The road back to your roots can be an emotional one, but it’s nothing if not rich and rewarding. Visitor Gerry Britt embarks on an momentous journey that brings him right to the heart of rural Ireland, to the village his grandfather left in 1906.
It was our third trip to Ireland, and my family and I planned to take a whole week to stay in the Upperchurch Drombane area of , home of my grandfather’s family. After landing in on a Friday, and staying the weekend with a childhood friend who had moved to The Curragh in , we made our way to the village of Upperchurch.
We had rented a small cottage in Dooree Commons, just up the road from the village. I had directions from the owner, but I stopped into Ryan’s Pub in the village to check – it wouldn’t do to take a wrong turn and wind up way off in . Four young men at the bar greeted me, with one of them saying, by way of hello, “Ain’t you the big fella! I like a challenge!” Now, I’m a veteran of the gentle ribbing that you get in Irish pubs, so I said back to him that four of them against one of me was hardly a fair fight, and perhaps he should run home and get a few more friends.
“That’s the talk!” he laughed. “What brings ya here?” I told him where I was going, and he barely opened his mouth before an old gent at the bar interrupted and gave me detailed directions, which turned out to be nearly, but not quite, correct. But we found it in the end – our quaint old 1900s cottage with a lovely fire stove and a large stack of turf. It was heaven.
Once we were settled, I headed up to the village with my 14-year-old son, Aeron. We stopped in at O’Dwyer’s grocery and chatted a bit with Mrs O’Dwyer before heading up to the Community Centre, where we spoke to Nuala Ryan, the centre’s administrator, about our plans: wandering Upperchurch and Drombane, going to a hurling match, and discovering where my grandfather spent his youth before he left for America in 1906.
Like so many other Irish Americans, I’ve spent hours on websites poring over census and land records hoping to uncover information that might get me closer to the actual piece of land that was home the Britts (or Bretts – Irish names changed spellings like divas change gowns).
Nuala directed me to Paddy Kinnane’s pub and where the owner, the wonderful Niamh, provided me with names, numbers and directions to a variety of sources. Niamh also said something that was music to my ears: “You look like the Britts of Drombane, especially around the eyes.”
Her sister Siobhan appeared with coffee, tea, cakes and cookies and I told them what I knew, or guessed: we were from Drombane and my paternal grandfather had left in 1906. Later, I drove back to the cottage, collected my wife, and back we went to Kinnane’s. Siobhan’s son Fergal – big, bald, strong, and with a firm handshake that belied his friendly nature – led us to a table set for three around a cosy nook near the just-lit turf fire.
After doing a quick headcount of the pub, I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do: “I’d like to buy a round for the house,” I announced. It turned out to be the best money I’ve ever spent – an investment that would provide me with song and conversation worth their weight in gold. Brian the stucco worker sang a sad “Michael”, about slain leader Michael Collins, and I returned the favour with a bit of Sinatra. We harmonised (badly) to Johnny Cash, and I returned to my table for a wonderful steak dinner with broccoli and cauliflower, boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, and fried potatoes in portions that could have fed an entire hurling team.
After dinner I retired to the outdoor smoking area and was soon joined by the bar patrons who introduced me to the finer points of “slaggin’”, otherwise known as “let’s see what the Yank tourist is made of”. I was accepted quickly, mostly (for this crowd!) because I can spit out great curse words with a decent Irish accent.
“You’re all right, Yank!” was the highest praise an American tourist could receive, and I accepted it with good grace.
This isn’t the end of the story…
Discover how Gerry’s tale turns out in the third part of the series, with an emotional climax to his exceptional trip.
And if you want to know how to go about tracing your own roots, click .