event and a notice was posted on the Group’s Facebook page.
Our ideas for the rededication event had multiplied. We knew that people who once worshipped at and used the Church included pagan and Irish folklore practices in their ceremonies. We conceived of an event that would respect that history as well as Christian traditions. We reached out to our contacts in the area. The event started adding dimensions of heart and soul.
Sally McKenna, an internationally renowned artist whom I met previously in Kiltimagh, gave us a quantity of rose quartz stones from Achill Island. The people of Mayo would place small quartz points in the palms of babies hands before burying them, and place stones on the ground’s surface. They hoped that at night moonbeams would reflect off the quartz and light a pathway to heaven for the souls of the babies.
Saturday after the Museum event we checked the weather for the next day and saw the forecast called for a beautiful Spring day with sun and a few clouds. We drove by Knockatemple Church and saw one of the members of the Keelogues Heritage Group mowing a path from the edge of the narrow access road to the church ruins. This ensured people could easily walk across the meadow.
We scanned the area in front of the church and agreed where the rededication speakers would stand and the celebrants would gather. The interior of the Church was already roped off to prevent well-intentioned people from gathering there — The engineers who planned the preservation had advised foot traffic and human contact would speed up the decline of the ruins.
We returned to the home where I was staying and talked though our expectations and began our preparations. We thought there might be about 50 people who would join us for the rededication event. We would look to provide each person with a piece of rose quartz. Teresa and I placed the quartz stones into a brown paper shopping bag and using a hammer, broke the stones into pieces closer to the size that would have fit into the palms of the hands of babies.
Sally McKenna, who is a mystic as well as renowned artist, had advised us to “cleanse” the stones by burning sage. For thousands of years people have used smoke and incense to connect with the spirit world. The smoke attaches to our negative energy and carries it away. Positive energy remains.
With tiny bundles of sage we bought at a shop in Castlebar, we conducted a makeshift ceremony where we lit the sage and improvised a modest blessing over the rose quartz stones. We asked the smoke to release negativity and animosity, to fill our spirits and those of people at the ceremony with love and happiness.
A monument to miracles
Just as we hoped, the weather the next morning in County Mayo was beautiful. The Sunday sky was brilliantly sunny and animated by a slow procession of cottony clouds.
The gathering celebrants parked their cars off to the side of the N5 Motorway or turned into the narrow farm road. People stepped out and made their way across the nicely mowed path. More and more people arrived. I tried to count them all but gave up once I realized more than 50 people had arrived, exceeding our hopes.
The gentle melody of Michael McGoldrick’s “Angel Meadow” welcomed celebrants as they entered the open-air space, performed by Bernard Joyce on low flute and Zane Kažotniece-Joyce on fiddle. Teresa greeted everyone, introduced herself, and spoke about the purpose of the rededication and what we would do that afternoon.
We started with emotional words from Father Stephen O’Mahony, the Catholic parish priest for Bohola. Father O’Mahony immediately addressed the issue of unbaptised babies not being buried in church cemeteries.
Father O’Mahony said, “Thank God we live in more enlightened times. As we remember these little ones we remember their families as well. They will be so happy that the people of this area say you and your children are not forgotten.”
As a transition Teresa and I planned to light sage and create a moment of cleansing and blessing similar to what we had done the day before. We handed out a few small bundles of sage and cigarette lighters to people near us. They lit the sage and moved through the crowd — now numbering over 100 people in an amazing turnout.
Singer/Musician Orla Filan read the blessing I crafted from note cards provided by the sage shop. The blessing asked for the sacred smoke to carry away all negativity; and to convey our feelings of love to the spirits of the children and families.
I spoke next. I shared that my grandmother grew up nearby and likely had an unbaptised sibling buried there. I talked of the need to honour the children as family members. I also encouraged everyone to be like Knockatemple Church.
I said, “Let us be like this church, that yet stands as a monument to the tiny miracles of innocence, of faith, of joy, and yes of pain that are buried here.”
Teresa and I had invited Clodagh Doyle to participate in the event. Clodagh serves at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life as keeper, Irish Folklife Division. Clodagh has a practicing scholar’s knowledge of the burial practices of the Irish people of long ago.
Clodagh said, “It’s really important that we recognize our past and those who are buried here. We have to realize the hardship that existed for the people who buried their babies here and the trauma of their households.”
After Clodagh spoke there were other contributors to the event. Local expert Patricia Conway spoke about the townlands in the area. And Billy Lyons provided notes on local history.
The vibe and the moment in time created by speakers and celebrants certainly felt like it honoured the children, their families, Knockatemple Church and the community. The event was healing and sacred.
Another saint checks in
In the months that followed the Knockatemple event and my return to the United States there were more brushes with Irish cultural influences. These included the 2022 Milwaukee Irish Fest, an internationally recognized celebration of Celtic music, crafts and culture.
I was also inspired by the online lectures of the ‘iCAN Winter Evening talk Series,’ organized by Lorna Elms of the Irish Community Archive Network. Several of the talks, including “An Introduction to the Military Archives” by Commandant Daniel Ayiotis, Irish Defence Forces, pointed participants and researchers of family history to resources beyond birth and property records.
Meanwhile I continued to hope my foreign birth registration would be finalised without further drama. Postings on the Department of Foreign Affairs website reported the necessary offices were ramping up the processing of registrations and passports. I read in several media outlets that more and more people sought Irish citizenship. Many were from the Irish diaspora in the UK, reacting to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and the loss of prized EU passports.
Then on the 14th of February, St. Valentine’s Day, I received an email from the Foreign Birth Registrar Section regarding my registration. The Section wanted to ensure my application documents were dispatched to the correct postal address and wanted me to confirm my address by return email. A promising email on St. Valentine’s Day? I was starting to feel the Love. I replied with a thank you and confirmed I lived at the same postal address as my application.
When I didn’t hear anything for nearly a week I began to worry. I have a Canadian friend in Toronto who received the initial email regarding his registration status within a couple days of me. He replied right away to confirm his address, then received a second email notifying him his application was accepted — all within a few hours.
I thought maybe I made a mistake. Should I have included my application number in the subject line of the reply, even though I included it in the body of the email? Could the delay be caused by something as simple as that?
To be fair, the email I received the week prior did state, “Receipt of this e-mail is not an indication of a successful outcome to your application.” I didn’t want to be pushy with my follow up but didn’t want to let a potential mistake go uncorrected.
So I sent a second follow up to the DFA staff member, writing “as I have not heard back from you I thought perhaps I made a mistake by not including my Application Number in the subject line of my reply.”
Thankfully, within 24 hours the staffer replied the DFA granted my application last week. “There is a backlog in printing,” she wrote, “it might be about 3 – 4 weeks before it is printed. Once printed you will receive an email letting you know. 48 hours after receiving the email you can track the post online with the below tracking number.”
I was now nearing the climax of the epic that began with my first trip to Ireland, that chance meeting in a Kiltimagh pub with the dual-threat genealogist and cousin Paddy Walsh.
The family documents and the life events they signified — happy or sad — had become outsized backdrops for the drama honouring my promise and Irish heritage. Many new friends, cousins and civil servants walked through its acts and scenes contributing their moments and theatrical effects.
The arc of the story had changed when I learned of the tragic passing of my grandmother on that most Irish of holidays. A day when I used to celebrate my heritage with drinking and self-indulgent silliness.
Seventeen days later I received the more official email as foretold: “Congratulations, your application for Irish citizenship through entry on the Foreign Births Register has been successful. A certificate has now been printed and posted to the address provided by you. Please note that your application will be sent via Registered post and someone will need to be available to sign for the envelope.”
Once the envelope left the shores of Ireland I didn’t know if it was on a plane or in the cargo hold of a container ship, heading for an iceberg. I waited a few days then used the tracking number provided in the earlier email to follow the progress of my citizenship papers. The details were very general.
“We have your post in DUBLIN MAIL CENTRE, DUBLIN 12”
“Your post has left An Post DUBLIN MAIL CENTRE, DUBLIN 12”
“Your delivery was received in UNITED STATES”
I expected the handoff from An Post to the United States Postal Service could be fumbled. I didn’t anticipate the data of one organization to easily migrate to the tracking system of another. I had low expectations.
After four days I thought to access the USPS tracking system, and to type in the tracking number provided by the DFA. Amazing! The USPS system tracked my envelope through its channels. The envelope was “In Transit to Next Facility.” I wasn’t told where that facility was.
The next day, March 16th, late in the afternoon I checked again. “Arrived at USPS Regional Facility MILWAUKEE WI PROCESSING CENTER,” the system said. I still had no faith I would receive my citizenship papers. There had been a global pandemic after all and I knew staffing at area postal facilities was down.
The next morning, March 17th, I busied myself with coffee and breakfast, and reading news on the websites of The Irish Times and The New York Times. Mostly I was trying to block out the hope of my citizenship papers arriving on that day of all days.
And yet, just before noon, I heard the baritone rumble of a postal van coming up the driveway. The doorbell chimed. I stepped and hopped with no grace but some speed down the front hallway to the door, and opened it.
Our regular mail carrier beamed at me. She had pinned St. Patrick’s Day decorations on her uniform, including one she would tell me later that dated to her childhood. “You have an envelope from Ireland!”
There was a waterfall of relief cascading over me. We posed for videos and photos. My mail carrier offered up a hackneyed phrase sure to make an Irish native gag. “Top of the morning to you Tom. Here are your Irish citizenship papers.”
But you know what, I was on top of the world.
I was born again Irish.
A parting proposal
In each of our family histories there is sadness, disappointment, dysfunction and disconnection. There are forgotten generations and the more recent separation between one branch of the family tree and another, as well as between parents and children. There is also distance created by family members and people who don’t place the same value on family ties and heritage.
So as I look back on the dispiriting death of my grandmother on St. Patrick’s Day, and the otherworldly joy of receiving my Irish citizenship papers on the same day 101 years later, I propose this to you:
Honour your ancestors, and they may just honour you.