Every Man An Immigrant

Back home on Long Island my father’s family of origin knew within an Irish radius of 20 miles where his family had come from. A one-room straw and mud house tipping it’s roof hat to passersbys, half in the main road, halfway uphill, halfway to Roscrea, County Tipperary, halfway to the coast. Somehow it didn’t add up.

“See,” Dad would say years later sitting in our suburban living room, he at his old oak roll top desk, the eight of us born already, Dad looking from the curling black and white picture of his mother’s family’s house in his hand back to me, “Roscrea, means ‘earthen wood,’ something that lasts forever, like family, God and St. Cronan’s, the local church back in Roscrea.”

Years later, as an adult, I stood rain soaked on a still frosted July day in Roscrea, my husband, our five-year-old son, and my Mom with us, with me, scratching my head at our finding not one but two St. Cronan’s Churches and two St. Cronan’s cemeteries. One, Catholic, the second, Anglican — not 200 yards from each other. Miles of cemetery markers between them, stone walls all around, a brick castle moat wrapping a medieval town
nearby. Without speaking I knew from which side of the aisle my family harkened from.

“Well, if that’s not Irish irony for you,” I said standing next to the Catholic St. Cronan’s. “With all the saints from eternity forward to choose from they pick the same one for both churches. Like how we supposed to pay our respects? Don’t call me the shadow voice of Celtic doom but looking for one’s ancestors between two wet meadows of death in the frigid waning light — not my idea of a vacation. I’m going to the car. Anyone coming?”

Mom already there, running the car for the heat, my husband hanging back, a black crayon and paper in his hand bending, rubbing a little Irish from a headstone.

Mom had zero interest in the town, her cousin had determined her father’s side of the family tree came from Dublin, her mother’s side, from Cork, occupations? Seafarers, with her, the sea beat all.

Back at our bed and breakfast that night, looking for a clue to our unsubstantiated blue blood, I queried our proprietress about our family names.

“Yes,” Mrs. O’Neill, said drawing close to me, “The Sullivan’s, surly bunch they, the name mean one-eyed-red-haired-cyclops. Mean one, that.”

“Which county do you think they came from?”

Her arms folding across her bosom, she looked at me across the top of her wire rimmed glasses, a round linen cloth covering the table, basket of brown bread between us, she said, “That’d be a wee bit like finding the first Rodriquez in Los Angeles.”

All I needed to know, I put my map away, pulling the bread to me, slathering it with Devonshire and jam I took a bite.

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