Coming Home 2001
Keller & Associates
St. Louis, MO 63118
Driving north on the road from Dublin I saw the soft peaks of the Cooley Mountains begin to take shape in the mist.
I was coming home to Carlingford, the first member of my family to do so in more than 150 years.
I had read what little is available about the town but, if it is a town that time has forgotten, it is equally an afterthought among travel writers. None of their adjectives "small," "charming," "a nice day trip out of Dublin," the usual favorites, had prepared me for the magic of Carlingford.
It is an ancient town, perhaps the most wonderfully medieval of villages I have experienced in my limited travels. Its narrow streets terrace upwards from Carlingford Lough, an inlet of the Irish Sea. At midday, brightly colored boats of all description wait on their silt perches or bob in distant shallows for the return of the tides.
There’s an old saying that goes: "In Europe 100 miles is considered a long way; in America, 100 years is considered a long time." In Carlingford, more than anywhere else I visited in Ireland, there is a sense that time is an unending and unbreakable thread, and all of us who go there are beads on that thread. I cannot know exactly how the village looked 150 years ago but feel certain that it is simply faces, not structures or spirit, that have changed in that time. Perhaps I am an incurable romantic; perhaps I have been overwhelmed by the fantasies of walking where my ancestors walked; and perhaps I have been caught up in the magic of Carlingford.
My father’s grandfather, Terence McBride, left Carlingford in 1848 with his brother Peter to seek their fortunes in America. Terence married late and lived to be very old, telling and retelling the stories of Ireland to anyone who would listen until he died at the age of 95 during my father’s 15th year. Dad and his siblings, two of whom are still living, heard the stories of the Famine, and of the brothers’ flight from Ireland on a ship that foundered, leaving them to be rescued by a passing vessel and brought to harbor near Boston. He didn’t know, so we didn’t learn, the term "Coffin Ship," for many years.
The young McBride brothers eventually helped arrange passage for nine of their 12 other brothers and sisters, along with their mother, Mary Donnelly McBride, and several members of other Carlingford families. One of these, Anne Rice, became Terence’s wife and my great-grandmother. They scattered across the vastness of America seeking whatever fortunes awaited them. Gradually, as they settled in such diverse settings as Massachusetts, Wisconsin, California and, of course, Missouri, the threads that had bound them in Carlingford came undone by the thousands of miles that separated them here.
But Terence told stories that would eventually be passed along to me, and like many Irish-Americans, I came to long for Ireland. This was assuaged somewhat by learning the music and history of the country, but the ache to go there and see it for myself remained, nurtured through years of tight budgets, young children, developing careers.
I believe there is a reason as to why Irish-Americans seem more nationalistic and drawn to our homeland than any other group save possibly for our fellow Americans whose families came from Africa: we didn’t want to leave in the first place! We had no choice, but the uprooting left a longing that I sometimes think is imbedded in our genes.
And now I was back, along with my husband Tom, a great-grandson of Cork and Kerry who’s sandy hair and freckles mark his origins as surely as the black hair and pale skin of the northeastern Irish do theirs. As I walked among the townspeople of Carlingford I saw—or at least fancied I did—the faces of dear ones long departed as well as my own 21-year-old Danny back in the ‘States. I thought of a spot so far away from Carlingford, in a tiny Catholic cemetery in Missouri, where Terence and Anne, all of their children and grandchildren down to a great-great grandchild rest together. Someday I will join them in this place where my family sleeps, but for now I was back where my family began.
We took a room at McKevitt’s in the center of the village which put us in a perfect position to walk down to the marina or "down the street and up a wee hill" to St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Between those points were shops selling first-rate crafts and Irish goods at very reasonable prices, and the Carlingford Heritage Center (which, to our dismay, was closed because of Foot and Mouth precautions that were in place throughout Ireland.) There are also the ruins of an ancient abbey and remnants of stone walls that once encircled the town.
One of the many delightful surprises of Carlingford is its ability to feed and bed its visitors with a level of comfort and sophistication that exceeds all expectations. We ate a fine meal at the Marina and another at McKevitt’s where we met up with some young women from Belfast down for a holiday. Although still relatively unknown to the outside world, its location just over an hour’s drive from both Dublin and Belfast, makes Carlingford a popular weekend getaway for people from both cities. They come for the food, which we barely had time to sample; for the craic at McKevitts and the Oyster Catcher Bistro; for the vast array of water sports; for the gentle mountains that beckon the walker; for the sheer beauty of Ireland at her best.
Like so many first-time visitors to Ireland we tried to do too much and drive too far in our 11 days there and, much as I treasure all my memories of the trip, I feel I barely touched the surface of the magic of Carlingford. The longing is still there…the ache to go back. Only next time it won’t just be for Terrence and Anne. Next time it will be for me and I’ll stay as long as I can.
Janet McBride Keller