My Irish Adventure

I traveled to N. Ireland in September 1997 in a quest to trace our family roots. The only information I had about my great-great-grandfather, John McCauley, was that he was born Aug.15, 1833, left through Londonderry in 1850 and he was from County Tyrone. I was determined to learn more about his life in Ireland before immigrating to America. I began my search at the Ulster-American Folk Park Museum in Omagh, County Tyrone.

The foundation for today's 'troubles' in N. Ireland started in the 1300's when there was an organized effort by the British to populate Ireland with Protestants by settling Scots along the Eastern coast of Ireland. They were given special land grants as tenant farmers. Over the centuries the Protestants became entrenched as the haves and the Catholics as the have nots. Until thirty years ago Protestant newspapers advertised "Protestant jobs for Protestants only."

But I'm getting ahead of myself, the Skotch Irish population outgrew Ireland and immigration grew steadily through the 1700's and increasing by mega numbers in the 1800's. Especially escalating with the potato famine of the 1840's. Economic desperation motivated the suffering Irish to take their chances crossing the Atlantic in filthy crowded conditions. Many were in compromised health from malnutrition and disease before starting the journey. In 1847 alone, 20,000 Irish died at sea; these six week voyages became known as the 'Coffin Ships.'

The next day at the museum library after only two hours of searching, I found it! His name on the passenger list of the "Superior", 1850, Londonderry to Philadelphia. Then the search became very complicated, there were no government birth records before 1860, only church records. Church records were not complete. Some misplaced, some lost to fires and all births were not recorded. I wanted to know what happened to his parents, did he have siblings, why did he go alone? The more I learned, the braver he became in my eyes.

After searching two libraries in Omagh, I looked in the phone book and read the family names of many of my childhood friends from back in western Pennsylvania, déjà vu! There were six McCauleys listed and I called three. One of them twice, by mistake, the one I called twice invited me for tea that evening.

It was an enchanting experience as I walked the four blocks from the Bed & Breakfast to the McCauleys of Omagh. The large old house behind the fence had only a dim light by the entrance door. When Joan McCauley opened the door, we introduced ourselves to each other and just stood there staring at each other for a few seconds. She looked more like me than my own sisters and I soon discovered she resembled me more than her sisters. Joy a widowed R.N. and Kay an R.N. and teacher, joined us for tea. Joan is a physical therapist, her two brothers are M.D.s, thanks to the British college education system for capable students.

Their father, Dr. James McCauley died early of a heart attack in 1948 and their mother raised six children. They were Presbyterian and felt that in itself was an indication our families could be related…because it is rare to meet McCauleys in Ireland who were not Catholic.

Their grandfather, James had a brother, John, who had been named after a long lost Uncle John who had gone to America at a young age. (…Maybe 17?), after the famine. This bit of information convinced us all we were likely distant cousins.

I had hoped to find something about my Irish roots but to actually meet and be treated so well by these gracious distant cousins was beyond my dreams.

My first Belfast taxi driver gave me an interesting tour of the city in route to the bus station. Many of the curbs were brightly painted and it was a clean cheerful city. The streets were full of people, chatting in small groups, mothers with baby strollers, shoppers and clusters of uniformed school children, very charming first impressions. Then he explained the red and blue curbs indicated Protestant neighborhoods; directly across the street orange and green curbs represented Catholic areas. In Belfast this denotes invisible barriers that were not to be crossed and constant reminders of 'the
troubles.'

The area looked so civilized to my tourist eyes. I said, "Religion must be very important to the Irish when they use colors to identify their churches."

He shook his head, "Nye, not a'tal. The churches be near empty every Sunday, the Irish just fight about religion. The troubles be bad, bad…these very streets have seen many murders."

As we continued he pointed out the Opera House, "ten times it be bombed and ten times it be repaired." A short time later we passed the 'Europa Hotel', Belfast's only five star hotel. "There be the most bombed hotel in the world. Thirty seven times it be bombed and thirty seven times it be repaired." I arrived at the bus station five minutes late for my bus to Omagh. Buses run on schedule in Northern Ireland, I missed my bus and had to wait two hours for the next one.

I met a young mother who had just returned from an American holiday, visiting her sister in Philadelphia. She loved the U.S.A. but had no plans to immigrate. She wanted her daughter to grow up in Ireland, near cousins, grandparents and "the values." Her only complaint about Ireland was 'the troubles,' but she felt they were a lesser threat in the smaller towns than in Belfast. She added, "Still ye must always be careful and be lookin' over ye shoulder." Interestingly, the bus station was painted bright blue with red trim. Beautiful Irish music filled the air.

In Belfast many shopping districts were closed to traffic except emergency vehicles. I was unable to check my bags at the bus station due to 'the troubles,' unattended luggage was not allowed. The Sinn Fein/Unionists/British talks were in process and this caused a fair amount of extra tension in an already tense environment. The police were on high alert; there had been bombings the two previous nights.

Groups of boys and men gathered under bridges and in vacant lots. Orange and green were the colors of these neighborhoods. Dozens of British soldiers with their bullet proof vests and automatic rifles in ready position patrolled the streets as we rolled by.

My last taxi driver in Belfast was a charming Irishman who was involved with the I.R.A. I told him he had a Presbyterian in the backseat but not to worry, I was married to Catholic and he was a wonderful husband. He laughed and said he hoped his wife thought the same about her Catholic husband.

He believed during his children's lifetime, Ireland would be united again. He said in the past it was 30% Catholic/70%Protestant but was now 40%Catholic and 60%Protestant. He cited the reason Sinn Fein did so well in the last election was more Catholics voted and were hopeful for peace. Fewer Protestants voted because they were fed up with the Loyalists. He said, "The Irish just want the troubles to be gone."

He claimed the Irish Loyalists were more British than the British themselves and the Catholics of the north were more Irish than the Irish of Ireland!

Ireland is the one place I've visited that I'd dearly love to go back again and again. Maybe someday…