You know how in mainstream media Ireland is always filled with people who are dancing jigs and having red hair and wearing nice sweaters? Ireland is for reals just like that. Okay, maybe by mainstream media I can only call to mind the chauffeur on Downtown Abbey who wasn’t so much wearing a fishermen knit sweater as he was blowing stuff up with his pregnant wife or those Leprechaun movies which were not so much about rainbow colored marshmallows as they were about…well, I don’t know because I never actually watched any of them, but I do know that they were horror movies. And that the leprechaun was a rapper in one of them?
But in real life, the people I encountered in Ireland were truly the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And there were surprisingly few redheads, but that’s neither here nor there.
As we traveled from the southwestern Irish countryside towards the city of Dublin, we had planned a stop to see the town from which our Irish ancestors hailed. Armed with extensive ancestry research compiled by my Uncle M. and continued by my Aunt E. , our first stop was the local Catholic graveyard to look for headstones containing the family surname of …let’s say it’s O’Grady (I was also amazed by the sheer number of names that have turned out to be Irish. Because it’s pretty much all surnames in the world. Even the ones that have those little Scandinavian symbols over them or are written in the Chinese alphabet? Irish in origin. Every single one. )
As we wandered through the grassy paths in the cemetery, our Irish driver Dermont “call-me-Dobs” hailed the lone man who was visiting the graveyard.
“Do you know any O’Gradys buried here, then?” Dobs asked the stranger as a conversation opener.
The man seemed to feel this a fair question and rather than give him a cold I’m-visiting-my-dead-loved-ones look or hurrying away from this crazy clocks, he crossed his arms and wrinkled his forehead. “O’Grady…hmm. No, not here. That’s more of a name from County Clare then, innt? There was a lad couple years back…no, no his name was Gready and that’s more of a Mayo name . Nope, nope. No O’Gradys here .”
“Oh well,” said we, we being me, my sister and my Aunt E , “It was worth a shot!”
“Girls!” Dobs said in shock, “Ya can’t give up now then, cannya? I thought (pronounced taught) you wanted to find your people ? We’ve got to go to the county priest then, don’t we? Sure, the church’ll have some records .”
“How would we find the county priest?” asked my aunt.”Do you think the local parish will be open?”
“We’ll just go to his house, won’t we? That fella,” Dobs gestured towards the man from the graveyard who was getting into his car,”thought the priest lived in one of those houses there.” Dobs’ outstretched arm encompassed four row houses.
My sister, my aunt and I looked sideways at each other but we dutifully got back in the car as Dobs drove us to the row of homes. “Right, then,” he said, “I’ll just go knock.” He got out and headed to the first door.
“Can he do that?” I hissed in a panic,”we should stop him! He can’t just go knock on people’s doors asking if a priest lives there!”
But by this time Dobs was returning to the car, waving wildly.”Sure, I found him!” he yelled. “He’s on his way out so we’ve got to be quick!”
A quizzical priest, complete with bright blue eyes and wispy white hair ringing a mostly bald head, stood in the doorway holding a pad of paper and a pen. “I’m very sorry,”he said,”I’m just leaving but if you give me the information you have on your ancestors, the girl will be coming in this afternoon and she can look that up for you.”
“Ah, that would be grand,” Dobs said.
My aunt wrote out the information she had complied, thanking the priest profusely for his time and apologizing for disturbing him.
“Well then, there you go! Now off to the post office,” Dobs announced as we three Americans marveled at the kindness of a man we didn’t know taking the time to not only speak with us, but to take down our information for further research. In comparison, the priest of the American parish I had attended during my formative years did not spend his time helping strangers so much as he spent his time yelling at kids and driving around in a big blue Cadillac smoking cigars.
“The post office?”
“Sure, you never know what you’ll find at the post office then, do you girls?”
Off Dobs went to the post office.
“They didn’t know of any O’Gradys,” the returning Dobs called out, “but they thought there was a lad
a couple miles away who mighta heard of someone who did. So we’ll just drive over there and see what we can find.”
I am not afraid to admit that I was becoming distinctly uncomfortable.
I am a person who lived in dread of elementary school fundraisers that required us to go door-to-door begging the neighbors to buy whatever junk we were selling. If you are of a certain age, you will never have heard of this phenomenon because you are fortunate enough to have grown-up during an era when walking around your neighborhood would have resulted in you being kidnapped and so instead your parents take all of your crappy school fundraiser pamphlets to the office and force their hapless coworkers to buy waxy chocolate or candles that smell like headaches.
And so, as an adult, my discomfort at interacting with strangers or people in general, has not only not subsided, but it has increased. Especially if I feel like I am being bothersome in any way shape or form.
Dobs drove us into a neighborhood where every single house looked the same.
“What house number are we looking for?” asked either my aunt or sister. I was a little bit starting to panic and could feel the telltale flutter that meant my heart was palpitating. I’m a high anxiety person. It is obviously not the Irish in me. Although it can’t be the Italian in me either.
“They didn’t have the house number,” said Dobs, “but they thought he might drive a dark car.” He looked around at the sea of dark cars. If it was an episode of Oprah , it would have been the one where she says, “And you get a dark car! And you get a dark car!”
“There’s a dark car!” Dobs announced and away he went, marching up to the closest house.
“I really am not okay with this,” I said,”I don’t think we should do this.” Even though I always send handwritten thank-you notes, I’m not a Miss Manners person per se. But I am pretty sure it is never okay to knock on someone’s door and start asking them wildly random questions like: “So, are you my relative?” Y’know the children’s book Are You My Mother? So. Uncomfortable.
No one answered the door on which Dobs was knocking. But hey! There was someone a couple of houses over emerging from their (dark) car with a bag of groceries, so following a brand of logic my stick-up-the ..spine-ness couldn’t process, Dobs walked over to the person and they had a chat.
Dobs came back and poked his head in the car window. “We’ve the luck of the fairies, girls! Said a fella of the name O’Grady live right there!”
My sister and my aunt were taken aback but were game. “Are you sure this is okay?” my aunt asked.
“Sure, sure,”Dobs assured her. “Perfectly normal.”
“I’m staying in the car,”I said to my sister,”This is crazy. I really can’t do this. My heart is palpitating.”
“I’m going to go,” she replied,” I don’t want Aunt E. to go by herself, but you can stay here.” Having been my sister for 40 odd years, she was well-versed with my “quirks”, and had made herself a small fortune over the years due to my constant bribes of money in exchange for her ability to make phone calls.
I saw the strangers’ door open in response to Dob’s knock and a woman wrapped in a robe with messy hair and glasses stood there, listening to his spiel before ushering them into the house.
This is so not okay, I kept thinking. I wouldn’t open my door to Girl Scouts selling cookies and I really like Girl Scout cookies. And if someone came to my door claiming we may be distant relatives and asking for information, I would be certain it was a scam akin to aiding a Nigerian prince.
It seemed an eternity, although I’m sure that it wasn’t, and everyone was climbing (unscathed, amazed, and excited) back into the car.
I didn’t even want to ask. Luckily Dobs cheerfully announced, “Sure, then, there’s a lad who has a brother that may know something more about the O’Gradys!”
“Are we going to try and find the brother’s house now?” I asked, praying that we weren’t.
“No, no,” said Dobs, “he’s going to drive and we’re going to follow him over then, aren’t we?” He cheerfully waved to a man backing out of the driveway.
“They were so nice,” my sister told me,”the wife apologized for being in her robe and for how the house was a mess but she wasn’t feeling well, but her husband’s family name was O’Grady and he might know something, so she went and got her husband from the garage.”
“The husband, I think his name is Lee? He thinks his brother actually has an ancestry book about the O’Grady name,” said my aunt.
“Didn’t they think this was weird?” I whispered to them.
My sister and aunt shook their heads in disbelief. “They acted like this was completely normal. They couldn’t have been nicer. They invited us in right away!”
We followed Lee’s car through beautiful country roads and into the driveway of a lovely home surrounded by the greenest of grass. An older man, his white mustache shaded by a baseball hat, sat on a John Deere tractor, clearly in the midst of lawn work.
I did not want to let the part of me I most dislike put a damper on the adventure, so I pulled up my big girl panties and joined my family we walked tentatively towards the tractor. Introductions were made all around.
“Niall (the man on the tractor),” said Lee (the man whose car we had followed to get here),”these ladies are looking for their ancestors, like? I thought you might still have that book about the O’Gradys then?”
Niall climbed off the tractor.”Well then, I suppose I do. Come in, come in.”
A small terrier jumped around our legs happily, gleefully accepting our scratches around her ears. I like dogs and I like people who like dogs.
“Birdie,” Niall called out as he led us into an immaculate, sunlight flooded kitchen where a small woman was listening to the radio and ironing.
“Excuse the house!” she said cheerfully, seemingly not in the least surprised that her husband headed a parade of perfect strangers (oxymoron, whatever), “I was just ironing! What a mess I am,” she swatted at her crisp rhinestone studded shirt and pressed trousers, “And there’s Lee!”she greeted her brother-in- law.
“These ladies are after their O’Grady ancestors,” Niall said.
“Ah! Grand!” Birdie beamed,”can I get you some tea? Coffee?” She was twinkly and darling and her face was made for smiling.
We instantly declined with the utmost politeness, wanting desperately not to be any more of a bother than we felt we already were.
“I’d love a coffee,”Dobs piped up.”Cream and sugar.”
As Birdie bustled about fixing tea and coffee, Niall leaned over to us. He was solemn where his wife was smiles, but it turned out to be the perfect front for dead-panned humor. “Is he a bit daft ?” he asked softly, gesturing at Dobs,”chatting up my wife over there?” His face barely changed, save for his eyes crinkling up at the corners, pleased that he had made us laugh.
“Sit, sit!” Birdie ushered us to the kitchen table and brought out some cookies. “So how are you finding Ireland? Lovely weather we’ve been having!”She sat down across from my sister and me as we tripped over each other’s words to share our appreciation for Birdie’s lovely hospitality, all of which Birdie waved away.
Niall brought out a slim book and he, Lee and my aunt bent their heads together, pouring over the text.
“I can’t imagine anyone in America ever opening their door like this!”said either my sister or I.
Birdie looked puzzled,”Isn’t that funny? I’ve been told that before but I just can’t imagine it. Sure, why wouldn’t you invite someone in?”
“If someone you didn’t know was at your door, it would be someone selling something or trying to convert you to their church or someone sketchy,” we explained.
“Oh, we just invite them right in!” said Birdie,”We’re Irish, that’s just what we do.”
Birdie settled in and told us how she had and Niall had lived in London and how she had loved it but they moved back to Ireland when they were ready to start a family and then when Niall retired he wanted to live in the countryside and they had always lived where she had wanted, so sure, wasn’t it his turn, she thought and so here they were!
“Do you get to see your family often?”I asked.
“Oh sure,” Birdie answered,”my sister lives in the house on one side and my brother lives down the road. And my son lives across the street and my other sister lives one house over. And my niece lives on the other side of my sister.”
“Wow!That’s really nice to get to live so close to your family!”
“Aye, well, you know how it is–family is family–sometimes it’s nice to live near them, but sometimes you sure wish you didn’t!”
Lee leaned across my aunt, “Pardon my being nosy” he said to me—because when random Americans shown up on your Irish doorstep asking questions about your family lineage, it’s only natural that you would feel rude about asking your own questions–“but how in the world did you end up in Rome? Marry an Italian did you?”
So I explained how I had moved from Point A to Point B. “Italy’s a nice country, but Rome’s a bit dear I’ve heard,” he said.
I agreed that it was indeed a very expensive place to live.
“Eight euro for a Heineken my friend paid!” Lee exclaimed. I again marveled that these charming people were treating us like we were friends with whom they had all the time in the world to sit and chat. Niall shook his head in sadness at the price of a beer in Rome while Birdie tsked over such a travesty.
Eventually my aunt stood, doing her best to ensure we didn’t further encroach on their day or take advantage of their unbelievable generosity, thanking the trio profusely for their time and help and kindness. They seemed truly disappointed that we were leaving.”Are you sure?” they kept asking, “Well, here, keep the O’Grady book!”Niall said, pressing it into my aunt’s hands. “Even thought we didn’t find your ancestors, it’s still your family’s name, so sure, you’ve got to have it!”
“Oh! I couldn’t keep it!” my aunt protested as Lee and Birdie chimed in with what a good idea that was. “Maybe I could just copy the pages and send it back to you,”my aunt offered, “but I really couldn’t keep it.”
But in the face of three lovely people who were adamant that we couldn’t leave without it, my aunt relented and took their address to let them know if we found anything.
The little terrier jumped on our legs as we left the house and I again scratched her little ears.”She’s really sweet,” I said to Birdie.
“We’ve only had her from the rescue a couple months. Our Barney,” she gestured to the large painting of a West Highland terrier just inside the kitchen door, “lived to be 15 and you never saw such a thing as Niall when we lost him. I didn’t think he’d ever recover. But Barney was hardly a dog, you see! He had his programs that he liked to watch and when he would hear them come on the television he would jump on the couch and sit with his back against the cushions like he was a human!”
“Is that Barney then?” Lee piped in, “a lovely fella he was.”
The trio followed us to the car, closing the doors for us and making sure we had on our seat belts like we were young relatives for whom they held great affection.
“If you find any O’Grady relatives and they’ve got any money, make sure they send some our way!” they laughed and they stood on the driveway waving until we couldn’t see them anymore.
As well he should be, Dobs was proud of his sleuthing and undeniable luck. My sister urged him to buy a lottery ticket, an idea that Dobs quite liked.
My aunt was thumbing through the book, all of us again marveling over such loveliness as we had been shown when she suddenly stopped. The names of her great-great-grandparents and the start of our family line was written at the top of a page that had previously been overlooked. Our family lineage was indeed included in that O’Grady ancestry book, right down to the emigration of Aunt E.’s paternal grandparents. And so Birdie and Niall and Lee really were our long-lost relatives. And sure, nicer people you could never hope to meet.