When lineage draws you to the Emerald Isle

HELEN O'NEILL
Last updated 05:00 18/03/2014
Cork Landscape
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EMERALD ISLE: The Old Head of Kinsale, in County Cork, Ireland.

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By the time my long-haul flight found the tarmac at Dublin airport my sister Cathie had spent a day exploring the city and clearly felt very at home.

She greeted me with the news that she'd discovered a top spot to visit; the perfect antidote for jetlag. It was in the heart of the city - a place where we could chat and catch up that would also make me laugh.

And no, she replied to my first, very obvious, question. She wanted the destination to be a surprise and would not say where it was.

We hopped into our hire car for what should have been a quick road-trip but a big Gaelic Football game, between Dublin and Kerry, was about to begin.

That meant road closures, diversions and streams of excited fans decked out in their teams' colours - and something rather more unexpected. Whether they wore the official blue kit for Dublin or the green one for Kerry, every shirt displayed the same sponsor's name - our surname, O'Neill.

We parked our car and walked on to our destination: a Victorian pub on Suffolk Street. It was central indeed, just a blarney stone's throw from the well-worn cobblestones of the Temple Bar district.

But while this pub was festooned with flowers, my sister had not picked it for its charm. Nor for its welcoming atmosphere; its history; its idiosyncratic nooks and crannies, its reputation as a writers' favourite, nor its generously portioned and reasonably priced food.

There was just one reason: this Dublin landmark is named O'Neill's.

An estimated 80 million-plus people can trace a family connection back to Ireland. The diaspora takes in everybody from New Zealand actor Sam Neill, who was born in County Tyrone, to US President Barack Obama, whose great-great-great-grandfather hailed from Moneygall village on the Offaly-Tipperary border.

Irish tourism has capitalised on these links, encouraging potential tourists to delve into ancestral connections and bask in feel-good moments such as the hero's welcome mounted for President Obama during his Moneygall visit on March 17 (St Patrick's Day), 2011.

Last year festivities and family "gatherings" included a large meet-up of O'Neills in Tyrone, the ancient seat of a clan so powerful it once ruled the entire country.

But we were not here for that. Our connections lay in County Cork, about 250 kilometres southwest of Dublin, where our grandfather had been born into a large farming family. He was the youngest, the most highly educated, and he left without looking back, or so we thought.

Growing up we had never met any of our Irish family. All that was about to change.

Just over a year ago an estranged O'Neill who turned out to be our father's first cousin died, leaving no wife, no children and, critically, no will. Before you could say "Did he own a castle?" (Answer: "No - what a shame") members of our clan had started researching family trees and reaching out to one another.

When my parents' long-distance inquiries faltered, my sister and I volunteered to do some legwork and to visit my grandfather's home, in which, it turned out, some of our relatives were still living.

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So at O'Neill's pub in Dublin, over a Guinness and large plates of well-cooked lamb and vegetables, Cathie and I talked through our plan. Having rung and emailed ahead, a small County Cork parish records office and some long-lost cousins were expecting us. We finished our meals, checked into our hotel and bedded down for the night.

The following morning as we sped through the beautiful countryside on the M8 motorway we decided to stop halfway for lunch and a look around. Thurles, a picturesque pub-packed North Tipperary town, turned out to be full of surprises. Not only did it feature a surprisingly good shoe shop (purchased: two pairs of stylish strappy numbers for under €70) but some fascinating buildings including the imposing, vacant Munster Hotel (still for sale if anybody's interested) and the ornate Cathedral of the Assumption.

This church, an extraordinary Italianesque creation, dates back to the late 1800s, is decorated with multi-toned marble from Cork, Kilkenny, Galway and Sicily, contains a beautiful tabernacle that's around 500 years old and was peppered with people praying. We drank the scene in, had a sandwich and sped off to Cork city - the Republic of Ireland's second-largest metropolis (home to about 120,000 people). Its main shopping drag, St Patrick's Street, is watched over by a statue of Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, but despite his efforts promoting abstinence Cork has plenty of pubs, too.

That evening, we explored Cork's lanes and river-frontage, absorbing an architecture that spans everything from pretty, pastel townhouses to medieval monuments and modernist hotels.

But it was art deco that seduced us, in the form of the Electric (electriccork.com) a stylish bar/restaurant on South Mall that overlooks the River Lee - the wine was chilled, the vibe relaxed and the tarte tatin delicious.

The next morning we drove south of Cork through narrow green lanes, over old stone bridges and winding riverside roads until we found the parish records office and introduced ourselves to the friendly woman looking after it.

"You know, we're related - my husband is your cousin, he'd love to see you," she told us, handing over his mobile number and making it clear that she already knew all about our meeting with our other new cousins, who lived at the family homestead nearby.

"And have you seen the cemetery?" she asked.

It took a while to find that un-signposted place despite our newest cousin's directions. We headed up a winding hill where the road cut through farm and woodland and almost immediately got lost.

In the end we asked a farmer who explained how to locate it, off-road and on foot, along a beautiful, tree-lined path that lead to a gate with a warning sign, and even that proved unusual. "Grave-digging is a dangerous activity and should not be undertaken by unapproved persons," it began. "Cork County Local Authorities accept no liability for any injuries caused by grave-digging activities including those engaged in voluntary grave-digging."

Having not brought any digging implements, my sister and I ventured into the graveyard - a quiet, enchanted oasis with a beautiful stillness to it bounded by trees and thick bushes. At its centre stood the remains of an ancient church with its high, stone spire still standing.

Sections of this place were overgrown, other areas beautifully tended, and judging by the age on some of these crumbling gravestones it was very, very old.

Cathie found what we were looking for first: a "family" group of gravestones dating back to the 1700s. We looked at them, trying to make out the moss-covered carvings. The words spelt out our surname, of course, but also monikers we'd grown up with: my father's middle name chiselled in memory of a relative who died in 1875; my sister's full name echoed in the death of a woman whose life ended in 1967.

It was surreal, unexpected and moving. We had no idea we even had a family plot.

After that we found our way to the O'Neill homestead where my grandfather had been born. This farmhouse set in lush green pastures is worked by one of our cousins - the granddaughter of one of my grandfather's many siblings - and she had invited over her sisters and a sister-in-law for a lunchtime gathering I suspect none of us will ever forget.

Around her kitchen table we chatted, drank tea, ate a beautiful homemade lunch and swapped story after story. We discovered we had more relatives everywhere from Cork to Canada, and heard a family timeline set out amid a backdrop of events that helped shape the Irish nation.

From struggles with the English, through the Great Famine of the 1850s, depressions and wars came tales of love, betrayal, achievement, power struggles, sibling rivalry and hurt.

"You should write a book about us all," one of my cousins told me, "It'd be better than The Thorn Birds."

"Do you know what," I found myself saying, "I probably should."

Of course, you don't need your own family story to go heritage hunting in Ireland. Australian tourists regularly attempt to chase down historical traces of the controversial bushranger Ned Kelly, whose father John "Red" Kelly was born in Ireland, and before we left my sister and I did the same.

Our journey back to Dublin took us to Cashel, famous for its spectacular hilltop medieval remains, where we turned off to find the tiny village of Moyglass, Red's early stomping ground.

This quiet rural outpost boasts a Ned Kelly-themed pub called The Village Inn, with a mural of the bushranger and his family tree on an outside wall, and an interior (be warned: it is generally only open in the evenings) packed with Kelly-esque memorabilia.

While this is the focal point for regular Kelly events there are some who believe the region could do more.

Lawyer and historian Brendan Kilty, who restored a Dublin house known as 15 Usher's Island, the setting for the dinner party in James Joyce's short story The Dead, is attempting to create an ambitious Kelly-themed visitors' centre between Moyglass and Cashel.

At its heart would be the restored cottage from which Red stole two pigs, the crime that resulted in him being transported to Australia in 1841. For now this cottage is a desolate, bramble-covered ruin but if Kilty has his way restoration and construction of a four-storey building inspired by Ned Kelly's armour will begin this year.

When visitors come to James Joyce House, "they apologise for not knowing enough about Joyce ... and they add but my story is ...'," says Kilty, who wants the place that represents the Kelly story genesis to become a focal point for Irish tales of exodus. Those stories are coming full circle now as descendants rediscover their roots.

"Everybody has a story," he says. "And ... it's the story that defines who they are."

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Ireland.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Helen O'Neill is a Sydney-based author and journalist. Her latest book is A Singular Vision Harry Seidler.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Fly to Abu Dhabi and then to Dublin (6hr 35min); see etihad.com.

STAYING THERE For Cork-based travellers it's difficult to top the recently refurbished River Lee Hotel on Weston Road. A short stroll into the city, it combines comfort, style and great views across the river with a superior Irish breakfast.

See riverleehotelcork.com.

SEE+DO Keep an eye on the Clans of Ireland website for news of upcoming historical events and gatherings; see clansofireland.ie.

MORE INFORMATION ireland.com; ancestry.com.

FIVE TOP PAST-LIFE EXPERIENCES

TASTE The harsh realities of 1840s life for those being shipped overseas at the Dunbrody Famine Ship centre in New Ross, County Wexford. See dunbrody.com.

CELEBRATE A goat being crowned king at Puck Fair, the country's oldest street fair, in Killorglin, County Kerry. August 10-12, 2014. See puckfair.ie.

MUSIC Pick up a wooden cipin (tipper) and learn how to play the Bodhran, Ireland's native drum. See bodhranexperience.com.

ROMANCE Dine Downton Abbey style in 19th-century costume at Ballyfin, a grand Regency mansion turned top-price, five-star hotel in County Laois. See ballyfin.com.

EXPLORE Dive into the past with guided walks such as Pat Tynan's tour of the mediaeval city of Kilkenny, County Kilkenny. See medievalkilkenny.ie.

HOW TO PLAN A HOLIDAY HERITAGE HUNT

GET THE FACTS Turn detective with your family. Document what you know then quiz older relatives for names, dates and locations that reach back into your ancestors' past.

LOOK FOR CLUES Scour scrapbooks and family albums for clues about people and places. Birth, marriage and death certificates can be information goldmines.

FILL IN THE TREE Download a family tree and start filling it in. Investigate online national censuses and locate organisations such as ancestry.com who may be able to offer more clues.

CAST YOUR NET Mine the internet for tips on how to tackle everything from First Fleet, adoption and bankruptcy records to electoral rolls.

PUMP THE PARISH If online trails falter contact local parish records offices. Make appointments well in advance when planning visits as many are small and manned only part-time. Fees for assistance are not uncommon.

PRY LOCAL Think laterally: Once you reach your destination make time to visit libraries, churches and cemeteries. Dropping into organisations like sporting clubs can pay dividends too.

SPREAD THE WORD Talk to everybody: There is nothing like local knowledge, so talk to the people you meet on your travels and explain what it is you're looking for. You never know what - or who - you will find.

- FFX Aus

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