Isn’t it nice to know where you come from? To put a name and personality to the ancestors whose lives, work and travel brought us to where we are today?
It is nice to know where you come from, as American visitor Gerry Britt discovered, and it’s nice to come home, too.
My son stared out the window of our rental car as we drove north from Cashel. It was August 12, 2007, our first day in Ireland. I’d had to wait 42 years for this trip. My son only had to wait 8, (which he never fails to remind me about – the lucky little… but never mind that). We were on our way to Thurles, and from there to Drumbane. Or Drombane. Or even Dromban. However one spelled it that’s from whence we Britts came and that’s where we were going.
We traveled along in silence for a bit, Aeron and my wife Cindy and me, just taking in the beautiful scenery under a sky like we’d never seen. Presently, Aeron said, “Daddy, why did your grandpa have to leave Ireland?”
Now that’s an odd way to phrase it, I thought. I said, “What makes you think he had to leave?”
“’Who would want to move away from here unless they had to?”
A fair question, and not an easy one to answer. “Well now,” I said in my perfect Tipperary accent, (which I later tried out on our hostess in Tipperary. She seemed to think I was from Brisbane. I never realized the two accents were so similar.) “That’s an interesting story.” I settled back in my seat and tried to get comfortable, which was harder than it sounds since I was on the wrong side of the road, the car, and the gear box, and just recently had experienced something called the “Red Cow Roundabout.” I doubted that I’d ever really be comfortable in an automobile again.
“It was 1906,” I began, “and John Francis Britt—my grandpa—was nineteen years old and the third oldest son of a farmer. Now being the third oldest meant that John Francis would not inherit the farm. It would go to his eldest brother Jerry”
“Is that who you’re named after?”
“No, I’m Gerard. He was Jeremiah.”
Aeron looked disappointed. I quickly added, “But you know, now that I think about it, I seem to remember my father mentioning something about that, so maybe I am.”
He looked happy again. “I bet you are.”
Then he asked what I’d hoped he wouldn’t. “Who am I named after?”
“Well now, that’s another story. One story at a time.” Hopefully I’d come up with something good. “Now where was I?”
“Right, 1906, and John wasn’t getting the farm, and who wants to live with his brother all his life? Can you picture me living with Uncle James?”
“Heck, no, you’d kill each other.”
“That’s right. So: John was nineteen, a bachelor, and looking to make his fortune, find a wife, and settle down on his own. Now in those days, and in too many other days in Ireland, work was hard to find, and many, many people had to leave Ireland if they wanted any hope of a good life. In fact, that’s what his brother Michael—the second oldest—had done in 1900. He’d packed up his things and took the boat to America. Now Michael was living in Brooklyn, where he’d found work as a blacksmith, gotten married, and had two children! Mick—that’s what they called him—wrote to John and told him to come to America. Mick sent John a ticket for boat passage, and John left Ireland from a place called Cobh—except they had changed the name to Queenstown.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Because the queen had landed there once.”
“So what?” American boys are not much impressed by royalty. Though that may just be his blood.
“They’ve changed it back since then.”
“So, with $2.50 of American money in his pocket, young John Francis Britt boarded the SS Etruria, bound for America and a new life. He arrived in New York on April 8th and stepped off the boat into an uncertain future. He was sad for the home he left behind, but he was determined to make the best of it in America.”
“He did a good job, too.”
“How do you know that, son?”
“Because he had your daddy, and you had me, and now I get to see where we’re from.”
“That’s right, son.” That’s absolutely and perfectly right. This is where we’re from.
The sun is shining but I can hardly see the road.