Vagabond Tales: The Rewarding Adventures Of ‘Genealogy Tourism’

The house pictured above is a very drab house. It’s cold. It’s empty. And no one has lived in it for over 120 years.

Sure, there is a fresh layer of green paint on the door, but that was put there by the neighbors. Why they did that I’m not sure, because this house was abandoned long ago.

This house isn’t anything famous, and it isn’t in a town you’ve ever heard of. This house is in Lecanvy, Ireland, a one-pub village at the base of Croagh Patrick Mountain, 3 1/2 hours from the festive streets of Dublin.

Nevertheless, this house is very important to me, because this was my great-great-grandmother’s house, a woman who’s family one day just decided to leave it all behind and up and leave for America.

Perhaps it’s the rise in popularity of websites such as ancestry.com, but for some reason “genealogy tourism” seems to be on the rise in the world’s most famous “nation of immigrants,” the United States of America. Despite the fact that millions of families took the plunge to move to a foreign land, their children many years down the road have not relinquished the curiosity to learn more about where it is they came from.

I hunted down this house because I happened to be in town, but for many travelers this form of “reverse immigration” seems to be a sector of the travel market that’s broadening in scope.During a recent business breakfast in Hawaii, the conversation – as it frequently does with travel writers – turned to the topic of international exploits. The associate with whom I was sharing eggs and potatoes then decided to regale me with a tale from her recent trip to Sicily.

“I went there,” she explained, “to search for my family. I knew the town they were from, I hoped that some remained, but I had no contacts and really was just hoping for the best.”

Quaffing deeply from a heavily-sugared coffee you could tell from her raised eyebrows that the best part of the story was yet to come.

“For four days I had no luck. Then, on the fifth day, walking through the downtown square I saw a woman who may as well have been my twin. She noticed it too, apparently, as we awkwardly stopped to simply stare at each other. Between her basic English and my poor Italian, we nevertheless determined that she was my second cousin. Word went out amongst her Italian family, and the next weekend we had a gathering of over 50 family members who came from all corners of the country to meet their new family member. It brought me to tears.”

While the Hollywood-script is pulled straight from a Lifetime movie, by virtue of her testimony I guess scenes like this really do happen. Or, on a more commonplace family hunt, what can also happen is you find yourself creeping through an abandoned driveway in the rural hamlets of western Ireland, shivering and wet and failing to encounter any family members at all because they all up and left over a century ago – not exactly as rewarding.

Still, to be able to travel to a foreign land and peer into the history of yourself is a feeling far more rewarding than sharing a famous sight with hundreds of other tourists. Having found this old house (with help from my genealogy-loving aunt), even experiencing this cold moment in the driveway was good enough for me.

That was, until, I knocked on the door of Mr. O’Malley.

Although the occupants of my family’s house – the McEntee’s – had obviously picked up and left some time ago, the manicured lawn of their neighbor, Mr. O’Malley, was evidence that some had opted to stay right here in Ireland.

Going for broke, I figured that if anyone would know anything about the details of my Irish family I figured it may as well be the neighbors. I opened the creaky gate, inhaled deeply, and eventually I rapped three times on the bright red door.

No answer.

Damn.

Just as I turned to leave it all behind, the bright red door creaked slowly open to the warmth of a cheery old man.

“Allo!” came the Irish brogue, “are ya lost?”

“Umm, no. Actually … this is really strange, but I think my family used to live right next door to you.”

With a pair of squinty eyes and sporting a classic brown cardigan, Mr. O’Malley was wracked with confusion. Who is this weirdly-accented stranger standing on my lawn?

“McEntee was their name” I offered. “Name was McEntee.”

With a delayed flip of the switch an air of recognition coasted across the wrinkles of his face.

“Ah yes,” he stammered. “McEntee.”

“So you know them?” chimed in my sister, a red-haired, fair-skinned, reverse immigrant herself who now lives in the suburbs of Dublin.

Boats near Westport Ireland“No,” he confided. “I don’t. But when I was a boy in this same house me grandfather told me of the McEntee family who up and left for America. Sailed from the old dock down by the Westport harbor they did. Come inside, let’s make some tea.”

And so it was. I never got to bump into a long lost family member, but I somehow found myself looking at old photographs in the living of room of Mr. O’Malley’s home, a cup of warm tea staving off the chill from the damp outdoors.

We later would stop near Westport harbor, imaging what it would have been like to leave your simple plot of land in Lecanvy behind, sailing westward into the setting sun towards a place you knew otherwise so little about.

Sometimes we travel to learn more about the world, and other times simply to learn more about ourselves. In this case it’s to learn about exactly where we come from, and to walk in the upper branches of the extended family tree.

Have you ever engaged in any genealogy tourism, and if so, were there any great tales of discovery to be told?

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Naughty Women, Leafy Men And Shameful Anti-Semitism: Church Art The Church Would Rather Forget

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Historic European churches and cathedrals are high on many travelers’ to-see lists. People admire the soaring vaulted ceilings and richly colored stained glass windows. Look closer, though, and you’ll see things you weren’t expecting.

Like this lovely lady at the Romanesque church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England, shown here courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Yes, she’s doing exactly what it looks like she’s doing. And she’s not the only one. Sculptures of naked ladies spreading it for all to see decorate numerous churches. Most are in Ireland and smaller numbers can be found in England and continental Europe.

They’re called Sheela-na-gigs and nobody has any idea what they mean. It’s uncertain when they were made as the churches they’re found on date from several centuries and some Sheela-na-gigs appear to have been reused from earlier buildings.

So why were they put in churches? Some people like to see them as pagan survivals, although that fails to explain why church authorities would permit them in churches. A bit of support for this comes from the Royal Navy, of all things. An 18th century Navy ship was named Sheela-na-gig and in the ship’s listing the name is explained as a “female sprite.” Other researchers think they’re symbols of the sinful nature of women. While this is possible, it fails to explain why the women aren’t being shown in Hell or being punished by devils, as is typical of didactic church art.

%Gallery-167773%Another mystery is the Green Man. This is a face surrounded by leaves and buds. Sometimes greenery is coming out of the Green Man’s mouth. At first glance it appears to be a very pagan symbol. Indeed, a similar type of leafy face was common in Roman art but died out when Classical art died. The Green Man reappeared in church art in the 11th century. He became hugely popular in Victorian Britain, which celebrated both nature and Classical art.

Once again, we’re stuck for an explanation. Pagan symbol or co-opted Classical decoration? Perhaps a fertility symbol celebrating the abundance of spring in what was still a predominantly agricultural society? Like with the Sheela-na-gigs, the Church didn’t leave records as to why they appear in a religious building.

The motive behind another odd bit of church art is all too clear – the Judensau, or “Jew’s sow.” In this scene a large sow is being suckled by a number of Jews, identifiable by the conical hats they were forced by law to wear. Another Jew is shown lifting up the sow’s tail to lick its rear. Often a Semitic-looking Devil stands by watching in approval. This disgusting bit of anti-Semitism first appeared in medieval Germany and remained a popular church “decoration” for several hundred years. The image seems to be limited to German-speaking areas and is found on churches and cathedrals and occasionally secular buildings.

The Stadtkirche in Wittenberg has a famous example on the exterior wall, clearly visible from the street. Martin Luther mentioned it in one of his anti-Semitic writings: “Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary, which is certainly where they get their Shemhamphoras.” In the last line, Luther is talking about the Hebrew term for the ineffable name of God, thus insulting their beliefs as well as their dignity.

In modern times a memorial plaque was put beneath it acknowledging that six million Jews were killed “under the sign of the Cross.”

Want To Buy An Irish Castle? Now’s Your Chance!

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If you’re in the market for a new home, why not think big and buy a castle? There are several for sale in Ireland and now that middle income has been defined as up to $250,000, many are within the means of the middle class.

Take Cloghan castle, shown above. It’s in Banagher, County Offaly, and comes with 157 acres of woodland and riverside. The original castle was built in 1336, making it one of the oldest inhabited castles in Ireland. Although it was attacked and burned in 1595, it continued to be used as a home. Its three floors have six bedrooms, four bathrooms, an office, store room, laundry and a big dining hall.

It even counts as a tax shelter. Because it’s a historic building, if you open it to the public on occasion you get certain tax exemptions, and any maintenance and improvement costs count as a tax write-off.

So how much will this put you back? You’ll have to contact Premier Properties Ireland to find out. If the quote is too high, wait for a while. Beagh Castle was originally priced at €695,000 ($906,000) but has been reduced to €299,000 ($390,000). It only comes with 17 acres, but it’s picturesquely located on a promontory above the River Shannon in Ballysteen, County Limerick. Nobody is sure when the first castle was built on this spot, but it was rebuilt by a knight in 1260. An old tradition says a secret tunnel connects this castle to the local church half a mile away. The tunnel has never been found, but if you buy the castle you’ll have plenty of time to look.

An even cheaper option is Ballymaquiff Castle near Labane, Ardrahan, County Galway. It’s going for €145,000 ($189,000). It’s a fixer-upper but features some fine medieval architectural features such as large vaulted rooms, pointed doorways, a medieval fireplace and a spiral staircase.

You might also want to comparison shop on their castles page, where they have several more medieval fortresses for sale. There’s even a bargain basement castle for only €75,000 ($97,850). That’s less than six month’s wages for a middle-class household!

[All photos courtesy Premier Properties Ireland]

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Ten Dublin Literary Attractions

Dublin

Dublin is known worldwide as the capital of Ireland, hosting landmarks such as the Spire of Dublin, Trinity College and St Patrick’s Cathedral. Along with the UK’s Edinburgh, Melbourne, Australia, Iowa City in the U.S. and others, UNESCO recognizes Dublin as a City of Literature, reflecting the city’s rich and varied history of writers and writing.

As the birthplace of James Joyce and Nobel Literature Prize winners William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, Dublin pays tribute to its literary heritage in a variety of ways. Statues, streets, bridges, pubs and book stores that make for a grand tour that visitors can take in an organized way or on their own.

James Joyce Centre is dedicated to a better understanding of the life and works of James Joyce and has exhibitions, events and workshops.

National Public Library of Ireland has the most comprehensive collection of Irish documentary material in the world. Talks and major exhibitions are hosted throughout the year.

Dublin Yarnspinners invites visitors to listen as the Storytellers of Ireland spin an array of tales, tall and otherwise, from its members on the second Thursday of every month.DublinBewley’s Cafe Theatre has lunchtime drama and one of the city’s most popular venues for evening cabaret, jazz and comedy every day by reservation.

Sweny’s Pharmacy
features daily readings from the works of James Joyce in the original pharmacy where Leopold Bloom bought lemon soap.

Trinity College has an official, student-guided walking tour of the historic campus on a daily, scheduled basis. The 30-minute tours run from mid-May to the end of September.

St Patrick’s Cathedral, where writer/satirist Jonathan Swift was dean from 1713 to 1745 is open every day. Visitors to the cathedral can see his tombstone and epitaph on an escorted tour.

Marsh’s Library was the first public library in Ireland, opening in 1701. With over 25,000 books relating to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the collections covers medicine, law, science, travel and more. Open daily except Tuesday and Sunday.

Dublin City Bike Tours are an easy, eco-friendly way to see the sights with local guides along for the ride. Starting in the lobby of Isaacs’s hostel, the tours run three hours and begin at 10 a.m. daily.

The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl is a fun, walking tour led by a team of professional actors who follow the footsteps of literary greats on an evening filled with prose, drama and song as we see in this video:



For more information on these and over 20 other Dublin literary attractions see www.dublincityofliterature.ie

[Flickr photos by infomatique]

Insane Cliff Diving Footage From Ireland

Two very unique things happened in the Aran Islands last month: people talked on the street conversing only in Gaelic, and world-class divers threw themselves off of an 89-foot-high platform into a rectangular blowhole known as the Serpent’s Lair.

A collection of three inhabited islands off the western coast of Ireland, the Aran Islands are regarded as being one of the last places on the planet where it’s still possible to hear the Gaelic language spoken amongst the majority of locals.

The commitment to maintaining the Irish heritage in the Aran Islands is so strong that the main island of Inis Mor even houses a coláiste, an Irish-only language school where students caught speaking English at any point are open to expulsion without refund of their tuition.

With that thought in mind, I wonder what the Gaelic term is for “psychotic cliff-diving freak athlete,” because I can imagine that was mumbled a number of times by the crowds of local onlookers watching divers jump 28 meters (89 feet) into a roiling cauldron of freezing cold seawater.

Last month’s participants found themselves jumping into the fourth stop on the 2012 Red Bull World Series of Cliff Diving, “The Serpent’s Lair,” a naturally occurring, perfectly-rectangular blowhole, which according to Irish lore was once home to a tempestuous and violent sea serpent.

With the serpent nowhere in sight for this year’s competition, divers instead needed to worry about doing a belly flop at speed’s topping out at 60mph.

Next up on this year’s circuit? The September 8 event being held in the similarly chilly waters of Wales.