The first hint that my visit to my long-lost relatives in Ireland might be ill-fated occurred in a Dublin heraldry shop. I was looking for my family’s coat of arms. After rooting about for a while, the clerks sheepishly produced a small gray shield with a single crow on it. (My last name means crow in Irish.) A wiser man might have called it quits at the sight of this omen, but I was 17 and eager to explore my roots.
In truth, my long-lost relatives were not lost. My Great-Aunt Nell in Boston had scrawled out their names and addresses in a spidery hand. A couple of generations and 3,000 miles of ocean separated us, which my family thought a fine thing- out of sight, out of mind. Indeed, they regarded my desire to visit our tribesmen in County Longford as grim news. But I was not to be stopped.
Tourists visit Dublin’s fair city, the lakes of Killarney or the Ring of Kerry. They don’t go to Longford. It is the Indiana of Ireland.
In the fantasy that plays in the heads of most Irish Americans, long-lost Irish relatives are either living in baronial splendor or in a wee thatched cottage. My kinsmen were ensconced in something resembling a chicken coop.
The barking of a border collie brought a disheveled man and several feral children from a field where they were cutting hay with a hand scythe (this was 1969). The man was Cousin Paddy. Ownership of the children was never established. We went into the ancestral coop, which was without central heating or hot running water. The WC was located at some remove. I believe they had electricity.
Cousin Paddy had free-range chickens long before such game was fashionable. In his case, the birds were free-ranging in his house, covering everything with feathers. Curiosity seekers in the village turned up to see me: Cousin Christy from Amerikay. Several teacups, sans handles, were produced, along with a pot of powerful Irish tea.
I showed them the family crest. I’d taken to calling it a raven. “That’s a crow,” they corrected.
Cousin Paddy allowed as how he’d love to visit Amerikay. He wrote out his name and address on a greasy envelope and pressed it into my hand. Several other potential green-card seekers jotted down their names and addresses, too.
Later, a very dirty, little boy in Wellington boots (the preferred footwear among my kinsmen) and short pants led me to the cottage of my great-aunts. Compared with Cousin Paddy, Great-Aunts Agnes and Margaret were gentry. Their chickens were kept outside. We repaired indoors for a glass of Sandeman sherry and a discussion of matters ancestral. And then we visited the cemetery to see the graves of my long-dead family members.
Next stop, Cousin Johnny’s house, a variation on Cousin Paddy’s domicile. Cousin Johnny was said to be bedridden, but he wasn’t sick. He was drunk- hung over, really. He appeared in an old one-piece union suit, a rheumy old elf, toothless and squinting.
Next stop, Cousin Mickey, who was keeping “bachelor’s hall” as he called it. His wife was in England visiting with a daughter who was “about to drop a calf.” Upon further interrogation, I learned that his wife had been away for three years.
Cousin Mickey was a sporting man who raced greyhounds. The dogs lived with him- literally. He owned a venerable Morris Minor, a tiny black car smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle. We squeezed ourselves and Cousin Johnny and the dogs into it to go to the track in Mullingar. Alas, although they spent their waking moments gambling, my cousins proved to be poor punters. Money changed hands. My money. Others’ hands.
After our parimutuel misfortunes, we repaired to Mr. Flood’s pub for “just the one” as they called it. This was a figure of speech. The bar was a modest hostelry. No television. No women.
Many old men— all of whom looked like my kinsmen— were introduced. A regiment of pints of Guinness appeared on the table and many glasses of John Powers Gold Label whiskey, too. The strong waters brought out the big spender in me and my wads of Irish punts (pounds) melted away as I stood rounds for the house. I displayed a natural talent for dissipation. I began smoking!
Cousin Johnny sang “A Mother’s Love’s A Blessing.” Faces whirled about me and voices echoed incomprehensibly. I promised strangers green cards and jobs in Amerikay. Cousin Johnny sang “A Mother’s Love’s A Blessing” again. Mr. Flood implored, “Time, Time, Time. Have you no homes to go to?”
I woke up at my B&B at noon. How I got there remains a mystery. Where were my long-lost relatives? Having never been drunk before I thought I’d hallucinated the previous day. I could not eat my rashers and eggs, nor anything else. My revels had relieved me of half my money. In those days you could tour Ireland on $5 a day, just like the guidebook boasted, unless you met my cousins.
Back in the States, my family was delighted to hear eyewitness confirmation of their worst fears. And how, they asked, did our kinsmen explain the shocking state of their lives?
I quoted Cousin Mickey: “‘Tis a poor town that can’t afford gentlemen of leisure.”