In the 1850’s, their country devastated by the potato famine, an influx of immigrants from Ireland arrived at Brant Lake. Many settled near Tannery Road where they cured hides in the local tannery. Descendants of this Irish population still live in our community and one afternoon I interviewed an Irish lady I will call Siobhan.
We sat on her porch, rocking gently in wicker chairs, strands of faded white wicker dangling from the seat, Siobhan’s white hair tied neatly in a bun. As she reminisced about family roots in County Cork she mentioned her daughter who, for many years, had urged her mother to visit the homeland—to return to Ireland. Siobhan had resisted:
“Ireland? I have never been 50 miles south of Brant Lake and you want me to travel to Ireland? Why? Why should I go now? Our family all came here in the 1850s. No one is left.” But the daughter, product of a generation determined to trace its lineage, convinced her mother to travel with her, back to County Cork.
Arriving in the family village Siobhan hesitated. Where do you seek family roots when, generations before, you became strangers in a strange land?
“We will go to the cemetery,” Siobhan suggested. “Maybe we can discover our family’s grave marker.”
On a misty day, for aren’t all days misty in Ireland, Siobhan mused, the two women explored the village cemetery, a site ravaged by time. Some grave stones were broken and resting on their side, others carried undecipherable descriptions. Mother and daughter wended their way through the gravestones searching between wild thistles and golden rod for the family name. Huddled inside coarse woolen sweaters they were buffeted by a wind blowing off the Muir Eireann, the Irish Sea.
In a far corner of the cemetery, a man gazed at Siobhan and her daughter. He was a tiny man in a Donegal tweed cap, the color of the green Irish countryside, and he smoked a clay pipe.
The women, heads bowed, wandered, searching for the gravestone, but their search proved futile.
Eventually the man, who had observed them from the distance, approached and, in Siobhan’s words: “He appeared to be a leprechaun, yes a leprechaun, coming out of the mist.” When he reached the women he removed his cap, bowed slightly and, in a thick accent, asked: “Well my lovely ladies, and what, may I ask, brings you here?”
Siobhan replied, “My family. They came from this village many generations ago but all the descendants went to America in the great potato famine. We are searching for their tombstone.”
“And whom might you be?” the man asked.
Siobhan told him the family name. The man stroked his white moustache and, with a broad smile that seemed to pierce the veil of gloom, replied:
“Ah, then you must be Siobhan. My cousin from America. Finally, after all these years one of our family has returned. I prayed they would. God be with you.”
Siobhan paused. Only the gentle rhythm of the rocking chair broke the silence. For a moment, sitting on that porch near Tannery Road, I sensed that Siobhan had departed over the seas, returning home to a place she had left but had never left her.
And, perhaps, each one of us possesses that singular home, somewhere within our heart—no matter where our journey in life may lead.
Good to listen
From Siobhan in Cork Ireland
Your thoughtful comments caused me to reflect on my own plans so often postponed to seek out what might remain of the tombstones of my family in the cemeteries of Berdychiv and Minisk.